Underwater homeowners can’t refinance at today’s rock-bottom interest rates, because they’re considered bad credit risks. They can’t move to where jobs are more plentiful or the pay is better, because if they sell their home, they end up owing the banks a bundle. But if they lose their job, their wages drop. If they have a medical emergency, they may fall behind on their mortgage payments and be foreclosed upon. If that happens, they and their family can lose both their home and their credit rating.Oops! That's actually two different magazine articles—the first paragraph comes from Robert Reich's piece in November's American Prospect, a liberal magazine. The second—and this is kind of shocking—is from Ike Brannon, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard.
We don’t need another stimulus to fix what ails the economy. We need to fix the housing market. And the way to do that is to allow a mortgage cramdown in the context of a personal bankruptcy. Put simply, someone who owes $450,000 on a house worth $300,000 isn’t going to be helped that much by a lower interest rate. He would be helped—as would the housing market and the larger economy—if the lender could be compelled in a bankruptcy proceeding to write down the loan amount to $300,000, which is all the lender would recover in any case were it to foreclose on and then auction off the property.
Reich and Brannon have slightly different approaches to the issue, but their bottom line is roughly the same: Distressed homeowners should have their mortgages written down to reflect the post-bubble value of their homes—so that those owners don't owe more than what the house is worth. Banks make no less money than they would if they were forced to foreclose, but owners gain back some of their money and freedom to move to a new job.
Free those underwater homeowners, and they might start buying stuff again. When people start buying stuff again, demand will rise and the people who make and sell stuff will likely start hiring more people to make and sell that stuff. The economy would get new life.
Smart people on the left and right can see this. Yet a serious effort to help these homeowners doesn't seem to be in the offing, either from the president, his GOP rivals for the office, or Congress. Why not?