Foreclosure Relief: Good for Banks, Lousy for Borrowers

foreclosed house
foreclosed house

Home sales are hitting new lows, the number of homeowners behind on their mortgages is again climbing, as is the number of foreclosures. Housing market misery is widespread -- but particularly intense for the troubled homeowners relying on the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), the federal foreclosure relief program.

Criticized both by those who argue for more aid and those who think the lackluster program only delays a needed bank reckoning, HAMP stumbles along, more often simply prolonging the pain of foreclosure than providing a solution. The dismal new housing numbers -- sales of existing homes are 27% lower than a year ago, new-home sales have fallen even more -- underline just how little demand there is for all the properties that banks are foreclosing on.

Real Estate Mortuary's Waiting Room

In extending the process, foreclosure relief in many cases simply stretches out borrowers' slow bleed of resources. By keeping borrowers in limbo while letting lenders delay repossessing houses they can't sell, foreclosure aid is now benefiting borrowers less than the lenders who created the mortgage mess. For lenders, mortgage modification is the waiting room in the mortuary, a convenient place to hold borrowers while the banks deal with the overflow of houses already repossessed.

Of some 3 million homeowners behind on their mortgages, only about half are eligible for HAMP. Most of the rest, ironically, don't qualify because their income is too low to handle even a modified mortgage. For those that do qualify, HAMP offers little immediate respite: Homeowners have to immediately start making payments on a trial modification plan.

Some 1.3 million borrowers have gotten the trial modifications, which last for at least three or four months (though many banks have stretched this out for longer). But 600,000 of those have already dropped out, unable to make payments in the trial stage. Another quarter-million are in modification limbo, sending checks to the bank as they wait to know if they'll get permanent adjustments. (Detailed numbers are available in the modification program's monthly reports, here.)

What Happens After Gaining Relief Is Worse

If the wait for a modification is trying, though, what happens to homeowners who do manage to get relief is worse. Most borrowers behind on their mortgages are already overburdened with other debts. After the mortgage reduction, the typical modification recipient, despite an average $513 drop in monthly payments, has to devote 63.5% of his or her income to mortgage payments, other debt, and taxes.

It's not clear how many will default a second time. Treasury officials recently had to withdraw the government's numbers on mortgage modification success rates after they were shown to seriously understate re-defaults. One independent estimate from Barclay's Bank is that 60% of homeowners granted loan modifications will eventually default again.

So does HAMP really benefit anyone but the few borrowers who are able to run the foreclosure aid gauntlet, climb out from under their debts against tough odds and get back to making regular payments on their (still-underwater) mortgages? It does. If HAMP fails to make much of a dent in homeowners' troubles, it does mitigate a real problem for the banks: There are many more houses in foreclosure than today's market can absorb.

"Strategic Non-Foreclosure"

One of the foreclosure cascade's not-so-hidden secrets is that the banks and investors who hold millions of busted mortgages are in no hurry to kick debtors out of their homes. The markets hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis are already stuck with an enormous and growing inventory of repossessed houses, now estimated by Lender Processing Services, which tracks foreclosures, at 1 million to 1.2 million bank-owned homes nationwide.

Banks have steadily slowed down the foreclosure process: The average homeowner in foreclosure now is an amazing 461 days behind in his payments. (You can see that last stat in this report, on page 13). Barry Ritholtz of financial blog The Big Picture calls banks' reluctance to take over houses "strategic non-foreclosure." Taking a leisurely path to repossession lets lenders avoid the costs of maintaining properties they can't sell in a market that remains in free fall in much of the country.

However, there's a limit: Lenders must eventually make good on the threat of repossession or face an epidemic of homeowners who stay in their houses without making payments. Many houses have been in foreclosure for so long that the banks have little choice but to act, and repossessions are rising.

Mortgage modification lets banks put a brake on the process, keeping up the pressure on borrowers (most of whom will eventually be foreclosed on anyway) without adding to the banks' inventory of foreclosed properties. As they sit in this antechamber, instead of simply writing off their mortgages, the strapped borrowers, given the gift of reduced payments, are likely to squeeze out whatever they can manage in a last effort to keep their homes. It's a study in what Rortybomb's Mike Konczal trenchantly calls the credit "sweatbox" -- under the guise of foreclosure aid.

Another Cudgel in the Hands of Lenders

The last insult added to this mess comes from Fannie Mae, which has promulgated new rules that lock those who don't make the effort to modify their mortgages out of the Fannie-backed mortgage market for seven years. So ultimately this comes full circle, and what started as an effort to help borrowers has become another cudgel in the hands of lenders.

If we were to conceive a program to persuade borrowers to stick to their obligations and make every effort, no matter how unrealistic, to avoid foreclosure, we could hardly do better than HAMP. The program probably increases what lenders collect before they eventually foreclose -- and may let those lenders slow the process enough to prop up prices as they sell off their inventory.

In this way, it may lead to a more orderly unwinding of the busted housing market. If so, HAMP might accomplish some part of its goal -- just not the part that has to do with helping homeowners.