Brad Miller’s Old Solutions to New Problems

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal considers the potential benefits of having the government purchase distressed mortgages.

President Obama’s key initiative on the mortgage situation, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), has serious problems. Besides low modification rates, the biggest problem has to do with borrowers being underwater. It’s well known that being underwater is correlated with higher default rates, defaults that destroy value through foreclosures for homeowners and adds large costs to already struggling municipalities.

It is one thing if these modifications were mostly ineffectual. But, as was found in in a recent report issued by the State Foreclosure Prevention Working Group, 70% of modifications lead to mortgages with a higher balance, and are then deeper underwater than when they started. This is the exact opposite of what we want to happen.

What to do? Allowing bankruptcy judges to write down principal of first mortgages and attached second liens. Allow a “Right-To-Rent” for those who can afford the rental rate of their communities and want to stay, but can’t afford their mortgage, with them losing an equity in the house as a punishment. What else?

Congressman Brad Miller (D-NC) has an additional policy tool that can be used. He has just written a timely piece in the New Republic titled UnHAMPered that you should read, in which he argues that we need to go back and use an item from the New Deal’s playbook:

As part of its initial legislative barrage on the economic crisis, the Roosevelt administration created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (”HOLC”) in June of 1933, just three months after entering office. The HOLC purchased distressed mortgages from banks, and then negotiated new, more affordable mortgages with the homeowner. Before it ran out of capital in 1935, the HOLC purchased a little more than one million mortgages, or about one in six of the urban home mortgages. (There was a similar program for farm mortgages).

The new HOLC could buy mortgages by eminent domain…The toxic assets backed by mortgages are impossible to value. The concern that taxpayers would get fleeced buying toxic assets from the financial industry was well justified. Whole mortgages are not hard to value at all. There are frequent, well-publicized auctions of mortgages with a sufficient number of informed, sophisticated buyers….

If the government could purchase, either by voluntary sale or by eminent domain, distressed mortgages for 30 to 50 cents on the dollar, there would be ample room to reduce the principal to make the mortgage affordable. In other cases, the government could buy the home in exchange for cancelling the mortgage and enter into a long-term lease with the former homeowner.

The whole thing is worth reading. James Kwak has an initial reaction. As James mentions, it is worthwhile to note the swift, efficient and effective movements for helping the capital markets, and the lackluster, incompetence we’ve seen in trying to get consumers above water.

The government is good at implementing large, blunt, satisficing solutions to problems. Adjusting the legal framework of bankruptcy and property transfer (Right-to-Rent), and then throw some cash targeted straight at the problem, sit on these new mortgages and break even, is the perfect thing for the government to be doing. The idea that you could nudge servicers into doing the right thing with a little bit of cash is designed to fail. (Have you met any servicers?)

And I like eminent domain as a way to get a fair price for the mortgages, indeed to do the job that mark-to-market discipline should be doing if we had a working market. The mortgages are worth 50 cents on the $1, but they are on the books for 90 cents. If foreclosed, they are worth 40 cents. Eminent domain for 60 cents, write down to 75 cents, and then resell after two years for 70 cents. This dodges the obvious problem of using the taxpayer balance sheet as a dumping ground for overvalued loans, like what has likely happened with the GSEs.

What is your take?

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He blogs here and at rortybomb.