Excerpted from Robert Shiller’s editorial in the nytimes.com:
Traditionally, we think of eminent domain law as applying to land and buildings. For example, a government can use eminent domain to seize real estate along a proposed new highway route so the highway can be built in a nice straight line. It would be absurd to expect the government to bargain with each property owner to buy a strip of land along the proposed highway route and to have to redirect the highway around a farm whose owner refused to sell. That is common sense.
But eminent domain law needn’t be restricted to real estate.
It could be applied to mortgages as well. Governments could seize underwater mortgages, paying investors fair market value for them. This is common sense too. The true fair market value for these mortgages is arguably far below their face value, given the likelihood of default, with its attendant costs.
Professor Hockett argues that a government, whether federal, state or local, can start doing just this right now, using large databases of information about mortgage pools and homeowner credit scores. After a market analysis, it seizes the mortgages. Then it can pay them off at fair value, or a little over that, with money from new investors, issuing new mortgages with smaller balances to the homeowners. Taxpayers are not involved, and no government deficit is incurred. Since homeowners are no longer underwater and have good credit, they are unlikely to default, so the new investors can expect to be repaid.
The original mortgage holders, the investors in the new mortgages, the homeowners and the nation as a whole will generally be better off. There will surely be some who may not agree, like the holdout farmer opposing the highway, but eminent domain ought to be able to push ahead anyway.
San Bernardino County in California is working with a private company, Mortgage Resolution Partners, on the possibility of putting such a plan into action. We must hope this effort succeeds. If it works, it can be replicated all over the country.
But first we have to realize that much of our economic suffering takes the form of a collective action problem. We have to stop the wishful thinking that the problem will solve itself through a spontaneous rally in home prices. We need to summon our resources to exercise the authority that allows collective action.
Professor Koniak says the solution to this problem has been so slow in coming for a simple reason: “It’s the will that’s lacking! The will!”