Mortgage refinance doesn’t belong in the settlement talks

By Felix Salmon
October 18, 2011
WSJ has the latest mortgage-settlement trial balloon, and it's pretty weak tea.

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The WSJ has the latest mortgage-settlement trial balloon, and it’s pretty weak tea: under the terms of the deal, if (a) you’re underwater on your mortgage, and (b) you’re current on your mortgage payments, and (c) your mortgage is owned by the bank outright, rather than having been securitized, then you would be given the opportunity to refinance your mortgage at prevailing market rates.

It’s worth remembering, at this point, that mortgages are by their nature prepayable. When you write a fixed-rate mortgage, you make a general assumption that if mortgage rates fall substantially, the borrower is going to pay you off and refinance. The underwater questions we’re talking about here were written during the housing boom, when banks simply assumed that house prices always went up; those banks cared massively about prepayment risk at the time, and spent huge amounts of money and effort trying to hedge it.

As it happened, mortgage rates did fall substantially — with the result that the banks’ hedges paid off. But then the banks realized that they could make money on both legs of the deal — that they could collect on their mortgage-rate hedges, without having to worry about prepayment. Because now the borrowers are underwater, they’re not allowed to refinance. So the banks continue to cash above-market mortgage payments every month — something they never expected that they would be able to do.

Naturally, they’re clinging on to this undeserved income stream for dear life:

The refinance program would be particularly costly for banks because they would be forced to give up expected interest income on loans for which borrowers are current on their loan payments and, given their payment histories, unlikely to default. Banks can’t reduce rates on loans they don’t own because the result would be a net loss to the investor.

“Nine months ago this would have been inconceivable,” said one person familiar with the banks’ thinking.

Well no, it’s not inconceivable at all. In fact, wholesale mortgage refinance for underwater borrowers is a major part of Barack Obama’s jobs bill, and the CBO has been costing it in various ways. At heart, it’s a way of rectifying a market failure, and thus makes perfect sense.

But that’s precisely why I don’t think that this plan deserves a place in the mortgage-settlement talks. For one thing, it’s downright unfair and invidious to allow 20% of underwater homeowners to refinance while ignoring the other 80%. More to the point, giving homeowners the ability to refinance their mortgages is what you do, if you’re a bank. It’s not some kind of gruesome punishment.

So let’s keep mortgage-refinance proposals in the arena of public policy, where they belong, and where they can be implemented universally rather than piecemeal. And let’s keep holding the banks’ feet to the fire in the mortgage-settlement talks, and try to get something much more substantive out of them than this.

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