April 01, 2009

Is the Mortgage Crisis Being Solved?

After the American Century

According to the Financial Times, in the United States more than one out of every nine homeowners (11.9%) is in trouble with mortgage payments. This is the personal side of the larger banking crisis. If these millions of homeowners go down, the rest of the economy goes with them.

For those who are confused about the Obama plan to refinance American banks, there is an excellent short article in the New York Times by a Nobel Prize winning economist to explain things. In it, Joseph Stiegltiz argues that what the Obama team is doing is (Step one) to separate profitable assets from unprofitable ones and then (Step two) agreeing to protect investors from losses on those that are unprofitable. This might sound good, but in practice it will mean that US taxpayers will definitely lose while the bankers who over-leveraged their investments will be protected. For more details, see his article.

Stieglitz argues that nationalization of the banks would be cheaper and preferable. I think he is right. The Obama solution seems to be a case where American laissez-faire ideology has gotten in the way of common sense. In order to protect the "free market" this rescue plan makes sure that there is no free market, for if there were one, then many banks would collapse or be taken over by the FDIC, which insures the ordinary citizens' deposits.

I am missing something? What is so wrong with letting the free market decide which banks live or die, with the government taking over those that die, running them for a little while, and then selling them as soon as possible? This is what the government has been doing for years, after all.

For millions of Americans the problem is quite personal. In February, there were 290,631 legal foreclosures, an increase over January. Assuming an average family size of a bit less than 4, that means one million people lost their homes. About 300,000 of these people are in California. The hardest hit state appears to be Nevada, where one out of every seven houses has been foreclosed in just one month!

Yet often the problem is worse, because sometimes the bank refuses to foreclose on people who cannot afford to pay. In other words, they are abandoning foreclosures. Such banks have begun foreclosure proceedings, meaning that people are told to move out, only for the bank to discover that the legal costs are so great that the value of the building does not warrant the effort. So, the owners, having been evicted, suddenly find that they still own the empty property even though they cannot afford it. Often this news comes in the form of a letter demanding real estate taxes. It gets worse. Empty, low value (often inner-city) properties are often vandalized, and become uninhabitable. This drives down the value of adjacent properties and hurts the already weak market.

Banks that initiate foreclosure and then do not follow through leave property in limbo and people on the street. Do such banks deserve to live? Are they not community destroyers who act irresponsibly?

In other words, the situation is even worse than the statistics suggest. In the end, who cares about the banks? The homeowners should be the government's absolute top priority.