Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Foreclosures Unending

The horror continues. The lending industry keeps failing to understand that driving their customers into insolvency will only put themselves into insolvency. This article makes the same point.

Forget about jobs, the ones with jobs have to be helped to bail out the mortgage industry now. Any thing else lets this continue until perhaps a significant fraction of the middle class is destroyed or at least set back a good decade.

Yet the lenders just do not get it. They try to save them selves while every fresh unresolved foreclosure eliminates a bona fide borrower while adding inventory to that already unsold and reducing prices thus increasing the losses.

I have already shown a way out. Some variation of that would turn it all around on a dime. This way is going to be vastly more expensive if only through the sheer weight of time.

Foreclosures: No End in Sight

A continuing steep drop in home prices combined with rising unemployment is powering a new wave of foreclosures. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence, so far, that the Obama administration’s anti-foreclosure plan will be able to stop it.

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The plan offers up to $75 billion in incentives to lenders to reduce loan payments for troubled borrowers. Since it went into effect in March, some 100,000 homeowners have been offered a modification, according to the Treasury Department, though a tally is not yet available on how many offers have been accepted.

That’s a slow start given the administration’s goal of preventing up to four million foreclosures. It is even more worrisome when one considers the size of the problem and the speed at which it is spreading. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported last week that in the first three months of the year, about 5.4 million mortgages were delinquent or in some stage of foreclosure.

Not all of those families will lose their homes. Some will find the money to catch up on their payments. Others will qualify for loan modifications that allow them to hang on. But as borrowers become more hard pressed, lenders — whose participation in the Obama plan is largely voluntary — may not be able or willing to keep up with the spiraling demand for relief.

One of the biggest problems is that the plan focuses almost entirely on lowering monthly payments. But overly onerous payments are only part of the problem. For 15.4 million “underwater” borrowers — those who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth — a lack of home equity puts them at risk of default, even if their monthly payments have been reduced. They have no cushion to fall back on in the event of a setback, like job loss or illness.

This page has long argued that a robust anti-foreclosure plan should directly address the plight of underwater homeowners by reducing the loans’ principal balance. That would restore some equity to borrowers — and give them a further incentive to hold on to their homes — in addition to lowering monthly payments. The mortgage industry has resisted this approach, and the Obama plan does not emphasize it.

With joblessness rising, lower monthly payments could quickly become unaffordable for many Americans. In a
recent report, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston argued that unemployment is driving foreclosures and to make a difference, anti-foreclosure policy should focus on helping unemployed homeowners. The report suggests a temporary program of loans or grants to help them pay their mortgages while they look for another job.

The government will also have to make far more aggressive efforts to create jobs. The federal stimulus plan will preserve and generate a few million jobs, but that will barely make a dent — in the overall economic crisis or the foreclosure disaster. Since the recession began in December 2007, nearly six million jobs have been lost, and millions more are bound to go missing before this downturn is over.

President Obama needs to put more effort and political capital into promoting the middle-class agenda that he outlined during the campaign, including a push for new jobs in new industries, expanded union membership and a fairer distribution of profits among shareholders, executives and employees.

There will be no recovery until there is a halt in the relentless rise in foreclosures. Foreclosures threaten millions of families with financial ruin. By driving prices down, they sap the wealth of all homeowners. They exacerbate bank losses, putting pressure on the still fragile financial system. Lower monthly payments are a balm, but they are no substitute for home equity. And until more Americans can find a good job and a steady paycheck, the number of foreclosures will continue to rise.

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