Saturday, January 3, 2009

Leading the horse to water

Wall Street Journal
December 31, 2008

Mortgage lenders who wake up Thursday with a New Year's hangover are likely to face another headache soon: The effort to give bankruptcy judges the power to rewrite mortgages is gaining steam.

The banking industry hoped the mortgage "cram-down" measure died when Congress removed it from the $700 billion bailout bill that passed in October. But it has been gathering momentum in Democrat-controlled Washington, as evidence emerges that current voluntary foreclosure-prevention programs are falling short.

"To the extent that nothing else is working, bankruptcy cram-downs are becoming more likely," says Rod Dubitsky, head of asset-backed-securities research at Credit Suisse.

The latest embattled foreclosure-prevention program is Hope for Homeowners, which was approved by Congress last summer and supposed to help 400,000 homeowners. Only 357 people have signed up so far for the voluntary program. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is administering the program, acknowledges that it has been encumbered by high fees and narrow eligibility requirements.

With efforts to stem home foreclosures stagnating, mortgage 'cram-down' efforts seem destined to re-emerge under the new Congress.

Another government program, FHASecure, was intended to help 80,000 homeowners who had fallen behind on their payments after their adjustable interest rates reset. It has helped only 4,100 delinquent borrowers refinance since September 2007 and will stop taking new loan applications as of Wednesday.

Mortgage lenders also are modifying tens of thousands of loans without government help. But often this hasn't solved the problem. A report last week by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision found that nearly 37% of mortgages modified in the first quarter of 2008 were 60 days or more delinquent after six months.

"It is absolutely clear that voluntary modification is just not working," says Rep. Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat. "Every plan that Congress has passed, we do it and nothing happens."

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