To reconstruct our mortgage system on a sounder basis, we ought to look to the Danish model, which has withstood many tests since it was brought into existence after the great fire of Copenhagen in 1795. It remains the best performing in Europe during the current crisis. First, it is an open system in which all mortgage originators can participate on equal terms as long as they meet the rigorous regulatory requirements. There are no GSEs enjoying a quasimonopolistic position.
Second, mortgage originators are required to retain credit risk and to perform the servicing functions, thereby properly aligning the incentives. Third, the mortgage is funded by the issuance of standardized bonds, creating a large and liquid market. Indeed, the spread on Danish mortgage bonds is similar to the option-adjusted spread on bonds issued by the GSEs, although they carry no implicit government guarantees.
Finally, the asymmetric nature of American mortgages is replaced by what the Danes call the Principle of Balance. Every mortgage is instantly converted into a security of the same amount and the two remain interchangeable at all times. Homeowners can retire mortgages not only by paying them off, but also by buying an equivalent face amount of bonds at market price. Because the value of homes and the associated mortgage bonds tend to move in the same direction, homeowners should not end up with negative equity in their homes. To state it more clearly, as home prices decline, the amount that a homeowner must spend to retire his mortgage decreases because he can buy the bonds at lower prices.
The U.S. can emulate the Danish system with surprisingly few modifications from our current practices. What is required is transparent, standardized securities which create large and fungible pools. Today in the U.S., over half of all mortgages are securitized by Ginnie Mae, which issues standardized securities. All that is missing is allowing the borrowers to redeem their mortgages at the lower of par or market.