As I’ve mentioned more than once, I’m no Economics genius. So I was pleasantly surprised to read the October 12th NY Times article by Martin S Feldstein, a Harvard professor of Economics and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. It appears that Professor Feldstein and I agree that the only way to stop the drop in home values is by principal reduction.

The professor points out that for most Americans, their homes are their primary source of wealth. Since the housing bubble burst in 2006, Americans have lost $9 trillion or 40% of their wealth. This sharp decline in wealth means less consumer spending, fewer jobs and a stalled economic recovery.

Today, nearly 15 million homeowners owe more than their homes are worth and of this group about half of the mortgages exceed the value by more than 30%. The professor maintains that housing prices continue to fall because millions of homeowners are defaulting on their mortgages and the sale of the foreclosed properties drive down prices. Because most mortgages are non recourse loans, underwater borrowers have a strong incentive to simply walk away.

Professor Feldstein suggests that instead of throwing tax dollars at ineffective programs aimed at reducing interest rates, the government should address the real problem which is that the amount of the mortgage debt exceeds the value of the home.

Here is a summary of his idea: The government would reduce mortgage principal to 110% of the home value. The cost for doing this would be split between the government and the banks. This would help about 11 million of the 15 million underwater homes at a cost of under $350 billion. Considering the millions of mortgages held by Fannie and Freddie, the government would in essence be paying itself.

This would of course be a voluntary program. In exchange for the principal write-down, the borrower would agree that the new mortgage was a full recourse loan and the government could go after other assets if he defaulted on the loan.

I think it sounds fair, as everyone makes a sacrifice and we put the brakes on strategic default. It is a huge one-time cost, but continuing to allow housing prices to fall could risk another, even more costly recession. And speaking for my short sale clients, I know that most would have gladly signed up for a principal reduction if it meant saving their home.

What do you think?