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Moral hazard is everywhere

The recent plan to modify mortgage terms for people who can’t pay may trigger bigger default as everybody wants to get a cut from the bailout (source: wsj)

Another day, another bailout: This time homeowners get to benefit from mortgage-modification programs, designed to stem the tide of foreclosures by making it easier for borrowers to stay current on their loans.

But the latest plans from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, joining banks such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup, hold plenty of risks.

Take investors in mortgage-backed securities. Modifications to mortgage holders’ interest rates could leave some MBS holders with reduced interest payments. Forgiveness of principal, meanwhile, could lead to capital losses.

A bigger worry could be that these modification programs are too effective. In that case, “many current borrowers will wave the white flag of surrender and also try to get a modification,” Rod Dubitsky, a senior strategist for asset-backed securities at Credit Suisse, wrote in a recent report.

The danger is that loan holders who otherwise could meet their payments would decide to fall behind to get their cut of the bailout. That could unleash a chain reaction that drives default rates even higher.

That means another dose of moral hazard. Federal officials stopped worrying months ago about that for companies, as they piled up bailout upon bailout to keep the financial system from collapsing. Now officials risk injecting warped incentives into the behavior of individuals.

If the programs take pressure off house prices, MBS holders and borrowers could both make out better than if there weren’t any modifications.

But the financial crisis has shown time and again that it is tough to anticipate the unintended consequences resulting from attempts to quell the turmoil.

Watch this CNBC video to get more out of the modification plan.

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