Tags: Economists Big Debt Haircut Will Stoke US Growth

Economists: Big Debt 'Haircut' Will Stoke US Growth

Monday, 03 October 2011 07:20 AM

More than three years after the financial crisis struck, the U.S. economy remains stuck in a consumer debt trap.

It's a situation that could take years to correct itself. That's why some economists are calling for a radical step: massive debt relief. Federal policy makers, they suggest, should broker what amounts to an out-of-court settlement between institutional bond investors, banks and consumer advocates — essentially, a "great haircut" to jumpstart the economy.

What some are envisioning is a negotiated process in which cash-strapped homeowners get real mortgage relief, even if it means forcing banks to incur severe write-downs and bond investors to absorb haircuts, or losses, in some of the securities sold by those institutions.

"We've put this off for too long," said L. Randall Wray, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "We need debt relief and jobs and until we get these two things, I think recovery is impossible."

The bailout of the nation's banks, a nearly trillion dollar stimulus package and an array of programs by the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates near zero may have stopped the economy from falling into the abyss. But none of those measures have fixed the underlying problem of too much U.S. consumer debt.

At the start of the crisis, household debt as a percentage of gross domestic product was 100 percent. Today it's down to 90 percent of GDP. But by historical standards that is high. U.S. households are still more indebted than their counterparts in Austria, Germany, Spain, France and even Greece — which is on the verge of defaulting on its government debt.

Tens of millions of U.S. citizens remain burdened with mortgages they can no longer afford, in addition to soaring credit card bills and sky high student loans. Trillions of dollars in outstanding consumer debt is stifling demand for goods and services and that's one reason economists say cash-rich U.S. companies are reluctant to hire and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

Take Donald Bonner, for example, a 61-year-old from Bayonne, New Jersey, who lost his job working on a dock in June. Back in March, he attended a "loan modification" fair held by JPMorgan Chase in New York. He has lived in his home since 1970, but was on the verge of losing his job. After falling behind on his $2,800-a-month mortgage, he sought to reduce his monthly payment. Bonner says the bank denied the request on the grounds that he is ineligible because his income is higher than the minimum threshold set by the Federal government for loan modifications.

"They keep asking me for additional documentation," Bonner said on Friday. "It seems to me there is never enough documentation and it has to be renewed every month. It does make you wonder with all this bailout money these banks have received, they don't want to lend the money."


The idea of substantial debt restructurings and a haircut for bondholders has been raised by financial pundits, including Barry Ritholtz and Chris Whalen, two popular analysts and bloggers.

Renowned economist Stephen Roach, currently non-executive chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, has gone a step further, calling for Wall Street to get behind what others have called a "Debt Jubilee" to forgive excess mortgage and credit card debt for some borrowers. The notion of a Debt Jubilee dates back to biblical Israel where debts were forgiven every 50 years or so. In an August appearance on CNBC, Roach said debt forgiveness would help consumers get through "the pain of deleveraging sooner rather than later."

But it's not just the liberal economists and doom-and-gloom financial analysts calling for a great haircut. Even some institutional investors, who might suffer some of the impact of debt reductions on their portfolios, are seeing a need for a creative solution to the mess.

"If there is something constructive that can be done it should be," said Ash Williams, executive director of the Florida State Board of Administration, which oversees $145 billion in public investments and pension money. "You don't want to reward bad behavior and you don't want to reward people who were irresponsible. But if there is a way to do well by doing good, then let's take a look at it."

To be sure, consumer debt levels have been coming down since the crisis began. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported in August that outstanding consumer debt has fallen from a peak of $12.5 trillion in third quarter of 2008 to $11.4 trillion.

But U.S. households are still carrying a staggering burden of debt.

As of June 30, roughly 1.6 million homeowners in the U.S. were either delinquent on mortgages or in some stage of the foreclosure process, according to CoreLogic. And the real estate data and analytics company reports that 10.9 million, or 22.5 percent, of U.S. homeowners are underwater on their mortgage — meaning the value of their homes has fallen so much it is now below the value of their original loan. CoreLogic said the figure, which peaked at 11.3 million in the fourth quarter of 2009, has declined slightly not because home prices are appreciating but because a growing number of mortgages are entering foreclosure.

The nation's banks, meanwhile, still have more than $700 billion in home equity loans and other so-called second lien debt outstanding on those U.S. homes, according to SNL Financial.

Debts owed by American consumers account for almost half of the nearly $9 trillion in worldwide bonds backed by pools of mortgages, car loans, credit card debt and student loans, which were sold to hedge funds, insurers and pension funds and endowments.

And that doesn't include the $4.1 trillion in mortgage debt sold by government-sponsored finance firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Kenneth Rogoff, professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, has said the ongoing crisis should be called the "Second Great Contraction" because U.S. households remain highly leveraged. He says the high level of consumer debt is what distinguishes this from other recessionary periods.


For those in favor of a radical solution, there are a lot of headwinds.

Any debt reduction initiative must confront the issue of "moral hazard" — the appearance of giving a gift to an unworthy borrower who simply made unwise spending choices.

Institutional investors who own securities backed by pools of mortgages are reluctant to see struggling homeowners get their mortgages reduced because that means those securities are suddenly worth less. Any write-downs that banks are forced to take could imperil their capital levels.

Banks and bondholders, meanwhile, have competing interests. This is because mortgage write-downs depress the value of the securities in which mortgages are pooled and sold to investors. Big institutional investors like BlackRock have long argued that any meaningful principal reduction on a mortgage must also include a willingness by banks to take their own write-downs on any home equity loans, or second liens, taken out by the borrower on the property. The banks continue to hold those second liens on their balance sheets and so far have been reluctant to mark down the value of those loans, even though the borrower often has fallen behind.

© 2018 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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More than three years after the financial crisis struck, the U.S. economy remains stuck in a consumer debt trap. It's a situation that could take years to correct itself. That's why some economists are calling for a radical step: massive debt relief. Federal policy makers,...
Economists Big Debt Haircut Will Stoke US Growth
Monday, 03 October 2011 07:20 AM
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