Friday, August 17, 2007

Work it out

"Our desire to avoid letting bad actors off the hook shouldn’t prevent us from doing the right thing, both morally and in economic terms, for borrowers who were victims of the bubble.

Most of the proposals I’ve seen for dealing with the problems of subprime borrowers are of the locking-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-is-gone variety: they would curb abusive lending practices — which would have been very useful three years ago — but they wouldn’t help much now. What we need at this point is a policy to deal with the consequences of the housing bust.

Consider a borrower who can’t meet his or her mortgage payments and is facing foreclosure. In the past, as Gretchen Morgenson recently pointed out in The Times, the bank that made the loan would often have been willing to offer a workout, modifying the loan’s terms to make it affordable, because what the borrower was able to pay would be worth more to the bank than its incurring the costs of foreclosure and trying to resell the home. That would have been especially likely in the face of a depressed housing market.

Today, however, the mortgage broker who made the loan is usually, as Ms. Morgenson says, “the first link in a financial merry-go-round.” The mortgage was bundled with others and sold to investment banks, who in turn sliced and diced the claims to produce artificial assets that Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s were willing to classify as AAA. And the result is that there’s nobody to deal with.

This looks to me like a clear case for government intervention: there’s a serious market failure, and fixing that failure could greatly help thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Americans. The federal government shouldn’t be providing bailouts, but it should be helping to arrange workouts.

And we’ve done this sort of thing before — for third-world countries, not for U.S. citizens. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s was brought to an end by so-called Brady deals, in which creditors were corralled into reducing the countries’ debt burdens to manageable levels. Both the debtors, who escaped the shadow of default, and the creditors, who got most of their money, benefited.

The mechanics of a domestic version would need a lot of work, from lawyers as well as financial experts. My guess is that it would involve federal agencies buying mortgages — not the securities conjured up from these mortgages, but the original loans — at a steep discount, then renegotiating the terms. But I’m happy to listen to better ideas.

The point, however, is that doing nothing isn’t the only alternative to letting the parties who got us into this mess off the hook. Say no to bailouts — but let’s help borrowers work things out."

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