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Washington Continues to Ignore Root of Housing Problem


Injecting capital into banks won't stop home price declines.

Some say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. By that measure, voters should load up on straitjackets this November and drag everyone in Washington off to the nuthouse.

Despite overwhelming evidence that we're in the middle of a debt crisis, regulators insist they're wrestling a liquidity crunch. And all the while, a cancer continues to eat away at the guts of the economy: The housing market. Only when it stabilizes will the financial system and, by extension, the economy -- recover.

And yet, despite this widely recognized fact, the recent $700 bailout package contains little support for struggling homeowners. Even the $250 billion being dumped into banks will have only a minor effect on property values.

Smothered under the weight of falling home prices and tight credit conditions, consumers are reining in spending, as evidenced by yesterday's bleak retail sales data. The economy is following the housing market into the abyss.

Since last summer, Washington's tactic has been to encourage loan modifications through HOPE NOW and Project Lifeline and to widen the scope of government-backed loan programs via the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE).

As noted in the Wall Street Journal and discussed ad nauseum here in the 'Ville, these measures are woefully inadequate to stem the continued decline in housing prices.

As property values fall, over-leveraged borrowers find themselves underwater, or owing more on a house than it's worth. In order to sell, the homeowner must come up with the difference between the sales price and the balance of their mortgage. For most, this is cash that simply doesn't exist.

As a result, homes sit on the market for months, further pressuring home values. Despite the insistence by some real-estate agents that this is a buyer's market, it most certainly is not. Until bloated inventories fall, home prices will continue to slide, making buying a home a dangerous proposition in the vast majority of the country.

Meanwhile, politicians continue to bang their heads against the proverbial wall, backing programs that simply do not work with the scope and efficiency that's needed. Loan modifications, opening up mortgage guidelines and providing tax breaks so homebuilders like Centex (CTX), Pulte Homes (PHM) and KB Homes (KBH) can sell more overpriced houses may help a select few, but they do little to address the root of the problem.

Until taxpayer funds are appropriated to absorb negative equity, price discovery in the housing market will be a long, agonizing process.
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