Treasury Makes Shocking Admission: Program for Struggling Homeowners Just a Ploy to Enrich Big Banks
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Most of the blame for the refusal to nationalize failing Wall Street titans lies with the Bush administration, although Obama had the opportunity to make a move early in his tenure, and Obama's Treasury Secretary, Geithner, was a major bailout decision-maker on the Bush team as president of the New York Fed.
But Bush cannot be blamed for the HAMP nightmare, and plenty of other options were available for coping with foreclosure when Obama took office. One of the best solutions was just endorsed by the Cleveland Federal Reserve, in the face of prolonged and fervent opposition from the bank lobby. Unlike every other form of consumer debt, mortgages are immune from renegotiation in bankruptcy. If you file for bankruptcy, a judge literally cannot reduce how much you owe on your mortgage. The only way out of the debt is foreclosure, giving banks tremendous power in negotiations with borrowers.
This exemption is arbitrary and unfair, but the bank lobby contends it keeps mortgage rates lower. It's just not true, as a new paper by Cleveland Fed economists Thomas J. Fitzpatrick IV and James B. Thomson makes clear. Family farms were exempted from bankruptcy until 1986, and bankers bloviated about the same imminent risk of unaffordable farm loans when Congress considered ending that status to prevent farm foreclosures.
When Congress did repeal the exemption, farm loans didn't get any more expensive, and bankruptcy filings didn't even increase very much. Instead, a flood of farmers entered into negotiations with banks to have their debt burden reduced. Banks took losses, but foreclosures were avoided. Society was better off, even if bank investors had to take a hit.
But instead, Treasury is actively encouraging troubled homeowners to subsidize giant banks. What's worse, as Mike Konczal notes, they're hoping to expand the program significantly.
There is a flip-side to the current HAMP nightmare, one that borrowers faced with mortgage problems should attend to closely and discuss with financial planners. In many cases, banks don't actually want to foreclose quickly, because doing so entails taking losses right away, and most of them would rather drag those losses out over time. The accounting rules are so loose that banks can actually book phantom "income" on monthly payments that borrowers do not actually make. Some borrowers have been able to benefit from this situation by simply refusing to pay their mortgages. Since banks often want to delay repossessing the house in order to benefit from tricky accounting, borrowers can live rent-free in their homes for a year or more before the bank finally has to lower the hatchet. Of course, you won't hear Treasury encouraging people to stop paying their mortgages. If too many people just stop paying, then banks are out a lot of money fast, sparking big, quick losses for banks -- the exact situation HAMP is trying to avoid.
Borrowers who choose not to pay their mortgages don't even have to feel guilty about it. Refusing to pay is actually modestly good for the economy, since instead of wasting their money on bank payments, borrowers have more cash to spend at other businesses, creating demand and encouraging job growth. By contrast, top-level Treasury officials who have enriched bankers on the backs of troubled borrowers should be looking for other lines of work.
Zach Carter is AlterNet's economics editor. He is a fellow at Campaign for America's Future, writes a weekly blog on the economy for the Media Consortium and is a frequent contributor to The Nation magazine.