02/10/2012 01:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2012

The Robo-Signing Settlement: Breaking the Usual Rules of Housing Policy

The robo-signing settlement is the latest -- and potentially the largest -- piece in the U.S. housing policy puzzle. Even though it's partly punishment for banks' wrongdoing, it is also another answer by the government to the question of how it can help the housing market.

Our own housing policy survey last December showed strong bipartisan support for two key elements of the robo-signing settlement: refinancing by underwater homeowners (82 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Republicans), and loan modifications to reduce principal balances (74 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of Republicans).

With the robo-signing settlement, as with any housing policy, I look at three questions:

1) Is it big or small? Relative to other housing policies, it's big. It calls for much more money for loan modifications than HAMP has cost so far, and it could mean money or relief for close to two million current and former homeowners. HAMP and HARP have each helped roughly one million homeowners so far. But relative to the housing crisis, it's small. The loan modifications could yield tens of billions in principal reductions for one million homeowners -- but that's a sliver compared with the 11 million homeowners today who are over $700 billion underwater. And the cash compensation of $1,500-$2,000 for up to a million people who lost their homes will hardly make them whole.

2) Who pays? Usually it's good politics to keep quiet about who pays for housing policy, but not with the robo-signing settlement. It's good politics for the government and the attorneys-general for everyone to know that the banks are paying for their robo-signing sins. In contrast, most housing policy announcements hide -- or at least don't broadcast -- who is paying, whether it's investors who implicitly bear the cost of refinancing or taxpayers who implicitly bear the cost of many other policies.

3) Does it reward risk-taking or bad behavior? Delinquency is a disqualification for refinancing but is almost a requirement for getting a principal reduction. The largest piece of the robo-signing settlement is for principal reduction for borrowers who are "either delinquent or at imminent risk of default." This is opposite of the refinancing rules laid out in HARP and the State of the Union address, which require borrowers to be current on their payments because that shows they're "responsible." So much for a coherent message from the government to homeowners about moral hazard. This issue could be fuel for election debates on housing policy: Republicans are much more bothered by rewarding bad behavior than Democrats are. In our December survey of consumers, 61 percent of Democrats agreed that "helping people keep their homes is the right policy even if it helps some undeserving homeowners," but only 38 percent of Republicans agreed.