Counterparties: DeMarco’s principal principle

By Ben Walsh
April 11, 2012

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The most hotly debated cure for America’s gigantic and protracted foreclosure crisis is all about principal – or rather, principle. The idea behind principal reduction is straightforward: Instead of valuing a struggling borrower’s mortgage at its original value, you reduce the amount to something closer to the market value. That, the argument goes, lowers the borrower’s payments and makes him or her all the more likely to stay in that home.

The business press jumped yesterday when it seemed that Ed DeMarco, head of the FHFA (Federal Housing Finance Agency), the regulator that oversees Fannie and Freddie, seemed finally to change his principles on principal reduction. The American Banker this morning was rightly skeptical – DeMarco in fact only opened himself to discussing the topic. DeMarco’s argument against principal reductions is that they could trigger “strategic defaults.” Of course, this moral hazard argument is somewhat ironic coming from the regulator of taxpayer-owned Fannie and Freddie.

It’s unfortunate that DeMarco, who has taken a huge amount of criticism for his intransigence on mortgage modifications, trotted out this tired logic. Although calling him “America’s most dangerous man” is going a bit far, DeMarco’s speech (and accompanying presentation) was deeply disappointing in its focus on the bogeyman of “strategic modifiers”:

One factor that needs to be considered is the borrower incentive effects. That means, will some percentage of borrowers who are current on their loans, be encouraged to either claim a hardship or actually go delinquent to capture the benefits of principal forgiveness?

As Nick Timiraos points out, DeMarco’s model shows the taxpayer savings from principal reduction are lost if from 1 percent to 5 percent of homeowners who are underwater but not delinquent strategically default. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, however, says “the vast majority of homeowners don’t operate that way.”

After decades of Americans hearing the benefits of homeownership from all angles, it’s hard to believe that a Fannie-Freddie principal reduction program would lead to a wave of people defaulting. There’s some evidence that strategic default isn’t all that big a problem and may actually be declining. There’s even a whole genre of media profiles that chronicle just how difficult and painful it is for homeowners to decide to walk away from their homes.

But strategic defaults continue to scare DeMarco, just as they do Rick Santelli and Dick Bove. DeMarco’s tone is obviously different, but the vision of the American homeowner as the post-crisis welfare queen is the same.

It’s true that we don’t have good data to know precisely how homeowners will react to a principal reduction program at Fannie and Freddie. But if a principal reduction plan is, as DeMarco says it is, an argument about “which tools, at the margin” make a difference, why not give it a go? Bank of America, for one, is trying a variation of it.

It’s a strange day when a key regulator hews closer to the views of TV pundits than the Treasury Secretary. – Ben Walsh

And on to today’s links:

Rent-Seeking
Government-owned AIG is getting back into the real estate investing game – WSJ

Consider Yourself Warned
Subprime loans are back as lenders return to “business as usual” – NYT

Kafkaesque
Foreclosure record-keeping is so bad, BofA is repeatedly suing itself in Florida – HuffPost

EU Mess
German bond yields are at record lows – WSJ

Tax Arcana
How big company execs’ “personal safety perks” (read: corporate jets, etc.) become tax write-offs – NYT

Shock! There are more efficient ways for the government to collect taxes – NYT

Deals
What’s going on with Google’s $12 billion toy? – WSJ

Primary Sources
Full text: The DOJ’s e-book price-fixing suit against Apple, publishers – Reuters Legal

Publishers caught conspiring in “upscale Manhattan restaurant” – MoJo

Charts
Facebook may have gotten a major deal on Instagram (on a per-user basis) – Wired

Why banks aren’t lending more – Bonddad Blog

Scoops
Zimmerman to be charged in Trayvon Martin shooting – WashPost

Lessons
Austan Goolsbee wants you to learn from his mother’s “strategic toilet paper reserve” – WSJ

IPOs
Carlyle is seeking an IPO as big as $8 billion – Bloomberg

Politicking
There is a penny lobby. And it is powerful – Fortune

As If You Needed To Ask
“Are people finally getting bored with the tech-blog circle jerk?” – SF Weekly

Oxpeckers
Just four jobs are worse than being a newspaper reporter – Poynter

Dismal Science
There’s no “invisible hand” of the market. Please update your records – Harvard Business Review

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