Today, Leonard and Thornberg debate the extent to which the government should facilitate loan modifications to prevent foreclosures. Previously, they discussed the public's reluctance to support federal assistance for troubled borrowers and regulating payday lenders.

Tweaking loans beats foreclosure

Resistance to instituting wide-scale loan modifications to help troubled subprime borrowers stay in their homes is puzzling for multiple reasons. While it is clearly preferable to foreclosure for homeowners, it is also often less costly for lenders. Even though foreclosure -- particularly at the scale that we are currently witnessing -- may be more expensive than modification, it is an arduous task to negotiate every problem loan on an individual basis. It should then be no surprise that, according to analysis by the Center for Responsible Lending, fewer than 3% of borrowers with adjustable-rate mortgages would receive streamlined loan modifications from their lenders under the U.S. Department of Treasury's voluntary modification plan announced earlier this year.

On this topic, Sheila C. Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., hit the nail on the head in the New York Times several months ago when she called for modifying all hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage loans for owner-occupied homes in instances in which borrowers have been making timely payments but likely won't be able to continue when their rate jumps to 11%, possibly tripling payments.

And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S.Bernanke, Bair and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. have all concluded that loan balances must be reduced to avoid unnecessary foreclosures that could further damage the economy.

Modifications make the most sense through a formulaic approach that simplifies and streamlines the process. And if we are serious about helping borrowers stay in their homes, this simplification will be especially necessary as nearly $300 billion in subprime ARMs are expected to reset in 2008, with the market not hitting the peak until October. Obviously, there is resistance to modifications on the part of loan servicers who fear investor lawsuits. If we instituted a formulaic approach, possibly including some degree of safe harbor for servicers against investor litigation, we could mitigate that fear on the part of the servicers.

Indeed, several servicers, HSBC and Countrywide Financial Corp. have used a residual income approach for modifications in limited circumstances. And, quite frankly, if automated underwriting is sound enough to issue borrowers risky loans, automated loan modifications should be enough to save them.

Before we start thinking of modifications for troubled borrowers as punishing those who are fortunate enough to remain current on their payments, it's estimated that fully 55% of current subprime borrowers -- particularly African Americans and Latinos -- could have qualified for a prime loan at better rates and with better terms in the first place. Had these borrowers not been offered faulty products destined to fail, the subprime meltdown would not be the massive debacle that it is.

I also would suggest that most folks who are managing to remain current on their subprime ARMs would prefer that their less fortunate neighbors remain their neighbors rather than suffer the blight of foreclosed properties, lower property values in an already declining housing market and neighborhood and community instability.

In most cases, modification is a preferable outcome to foreclosure for all parties: lenders, servicers, borrowers and communities. Losses have already occurred on vast numbers of properties. And unlike the costly bailout of Bear Stearns Cos., many homeowners could be helped by a simple tweak to the bankruptcy law that would allow modifications on home loans when foreclosure is the only other option. This would save nearly 600,000 homes and wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime.

Paul Leonard is the director of the California office of the Center for Responsible Lending.


The reality: Prices must fall

Until now, I have thought that while we may have been on two sides of an issue, we clearly both leaned enough to the center that this Dust-Up has been more of an exercise in point-counterpoint than a true debate from different ideological views. But this time, I have to say in no uncertain words that I not only completely disagree with your idea, but I find the factoids you use to argue for a massive bailout of imperiled homeowners to be at best dubious and more likely an outright distortion of reality. Let's can the spin for a minute and try to focus on reality.

Let me agree with one thing though: The Paulson plans have been entirely useless inasmuch as they pretend, as you do, that the problem in the housing market is simply the terms of the mortgages used to purchase homes and nothing more. Change the terms, reduce the rates, restructure the product and everything is fine. Nobody has to take a hit. It sounds nice but, unfortunately, it is totally wrong.

Interest rates aren't causing foreclosures today. Rather, people are defaulting on their mortgages because they bought homes they couldn't afford, period. The mortgage industry is guilty of allowing people to make such rash decisions by not requiring a proper down payment or income verification. It also offered special low-introductory rates that allowed people to buy something they could never have afforded with a mortgage --a situation begging to blow up.