Commentary

Assessing the President’s Mortgage Plan

The president’s new mortgage-relief plan contains clever elements that might indeed help homeowners. However, the superfluous threat of inviting judges to rewrite contracts must dilute the collateral behind troubled mortgage-backed securities. That, in turn, would jeopardize the endangered capital of banks, pension funds and other holders of such securities, including the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The simplest yet arguably most potent part of the strategy is the plan to allow Fannie and Freddie to refinance conforming loans (up to $729,750) without the quaint requirement that the refinanced loan be no larger than 80% of the value of the house. This change provides access to today’s low mortgage rates even to “underwater” borrowers — those who owe more that their houses are worth. Although such borrowers have no skin in the game, President Obama assumes or hopes that their reduced payments will result in fewer defaults.

A second part of the plan provides standardized rules for modifying mortgages (obligatory for banks that accepted Troubled Asset Relief Program money). Participating lenders would first have to cut interest rates sufficiently to limit mortgage payments to 38% of gross income — something more likely for those now paying 39%-40% than for those paying much more. The government would then match further interest-rate reductions to push mortgage payments all the way down to 31% of pretax income. In order to cut mortgage payments to 31% from 38%, $75 billion in taxpayer subsidies will be available to lenders to cover half the cost. Some will pay more in taxes so that others can pay less for housing. This is redistribution based on debt rather than income.

The plan also provides small bribes to mortgage servicers and borrowers for every assisted borrower who does not end up defaulting again (a big problem with past loan modification schemes). Treasury would also establish an insurance fund to protect participating lenders if house prices fell further.

Subsidizing select mortgages poses a fundamental rationing problem: Demand for subsidies rises to meet the available supply. If Joe and Sally get federal subsidies to cut their mortgage payments to 31% of their income, their neighbors will want subsidies too. To keep the expenses from ballooning well beyond $75 billion, there may have to be stern but arbitrary “means testing” to decide who is most deserving of a taxpayer-supported mortgage. And that will likely provoke resentment about how winners and losers are picked.

The third part of the plan is to get Fannie and Freddie to buy more mortgages with the hope of keeping mortgage rates down. Never mind that both organizations were considered insolvent last fall, when they held far fewer dubious IOUs than they do now. The plan instructs the Treasury — which is also getting skeptical reviews from Moody’s — to invest another $200 billion in Fannie and Freddie preferred shares.

Last and least helpful, the president’s proposed “cramdown” would “allow judicial modification of home mortgages for borrowers who have run out of options.” That would require federal legislation, and Congress would be well advised to put that plan aside in order to give the president’s new options a fair chance.

Any plan that compels mortgage holders to reduce the amount of money they are owed must in turn reduce the value of mortgage-backed securities held by banks, insurance companies, pension funds, Fannie and Freddie, and the Fed. By injuring the balance sheets of potential lenders, a cramdown would also injure potential borrowers.

The needless threat of inviting judges to rewrite mortgage contracts at whim helps explain why bank stocks generally fell on the plan’s announcement, while financial shorts rose.

In sum, allowing conforming loans to be refinanced without a big equity position seems promising. Trying to bribe lenders to trim monthly mortgage bills to 31% of income would help those lucky enough to get in on the deal before the money runs out. But all of this potential good could be undone by the systemic risks to mortgage-backed securities caused by the unpredictable legal risks of a judicial cramdown.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of Income and Wealth.