Tim Geithner’s principal hypocrisy
Last week the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Ed DeMarco, made a familiar argument. He announced that he would not approve the Obama administration’s request that struggling borrowers whose mortgages are backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac receive debt relief through principal reductions subsidized by the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). DeMarco’s refusal was based on his concern that granting such relief would encourage other borrowers to “strategically default” by not making payments on their loan to take advantage of the promise of a reduction in their debt. This is a version of the moral hazard argument we heard about so often in the early days of the financial crisis. Secretary Geithner, in response, argued in a public letter that notwithstanding such concerns, and for the greater good of the overall economy, such relief should be granted whenever it would result in a better economic outcome than foreclosure.
This is not the first time this debate is happening – but last time around, Geithner was the one arguing DeMarco’s points. Although one can argue whether principal reductions are the right way to address the ongoing housing slump – I have championed principal reductions for years but acknowledge that there are passionate arguments on both sides of the issue – no one should be fooled that the administration’s entreaties to DeMarco are anything but political posturing. As I recount in my recently released book, Bailout, during my time as the special inspector general in charge of oversight of the TARP bailouts, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, using the same justifications now offered by DeMarco, consistently blocked efforts to use TARP funds already designated for homeowner relief through a principal reduction program that could have a meaningful impact on the overall economy.
For example, in 2009, $50 billion in TARP funds had been committed to help homeowners through the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), a program that the president announced was intended to help up to 4 million struggling families stay in their homes through sustainable mortgage modifications. Hundreds of billions more were still available and could have been used by the White House and the Treasury Department to help support a massive reduction in mortgage debt. But Geithner avoided this path to a housing recovery, explaining that he believed it would be “dramatically more expensive for the American taxpayer, harder to justify, [and] create much greater risk of unfairness.” Treasury amplified that argument in 2010, after it reluctantly instituted a weak principal reduction program in response to overwhelming congressional pressure. That program incongruously left it to the largely bank-owned mortgage servicers (and to Fannie and Freddie) to determine if such relief would be implemented. In response to our criticism that the conflicts of interest baked into the program would render it ineffective unless principal reduction was made mandatory (when in the best interests of the holder of the loan), Treasury reinforced Geithner’s early statements, refusing to do so primarily because of fears of a lurking danger: the ”moral hazard of strategic default.” The message was clear: No way, no how would Treasury require principal reduction, even when Treasury’s analysis indicated it would be in the best interest of the owner, investor or guarantor of the mortgage.
Indeed, at every critical juncture at which Treasury could have unilaterally implemented meaningful principal reduction, the same argument now presented by DeMarco was hauled out as an excuse for inaction.
Which is why it should not be surprising that rather than engage in bold action, such as replacing DeMarco with a recess appointment, the administration has responded with only a letter that seems primarily intended to distract attention from its own failed policies. The truth is that the administration – whether through principal reduction or otherwise – has never prioritized coming up with an effective approach to helping homeowners and reviving the housing market, even when it had a multi-hundred-billion-dollar TARP war chest at its disposal.
By late 2009, it was becoming apparent that HAMP would never come close to its stated goals. The program was designed poorly, and Treasury refused to hold the banks accountable for the abuses to which they subjected homeowners in the program. In one meeting I attended, after Secretary Geithner was pressed about the flaws in the HAMP program, he justified Treasury’s actions by explaining that the program would “foam the runway” for the banks by extending out the foreclosure crisis over time. In other words, Treasury was far more concerned with using HAMP to soften the blow of the housing crisis for the banks – just as the FAA once recommended spreading protective foam over a landing strip to prevent a disastrous crash of a malfunctioning airplane – than with helping millions of struggling homeowners. Now, three years later, with a tightening presidential election and a Democratic base disillusioned by the government’s abandonment of its promise to help homeowners (less than 8 percent of the funds originally allocated in TARP for foreclosure relief has actually been spent), Geithner and the administration would like to present themselves as having undergone a conversion.
Let’s be very clear about what is going on here. This is not a conversion – it is a political convenience. Geithner may well be correct when he wrote in a letter to DeMarco that an effective principal reduction program would “help repair the nation’s housing market” and that the refusal to do so is not “in the best interest of the nation,” but it is his own policies that are primarily to blame for where we are today.
As we enter the final phase of the election campaign, we need to end the meaningless political posturing and recognize that as a country we have severely mishandled the housing crisis. It may be a fair debate whether we should have gone with the “all in” approach that I and others have advocated or the “do nothing and let the market find its natural bottom” approach advocated by many conservatives. There should, though, be little question that the chosen policy – a “foam the runway” approach that assisted the banks and only a fraction of the homeowners that could have benefited – has been a failure and has left us stuck in economic mediocrity. Geithner wrote this week to Demarco: “You have the power to help more struggling homeowners and help heal the remaining damage from the housing crisis.” If only he had heeded his own advice.
PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks during a panel discussion hosted by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council titled “The U.S. and World Economies: An Overview” in Los Angeles, California July 31, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni