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Hope for ‘Hope for Homeowners?’

Among the many housing policy disappointments sustained during the bust, the Hope for Homeowners mortgage refinancing program has to rank as the disappointing-est. Originally estimated as having the potential to aid nearly half a million struggling borrowers, the program has resulted in just one successful loan refinancing to date. Quite the batting average. But the Obama administration is trying to resurrect Hope for Homeowners, and is counting on a change in attitude to generate better numbers this time around. From The Washington Post:

Most striking is that Hope for Homeowners has attracted unexpected backers: Investors who had refused to consider the program’s requirement that they forgive some of a borrower’s mortgage balance if the home is worth less than is owed, known as being underwater, are now trumpeting that provision.

“Institutional investors that own securities backed by mortgages are extremely keen to write down principal in exchange for the borrower refinancing into a Hope for Homeowners loan,” said Tom Deutsch, deputy executive director of the industry group American Securitization Forum.

Investors that were previously unwilling to write down the value of their loans are increasingly on board with the practice — anything to get those loans off the books. A bird in the hand is worth two with a high probability of default, as they say. But there’s something amiss here. If investors believed that they would maximize their return on troubled loans by reducing principle, they would. That is, if they thought that by writing down the principle on a loan they would increase the odds of payment by enough to make the haircut worthwhile, then it would make sense for them to go ahead and do so. And if they were already doing so, then there would be no need for this program.

But clearly there is a need. Investors are only ready to write down principle if that allows them to shed default risk — which means they don’t think that writedowns lead to large reductions in default risk. And they’re probably right. Under this program, there are new borrowers waiting to pick up the loans because Federal Housing Administration is authorized to insure them — up to $300 billion. It kind of looks as though the government is working hard to absorb up to $300 billion in mortgage loan losses from various investors.

Hope for Homeowners seems primarily geared toward providing hope to investors, rather than homeowners. Given the extent to which unemployment is driving defaults in the current climate, a serious effort to stem foreclosures would focus on generous extensions of unemployment benefits, to the exclusion of most everything else.

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