I missed a chance to be on CNN again (gosh darn it!) in order to do an hour long show on NPR Oregon with economist Brad DeLong. The show got me thinking about a simpler way to fix the current problem than doing reverse auctions of toxic assets. Simpler economically and politically.
Here it is:
Any American with a mortgage can trade it in for a government one for the same principal amount, at a fixed 7 percent interest per annum, for any term up to 50 years. In return, the government will pay off the existing mortgage with a Treasury bond with the same market value and maturity as the mortgage it is replacing. The lender can then hold the bond on its balance sheet until maturity, sell it in the market, use it as collateral for a loan, strip and sell the coupons, etc.
Because the government can at present borrow at far less than 7 percent, and because it can easily garnish wages using existing (tax) infrastructure, this will not be a bailout but rather a source of revenue which can be applied to pay down the national debt. (See my blog entry below about the colonial loan offices, which prove that governments can and have profited by providing mortgages to citizens.) The two keys are extending the term of the mortgage to the point that homeowners can afford to make the payment and making sure that borrowers don't default simply because they are "in the bucket" (have negative equity) by using the coercive power of the state. Anyone who prefers to default rather than take the government loan may do so, at which point the lienholders (new owners) may, if they wish, mortgage the property to the government for the amount they are owed. (Or they can resell or rent it, as they prefer.)
The plan is also much more palatable politically than the current administration plan, for several reasons:
a) as noted above, it is not a bailout, but rather the entry of a new lending competitor that can win borrowers away from current mortgage lenders due to its long time horizon and low cost of funds. This is a major point because NOBODY wants a bailout if one can be avoided;
b) it does not require the creation of a new government bureaucracy (like the Homeowners Loan Corporation of the Great Depression) because existing agencies and workers can handle the minimal work involved, so fiscal responsibility types (who I admire) can support it without hypocrisy;
c) helping financial services firms by eliminating their root problem (defaulted mortgages) is much more popular than directly bailing out "Wall Street fat cats," which is especially important in an election year;
d) since any American with a mortgage automatically qualifies, this proposal does not directely discriminate against fiscally careful Americans nor does it unduly reward the fiscally profligate.
Of course most of those who will take the government mortgages will be subprime borrowers paying greater than 7%, those who got caught with teaser rates, ARMs, etc., and those about to be foreclosed upon.
This is a half hour's work, so I reserve the right to modify details if I have erred conceptually.
Finally, if done just right this is an example of a Pareto improving policy, a concept I urged politicians earlier this month to consider more carefully before going for the partisan jugular.
Your Humble and Obedient Servant ...