Ed DeMarco’s obstructionism

By Felix Salmon
November 16, 2011

Representative John Tierney of Massachusetts is one of those politicians whose questions tend to be substantially longer than the answers they elicit. But that doesn’t mean the questions, pared to their essence, aren’t good ones. Here he is grilling FHFA head Ed DeMarco, asking why he’s refusing to consider principal reductions on mortgages.

DeMarco’s answers come at 2:15 and 4:50. He starts off quite explicitly:

We have been through the analytics of the underwater borrowers at Fannie and Freddie, and looked at the foreclosure alternative programs that are available, and we have concluded that the use of principal reduction within the context of a loan modification is not going to be the least-cost approach for the taxpayer.

Later on, he agrees to furnish Congress with these analytics: I, for one, would love to see them. There are two ways that you can come to this conclusion, and I suspect that the analysis uses both. First, you can try to maximize the probability that underwater borrowers will continue to make payments after a loan modification, rather than simply strategically walking away; and secondly, you can maximize the probability that borrowers who are current on their mortgages will strategically default if they think they can get a principal reduction by doing so.

At heart, what any lender needs to do with regard to any given loan in default is make a choice. You can modify it in any number of different ways, some involving principal modification. Or, you can just foreclose. You know, pretty much, what the costs of foreclosure are — and they tend to be enormous. So there’s a good case for modifying the loan, if the present value of the modified loan payments is decent. But in order to calculate that present value, you need to have a handle on the probability of a redefault. The lower the redefault probability, the more attractive a modification is to the lender. The higher the probability of a redefault, the more likely it is that you’d be better off simply foreclosing now.

Now here’s Tierney’s point: redefault rates are significantly lower when you do a principal reduction than they are when you don’t. It stands to reason: if you have equity in your house, you’re going to want to keep that equity. If you have negative equity in your house, not so much. As a result, principal reductions reduce redefault rates, and are a good way of maximizing the value of a loan.

In order to demonstrate that Tierney is wrong, then, DeMarco is likely to attempt to show that redefault rates don’t drop very much if you do a principal reduction. I think that’s going to be hard, not least because we haven’t had much in the way of principal reductions, so the data on redefault rates is going to be pretty thin.

And then there’s the second leg of the argument DeMarco has to make, which is even harder to get good data on. It’s the moral hazard problem: if you start doing principal reductions, everybody’s going to want one — even people who are current on their mortgage right now. And you don’t want to do anything which will give people an incentive to default, just so that they can get their mortgage modified.

Again, however, the argument here is a relative one. Any kind of modification program, at the margin, is going to provide an incentive to default. So DeMarco is going to have to demonstrate that people are more likely to strategically default the minute a principal-reduction program gets implemented. And I can’t imagine where he could possibly find the data to support that conclusion.

It’s worth noting that DeMarco made neither of these arguments in his answers to Tierney. Instead, he started attacking straw men:

I do not believe that I’ve been appropriated taxpayer funds for the purpose of providing general support to the housing market…

I believe that the decisions that we’ve made with regard to principal forgiveness are consistent with our statutory mandate… I do not believe I’ve been authorized to use taxpayer money for a general program of principal forgiveness.

Tierney was not asking DeMarco to provide “general support to the housing market”. He was not saying that DeMarco’s actions to date were somehow illegal. And he certainly wasn’t suggesting that DeMarco use taxpayer money for a general program of principal forgiveness.

In fact, he wasn’t suggesting that DeMarco use taxpayer money for anything at all. He was suggesting, instead, that DeMarco would save taxpayer money if he did principal reductions on certain mortgages. And he rattled off a long list of private-sector lenders who are doing just that, which suggests that there’s definitely a profit motive in there somewhere.

Obviously, no one’s suggesting that the FHFA start doing principal reductions across the board for all mortgages: Tierney’s only suggesting that DeMarco allow such things where it makes financial sense to do so. That’s a no-brainer; what’s weird is DeMarco’s certainty that it never makes financial sense to do so. Fannie and Freddie own a lot of mortgages; surely a few of them, at least, are good candidates for principal reduction — especially ones where the home is worth half or less the amount of the mortgage.

DeMarco does have one other alternative — he could just come clean and be honest. In which case he’d say something like this:

“We’re keeping millions of underwater mortgages on our books at par. We know they’re not worth 100 cents on the dollar, and so do you. But our accounting conventions allow us to pretend that they are worth that much, and as a result we’re managing to kid ourselves that our assets are worth a lot more than they really are. If we modify the loans while keeping the principal amounts constant, we can continue to carry those loans on our books at par. But if we do principal reductions, the accounting conventions finally grow some teeth, and we’re forced to take a write-down. Since we don’t want to recognize reality and take that write-down, we’re simply going to avoid doing principal reductions instead.”

Since it seems to be impossible for anybody to remove DeMarco from his supposedly interim position, he might as well come out and say this. After all, no one seems to be capable of firing him, no matter what he says.

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