Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Weeks After Bank Bailout, No Help For Homeowners

Weeks after bank bailout, no help for homeowners

By Adrianne Appel

Nov. 14- Nearly five weeks after Congress gave the nod to a 700-billion-dollar bailout fund, and as the economy sinks deep into a recession, no definite plan is in sight for struggling U.S. homeowners.

"We have the potential for a true economic disaster," said Susan Wachter of the Wharton School of Economics, at a congressional hearing Thursday.

"Let us remind ourselves that the problem came from housing," she said.

It is unclear how help will be delivered to U.S. homeowners, who are defaulting on loans at record rates.

"The foreclosure problem is getting worse, not better," said Martin Eakes, CEO of Self Help and Centre for Responsible Lending, a non-profit, community development organization, on Thursday, at the hearing of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

Congress meets next week to decide whether to dole out 25 billion dollars or more to the auto industry, and maybe craft a bill to assist the unemployed and create jobs. But there is no congressional plan on the table to assist homeowners. Congress may then recess until January.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who is in charge of disbursing the 700 billion dollars, said Wednesday that his next target for funds is the credit card, student loan and auto loan industries, but not homeowners.

"We continue to explore ways to reduce the risk of foreclosure," he told reporters. Paulson mentioned a new program underway by the quasi-public mortgage lenders to make new loans currently being written more fair. The private lending industry is being encouraged to voluntarily follow suit, Paulson said.

Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, has drafted an aggressive plan for assisting homeowners in trouble, based on the idea that monthly mortgage payments should not be more than 31 percent of the household income. That plan appears stalled, possibly on hold until January and a new administration.

On Jan. 20, Barack Obama will become president, and his cabinet will have control of the remainder of the 700 billion dollars, probably about 350 billion dollars. It is not known if Obama also would tap the Treasury fund to help homeowners. Obama backs the idea of letting bankruptcy courts modify loans in foreclosure.

Eakes said he supports Sheila Bair's proposal, and Obama's idea that judges should be allowed to modify mortgages.

Lenders need a mandate, because they are not voluntarily working out better terms on troubled mortgages, Eakes said. Credit Suisse, a large mortgage lender, reported recently that it modified just 3.5 percent of delinquent subprime loans in August, its most recent figures, he said.

Until foreclosures are stemmed, the overall economy will not be able to dig itself out of trouble, Wachter said.

"The economic downturn could become ever more severe due to the interaction of financial market stress with declines in house prices and a worsening economy all feeding back into and adverse loop," Wachter said.

Foreclosure filings increased 5 percent in October, to 279,561 homes, according to RealtyTrac. Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas saw the highest rate of foreclosures, said the firm.

As the nation heads into the New Year, nearly 3 million families will have lost their homes, and 2.3 million more will be adrift as of the end of 2009, according to an analysis of Mortgage Bankers Association data by Eakes's group.

"These losses, in turn, are infiltrating nearly every part of American life, from police and fire protection to community resources for education," Eakes said.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development announced on Thursday that 30 developed nation economies had sunk into a recession, including Japan, the United States and most of Europe.

Their economic output is expected to shrink through 2009, with the U.S. economy the worst off, said the organization, based in Paris. The OECD began analyzing economies in the 1970s and it is the first time it has seen such a large group of economies simultaneously slide.

The news comes as leaders of the world's richest 20 nations gather Friday and Saturday at the White House to discuss coordinated efforts to ease their ailing economies, like tax incentives and regulation.

Bush, whose administration has embraced a hands-off, free-market ideology, indicated he would be opposed to efforts to regulate.

"It would a terrible mistake to allow a few months of crisis to undermine 60 years of success," Bush told reporters Thursday.

Today's economic crisis can be traced back to unscrupulous actions of some lenders, who wrote millions of mortgages with sky-high interest rates and other unfair terms that homeowners are now unable to meet.

"Today's financial crisis is a monument to destructive lending practices -- bad lending that never before has been practiced on such a large scale, and with so little oversight. Unfortunately, the entire country is paying the price," Eakes said.

Banks bought and sold the high-risk mortgages, and created complex investment products from them that they traded around the globe, earning record profits. The complex mortgage products and their trading was unregulated. Now that homeowners are defaulting on their loans, many of the investments held by the banks are almost worthless.

"Well before the foreclosure crisis erupted into the public eye and began to dominate news headlines throughout the country, [non-profit organizations] pleaded with Congress, the administration, and the financial services industry to quickly take sweeping measures to keep borrowers in their homes," noted Nancy Zirkin, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, at the hearing.

Source: Inter Press Service

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