The Housing Chronicles Blog: Various fixes to the subprime mess

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Various fixes to the subprime mess

Although the recent legislation in Congress has been getting the most attention recently, others have floated some even more creative ways to fix the subprime market debacle. From a CNNMoney story:

First, tweaking the bankruptcy code:

Judges already have the power to shrink or vaporize many debts, like credit card balances and mortgages on investment properties. This idea, supported by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), would let judges reduce primary home loans as well.

The pros: The plan could save hundreds of thousands of people from foreclosure without costing taxpayers anything, say consumer advocates. And it's a minor change, so it could happen fast.

The cons: The Mortgage Bankers Association says its members would have to raise rates on all home loans by as much as 1.5 percentage points to compensate for the risk of court-imposed losses.

Next, introduce fixed-price housing that can't rise (or fall) over time:

John H. Vogel, a real estate economist at Dartmouth College, has a plan he says cures both the mortgage market and housing affordability. He proposes that the government buy up the mortgages of troubled borrowers and give them smaller mortgages, reflecting the drop in real estate values. The catch: The price of those houses would be forever fixed at their new loan amount.

The pros: The program could produce as many as 2 million affordable homes. Of course, owners wouldn't be able to profit in future housing booms. But they'd get a house at below-market prices.

The cons: Living next to a house that never goes up in value could decrease the value of your house as well. Buying up all the houses from the banks could cost as much as $200 billion. (In time, much of that would get paid back by borrowers.)

Create 'negative amortization instruments:'

The Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) proposes creating negative amortization certificates (NACs). Say a bank agrees to write down a $250,000 mortgage to $200,000, relieving a borrower of $50,000 in debt. The government will then issue the lender NACs worth $50,000. When the homeowner sells, the first $50,000 in profit goes to repay the NAC. Anything above that, the seller keeps. If the home goes for less than $250,000, the bank gets all of the profits and the NAC disappears.

The pros: Banks would be more willing to cut borrowers a break because they would get an asset for doing so. Homeowners would get part of their debt relieved, a more affordable mortgage and the reduced risk of owing money when they sell the house.

The cons: If owners knew banks had first claims on profits, they'd have less incentive to renovate or maintain their homes. NACs would be hard to value - and the last thing we need is another hard-to-understand financial instrument.

A not-so-under-the-radar bailout (thanks to bloggers who continue to discuss it):

The Federal Reserve effectively buys up bad mortgage debt from banks (it has already started to do that by accepting impaired assets as collateral for loans to financial institutions). Struggling banks get cash from the government to keep them afloat.

The pros: Politicians could say they didn't bail anyone out even when they did. A cash infusion means banks could lend freely again. Mortgage rates should fall. That should bring more buyers into the market, slowing the drop in prices.

The cons: Taxpayers would foot the bill, which could run as high as $300 billion. Some borrowers could refinance, but many would lose their homes. That means more foreclosures. Real estate prices, while helped by cheaper financing, would probably still fall. But hey, score one for personal responsibility, making people bear the consequences of their mistakes - as long as they're homeowners and not financial executives.

That's because financial executives donate large sums to political campaigns -- yet another civics lesson about our broken system.

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