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One Week After Obama Jobs Speech, Mass Refis Take Center Stage at Senate Banking Committee Hearing

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This week, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing titled, "New Ideas for Refinancing and Restructuring Mortgage Loans," discussing the future of mortgage financing in America. Three panels of witnesses delivered their testimony on the topic, beginning with Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and featuring a number of industry experts from those on the frontlines of the housing market, such as David H. Stevens, current CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) and past chief of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to those who crunch numbers such as Dr. Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics.

"In searching for solutions, MBA’s members continue to be concerned about the ongoing conflicting policy objectives emanating from all involved stakeholders," said Stevens in his testimony. "This regulatory and legal ambiguity is causing consumers to pay an uncertainty premium in the form of increased costs and diminished access to credit."

With the downfall of the housing market having taken place nearly six years ago, the market, while showing signs of a pulse, continues to flutter and flatline. Just last week, President Obama addressed the housing market in his speech introducing The American Jobs Act, as most feel that the rise of the American economy will equate to a rise in the housing marketplace. It's just a matter of which side will budge first. 

Sens. Boxer and Isakson, along with Sen. Robert Menendez, have co-sponsored S 170, the Helping Responsible Homeowners Act of 2011, yet another piece of legislation aimed at jump-starting the housing market. The purpose of the S 170 is to provide for the affordable refinancing of mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). Little has been done with this bill, first introduced on Jan. 25, 2011, until this week's Senate Banking Committee Hearing. 

"One reason existing refinancing efforts have fallen far short of their goals is that Fannie and Freddie continue to charge homeowners high, risk-based fees up front to refinance their
loans," said Sen. Boxer. "Fannie and Freddie already bear the risks on these loans; yet this policy actually makes it less likely that borrowers will be able to take advantage of low rates and increases the chance they will eventually default. The Helping Responsible Homeowners Act would eliminate these risk-based fees on loans for which Fannie and Freddie already bear the risk, and would also remove refinancing limits on underwater properties for borrowers who have been paying their mortgages on time."

And while not specifically stated, the Helping Responsible Homeowners Act of 2011 could be a link to President Obama's goal of restoring "fairness and security" in the housing market by working with federal housing agencies to help more people refinance their mortgages as interest rates hovering around the four percent mark. In 2009, the Obama Administration attempted to use refinances to spur a floundering housing market through the Home Affordable Refinancing Program (HARP). HARP has seen little success to date, as through 2010, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have purchased or guaranteed more than 6.8 million refinanced mortgages, of which, 621,803 were HARP refinances with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios between 80 percent and 125 percent, up from 190,180 in 2009. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced an extension of HARP to June 30, 2012 as the program was set to expire on June 30, 2011.

"MBA believes the preferred approach is adjusting the guidelines of existing programs," said Stevens in his testimony. "Policymakers should consider reducing the GSEs' loan level price adjustments on HARP-eligible loans, which would reduce costs to borrowers that are arguably unnecessary because the GSEs already assume the credit risk of the existing loan."

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