So what is Mitt Romney’s response? Bring it on.
In interviews and in the Republican presidential debates, Mr. Romney has said that the cure for foreclosures is for the government to get out of the way and let the process run its course. Once prices hit bottom, investors and want-to-be homeowners would presumably swoop in and prices would stabilize.
The argument might have some red-meat appeal, playing off the notion that any owners who lose their homes are getting what they deserve. It is wrong on several counts:
Efficiency. Mass foreclosures are a rotten way to stabilize the market. They impose huge costs on neighbors, communities and local governments, and on the broader economy, as falling prices erode equity, depress consumer spending and mire the housing market in a deep hole.
Logic. Who does Mr. Romney think will buy up millions of foreclosed properties? Borrowers who lose their homes to foreclosure or who sell their homes for less than the balance on their mortgages can be denied credit for years; many will never be homeowners again.
Many college graduates, unable to find jobs, are moving in with their parents, not starting careers, not starting families and not becoming first-time home buyers. High school graduates are despairing of any economic toehold. Investors are inclined to buy distressed properties only if they believe home values will rise, a confidence that is hard to come by in a market that is threatened by more foreclosures and renewed price declines.
Danger. With the economy still weak and vulnerable to shocks, more foreclosures and the resulting price declines would only weaken the economy further.
Fairness. The let-it-crash argument conveniently ignores that the housing bubble was the result not only of overborrowing but of reckless lending too. When the bubble burst, the banks were bailed out, while speculators and uncreditworthy borrowers — whom lenders had aggressively pursued during the boom — quickly began to lose their properties. But the economic damage went far beyond the “bad” borrowers, as evidenced by deep recession, ensuing slow growth, high unemployment and crashing home values — all of which has now harmed millions of homeowners who never went near a subprime mortgage. They are the collateral damage of the banks’ binge and bailout. They deserve help, not scorn.
That is not to say that every troubled borrower can be saved. Of the estimated 14.7 million underwater borrowers, 1.6 million are lost causes, according to Moody’s Analytics. Many have already abandoned their homes, leaving them vacant, or are hopelessly behind on their payments, often because of long-term unemployment. This group needs policies to help convert homes to rentals.
Another 1.6 million underwater borrowers have missed payments because of a setback, like job loss, that may prove temporary. They could be helped with forbearance, allowed to make no or reduced payments for a time, and make up the difference later, or with loan modifications that result in meaningfully smaller payments.
The remaining 11.5 million underwater homeowners are current in their payments, but are at high risk of default, since they have no equity to cushion a financial setback and no incentive to keep paying, especially if prices go down again.
Loan modifications that reduce principal balances are the best solution, because they restore equity and reduce monthly payments. The banks would take a hit on principal write-downs. So be it. Refinancings, which the Obama administration is in the process of expanding, also help, because a new loan with a lower rate makes staying in the home more affordable. Mr. Romney has said refinancing is “worth further consideration.” Investors in mortgage-backed securities will take a hit on refinancings. So be it.
At a recent debate, Mr. Romney was asked why he was willing to risk further huge losses in home equity by pushing foreclosures. “What would you do instead?” he replied. “Have the federal government go out and buy all the homes in America?”
No one is suggesting that. What is needed is a set of policies — rentals, forbearance, principal write-downs and refinancings — on a scale that tackles the problem.