The national conversation in the wake of President Obama's introduction of a mortgage relief plan has centered on "fairness" and the conditions to qualify for a mortgage modification. This misses the point. The effects of "innovative" mortgage products were felt far more broadly than the relationship between a single buyer (responsible or not) and his particular mortgage broker (despicable or not). To illustrate the point, meet Mrs. Conservative And Responsible Mortgage Neighbor ("Carmen" for short).
In 2003, Carmen bid on a home and took a 30 year fixed mortgage with 20 percent down.
Fast forward to today. Carmen has enjoyed her home and made all of her payments to the bank on time. Unfortunately, her home has dropped in value to the point where it is now significantly underwater . Her investment portfolio has fared just as poorly, losing 40 percent of its value in the last 18 months. All the while, her mortgage obligation has slowly amortized lower.
If Carmen were to turn to her investments to pay off the loan today, she would come up short. Worldwide deflation has resulted in every asset in our little vignette having fallen by 40 percent. Carmen's debt burden, however, remains the same,, struck in yesterday's dollars.
How does the current mortgage relief plan – which certainly excludes all of the Carmens out there -- make sense? The short answer is that it doesn't. It is neither fair nor effective. It lacks boldness, universality and an understanding of the problem.
A far better answer to the problem is one time across-the-board principal reductions to all primary residence mortgages originated in the last ten years. Such a plan avoids the piecemeal approach of subjective formulae and doesn't make personal bankruptcy a precondition to the reduction of principal. It acknowledges that the nation's housing stock was overvalued because of unintelligent home buyers, products that have been discredited, fairly widespread fraud and inexcusable encouragement by naive government officials. Following the principal reduction, each loan can be re-amortized over its remaining life, resulting in the stimulus of a reduced monthly payment for every American homeowner.
I made this slideshow with some of my favorite maps from the 2008 election cycle, and I think it tells the story of the campaign pretty well. Hope you enjoy, whether you’re happy with the outcome or not.
I recently recieved this this link to a short essay and some stats titled "Texas on the Brink". I thought I'd share my response with you:
Although I don't really think "we're on the brink" (most of our economic growth stats outpace the nation), I do partially agree with it, with some caveats. Our air pollution is getting better/lower every year, although maybe not as fast as some would like. We have such a vibrant economy, and are a border state, so we attract a lot of uneducated immigrants (both domestic and international) without health insurance looking for work. The opportunities are better for them here, and they're better off here. So we're never going to look great on those sorts of stats compared to most other states. It's like Europe: you can severely limit immigration and reduce opportunities, but make your stats look better as you exclude certain disadvantaged groups from your population, but is the world any better off by keeping those groups away from opportunities? Countries, states and cities seem to play these games of "hot potato" with disadvantaged populations, trying to push/keep them over the border into other jurisdictions to make their own stats look better (and reduce their welfare costs), but it actually makes the world as a whole worse off (for the same reasons protectionism makes everybody worse off vs. free trade). Texas has always pretty much welcomed anybody seeking opportunity and willing to work hard, but in exchange we don't offer much of a welfare state apparatus. That's our deal. The states that are more welfare-oriented tend to have fewer opportunities, play the "hot potato" game by doing things like restricting housing to make it unaffordable, or, like California, simply start to go broke.
And if, as those stats imply, Texas is such a bad place, why are we attracting waves of both domestic and international migrants? Clearly they see value not reflected in those stats. (37th most 'livable' state?! Give me a break.)
All that said, we need to make good investments in both lower and higher education. But I think a lot of what is needed are better systems rather than more money, like increased charter school competition and forcing universities to stress teaching and graduation rates as much as research.
It's hard to find a quality of life ranking that satisfies the preferences and desires of everyone but Bizjournal's recent ranking of mid-sized metros does highlight and affirm the presence of colleges and universities as an increasingly common and important thread in quality of life analyses.
The study compared 124 mid-sized metros in 20 statistical categories, using the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. The highest scores went to well-rounded places with healthy economies, light traffic, moderate costs of living, impressive housing stocks and strong educational systems.
The Hadley Center in the UK has recently reported a “correlation between reduced prosperity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with global warming.”
The report states that since 2000, as greenhouse gasses have risen 2 to 3 percent each year, the world gross domestic product has also risen. The current ½ percent reduction in GDP is therefore correlated with the ½ percent reduction in greenhouse gasses.
Paul Taylor, of the examiner.com, suggests that the “reductions in greenhouse gases will reduce GDP and punish economic prosperity.”
President Obama’s $646 billion spending bill on a new carbon trading system to mitigate greenhouse gases would enact a “cap and trade” system that is “in effect a massive new national tax…[that] would impose substantial additional cost on power producers and manufacturing,” according to Taylor.
The extent to which greenhouse gasses are a direct cause of the world GDP dropping or increasing remains to be seen – a myriad of additional factors should be considered – but these issues will continue to be at the forefront in such volatile times.
The flood fight is on in Fargo/Moorhead as the cities work to stem the flow of the raging Red River of the North. I was in north Fargo this morning (Friday) where crews continue to haul clay and sandbags to bolster dikes and protect critical infrastructure. Fargo Mayor, Dennis Walaker, said this morning that they “wouldn’t go down without a fight” and these two communities are putting up a herculean fight against all that mother nature can throw at them including record flood levels, a snow storm and continued cold temperatures. The two communities currently are in what they are calling a “stand and defend” position – strengthen and monitor existing dikes and levies and protect as much of their community as possible.
I went to Fargo with my 17 year-old Nephew who just last night was sandbagging in north Fargo, and had arrived in Grand Forks at 8:00 am this morning. When he heard I was heading to Fargo he asked “do you need help”? The resilience, energy and concern exhibited by this, and many, of the youth and young adults in this fight has been unbelievable and from my perspective, one of the major stories of this struggle. The overwhelming assistance – from junior and senior high students to the several colleges and their students from throughout the region – has been astounding.
Even former ND Governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schaefer is driving a dump truck hauling clay. He said he came across a driver who had been driving for 27 hours straight and Ed figured he could use a break.
The endplay of this flood has yet to be written, but when it is all said and done the residents of Fargo/Moorhead along with an army of students (our best and brightest) will hopefully be able to slap each other on the back and say “job well done”. Stand and defend Fargo … stand and defend.
Here's an amateur video on the flood fight making the rounds on youtube:
Late this afternoon the National Weather Service River Forecast Center came out with the announcement that no one in Fargo wanted to hear: the expected crest has risen a foot to 42, and possibly 43 feet. The NWS included the following eerie passage in their official statement:
"The relative uncertainty in forecast models has increased significantly. Record flows upstream of Fargo have produced unprecedented conditions on the Red River. Given these factors, the river is expected to behave in ways never previously observed."
Fargo city commissioners assured the public that dikes were now steady at the 43 foot level, and plans are underway to increase dikes in south Fargo one foot overnight.
Because of massive traffic gridlock after street closures, sand and clay trucks have been greatly slowed this afternoon. Tonight, the city is asking residents to stay in their homes, leaving it up to individual neighborhoods to band together overnight in the south end to try to add the last foot to save their homes.
One neighborhood in Fargo and one in Moorhead are under mandatory evacuation, the largest hospital chain is now evacuating patients, and the city has had to make tough choices in placing secondary clay dikes, cutting off a number of neighborhoods should the water rise.
This battle is not over, and if Fargo and Moorhead can add the last foot and keep the sanitary and storm sewer systems intact they could save the majority of the city. After that, it becomes a problem of maintaining a series of sandbag and temporary dikes over the expected 3 to 5 day high water period.
Check out local photographer Dave Arntson's excellent ongoing photo documentary of the flood fight. One thing I learned working for FEMA during our 1997 flood is that photos matter. Inspired photography helps people process and better understand these tense situations, especially since there is no time to think about what is happening while it is happening.
It was eighteen above zero and snow in Fargo this morning. Record high flood forecast on the Red River of the North in the Southern Valley. I went down to Fargo, from Grand Forks (70 miles north), to help my sister’s family empty out their basement. They live in the southern subdivision of Osgood. The blare of heavy equipment resounded throughout the neighborhood as I pulled in, feverishly building an earthen dike as a secondary defense roughly six to eight blocks North of their house. In hurry up mode here, you only move what is irreplaceable – family pictures, cherished belongings of your children when they were young, personal belongings from your life – the rest (TVs, furniture) is just stuff.
As I was leaving the Osgood neighborhood, a steady stream of volunteers marched into the area to bolster the sandbag dikes. Young and old alike working side-by-side to accomplish a greater good – save their community. But for many it wasn’t even their community. Volunteers from throughout the region came to this community to help in its time of need. There is often no reason to be there other than “I heard they needed help”. No questions, no bitching.
Heading to North Fargo, my other sister lives about 8 blocks from the river. The secondary dike there is roughly 2 blocks away from her house. She is heavily involved in emergency preparedness through her work at the local hospital and had her basement cleared out. I was dropping off an emergency generator, submersible sump pump and other supplies hoping that they won’t be needed. Parked in their driveway I saw buses filled with volunteers coming down the clay and snow covered street joined by others walking to the area. Don’t impede emergency vehicles and semis loaded with sandbags – other street traffic was at a minimum.
Why does this region rock? If you saw the resolve of these volunteers, National Guard, Red Cross and emergency personnel and their willingness and ability to work together, help their neighbors and work collaboratively to defend their community you wouldn’t need to ask.
You may have seen the national media coverage of the flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota. Some of us here at NewGeography.com live right in the middle of it. I parked my car this morning at the base of an earthen dike holding back the Red Red River in Grand Forks, ND. Here in Grand Forks we were wiped out by a similar flood and fire in 1997. We evacuated more than 50,000 people at that time and virtually every property in the area was affected.
Since 1997, hundreds of homes have been bought out and $400 million was spent on a dike and diversion protection system creating 2,200 acres of green space and more than 20 miles of trails in our little urbanized area of about 70,000.
This has created a strange feeling - feeling a little useless sitting back and watching the herculean efforts in Fargo while we assemble pieces in the invisible flood wall and listen to officials reassure the public. Many from this area have boarded buses to head down to the Fargo area and help out. Meanwhile, you won't find a drain plug or generator at a store in town.
In western North Dakota, parts of small towns including Linton, Hazen, Zap, and Mott have had problems with overland floods.
The most concern now is the rising Red River, making up the North Dakota and Minnesota Border. Thousands of volunteers from around the area have converged on Fargo to help, but the situation is now getting serious. Sandbagging takes a lot of effort and sandbag dikes are subject to failure.
Right now the cities of Fargo and Moorhead are holding strong, but the rural surrounding areas are in trouble.
Here's a video report of the Coast Guard rescuing people from their homes in Oxbow, south of Fargo on Wednesday:
Here's a time lapse video put together by Minnesota Public Radio of the sandbagging efforts at the Fargodome. What's interesting is that this is actually a secodary sandbag filling operation, started up after the huge volunteer turnouts:
And, here's the direct link to the Fargo river guage, updated about every hour. Fargo successfully defended against a flood just under 40 feet in 1997. 41 feet would be a new record, and the region is scrambling to get the protection systems up to 43 feet.
The problem is -- it just keeps on snowing and raining and the projected crests keep rising. The Red River flows north. Our colleague Doug just headed down to Fargo to help protect his sister's house wearing his only possession he has remaining after the Grand Forks floods and fire in 1997: his belt.
Since its inception, the plan has been sold to Congress and the media as one with potential positive payoffs for the public coffers. To support this idea, proponents point to the experience of the Resolution Trust Company (RTC) in resolving the Savings and Loan (S&L) Crisis. Back then, RTC took over failing S&Ls – some of which were bankrupted by bad real estate loans made worse when they were forced to sell off below-investment grade bond assets – the by-now-well-known Junk Bonds.
Selling off today’s junk bonds will, I agree, clean up the balance sheets of the banks and make them more attractive to investors and depositors. But the investment in junk bonds now is not going to turn out like the investment in junk bonds then. For starters, the value of the junk bonds then declined as a result of the forced sell-off – Congress prohibited S&Ls from holding junk bonds on their balance sheets. When this supply was dumped on the market, the prices naturally dropped. Selling assets at depressed prices damaged a lot of S&Ls. RTC stepped in near the bottom of those prices to take control of the assets. When credit markets returned to normal, the prices of the junk bonds rose and the investments had positive returns.
Then, junk bonds paid extraordinary rates of return – 10 percentage points above Treasuries at the peak. At that time, a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond could be paying more than 18% interest.
Now, we are talking about junk bonds that we all know are junk – no matter fancy labels like “Legacy.” What rate of return could there be on a mortgage bond – no matter how you “slice-and-dice” it – created when mortgage interest rates were 5-6%? Add to that http://www.newgeography.com/content/00679-story-financial-crisis-burnin%... >our knowledge of the problems underlying these assets and it is increasingly unlikely that there will be any positive payoff for taxpayers in this plan.
On March 25, 2009, Mirek Topolanek, President of the European Union, called the U.S. economic plan “the way to hell.” His concern is that we’ll have to finance these trillion dollar bailouts with borrowing and that will ultimately further undermine global financial markets. He’s right, of course. The public-private partnerships will finance the purchase of the “Legacy Assets” by issuing debt. That debt will be guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the same agency that guarantees our savings accounts at the local bank. Our guarantee is backed by the payment of insurance premiums to FDIC. The guarantee on the debt used to purchase Legacy Assets will be secured by the Legacy Assets – which will be rated by the same credit rating agencies that gave us triple-A rated subprime mortgage bonds in the first place. How can this possibly turn out well? I’m sure Treasury, Federal Reserve and FDIC have good intentions, but as EU President Topolanek says, they may all end up as pavement on “the way to hell.” As NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman said of the new plan, “What an awful mess.”