Five-year mortgage rate freeze looms
By MARTIN CRUTSINGER and ALAN ZIBEL, Associated Press Writers Wed Dec 5, 5:16 PM ET
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has hammered out an agreement to freeze interest rates for certain subprime mortgages for five years to combat a soaring tide of foreclosures, congressional aides said Wednesday.
The aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details have not yet been released, said the five-year moratorium represented a compromise between desires by banking regulators for a longer time frame of up to seven years and mortgage industry arguments that the freeze should last only one or two years.
Another person familiar with the matter said the rate-freeze plan would apply to borrowers with loans made at the start of 2005 through July 30 of this year with rates that are scheduled to rise between Jan. 1, 2008, and July 31, 2010.
The administration saidwill speak on the agreement at the White House on Thursday and the announced that Treasury Secretary and Housing and Urban Development Secretary would hold a joint news conference Thursday afternoon with mortgage industry officials.
Treasury also announced there would be a technical briefing to explain more of the proposal's details.
Paulson, who has been leading the effort to craft a plan, said on Monday that the program would only be available for owner-occupied homes — to ensure the break is not given to real estate speculators.
The plan emerged from talks between Paulson and other banking regulators and banks,and consumer groups trying to address an avalanche of foreclosures feared as an estimated 2 million subprime mortgages reset from lower introductory rates to higher rates.
In many cases, the higher rates will boost monthly payments by as much as 30 percent, making it very difficult for many people to keep current with their loans.
The plan is aimed at homeowners who are making payments on time at lower introductory mortgage rates but cannot afford a higher adjusted rate.
Through October, there were about 1.8 million foreclosure filings nationwide, compared with about 1.3 million in all of 2006, according to.-based . With home loan defaults still rising, the trend is expected to worsen next year.
The plan represents an about-face for Paulson, who until recently had insisted the mortgage crisis could be handled on a case-by-case basis. However, he and other administration officials became convinced the tide of foreclosures threatened by the mortgage resets represented such a severe threat that a more sweeping approach was needed. They opted for a proposal that was along the lines of a plan put forward in October by Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Paulson and other federal regulators began holding talks with some of the country's biggest mortgage lenders, mortgage service companies, investors who holdand nonprofit groups that provide counseling for at-risk homeowners.
Under the typical subprime loan — those offered to borrowers with spotty credit histories — the rates for the first two years were at levels around 7 percent to 9 percent. But after two years, those rates were scheduled to reset to levels around 9 percent to 11 percent.
For a typical $1,200 monthly mortgage payment, the reset could add another $350 to the monthly payment, greatly raising the risks of loan defaults by homeowners struggling with the current payment.
The wave ofthreatened to make the most severe slump in housing even worse by dumping more foreclosed properties onto an already glutted market, further depressing home prices and shaking consumer confidence.
The deepening housing slump has already roiled financial markets, starting in August, as investors grew increasingly concerned about billions of dollars of losses being suffered by banks, hedge funds and other investors.
The administration plan is designed to deal with the crisis by letting subprime borrowers who are living in their homes and are current on their payments to avoid a costly reset for five years. The hope is that by that time the housing downturn will have stabilized, clearing out the glut of unsold homes and halting the steep slide in prices that is hitting many parts of the country.
With sales and prices once again rising, the expectation is that homeowners will be able to renegotiate their current adjustable rate mortgages into a more affordable fixed-rate plan.
The housing crisis has become an issue in the presidential race with Democratsand putting forward their own proposals this week that would go further than the administration.
Clinton said her own proposal that would impose a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and freeze the rates for five years or until they had been converted to fixed-rate loans was a better approach that would help more people.
"Although the administration is finally giving the foreclosure crisis the attention it deserves, it seems thatis going to give struggling homeowners far less than they need," she said in a statement.
Mark Zandi, chief economist for, called the administration plan a good first step, but said the government eventually will have to go further given the problem's size and the threat to the economy.
"This is the most serious housing downturn we have seen in the postperiod," Zandi said. "It is a threat to the broader economy. The risks of a recession are very high."
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Video On Demand: "Mortgage Meltdown"
Last month an unfamiliar expression appeared in the Australia media. A "subprime mortgage crisis" was unfolding in the United States. Homeowners across America were defaulting on loan payments and economists warned of major financial fallout occurring anywhere from Paris to Beijing to Melbourne. But why should a foreclosure in Cleveland affect a hedge fund in Sydney?