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Special Report: A "great haircut" to kick-start growth

Oct 2, 2011, 5:46 p.m.
A vacant home for sale is pictured in Yonkers, New York, October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Goldstein

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than three years after the financial crisis struck, the economy remains stuck in a consumer debt trap. It's a situation that could take years to correct itself. That's why some economists are calling for a radical step: massive debt relief.

Federal policy makers, they suggest, should broker what amounts to an out-of-court settlement between institutional bond investors, banks and consumer advocates - essentially, a "great haircut" to jumpstart the economy.

What some are envisioning is a negotiated process in which cash-strapped homeowners get real mortgage relief, even if it means forcing banks to incur severe write-downs and bond investors to absorb haircuts, or losses, in some of the securities sold by those institutions.

"We've put this off for too long," said L. Randall Wray, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "We need debt relief and jobs and until we get these two things, I think recovery is impossible."

The bailout of the nation's banks, a nearly trillion dollar stimulus package and an array of programs by the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates near zero may have stopped the economy from falling into the abyss. But none of those measures have fixed the underlying problem of too much consumer debt.

At the start of the crisis, household debt as a percentage of gross domestic product was 100 percent. Today it's down to 90 percent of GDP. But by historical standards that is high. Households are still more indebted than their counterparts in Austria, Germany, Spain, France and even Greece - which is on the verge of defaulting on its government debt.

Tens of millions of citizens remain burdened with mortgages they can no longer afford, in addition to soaring credit card bills and sky high student loans. Trillions of dollars in outstanding consumer debt is stifling demand for goods and services and that's one reason economists say cash-rich U.S. companies are reluctant to hire and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

Take Donald Bonner, for example, a 61-year-old from Bayonne, New Jersey, who lost his job working on a dock in June. Back in March, he attended a "loan modification" fair held by JPMorgan Chase in New York. He has lived in his home since 1970, but was on the verge of losing his job. After falling behind on his $2,800-a-month mortgage, he sought to reduce his monthly payment. Bonner says the bank denied the request on the grounds that he is ineligible because his income is higher than the minimum threshold set by the Federal government for loan modifications.

"They keep asking me for additional documentation," Bonner said on Friday. "It seems to me there is never enough documentation and it has to be renewed every month. It does make you wonder with all this bailout money these banks have received, they don't want to lend the money."

DEBT JUBILEE

The idea of substantial debt restructurings and a haircut for bondholders has been raised by financial pundits, including Barry Ritholtz and Chris Whalen, two popular analysts and bloggers.

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