Big Idea: Rallying private capital to stabilize housing prices.

Summary: Ken’s plan for handling part of the  foreclosure problem and geting housing back on track.  Guaranteed.

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A stark reality of the current mortgage crisis is that there have been — and will continue to be – an unprecedented and destabilizing number of foreclosures that need to be absorbed into the housing market.  Until they are, home prices will continue to slide and the crisis will persist..

To date, most of the government’s programmatic emphasis has focused on mitigating the financial pressures on lending institutions and investors who funded bad loans, by injecting supplementary capital (loans or preferred stock purchases), or by buying toxic securities..  Some political rhetoric has centered on preventing distressed citizens from “losing their homes”, but few substantive steps have been taken.  Why?

First, once a mortgage has been “securitized” – as most have been — there are contractual limitations on possible loan modifications.   In these instances, mortgage “servicers” have their hands tied.  They are only empowered to collect payments and foreclose on non-payers, with very little latitude between the extremes.

Second, there is the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room.  Many so-called home owners are – truth be told — really “occupants” not “owners”.  Some have no equity in the homes.  Some never did – even before housing prices crashed, submerging loan balances under water.   Many wouldn’t qualify today for restructured loans under the most liberal of terms – e.g. lowered interest rates, extended payment periods, reduced principle balances (to the current fair market value of the homes).  Whether the people legitimately qualified for their initial loans is irrelevant.  Whether their initial loan terms were predatory is also largely irrelevant. Objectively, the low bar is whether they can foot the bill for a restructured mortgage.  The emerging evidence seems to suggest that many – maybe most – can’t.

That leads to an inescapable conclusion: regardless of what remedial government bailouts are enacted – the housing market will continue to be flooded with foreclosures. 

So, a pivotal economic policy question is how to get the foreclosed properties off the market and into the hands of private owners (i.e. not onto the government’s asset rolls), and how to keep them there until they can be remarketed at an orderly pace and higher prices.

Three straightforward changes to the income tax code – throwbacks to yesteryear — could provide the necessary financial incentives to rally private capital back into the housing market to buy, hold, and rent foreclosed homes: (1) eliminate ALL of the capital gains taxes on residential property that is bought from now until, say, December 31, 2010 and held for at least 18 months, (2) allow these “qualified residential properties”, if they are rented, to be depreciated for tax purposes at an aggressively accelerated rate (say, over 5 or 10 years) to generate high non-cash tax losses, and (3) allow ALL tax losses generated by these “qualified residential rental properties” to offset owners’ taxable ordinary income with no “passive loss’ limitations, thereby reducing their federal income tax liability.

For example, assume that an investor buys a foreclosed home for $200,000 and rents it out at a price that simply breaks even on a cash flow basis.  That is, the rental price just covers interest, taxes, insurance, maintenance, etc.  Assuming a 5-year accelerated depreciation schedule, the rental would generate an annual non-cash tax loss of $40,000 that could be used to offset the investor’s ordinary income.  If the investor were in the Obama-boosted 39.6% marginal tax bracket, that ordinary income offset could save the investor almost $16,000 in federal income taxes each year that the property is held and rented.  If the home were then resold – say, in 3 years for $250,000 —  the investor would book $170,000 in capital gains (the $50,000 home price increase, plus the $120,000 in depreciation claimed against ordinary income when the property was being rented), but the investor would owe no capital gains taxes. 

Such a program potentially offers several benefits: (1) it would entice private capital to buy (and hold) foreclosures and other distressed residential property, (2) it would likely provide affordable rental housing to people (maybe the current occupants of the homes) who realistically can’t and shouldn’t shoulder the costs of home ownership , and (3) it might take some of the sting out of President-elect Obama’s proposed tax hikes.

It’s a win-win solution to part of a thorny problem.

© K.E. Homa 2008  

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6 Responses to “Big Idea: Rallying private capital to stabilize housing prices.”

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