Thursday, August 2, 2012
The authorities noted that the series of measures taken since last year to support the housing market were starting to bear fruit. These measures include in particular an expansion of the Home Affordable Refinancing Program (HARP) for loans owned or guaranteed by the GSEs, and a strengthening of the Home Affordable Modification Plan (HAMP), including loosened eligibility criteria through the elimination of debt service-to-income cutoffs, and the tripling of incentives for investors to carry out principal reductions under HAMP’s Principal Reduction Alternative (PRA) (Box 5). Recent data suggests that the October 2011expansion of HARP seems to have led to a significant increase in HARP refinancing. The share of loans that have benefited from a principal reduction under the modification program (Home Affordable Modification program of HAMP) has also been on the rise, and early signs show that the tripling of the incentives for principal reductions is receiving interest from investors, and is likely to spur further principal reductions in the future. The recent State Attorneys General Settlement with the major banks, which resolved claims about improper foreclosures and abuses in servicing the loans, could lead in the medium run to a non-trivial reduction in foreclosures, including through up to $34 billion of principal reduction. Early signs indicate that the settlement has led banks to delay foreclosures and also to increasingly substitute them with “short sales” of underwater properties, which are less costly and count toward the banks’ commitment for principal reduction under the settlement. The authorities highlighted that greater reliance on short sales, as opposed to foreclosures, could support the housing market going forward.
The mission welcomed this progress, but also noted that more aggressive policy action may be warranted to accelerate the resolution of the housing crisis. As noted in the Fed’s November 2011 white paper, housing markets do not self-correct efficiently and, absent forceful policies to support the market, prices could fall below their equilibrium levels due to feedback loops from prices to demand and supply. If house prices are anticipated to decline, potential buyers could stay out of the market even if interest rates are low. Moreover, a decline in prices reduces housing equity, triggering further defaults and foreclosures. Foreclosures, in turn, put renewed downward pressure on prices, not only by adding to the supply of houses for sale, but also because they lead to a destruction of value and impose “deadweight” losses on the economy, hurting consumer wealth and credit availability.
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