New Mortgage Seizure Plan is the Nuttiest Idea Yet

Agenda-Setting Financial Insight.
July 5 2012 11:29 AM

New Mortgage Seizure Plan is the Nuttiest Idea Yet

If a California county’s new plan to seize underwater mortgages from investors catches on, bondholders could face billions in losses.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A California county’s new plan to seize underwater mortgages from investors may be the most dangerous housing market intervention yet. If it catches on, bondholders could face billions in losses – and taxpayers, too, if local authorities start targeting loans backed by the federal government. That would whack up mortgage costs and may leave Washington as the only lender.

The plan is simple enough. San Bernardino county wants to invoke existing eminent domain laws to seize mortgages that are bigger than the current value of the homes they’re lent against. That’s a radical departure from the way eminent domain is usually deployed – to commandeer land for public use, such as to build a road.


The county would then sell the loans to a fund called Mortgage Resolution Partners. The deal is a no-brainer for all concerned: the investment group makes a profit on the safer new mortgages – to qualify, borrowers have to be current on their payments. The homeowners get a loan that’s now worth less than their home, so also end up with some equity. And the local politicians look smart and may win some extra votes.

But that doesn’t allow for the true cost of the program. Assume it’s implemented across the country and includes not just private-label mortgages, as is the case in San Bernardino, but the far larger market of those backed by the U.S. government. That opens up the scheme to a large chunk of the $1.2 trillion-worth Americans owe on their mortgages above the current value of their homes, according to Zillow’s first-quarter Negative Equity Report.

That would cause enormous losses for bondholders and taxpayers alike. At the extreme, private investors would probably abandon any intentions of financing a private mortgage market in the future, leaving the U.S. government as the only entity willing to shoulder the risk.

At the very least, the successful use of eminent domain laws to seize mortgages, even if limited to a few municipalities, would make bondholders charge far more for the risk, pushing up the price of home ownership – which could hit demand for loans and send house prices down again, perpetuating the cycle of bubbles and bailouts.

Of course, the threat of this program might light a fire under bondholders and servicers that have been sluggish to modify mortgages up to now. But the costs of this coercion would easily outweigh the benefits.

Read more at Reuters Breakingviews.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.