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Foreclosure By Design


Modification efforts fail because they're meant to.

Many months ago, long before bureaucrats dreamed up their massive, ill-conceived loan-modification programs, the free market found a solution to the mortgage mess.

Specialists in handling distressed debt amassed tens of billions of dollars to buy up bad loans at steep discounts. The offending institutions who had bought the stuff in the first place would be forced to own up to their mistakes, take their lumps and move on. Meanwhile, those deft enough to clean up the problems would reap their just deserts.

Alas, it was not to be.

Sometime around the middle of 2006, some regulator woke from a decade-long slumber and decided to hazard a look at the balance sheets of America's largest financial institutions. To his horror, just about every bank in the country would be insolvent, given the going prices for delinquent mortgage debt.

He raced off to tell his boss, who alerted his superior, and so on up the chain until then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson got wind of the coming tsunami of losses. Paulson barely flinched, for Wall Street's top brass was well aware their collective predicament. After all, it was the likes of his former charge, Goldman Sachs (GS), who designed and sold the toxic assets in the first place.

The choice then was simple: Step back and let markets sort out the mess, risking the lives of storied firms like Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) - or latch onto the absurd notion that these institutions were "too big to fail," and begin a process whereby the American taxpayer's hard-earned nest egg would be used to forestall the inevitable day of reckoning.

We now know how that sad story ends.
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