The administration very quietly announced a foolproof jobs plan -- more housing stimulus
President Obama's jobs plan starts with firing one person. Sorry, Ed DeMarco, that means you.
For an election putatively about the economy, stupid, neither candidate has talked much about their plans for ... the economy. Mitt Romney has a five-point jobs plan identical to what Republicans trotted out in 2004, 2006 and 2008 that doesn't add up; a tax plan that doesn't add up; and a housing plan that doesn't even add -- there are no details. For his part, President Obama hasn't offered any new ideas and has mostly stopped campaigning on his old ideas that died in Congress. And then there's housing.
Six years since prices peaked, housing is still holding back the economy. Homebuilding has cratered, and though mortgage debt has fallen, it hasn't fallen enough for households to start spending enough.
Now, there are finally -- wait for it! -- green shoots in the housing market. We mean it this time. Housing starts and permits are up, and prices are too, at least in some of the hardest-hit regions. The Fed has done its part to kickstart housing with its latest mortgage-bond buying, but the administration has run into a wall -- a wall named Ed DeMarco.
DeMarco might be the most anonymous powerful person in Washington. He heads up the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which now manages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In other words, he has a de facto veto over housing policy. DeMarco has approved the Obama administration's modest, albeit increasing, refinancing program, but it hasn't been nearly enough.
Top Romney adviser Glenn Hubbard has championed broader refinancings, though his boss has not, as has the New York Fed -- they estimate that every $1 billion of refinancings would save taxpayers $134 million due to decreased defaults. But refis aren't the only potential money-saver. Principal writedowns would too, at least according to the FHFA's own analysis. Despite this, DeMarco blocked Treasury's plan to offer mortgage writedowns. Because, well, DeMarco didn't like the numbers. Just about the only other people who didn't like the numbers are big banks and investors who don't like to see the monthly mortgage payments they receive go down -- although even some banks have started offering some debt forgiveness.
This is one area where Obama or Romney could change things instantly. Yes, Senate Republicans filibustered Obama's nominee to run FHFA -- DeMarco is a holdover from the Bush administration -- but there are two words that could make that irrelevant: recess appointment. Obama has inexplicably shied away from circumventing the Senate here -- until now. If he wins re-election, Obama will replace DeMarco when Congress is out of session, according to the Financial Times.
It's some belated good news. It's also just about the biggest jobs program Obama or Romney can plausibly promise. All else equal, increasing refis and writedowns decreases foreclosures, which should increase housing prices and, hopefully, homebuilding. It also puts more money in the pockets of households, and that means faster deleveraging and more spending. In other words, more jobs.
It's such a no-brainer policy that there might even be bipartisan consensus around it. Maybe. Hubbard actually suggested Obama erred by not replacing DeMarco during a recent interview with Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, though Romney's views are a bit more inscrutable. Romney has said he would consider refinancings, but neither he nor his campaign have said anything more than that. Romney's housing white paper doesn't even include the word "refinancing" let alone "writedown".
Recess appointments don't carry the same policy oomph as tax plans, grand bargains or infrastructure projects, but getting a new FHFA chief is a foolproof jobs plan -- meaning it doesn't require Congress. A little bit more of that, and we might start to end our jobs crisis.
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Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.