Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How to Shake Off the Mortgage Mess

Where are the hosannas for Congress's handiwork on housing? Nobody expected it to solve anything, but it's worth understanding why.

By CNBC's count, the federal government has already made roughly $1.4 trillion available to refinance mortgage debt since the housing meltdown began. That makes this week's bill, which adds another $300 billion to the pot, seem a mite anticlimactic. The key word is refinance. Even if this money helps prevent foreclosures, it's aimed at houses that people want and that would likely resell even if foreclosed. Hardly touched is the real problem of tens of thousands of houses financed during the subprime boom that are unoccupied, unwanted, falling apart, built on spec, mortgaged on spec and abandoned on spec.

Washington has practically monopolized the business of financing and refinancing home sales for willing buyers and sellers, but it does nothing about the homes going rancid on the shelf, souring the value of the nation's entire housing stock and mortgage debt.

Maybe that explains why we're finally getting some takers for a demolition strategy as the least-cost route out of the subprime mortgage aftermath. The Economist, in its July 10 edition, endorsed a "wrecking-ball response." Bill Gross, the Pimco bond king, says in an ideal world Washington would "buy one million new/unoccupied homes, blow them up, and then start all over again." Even Larry Lindsey, the former Reagan economist, concludes that a larger bailout is nearly inevitable -- though his fanciful solution is to recruit 100,000 immigrants who would agree to buy $10 million worth of housing each.

A surplus of homes is the key liability dragging down much of the collateral underlying the financial system. Any Lindsey whimsies aside, have no doubt where many of these losses ultimately will land.

Take Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which owned 62,000 homes in the first quarter and were acquiring houses twice as fast as they could sell them. Fannie and Freddie now are statutorily backed by taxpayers, so taxpayers now are the real owners of nearly as many foreclosed houses as the rest of the country's 8,500 banks and thrifts combined.

And that's just the beginning. In seizing IndyMac, a California lender in subprime heartburn country, the FDIC put its fingers in its ears and simply declared a moratorium on new foreclosures. Taxpayers will end up owning a lot of derelict homes through FDIC too.

None of this is reason to disregard glimmers of a bottom in housing. Housing markets are local. Even with an unprecedented 19 million empty single-family homes, apartments and condos hanging overhead, some 500,000 new houses a year continue to be built and sold -- because people want houses where they want them. *If you are building a new home, be sure to get a home warranty. Home warranty coverage is often of great value to a house, whether or not it is being sold.

The problem is the other places.

In California's Central Valley around Stockton, one household in 25 received a foreclosure filing last quarter. In the Inland Empire, one in 32 did. In greater Las Vegas, one in 35 households received a notice. We use household advisedly since nobody lives in many of these homes or collects the mail. Close to the ground, a growing suspicion is that the numbers even understate the troubles because banks see no point in foreclosing on empty, unsellable homes. Local governments complain of not being able to find anyone to dun for upkeep because the owner has absconded and yet no bank has filed foreclosure papers.

To be sure, the disaster is not entirely confined to vast tracts of exurban no-man's lands in the Southwest. The Star Ledger of Newark, where home prices once were rising 50% a year, describes 66 Norwood Street, financed by Countrywide for a speculative buyer who rented it out while never making a payment on her $325,000 mortgage. Fannie now owns the house, which burned twice between a final order evicting the tenant and Fannie's crew arriving to board the place up.

Multiply that by entire neighborhoods of brand new, large homes, built on cheap land far from town or amenities in the subprime ground zero of California, Arizona and Nevada. Failing an improvement on God's damp squib of an earthquake in subprime country yesterday, some sort of strategy is going be priority one for the next president.

So far, Washington has put its political capital into trying to refinance salvageable homes for unsalvageable homeowners, when a relevant policy would consist of judiciously buying unsalvageable houses and demolishing them. Fannie and Freddie's strength is housing market software: They could be put to work devising a least-cost, maximum-bang strategy for demolishing unoccupied homes to preserve as much value as possible for the homeowners and mortgage creditors who remain.

Of course, right now their overriding imperative is to avoid recognizing losses rather than rushing toward them -- which is why Fannie and Freddie should be nationalized (and later privatized). One way or the other, taxpayers will end up owning thousands of unwanted houses. It's not too soon to begin limiting our costs.

By: Holman Jenkins, Jr.
Wall Street Journal; July 30, 2008

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