How Government Actions Miss the Point (Hint: It’s About Mortgages)

The Wall Street Journal‘s Dennis K. Berman interviews Columbia business professor Charles Calomiris about why the government’s current frenzy of efforts to stabilize the economy could ultimately falter. It’s got to do with all those still-bad (in many cases) mortgages backing up securities.

DJ: There’s this perception that we can “fix” the price of individual mortgages. But shouldn’t the price of homes find its natural equilibrium?
CC: The market price is not decreed by God. The market price is an outcome of a variety of things. Recapitalizing the banks is helpful for giving them breathing room, and for providing credit in the meantime. But it doesn’t resolve the problem. The problem is the completely opaque distribution of losses because no one knows how to value these mortgage losses. The way to solve the problem is from the bottom up.

Government solutions do have a role, according to Mr. Calomiris. These include acquiring mortgages on the cheap to create liquidity and facilitating refinancing for healthier mortgages:

There’s loss-sharing to encourage write-downs of mortgages. It was done in Mexico in 1995. If holders can arrive at a write-down in lieu of foreclosure that leads to sustainable mortgage, we as taxpayers would sustain the rest. It lets the market work the problem out and creates the motivation for doing it quickly.

You could also have the government offer to buy any mortgage for 40 cents on the dollar. It would create immediate liquidity, because mortgage backed securities would rise on that scenario, all would be truncated at 40 cents.

Third, we could refinance all healthy mortgages at 5%, at 30-year fixed financing. Allan Meltzer has idea about giving tax credits for buying homes, they’re all good ideas. The problem with what we’re hearing from Paulson does not have much to do with any of this.

How Government Actions Miss the Point (Hint: It’s About Mortgages)