- Mike Ochs
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A Lifeline for Underwater Homeowners?
Federal officials and some of the nation’s largest banks are collaborating on a plan that would make refinancing available to some borrowers whose houses are worth less than their loans, with the caveat that they must be up-to-date on mortgage payments. Typically, these borrowers can’t refinance because they don’t have enough equity in their homes. The plan would apply only to bank-owned mortgages.
Federal officials have been trying to negotiate a deal with the five largest mortgage servicers – Ally Financial, Inc, Bank of America, Citigroup Inc, J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co. Officials favor a plan that would break a legal impasse with big banks over alleged foreclosure abuses such as robo signing and ease problems in the housing market. Discussions are still underway and the final outcome is not yet known.
Pressure is building in Washington, D.C., to help underwater homeowners with a generous refinance plan. President Barack Obama told Congress that he wants to help “responsible homeowners” refinance, saying it would “give a lift to an economy still burdened by the drop in housing prices.” A bipartisan coalition of 16 senators wrote to the administration urging swift action on a refinance plan.
“A huge floodgate would open up” if underwater refinancing were broadly available, said Fif Ghobadian, a broker at Guarantee Mortgage in San Francisco. “It would provide the help that lowering interest rates cannot do alone. Someone who’s been making payments at 7.5 percent religiously but cannot qualify to refi – boy, would that four percent make a huge difference in their life.”
A program has existed for some time that provides guidelines to lenders for refinancing some Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-backed underwater mortgages. The program is called HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program), it’s two years old and has resulted in approximately 800,000 refinances, far short of the five million originally envisioned. Only a fraction of those homeowners were deeply underwater. HARP’s main impediment has been the lenders themselves. Concerns about issues such as being forced to take responsibility for refinances that default (known in the industry as “buybacks”) has made lenders reluctant to issue HARP mortgages. The proposed new plan would likely expand HARP to make it more acceptable to lenders and more usable by a broader swath of homeowners. “Changes (being contemplated) would address several HARP obstacles,” said Erin Lantz, director of the mortgage marketplace for Zillow. “The industry now makes it hard for people to qualify. The process would be more streamlined.”
According to a recent Harvard study, approximately 11 million homeowners with mortgages are underwater. This accounts for roughly one-fourth of all homes with mortgages in the nation. An additional five percent have near-negative equity (<five percent home equity).
Writing for Reuters, Felix Salmon doesn’t think much of the potential mortgage plan. “It’s pretty weak tea: under the terms of the deal, if (a) you’re underwater on your mortgage, and (b) you’re current on your mortgage payments, and (c) your mortgage is owned by the bank outright, rather than having been securitized, then you would be given the opportunity to refinance your mortgage at prevailing market rates. It’s worth remembering, at this point, that mortgages are by their nature pre-payable. When you write a fixed-rate mortgage, you make a general assumption that if mortgage rates fall substantially, the borrower is going to pay you off and refinance. The underwater questions we’re talking about here were written during the housing boom, when banks simply assumed that house prices always went up; those banks cared massively about prepayment risk at the time, and spent huge amounts of money and effort trying to hedge it. As it happened, mortgage rates did fall substantially — with the result that the banks’ hedges paid off. But then the banks realized that they could make money on both legs of the deal — that they could collect on their mortgage-rate hedges, without having to worry about prepayment. Because now the borrowers are underwater, they’re not allowed to refinance. So the banks continue to cash above-market mortgage payments every month — something they never expected that they would be able to do.
“It’s not inconceivable at all. In fact, wholesale mortgage refinance for underwater borrowers is a major part of Barack Obama’s jobs bill, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has been costing it in various ways. At heart, it’s a way of rectifying a market failure, and thus makes perfect sense. But that’s precisely why I don’t think that this plan deserves a place in the mortgage-settlement talks. For one thing, it’s downright unfair and invidious to allow 20 percent of underwater homeowners to refinance while ignoring the other 80 percent. More to the point, giving homeowners the ability to refinance their mortgages is what you do, if you’re a bank. It’s not some kind of gruesome punishment.”