Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has just released a new housing plan for dealing with the mortgage crisis by refinancing underwater mortgages titled "The 4% Mortgage: Rebuilding American Homeownership." This plan would create a Rebuilding American Homeownership (RAH) Trust, modeled after the HOLC plan in the Great Depression. It would buy out underwater mortgages for three years, then wind down while managing its mortgage portfolio. Underwater mortgages would have three payment options, including a 15-year 4 percent interest rate plan to help rebuild equity, a 30-year 5 percent plan like a standard mortgage, and a two-part plan that splits the loan into a first mortgage equal to 95 percent of the home's current value and a "soft second" for the rest. Here are links to the summary, the full plan and a YouTube video introduction.
I think it is a great plan. Felix Salmon is also a "huge fan" of the plan and has a description of several of the positive features. Many will probably react to it like Matt Yglesias, who, after discussing the positive parts of the plan, notes that the "chances of Congress actually doing this are slim to none."
But what if this plan didn't need Congress? What if the Executive Branch could do this right now, on its own?
There is interest is moving forward. Senator Merkley told David Dayen that he was hoping that "pilot programs for RAH operating in several states between now and the end of the year." Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that he'd be willing to try to "find legal authority and resources to -- to test [the RAH] on a pilot basis."
The report notes three potential homes for the plan: (1) FHA, (2) Federal Home Loan Banks system, or (3) the Federal Reserve. Of those, FHA seems like a potential place to launch the plan immediately. As the report mentions, "FHA already implements the FHA Short Refi program as one of the government's foreclosure prevention programs." What if the administration took the FHA Short Refi program and replaced it with what is needed to run the RAH? To launch this right away by replacing FHA Short Refi with the Merkley plan you'd need authority and cash, and FHA Short Refi has both.
Why does FHA Short Refi have the authority to implement this plan? FHA Short Refi plan is a part of TARP designed to deal with the housing crisis by modifying underwater mortgages. When Dodd-Frank passed in July 2010, special language was put in to limit the creation of new programs or initiatives under TARP. However, this project exists as part of that already-existing housing priority, and those programs can be modified. These programs are modified all the time to try to make them work better. HAMP, for instance, was modified earlier this year.
FHA Short Refi was designed to "enable lenders to provide additional refinancing options to homeowners who owe more than their home is worth." So it looks like it has the authority to act and change its mission structure from Short Refi to the Merkley plan, provided that Treasury's lawyers (I believe) approve of the changes.
FHA Short Refi also has money. According to SIGTARP's quarterly report to Congress from July 2012, Treasury had allocated $8.1 billion for FHA Short Refinance.
How many mortgages have been modified under the FHA Short Refi program since it started? "As of June 30, 2012, there have been 1,437 refinancings under the program." Less than 1,500 mortgages in the country have gone through this program. How much money has been spent? "Treasury has pre-funded a reserve account with $50 million to pay future claims and spent $6.6 million on administrative expenses." Less than $57 million dollars. Given $8.1 billion dollars to spend on helping the housing market, less than 0.7 percent of it has been allocated, impacting less than 1,500 people.
That's a bit mind-boggling, but the failure of FHA Short Refi to either impact homeowners, help the economy or use its resources could be the genesis for the success of the RAH. FHA can provide the baseline funding for the part of the mortgage that isn't underwater, while the additional resources necessary to ensure the additional funding for the underwater part of the mortgage can come from this FHA Short Refi. That $8 billion could be used to insure the other part of the mortgages involved, which would then be sold off in a new bond. Amplified in this way, that $8 billion dollars could be used to backstop tens of billions of dollars of new mortgages.
At that point funding would end, but we'd have a sense if it was working or not. And if that $8 billion can insure $100 billion dollars worth of underwater debt, between 10 and 18 percent of underwater debt could be refinanced. If it is successful, there will both be a good empirical argument for continuing with additional funding and a political coalition of other underwater homeowners who would want to participate. If it is a failure, then it is a good opportunity to end it right there.
With that in mind, it might be useful to remind ourselves why this plan is important as an economic matter. Most of the recent research finds that underwater mortgage debt is strongly linked with weak consumption, high unemployment, and sluggish wage growth - our economy is stuck in a "balance-sheet recession." The blockage of prepayment has created a windfall for creditors in a weak economy with low interest rates; as Felix Salmon notes "the CBO is saying that if we paid off current bondholders at 100 cents on the dollar, they would lose as much as $15 billion...They’re basically taking unfair advantage of the fact that homeowners are locked into above-market mortgage rates" and can't prepay or refinance their mortgages.
Beyond creating a hangover effect on aggregate demand and basic unfairness, underwater mortgages also blunt the ability of monetary policy to do its full job. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke believes this is happening. Here's Bernanke at a press conference from last November:
One area where monetary policy has been blunted, the effects have been blunted, has been the mortgage market where very tight credit standards have prevented many people from purchasing or refinancing their homes and therefore the low mortgage rates that we’ve achieved have not been as effective as we had hoped. So, monetary policy maybe is somewhat less powerful in the current context than it has been in the past but nevertheless it is affecting economic growth and job creation.
That’s Fed speak for underwater mortgage refinancing being a major boom to boosting demand, which helps the economy as a whole, even people who have no mortgage or debt but are stuck in a terrible jobs market. Given how interested the Federal Reserve is in this blocked channel for the efficiency of monetary policy, I hope they are considering how they can play a role in this.
All in all, Merkley has put together an excellent plan and I believe we have the means to do it. It provides new stimulus while amplifying already existing monetary stimulus, plus it contains a measure of fairness between creditors and everyone else. When can we start?