The Obama administration is considering government guarantees for home loans modified by their servicers, seeking to stem the record surge of foreclosures that’s hammering U.S. property values.
The proposal, which may also have the taxpayer share in the cost of reducing mortgage payments, is aimed at shielding lenders from default after they loosen loan terms for struggling borrowers. Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan, who regulates national banks, said yesterday that “working out the details of it is still something that’s ongoing.”
“We need to help more people stay in their homes” through helping mortgage lenders make more loan modifications, James Lockhart, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday. “I’m pleased that the new administration is starting to work on that area.”
President Barack Obama’s team is preparing the biggest effort yet to arrest foreclosures, part of a three-pronged attack on the financial crisis that also aims at restarting business and consumer lending and overhauling regulation. As banks dump on the market the properties acquired through borrower defaults, they are contributing to the biggest slide in property values since the Great Depression.
Top officials continued their series of meetings yesterday as they examine options for the next phase of the government’s financial-industry bailout. The biggest challenge is finding a way to value banks’ toxic assets so that the government can buy or insure them while providing some limit to taxpayer losses, Dugan said. An announcement on the strategy may come early next week, an administration aide said.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner gathered with Dugan, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair. Geithner and White House economics director Lawrence Summers also met with House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank.
The proposal to guarantee modified mortgages is a variation of an idea backed by the FDIC. The administration plans to spend as much as $100 billion of the second $350 billion instalment of the Treasury’s financial-bailout fund on home-loan initiatives.
Some 1.5 million foreclosures might be prevented this year in a program that would pay servicers $1,000 to modify a troubled loan by reducing the interest rate, forgiving a portion of the principal or extending the repayment plan, Bair has estimated. The government would then absorb as much as 50 percent of any loss if the rewritten loan defaults again.
Protection for Taxpayer
Dugan said in an interview yesterday in Washington that the approach should include a provision that would delay a government guarantee for a modified mortgage for a set period of time to ensure that the loan is sustainable.
“It is really important that when you have a modified loan that the payment become affordable to the homeowner,” Dugan said. “You wouldn’t want the government to be on the hook for someone who borrowed a lot more in credit-card debt, or what have you, and then couldn’t make their payments.”
Meanwhile, Treasury aides have approached Wall Street firms to gauge their appetite for participating in a so-called aggregator bank designed to remove toxic assets clogging banks’ balance sheets. They are also asking how a pricing model for the investments should be set up, financial-services industry officials said on condition of anonymity.
The administration is planning to outline stepped-up executive pay and dividend restrictions for companies that receive “exceptional” government aid later this week, helping to lay the groundwork for further help. Obama last week criticized the payment of Wall Street bonuses while the industry was receiving taxpayer funds as “shameful.”
Larger firms will see bans on severance payments for the top five executives and limits on their bonus pools, along with 50 senior officers, to 60 percent of 2007 level, according to the Treasury. The department also requires that major expenses, like aircraft or conferences in exotic locales, get prior government approval.
Obama yesterday warned that further bank failures are likely. Lenders are “going to have to write down those losses,” he also said in an interview on NBC’s Today show.
Six banks have collapsed already in 2009, and the failures are putting pressure on the FDIC’s deposit-guarantee fund. The agency is seeking power to charge fees to bank holding companies, in legislation to be taken up by the House Financial Services Committee. The bill would also boost the FDIC’s credit line with the Treasury to $100 billion from $30 billion.
Obama directed his staff to work with Congress on “smart, aggressive policies to reduce the number of preventable foreclosures by helping to reduce mortgage payments for economically stressed but responsible homeowners,” Summers, who is helping to craft Obama’s strategy, wrote in a Jan. 12 letter to congressional leaders.
Another mortgage approach being considered would have the government provide an incentive for servicers to rewrite loans by sharing the cost of the modification.
Under that proposal, the companies would negotiate with borrowers to cut their monthly payment to represent a smaller proportion of their income, for example 38 percent. The government then would pay the cost of cutting the payment even further, to 31 percent of income.
Bernanke in December said that while such an option might “pose a greater operational burden on the government” than the FDIC plan, it could “leverage” modification efforts now under way.