Fixing Foreclosures: Lots Of Plans, Murky Strategy
Senior Features Editor
As the Obama administration works on a plan that will commit up to $50 billion in help homeowners avoid foreclosure, there are significant questions about the strategy already in place and its potential to contain a wildfire problem that is delaying the recovery in housing and perhaps the broader economy.
Analysts and industry members point to the shortcomings of a patchwork response with sometimes conflicting measures as well as the shortcomings of three high-profile programs with significant political support.
First and foremost, some say there are simply too many initiatives.
“There needs to be one universally-recognized model plan, recognized as the gold standard by federal regulators,” says John Courson, CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association. “You have all these plans and more coming. We need a comprehensive coordinated plan that deals with foreclosure."
In addition to existing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac efforts to ease foreclosure, there is the Hope for Homeowners program—now being reworked—and the FDIC-conceived IndyMac, now being expanded.
Private lenders have their individual programs, while many of them are also participating in the Hope Now coalition effort. Still more initiatives are in the pipeline.
“First and foremost I would not derail efforts of the private sector,” says Edward Pinto, a former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae who nuns his own consulting firm. “I think the federal government needs to focus on its arena.”
Pinto estimates some 35 million of the 55 million existing mortgages are essentially in the government's hands, which means Washington will have its hands full.
Pinto is forecasting 8.8 million foreclosures in the next few years. That’s roughly consistent with the FDIC’s estimate of 4-5 million in the 2009-2010 period and what’s likely to be two and a quarter million in 2008.
“You need to have a special purpose organization which is isolated and has a sole mission, which means you have to build a new bureaucracy,” says Alex Pollock, who was CEO of the Chicago Home Loan Bank and is now at the American Enterprise Institute.
Experts continue to point to the success of the Depression-era Homeowners Loan Corp, which had an 80-percent success rate in modifying 1 million mortgages and was profitable when dissolved.
Among the reasons, says Pollock is that its stand-alone status allows for a simple and transparent balance sheet, the authority to negotiate directly with borrowers and lenders and the “flexibility to mix and match the right elements.”
That mix and match approach is borne out by the variety of approaches now being used, from interest rate reductions, to principal write-downs to forbearance to extending the term of the loan.
Here’s a closer look at three approaches attracting the most attention.
The loan-modification program in use at the thrift was put in place by the FDIC, which ran the company after the government had seized control amid a run on deposits last summer. FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair has been an ardent promoter and the program has ample supporters in Washington.
Rep Maxine Waters (D-Calif) and Sen. Diane Funstein (D-Calif) have introduced legislation based on the FDIC’s plan.
The program in barely five months old but it has already been instituted at Citigroup , as part of a new financial aid package from the federal government, and another California thrift.
Realists warn, however, that is still too soon to tell if the program is all it is cracked up to.
As of Dec 31, 36,400 loan modification offers has been sent out to eligible borrowers since the plan was announced in late August. Of those cases, 23, 600 are still being processed.
Another 10,7000 have been modified, which includes a first payment on the new loan. The average unpaid balance on the loans is about $269,000.
Three out of four of the mortgages being modified involve only a reduction in the borrowing rate, according to an IndyMac spokesman, who adds that 70 percent of the borrowers “run through the model, pass it” and thus qualify.
The average monthly savings in payments is about $400. Under the program, that payment is as high can be as low as 31 percent of gross monthly income or as high as 38 percent.
Neither the bank, which is in the process of being sold to private investors, nor the FDIC have released regular re-default data. The FDIC will only say 1 one percent or less fall into “the not being current” category, which could mean anything from 30 to 60 days past due.
According to a new analysis by Pinto to be released Thursday, re-default rates may be heading toward an unacceptably high level.
Extrapolating on the little data that is available, Pinto estimates the re-default rate after about 3-months is about 20 percent. If correct, that is about equal to the 21.4 percent three-month default rate found in the most recent Comptroller of the Currency survey of top private lenders and “likely foreshadows the 40-plus percent default rate after eight months,”
“This would raise serious questions about the long- term effectiveness of the IndyMac program,” says Pinto. “These questions should be addressed before moving forward to implement this program on a national basis. This result does not appear to be enough of an improvement in performance to achieve the stated goal of the program.”
Particularly the pending legislation would have the government take up to 50-percent of the loss should the loan re-default.