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The Baltimore Sun:In dire financial straits because of coronavirus? Talk to your lenders. COMMENTARY

Despite serving as the state’s chief tax collector, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot likes to advocate for individuals paying less in taxes to state government. Whether touting sales tax holidays or cautioning lawmakers to spend less, he generally brags more about the speed at which his staff processes income tax refunds than their skills at collecting record sums. So it came as no surprise that when the COVID-19 outbreak struck these shores, he was soon busy extending the tax filing deadline to July 15 for both individuals and businesses, which, for those who owed the state, offers a slightly better cash-flow situation. The federal government has taken a similar approach on the grounds that in these extraordinary times, the last thing government at any level should be doing is pushing families closer to the financial brink and compounding the nation’s economic woes.

But lately, Comptroller Franchot has been offering some additional advice that, while slightly out of his lane, deserves to be amplified. In a recent call to The Baltimore Sun, he asked that people be reminded that further help is available to those who need it. Not just unemployment assistance or direct payment checks from Uncle Sam, as welcome as those might be to those who qualify. Not just Small Business Administration loans, government bailouts to one sector or another or any other formal government program. No, there is one thing average people can do that might hold the secret to weathering the financial storm, to holding onto one’s assets until the household budget is back in balance again. It is simple. It is direct. But for many, it is far from obvious.

The comptroller’s advice? If you can’t make your mortgage or car payment and the like, call the lender now — immediately — and discuss what options might be available to you.

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For some people, that may sound obvious, Personal Finance 101 material. To others, it may be hard to believe that they have any power to negotiate the terms of their debt. What many average people don’t realize, as Mr. Franchot points out, is that mortgage holders, bankers and the other organizations to whom you owe money are just as aware of the economic downturn brought by the outbreak, and it’s in their interest to bridge the gap as well. That doesn’t mean forgiving debt. This is capitalism, after all. But there are tools in their toolboxes such as deferring payments or bridge loans that can mean the difference between bankruptcy or foreclosure or simply extending the terms of your mortgage a few months.

The comptroller’s fear (and it’s probably well grounded) is that a lot of Marylanders will resist this option. Perhaps they are unaware of what is possible. Or maybe they are simply too shy and embarrassed. Big companies put pressure on their creditors all the time when events warrant. Individuals living paycheck to paycheck don’t think of themselves in quite those terms which is perfectly understandable. “They may lack the self-confidence and aggressiveness of people who are successful and are used to doing this,” Mr. Franchot says. But here’s what financial advisers frequently warn people facing debt: The longer you wait to talk to those you owe money, the fewer options will be available to you.

The stakes are high. In Maryland alone, perhaps $6 billion in monthly payments by Mr. Franchot’s back-of-the-envelope calculations. That’s a lot of money. And here’s the best thing — it doesn’t hurt to pick up a telephone and ask. Landlords may be able to make allowances as well. Not all and not for longer periods, necessarily, but perhaps long enough for the economy to spring back, for people to get back to work, and for something closer to normal life to return.

This is not cure-all, of course. Nor a shiny new government program. People have been negotiating debt payments for generations. And it certainly doesn’t address core problems such as the government’s failure to prepare for such a pandemic or how so many American “have-nots” could suffer financial harm so quickly and so disastrously as the “haves” have prospered. But it is sage advice. As Mr. Franchot reports, a lot of bankers have told him they are ready to make arrangements. The first step is to reach out and ask them for help.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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