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Treasury Makes Shocking Admission: Program for Struggling Homeowners Just a Ploy to Enrich Big Banks

The Treasury Dept.'s mortgage relief program isn't just failing, it's actively funneling money from homeowners to bankers, and Treasury likes it that way.

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Most borrowers go into the program expecting real relief. After the trial period, most realize that it doesn't actually help them, and end up walking away from the mortgage anyway. These borrowers would have been much better off simply finding a new place to rent without going through the HAMP rigamarole. This example is a good case, one where the bank doesn't jack up the borrower's long-term debt burden in exchange for lowering monthly payments

But the benefit to banks goes much deeper. On any given mortgage, it's almost always in a bank's best interest to cut a deal with borrowers. Losses from foreclosure are very high, and if a bank agrees to reduce a borrower's debt burden, it will take an upfront hit, but one much lower than what it would ultimately take from foreclosure.

That logic changes dramatically when millions of loans are defaulting at once. Under those circumstances, bank balance sheets are so fragile they literally cannot afford to absorb lots of losses all at once. But if those foreclosures unravel slowly, over time, the bank can still stay afloat, even if it has to bear greater costs further down the line. As former Deutsche Bank executive Raj Date told me all the way back in July 2009:

If management is only seeking to maximize value for their existing shareholders, it's possible that maybe they're doing the right thing. If you're able to let things bleed out slowly over time but still generate some earnings, if it bleeds slow enough, it doesn't matter how long it takes, because you never have to issue more stock and dilute your shareholders. You could make an argument from the point of view of any bank management team that not taking a day-one hit is actually a smart idea. 

Date, it should be emphasized, does not condone this strategy. He now heads the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy, and is a staunch advocate of financial reform.

If, say, Wells Fargo had taken a $20 billion hit on its mortgage book in February 2009, it very well could have failed. But losing a few billion dollars here and there over the course of three or four years means that Wells Fargo can stay in business and keep paying out bonuses, even if it ultimately sees losses of $25 or $30 billion on its bad loans.

So HAMP is doing a great job if all you care about is the solvency of Wall Street banks. But if borrowers know from the get-go they're not going to get a decent deal, they have no incentive to keep paying their mortgage. Instead of tapping out their savings and hitting up relatives for help with monthly payments, borrowers could have saved their money, walked away from the mortgage and found more sensible rental housing. The administration's plan has effectively helped funnel more money to Wall Street at the expense of homeowners. And now the Treasury Department is going around and telling bloggers this is actually a positive feature of the program, since it meant that big banks didn't go out of business.

There were always other options for dealing with the banks and preventing foreclosures. Putting big, faltering banks into receivership—also known as "nationalization"—has been a powerful policy tool used by every administration from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. When the government takes over a bank, it forces it to take those big losses upfront, wiping out shareholders in the process. Investors lose a lot of money (and they should, since they made a lousy investment), but the bank is cleaned up quickly and can start lending again. No silly games with borrowers, and no funky accounting gimmicks.