U.S. mortgage plan falls short

Plan to modify Fannie, Freddie loans will help some, but more needs to be done, experts said.

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NEW YORK(CNNMoney.com) -- The federal government's plan to streamline modifications of troubled loans held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac won't help the majority of people threatened with foreclosure, experts said.

Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, homeowners whose loans are owned or backed by the mortgage finance companies and who are at least 90 days behind can enter a streamlined modification program. Their payments would be adjusted through lower interest rates or longer repayment terms that would total no more than 38% of their monthly household income. In some cases, payment on part of the loans' principal may be deferred, though not reduced.

The interest rate could be lowered to as little as 3% for five years. After that, it would increase by 1 percentage point a year until it hits either the market rate or the original interest rate, whichever is lower, officials said.

Unlike previous federal efforts, participation by servicers is not voluntary. They will now work with eligible borrowers to reach more affordable mortgage payments, using the guidelines laid out Tuesday.

Also, officials hope the new program, which could help more than 400,000 homeowners, will convince servicers who handle loans held by private investors to follow suit.

Program doesn't cover most subprime loans

While experts and some government officials called the plan a positive step forward, they said much more needs to be done to address the mortgage crisis. The program does not address the heart of the problem -- troubled loans held by private investors.

Though Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500) own or guarantee 58% of all mortgages on single-family homes, these loans represent only 20% of serious delinquencies. The majority of the problem mortgages were bundled into securities, which were sold in pieces to investors.

"This is a step in the right direction but falls short of what is needed to achieve widescale modifications of distressed mortgages, particularly those held in private securitization trusts," said Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman Sheila Bair, who has proposed an alternate plan addressing securitized loans. "As we lend and invest hundreds of billions of dollars to help institutions suffering leveraged losses from defaulting mortgages, we must also devote some of that money to fixing the front-end problem: too many unaffordable home loans."

Problems in the mortgage market remain concentrated in the subprime sector, which are mainly held by investors who have resisted modifying the loan terms.

"Most foreclosures are happening on subprime loans that Fannie and Freddie don't control," said Eric Stein, senior vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending, which has long pressed the federal government to help delinquent borrowers. "More is still needed to address foreclosures on these mortgages. To date, voluntary modifications haven't been sufficient. That's why we still have a foreclosure crisis."

To broaden existing foreclosure fixes, Bair supports using up to $50 billion of the $700 billion financial sector rescue plan to guarantee modified loans. This would give servicers an incentive to adjust the loan terms and could help up to 3 million homeowners, though the number is not firm.

Meanwhile, the FDIC has already adopted a streamlined process to modify troubled loans owned or serviced by the failed IndyMac Bank, which the agency took over in mid-July. Some 3,500 borrowers have accepted the workouts, which also aim to keep payments at no more than 38% of gross income.

Several major servicers -- including Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup -- have recently announced expansions of their foreclosure prevention efforts, which could aid nearly a million more borrowers.

The programs will also seek to make payments more affordable by cutting interest rates or stretching out loan terms, but some homeowners can also get their mortgage principal reduced depending on their servicer and financial situation.

Deferring payment on principal

Reducing principal is key to keeping some borrowers -- especially those whose house values have fallen below their mortgage balances -- in their homes, experts said. It makes both the loan more affordable and gives homeowners more incentive not to walk away.

In announcing the plan, officials made a point of saying that borrowers must repay their current mortgage in full, just with more affordable monthly payments.

"Loan modifications are not a gift ... the principal cut on the front end will be paid at the end of the loan, either in extended payments or a balloon payment," said Brian Montgomery, commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration. "This is not loan forgiveness."

However, to make payments affordable, servicers may choose to defer part of the payment -- with no interest -- until the end of the loan, officials said. For borrowers whose homes are worth less than their mortgages, servicers might defer the difference.

Here's how it would work: Let's say a homeowner has a $200,000 mortgage on a house now worth $150,000. The servicer may defer payment on $50,000 of principal. If the home recovers its value and the borrower sells it, he or she would have to pay back the deferred amount at that time. If it doesn't recover, the borrower would have to work out a deal with the servicer, likely a short sale, in which the bank forgives the difference between the sale price and the mortgage balance.

If the borrower stays in the home, he or she would have to pay the deferred amount within 30 days of the last payment, likely 30 or 40 years from now. Homeowners could take out a new mortgage to cover that balloon payment.

Setting industry standards

Officials hope that Fannie and Freddie's influence in the mortgage market will prompt servicers working with private investors to use this streamlined procedure in their own modifications. Often, investors defer to the mortgage finance agencies to set the methodology.

"I ask the private label mortgage-backed securities servicers and investors to rapidly adopt this program as the industry standard," said James Lockhart, head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie and Freddie. "Not only will this streamlined program assist borrowers, but broad acceptance and effective implementation could stabilize communities and property values." To top of page

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