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Mortgage Bankers Reverse Course on Loan Limits

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It was barely a few months ago, albeit a few thousand degrees ago, that I moderated a panel of mortgage types from the major banks, including the Mortgage Bankers Association's new president David Stevens, formerly FHA commissioner.

Stevens and I have been talking housing for many years now, so I'm well aware that he is not exactly the ambivalent type.

When I suggested to the panel that the risk of a double-dip in housing was great and that winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now could be detrimental to the housing market, Stevens was adamant that housing was well into recovery, and all those home price and mortgage delinquency reports I was citing were backward looking and not indicative of the current state of the market.

Now Stevens is reversing course.

This morning he put out a statement advocating a continuation of the higher loan limits at the GSE's (Fannie and Freddie) and the FHA for one more year. “The temporary loan limits authorized by Congress have benefited consumers and the housing market during what has been a turbulent period for our nation’s economy,” Stevens said in the statement. “That decline is not over yet.”

The statement was a little dry for me, knowing the source, so I called Stevens for a little elaboration. He stated right from the get-go that he is still bullish about the future of the housing market, which is not exactly saying he feels great about it right now.

"It looked very clear at the beginning of the year that we were heading toward a flattening of the market, but we've seen clearly an impact to the housing market which is not solely a result of the U.S. economy. It's brought on by general uncertainties: Oil prices spiked for a while, which hit confidence, there were a lot of impacts both domestically and internationally," he continued. "I think the view right now that I have is that this is a relatively inexpensive initiative that could support the housing market at a time when pulling back makes no sense."

When I suggested that this was in direct opposition to the MBA's stand on GSE reform, which includes reducing loan limits in order to bring private capital back to the market, he said there was always a "caveat in the white paper for market conditions." He also says private capital is still too nervous about the state of housing to come back in force now. As for the FHA, which he has maintained consistently has far too large a market share right now, "If FHA is still too big, it is the sign of an unhealthy system, but it doesn't mean pulling back is the right answer. We must continue providing support."

Lowering the current loan limits (a maximum of $729,750 in the most expensive markets) would really affect just 5 percent of the housing market, although that percentage is far higher in certain local markets. Stevens says that's enough to hurt the overall market right now, and that we still need another year of recovery before we take such a risk. He notes over an over that it really costs the government nothing and doesn't "score" in the budget.

I'm wondering when the banking industry starts putting its money where its mouth is, now that it's making money again. There has been all this talk about getting government out of the housing/mortgage market, but no real movement in that direction. There have been some hikes in fees, but nothing really dramatic. The change in the loan limits was supposed to be the first step, something everyone agreed on. Now, not so much. There is certainly risk in lowering the limits, given that we are operating in a housing market that was beaten to a pulp and is still limping. But rehab takes some pain; if we really want a private sector mortgage market, and I'm not advocating one way or the other, but that has been the party line in both parties, then we need to start somewhere.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @Diana_Olick