Ever since the current economic crisis began, it has seemed that five words sum up the central principle of United States financial policy: go easy on the bankers. This principle was on display during the final months of the Bush administration, when a huge lifeline for the banks was made available with few strings attached. It was equally on display in the early months of the Obama administration, when President Obama reneged on his campaign pledge to “change our bankruptcy laws to make it easier for families to stay in their homes.” And the principle is still operating right now, as federal officials press state attorneys general to accept a very modest settlement from banks that engaged in abusive mortgage practices.
Last fall, we learned that many mortgage lenders were engaging in illegal foreclosures. Most conspicuously, “robo-signers” were attesting that banks had the required documentation to seize homes without checking to see whether they actually had the right to do so — and in many cases they didn’t.
The claim that removing the legal cloud over foreclosure would help the housing market — in particular, that it would help support housing prices — leaves me scratching my head. It would just accelerate foreclosures, and if more families were evicted from their homes, that would mean more homes offered for sale — an increase in supply. An increase in the supply of a good usually pushes that good’s price down, not up. Why should the effect on housing go the opposite way?
You might point to the mortgage relief that would supposedly be extracted as part of the settlement. But if mortgage relief is that crucial, why isn’t the administration making a major push to reinvigorate its own Home Affordable Modification Program, which has spent only a small fraction of its money? Or if making that program actually work is hard, why should we believe that any program instituted as part of a mortgage-abuse settlement would work any better?
Sorry, but the case that letting banks off the hook would help the housing market just doesn’t hold together.
What about the argument that getting tough with the banks would threaten the overall economy? Here the question is: What’s holding the economy back?
It’s not the state of the banks. It’s true that fears about bank solvency disrupted financial markets in late 2008 and early 2009. But those markets have long since returned to normal, in large part because everyone now knows that banks will be bailed out if they get in trouble.
The big drag on the economy now is the overhang of household debt, largely created by the $5.6 trillion in mortgage debt that households took on during the bubble years. Serious mortgage relief could make a dent in that problem; a $30 billion settlement from the banks, even if it proved more effective than the government’s modification program, would not.
So when officials tell you that we must rush to settle with the banks for the sake of the economy, don’t believe them. We should do this right, and hold bankers accountable for their actions. By Paul Krugman.