Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Plethora of Languid Foreclosure Prevention Programs

Keeping foreclosures down and homeownership up has been the stated goal of policy makers for the last few years. The record shows that nearly all of the promulgated programs have failed to provide much relief to lenders or borrowers. And even if there were a chance for them to succeed, the obstacles to their viability are daunting.
I think a brief review of such programs is in order.
My list is not meant to be complete, but it is indicative of the success of presumptive remedies to the foreclosure crisis.
The Land of Cockaigne
I don't think many Americans ever really bought the 'spiel' about "a car in every driveway," "a chicken in every pot," "a salary for every able-bodied person," and "a house for every citizen." But it's not as though they weren't given plenty of reasons to pursue the so-called American Dream - at least the homeownership version. Presidents and their Administrations have equated owning a home with being as American as Apple Pie. Congress followed the narrative and fortified the burgeoning real estate industry with seemingly infinite funds boosted by and through the GSEs. The Federal Reserve did its part. But it was all trumped-up! Unsupported by the fundamentals of economic theory, dream-thinking nevertheless entrenched itself.
In the 13th century, a French poem described the "pays de cocaigne," which is Middle French for "The Land of Cockaigne." A fair translation of the poem portrays Cockaigne as a country where "the houses were made of sugar cakes, the streets were paved with pastry, and shops provided goods for nothing." (My translation.) Later, in the 16th century, the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted Cockaigne as an imaginary land of self-indulgent luxury and idleness, a utopia of gluttony, complacency, instant gratification, and physical excesses, where the lowly and beleaguered peasants could finally be free of their oppressive, daily struggles to survive.
In effect, Cockaigne was a medieval peasant's dream. But it was a chimera!
This is not to say that the modernized version of Cockaigne, perhaps our own American Cockaigne, was meant to curry the favor of people who were gluttonous or complacent in return for their votes. It is not to say that Americans are peasants in the fashion of medieval peasants. And it is not to say that we should run away from our dreams. But living a dream has consequences. 
So, let's take a look at some of those consequences. Let's see how foreclosure prevention programs have fared in mending the harm caused by our own version of Cockaigne.
The "Job's Bill"
The Obama Administration has proposed a plan to provide $15 billion to fix foreclosed and vacant properties. The idea is to provide a means to revitalize communities blighted by foreclosures. It would also offer a boost to construction jobs. Is there anybody reading this who actually believes that this bill, at least in its current form, will receive even a scintilla of Congressional approval anytime soon?
Converting Vacant and Foreclosed Homes to Rentals
The Administration has asked for proposals to convert foreclosed houses into rental properties. This would reduce the oversupply of foreclosed properties and reduce the demand causing rising rents for existing rentals. As far as I know, no politically viable proposals have been publicly announced. However, some statistics indicate that benefits could be outweighed by adverse consequences.
Principal Reduction
In effect, this approach asks banks to adjust the total amount owed on a mortgage, based on the post-bubble value of a home. However, this could lead to strategic foreclosures and perhaps an incentive for borrowers to take out riskier loans. I get that this remedy is supposed to be a way to deal with the $800 billion overhang, that is, the amount that borrowers owe above the value of their homes.
These so-called "underwater" mortgages are being just left out there dangling away! It seems to me that principal reduction could work, given the right methodologies. For instance, most mortgages are either owned or guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie, so the overall public could benefit through principal reduction.
However, here's the nasty secret: the FHFA, the regulator overseeing Fannie and Freddie, will not even consider principal reduction, because it would adversely impact the GSE's bottom line. Even after being bailed out, the GSEs are $141 billion in the negative. So, a decision to keep the losses off the books leads principal reduction into a dead end.
Bailout Money
At least President Obama recently admitted that his Administration had not made "enough progress" on dealing with the foreclosure crisis and he is "going back to the drawing board." This is how many years since the bubble burst? Going "back to the drawing board?"
With what money? After all, $30 billion in unused bailout money from the previous foreclosure programs cannot be used to fund new programs.
Making Home Affordable
This program was supposed to encourage servicers to lower mortgage payments. Political pundits labeled it the "homeowner bailout."
It began in the spring of 2009 and was meant to assist four million homeowners who were facing foreclosure. But MHA is a major malfunction. Servicers were thrown into backlogs, improperly processed cases, made numerous errors, all while regulators did very little to prevent this debacle. As of August 2011, as I have reported previously, only about 816,000 homeowners had received loan modifications through MHA - which is less than 25% of those who applied for MHA assistance!
Here's yet another nasty secret: the government is expected to spend about $7 billion of the $46 billion in bailout funds that were set aside to help homeowners. Consequently, nearly $30 billion meant to address the foreclosure crisis may instead be used to pay down the deficit. Yes, that would be those same $30 billion I mention above, meant to address the foreclosure crisis, and will instead likely be spent to pay down the deficit.
Home Affordable Refinance Program
This is the program that permits homeowners to refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates. It is another program from 2009. With much fanfare, the Administration estimated that five million homeowners would be served. As of June 2011, just 838,000 homeowners had refinanced through the program.
But where is this program going? The FHFA stands in the way, since refinancing is deemed to be more risk to Fannie and Freddie, which happens to own or guarantee about 5 million mortgages that are underwater.
President Obama has stated that he would increase the number of homeowners in the program. How is that supposed to happen, given that the FHFA's professed mission now is to further protect Fannie and Freddie from taking on any new risk?
Emergency Homeowners' Loan Program
The basic concept of this program is to loan money to jobless homeowners so they can avoid foreclosure. I fail to see how this is a solution at all to foreclosure. At best, maybe it postpones it. As promulgated in 2010 and commenced in June 2011, the program consists of $1 billion and is supposed to affect 30,000 families, by offering interest-free federal loans of up to $50,000 to qualifying homeowners. Essentially, to be qualified for this program, the borrower must have lost income because of unemployment or a medical condition. To date, only 10,000 to 15,000 of the 100,000 applicants have actually qualified for these loans.
But here's the catch: there is a deadline of September 30, 2011 for lending out money to eligible homeowners before the unused funds are to be returned to the Treasury. So, the application period has now expired. At this point, it is estimated that only half the allotted funds will be spent.
States Foreclosure Prevention Programs
The notion of giving funds to states to remedy the foreclosure epidemic goes back to February 2010, when the Administration promised almost $8 billion to finance "innovative" programs. The money was supposed to go to the states that had the worst foreclosure problems.
But reports issued in July indicate that only $478 million of the government's $8 billion had been actually loaned. I have read several reports that some of these states have failing programs due to burdensome enrollment procedures. In Arizona, for instance, 4,000 homeowners were to be assisted through principal reduction. But recent news reports indicate that Arizona only approved three homeowners for this remedy. And, again, banks and the GSEs do not want to participate in principal reduction, a particular feature of that state's "innovative" program.
Bankruptcy Protection
I seem to recall that candidate Obama expressed a willingness to permit bankruptcy judges the power to lower mortgage payments. The modern vernacular calls this a "cramdown." Banks were against cramdown from the start. Members of Congress, particularly some Democrats, tried to pass legislation permitting cramdown. But the legislation was defeated. And, anyway, President Obama's very own economic advisers rejected it. At this point, the Obama Administration has virtually abandoned it as a remedy.
Cockaigne Redux
Pieter Bruegel the Elder lived during the time of the famed Dutch Revolt. There is much symbolism in his painting, "The Land of Cockaigne." That symbolism, according to some authorities, refers to the failure of leadership, the effects of complacency, and the proclivity of the people to become dependent on their formidable abundance, while being unwilling to take risks that would bring needed systemic change.
I wonder: is the American Cockaigne a dream from which we refuse to wake up?