At the end of October, the Obama Administration announced changes to the Home Affordability Refinance Program that conceivably will make as many as 2 million more homeowners eligible for refinancing over the next two years. This will lower the default risk for the government sponsored entities and their ultimate backers, the American taxpayers, and should provide some level of economic stimulus.
But it will help housing only indirectly, because it doesn’t address the two strongest headwinds that are depressing housing prices: negative equity and shadow inventory. Addressing these challenges will require new thinking on the strategic use of principal reductions. Although the cost of this approach would be significant, it could be far less than the $699-billion price tag usually associated with negative equity and could save as many as three million more at-risk homeowners.
The drop in mortgage rates to record lows in 2011 has not resulted in the expected surge in refinances. The reasons for the lack of refinance activity include: the prevalence of negative equity; insufficient borrower credit quality or income; GSE hurdles, such as loan-level price adjustments, and investors' unwillingness to give up their rights to require lenders to repurchase loans that did not meet GSE guidelines. Repurchase risk makes lenders less willing to take on more liability and due diligence risk (although Harp II attempts to address some of these concerns).
There already have been many government efforts to aid borrowers in refinancing, which include version one of Harp, Hope for Homeowners and the FHA Short Refinance program. They have not produced sufficient volume to dramatically influence housing market conditions because the eligibility criteria were too tight, the rates offered were too high, or borrowers had qualification constraints.
We have seen adjustments made to Harp, but only time will reveal the full economic stimulus effect of increased refinance activity.
It's important to note that a bond investor’s interest income is a borrower's interest expense. That means that refinancing millions of borrowers and offering them lower rates would reduce household mortgage expenses, but it would also reduce investors' interest income by roughly the same proportion.
History, as a guide, shows that in prior large refinance waves, with only one exception, there was no real discernable impact on consumer spending. The only exception occurred in 2003, when the mortgage market experienced the largest refinance wave ever recorded. Even then, the impact on consumer spending was small and transitory, and the potential refinance wave this time would be smaller. In any case, refinancing existing mortgage balances does not address the fundamental issue of negative equity.
The large number of homes with negative equity is holding back purchase demand for homes by reducing household mobility and elevating the risk that seriously delinquent borrowers will move into foreclosure because they don’t have enough equity to refinance or sell their homes.
As of the third quarter, 22 percent of U.S. homes — nearly 11 million borrowers — were upside down. The average such borrower was upside down by $65,000 and aggregate negative equity was more than $699 billion. If negative equity diminishes, it will greatly aid the housing market recovery by unlocking pent-up demand and reducing foreclosure risk. As would be expected, re-default rates for modifications with principal reduction are much lower than other modification.
There are many concerns with principal reduction, but moral hazard and costs to banks and taxpayers are the two that stand out.