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Mortgage Principal Writedown Won't Save Housing

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And so it begins. Big gun lawmakers are making the move toward principal writedowns as the last resort to save the housing market.

In a letter to the CEOs of Bank of America, Wells Fargo,JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank wrote, "To save homes on a large scale, we must move past temporary modifications in interest rates or terms and focus on permanent principal reductions that result in truly sustainable mortgages."

I agree and disagree with that statement: I agree that temporary modifications (even though the Treasury calls them permanent) are going to keep some borrowers in their homes for a while, but are really just prolonging the agony. I disagree that principal reductions will create truly sustainable mortgages.

The problem is prices. Home prices have fallen so far in the hardest hit areas, the areas where the bulk of the troubled loans are, that banks would have to write down principal 30 to 50 percent to put borrowers back in the green. Accounting rules require that banks write down the value of those loans on their books, and experts tell me that if banks really accounted for all the losses in the home loan market, they'd all be insolvent.

That's why the Obama Administration has created this kind of shell game in the first place.

I stole that shell game idea from housing consultant Howard Glaser: "We're spending tens of billions of dollars on a tax credit to get people to purchase homes, we're spending federal money to keep them in their homes through the modification program, and now we're going to pay them to move out of their homes. This is not a sustainable system for the housing market. It's a shell game. Bernie Madoff could have created this system," Glaser told me today.

Chairman Frank is focusing on second liens, blaiming them for holding up the first lien modification process. But the largest second lien holders are also the largest first lien holders. "Large numbers of second liens have no real economic value," writes Frank. He's right.

These lenders are getting pennies on the dollar even when they do get some kind of payoff, and they get nothing in a foreclosure. His theory is that if you get rid of the second lien then the first lien can be written down just fine and dandy. But the banks don't want to write down the first liens either. Why? Simple math.

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Politicians want to keep borrowers in the homes because that's the compassionate thing to do. The big bad banks just want to cut their losses right? Well, maybe not. Sure they want to cut their losses, but they also want to save the value of the housing market, and foreclosure is how they're doing it.

Take Las Vegas as an example. Foreclosures are the whole market there, but there is actually very little inventory on the market. Why? Because banks are holding onto inventory, releasing it slowly and measurably, so as to put a bottom under prices.

I realize this is not the compassionate argument to make, but the fact is that most troubled borrowers are never going to get out from under these bad loans, even with reduced principal, and many many of them don't want to. If you foreclose on the properties, take them back, hold them a bit, don't write down the losses, and then slowly sell them back onto the market to hungry cash investors or buyers with good, well-underwritten loans, then home prices will stabilize.

As for the borrowers, the rental market is ripe. Rent rates are low, vacancies are high, and the hit to personal credit isn't going to matter as much a few years from now when banks are desperate once again sell mortgages.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com

  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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