Mortgages, Foreclosures, and the Obama Administration, Revisited

How screwed up are things in Mortgage Land just now? In a Florida dispute over a house in foreclosure, Wells Fargo is suing itself. Apparently, the bank holds both the first and second mortgages. Acting as the first mortgage holder, it is suing all the other lien holders, itself included. They’ve hired two Upsidedown House attrb Stopmangohome different law firms and Wells Fargo (defendant) is disputing the claims of Wells Fargo (plaintiff). What’s really screwed up is that everybody involved seems to think that this is normal.

Nationwide, the tidal wave of foreclosures continues. We’re on pace to clock 3.5 million of them by the end of the year. That sounds pretty bad. But wait, I hear you saying, didn’t the government start a program a few months ago to fix this?

Well, yes it did, sorta. In March the Obama Administration made a big splash with the Home Affordable Modification program. As I wrote at the time, it was greeted with rather a lot of feigned enthusiasm.  Under the surface there was much concern that it wouldn’t work, and more than a few doubts about whether or not it was a good idea in principle.

Then in May there was a round of finger pointing amongst the plan’s supporters in the media, occasioned by the revelation that by then only "about 55,000" homeowners had been offered help under the plan. The Administration promised to pick up the pace, assuring us that although it had taken a little while to get the gears moving, now we were really going to see some action. They even got Congress to  pass a law indemnifying mortgage servicers from lawsuits over modified mortgages, something I subversively suggested would be necessary in March.

Well, it’s July and time for more finger pointing. Joe Nocera at The New York Times tells us in a column that he was allowed a "peek" at "internal Treasury data" that showed that 131,030 mortgages had been modified so far under the program. That’s pretty much the same pace as we saw in May.

Not to worry, the Treasury is on the job. Clearly, the problem is not that this program is ill-conceived, but that the mortgage servicers who are supposed to modify the loans are dragging their feet. So the Administration has taken decisive action. The Secretaries of the Treasury and HUD jointly sent a strongly worded letter to the top 25 mortgage servicers demanding that they get their act together and also summoning them to a meeting on July 28.

Other than a useful photo-op, it’s hard to imagine what will be produced at the meeting. Nocera refers to the whole thing as a Treasury "ultimatum" but fails to explain what, exactly, they will threaten to do. The best he can muster is the rather pathetic idea that the mortgage servicers will do better in order to avoid bad publicity.

Starting next month, the government plans to begin publishing data showing which servicers are doing well and which are doing poorly, thus trying to shame them into doing the right thing.

In fairness, Nocera does discuss how hopelessly overwhelmed the mortgage servicers are by the scale of the problem. This is a system designed to handle perhaps a tenth as many modifications as it is now being asked to work through. And mortgage modifications do not lend themselves to mass production. Each needs to be negotiated individually, and hiring more staff with the skills to handle modifications is not exactly trivial.

But this is largely a distraction from the underlying problem, that this was a poorly thought through program accompanied by massively unrealistic expectations. To begin with, foreclosures are more symptom than disease. Trying to handle the mess we are in with houses by slowing down the pace of foreclosures is like trying to combat an epidemic of plague by banning funerals. The big-picture problem is that a lot of houses are worth a lot less than they were a few years ago. Reducing the number of foreclosures may make that problem less obvious, but it will still be there.

Moreover, the Administration apparently has a rose-tinted view of the homeowners facing foreclosure that does not square with reality. They act as if they think all these homeowners are hard-working (i.e. employed) Americans who would love to stay in homes which they can almost, but not quite, afford.

I am sure that there are many millions of such households, and that that description may even describe the typical homeowner. But I doubt it describes the typical homeowner in foreclosure.

First, consider that there must be millions of folks in houses beyond their means, even at currently depressed prices. Remember that a few years ago just about anybody could afford any house, because via the expected appreciation in prices, houses practically paid you to live in them.

Imagine a person who bought a $300K house with a $270K mortgage that, when you get down to it, was over their head. Now it’s a $200K house. Even if the mortgage servicer was willing to modify the mortgage down to $200K, chances are the borrower still couldn’t swing it.

Then there are folks who have recently suffered a financial setback. Perhaps they lost a lot of money in the stock market. Or they lost their job. (I’ve heard there’s a lot of that going on lately.) Again, modifying the mortgage terms and amount is not much of a help as these homeowners still couldn’t afford the house.

Mortgage modifications really only make sense for the slice of households that can almost afford their homes. That is, the price they paid a few years ago was, in hindsight, beyond their reach, but right now they could afford the house if they bought it at today’s prices.

And even for those who fall into that category, it is not so obvious that all of them would prefer modification to foreclosure. I can imagine a person with a nice big house currently worth $400K looking at the prospect of carrying a $400K mortgage on it, worrying about house prices going down more, and deciding to just be done with it and letting the bank foreclose.

So, realistically, what portion of mortgages in foreclosure should we expect to be modified? In March, the Administration predicted they would help "up to 3 to 4 million" homeowners, which sounds an awfully lot like the 3.5 million foreclosures per year pace we were on in the first half of this year.

My back-of-the-envelope predicts that 10-20% of potential foreclosures will be modified this year. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In as much as the Administration helped get that process moving along, they will have something to be proud of. Or would have, if they hadn’t started off by promising so much. Instead, we will get more finger pointing.

[Photo: Stopmangohome]

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