Obama: Federal programs ignite surge in home refinancing

In an economic roundtable with homeowners, President Barack Obama said Thursday the government’s efforts to drive down interest rates have fueled a surge in mortgage refinancing – putting money into many homeowners’ pockets during the current crisis.

But almost all the refinancing so far involves homeowners with conventional mortgages who are not in serious financial trouble. The president’s own programs for helping troubled homeowners are just beginning to get off the ground.

Fannie Mae, the largest of the two government-sponsored entities that process refinancing requests under Obama’s mortgage-relief plan, just began accepting automated applications from mortgage lenders on Monday, said a spokeswoman. As of Thursday, fewer than 1,000 loans had been refinanced under the program, said a Treasury official, though the official noted that the pace is expected to pick up dramatically in the weeks ahead.

Turning his focus to the economy on his first day back from a lengthy foreign trip, Obama used the White House event to laud the surge in mortgage refinancing as “good news” for American families in the midst of the gloom of the recession.

He credited “some extraordinary actions by the Federal Reserve,” which in March began to aggressively buy mortgage-backed securities in order to lower mortgage rates, as well as his own housing relief plan, announced in February.

Mortgage rates are at near-historic lows, with the average rate on a 30-year mortgage at 4.87 percent this week, according to Freddie Mac.

Though economists mostly have credited the Federal Reserve’s actions for the lower interest rates, Obama economics adviser Austan Goolsbee also pointed to a $200 billion credit line the Obama administration announced in February for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which guarantee mortgage securities. Goolsbee argued the credit line helped improve confidence in mortgage-backed securities

Mortgage refinancing applications are up 15 percent since the beginning of the year, according to a weekly survey conducted by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Obama noted that the same survey shows an even bigger jump in refinancing applications – 88 percent – since the week he announced his mortgage relief plan in mid-February.

But Orawin Velz, an economist with the Mortgage Bankers Association, said lenders are insisting on high credit standards for borrowers, good mortgage payment histories and equity left over in their homes.

“Right now, it’s become a lot more stringent,” Velz said.

Velz said the Obama administration’s relief programs for struggling homeowners are not likely to have a significant impact for several more months.

Still, with Obama’s mortgage relief program announced less than two months ago, federal officials have moved unusually rapidly to begin approving loans under the plan.

Administration officials pointed to signs of strong interest among homeowners. Bank of America reported that 200,000 people have checked a bank Web site with information on the mortgage relief plan.

Since the Treasury Department released guidelines for eligibility on March 4, more than 1 million borrowers have checked Web sites operated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that allow people to check whether they are eligible for refinancing under the Obama program.

The Obama administration’s $75 billion mortgage relief plan allows homeowners paying high interest rates, but who have little or no home equity, to refinance their mortgages. Because of the drop in home values in recent years, low equity has become a common obstacle to refinancing.

The mortgage relief plan also provides a separate avenue for struggling homeowners at risk of losing their homes. The plan provides incentives for banks to renegotiate mortgages to make them more affordable.

Spokesmen for Bank of America and Citigroup, two of the nation’s largest mortgage servicers, said they have imposed moratoriums on foreclosures against borrowers that they believe will be eligible for the Obama administration’s loan modification plan but have not yet altered any mortgages under it.

Citigroup has begun to put some borrowers in a three-month trial period required under the plan to see if they can successfully meet a modified payment schedule, said a spokesman.

? 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.