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So, You Want to Fix the Housing Market?

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Real-world solutions for the economic crisis.

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Yesterday, I criticized Washington's $700 billion financial bailout plan for missing the point. It fails to address the root of the problems facing the housing market and, by extension, the rest of the economy: Negative equity or a homeowner owing more on his house than it's worth.

On The Exchange, several sharp-minded Minyans pressed for details on how the government could execute a program to "absorb negative equity" in a fair, equitable, efficient manner - and without bankrupting the entire country.

To be clear, I'm fundamentally opposed to government intervention into the free market beyond a requisite regulatory capacity. I'm also deeply skeptical that government can manage any program, large or small, with even the slightest degree of aptitude.

Unfortunately, the usefulness of ideological debate is growing fainter by the day. Practical solutions must be put forth and implemented immediately, lest we slip further toward a second Great Depression. Historians are welcome to argue semantics while we get down to fixing the problem. Only a mixture of public and private enterprise can repair the damage.

Negative equity creates a number of serious problems for the housing market, such as:

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Foreclosures

Negative equity turns defaults into foreclosures. Delinquent borrowers can sell their way out of the problem if they can find a buyer at a level higher than their outstanding mortgage (plus closing costs and real estate agent commissions). But being underwater makes this impossible without coming up with the difference between the loan amount and the sale price.This is cash most struggling homeowners simply don't have.

Oversupply

Negative equity exacerbates existing oversupply issues, pushing home prices down further. Sellers who haven't yet missed a payment must list their house at least as high as their outstanding mortgage. But if a homeowner is upsidedown, the property gets listed too high and stays there. Borrowers must then choose to continue pouring money into a losing bet, while hoping someone buys their house at well above its market value. The alternative is to default and end up in foreclosure.

Bank losses

Once a mortgage becomes delinquent, banks must write down the asset and take a loss. Not only is the loan impaired because of the delinquency, but negative equity enhances the bank's losses. As property values fall, balance sheets become even more impaired, mortgage-backed securities continue to lose value and the entire financial system becomes even more desperate for capital.

Banks are bleeding cash: JP Morgan (JPM), Wells Fargo (WFC), Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC) all recently announced reduced earnings and were forced to take equity injections from the Treasury. Lenders are reticent to accept short sales (allowing borrowers to accept a sale price lower than the loan amount without making up the difference) because they can't handle the losses.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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