At the end of 2012, housing prices were 30 percent below their peak in 2006, and about one-fifth of borrowers with residential mortgages were “underwater,” owing more than the value of their homes. Default rates are particularly high among such borrowers. One of the primary ways that the federal government has assisted underwater borrowers is through the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). That program, administered by the Department of the Treasury, has facilitated lower payments on some mortgages by providing incentives for mortgage holders and servicers to help borrowers avoid foreclosure.
In 2010, the Treasury Department expanded the program to include the possibility of principal forgiveness, a reduction in the amount the borrower owes. Before then, the program had been limited to other ways of reducing payments. (This report refers to HAMP without principal reduction as “standard HAMP.”) For the borrower, principal forgiveness provides not only a lower monthly payment, but also, unlike standard HAMP, an improved equity position as a result of the lower loan balance. Having equity (the difference between the value of the home and what the borrower owes) allows a borrower to more easily refinance or sell the home to avoid default and strengthens his or her incentive to continue to pay off the mortgage. Since the introduction of that alternative, one in four borrowers participating in HAMP has received a principal reduction, CBO estimates. However, that program is small—fewer than 120,000 borrowers had obtained a principal reduction through HAMP as of the end of 2012.
The approach of using principal forgiveness has not been adopted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) own or guarantee more than half of the outstanding residential mortgages in the United States. CBO estimates that nearly 13 percent of underwater borrowers with mortgages owned or guaranteed by the GSEs have missed three or more mortgage payments (in other words, are “seriously delinquent”), which is more than six times the rate for borrowers who owe less than the value of their homes. But Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have not been allowed to implement principal forgiveness out of concerns about fairness, implementation costs, and the incentive that the approach could provide for people to become delinquent in order to obtain principal forgiveness.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac incurred large losses from the surge in mortgage defaults that began in 2007, as did other investors in mortgages, which resulted in the GSEs’ being taken into conservatorship in September 2008 by their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). Because the federal government is now the effective owner of the enterprises, any gain or loss arising from a change in the way the distressed mortgages are handled by the GSEs would ultimately accrue to taxpayers.
This report examines three options for the GSEs to use principal forgiveness for borrowers who are eligible or could become eligible for assistance through HAMP. CBO finds that implementing those options would probably do the following:
Designing a program that affected more borrowers and had a greater impact on the housing market and the economy would require a significant departure from HAMP’s current eligibility rules.