And Now Homeowners

The two most important features of the administration’s plan to help homeowners are (1) its support for amending bankruptcy laws to allow judges to modify mortgages. This will give homeowners bargaining leverage with mortgage servicers (and give the servicers more leverage with securitized creditors on up the line) to get better terms; and (2) a massive expansion of the government’s commitment to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — allowing F&F to buy more mortgages by increasing the government’s guarantee against losses to $400 billion.

These and other features of the plan will help prevent a tsunami of foreclosures this year and next, but no one knows how big the wave may get notwithstanding. Nationwide, home prices have fallen 17.5 percent from where they were in early 2007, back to where they were in late 2004. But the housing bubble started earlier than 2004 — and based on long-term ratios of home prices to rental prices and incomes, home prices probably could easily fall another 5 to 10 percent before bottom is reached.

And then what? Whether we’re talking about the bailout of Wall Street, of the auto industry, or of homeowners, the biggest questions are (1) how long will it be until the business cycle turns up again? and (2) how long until the median value of financial assets, the demand for automobiles produced by the Big Three, and median home prices all return to where they were at the height of the bubble?

The answer to (1) is likely to be a year or two. But a turnaround is just the beginning. Taxpayers who are shelling out trillions of dollars (including, indirectly, commitments by the Federal Reserve Board), as well as people who are saving for retirement, many autoworkers, and a large number of homeowners won’t be — or feel — safe until the economy at least returns to where it was in early 2007, and then continues to move upward from there. When will this be? It may take five to ten years, or longer; when it comes to the Big Three, maybe never.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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