WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is introducing a new program on Monday designed to lower monthly mortgage payments for more troubled homeowners.
But a key new condition in the plan would shift the financial liability for refinanced loans from Wall Street banks to the American taxpayer. And by focusing on lower payments, the program does not confront what housing experts view as the core problem in the foreclosure crisis -- borrower debt that exceeds the value of one's home.
Faced with the weak response to the Home Affordable Refinance Program, the Obama administration is planning to open up the program to all borrowers who owe more on their mortgage than their homes' worth, commonly dubbed being underwater, and have not missed a mortgage payment. HARP had been limited to borrowers who owed up to 25 percent more than their home is worth. More than 22 percent of all home mortgages -- or 10.9 million homes -- are currently underwater, according to CoreLogic data. Fewer than 900,000 borrowers have elected to go through HARP to date.
The revised program also eliminates several fees associated with refinancing that can make the decision to refinance uneconomical for borrowers. But the potential benefit of the eliminated fees could be relatively small: If a few thousand dollars worth of fees made refinancing a bad deal for underwater borrowers, the ultimate benefits that refinancing can pose would remain limited.
On a conference call with reporters, White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling referred to the HARP expansion as "a win-win policy" that will result in "less defaults" and "fewer foreclosures." But one of the program's new terms will benefit private-sector Wall Street banks, potentially at the expense of taxpayers.
The newly expanded program would expunge legal liabilities associated with mortgages refinanced through the program for the original lenders of the mortgages. Each time a bank sent a loan to Fannie and Freddie, it certified that the loan met Fannie and Freddie's safe lending criteria. But many loans sent to the mortgage giants did not, in fact, meet those criteria. Currently, when borrowers default on those ineligible loans, the mortgage giants can "put back" the resulting losses onto the banks that pushed the loans.
Under the modified plan, "put back" liability at banks will be erased for any underwater mortgage that is refinanced through HARP, eliminating Fannie and Freddie's ability to sack lenders with losses in the event that the mortgage does not pan out.
If borrowers go through HARP, but decide after several months that the modest monthly savings do not outweigh owing tens of thousands of dollars more than their home is worth, taxpayer-owned Fannie and Freddie will have to take the full loss. Even if the original loan was sent to Fannie and Freddie with false or fraudulent guarantees from the bank -- promises that may directly be tied to the borrower's current financial problems -- banks will be immune from liability. Fannie and Freddie plan to charge banks "a modest fee" to extinguish this liability, but the administration has yet to determine what that fee will be.
While the revised program seeks to lower mortgage payments for underwater homeowners, the program does nothing to address the core problem -- owing more than the home is worth. Though borrowers may save hundreds of dollars a month in lower payments by refinancing, they routinely owe tens of thousands of dollars more than their homes are worth, even after receiving aid.
"In most cases people would probably be better off walking," said economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research.
During a conference call with reporters, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan acknowledged that negative equity is a problem, and said the administration hopes to address the issue on other fronts. Donovan cited settlement negotiations with big banks over widespread allegations of foreclosure fraud and initiatives under the Home Affordable Modification Program, a separate Obama foreclosure-relief plan administered by banks, as key initiatives.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden have both objected to the foreclosure fraud settlement talks on the grounds that they give away too much to banks without investigating the scope of fraud problems in the system. The Home Affordable Modification Program has been a hotbed for the kind of borrower abuses that the administration is pressuring lenders to settle over.