WASHINGTON -- President Bush, looking for ways to respond to the subprime-mortgage crisis, will outline a series of policy changes and recommendations today to help borrowers avoid default, senior administration officials said.Among the moves will be an administrative change to allow the Federal Housing Administration, which insures mortgages for low- and middle-income borrowers, to guarantee loans for delinquent borrowers. The change is intended to help borrowers who are at least 90 days behind in payments but still living in their homes avoid foreclosure; the guarantees help homeowners by allowing them to refinance at more favorable rates.
Mr. Bush also will ask Congress to suspend, for a limited period, an Internal Revenue Service provision that penalizes borrowers who refinance the terms of their mortgage to reduce the size of the loan or who lose their homes to foreclosure. And he will announce an initiative, to be led jointly by the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development departments, to identify people who are in danger of defaulting over the next two years and work with lenders, insurers and others to develop more favorable loan products for those borrowers.
The moves are the first visible steps the Bush administration has taken to help stem the fallout from the subprime crisis, which has roiled financial markets and threatened to contaminate the housing sector. Defaults and foreclosures are increasing as borrowers -- many of whom got interest-only or no-money-down loans -- begin having trouble making their mortgage payments as higher rates kick in. Many homeowners believed they could refinance their loans, but that has become much harder as lenders tighten their standards in the face of defaults and foreclosures.
With more than two million loans expected to adjust to higher rates over the next two years, possibly triggering many more defaults, the Bush administration is looking for ways to stem the damage.
"The president wants to see as many homeowners who can stay in their homes with a little help be able to stay in their homes," a senior administration official said. "We're not looking for an industry bailout or a Wall Street bailout. The focus here is on the homeowner."
Mr. Bush is instructing Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to look into the subprime problem, figure out what happened and determine whether any regulatory or policy changes are needed to prevent a recurrence.
For now, the administration's primary vehicle to help homeowners will be the FHA, which doesn't originate loans but helps riskier borrowers qualify by guaranteeing their loans against default. By allowing the agency to back loans for delinquent borrowers, the FHA estimates it can help an additional 80,000 homeowners qualify for refinancing in 2008, bringing its total of refinancing guarantees to about 240,000, senior administration officials said. Mr. Bush also plans to announce that the FHA will begin charging "risk-based" premiums, a move that will enable the agency to help riskier borrowers since they can charge those individuals higher insurance rates. Right now, FHA premiums are a flat 1.5% of the loan, and the change would give the FHA flexibility to charge some borrowers as much as 2.2%.
Still, the move will help only a small portion of homeowners -- and few in high-cost states such as California or New York -- because the FHA faces constraints on the size of the loans it can back and strict rules that borrowers must meet. The Bush administration has been pushing Congress to enact overhauls that would eliminate the required 3% down payment and raise the size of the loans the FHA can insure to as much as $417,000 from $362,790. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) said recently that FHA reform will be among his priorities when Congress returns from its August recess, and a bill is expected to head to the full House this fall.In another move, Mr. Paulson and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson have instructed their staffs to begin working with mortgage lenders and others to identify borrowers who are in danger of defaulting. They also are trying to work with private lenders and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to develop loans for borrowers who will likely face default if they can't get more flexible terms