The perfect metaphor for the housing crisis sits, ignominiously, off the coast of Italy. That lumbering hulk of a ship – the once Grand Concordia — is stuck, half sunk, going nowhere, and the prospects for the situation improving are problematic at best. Refloat? Scrap? Maritime experts are weighing the pros and cons, but I think there's general agreement about siphoning off the fuel before a possible leak turns pristine waters into a very toxic mess.
The Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, had piloted this close-coast route before, so what could go wrong?
The once buoyant housing market, like the doomed vessel, also carried a full complement of passengers, in this case millions of Americans sailing their way towards home ownership. This cruise ship, flying a sub-prime flag, also found itself confidently navigating treacherous waters, until — surprise, surprise — it found itself eviscerated on the business end of an underwater boulder. The captains — let's say a succession of them — most notably Alan Greenspan, never saw it coming.
Perhaps Greenspan, along with cohorts Rubin and Summers, were snow blinded by the fame bestowed upon them in that now iconic, if not downright ironic, 1999 Time Magazine cover: "The Committee to Save the World." Now whenever I see a recent picture of Alan Greenspan, he sports this sad, hangdog Woody Allen look. I half expect him to open up a stand up gig with "Perhaps you recognize me? I once saved the world, now, I need a bit of help. Can anyone help me save my reputation?"
During the last few years, the present administration has desperately tried to re-float the housing market with relatively little success. Hamp/Harp and a whole range of similar anti-foreclosure initiatives have done little to keep people in their homes. Unlike the present effort to pump out Concordia's fuel tanks and prevent pollution, the toxic mess caused by the spillover of so-called "legacy loans" continues to foul the waters. When the financial dam exploded in 2008, it also carried millions down the turbulent rapids into foreclosure, leaving in its wake a vast inventory of homes — the so-called shadow inventory — sitting forlorn, like the Concordia, waiting for someone to come along and figure out what to do next.
The proposals for solving the problem come from all the usual suspects — the Fed, HUD, among others — all tiptoeing through a prickly path in a forest of wishful bureaucratic thinking. There was the January 4th release of Fed's "The U.S. Housing Market: Current Conditions and Policy Considerations," which speculated on the possibilities of turning REO's into somebody's dream rental or tying pretty ribbons on bunches of foreclosures to attract yet-to-be-identified investors.
As far as the other variable in the equation – the homeowners still sitting in a financially submerged house — maybe some principal reduction would be beneficial? Well, try and persuade Fannie/Freddie, owners of nearly half of this country's mortgages, to swallow that bitter pill. Good luck: they've already (at least at the time of this writing) said get lost.
What's needed, I'd suggest are some approaches to the housing problem concocted by thinkers outside the industry or government. Perhaps the Fed should consider sponsoring a think-tank style conference but keep it off limits to the legions of housing economists, the lobbyists hawking for the financial services industry and, by all means, the bureaucrats and politicians. Seriously.
As far as possible invitees? Why not reach out to the forces of Occupy? They've made their presence felt in Zuccotti Park, but, now, quietly, have engaged in some real solution slinging. Occupy the SEC, a group that counts quite a few financial services types in its ranks, recently completed a 325-page comment letter submitted to the SEC, that critiques the efforts of industry lobbyists to de-fang Dodd-Frank, while throwing their weight (and the weight of their arguments) behind Volcker and his rule.