Solve the Financial Crisis (and Make Some Serious Money)

Peter Van Doren and I have been puzzling over this very interesting NYT op-ed on home foreclosures by Yale economist John Geanakoplos and Boston University law professor Susan Koniak. If G&K’s story is right, then shouldn’t there be an opportunity for some clever financiers to help struggling homeowners keep their houses, help banks and other investors repair their balance sheets — and the financiers could help themselves to piles of cash in the process?

G&K argue that all three parties to a home mortgage — the homeowner, the lender, and the loan servicer who works as a go-between — currently face grim financial prospects:

  • Many homeowners are “underwater” — that is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth. According to First American Core Logic, some 20% of mortgages were underwater as of December 2008. The percentage varies greatly from state to state, with 55% of mortgages underwater in Nevada, but only 7% in New York. The homeowners who are underwater include not just those who purchased with little down payment, but also many people who put down the traditional 20 percent when they bought in 2005 or 2006, at the peak of the real estate bubble. According to Case-Shiller index data, house prices nationwide have fallen 27% (as of December) from their May 2006 peak. Some local markets have experienced more dramatic declines, highlighted by Phoenix’s 46% slide. Rental prices are now far below many homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments, and lots of underwater homeowners will have to make payments for years before they have some equity stake in their homes. Many of those homeowners would rather default and risk foreclosure. G&K’s op-ed includes this figure showing that defaults increase dramatically as homeowners sink further and further underwater. Given their current options, default is rational.
  • The mortgage lender faces heavy losses if the home enters foreclosure. According to G&K, ”the subprime bond market now trades as if it expects only 25 percent back on a loan when there is a foreclosure.”
  • The servicer also is at risk. According to G&K, the servicer is obligated to continue paying the lender its monthly payment even if the borrower is in default. That obligation only lifts at foreclosure.

Because of the servicer’s obligation, the servicer has strong incentive to push for quick foreclosure. However, the homeowner and the mortgage lender would likely benefit from a loan modification — even a significant write-down of principal — because that would keep the homeowner in his house and it would deliver a better return to the lender than the 75% loss from foreclosure. G&K thus argue that government, instead of continuing to bail out the banking industry and struggling homeowners (and putting taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars), should simply require that the lenders write down the mortgage principal.

But is government action needed? Couldn’t some private actors accomplish the same thing — and make some serious scratch in the process?

A financial wizard with sufficient backing could approach a troubled lender and offer, say, 50% of the original loan amount in order to take some of the toxic mortgages off the lender’s hands. Now, the lender won’t be happy with selling at a 50% loss, but that certainly beats a 75% loss, so the lender would grudgingly agree. The financial wizard would then approach the homeowner and offer to write down the mortgage principal to, say, 60% on condition that the homeowner purchase mortgage insurance. The homeowner should jump at the offer because it would put him back above water, purchasing a home that’s worth more than its debt. Finally, the financial wizard would get the servicer to release its control over the loan, because the servicer would want to be freed from the risk of having to cover the payments to the lender. The financial wizard would then pocket a cool 10% of the original mortgage’s value.

That is not chump change. G&K estimate some 8 million homes could be foreclosed upon in the coming years. Assume the original mortgage on each of those houses is $199,025 (95% of the median sale price of new U.S. homes in January 2004, about halfway up the bubble); that 10% would represent almost $160 billion.

Of course, if the bank proves recalcitrant and demands more than 50%, or the homeowner demands a write-down of more than 40% or he’ll walk away, that would cut into the profits. And the financial wizard would have to cover his costs and possible risk premiums. Still, at least in theory, there would seem to be a significant pile of money on the table.

So why isn’t this happening? Are there no money-loving financial wizards out there?

To some extent, they are. Last week, the NYT reported that some former Countrywide executives have formed a firm called PennyMac that, with financial backing from hedge funds and other investors, purchases toxic mortgages from insolvent banks at low prices, modifies the loans to increase homeowners’ likelihood of making payments, and profits from the rekindled mortgage revenue stream. In the particular case reported in the NYT, PennyMac paid 38 cents on the dollar. But PennyMac seems like very small potatoes compared to the $160 billion that may be on the table. And the banks were forced to sell the loans because they had been taken over by the FDIC.

So why aren’t there more firms doing what PennyMac is doing, or following the strategy that Peter and I have laid out above? And why aren’t banks lining up to offload their toxic mortgages (or to do the write-downs themselves and pocket the 10%)? Peter and I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. As G&K note in their op-ed, banks and other investors who’re currently saddled with toxic assets may be waiting for some form of government rescue that would enable them to recoup far more than the 50% or so that would be offered by our financial wizards.
  2. Banks are keeping bad mortgages on their books at values much higher than the 25 to 40 cents on the dollar observed in the rare sales of troubled assets, and so the banks are unwilling to sell the assets for 50 cents on the dollar. (Remember that PennyMac is purchasing assets from banks that have been taken over by the FDIC — in other words, these are forced sales.) The banks (and their managers) may strongly prefer to keep the assets on their books rather than sell them at a 50% loss.
  3. The transaction costs involved in this scheme (e.g., analyzing the toxic assets to determine which ones to buy, negotiating with the delinquent and at-risk homeowners) are prohibitively large.

Government can address (1) by committing not to bail out the investors. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how reliable that commitment would be, especially given government actions so far in this financial crisis.

Fixing (2) is difficult. Accounting rules could be changed to force the banks to lower their book values for bad mortgages, but it would be difficult to get that accounting change passed quickly. Besides, some accounting experts argue that, in stressful times, accounting rules should have more wiggle room rather than less.

As for (3), the PennyMac guys claim that the work is difficult. But c’mon, there could be a $160 billion payday for the guys who can figure it out.

So, come on you money-loving financial wizards: your country needs you!