Like many others, I was rather shocked last month on hearing about the need for a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. The early storyline was that financial firms were saddled with too many securities backed by distressed U.S. home mortgages and, in a climate of fear and panic, they couldn't sell them at fair value. So that meant the government would have to step forward and act as a buyer.
Setting aside the fact that this narrative was disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst (the assets are most likely cheap because -- surprise -- they're simply not worth that much), I found the approach bass ackwards. It seemed more efficient to work from the ground up. Namely, if the securities were hard to value because of uncertainty over the mortgages they held, why not provide a structure for homeowners and lenders to rework troubled mortgages? In this “trickle up” approach, the securities would gradually become more stable and thus easier to trade. It seemed like a pretty good idea.
I soon discovered a huge, gaping flaw: your 2005 mortgage probably isn't held by your friendly neighborhood bank. Rather, it was sold off by the mortgage originator (maybe your bank, maybe a mortgage company) and the payment stream was repackaged as part of a security. In fact, your mortgage payments may even have been sliced into pieces and spread across 10 or even 50 different securities.
Now here's where the headache begins. Once you begin modifying mortgages on a large scale, you create all sorts of havoc. An investor who bought a mortgage-backed security under one set of rules and understandings, now is operating under a different one. Some investors will win, others will lose -- and this being America, the losers will likely litigate. That's why the managers of the pools of loans, the so-called “master servicers,” probably won't renegotiate them. It's a real mess that can only be circumvented by some kind of federal law, and even then at a potentially dangerous precedent of rewriting contracts.
This New York Times op-ed piece captures the predicament about as well and lucidly as any I have read so far and proposes a solution. But don't be fooled: any solution is going to be very tricky to execute.