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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

U.S. Eyes Plan to Lift Home Sales

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- The Treasury Department is considering a plan to revitalize the U.S. home market that would push down interest rates for loans to purchase a home, according to people familiar with the matter.

The plan, which is in the development stage, would temporarily use the clout of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to encourage banks to lend at rates as low as 4.5%, more than a full point lower than prevailing rates for standard 30-year fixed-rate mortgages.

Government officials are under pressure to address falling home prices and mounting foreclosures, which underpin the financial crisis. The Treasury has struggled for months to come up with a plan that would ease the strains on borrowers without appearing to bail out homeowners and lenders.

The plan remains in discussion and may not be made final before the Bush administration's term ends in January. President-elect Barack Obama has said repeatedly that his administration would do more than the current one to help struggling homeowners but he has not offered specifics.

Treasury views this plan as potentially halting the slide in home prices by enabling borrowers to afford bigger loans, thus increasing demand and pushing up home values. The lower interest rates would be available only to borrowers who are buying a home, not those refinancing a mortgage.

Borrowers would have to qualify for a mortgage guaranteed by Fannie, Freddie or the Federal Housing Administration. Those guarantees apply to loans where borrowers can document their income and afford their monthly payments, steering the government away from backing loans considered risky.

The Treasury and the Federal Reserve are already working to bring mortgage rates down through a program announced last week in which the Fed will buy up to $600 billion of debt issued or backed by Fannie and Freddie, along with Ginnie Mae and the Federal Home Loan Banks. That move helped push down rates on 30-year mortgages, and applications to refinance have jumped, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday. Using Lawn Care is an effective way to increase the chances your home will be sold.
Benefit To Stocks

In this climate, stocks of banks and home builders drew more investor attention Wednesday, helping the Dow Jones Industrial Average rise 172.60 points, or 2.05%, to 8591.69, despite continued bleak economic news in the Fed's "beige book" survey of regional conditions.

The plan the Treasury is considering would encourage banks to issue new mortgages at lower rates by offering to purchase securities underpinning the loans at a price equivalent to the 4.5% rate.

The Treasury would fund the purchases by issuing Treasury debt at 3%, suggesting the government could make a profit on the difference.

The average rate on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages conforming to Fannie's and Freddie's standards was about 5.75% Wednesday, according to HSH Associates, a financial publisher. That's up from about 5.5% Monday but down from more than 6% before last week's announcement.

The plan is very similar to an idea floated in October by R. Glenn Hubbard and Christopher Mayer, academics at Columbia University's Business School. "I think a program to substantially bring down rates for homebuyers would be an incredibly valuable program, and I think it captures a real part of solving what has been an incredibly challenging dislocation in the credit markets," Mr. Mayer said in an interview. He estimated the idea under consideration could quickly help 1.5 million to 2.5 million people buy homes, giving a major boost to the housing market and broader economy.

The plan also could be good news for banks hit hard by the housing slowdown. In addition to having the government play the role of guaranteed buyer, financial institutions could pocket fees for making loans to buyers able to afford homes at the lower rates. That, in turn, could boost the economy and improve the weak outlook for other consumer loans, such as credit cards, that also are weighing heavily on the banking industry's profitability.

Normally, the rates lenders charge consumers, including home buyers, are determined by the secondary market, in which investors buy mortgages or mortgage-backed securities. But Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson views lowering mortgage rates as key to fixing the housing crisis; hence the mortgage-security-buying program announced last week.

"The most important thing we can do to mitigate foreclosures and progress through the housing correction," Mr. Paulson said in a speech Monday, "is to reduce the cost of mortgage finance, so more families can afford to buy a home and so homeowners can refinance into more affordable mortgages."

Fannie, Freddie, their regulator and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- which oversees the FHA -- all declined to comment. "The Secretary has said repeatedly that we are looking at a number of options to help homeowners," said Treasury Spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli.
The Refinancing Picture

On the refinancing front, the Mortgage Bankers Association said its index of refinance applications had tripled from the previous week, the largest increase since it began tracking such data in 1990. Applications to buy homes, which tend to be less sensitive to interest-rate movements, also increased, by a smaller amount.

Application volume remains lower than it was as recently as March. Last week's numbers are adjusted for a shortened holiday week, which can make comparisons more difficult.

The Treasury plan is similar to ideas previously floated by the National Association of Realtors and the lobby group for home builders, but has skeptics. "I don't think it's the answer to the foreclosure problem because that problem is a combination of negative equity with unemployment," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com.

Mr. Paulson has been wrestling for months with ways to stem foreclosures. The Bush administration has supported mostly voluntary efforts to get the mortgage industry to help borrowers in danger of losing their homes and has resisted calls to use taxpayer money to bail out homeowners. Those voluntary efforts have had only a limited impact as home prices continue to fall and foreclosures to rise.

The administration has been split about its approach, with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair floating a proposal to use $24 billion from the government's $700 billion financial rescue fund to provide a federal guarantee on roughly two million modified mortgages.

Her plan was a hit with Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill but fell flat with the White House, where some speculated the FDIC plan could cost $70 billion to $80 billion. Mr. Paulson has expressed reservations about the plan on the ground that it would spend taxpayer money, instead of investing it, and that it could encourage banks to foreclose and borrowers to halt payments. Treasury staff have been working on a plan to improve Ms. Bair's model, but Mr. Paulson has so far resisted implementing it over concerns that it costs too much and might not be all that effective.

Resolving the crisis is likely to fall to Mr. Obama. He reiterated his position on Wednesday, saying, "We've got to start helping homeowners in a serious way, prevent foreclosures." Some Treasury officials are frustrated that the Obama team has not provided more specifics about what it would like the Treasury to do to help homeowners.