Watchdog: Obama's mortgage relief efforts aren't good enough

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's efforts to force the modifications of distressed mortgages, while laudable, is likely to fall far short because the foreclosure crisis has grown and threatens to dwarf government efforts to relieve it, a special congressional watchdog panel warned in a report released Friday.

The Congressional Oversight Panel, created to monitor how taxpayer bailout dollars are being spent, warned that the administration's Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, announced in February, seems sure to prove ineffective.

"Foreclosures continue every day as Treasury ramps up the program, with foreclosure starts outpacing new HAMP trial modifications at a rate of more than 2 to 1," the report said.

From July 2007 through the end of August, 1.8 million homes were lost to foreclosure and 5.2 million more foreclosures were started, the report said. The HAMP program seeks to prevent between 3 million and 4 million foreclosures; on Thursday, the Treasury Department announced that its initial goal of having 500,000 trial mortgage modifications started by Nov. 1 had been met.

The congressional panel wasn't critical of those efforts; it simply said that they'll be swamped by changes in the housing market. The economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent and rising, is pushing many more prime mortgages, those given to the most creditworthy borrowers, into default.

On top of that, a new class of exotic mortgages called pay option adjustable-rate mortgages and interest-only mortgages are due to reset to higher variable rates. These exotic loans were usually given to richer borrowers on fancy homes worth far less today than the value of the underlying mortgages. These mortgages are often too high-priced to qualify for government modification programs.

"It simply isn't clear that the programs in place will do enough to tame the crisis and have a significant impact on the broader economy," Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor who heads the panel, said in the report. "It increasingly appears that HAMP is targeted at the housing crisis as it existed six months ago, rather than as it exists right now."

Foreclosures also may rise to levels far beyond what HAMP anticipated because a growing number of homes are termed "underwater," or worth less than the balance due on their mortgages.

"Today, one-third of mortgages are underwater, and if housing prices continue to drop, some experts estimate that one half of all mortgages will exceed the value of the homes they secure," the report said. "Negative equity increases the likelihood that when these homeowners encounter other financial problems or life events cause them to move, they may walk away from their homes and their over-sized mortgages."

Much will depend on whether home prices have bottomed, as some economists think is happening now. Housing prices have shown small but steady improvements in most markets since March, according to Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller index.

Low long-term interest rates and the government's first-time homebuyer's tax credit have helped stabilize prices, Patrick Newport, an economist with IHS Global Insight, told Congress on Thursday. Home prices, adjusted for inflation, rose by 33 percent from 2000 to 2006. Today, prices are only about 13 percent above their average value in 2000, a sign that a brutal correction has taken place.

ON THE WEB

October Oversight Report on mortgages

Treasury report on modifications

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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