Homeowners, Lenders Last Line of Defense: Denial
1. Looking backward, home buyers paid too much, and lenders wrote contracts that exposed them to the homeowners’ losses. With home values declining by something like $2 trillion, we are in a mad scramble to divide the loss between homeowners, lenders and taxpayers. In the meantime, homeowners and lenders are exercising their last line of defense: denial. Many homeowners are refusing to sell their homes at prices that can attract buyers. Many lenders are refusing to sell their mortgage-backed securities at prices that can attract buyers. All this denial gets in the way of the normal price discovery process, leaving stranded assets held by owners who think they are worth more than potential buyers.
2. Nonetheless, our financial institutions are doing a pretty good job. Our financial markets are supposed tell us how wealthy we are. This year the large drop in equity valuations is sending a pretty clear message: we are not as wealthy as we thought. That seems adequately accurate; no big problem there. Our financial markets also provide credit to consumers and businesses to help grow our economy. Outside of housing the economy is doing pretty well, and there is no clear evidence of a credit crunch seriously impinging on either business spending or consumer spending even though Wall Street pundits for more than a year have been ringing out loud alarm bells about an imminent credit contraction (see related CD post). Though business spending and consumer spending are a bit weak, that weakness properly reflects the fundamentals of the economy and is not a symptom of a credit crunch. So what’s the problem, Mr. Secretary?
3. One honest way to transfer the losses directly to the taxpayers would have the Treasury buy homes directly at inflated prices and rent them to deserving Americans. Though the Treasury Plan involves buying mortgage backed securities at inflated prices, keep in mind that foreclosures will then turn the homes over to Uncle Sam. For $700 billion, the Treasury could purchase 2.3 million homes at an average price of $300,000. That is way more than is necessary. A half a million should be enough to unclog the system. Uncle Sam could purchase foreclosed homes, mow the lawns, fix the broken windows and rent them out to deserving families. That would help the other homes in the neighborhood sell at favorable prices.
~Edward Leamer, UCLA economics professor