Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Good, and the Quick ‘n Dirty

You look at the key housing indicators and you’re probably thinking the government’s homeowner support plan has got to be working… mortgage rates at record lows, house prices stabilizing, inventories coming down, new home sales (begrudgingly) crawling upward.

Yet, it all depends on how you define “success”… there is "temporary feel good" success… "clean up now, pay later" success… "everything/everyone but the kitchen sink" success… and success as in "targeted help to the neediest" and "permanent solutions to the root problems."

I fear that only a teeny portion of taxpayer money has gone towards this latter type of success. To see why, one has to judge whether the government’s measures are geared towards tackling the root problems in the housing sector; whether they are cheaper compared to alternatives; and whether they target the neediest.

By "root problems" I mean the excessive supply of homes for sale, demonstrated by the record housing inventories back in 2007/08; and the excessive mortgage debt taken on by people who could not afford it.

By “neediest” I mean households at high risk of foreclosure with too few resources to either relocate or trade down. In turn, by “high risk” I mean households with negative equity and a meaningful cashflow problem (e.g. due to the loss of employment or the sudden increase in their monthly mortgage payments).

The "and" is critical for identifying the neediest: According to research by the Boston Fed (here and here), negative equity alone is not sufficient to prompt walk-outs, as many have argued/feared (unless it’s at egregious levels and the homeowner does not expect to return to positive equity within a reasonable horizon). A cashflow problem is also necessary.

So now let’s take a look at the government measures:

First, you have the Fed’s purchases of mortgage backed securities (MBS) (Cost: To be determined). The purchases have boosted MBS prices, allowing MBS investors to make nice profits. Higher MBS prices have also meant record-low mortgage rates, encouraging purchases of new homes or the refinancing of existing mortgages.

The scorecard? Mixed at best. For starts, the program fails to target the neediest. Those refinancing or purchasing new homes are people who can afford to do so. OK, you might say, but doesn’t this help clean up the large housing inventories? Perhaps… but inventories can also be reduced by letting house prices fall sufficiently, instead of propping them up with artificially low mortgage rates.

Indeed, I’d say that letting prices fall would be preferable, given the fiscal cost of the likely losses on the Fed’s MBS portfolio; the complications for the conduct of monetary policy; and the empirical evidence that lower house prices alone do not prompt walk-outs by the buckets, unless there is a also cashflow problem.

OK OK, but surely the profits to MBS investors can’t have hurt, given the dire state of the financial industry last year? Yeap, profits are nice, but… MBS (and other asset) prices would equally respond to measures tackling the root problem: Excessive leverage in the household and financial sectors. Financial-sector leverage was partly addressed by the capital increases dictated by the stress tests. In contrast, VERY little has been done to reduce household leverage.

Moving on to the measures by the Treasury:

First-time home buyer credit (Cost: $14 billion so far, per the CBO): Originally the scheme offered tax credits to new home buyers, but was recently expanded to also cover long-time homeowners and/or homebuyers with higher incomes! The scorecard? Thumbs down! Yet again, the measure does not target the neediest, fails to address the leverage problem and artificially props up house prices.

Support to Fannie and Freddie (Cost: $96bn of cash infusions and $43bn of subsidies in 2009 alone, per the CBO): The idea here is that Fannie and Freddie buy more mortgages from banks (thus allowing banks to extend more mortgages); and facilitate securitization and onward MBS sales to investors by providing guarantees that insulate MBS buyers from the risk of default.

The scorecard? Thumbs down… big time! The measure fails to benefit the neediest, fails to reduce household leverage and, on top of that, is aggravating the fiscal hemorrhage, since we have yet to see *a* plan for the institutional resolution of Fannie and Freddie.

The only program providing targeted help is the Home Affordable Modification Program (or HAMP). HAMP has allocated up to $75 billion to finance the modification of primary-residence mortgages owed by people in financial hardship. But progress has been painfully slow—the CBO estimates that only a tiny portion of HAMP resources have been spent this year. (The Treasury's latest progress report on HAMP shows 651,000 active trial and permanent modifications as of end-October 2009).

Part of the problem is that HAMP rests on the collaboration of mortgage servicers, which slows down the process, on top of limiting the amount of relief provided by the modification (e.g. due to “net present value rules” in the servicing agreement). The latter is crucial since, the lower the relief, the more likely a household will eventually fall back into arrears.

What I would have liked to see instead is true relief to low-income households with little home equity and a serious cashflow problem. If the hardship is due to employment loss, monthly grants would be offered to reduce a homeowner’s mortgage burden until s/he finds another job. If the cashflow problem is due to a jump in the monthly payment (e.g. due to an unaffordable ARM mortgage obtained through predatory lending), the relief should be permanent. But to avoid the risk of the homeowner pocketing the taxpayer money and then selling the home at a profit, help should take the form of monthly grants instead of one-off debt relief.

By my count, this relief would be targeted, tackle the leverage problem and would likely be swifter by avoiding the intermediation of mortgage servicers. It would be fiscally responsible by foregoing blank taxpayer checks to people with comfortable incomes. It’s also pretty obvious… which makes it all the more astounding why the government has chosen to bypass a good solution, opting instead for the quick ‘n dirty!

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