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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Details of loans can widen reach to help distressed US homeowners

WASHINGTON: The reach of a government effort to help distressed homeowners refinance their mortgages could be largely determined by details on lender liability that will be announced.

The regulator for government-controlled mortgage finance firms, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said last month that it was widening a programme to help borrowers with little or no equity in their homes refinance.

The initiative, known as the Home Affordable Refinance Programme, or HARP, hinges on lenders voluntarily writing new loans for borrowers hard-hit by declining home prices.

But many lenders have been worried that they could be forced to buy back refinanced loans if defects with the initial mortgage are found, a concern that has undercut the programme's effectiveness.

The regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), said it would relax the representations and warranties participating lenders had to abide by as part of its revamp of the programme.

Lenders would have learnt yesterday to what extent those contracts, which determine their liability for bad loans, will be waived.

“For those originating the new loans, they will look at how these waivers are going to structured,” said Bose George, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc in New York. “If they provide enough of a comfort zone, these changes to the representations and warranties could bring meaningful participation.”

HARP is open to borrowers who have little or no equity in the homes as long as they are making timely payments and their loans are guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which currently back about half of all US residential loans.

As part of the revamp announced in October, FHFA said it would scrap a cap that prevented borrowers whose mortgages exceeded 125% of the value of their homes from participating in the programme.

Analysts at Barclays Capital estimate up to 3.1 million loans are eligible for the programme. So far, about 894,000 borrowers have used HARP to refinance.

FHFA said the changes could double that number, although that would still fall far short of the five million homeowners the Obama administration had hoped to reach when the programme was unveiled in 2009.

While borrowers may move through the refinancing process at a faster rate under the retooled initiative, the breadth of the waivers on representations and warranties will largely determine the degree to which lenders and mortgage servicers are willing to make these riskier loans.

Those originating the loans have been skittish about refinancing higher-risk borrowers with the possibility a loan's government guarantee could be stripped if it sours or it is deemed defective.

Edward DeMarco, acting director of FHFA, said during a conference call with reporters last month the plan would wind up producing “substantial relief” from the representations and warranties.

But George cautioned that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac might try to offset the waivers with an additional fee to cover the potential costs of being stuck with bad loans.

The companies have been successful at getting lenders to buy back defective loans, which has helped them bring in revenue.

By Reuters

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