Fed Chair Bernanke Warns Foreclosures Could Sink US Economy — Is He Threatening Lenders?

In a speech today at the Columbia Business School, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke issued his strongest warning to date about the danger of the rising tide of home foreclosures sinking the US economy.

“High rates of delinquency and foreclosure,” Bernanke said, “can have substantial spillover effects on the housing market, the financial markets, and the broader economy.”

Bernanke began by detailing some of the nasty numbers of the foreclosure crisis:

  • About one quarter of subprime adjustable-rate mortgages are currently 90 days or more delinquent or in foreclosure.
  • Foreclosure proceedings were initiated on some 1.5 million U.S. homes during 2007, up 53 percent from 2006.
  • The rate of foreclosure starts is likely to be even higher in 2008.
  • Delinquency rates have increased in the prime and near-prime segments of the mortgage market.

He then warned that the catastrophic effects of these millions of foreclosure proceedings will extend far beyond the parties to the mortgage:

“It is important to recognize,” Bernanke said, “that the costs of foreclosure may extend well beyond those borne directly by the borrower and the lender.  Clusters of foreclosures can destabilize communities, reduce the property values of nearby homes, and lower municipal tax revenues.  At both the local and national levels, foreclosures add to the stock of homes for sale, increasing downward pressure on home prices in general.” 

“In the current environment, more-rapid declines in house prices may have an adverse impact on the broader economy and, through their effects on the valuation of mortgage-related assets, on the stability of the financial system.”

The real threat that the foreclosure crisis posed to the overall economy, Bernanke said, was “the declines in home values, which reduce homeowners’ equity and may consequently affect their ability or incentive to make the financial sacrifices necessary to stay in their homes.”

The responses to the foreclosure crisis specifically endorsed by Bernanke were nothing new —  working with community groups trying to acquire and restore vacant properties; encouraging lenders and mortgage servicers to work with at-risk borrowers; developing new lending standards to prevent abusive lending practices; working with the Bush administration’s Hope Now Alliance; expanding the use of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to address problems in mortgage markets.

But we think that the tone and perspective of his speech signaled that he was far more ready than the current administration to endorse a wide-ranging federal program to aid homeowners who are in default.

Bernanke came close to saying as much:  “Realistic public and private-sector policies must take into account the fact that traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies may not always work well in the current environment.”

We think by “traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies” Bernanke meant voluntary procedures undertaken by the financial market itself; the “non-traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies” that Bernanke suggested might be necessary would then be mandatory procedures imposed on the market.

We therefore think that Bernanke’s speech contained a threat to the very financial institutions that the Fed has been so generous toward for the past six months.

So far, lenders have been asked to voluntarily help stem the foreclosure crisis by working with homeowners.  Now it appears that Bernanke may be close to supporting mandatory restraints on foreclosures.

We think Bernanke may have been saying this to the lenders and the leaders of the financial market: “We’ve made billions of cheap dollars available to you, so that you could stay afloat and so that you could make this money available for new borrowing and refinancing to prevent foreclosures.  You have not kept your end of the bargain.  If you don’t move much further along this path soon,  it is in the interest of the US economy overall to force you to do so.”

The lenders and financial institutions haven’t listened to threats from Congressional Democrats like Barney Frank or taken the voluntary actions requested by the Bush administration.

Maybe they’ll listen to today’s warning by Ben Bernanke.

We think they’d better.

 

 

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