Fed Boss Bernanke Comments On Housing And Mortgage Lending

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke devoted a significant amount of his prepared testimony on the economics of the housing market, mortgage lending and regulation. Here are excerpts of his semi-annual monetary policy report to to House Committee on Financial Services, July 18, 2007.

Housing And The Economy

"To a considerable degree, the slower pace of economic growth in recent quarters reflects the ongoing adjustment in the housing sector. Over the past year, home sales and construction have slowed substantially and house prices have decelerated. Although a leveling-off of home sales in the second half of 2006 suggested some tentative stabilization of housing demand, sales have softened further this year, leading the number of unsold new homes in builders’ inventories to rise further relative to the pace of new home sales. Accordingly, construction of new homes has sunk further, with starts of new single-family houses thus far this year running 10 percent below the pace in the second half of last year.

The pace of home sales seems likely to remain sluggish for a time, partly as a result of some tightening in lending standards and the recent increase in mortgage interest rates. Sales should ultimately be supported by growth in income and employment as well as by mortgage rates that--despite the recent increase--remain fairly low relative to historical norms. However, even if demand stabilizes as we expect, the pace of construction will probably fall somewhat further as builders work down stocks of unsold new homes. Thus, declines in residential construction will likely continue to weigh on economic growth over coming quarters, although the magnitude of the drag on growth should diminish over time."

Mortgages Lending And Regulation

Promoting access to credit and to homeownership are important objectives, and responsible subprime mortgage lending can help advance both goals. In designing regulations, policymakers should seek to preserve those benefits. That said, the recent rapid expansion of the subprime market was clearly accompanied by deterioration in underwriting standards and, in some cases, by abusive lending practices and outright fraud. In addition, some households took on mortgage obligations they could not meet, perhaps in some cases because they did not fully understand the terms. Financial losses have subsequently induced lenders to tighten their underwriting standards. Nevertheless, rising delinquencies and foreclosures are creating personal, economic, and social distress for many homeowners and communities--problems that likely will get worse before they get better.

The Federal Reserve is responding to these difficulties at both the national and the local levels. In coordination with the other federal supervisory agencies, we are encouraging the financial industry to work with borrowers to arrange prudent loan modifications to avoid unnecessary foreclosures. Federal Reserve Banks around the country are cooperating with community and industry groups that work directly with borrowers having trouble meeting their mortgage obligations. We continue to work with organizations that provide counseling about mortgage products to current and potential homeowners. We are also meeting with market participants--including lenders, investors, servicers, and community groups--to discuss their concerns and to gain information about market developments.

We are conducting a top-to-bottom review of possible actions we might take to help prevent recurrence of these problems. First, we are committed to providing more-effective disclosures to help consumers defend against improper lending. Three years ago, the Board began a comprehensive review of Regulation Z, which implements the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). The initial focus of our review was on disclosures related to credit cards and other revolving credit accounts. After conducting extensive consumer testing, we issued a proposal in May that would require credit card issuers to provide clearer and easier-to-understand disclosures to customers. In particular, the new disclosures would highlight applicable rates and fees, particularly penalties that might be imposed. The proposed rules would also require card issuers to provide forty-five days’ advance notice of a rate increase or any other change in account terms so that consumers will not be surprised by unexpected charges and will have time to explore alternatives.

We are now engaged in a similar review of the TILA rules for mortgage loans. We began this review last year by holding four public hearings across the country, during which we gathered information on the adequacy of disclosures for mortgages, particularly for nontraditional and adjustable-rate products. As we did with credit card lending, we will conduct extensive consumer testing of proposed disclosures. Because the process of designing and testing disclosures involves many trial runs, especially given today’s diverse and sometimes complex credit products, it may take some time to complete our review and propose new disclosures.

However, some other actions can be implemented more quickly. By the end of the year, we will propose changes to TILA rules to address concerns about mortgage loan advertisements and solicitations that may be incomplete or misleading and to require lenders to provide mortgage disclosures more quickly so that consumers can get the information they need when it is most useful to them. We already have improved a disclosure that creditors must provide to every applicant for an adjustable-rate mortgage product to explain better the features and risks of these products, such as “payment shock” and rising loan balances.

We are certainly aware, however, that disclosure alone may not be sufficient to protect consumers. Accordingly, we plan to exercise our authority under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA) to address specific practices that are unfair or deceptive. We held a public hearing on June 14 to discuss industry practices, including those pertaining to pre-payment penalties, the use of escrow accounts for taxes and insurance, stated-income and low-documentation lending, and the evaluation of a borrower’s ability to repay. The discussion and ideas we heard were extremely useful, and we look forward to receiving additional public comments in coming weeks. Based on the information we are gathering, I expect that the Board will propose additional rules under HOEPA later this year.

In coordination with the other federal supervisory agencies, last year we issued principles-based guidance on nontraditional mortgages, and in June of this year we issued supervisory guidance on subprime lending. These statements emphasize the fundamental consumer protection principles of sound underwriting and effective disclosures. In addition, we reviewed our policies related to the examination of nonbank subsidiaries of bank and financial holding companies for compliance with consumer protection laws and guidance.

As a result of that review and following discussions with the Office of Thrift Supervision, the Federal Trade Commission, and state regulators, as represented by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors and the American Association of Residential Mortgage Regulators, we are launching a cooperative pilot project aimed at expanding consumer protection compliance reviews at selected nondepository lenders with significant subprime mortgage operations. The reviews will begin in the fourth quarter of this year and will include independent state-licensed mortgage lenders, nondepository mortgage lending subsidiaries of bank and thrift holding companies, and mortgage brokers doing business with or serving as agents of these entities. The agencies will collaborate in determining the lessons learned and in seeking ways to better cooperate in ensuring effective and consistent examinations of and improved enforcement for nondepository mortgage lenders. Working together to address jurisdictional issues and to improve information-sharing among agencies, we will seek to prevent abusive and fraudulent lending while ensuring that consumers retain access to beneficial credit.

I believe that the actions I have described today will help address the current problems. The Federal Reserve looks forward to working with the Congress on these important issues.