I was reading up on what's new in the mortgage markets and the economy over the weekend, and one piece of reporting caught my eye because it seemed like it couldn't possibly be true. It was talking about how the Obama administration is considering making a move later this month where Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be told to forgive a portion of the mortgage debt of millions of underwater homeowners. From Reuters:
Main Street may be about to get its own gigantic bailout. Rumors are running wild from Washington to Wall Street that the Obama administration is about to order government-controlled lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to forgive a portion of the mortgage debt of millions of Americans who owe more than what their homes are worth. An estimated 15 million U.S. mortgages – one in five – are underwater with negative equity of some $800 billion. Recall that on Christmas Eve 2009, the Treasury Department waived a $400 billion limit on financial assistance to Fannie and Freddie, pledging unlimited help. The actual vehicle for the bailout could be the Bush-era Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, a sister program to Obama’s loan modification effort. HARP was just extended through June 30, 2011.
The move, if it happens, would be a stunning political and economic bombshell less than 100 days before a midterm election in which Democrats are currently expected to suffer massive, if not historic losses. The key date to watch is August 17 when the Treasury Department holds a much-hyped meeting on the future of Fannie and Freddie.
So a week from tomorrow we could see if the administration makes a move on this, and starts the process to forgive a portion of the mortgage debt for underwater homeowners.
Is Mortgage Forgiveness Really Going To Happen?
If you talk to insiders in Washington, it sounds like many of them believe that this could actually happen.
1) Republican leaders believe this is going to happen since GOPers and Democratic moderates in the Senate are unwilling to spend more taxpayer money on more stimulus. But such a housing plan would allow the White House to sidestep congressional objections and show voters it is doing something tangible about an economy that seems to be weakening.
2) Wall Street banks are alerting their clients privately to this possibility. Here is what some are cautiously saying publicly. This from Goldman Sachs:
GSE policies are one of a dwindling number of policy levers the administration has left to pull, so it is conceivable that changes could be made, though there is no sign that a policy change is imminent. The Treasury’s essentially unlimited ability to provide financial support to the GSEs creates an interesting situation over the next twelve months: the GSEs could potentially be used to provide additional support for the housing market and, to a lesser extent, the broader economy in 2H 2001.
And this from Mizuho Securities:
As policy makers ponder their next move the data suggests that they face not only a stalling recovery but a growing risk of deflation taking root in the economy. As a result, the Administration has turned back to industrial policies by approving the purchase of a sub-prime auto lender by GM as a means for pumping up domestic sales, especially since the latest auto sales data indicates that consumers are still responsive to incentives. This precedent increases the risk that the government will use its control of Fannie and Freddie to increase consumer cash flow and juice the economy again.
Moreover, Morgan Stanley is pushing a mortgage relief plan directly to Congress. On August 3, a top Morgan Stanley economist recommended to the Senate Budget Committee that Fannie and Freddie ease their lending standards to allow millions of Americans to refinance their mortgages.
3) Keep in mind the political and economic context. The nascent recovery is already running out of steam. Wall Street economists just downgraded the government’s second-quarter GDP estimate of 2.4 percent to around 1.7 percent. And as even Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is warning, the unemployment rate may well begin to rise back toward the politically toxic 10 percent level given such sluggish growth. Many in the White House thought the unemployment rate would be dropping sharply by this point in the recovery.
So could it happen? To me it sure sounds like it's a real possibility, especially with President Obama's flagging poll numbers, and Democrat fears that they could lose big in the fall elections. They need to do something in order to appear in control and in charge. By doing this they would gamble that there would be more people who are happy about having debt forgiven, than there are people who are upset with the administration for giving more stimulus – and saddling the rest of the taxpayers with other people's mortgage debt.
Is Forgiving Mortgage Debt For Underwater Homeowners A Good Idea?
So if this were to happen, and the underwater portions of homeowners mortgages were forgiven – would that be a good thing? Who would end up having to pay for it? :
A massive write-down of principal in underwater mortgages would cost us additional tens of billions of dollars, if not $100 billion or more, in order to get these mortgages to market level. That money won’t come out of thin air, either. Either it will take taxpayer dollars to make up the difference, or the sudden and arbitrary writedown will make Fannie/Freddie investors a whole lot more poor than they were before. The Obama administration can’t afford to send Wall Street reeling with that kind of shock, especially this close to an election and with the economy already sinking, so it would almost certainly require massive taxpayer subsidies to accomplish, on top of what’s already been spent on TARP bailouts.
You can rest assured that it's probably going to be taxpayer dollars that make up the difference, so that could be another $100 billion or so added to taxpayer obligations.
Barron's talks about how they doubt it will happen because of the negative consequences it could have.
Suddenly changing to make it easy to refinance, either through principal forgiveness or lowering lending standards for Fannie and Freddie, would cause chaos in the mortgage-backed securities market. The Fed, with a massive MBS position, would be a big loser. So would be Fannie and Freddie. And that ultimately means the American taxpayer.
Moreover, a plunge in the MBS market would mean huge losses for other investors, including those with stakes in mutual funds with big MBS exposure. And a plunge in mortgage securities prices could wind up pushing up mortgage rates in the end, conceivably pricing out some prospective buyers trying to get their proverbial foot in the door of their first house.
And politically, it could backfire. There could be many more folks resentful that they couldn't get a special deal to reduce their mortgage because they did the right thing—put down an ample downpayment on a house they could afford with a margin of safety.
Personally I don't think it's a good idea either, and because of the potential backlash such a move would have with it – i doubt the Democrats would want to chance it. But we shall see!
What do you think? Should the government move towards forgiving principal debt for underwater homeowners? Would the consequences of such a move be too much for them to consider it? Tell us your thoughts on this potential move by the White House in the comments.