Friday, December 7, 2007

Bush's Bad Mortgage Medicine

By Liz Moyer (Forbes)

The Bush Administration's plan to rescue the housing market and keep the economy from slipping into recession took flak yesterday for freezing interest rate hikes for a mere fraction of subprime, adjustable-rate borrowers. But there's a bigger risk: It could deepen and lengthen the credit crisis.

According to analysis by Barclays Capital, the "freezer-teaser" plan applies to just 240,000 subprime loans. The Mortgage Bankers Association reports the number of subprime adjustable rate mortgages at 2.9 million.

It also won't help the 16% of subprime borrowers who are already delinquent or in default, and it won't help millions of other homeowners who either will be deemed able to pay the higher rates when they adjust, starting in January, or who have the unhappy circumstance of having a house worth less than their mortgage or a loan that has already reset to the higher rates.

President Bush, along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, outlined other proposals Thursday that are meant to help the 2 million borrowers facing sharply rising rates on their adjustable-rate mortgages beginning next month. The plan includes refinancing some of the borrowers into private, fixed-rate mortgages, or putting them into Federal Housing Administration loans.

The loan modification, or rate freeze, would apply to a limited subset of subprime borrowers who meet a series of criteria, not least of which is that they must have paid their loans on time. Also, the freeze applies to loans taken between January 2005 and July 2007, excluding other adjustable loans that have already reset to higher rates.

The expected backlash to the plan started immediately after the Administration announced it. Housing advocates said it leaves millions of struggling borrowers at risk of foreclosure. Others decried it as a shameful bailout of irresponsible lenders and borrowers.

"President Bush's plan may make good politics, but it is terrible economics," said Edward Ketz, an accounting professor at Penn State University. "It punishes those who have acted prudently and rewards bad decisions by homeowners who bought what they could not afford. It gives incentives for future homebuyers to act rashly, because they may believe Washington will rescue them from error and greed."

Perhaps more significantly, Ketz and others warn the plan could further choke off the credit markets and result in higher mortgage rates in the long run.

Declining values in mortgage securities have plagued banks and investors since the summer, with banks writing off some $70 billion in mortgage and credit securities in the last three months. Modifying the terms of the underlying mortgages for some of these securities will mean payments even lower than the amounts investors had counted on when they bought the mortgage pools in the first place.

Mortgage servicers either originate their own loans or buy loan-servicing rights to them. The loans are sold to banks, which then chop them up and repackage them in securities, complete with ratings and tranches to appeal to different types of investors. These investors buy the securities expecting certain performance characteristics, including payment flows from the borrowers of the underlying loans.

If an investor can't count on the terms of a mortgage security at the time he buys it, he has less incentive to continue investing in them in the future. That would reduce demand for mortgage paper, in addition to embedding a risk premium in the rate for those investors still willing to take the gamble.

Investor demand for mortgage-backed securities--and banks' eagerness to buy loans, package and sell them to this hungry crowd--helped create the incredible run-up in the mortgage market over the last three years. Paulson's plan does not protect the investors of these securities--increasingly, as it turns out, public pensions and other public funds.

In a report Thursday, Standard & Poor's said freezing rates without assuring against further defaults "would have a negative impact on the ratings of certain U.S. first-lien subprime" mortgage securities. "Declining investor participation means reduced capital and liquidity, which may affect homeownership and borrowing opportunities," the company said.

In other words, this plan could make the whole situation worse, not better.

Secretary Paulson has been eager to show he is trying to alleviate the crisis, though many say he and the rest of the Administration have been slow to make a move. Mortgage payment delinquencies hit a 20-year high in the third quarter, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, as borrowers were unable to refinance or sell their homes to get out of a credit pinch. The percentage of loans with payments more than 30 days late, including prime mortgages, rose to 5.59%, its highest level since 1986.

"Politicians want to look like they are doing something while not doing something," says Joseph Mason, a professor at Drexel University who studies banking regulation and capital markets. "This plan fits that perfectly."

What it also does is pass the problem on to the next president, who will be elected next fall, well before the freeze on those mortgages lifts--and possibly before the markets turn around. Despite a strong showing in many financial stocks Thursday after the plan was announced, analysts forecast slower growth for banks as they come to terms with rising credit costs and a slowdown in their bond divisions.

University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici puts is this way: "The Treasury seems obsessed with what investment bankers do best in a pinch--short-term workouts that punt difficulties into the high grass."

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