After several largely ineffective programs to help troubled borrowers and after fruitless attempts at budging the hard-line conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, President Obama is proposing a brand new refinance program for borrowers who are current on their mortgages, regardless of who owns their loan; the catch is that this one has to go through Congress.
"I'm sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates. No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks," the President announced in his State of the Union address.
Unlike previous efforts in the refinance space, including a recently revamped and expanded government program for borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are currently worth, this plan would not be limited to those with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, according to senior administration officials. The two mortgage giants own or guarantee about half of the nation's mortgages. It would be open to all borrowers current on their loans.
The Obama administration is offering precious few details, promising more in the coming weeks, but several sources say the plan is to ask Congress to allow the government mortgage insurer, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to back refinances of underwater mortgages. No estimates were given as to how many borrowers such a plan could potentially help, only that this would be a voluntary, borrower-initiated plan, and not a blanket refinance of all borrowers.
The costs, according to administration officials, would be modest, and the President would request that a portion of his financial crisis responsibility fee offset any of those costs, so there would be no addition to the federal debt.
"A small fee on the largest financial institutions will ensure that it won't add to the deficit, and will give banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust," Mr. Obama added.
Loan servicers could be faced with a flood of applications and could have to add resources to handle it all, but officials say the opportunity to generate revenues from the refinances would be incentive enough. Still many servicers have balked at the idea of mass refinancing, as the new loans could present more risk and less reward.
The idea is to remove the barriers and "frictions" that have kept many borrowers out of refinancing to historically low rates. Some of those include high levels of negative equity, loan level price adjustments, loan origination dates, put-backs on loans that default, and borrower qualifications.
Then there is the very basic problem of politics. Whatever the details of the plan are, Republicans, despite the fact that they have been calling for more refinances, are unlikely to hand President Obama a popular victory on the eve of a presidential election. They may also oppose anything that makes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bigger, when the two are allegedly winding down.