As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cramdown Returns

The Federal Reserve revealed survey results today showing the economy stabilizing throughout the country and the recession nearing an end. But without jobs, people won't feel that recession's end. As a result, even the Fed survey showed consumer spending "soft," and employment "weak" in all 12 Fed regions. And that will impact the still-unresolved sector of the economy that could easily relapse us into a double-dip recession, the housing market.

Although the ailing residential real-estate market is still weak, it also flashed signs of improvements. The Fed regions of Chicago, Richmond, Boston and San Francisco observed an "uptick in sales." Most regions said buyer demand remained stronger at the low end of the housing market, although Philadelphia did note an "upturn in sales at the high end of the market."

The Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Richmond and New York regions credited the first-time home buyer tax incentive with spurring sales. Most regions reported downward pressure on home prices, although Dallas and New York said that prices were "firming."

That first-time homebuyers credit will soon expire, and this analysis fails to take into account the problems from those facing foreclosure, particularly those who got into adjustable-rate mortgages. The interest-only loan holders, in particular, could see a real disaster in the months and years to come when their rates reset.

Edward and Maria Moller are worried about losing their house — not now, but in 2013.

That is when the suburban San Diego schoolteachers will see their mortgage payments jump, most likely beyond their ability to pay.

Like millions of buyers during the boom, the Mollers leveraged their way into a house they could not otherwise afford by taking out a loan that required them to make only interest payments at first, putting off payments on the principal for several years [...]

With many of these homes under water — worth less than the loans against them — many interest-only mortgages will soon become unaffordable, as the homeowners have to actually start paying principal. Monthly payments can jump by as much as 75 percent.

The Mollers owe so much more than their house is worth, and have so few options, that they are already anticipating doom.

“I’m praying for another boom,” said Mr. Moller, 34. “Otherwise, we’ll have to walk.”

These people are going to lose their homes, with devastating consequences for the rest of the real estate market and the greater economy ($908 billion dollars are tied up in active interest-only loans). Even the Treasury Department expects millions more foreclosures in the same report that they tout their homeowner protection programs.

This is why it's good to see cramdown return. The provision, allowing bankruptcy judges to modify primary home loans unilaterally the way he would a vacation home or a yacht, would give those facing foreclosure a level playing field against lenders who have no incentive to change the terms of their loans.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) tells the Huffington Post he plans to revive the effort to give bankruptcy judges the authority to renegotiate home mortgages -- by making it part of this fall's much-anticipated financial regulatory reform bill.

Wall Street banks scored an overwhelming victory in April when they soundly defeated a cramdown measure in the Senate. Only 45 Democrats voted with homeowners, dealing the measure the kind of defeat that often sends legislation off into the wilderness for years, if not for good.

Frank and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who led the bill in the upper chamber, both said after its defeat that it was finished. Frank was dismissive when, about a week after the vote, HuffPost asked if cramdown might come back. "Excuse me, what planet were you on last week? The vote was 45 to 51. Why would you ask that? Do I think there's a likelihood we could overturn 45-51? No," said Frank. "I wish it weren't the case."

But since then, foreclosures have continued unabated and the unemployment rate has continued to climb, increasing to 9.7 percent last month. Both forces feed on each other and create a drag on the economy.

The Obama administration had high hopes for the law Congress passed intended to encourage mortgage modifications. The law is all carrot, however, and no stick. Cramdown is the stick. If banks think they could get hit in bankruptcy court, they're more likely to bargain.

Because regulatory reform is a big bill with enough populist-friendly elements in it to be difficult to oppose, it could be a good vehicle for cramdown. Add that to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and more credit card reform legislation, and that bill will be the subject of a huge fight, perhaps even bigger than the health care bill, at least in terms of lobbyist energy.

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