In a move that brings two federal agencies as close to warfare as possible within the confines of bureaucratic memos, the Treasury Department called out housing regulator Edward DeMarco on Tuesday for his continued refusal to offer a key piece of housing assistance to underwater borrowers struggling to save their homes from foreclosure.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency's own analysis has shown that principal reduction could help up to 500,000 homeowners and save taxpayers as much as $1 billion, Geithner wrote to DeMarco. It could save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage giants that DeMarco is preventing from offering principal reduction, up to $3.6 billion, he said.

The response was timed to coincide with DeMarco's latest letter to Congress, in which he reaffirmed his opposition to principal reduction, a form of loan forgiveness championed by many housing advocates and economists. DeMarco wrote that his agency's analysis found that the taxpayer benefit of writing down the mortgage values of some loans "would not make a meaningful improvement in reducing foreclosures in a cost effective way for taxpayers."

This is not the first time DeMarco has irked the Obama administration. As the acting director of the federal overseer of Fannie and Freddie, DeMarco has broad powers to set policy at the companies. The Obama administration -- especially Treasury -- leaned hard on DeMarco to agree to allow the five banks that signed on to the national mortgage settlement in March to write down the roughly 50 percent of all loans they service that are owned or backed by Fannie and Freddie.

DeMarco said no. He has also resisted entreaties to allow borrowers who obtain a loan modification through the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, which Treasury administers, to allow loan forgiveness as part of the modification in some circumstances. It is the analysis of whether principal reduction offered through this program would help or hurt taxpayers that is the center of the dispute between Geither and DeMarco.

In the letter sent Tuesday to Congress, DeMarco said that projected benefit to taxpayers is $500 million in the best case, and that most of this aid would go to homeowners who haven't made a mortgage payment in more than a year.

"Experience dictates that the likelihood of successfully modifying and reinstating these loans is small so that the anticipated benefit is likely to be much less than $500 million," he said.

The housing regulator also restated his position that allowing some homeowners off the hook for some of what they owe would pose "a moral hazard."

"This could give borrowers who are current on their mortgages a message that the government endorses forgiving a portion of mortgage debt if hardship can be demonstrated, creating a very broad incentive for underwater borrowers to seek ways to become eligible."

He also repeated his argument that steps Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are already taking, such as reducing the interest rate on loans and offering to postpone, or "forbear," mortgage payments, will help struggling borrowers without posing the moral and financial hazards that come with reducing the value of a loan.

Geithner struck back at that analysis, claiming that DeMarco omitted key details in order to stick to his guns on principal reduction. Even if the longer-delinquent loans that DeMarco referenced are not a part of a program, there are still 300,000 borrowers who could participate in a loan forgiveness program at zero cost to taxpayers, Treasury said.

"[A]s we have discussed many times, the use of targeted principal reduction by [Fannie and Freddie] would provide much needed help to a significant number of troubled homeowners, help repair the nation's housing market and result in a net benefit to taxpayers," Geithner wrote.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has overseen the mortgage giants since they were bailed out in 2008, part of the early fallout from the mortgage crisis. Since then, taxpayers have spent roughly $188 billion to prop up the companies, according to the regulator.

Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), one of DeMarco's fiercest Congressional critics, said in an email that he believes the regulator is behaving recklessly.

"It is incomprehensible that Mr. DeMarco would reject the chance to save up to a billion dollars in taxpayer funds while helping nearly half a million homeowners stay in their homes," Cummings said. "He should immediately withdraw this reckless and misguided letter and start following the law Congress passed."

DeMarco's continued refusal to allow the two mortgage giants to offer loan write-downs has prompted a growing chorus of critics to call for his resignation, or for Obama to fire him.

"If Mr. DeMarco will not change his mind, we need to change his job -- and today we're once again calling on President Obama to fire him," said Natalie Foster, the chief executive officer of Rebuild the Dream, an advocacy group.

A White House spokesman referred a query to the Treasury Department.

Check out Geithner's letter to the FHFA below: Also, below are proponents and critics of principal reduction:
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  • Pro-Principal Reduction

  • Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize Winning Economist

    Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist has repeatedly called for FHFA director <a href="http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/fire-ed-demarco/" target="_hplink">Ed DeMarco to be fired</a> over his his opposition to principal reduction. In addition to arguing that principal reductions would benefit the overall economy, Krugman told his readers that "deciding whether debt relief is a good policy for the nation as a whole is not DeMarco's job."

  • Timothy Geithner, U.S. Treasury Secretary

    Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stated that principal reductions would help up to 500,000 homeowners and save taxpayers up to $1 billion, in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/ed-demarco-principal-reduction_n_1724880.html" target="_hplink">a letter he wrote to Ed DeMarco. </a> He also wrote that DeMarco's resistance to principal reductions was not "the best decision for the country, because, as we have discussed many times, the use of targeted principal reduction by the GSEs would provide much needed help to a significant number of troubled homeowners, help repair the nation's housing market, and result in a net benefit to the taxpayer."

  • Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD)

    Rep. Elijah Cummings is less than thrilled by Ed DeMarco's decision not to provide principal reductions. Cummings wrote in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/ed-demarco-principal-reduction_n_1724880.html" target="_hplink">an email</a>: <blockquote>"It is incomprehensible that Mr. DeMarco would reject the chance to save up to a billion dollars in taxpayer funds while helping nearly half a million homeowners stay in their homes," Cummings said. "He should immediately withdraw this reckless and misguided letter and start following the law Congress passed."</blockquote>

  • James Lockhart, Former Chairman Of The Federal Housing Finance Agency Chairman

    President George W. Bush's Chairman of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, James Lockhart (seated to the far right), has argued that the FHA ought to experiment with principal reductions, <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/1091-housing/225101-cummings-housing-regulator-fhfa-wasting-taxpayer-money-by-refusing-principal-forgiveness" target="_hplink">the Hill reports.</a> "Foreclosure is not the answer. ... We're destroying neighborhoods with foreclosures."

  • Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Senator Majority Whip

    Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) told reporters that he believed DeMarco's decision was "short-sighted" and "an abdication of his responsibilities, " <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/banking-financial-institutions/241343-fhfa-opts-against-principal-mortgage-reductions" target="_hplink">the Hill reports.</a> "The alternative to principal reduction is foreclosure -- a disastrous outcome for homeowners, taxpayers and the American economy. It is way past the time for leadership to stabilize our real estate market."

  • Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

    Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, has urged the use of principal reductions to prevent foreclosure, <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/1091-housing/225101-cummings-housing-regulator-fhfa-wasting-taxpayer-money-by-refusing-principal-forgiveness" target="_hplink">the Hill reports.</a>

  • William Dudley, President Of The New York Federal Reserve

    William Dudley, president of the New York Federal Reserve, argued for the development of an earned principal reduction program for borrowers who are underwater but still making mortgage payments, <a href="http://www.newyorkfed.org/newsevents/speeches/2012/dud120106.html" target="_hplink">In a speech to the New Jersey Bankers Association. </a>

  • Christine Lagarde, International Monetary Fund Managing Director

    International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde, argued that the U.S. should implement some form of mortgage relief, including principal reduction, in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anna-cuevas/imf-lends-support-to-loan_b_1447133.html" target="_hplink">a speech she delivered at the Brookings Institute earlier this year.</a>

  • President Obama

    The Obama administration has long supported principal reductions, arguing that such write-downs would reduce delinquencies, help 11 million underwater borrowers and help get the housing market back on track, <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/10/us-usa-housing-donovan-idUSBRE8491DW20120510" target="_hplink">Reuters reports.</a> Under DeMarco's directorship, the FHFA blocked the White House's idea for home-energy improvement when it told firms not to participate, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/edward-j-demarco/gIQAK9StKP_topic.html" target="_hplink"><em>the Washington Post</em> reports.</a> President Obama attempted to replace DeMarco with North Carolina banking commissioner Joseph Smith in 2010, only to be rebuffed by Senate Republicans who refused to confirm Smith, leaving DeMarco in place.

  • Anti-Principal Reduction

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, House Government Reform And Oversight Committee Chairman

    House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), wrote a letter to DeMarco urging the FHA director to "carefully evaluate relevant information prior to making a decision that could cost taxpayers billions if the government were to pay down the principal value of underwater mortgages for select homeowners," <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/1091-housing/225383-house-republicans-urge-housing-regulator-to-remain-steadfast-on-principal-reductions" target="_hplink">The Hill reports.</a>

  • Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), Chairman Of House Financial Services Committee

    Chairman of the House Financial Service Committee, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), told reporters that Ed DeMarco stood up for "the best interests of the American people" by rejecting principal reduction, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/01/business/us-agency-bars-fannie-and-freddie-from-reducing-principal.html" target="_hplink"><em>The New York Times</em> reports.</a>

  • Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)

    Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) <a href="http://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=News&ContentRecord_id=f3d4c62d-0f70-42fc-b485-99d0bb6b05b4" target="_hplink">thanked Ed DeMarco</a> for "making his decision based on objective analysis and with the taxpayer in mind."

  • American Bankers Association

    ABA executive vice president on mortgage policy, Bob Davis, announced the association's support for Ed DeMarco's rejection of principal reduction, <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/banking-financial-institutions/241343-fhfa-opts-against-principal-mortgage-reductions" target="_hplink">the Hill reports.</a> "As FHFA's research illustrates, principal reductions do not measurably help troubled borrowers avoid foreclosure, yet increase the cost to taxpayers at a time when our nation's fiscal situation is already strained."

  • Edward DeMarco, Federal Housing Finance Agency Acting Director

    Acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Ed DeMarco, announced to Congress that he would <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/ed-demarco-principal-reduction_n_1724880.html" target="_hplink">not permit mortgage giants Fannie and Freddie Mac to assist struggling homeowners by reducing their principal.</a> In a letter DeMarco sent to Congress, the acting director stated that he did not believe that there would be a substantial financial benefit to the taxpayer and that reducing principal would introduce "moral hazard" into the housing market. "This could give borrowers who are current on their mortgages a message that the government endorses forgiving a portion of mortgage debt if hardship can be demonstrated, creating a very broad incentive for underwater borrowers to seek ways to become eligible." Under DeMarco's directorship, the FHFA blocked the White House's idea for home-energy improvement when it told firms not to participate, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/edward-j-demarco/gIQAK9StKP_topic.html" target="_hplink"><em>The Washington Post</em> reports.</a> President Obama attempted to replace DeMarco with North Carolina banking commissioner Joseph Smith in 2010, only to be rebuffed by Senate Republicans who refused to confirm Smith, leaving DeMarco in place.<a href=" Under DeMarco's directorship, the FHFA blocked the White House's idea for home-energy improvement when it told firms not to participate, a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/edward-j-demarco/gIQAK9StKP_topic.html" target="_hplink"emThe Washington Post/em reports./a President Obama attempted to replace DeMarco with North Carolina banking commissioner Joseph Smith in 2010, only to be rebuffed by Senate Republicans who refused to confirm Smith, leaving DeMarco in place.a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-s-goodman/ed-demarco-fannie-freddie-principal-reduction_b_1336190.html" target="_hplink"http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-s-goodman/ed-demarco-fannie-freddie-principal-reduction_b_1336190.html/a" target="_hplink"> leaving DeMarco in place.</a>