To get a better idea why the Obama Administration’s efforts to stem the home foreclosure crisis have failed at both ends of the problem, you need only go back to that great scene in Frank Capra’s classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where protagonist George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is on his way out of Bedford Falls with his new bride and high school crush, the former Meg Hatch (Donna Reed). The newlyweds are heading toward the train station to leave on their honeymoon when Meg notices a commotion outside the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan Association, founded by George’s revered but now deceased father, Henry, and Henry’s bumbling brother, Billie.
The “commotion” is actually a run on the bank. George – bless his heart, and with the full encouragement of the new Mrs. Bailey – hops out of Ernie’s cab to see if he can quell the growing crowd assembling outside the locked doors of the Building & Loan. With his usual calm George assesses the situation, asks Uncle Billie to unlock the doors to let the gathering mob into the Building & Loan, and then proceeds to talk (most of) them out of closing their accounts and being refunded the value of their shares.
George patiently explains to his anxious Association members that he can’t give each of them 100% of the value of their Bailey Brothers Building & Loan Association shares because the funds from those shares have already been loaned out to worthy borrowers so they can afford to build or buy houses in the community. States George from behind the teller counter:
“…you’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The, the moneys not here. Well, your money’s in Joe’s house…that’s right next to yours. And in the Kennedy’s House, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay you back as best they can. Now what are you going do? Foreclose on them?”
Just as George appears to be making progress, however, a now former Association member comes running into the Building & Loan pronouncing that Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who owns the bank and every other business in Bedford Falls, is offering to buy Bailey Brothers Building & Loan shares at 50 cents on the dollar (in an obvious effort to take advantage of the situation by running George Bailey out of business). Saving the day, and confirming that George has indeed made a life-changing decision in his choice of mates, the new Mrs. Bailey, with $2,000 in cash in her purse for their honeymoon, offers the money to the anxious Association members filling the building lobby. George then adroitly parses out their honeymoon money in the smallest increments he can persuade folks to accept under the circumstances.
The scene tells us much about what went wrong with the residential real estate market nationwide. It is more than merely nostalgic to long for such elegant simplicity in the manner in which deposited funds were invested in things such as home mortgages. However, the only thing quainter than that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the idea of a bank or other financial institution originating, owning, and servicing the same mortgage. And therein lies the rub for efforts by the Treasury Department to help right the residential mortgage ship of state through the Making Home Affordable mortgage modification program and the Legacy Asset Recovery program.
The root the problem lies with the complete disconnect between those who actually own the notes secured by the vast majority of residential mortgages in this country and those who “service ” those mortgages. Right now there is little if any incentive for those servicers to participate in the Treasury Department’s mortgage modification initiative (the Making Home Affordable mortgage modification program or “MHAP”), originally projected to foster the modification of 2.5 million mortgages but having resulted in only a fraction of that number in modified mortgages. This is at least in part because the fee structure under the existing servicing agreements does not adequately compensate the servicer for the amount of effort required to accomplish a mortgage modification. Further, there’s no clearly and easily identifiable “owner” of the notes that are secured by the underlying mortgages putting pressure on the servicers to modify these mortgage
The national mega-banks that have received the lion’s share of Treasury’s multi-trillion bail-out of the banking industry have been, by far, the worst offenders in not embracing and implementing this program. And the problem can’t easily be fixed because it is structural in nature, the by-product of a system ironically intended to keep credit flowing into the residential sales market. For example, in Treasury’s recently released Servicer Performance Report through September 2009, Bank of America had modified under the MHAP only 11% of its approximately 876,000 home mortgages delinquent by 60 days or more (thereby making them eligible for modification under MHAP).
The structural problems prevail at the investor-end of this morass as well. After much Congressional rhetoric and even more Wall Street teeth-gnashing over mark-to-market legislation late in 2008 that would have forced the holders of mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”) to mark down the value of their mortgage loan portfolios based on reductions in the underlying collateral value, Congress declined to take such action. The Legacy Asset Recovery program (so-called by Treasury because, quite honestly, who wants to invest in “toxic” assets), the investment component of Treasury’s Public-Private Investment Program or “PPIP,” pairs private capital with Treasury capital and then makes up the difference with federal low-cost debt. This program is intended to mitigate potential risks and rewards for these new equity participants by halving the amount of private equity that must be raised (since half of the total equity is provided by the government) and providing all of the required debt. As with any program whose purpose is to encourage private investments in bad debts – recalling the RTC program from the early 90s – potential profit is directly correlated to discounting the Legacy Asset purchasing entity can achieve in negotiations with the MBS holders.
Regrettably, the assumptions underpinning the theory quickly prove not to be reasonable. At its core, the problem is that, in order for this initiative to work, the MBS holders need to do that one thing they’ve absolutely refused to do thus far: Take any losses.
MBS holders are betting on their ability to hold onto their mortgage pools for as long as it takes for the excess housing inventory in the marketplace to get absorbed. They are also waiting for the end of the recession (perhaps around the corner but perhaps not) to turn into a full-fledged economic recovery, so that underlying real estate values start to catch up to portfolio values.
Will this strategy work? Likely not if there’s a slow, largely jobless recovery that doesn’t support the housing market. As of now, the most recent projections for economic recovery in the real estate sector are looking to 2013. In the meantime, Treasury’s programs at both ends of the mortgage crisis will have done very little to stem foreclosures or stabilize capital flows to the housing market.
Compounding the structural infirmities of these two “recovery” programs is that job growth is most likely to come first in states that have relatively few problems (Washington, D.C.-Metro Area; Great Plains; Texas) and will be far slower in many of the most troubled states, notably California, Michigan and Ohio, and parts of the Northeast. Hindsight being 20/20, rather than focusing so much attention and so many resources on helping the financial industry, which has been by far the largest recipient of Washington’s largess, the focus should have been on job preservation and job creation. The links, after all, between mortgage performance, housing values, and employment are undeniable.
Peter Smirniotopoulos, Vice President – Development of UniDev, LLC, is based in the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, and works throughout the U.S. He is on the faculty of the Masters in Science in Real Estate program at Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed herein are solely his own.