If you don't learn from the past ...
If the mortgage crisis and housing bubble have taught us one thing, it should be to watch out for the unintended consequences of greed. Unfortunately, our nation's legislators and political appointees haven't learned that lesson. Recent plans for housing and mortgage bailouts generally run from dumb to dumber. Today, The Wall Street Journal reported on yet another scheme, reportedly being spearheaded by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. It's an idea so naively populist and antimarket that you would think it came from Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, if not for its cringe-inducing, Beltway-wonk moniker: the Hope Now Alliance.
In short, bankers and loan-servicing outfits are going to lower interest rates on strapped borrowers so they don't lose their houses. How much, how long, and who qualifies are all still up in the air. No doubt, this will sound good to those folks who signed on for mortgages they can't actually afford. It will also look good to politicians angling to score points before the next election, and to bleeding hearts everywhere. It will also look good to select mortgage-industry players -- like Countrywide Financial (NYSE: CFC ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , which could really use a government-led bailout.
Unfortunately, this ill-conceived salve will ultimately punish the silent majority of Americans, people who didn't go out and make boneheaded financial decisions over the past half-decade. Let's take a look at why.
A history of the housing Ponzi scheme
Since 2001, too-cheap financing pumped up housing prices to ridiculous levels. This was enabled by speculative lending from Wall Street to Main Street: Big banks like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , Bear Stearns (NYSE: BSC ) and others were providing the lending capital to outfits like death-watch candidate Countrywide, mostly dead NovaStar Financial and Impac Mortgage Holdings, along with dozens of completely dead lenders. They did this by purchasing mortgage loans from these lenders so that they could chop them into mortgage-backed securities of dizzying complexity and dubious credit quality, which were, in turn, sold to suckers ... er, "investors" all over the world.
This provided a musical-chairs-like situation in which lenders produced as much volume as they could, no matter how bad the loans or credit risk, because they got paid to pass that risk along, through Wall Street's Wise bankers, to whatever "investor" ended up with the loans, in the form of stuff called MBS, CDOs, CDO-squared, R2D2, and so on. There was a flood of money to the lenders, which stimulated excessive demand, in turn stimulating excessive price appreciation. (You will note that there was no Paulson-led "Hope Now Alliance" coming together at that point to try and rein in this dangerous orgy of greed, though the consequences were plain to anyone who bothered to examine it.)
Greedy flippers and naive homebuyers resorted to gimmicky loans, like interest-only and "option" adjustable-rate mortgages, because it was the only way they could pay inflated prices for the properties they wanted. They got a few years of artificially low payments, thanks to artificially low teaser rates. The catch was that when the loans reset after a few years, they'd jump up several points, to 9%, 10%, 11%.
This may not sound like a big deal, until you run the math on the payments to see that many people would be facing twice the mortgage bill they were used to. Now that those mortgages are resetting and home prices are dropping like rocks, they can't make their payments, and they can't flip the houses for a profit, so loans are defaulting. The fancy securities -- what I call Wall Street dog food -- have become nearly worthless, and the music has stopped, without any chairs for anyone. Ironically, stupid, leveraged bets on these lousy securities have crippled the banks themselves, and CEOs and other execs have been getting the boot at places like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER ) , and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) .
Hank to the rescue!
Hank Paulson's latest plan to protect homebuyers from their own mistakes is simple: Lenders extend those teaser rates for a few years. It's a win-win, right? What's the harm, especially when there's no bill to pay? You just reset those interest rates to low levels, and everything will be fine, right? Who could be against a policy that would keep Americans in their homes? One negotiated with the private sector itself?
This Fool, for one.
Making the credit crunch crunchier
Remember, the only reason those teaser-rate loans were made in the first place was because lenders (and thus the investors buying the mortgages from the lenders) could count on a much larger, contractually guaranteed payoff in the future, when those interest rates were due to reset. Take away that payoff, and you take away any incentive to loan to borrowers of marginal credit quality. Usher in an era when government and banks reset loan rates at their whim, and you can be sure that investors will never again buy securities based on adjustable-rate mortgages.
If you think credit is tight now, just wait until you yank away potential returns from the people putting up the capital for all those loans.
And let's not forget that Paulson's plan introduces an incredible moral hazard. By rescuing greedy and naive borrowers from their mistakes, our government encourages others to take big, stupid, bankruptcy-inducing risks, secure in the knowledge that the government will bail them out when times get rough. That means trillions of dollars in capital will be ill-invested yet again, something that's much less likely to happen when speculators are made to suffer the consequences of their behavior.
No free lunches
Here's another problem. Someone is going to have to foot the bill for this. Banks and associated entities that will, over the short term, finance this homeowner bailout are not going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Reported Hope Now Alliance honchos such as Countrywide and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) are, I'm certain, only doing this because they hope it will be cheaper than having to pay up for their lending sins all at once. Moreover, it gives them a chance to look like good guys who care about the commoners -- never mind that they were quite happy to fleece borrowers with gawd-awful mortgage "affordability products" for years.
Still, this will sting some of these banks and mortgage servicers, so you can bet they're going to pass along the costs. They're going to do it by firing employees. (Countrywide and Citigroup are already doing that.) They're going to do it by moving offices to offshore tax havens, outsourcing, closing branches, lowering deposit rates, hiking fees, and whatever else it takes. (Golden parachutes for Wall Street failures are pricey.)
Worst of all, they're going to do it by soaking future borrowers -- people like the majority of us, who didn't do something stupid -- with higher rates than we would have otherwise paid for mortgage loans, credit cards, and commercial loans. They'll have to. They've got their own lenders to pay, and those lenders aren't going to simply hand over-stretched Americans a pile of money.
Foolish final thought
There's another reason that Paulson's latest plan will punish the public. It will have the effect of artificially supporting a home-price bubble that desperately needs a correction. Historical rent-to-purchase data show just how far home prices need to come down in order to return to mean. That requires a painful drop, and it will happen sooner or later.
Paulson's plan means fewer homes dumped back on the market at lower prices, where they belong. Now that he's a politician and not the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Paulson apparently believes that the market shouldn't be allowed to correct on its own. He's wrong about that, and he's wrong to support any plan that will only delay the inevitable. Better the quick, painful correction than the decades-long, slow bleed that he's nurturing now. For evidence of how ugly things get when policymakers try to coddle the financial industry rather than let the market apply its harsher, faster, medicines, just take a look at how long the banking mess continued in Japan.
Of course, a decade from now, if the economy is still suffering because of an ill-conceived housing bailout plan designed to win favor with the public and cover the economic hind-end of his boss, George Bush, Paulson won't have to issue any gomen nasai. He'll already be long gone, retired to his millions.
You and I will pay the bills.