The housing market and growing number of foreclosures are placing an enormous strain on American households and the economy. There were more than 2.2 foreclosures started last year and house prices are in the worst decline since the Great Depression. Fixing these problems must be a priority for the next administration.
The government needs to take a two-pronged approach. The first part — stabilizing the housing market — is something I have discussed widely. In a plan developed with Dean Glenn Hubbard, I propose that the government allow new mortgages to be issued at a rate that is 1.6 percent above the rate of a 10-year Treasury bond. That new rate, which may be as low as 4 percent for conforming mortgages, will stabilize the housing market, provide a fiscal stimulus and raise housing demand.
The second part is preventing foreclosures, which I spoke about today in an interview with CNBC (watch video). My Columbia University colleagues Edward Morrison and Tomasz Piskorski and I have outlined a new proposal for reducing foreclosures. We propose a combination of an incentive fee program for service providers and a legislative initiative to modify servicing agreements.
Ours is a new approach that focuses on what has been the most intractable part of the foreclosure problem: the behavior of third-party servicers who manage portfolios of securitized portfolios. Recent research from Thomas Piskorski, Amit Seru and Vikrant Vig shows that third-party servicers opt for foreclosure much more often than banks that service their own loans.
The proposal eliminates the barriers that prevent these third-party servicers from better managing their portfolios. The first step is to create an incentive fee structure to make loan modification rewarding for both servicer and investor. Secondly, temporary legislation must remove explicit barriers for modifying PSAs and should create “litigation safe harbor” that insulates servicers, provided they modify loans in good faith for investors. We calculate that by taking these steps, up to one million foreclosures can be prevented at a modest cost of $10.7 billion to taxpayers.
The way to fund solutions on both these fronts is with TARP expenditures. If the new administration makes this a priority, they can facilitate economic recovery, reduce foreclosures and help struggling homeowners while protecting taxpayers.