Regulations vs. Rate Cuts

A set of stories in International Tax Review today illustrate the backwards nature of U.S. corporate tax policy. The first story discusses the high-profile chest-thumping in Washington over corporate “tax haven abuse.” The congressional response to greater international tax competition is to load even more regulations on American businesses.

The second story is entitled “Taiwan Slashes Corporate Tax Rate”:

Taiwan’s government has approved plans to cut the country’s corporate tax rate from 25% to 20%. Ministers hope the cut will encourage investment in the country and stimulate growth in the economy…

America is in the worst recession in decades and it desperately needs to cut its 40 percent corporate tax rate to reinvigorate business investment. Why are U.S. policymakers so clueless about the most obvious way to spur investment when that policy imperative is clear to leaders just about everywhere else?

National-ID-Backing Intel Chief Steps Down

No sooner had I posted here about Chas Freeman’s support for a national ID than he withdrew his candidacy to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

With a number of controversies roiling, the national ID issue may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back of Freeman’s aspirations to the intelligence post. Indeed, it may have been the mighty power of this blog, the acid keyboard of yours truly, that served as the catalyst … maybe.

Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators…and Pork

I’m sympathetic to the oft-repeated saying that there are really three parties in Washington: Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators.  This situation is likely to be demonstrated this evening when Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee provide enough votes for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid to close off debate and proceed to final passage of the pork-laden $410 billion fy2009 omnibus appropriations bill.

Greasing the skids for bigger government will be almost $8 billion in earmarks contained in the bill.  Fox News is pointing out that almost all of the Republican Senators expected or likely to support the Democratic measure stand to deliver quite a bit of pork to constituents and special interests.  Not coincidentally, all of the senators named, except Sen. Snowe of Maine, are appropriators.  As a matter of fact, if you look at the top 20 senators (both parties) in terms of dollars of earmarks secured for this bill, 15 are appropriators.

Bottom line: Appropriators love spending and they particularly love pork.  Sen. Snowe just likes the government spending other people’s money.

**Update: Cloture was invoked on a 62-35 vote and the legislation subsequently passed by voice vote.  Every single Democratic member of the Senate Appropriation Committee voted for cloture.  Republican appropriators Sens. Cochran, Specter, Bond, Shelby, Alexander, and Murkowski voted yes; Sens. McConnell, Gregg, Bennett, Hutchison, Brownback, Collins, and Voinovich voted no.  Thus, without the support of these Republican appropriators, the bill would have been effectively killed.  Of the top 20 recipients of earmarks in the bill, only 2 – Sens. Inhofe and McConnell – voted no.

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!

The Early-Ed Big Lie

In a speech on education this morning at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Obama repeats questionable statistics in support of his bid to expand the government’s monopoly on education back to the womb, asserting that “$1 of early education leads to $10 in saved social services.”

Unfortunately he’s referring to small-scale programs that involved extensive and often intensive total-family intervention rather than simple “early education.”

In contrast to the– real-world school choice programs have been tested extensively with solid, random-assignment studies. Nine out of ten of these studies find statistically significant improvement in academic achievement for at least one subgroup.

Obama should follow the scientific evidence on what works in education; school choice, not “early education.”

Homeless Scare Numbers

The National Center on Family Homelessness has generated headlines today by releasing a report that claims “one in 50 children is homeless in the United States every year.” That would be a total of 1.5 million homeless children, a truly shocking figure. The number is all the more shocking because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says there actually only 671,000 people were homeless in 2007 (the last year for which data is available), of which only about 249,000 were people in families. Assuming even one adult per family would mean there were around 166,000 homeless children, far too many, but also far fewer than 1.5 million.

What accounts for the discrepancy? First, the National Center uses an incredibly broad definition of homeless. For example, in addition to those we usually think of as homeless (those living in shelters or on the streets), they also include people “Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.” Under this definition, when your out-of-work in-law crashes on your couch, he’s homeless. The National Center also includes people “living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds,” children awaiting foster care placement, and children of migratory farm workers. And, a child needs only to fall into one of these categories for a single day to qualify as homeless.

Second, this study, like the HUD study as well, are not actual counts of the homeless, but estimates and extrapolations based on reports by various government agencies. The Census Bureau does attempt to do an actual head count of the homeless (170,000 in 2000), but that estimate is both out-of-date and generally criticized as an undercount. Still, going from that estimate to 1.5 million homeless children seems quite a stretch.

Homelessness is clearly a problem, and for the children involved, a tragedy, but scare headlines are a poor substitute for thoughtful public policy.

Obama Intel Chief Sought National ID?

While Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have written a letter objecting to the experience level of National Intelligence Council Chairman Chas Freeman, Ashley Rindsberg at the Huffington Post reveals that Freeman advocated creating a national identity system in the US as a part of the “war on terror.”

During a 9/11 Commission interview, Freeman remarked that of three major changes the US government should make to effectively combat terror, one was that “the United States should implement a national identity system, so we better know who is who.”

Seems Freeman lost track of why we have intelligence and security - to preserve our freedoms. We don’t abandon our freedoms to preserve our intelligence. Not that a national ID would help with that … .