Unstructured Finance

Will FHFA opposition to principal reductions boost eminent domain efforts?

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

There’s nothing surprising about FHFA head Ed DeMarco’s decision to nix the idea of writing down some of the debt owed by cash-strapped homeowners on mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. DeMarco, whose agency regulates Fannie and Freddie, has been a consistent opponent of principal reductions–something we pointed out last October in our story on the need for a “great haircut” on consumer loans and including student and mortgage debt to stimulate the economy.

But DeMarco’s renewed opposition comes at a time that there is a growing consensus that something needs to be done on the housing front to get the U.S. economy going, as opposed to simply churning along at the current anemic rate of growth. More and more economists are saying that reducing mortgage debt will not only reduce foreclosures, it will give ordinary Americans more money to spend on goods and services.

It doesn’t take an MBA from Harvard to know that when people have spending power it translates into more demand and that usually prompts employers to hire more people to fill that demand.

DeMarco’s opposition also comes at a time that some local government officials in communities hit hardest by the housing crisis are toying with ideas that once seemed too controversial to imagine. We’re, of course, talking about the idea of using eminent domain to seize and restructure underwater mortgages–something we first reported on in early June. (Sorry, Matt Taibbi, we had the story first).

Mortgage Resolution Partners, the investment firm that is pushing the idea of eminent domain as a mortgage fix, is only talking about seizing home loans held in private labeled mortgage-backed securities.  The firm is deliberately avoiding MBS issued by Fannie and Freddie possibly because of DeMarco’s opposition to principal reductions. MRP’s focus on private label MBS has earned the wrath of many mortgage bond investor trade groups.

The eminent domain brush fire

By Matthew Goldstein

It didn’t take long for the powerful voices on Wall Street to rise up in protest over an intriguing and controversial idea to condemn distressed mortgages through local government’s power of eminent domain.

Two weeks after Jenn Ablan and I first reported that officials in San Bernardino County, Calif. were giving serious consideration to the novel idea being pushed by financier-backed Mortgage Resolution Partners, 18 financial trade groups are voicing strong objections. The groups, led by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, are concerned that if local governments can seize underwater mortgages it might discourage bank lending. Why? The argument is that if it can happen now, who knows when local governments might move to condemn mortgages again–crisis or not.

The unified opposition may make it difficult for Mortgage Resolution Partners, which says it is talking to public officials in Nevada, Florida and on Capitol Hill, to get much traction for its plan outside of San Bernardino. And if San Bernardino County goes forward with using private money to buy-up underwater mortgages held by banks and in mortgage-backed securities, a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit challenging the legality of the measure seems more than likely.

Mr. Geithner and the politics of condemnation

Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

The idea of using eminent domain to help out homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages isn’t necessarily a new one.

Two years ago, a group of congressional leaders led by Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina wrote to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner recommending that the federal government consider buying underwater mortgages to stem the flood of home foreclosures. The Democratic congressman got two dozen of his colleagues to sign onto the proposal, which Geithner gave a pretty cool response to.

In a May 7, 2010 letter to the U.S. lawmakers, Geithner said the proposal had too many hurdles to be seriously considered. The Treasury secretary said eminent domain is a “complex and lengthy” proceeding. And he worried about the difficulty of  buying “mortgages out of the trusts and other securitization vehicles that own and control a substantial share of mortgage debt.”

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