In an Oct. 2 column published in the Wall Street Journal (“First, Let's Stabilize Home Prices”), Dean Glenn Hubbard and Prof. Chris Mayer propose that bolstering housing prices will improve the intent of the Treasury’s bailout plan. They write:

We propose that the Bush administration and Congress allow all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25% (matching the lowest mortgage rate in the past 30 years), and place those mortgages with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Investors and speculators should not be allowed to qualify.

The historical spread of the 30-year, fixed-rate conforming mortgage over 10-year Treasury bonds is about 160 basis points. So a rate of 5.25% would be close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets. One of us (Chris Mayer) recently published a study showing that — assuming normally functioning mortgage markets — the cost of buying a house is now 10% to 15% below the cost of renting across most of the country. Rising mortgage spreads and down-payment requirements are what’s still driving down housing prices. We need to stop this decline.

The direct cost of this plan would be modest for the 85% of mortgages where the homeowner owes less on the house than it is worth. Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices. The government now controls nearly 90% of the mortgage market and can (and should) act on this realization. Remove the refinancing option and you can have lower rates without substantial cost to the taxpayer. Homeowners would have to give up the right to refinance their mortgage if rates fall, although homeowners could pay off their mortgage by selling their home. For borrowers with lower credit scores, the mortgage rate would be greater than 5.25%, but it would be less than their current rate.

Now, what about mortgages on homes that are worth less than the total amount of the loan? These mortgages could be refinanced into a 30-year fixed-rate loan to be held by a new agency modeled on the 1930s-era Homeowners Loan Corporation. New mortgages would be made of up 95% of the current value of a home.

The government might use two approaches to mitigate its losses. It could offer owners and servicers the opportunity to split the losses on refinancing a mortgage with the new agency. Servicers would have to agree to accept these refinancings on all or none of their mortgages, to avoid cherry-picking. Or the government should take an equity position in return for the mortgage write-down so that the taxpayers profit when the housing market turns around.