Right now there are millions of residential properties that have been foreclosed on and are held by the banks. In addition there are tens of millions more homes that are underwater, that is the mortgage loan balance is greater than the current market value of the home. Such a large overhang of troubled mortgages and properties prevents the housing market from properly clearing and establishing a true floor to home prices. The uncertainty in the housing market as well as this debt overhang are the prime reasons consumers aren't buying, the economy is stalled and unemployment is stuck at a seemingly permanently high level. Companies are sitting on lots of idle cash, but before they invest it or begin to hire again they have to see consumer demand return for their products and services.
And Obama needs to do something about the economy if he hopes to win reelection in 2012. The big key electoral battleground states are already shaping up as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all of which are suffering from weak economies with high unemployment. Cutting taxes or increasing government spending doesn't seem to make much sense in a country drowning in government deficits and debt, especially given that previous tax cuts and government stimuli didn't seem to help much. The Fed has lowered short term interest rates about as low as they can go and no one seems enthused about the Fed pursuing any additional asset purchases financed with newly printed money as QE1 and QE2 seemed to have done little to help the economy but certainly harmed the value of the dollar. It would probably be prudent to look at ways to lower the deficit and get the debt under control, but it is hard to see how those efforts will do much to help stimulate consumer demand in the short run. What is Obama to do?
Before the invention of mortgage securitizations and CDO's in which mortgages are packaged by banks into securities and sold upstream to investors, mortgages were typically held on the books of the bank that issued them. This made it much easier for banks to negotiate changes in the terms of a troubled mortgage because any bank loss generated by forgiving a portion of the principal or interest on the mortgage loan would be offset by the fact that a successful restructuring of the loan would move the loan off the bank's list of non-performing or delinquent loans.
Securitization has broken this link and led banks to be very slow in offering any debt forgiveness on outstanding troubled loans. The reason is quite simple really. With securitization, one mortgage may be held by hundreds of different investors who are difficult to organize and have no real incentive to get the troubled loan off their books quickly, especially if it means recognizing a loss, much less do something solely to stimulate the general economy. There is an easy solution to this dilemma, but it needs the involvement of government to organize the effort as no single party in the securitization food chain has the proper motivation to get the ball rolling.
Right now, homebuyers with good credit and proper down payments can get thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages for around 4.5%. But this rate is not available to people with troubled mortgages or who are sitting on homes that are underwater and wish to remain in their homes. The government should step in and offer a 3% fixed-rate thirty-year mortgage to any person, regardless of credit worthiness or delinquency history, who is refinancing an existing underwater mortgage or any properly qualified person with good credit buying a foreclosed property from a bank. The new mortgage could be guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury and then packaged and sold upstream so the government's debt load is not increased.
Take a simple example. Imagine Joe and Mary bought their house for $400,000 in 2004 with no money down. Assume that the house today is worth $300,000. No bank would be anxious to refinance this $400,000 loan as the home is clearly worth less than the loan balance and the bank does not want to recognize a loss that may threaten its solvency. In addition, Joe and Mary may have financed their home purchase with an ARM so they may have seen their mortgage interest costs explode from an initial teaser rate of 2% or 3% to say 8% or 10% annually and their income just can't cover this level of interest expense.
Assume the Treasury steps in and offers Joe and Mary a refinancing deal in which they pay only a 3% fixed interest cost on a new, no closing costs $400,000 loan. There is now no risk to the homeowner that this rate may increase in the future. Joe and Mary can stop worrying about making their mortgage payments and go back to focusing on their real jobs which would have to help the overall economy. The plan should limit the refinancing to the currently amortized amount of the original loan and avoid any increases to the original principal amount the bank may have added on to cover penalty fees, delinquency charges, missed interest payments, deferred rate increases, etc.
Think of the benefits of such a deal to everyone involved.
- The homeowner is given comfort that his rate will be fixed at a low affordable rate and not be subject to any future increases thus decreasing the likelihood of a possible default in the future.
- The homeowner avoids a default which can damage his or her credit rating and avoids the trauma of possibly having to claim personal bankruptcy.
- The banks and investors who hold the mortgage get out without taking a capital loss so the financial system is not further compromised. Banks, insurance companies and pension funds who hold this mortgage paper can all breathe easier.
- The government has no additional annual cost to carrying these mortgages as the 3% interest they receive on the mortgage more than adequately covers their 3% cost of borrowing. There is no increase in the current government deficit as a result of this plan.
- There is no loan forgiveness for the overaggressive homebuyer. He or she still needs to pay off the full amount of his or her original loan so other homeowners who were more conservative in their borrowing will not feel like this is a unfair giveaway to aggressive homebuyers.
- Entire neighborhoods should improve as a large number of underwater mortgages are refinanced and many foreclosed properties find new owners.
- The economy should improve as debt burdens on consumers ease substantially, the housing price decline moderates and the financial sector is strengthened as it finally deals with its bad loan exposure.
Of course, all risk has not been completely eliminated. There is still a risk that Joe and Mary may default on the new loan. This is problematic because the face value of the loan, $400,000, is still greater than the current market value of the home, $300,000. But this risk is minimized because the carrying cost to Joe and Mary has been so reduced and fixed as to make it very desirable for them to want to stay in their home. They aren't going to get this low of rate if they decide to sell the house and move.
You could lower this default risk even further by making the new loan clearly recourse to Joe and Mary's other assets in case of default or by making the new loan an interest only loan. By going the interest only route, the $400,000 repayment becomes a balloon payment due in thirty years further lowering Joe and Mary's carrying costs thus increasing its affordability and reducing the risk of default. Given any reasonable forecast of future inflation, such a repayment amount should be easily covered by the home value at that time in the future. As a matter of fact, in this example, if general inflation averages anything more than 1% a year for the next thirty years the home value catches up to the loan balance.
Qualified homebuyers with good credit who wish to buy foreclosed properties directly from the banks should be offered similar payment terms as this would help clean up the overhang of unsold and foreclosed properties on the market. Also, if Joe and Mary wanted to just get out and sell their home for less than the mortgage balance, the prospective home purchaser could be offered these attractive financing terms so long as he or she met all other credit and down payment requirements. Here, the transactions should occur at the fair market value of the home so the banks would have to recognize some loss, but much less than they otherwise would have without this plan.
This economy is not going to bounce back. We had too big a bubble in too big a sector of our economy to ever bounce back to the high prices, crazy borrowing and wild consumption that existed before the crisis. But if Obama doesn't do something to address the debt problems homeowners and the financial system face, the housing market will lie dormant for years, the economy will crawl along anemically for decades and Obama himself may join the ranks of the unemployed in 2012.
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