Foreclosures have become a major political issue. Ever since December, Hillary Clinton has been making daily calls for a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures. The Bush administration has been inching toward an antiforeclosure policy. The Hope Now alliance was created in October as a voluntary industry effort to aid troubled borrowers. In December the White House and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson encouraged Hope Now members to offer interest rate freezes and refinancing for certain qualified borrowers as part of an effort to avoid foreclosures. This week the administration rolled out Project Lifeline, which offers qualified borrowers the chance to freeze foreclosure proceedings for 30 days. (Coming next: Operation Desperation.)
All of these proposals are good ideas, and bad ideas, for the same economic reason: forestalling more foreclosure delays price discovery.
After a bubble pops, markets go through a painful process in which they try to agree on prices for formerly inflated assets. This is called "price discovery." When the bubble is in stocks, price discovery happens very quickly. A stock can go from $60 to $0 in a matter of days, if not hours, and sometimes did when the Internet bubble popped in 2000. From a macroeconomic perspective, such stock price discovery is painful but not necessarily devastating. The people who own bubbly stocks lose money. People who bought the stock on margin—i.e., they borrowed to buy it—lose a lot money. Banks who lent to high-flying firms frequently must write off loans. And companies that supply, or service, or depend on the afflicted firms may suffer as well. But, as when the tech bubble popped, stock price discovery usually doesn't lead to systemic failures.
By contrast, the process of price discovery in housing, and housing-related credit, has been much slower—and it has much more dire systemic implications. The housing market peaked in 2006, and it has been slowly slumping. But nationwide, according to the Case-Schiller index, housing prices have fallen only 8.4 percent in the past year. Home prices in some areas of the country may need to fall 30 percent in order to find bottom. That process is likely to take years rather than months.
The slope of the housing decline has been gentle because houses can't be flipped like stocks. People live in their homes, and there are big transaction costs associated with selling them. The market isn't very liquid. And there's another reason housing prices have been slow to fall: there are all kinds of incentives for everyone involved in the housing market to push off the day of reckoning, to delay the process of price discovery.
Start with the homeowner. Homes are highly leveraged purchases, whether it's 20 percent, 10 percent, or 0 percent down. Owners of existing homes are reluctant to mark down the value of their homes 20 percent overnight because, in many instances, it will wipe out their equity. Homebuilders and condo developers don't like to lower prices quickly because it makes those who bought in their development five months earlier feel like chumps. The banks don't want to concede that the houses they lent against are suddenly worth a great deal less than they were a few months ago. Investors who bought the bonds created by slicing and dicing mortgages—and then leveraged up their positions by borrowing money—get massacred when prices fall. The same holds true for bond insurers like Ambac and MBIA, which insured structured finance products created by lashing groups of mortgage-related securities together.
And so, since the bubble popped and home prices ceased to rise, desperate players in the market have taken a series of actions intended to delay price discovery in housing. Rather than cut prices, sellers began to throw in free cars or other inducements to buyers who paid the asking price. Brokers reduced their commissions. Builders started including all sorts of extras (fancy kitchens, pools, etc.) for no additional price. Every link in the chain sacrificed margins and profits rather than cut prices. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that homebuilders were funneling large cash payments to buyers through third-party marketers, in effect reducing the price buyers had to pay while publicly reporting that sales prices remained buoyant.
Such measures were like throwing sandbags at a rising river. And it hasn't worked. The carnage in subprime loans has led to a spate of foreclosures. When banks or investors take over properties, they recoup whatever they can by placing them on the market quickly and accepting any reasonable offer. When foreclosed properties are dumped onto the market and sold at fire-sale prices, they establish new comparable sales on a given street or neighborhood. It might take a solvent home-seller 18 months to mark down the price of his house by 20 percent. A bank will do it in 18 days.
Foreclosure also has the effect of hastening price discovery on the mortgages on those homes, and on the bonds backing them. Here, again, the impact can be devastating to those who bought the assets with a great deal of leverage. Hedge funds and other institutions sitting on the depreciating debt either had to put up more collateral to maintain their leveraged positions or dump the assets to raise cash. Bond insurers must increase reserves to prepare for defaults of the bonds they insured. And if the bond insurers fail, the financial firms that purchased insurance from them will have to take their own write-downs. The potential for massive systemic problems is the reason there's been so much discussion between financial institutions and government regulators about trying to orchestrate some sort of bailout for the bond insurers.
In general, cleaning up quickly after popped bubbles is good for the economy, because it enables everybody to move on. Over the years the American economic system has proved to be quite adept at doing so. And as Japan's experience in recent years shows, refusing to deal with the overhang of bad debt can condemn an economy to a lengthy period of slow growth. But I doubt there's the political will to allow the fast price discovery allowed by foreclosures to continue. While it would certainly bring long-term economic benefits, the short-term social, financial, and political consequences of a rapid clearing of the housing mess are too much to bear. As the year goes on, expect presidential candidates and government officials to keep throwing lifelines and buckets full of hope at the housing market.