N.Y. Times Editorial Calls for Foreclosure Prevention Legislation Before the Next Mortgage Meltdown

The New York Times entered into the politics of the foreclosure crisis with an explosive editorial today accusing the Bush administration of failing to protect the economy and instead “sowing confusion and delay” in the face of the mortgage meltdown.

Here’s what the Times said:

“The housing bust is feeding on itself: price declines provoke foreclosures, which provoke more price declines. And the problem is not limited to subprime mortgages. There is an entirely different category of risky loans whose impact has yet to be felt — loans made to creditworthy borrowers but with tricky terms and interest rates that will start climbing next year.”

“Yet the Senate Banking Committee goes on talking. It has failed as yet to produce a bill to aid borrowers at risk of foreclosure, with the panel’s ranking Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, raising objections. In the House, a foreclosure aid measure passed recently, but with the support of only 39 Republicans. The White House has yet to articulate a coherent way forward, sowing confusion and delay.”

“[I]f house prices fall more than expected — a peak-to-trough decline of 20 percent to 25 percent is the rough consensus, with the low point in mid-2009 — financial losses and economic pain could extend well into 2011.”

“That is because a category of risky adjustable-rate loans — dubbed Alt-A, for alternative to grade-A prime loans — is scheduled to reset to higher payments starting in 2009, with losses mounting into 2010 and 2011. Distinct from subprime loans, Alt-A loans were made to generally creditworthy borrowers, but often without verification of income or assets and on tricky terms, including the option to pay only the interest due each month. Some loans allow borrowers to pay even less than the interest due monthly, and add the unpaid portion to the loan balance. Every payment increases the amount owed.”

“In coming years, if price declines are in line with expectations, Alt-A losses are projected to total about $150 billion, an amount the financial system could probably absorb. But until investors are sure that price declines will hew to the consensus, the financial system will not regain a sure footing. And if declines are worse than expected, losses will also be worse and the turmoil in the financial system will resume.”

“There’s a way to avert that calamity. It’s called foreclosure prevention. There is no excuse for delay.”

We agree with the Times that effective foreclosure prevention legislation is long overdue.  As the Times pointed out, unless Congress acts fast, it is likely that the economic consequences of the bursting of the housing bubble will be even more serious and widespread.

Even Fed Chair Ben Bernanke — who could not be called an advocate of government intervention in the markets — has stated that “High rates of delinquency and foreclosure can have substantial spillover effects on the housing market, the financial markets, and the broader economy” and that what is at stake is not merely the homes of borrowers, but “the stability of the financial system.” 

We also can not imagine a more self-defeating political strategy than that of the Republicans who have opposed foreclosure prevention legislation. 

We’ve already written about Senator Richard Shelby’s close ties to the apartment owners industry, which has aggressively opposed federal aid to homeowners in, or near, default.

Surely, with the presidential election only months away and their party in trouble, more Republicans — including Senator McCain — should see the need for coming to terms with the economic, and political, realities of the foreclosure crisis, even if it requires ideological compromise.

 

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