Mortgage mess: Who gets help and who pays?
Debate over what's fair and what's wise is likely to intensify as US tries to contain the crisis.
The federal government is increasingly focused on how to resolve the US mortgage mess, but the effort means grappling with controversial issues of who should receive help and who will pay for it.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Few taxpayers like to hear talk about "bailouts," especially as many tighten their own belts to deal with rising energy and food prices and falling values for their homes or stock investments.
Questions of fairness are sure to figure in the policy debate – and are already surfacing on the presidential campaign trail, on talk radio, and in congressional committee rooms. The people who might get bailed out, after all, include the same reckless lenders and often-speculative borrowers who helped cause the mess.
Should mortgage companies be forced to knuckle under so borrowers can keep their homes and avoid foreclosure? Should taxpayer money be used to help troubled banks?
To a large number of Americans, such interventions in the marketplace are wrongheaded. Still, signs of economic weakness in the past month have made a hands-off approach less likely, analysts say.
"[One] choice is to be very puritanical and say that those who have sinned must suffer. The problem is that so many have sinned that all of us must suffer," says Ed Yardeni, an economist who heads an investment research firm in Great Neck, N.Y. "The mortgage market is really way too big to [let it] fail."
As he sees it, the whole economy is beginning to suffer through a recession, caused in large measure by the decline in home values and credit availability. Policy efforts may cost taxpayers some money but could also prevent a deeper slump.
"We like to believe that we're a free-market capitalist society where everybody is responsible for their own business and financial activities," Mr. Yardeni says. "But when things start to go wrong, we ... turn to the federal government."
At the very least, some argue, help should come only with strings attached.
The Bush administration, for example, is set to unveil on Monday new proposals to improve regulatory oversight of Wall Street, alongside federal efforts to nurse the financial system back to health.
In a presidential-campaign speech on the housing crunch last week, John McCain spoke for many Americans when he emphasized personal accountability. "I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers," Senator McCain said.
Any assistance, he said, should be temporary relief to responsible homeowners.
Where does the public stand on this?
Many voters have mixed feelings, an ambivalence highlighted in one of the few polls so far that has tried to explore the question of mortgage bailouts.
In the survey, by CNN/Opinion Research in December, a slim majority of Americans said that borrowers who are defaulting on mortgages "have no one to blame but themselves." Yet in that same poll, a slim majority also supported the idea of "special treatment" to help those very homeowners avoid default.
The survey found less sympathy for banks. Nearly 3 in 4 Americans did not want to see special treatment to keep financial institutions from losing money on loans that go bad.
Many of the rescue proposals under review, however, would provide some support for lenders even as they try to keep homeowners out of foreclosure.
In one sense, taxpayer-backed help is already being provided by some federal authorities – aimed especially at averting a possible meltdown in the financial industry.