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.