Speaking of moral hazard

This really is a kick in the gut to struggling homeowners. To turn this into a straight transaction analysis when underwater mortgages are such a huge drag on the economy is just plain crazy:

The federal regulator for government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said Tuesday that he would not allow the firms to reduce loan balances of troubled borrowers, saying there would be no clear-cut financial benefit and that such a move could cause some homeowners to intentionally default in hopes of getting taxpayer aid.

“We concluded that the potential benefit was too small and uncertain, relative to the known and unknown costs and risks,” said Edward J. DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The decision came after months of internal analysis at FHFA and sustained pressure from the Obama administration, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill and housing advocates, who argued that so-called “principal reduction” was an essential tool needed in helping to soften the fallout of the housing crisis.

Reaction to DeMarco’s decision came swiftly Tuesday afternoon.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner struck an unusually personal tone in chastising DeMarco for his decision, even while acknowledging DeMarco’s role as an independent regulator of Fannie and Freddie.

“Five years into the housing crisis, millions of homeowners are still struggling to stay in their homes and the legacy of the crisis continues to weigh on the market,” Geithner wrote in a letter to DeMarco on Tuesday. “You have the power to help more struggling homeowners and help heal the remaining damage from the housing crisis.”

Paul Krugman responded by calling for DeMarco to be fired:

DeMarco’s basis for the rejection was that this forgiveness would represent a net loss to taxpayers, even if his agency came out ahead.

That’s a very arguable point even on its own terms, because the paper he cited (pdf) in support of his stance took no account of the positive effects on the economy of debt relief — even though those effects are the main reason for offering such relief. Since a reduction in debt burdens would strengthen the economy, this would mean greater revenue — and this might well offset any losses from the debt forgiveness itself.

Furthermore, even if there’s a small net cost to taxpayers, debt relief is still worth doing if it yields large economic benefits.

In any case, however, deciding whether debt relief is a good policy for the nation as a whole is not DeMarco’s job. His job — as long as he keeps it, which I hope is a very short period of time — is to run his agency. If the Secretary of the Treasury, acting on behalf of the president, believes that it is in the national interest to spend some taxpayer funds on debt relief, in a way that actually improves the FHFA’s budget position, the agency’s director has no business deciding on his own that he prefers not to act.

I don’t know what DeMarco’s specific legal mandate is. But there is simply no way that it makes sense for an agency director to use his position to block implementation of the president’s economic policy, not because it would hurt his agency’s operations, but simply because he disagrees with that policy.

This guy needs to go.

Krugman’s right. It’s not DeMarco’s job to impose his philosophical orientation on his agency.

Hat tip to V.E. Hicks, attorney!

2 thoughts on “Speaking of moral hazard

  1. A bankster (DeMarco) deciding on the side of the banks and against consumers is a big surprise? Whoever gave DeMarco his job should fire him. Wasn’t that the Obama administration? In Canada (who everyone likes to cite when they are talking about health care) there is NO tax deduction given for buying and owning a home. Consequently, only 50% of Canadians have a mortgage. In order to get a mortgage in Canada the buyer must put down 25% of the value of the home at closing. If memory serves, as the US housing market was collapsing the folks in Canada were doing just fine. The Canadian governmental system looks better and better with each passing day. Maybe we should try it here in the good old USA?

  2. DeMarco will resign quietly and then end up at Goldman or JPM as reward for this policy stance. It will be announced on a Friday and be dumped with all the other news garbage to be ignored by the MSM. He will then be replaced by another financial insider whose name will be known by other insiders. Meanwhile, the beat will go on.

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