- Tom Silva
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Obama Bypasses Congress to Boost Housing
President Barack Obama executed an end run around Congress when he announced a significant retooling of a plan designed to help homeowners who are paying their mortgages, but still underwater, refinance their loans at a more affordable interest rate. Administration officials said the changes will streamline the government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) and could dramatically increase the number of borrowers who have refinanced their loans under the program past the current 894,000. They did not specify how many borrowers might be eligible or likely to participate. The program, which is voluntary to lenders, will be available only to homeowners whose mortgages were sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on or before May 31, 2009, and who have a loan-to-value ratio above 80 percent.
The downside is that hundreds of thousands more could not qualify — primarily because of the previous 125 percent loan-to-value limit on the program or because banks refused to take on the risk. Raising the loan-to-value restrictions may help a limited number of borrowers, according to Jaret Seiberg, an analyst for MF Global Inc.’s Washington Research Group, which analyzes public policy for institutional investors. The difficulty is that mortgage holders still must be up-to-date on their payments for the past six months — with no more than one missed payment in the past year. Additionally, they also must qualify for a new loan.
Qualifying homeowners will be able to refinance their mortgages at the current low rates, which are currently near four percent. Obama’s move comes at a time when there is a fast-growing consensus that the nation’s declining housing market is negatively impacting the economic recovery. Home values are at eight-year lows; and more than 10 million people are underwater, meaning that they owe more than their homes are worth. “It’s a painful burden for middle-class families,” Obama said. “And it’s a drag on our economy.” The administration’s proposal underscores the scale of the problem, as well as the limits of public policy in resolving it. By cutting monthly payments, the Obama administration hopes to make cash available for consumers to spend elsewhere.
According to housing regulators, one million borrowers might be eligible to participate in the program. Unfortunately, that is just 10 percent of the number of homeowners who need help. Although the Obama administration’s estimates say the average homeowner could save $2,500 per year, other projections said savings would be in the range of $312 annually. This depends on the upfront fees the borrower pays, which can include thousands of dollars in closing costs.
Obama promoted the plan under his “We Can’t Wait” campaign, in which he will use the executive branch’s existing tools to improve the economy while Congress debates further legislation. “We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job,” he said. “Where they won’t act, I will.”
“We know there are many homeowners who are eligible to refinance under HARP and those are the borrowers we want to reach,” said Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which administers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The program expires at the end of 2013. “We believe these changes will make it easier for more people to refinance their mortgage,” DeMarco said. “Breaking this vicious cycle is one of the most pressing issues facing policy makers,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William C. Dudley said. The HARP revamp is part of multiple efforts the government is making to boost home prices and consumer spending. “It’s the equivalent of a tax cut for these families,” HUD’s Donovan said.
Mortgage lenders are “particularly gratified” at the revised plan, said David H. Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Mortgage Bankers Association. “These changes alone should encourage lenders to more actively participate.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Daniel Indiviglio believes that the revised program has potential. “The administration appears to have accounted for all of the major obstacles to refinancing and eliminated them. A home’s value no longer matters. The cost should be less prohibitive to borrowers. Much legal red tape has been cut. Other loans tied to the home won’t stand in the way. Ample time to refinance is provided. This should help to allow at least a million Americans to refinance who haven’t had the opportunity to do so in the past. If this works as hoped, then those consumers will have more money in their pockets each month. Borrowers who see their mortgage interest rates drop from five percent or six percent to near four percent will often have a few hundred dollars more per month to spend or save. If they spend that money, then it will stimulate the economy and create jobs. If they save it or pay down their current debt, then their personal balance sheets will be healthier sooner and their spending will rise sooner than it would have otherwise. The effort may even prevent some strategic defaults, as underwater borrowers won’t feel as bad about their mortgages if their payment is reduced significantly,” Indiviglio said.
Felix Salmon, writing in Reuters, could not disagree more. “For many reasons, it is very difficult to project the number of mortgages that may be refinanced under the enhancements to HARP, including the future path of interest rates, borrower willingness to undertake a refinance transaction and the number of lenders and servicers who choose to offer the program. Given current market interest rates, our best estimate is that by the end of 2013 HARP refinances may roughly double or more from their current amount but such forward-looking projections are inherently uncertain. First, by the end of 2013? Never mind mortgage relief now, we’ll try and get you mortgage relief in two years’ time? Secondly, the current pace of HARP refinancing is pathetic. We’ve been managing to do less than 30,000 HARP refinancing a month. And in the 28-month history of HARP, we’ve managed a grand total of 894,000 HARP refinancing, which works out to about 32,000 per month. The FHFA is projecting that the pace of HARP refinancing won’t increase at all as a result of this plan. We’ll still average out at about 30,000 per month — maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less, but you’re never going to make a dent in the mountain of 11 million underwater mortgages at that rate.”