Fed Chairman Bernanke today called for lenders to reduce principal on homeowners with negative equity. He also noted that for properties foreclosed in the fourth quarter, the estimated total losses exceeded 50% percent of the principal balance. Bernanke argued this gives lenders significant incentive to avoid foreclosure and write-down principal.
From Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: Reducing Preventable Mortgage Foreclosures
This situation calls for a vigorous response. Measures to reduce preventable foreclosures could help not only stressed borrowers but also their communities and, indeed, the broader economy. At the level of the individual community, increases in foreclosed-upon and vacant properties tend to reduce house prices in the local area, affecting other homeowners and municipal tax bases. At the national level, the rise in expected foreclosures could add significantly to the inventory of vacant unsold homes--already at more than 2 million units at the end of 2007--putting further pressure on house prices and housing construction.Bernanke notes that temporary measures just postpone foreclosure, and he urges lenders to consider reducing principal for homeowners underwater:
Measures that lead to a sustainable outcome are to be preferred to temporary palliatives ...Of course, if it becomes common for lenders to reduce principal, their phones will be ringing off the hook!
In cases where refinancing is not possible, the next-best solution may often be some type of loss-mitigation arrangement between the lender and the distressed borrower. Indeed, the Federal Reserve and other regulators have issued guidance urging lenders and servicers to pursue such arrangements as an alternative to foreclosure when feasible and prudent. For the lender or servicer, working out a loan makes economic sense if the net present value (NPV) of the payments under a loss-mitigation strategy exceeds the NPV of payments that would be received in foreclosure. Loss mitigation is made more attractive by the fact that foreclosure costs are often substantial. Historically, the foreclosure process has usually taken from a few months up to a year and a half, depending on state law and whether the borrower files for bankruptcy. The losses to the lender include the missed mortgage payments during that period, taxes, legal and administrative fees, real estate owned (REO) sales commissions, and maintenance expenses. Additional losses arise from the reduction in value associated with repossessed properties, particularly if they are unoccupied for some period.
A recent estimate based on subprime mortgages foreclosed in the fourth quarter of 2007 indicated that total losses exceeded 50 percent of the principal balance, with legal, sales, and maintenance expenses alone amounting to more than 10 percent of principal. With the time period between the last mortgage payment and REO liquidation lengthening in recent months, this loss rate will likely grow even larger.
To date, permanent modifications that have occurred have typically involved a reduction in the interest rate, while reductions of principal balance have been quite rare. The preference by servicers for interest rate reductions could reflect familiarity with that technique, based on past episodes when most borrowers' problems could be solved that way. But the current housing difficulties differ from those in the past, largely because of the pervasiveness of negative equity positions. With low or negative equity, as I have mentioned, a stressed borrower has less ability (because there is no home equity to tap) and less financial incentive to try to remain in the home. In this environment, principal reductions that restore some equity for the homeowner may be a relatively more effective means of avoiding delinquency and foreclosure.