To Fix Housing, See the Data
By JOE NOCERA
Published: November 4, 2011
The idea of helping struggling homeowners by writing down some principal on their mortgages — as opposed to reducing the interest or reconfiguring the terms to lower the monthly payments — is much in the air right now. Banks loathe the idea of principal reduction; they fear that people who are current on their mortgages will start defaulting just to get their principal reduced. They also don’t want the hit to their balance sheets.
But the states’ attorneys general who sued over the robo-signing scandal have made principal reduction the central plank of the settlement they are close to completing. The settlement will force the big banks to begin a sustained program of principal reduction, and will heavily penalize banks that don’t comply. From what I hear, the goal of the states is to prove to the banks that principal reduction will not cause the sky to fall — and is, ultimately, less damaging to bank profits than foreclosures.
Housing activists love principal reduction because they tend to see it as a just solution to an unjust situation — it’s a way of making the banks pay a real price for their sins during the subprime madness while allowing people to keep their homes. Conservatives, on the other hand, hate principal reduction. They believe that borrowers who made poor decisions by taking out mortgages they could never afford have to take responsibility for those decisions. If that means foreclosure, so be it.
Enter Laurie Goodman. One of the country’s foremost authorities on mortgage-backed securities, she is also one of the most data-driven people I’ve ever met; at breakfast, she was constantly pointing me to one chart or another that backed up her claims. “She’s not into politics,” says my friend, and her client, Daniel Alpert of Westwood Capital. “She is using data to tell us the truth.”
Her truth begins with a shocking calculation: of the 55 million mortgages in America, more than 10 million are reasonably likely to default. That is a staggering number — and it is, in large part, because so many homes are worth so much less than the mortgage the homeowners are holding. That is, they’re underwater.
Her second calculation is that the supply of housing is going to drastically outstrip demand for the foreseeable future; she estimates that the glut of unneeded homes could get as high as 6.2 million over the next six years. The primary reason for this, she says, is that household formation has been very low in recent years, presumably because of the grim economy. (Young adults are living with their parents instead of moving into their own homes, etc.) What’s more, nearly 20 percent of current homeowners no longer qualify for a mortgage, as lending standards have tightened.
The implication is almost too awful to contemplate. As Goodman put it in testimony she recently gave before Congress, the supply/demand imbalance means that housing prices “are likely to decline further. This may recreate the housing death spiral — as lower housing prices mean more borrowers become underwater.” Which makes them more likely to default, which lowers prices further, and on and on.
The only way to stop the death spiral is through principal reduction. The reason is simple: “The data show that principal modifications work better” than other kinds of modifications, she says. Interest rate reductions can lower monthly payments, but the home remains just as underwater as it was before the modification. And the extent to which a home is underwater is the single best indicator of whether the homeowner will default. The only way to change the imbalance between the size of the mortgage and the value of the home is to reduce principal.
Will widespread principal reduction cause homeowners to purposely default on their mortgages? Goodman has some ideas about how to reduce that likelihood, but she is also realistic: “A borrower will make a decision to default if it is in his or her best interest.”
One wishes that the country could make economic decisions that are in its best interest, decisions that use Laurie Goodman’s data-driven approach instead of being motivated by ideology. Goodman’s case for principal reduction is powerful precisely because it is not about just or unjust, or who’s to blame and who’s at fault.
It is about cold, hard economics. Three years after the bursting of the subprime bubble, principal reduction isn’t just a nice-sounding way to help homeowners. It is our only hope of finally ending the housing crisis.