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.