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Saturday, February 23, 2008

"From the New Deal, a Way Out of a Mess"

Alan Blinder says it's time to bring back the HOLC:

From the New Deal, a Way Out of a Mess, by Alan S. Blinder, Economic View, NY Times: ...Wounded financial markets are supposed to cure themselves: asset prices fall, bargain hunters rush in and markets return to normal. But so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening much. Instead, house prices keep dropping, the mortgage-foreclosure problem grows and new strains in the financial system keep popping up like a not-very-funny version of Whack-a-Mole.

While the problems are multifaceted, I have several reasons for focusing on just one aspect of the mess: the potential tsunami of home foreclosures. First, it strikes home, literally. Foreclosures throw families — some of whom were victims of deception — into the streets. ...

A second reason is that reducing the wave of foreclosures would mitigate the closely related financial crises in home mortgages and the alphabet soup of financial creations based on them (M.B.S., S.I.V.’s, C.D.O.’s, etc.). ...

A third reason for focusing on foreclosures is that we’ve seen this film before. During the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress dealt with huge impending foreclosures by creating the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Now, a small but growing group of academics and public figures ... is calling for the federal government to bring back something like the HOLC. Count me in.

The HOLC was established in June 1933 to help distressed families avert foreclosures by replacing mortgages that were in or near default with new ones that homeowners could afford. It did so by buying old mortgages from banks ... and then issuing new loans to homeowners. The HOLC financed itself by borrowing from capital markets and the Treasury.

The scale of the operation was impressive. Within two years, the HOLC received about 1.9 million applications ... and granted just over a million new mortgages. (Adjusting only for population growth, the corresponding mortgage figure today would be almost 2.5 million.) Nearly one of every five mortgages in America became owned by the HOLC. Its total lending over its lifetime amounted to $3.5 billion — a colossal sum equal to 5 percent of a year’s gross domestic product at the time. (The corresponding figure today would be about $750 billion.)

As a public corporation chartered for a public purpose, the HOLC was a patient and even lenient lender. It tried to keep delinquent borrowers on track with debt counseling... But times were tough in the 1930s, and nearly 20 percent of the HOLC’s borrowers defaulted anyway. So the corporation eventually acquired ownership of about 200,000 houses, nearly all of which were sold by 1944. The HOLC closed its books in 1951, or 15 years after its last 1936 mortgage was paid off, with a small profit. It was a heavy lift, but the incredible HOLC lifted it.

Today’s lift would be far lighter. And a good thing, too, because our government is far more timid and divided than Roosevelt’s. ...

What about the operation’s scale? Based on current estimates, ... the new HOLC might need to borrow and lend as much as $200 billion to $400 billion. ...

Given current low interest rates, a new HOLC could borrow cheaply and should find it easy to earn a two-percentage-point spread between borrowing and lending rates, for a gross profit of maybe $4 billion to $8 billion a year.

What about loan losses? A 10 percent loss rate, or $20 billion to $40 billion, spread over the life of the institution, seems incredibly pessimistic. (The original HOLC experienced a 9.6 percent loss rate during the Depression.) So the new HOLC seems likely to turn a profit, just as the old one did. But even if it loses a few billion, we must remember its public purpose: to help the economy recover, not to make a buck. By comparison, the new economic stimulus package has a price tag of $168 billion.

It is said that history never repeats itself. But sometimes there are sequels. Now is the time to re-establish the Incredible HOLC.

Count me in too. If the government can improve the flow of resources in financial markets by absorbing some of the risk of foreclosures through a social insurance arrangement, and do so in an way where the downside risk isn't all that large (there's an expected profit under most scenarios), then why not?

Update: Richard Green adds:

Alan Blinder and Mark Thoma want to bring back the HOLC, by Richard Green: ...I am myself a fan of the HOLC, and have said so in articles I wrote with Susan Wachter for Journal of Economic Perspectives and for the Jackson Hole conference last summer, as well as a comment I just wrote for Housing Policy Debate. Yet I am not sure it is alone the medicine for the current crisis.

When the Home Owners Loan Corporation was invented, it was in response to an economic tsunami that swamped lenders and homeowners. Moral hazard was not much of an issue, as loans were stringently underwritten (typical LTVs were 50 percent at origination). But loans had short terms, and therefore were vulnerable when people were forced to refinance in the teeth of the great depression. The HOLC allowed for massive loan modification and helped get incentives for borrowers and lenders aligned correctly.

Now, however, we are in the midst of a crisis that has arisen in part because of agency problems throughout the lending chain. To bail out lenders through some sort of HOLC setup could very well encourage excessive risk taking in the future, which is of course problematic.

I think if we are going to go the HOLC route, it needs to be accompanied by a regulatory structure that will prevent the sort of bad practices that led to the current crisis going forward. As I have noted before, such regulatory changes would require greater transparency, a requirement that everyone who touches a mortgage be subject to federal supervision, and a requirement that everyone who touches a mortgage have some capital at risk.

    Posted by on Saturday, February 23, 2008 at 04:20 PM in Economics, Housing, Policy, Social Insurance | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (149)

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