The Housing & Economic Recovery Act of 2008 was passed last August. It created the HOPE for Homeowners Program, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would help 400,000 homeowners to refinance their loans and stay in their homes. Here's a stunning revelation: According to the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), in the first six months since the law was passed, exactly one (1) homeowner refinanced under the program!
You can listen to the story on NPR, "Investors Support Overhauling Homeowner Program". One such investor, PIMCO, supports programs that would reduce the principal balance on mortgages by a small amount in order to keep the cash flow coming from mortgage payments. Given what we know about investment strategies to push companies into bankruptcy in order to benefit from credit default swap payouts, I was initially leery of such statements coming from bond investors. Then I remembered the problem with the paperwork on the mortgages – if bondholders can't prove ownership of the lien the homeowner keeps the house with no further payments. That's when it started to make sense.
Of course, if they can get the homeowners to come in for a re-fi they can correct the paperwork mistakes. It could be worth it to investors without default protection to accept principal reductions – if the homeowner goes into bankruptcy they may not be able to prove they own the mortgage without the new paperwork. With the re-fi, they get all new documentation.
These programs were designed for homeowners who are current on their mortgage payments but whose homes are "underwater", that is, the principal balance on the mortgage is more than the market value of the house. Some can keep up their payments with the hope that the market price of the home adjusts in the distant future; others might benefit by the modest reductions in principal favored by some bond investors. But in a situation described by a Stockton (CA) homeowner the principal reduction is unlikely to be enough – the home is worth $220,000 and the mortgage balance is $420,000. These homeowners' best financial strategy is to take the hit to their credit report and default on the mortgage. Investors like PIMCO might, if their paperwork is good, get half their investment back by taking possession of the property; they'll get it all back if they bought the credit default swap; and they get nothing if the paperwork is screwed up.
How many mortgages are underwater? Bank of America’s annual report says that 23 percent of their residential mortgage portfolio has current loan-to-market value ratios greater than 90 percent. When they include home equity loans in the calculation, totaling lending on a residential property, the share with less than 10 percent equity rises to 37 percent. At the end of 2008, Bank of America held $248 billion in residential mortgages and $152 billion in home equity loans, after taking write-offs of about $4.4 billion last year. On the other hand, Wells Fargo did not specifically report the share of their portfolio with loan-to-market value ratios greater than 90 percent. It’s hard to tell just how many mortgages are how far underwater at an aggregate level. I would imagine that these numbers are being checked in the Treasury’s stress testing of individual banks.
In any event, Congress is not giving up (although we almost wish they would before this gets any worse). The House Committee on Financial Services combined with the House Judiciary Committee has introduced a new bill to improve the old bill's version of Hope for Homeowners. Trying to take it a step further, the House Financial Services Committee is holding hearings on a Mortgage Reform Bill next week. The plan is to set lending standards for all mortgage originators. Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) is of the view that the "great economic hole" we are in was started by“ policymakers’ distrust of regulation in general, their enduring belief that markets and financial institutions could effectively police themselves."
With this we do agree: self-regulation in financial services is a root cause of our current economic disaster. Until it is completely removed – not just from mortgage lending but from all financial products and services – nothing Congress does will prevent another crisis.