A questionable plan to aid underwater homeowners

Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 9:02 PM

THE U.S. ECONOMY can't truly recover until the housing market revives. Yet recent data indicate that prices, already off an average of 30 percent from their peak in 2006, have still not touched bottom. Lending conditions are tight, and mortgage rates are ticking up again. Nearly a quarter of mortgage borrowers are "underwater," owing more than their houses are worth. Massive federal assistance - $1 trillion in Federal Reserve mortgage-bond purchases; dramatic expansion of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans; an Obama administration push to modify existing home loans - has slowed the collapse but not, apparently, ended it.

What more, if anything, should be done? The latest administration idea is to use the two government-controlled mortgage-finance firms, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to help underwater borrowers. Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie, which back about half of all U.S. home loans, would identify creditworthy borrowers who are underwater but still current on their payments - and then turn their loans over to the FHA, which would refinance them in return for a write-off of at least 10 percent of the unpaid principal balance. Though the administration notes that this is no panacea, officials argue it could make a significant difference to between 500,000 and 1.5 million borrowers, reducing their debt and their risk of eventual foreclosure. Fannie and Freddie would absorb losses from the principal writedown, but proponents of the plan argue that Fannie and Freddie would be even worse off if foreclosures occur later - and the Treasury, which is covering the two entities' losses, would be on the hook either way.

The entities and their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), are cool to the idea. In addition to the threat to Fannie and Freddie's already disastrous bottom lines, an obvious drawback is moral hazard: If government starts paying off some people's debt principal, what's to stop others from demanding the same break? Preventing moral hazard, of course, limits any plan's impact. Previous loan-modification efforts also have attempted to target that elusive cohort of distressed-but-capable borrowers, with disappointing results. Analysts at Credit Suisse recently described the potential benefits of the administration plan as "more symbolic and psychological than fundamental."

Republicans in Congress have started to push back as well. On Monday, the incoming chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees Fannie and Freddie, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), published a letter to FHFA noting that "the program targets performing loans" and asking "why it would be in the best interest of the U.S. taxpayer for Fannie and Freddie to write down principal on these types of loans."

Mr. Neugebauer wants a public report detailing the potential costs of the program. More transparency might be a good idea before Fannie and Freddie proceed. Given the mixed results of past loan-modification schemes, a formal public statement of the potential costs and benefits of the latest one doesn't seem too much to ask.

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