Thursday, February 28, 2008

Paulson says no go on housing bailouts

(Naked Capitalism) Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has thrown a bucket of cold water on a number of proposals being floated in Washington to rescue troubled borrowers via the explicit use of public funds, such as the idea of reviving the 1933 Home Owner's Loan Corporation to buy underwater mortgages and renegotiate them.

In some respects, Paulson's tough stance is welcome, because many of these proposals would do more for banks and investors than borrowers. Many homeowners, including ones who are capable of servicing their mortages, are walking away because they deem them an unattractive investment. There is now a large class of nominal homeowners who in fact are more akin to renters with a home ownership option that is now deeply out of the money. And they can often rent more cheaply too.

But unfortunately, what is driving Paulson isn't a pragmatic assessment of what measures might be cost effective and not involve undue moral hazard. Instead, he is guided primarily by the ideological imperatives of this Adminsitration, which is to favor so-called private sector solutions. But that construct is dishonest and limiting. For instance, the Journal reports that Paulson maintains that "market-based approach will be enough to keep the situation under control."

If Paulson considers the worst housing market since the Depression to be under control, I shudder to think what an unmanaged situation would look like.

However, a grey area in "private sector solutions" is a willingness to rack up government contingent liabilities. The portfolio ceilings on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were lifted Wednesday, and OFHEO's James Lockhart had said earlier this month that the two GSEs could add $100 billion in mortgages in the next six months without running into capital limits. The plan now in place is to keep Fannie and Freddie in remediation mode, setting aside reserves 30% higher than the usual minimum. However, fi the GSEs come under increasing pressure to take on weaker mortgages to salvage the housing market, even those higher reserves may prove insufficient.

Similarly, the Treasury has not nixed some proposals to increase the role of the FHA. The FHA is the historical source of mortgages to middle and lower income borrowers, so an increased role for the FHA could well make sense. But again, it may be subject to pressures to relax its standards and become a warehouse for mortgages on the brink.

The dead body in the room that Pauson has addressed only in part, by his cosmetic Hope Now Alliance plan, is that securitization impedes the traditional practice of having the lender restructure mortgages for those borrowers who can be salvaged. In fairness, due to high loan to value ratios on new mortgages and the heavy use of cash out refinancings and home equity loans, many of the stressed borrowers may in fact not be able to afford even a generous mod. That poses a conundrum: does the collateral damage to communities and lenders warrant rescuing them anyhow? This tradeoff isn't discussed honestly, as it should be; instead all troubled borrowers are wrapped in the mantle of "about to lose their homes."

And the problem with the failure to acknowledge the major impediment, in combination with the Administration's ideological fixation, is that the best available solution is likely to be blocked. The Democrats have proposed changes to bankruptcy laws to give judges more authority to modify mortgages, While this may sound overreaching, in fact this simply puts residential mortgages on the same footing as commercial mortgages and vacation property. In effect, judges will do the mods that the mortgage services are either unwilling or unable to make. But the bill has already been watered down in the House and faces opposition in the Senate.

From the Wall Street Journal:
In an interview yesterday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson branded many of the aid proposals circulating in Washington as "bailouts" for reckless lenders, investors and speculators, rather than measures that would provide meaningful relief to deserving, but cash-strapped, mortgage borrowers....

Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and typically an ally of Mr. Paulson's, said that, until now, he had supported the Treasury's steps to address mortgage delinquencies and the credit crunch they have spawned. "But they're not helping enough people," Mr. Frank said yesterday. "We're not going to get out of the crunch until we stop this cascade of foreclosures."

The Fed's Mr. Bernanke appeared to take a slightly more flexible position than Mr. Paulson, telling a congressional committee yesterday that the turmoil in the housing market doesn't yet merit large amounts of public money. "I don't think we're at that point, but I do think it's worthwhile to keep thinking about those issues," Mr. Bernanke said....

Administration officials "have been willing to broker deals, but they haven't been willing to put taxpayer money on the line," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com, a West Chester, Pa., consulting firm. "I think they're trying to stick to those principles, and now they're running out of ideas that are consistent with those principles."....

"I'm seeing a series of ideas suggested involving major government intervention in the housing market, and these things are usually presented or sold as a way of helping homeowners stay in their homes," Mr. Paulson said. "Then when you look at them more carefully what they really amount to is a bailout for financial institutions or Wall Street."

The secretary added one caveat: "It would be imprudent not to have contingency plans, but we are so far away from seeing something that would have me calling for a bailout that I don't see it."

Mr. Bush is threatening to veto a Senate bill that includes $4 billion to help states and localities redevelop abandoned and foreclosed houses. "I believe the evidence is clear that these [voluntary industry] initiatives alone will not steer enough families away from foreclosure or our country away from further economic weakening," Mr. Reid wrote in a letter to the president yesterday, referring to the main element of the White House-backed industry plan. "In my view, the enormity of the foreclosure crisis requires a much more aggressive response."

The Reid bill also includes a provision -- opposed by many Republicans and the White House -- that would allow bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of mortgages.

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