DeMarco’s reluctance to say yes is understandable. This is a politically charged issue. The tea party was born out of the disgust many Americans felt early in the financial crisis upon learning that the federal government was even contemplating reducing the principal on some troubled mortgages.
Proponents of that idea argued that although it might cost the taxpayers something, it would ultimately be far cheaper than letting the housing market sink and drag down the U.S. economy. Detractors argued that forgiveness was unfair to the vast majority of homeowners who were diligently making their mortgage payments on time. Principal reduction would also create moral hazard, encouraging many homeowners to quit paying their mortgages in order to have their own loans reduced.
The Obama administration recently put the issue back on the policy agenda, when it tripled the monetary incentives under its loan modification program to Fannie and Freddie for principal reductions. For every dollar Fannie and Freddie take off a home mortgage, taxpayers will pay up to 63 cents, using money from the $700 billion TARP fund originally appropriated to help struggling financial institutions.
This makes it tougher for DeMarco to say no. With taxpayers taking on so much of the financial burden of principal reductions, Fannie and Freddie could end up making money. As conservator of the agencies, DeMarco has said his first responsibility is keeping them solvent with a minimum of help from the U.S. Treasury. Fannie and Freddie have already received almost $200 billion, by far the most costly taxpayer bailout of the recent financial crisis.
Yet despite the administration’s offer, DeMarco could still say no. He argues that principal forgiveness isn’t as effective as principal forbearance, something Fannie and Freddie have been doing for a long time. In a forbearance, the homeowner pays interest and principal on a smaller mortgage, at least for a time, but still owes the full amount. The lower monthly payment helps with affordability, giving stressed homeowners a break. But because they are still on the hook for the full mortgage, others are less likely to intentionally default to receive it.
Adding principal reduction to Fannie’s and Freddie’s loan mitigation efforts would also be costly to administer. Indeed, everything Fannie and Freddie do is difficult and expensive.
Perhaps there is a middle ground: forbearance that evolves into forgiveness if the homeowner earns it. In an “earned mortgage,” the homeowner receives forbearance and immediately pays on a smaller mortgage to help with affordability. He then earns forgiveness as the amount owed is reduced proportionately over time, as long as he stays current.