Now that Fannie and Freddie are essentially owned by the taxpayers, why aren’t these institutions doing more to help homeowners? Particularly, why are they so adamantly against allowing mortgage principal reductions?

These are questions that ProPublica, “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” has been following and reporting on in a recent series of articles. I’m highlighting two of those articles in this blog.

Inherently Conflicting Purposes

Why Fannie and Freddie Are Hesitating to Help Homeowners” describes “Fannie and Freddie’s role in the housing market, and why it seems as if their actions often go against the interests of homeowners.” At the heart of it, these two institutions operate within a conflict about their core purpose: they were set up to make home ownership more accessible, but they are also supposed to make a profit. This first purpose would encourage Fannie and Freddie to be as flexible as possible to allow distressed homeowners to keep their homes. But the profit-making purpose would seem to run counter to letting homeowners too easily get out of their mortgage commitments.

Tax-Payer Takeover Only Complicated the Conflict

Now that taxpayers stand to gain or lose many billions of dollars depending on the profitability of Freddie and Fannie, that would seem to put more emphasis on profit-making and less on homeowner relief. On the other hand, providing significantly more help for distressed homeowners would arguably help stabilize home prices and improve the economy to everyone’s benefit.

As the ProPublica article states:

The two aims of Fannie and Freddie are continually at odds — policies encouraging refinancing and forgiveness for more mortgage holders can increase costs to the taxpayer-owned companies. While the administration has made relief for homeowners their priority, [Edward] DeMarco [the acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie and Freddie] says his agency’s priority is to protect Fannie and Freddie’s profits, aka taxpayers’ assets. Of course, many of those taxpayers are struggling homeowners, and that is at the heart of the dilemma over Fannie and Freddie’s future.

Mortgage Principal Reduction Caught between the Conflicting Purposes

A second ProPublica article addresses whether Fannie and Freddie will allow some homeowners to reduce their mortgage principal balances. That decision hangs in the political balance because of this same conflict between profitability and helping homeowners:

The Obama administration has repeatedly tried to push principal reduction — reducing the size of a borrower’s mortgage — as a way to help homeowners, especially those with homes worth less than their mortgages. But… time and again, Fannie and Freddie wouldn’t participate: a crippling problem, since the two companies own or guarantee about half of the country’s mortgages.

[Edward] DeMarco [the interim head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), says principal reduction could cost taxpayers $100 billion. Some economists counter that while principal reductions might lead to a short-term hit for Fannie and Freddie, it would ultimately result in fewer underwater mortgages, fewer foreclosures and a healthier housing market — all good for Fannie and Freddie’s bottom line.

To give DeMarco the last word, until my next blog:

DeMarco has… [told] Congress many times that “as conservator, FHFA has a statutory responsibility to preserve and conserve the enterprises’ assets.” In plainer terms, he [states] that his role is to “make sure Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac undertake activities that don’t cause further losses for the American taxpayers.”

DeMarco has strongly asserted his independence insisting that he is promoting needed fiscal discipline.

U.S. corporations are making record profits quarter after quarter, yet unemployment seems to be stuck at a devastatingly high rate. Why aren’t these financially flush big businesses hiring?

I’ve been writing a string of blogs about how tax debts are dealt with in bankruptcy, and I’ll get back to that after today. This is the time of year when the nation’s major corporations report their 3rd quarterly profits, and so I found myself scratching my head about the disconnect between their huge profits and their lack of hiring. So I read a number of news stories and editorials and this is what I got out of them:

1.  Big businesses have gotten to be more “productive,” in the sense of producing more goods and services with less labor. That has happened partly through investments in labor-saving technology and partly by requiring employees to work harder and faster for the same pay. With the cut-throat labor market, companies don’t need to increase salaries to retain or replace their employees.

2.  Profits have increased because a larger percentage of sales for large U.S. corporations have been overseas. Around 40 per cent of their profits are from foreign sales. For many companies, sales are growing modestly in the U.S. while growing much faster elsewhere, especially in the “emerging markets” of China, India, and South America.  

3.  Relatively strong overseas sales come with job growth overseas instead of here. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, in the past decade, U.S.-based multi-national corporations added 2.4 million jobs outside the country while cutting 2.4 million jobs here. Jobs naturally grow where sales are growing–someone has to take customer orders at the 3,000+ KFCs in China! But of course there’s also increased foreign outsourcing of work that used to be done here, from manufacturing to computer programming.

4. Normally when businesses are more productive, resulting in more profits, they tend to expand, thus creating more employment opportunities. But this has not been happening for three reasons.

a. With the double-whammy of very high unemployment and loss of home values, U.S. consumers either don’t have the means or the attitude to spend money, so companies are leery about expanding to increase production.

b. The international business environment—particularly the European sovereign debt crises in Greece, Italy and elsewhere—is making big business cautious.

c. Political gridlock in Washington, D.C. makes business planning very difficult. With the Congressional deficit-reduction “super committee” scheduled to issue its report very shortly, big businesses have been sitting tight to see if this “super committee” will come up with its momentous compromise, and what it’ll consist of.

The bottom line: big businesses don’t need to hire to produce the goods and services they are producing, at least within the U.S., and they don’t want to expand and hire here because of lackluster consumer demand and high uncertainty in the world economy and in domestic politics.

One million more homeowners have just become eligible for refinancing at the current very low interest rates. Until now, the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) has been limited to homeowners with mortgages of no more than 125% of the value of their homes. By way of example, for a home currently worth $200,000, the mortgage could be no more than $250,000. Now that 125% limitation has been eliminated, allowing homeowners more deeply underwater to qualify for HARP refinancing. So some people who have not been able to take advantage of the low interest rates will be able to do so and get the resulting lower monthly mortgage payments. This change should especially help homeowners in those parts of the country hardest hit by reduced home values, where a large percentage of homeowners have been cut off from being able to use HARP.

To qualify under the revised refinancing:

1. You must have a mortgage owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which include about half of all U.S. home mortgages. You can find out whether yours is by looking that up online at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or calling 800-7FANNIE or 800-FREDDIE (8 am to 8 pm ET for both numbers).

2. Your mortgage must have belonged to either of these two institutions by no later than May 31, 2009.

3. You cannot have been late on any of the mortgage payments during the last 6 months or on more than one payment in the last 12 months.

4. You can’t have already refinanced through HARP.

The program continues to be voluntary for the mortgage lenders, so there are additional incentives for them. Lenders have been accused of being extremely picky about income documentation and home valuation under HARP, apparently fearing that they would have to buy-back the new mortgages being sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. So the new changes eliminate most of that risk. As a result, the application process should be much easier and less expensive for borrowers.

Detailed rules are expected by the middle of November, with lenders ready to implement the revamped program starting around December 1.


In August, mortgage lenders started so many home foreclosures that the month-to-month increase was the biggest since August of 2007. For nearly a year the number of foreclosures has been relatively low as lenders have reacted to an explosion of challenges to the legality of their mortgage and foreclosure practices. But this new surge in foreclosure starts may reflect that the lenders think they have worked through these problems.

According to RealtyTrac, mortgage default notices–the first step in the foreclosure process—increased by 33% from July to August.

That increase has to take into consideration that July’s numbers had been relatively low. Not only had the number of foreclosure filings come down modestly—by 4%–from the prior month. They were also down significantly—by 18%–from a year earlier. In fact, July 2011 had the lowest foreclosure activity in 44 months.

Now with this 33% increase in August, the tide seems to be turning. But is it going to turn into a new wave of foreclosures?

That’s impossible to tell. Not only are there countless factors at play here, they shift all the time, reacting to the constantly changing environment.

Just take a look at one of the factors affecting how many foreclosures are filed: the ongoing legal challenges to foreclosures. These challenges are making their way through the court appeals systems. For example, just a couple days ago the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that the embattled MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems) has standing to foreclose. That ruling will presumably open the foreclosure spigots in Alabama, because some lenders undoubtedly had held off on foreclosing while awaiting that ruling. Similar dynamics are at play in just about every state.

This means is that foreclosure trends can be very much a local and dynamic affair. This means you need local advice. Day in and day out I constantly deal with mortgage lenders, and help local homeowners make good decisions about their homes. Give me a call so that I can help you, too.

Picking the right Chapter to file can be simple, or it can be a very delicate, even difficult choice. And appearances can be deceiving. A situation that seems at first to call out for an obvious choice can turn out to have a twist or two that turns the case upside down.  

That twist can come in the form of an unexpected disadvantage in filing a bankruptcy under the intended Chapter, or instead an unexpected advantage in filing under the other Chapter.

Let me be clear. The majority of my clients walk into their initial consultation meeting with me with a strong idea whether they want to file a Chapter 7 or a 13.  After all, there is a wealth of information available—like this blog that you’re looking at now. So lots of my clients come in having read up on their alternatives. Whether their inclination to file one or the other Chapter comes from their head or from their gut, it’s often correct.

But often it is not correct.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Although the main differences between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 can be outlined in a few sentences, there are in fact dozens of more subtle but often crucial differences. Many of them do not matter in most situations, but sometimes one or two of those differences can be decisive in determining what is best in your case. If you did not know about them, you would file the wrong kind of case. And pay the consequences for many years.

So that this doesn’t just sound like just a bunch of hot air, let me show you through one example. Imagine that you have a home that you have been trying to hang onto for years, but by now have pretty much given up on doing so. You’ve fallen behind on both the first and the second mortgage. Besides, with the decline in housing values the last three years or so, the home is now not even worth the amount owed on the first mortgage. And say you owe $80,000 on the second mortgage, so the home is “under water” by that amount. You have no good reason to think that the market value will climb back up enough to give you equity in the home for many years.  Your family would sure like to keep living in their home, so the kids could stay in their schools and close to their friends, but it sure sounds like it makes no sense to keep trying to hang onto something worth $80,000 less than what you owe. Besides, you just can’t don’t have the money to pay both mortgages. So you figure it’s time to give up on the home, and just start fresh with a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.”

But then you learn from your bankruptcy attorney that if your home is worth less than the balance on the first mortgage, through a Chapter 13 case you can “strip” the second mortgage off the title of your home. It becomes an unsecured debt which is lumped in with the rest of your unsecured debt (like credit cards, medical bills). In return for paying into your Chapter 13 Plan a designated amount each month based on your budget, and doing so for the three-to-five year length of your Chapter 13 case, you would be able to keep your home often by paying very little—and sometimes nothing—on that $80,000 balance. At the end of your case, whatever amount is left unpaid on that second mortgages will be “discharged”—legally written-off—so you own the home without that mortgage and having no debt (other than the balance on the first mortgage.  

This “stripping” of the second mortgage is NOT available under the Chapter 7 that you initially thought you should file. Having Saving your home by lowering your payments on it and bringing the debt against it much closer to its value may well swing your choice in the Chapter 13 direction.

This is just one illustration of countless ways that the option you initially think is the better one might not be. So keep an open mind about your options when you first consult with your attorney. Communicate your goals to him or her, and be clear about why you think one Chapter sounds better to you than the other. In the end, after laying out your story and hearing the attorney’s advice, it IS ultimately your choice. But do yourself a favor and be flexible, because you might get a better deal by the end of your meeting than you thought was possible at the beginning of it.