Obama Says Private Capital Should Take Lead Mortgage Role

President Barack Obama is calling for private capital to take the lead role in the nation’s mortgage market with the U.S. government continuing to provide a backstop only against catastrophic risk.

The president for the first time is endorsing an approach to remake the housing finance system as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are wound down. He said the government still must play a role to preserve broad access to 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages that underpin the market.

“You can’t have a situation in which the government is underwriting and guaranteeing all the mortgage lending that’s taking place around the country and big profits are being made by these quasi-private institutions,” Obama said. Congress should pass housing legislation by the end of the year, he said.

The president’s remarks today came during a question and answer session in Los Angeles moderated by Spencer Rascoff, chief executive officer of Zillow Inc, operator of the largest real-estate information website. Yesterday in Phoenix Obama delivered a speech on housing policy.

A reduced government role would likely mean that mortgages would become more expensive as the costs of covering risk are shifted from taxpayers to borrowers. A Senate bill containing Obama’s approach would increase interest rates by between 50 and 75 basis points for a typical borrower with a 30-year fixed rate loan, a 20 percent down payment, and a 750 credit score, according to a report by Moody’s Analytics.

Senate Moves

The president’s call for a government mortgage reinsurer coincides with administration officials quietly aiding Senate efforts. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner in June introduced the measure, which would require private capital to take at least 10 percent of the first losses on mortgage securities. The government would step in with more aid during a financial catastrophe.

Separately, Obama said today that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is working on ways to simplify mortgage forms “so that you don’t have a lot of fine print, you know exactly what you’re getting.”

In his speech yesterday in Phoenix, Obama blamed “recklessness” on the part of lenders and borrowers for the housing bubble and subsequent collapse of the market as the nation fell into the deepest recession since the 1930s. Now, he said, the market is healing, with prices rising and foreclosures declining.

Rising Values

“We’ve got to turn the page on this kind of bubble-and-bust mentality that helped to create this mess in the first place,” Obama said. “We’ve got to build a housing system that is durable and fair and rewards responsibility for generations to come.”

Nationwide, real-estate values are climbing at the fastest pace since 2006 as improving employment helps draw buyers into the market for a tight inventory of homes.

Prices rose 7.3 percent in the year through May, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The number of homes for sale fell 5 percent to 1.74 million in January from the year-earlier period, the fewest since December 1999, according to the National Association of Realtors.

FHA Program

Obama said borrowers with foreclosures or bankruptcies resulting from a job loss will be able to finance a home purchase with a Federal Housing Administration mortgage as long as they are back at work, demonstrate 12 months of timely payments, and complete housing counseling. The FHA, a government mortgage insurer, now requires a three-year wait.

A new system would replace Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which drew $187.5 billion in aid from the U.S. Treasury after investments in risky loans pushed them to the brink of insolvency. The two companies, which were taken into U.S. conservatorship in 2008, provide liquidity to the mortgage market by buying loans from banks and packaging them into securities on which they guarantee payments of principal and interest, freeing up the banks to make more loans.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac returned to profitability as the housing market rebounded. They’ve paid the Treasury $131.6 billion in dividends, which count as a return on the U.S. investment in the firms and not as a repayment of their debt to taxpayers. Freddie Mac announced today that it will send an additional $4.4 billion to the Treasury Department after continued housing-market improvements allowed the company to post a seventh consecutive profitable quarter.

Warner said in a statement that the bipartisan Senate proposal “will end the current Fannie and Freddie model of private gains and public losses.”

House Plan

In the House, Republicans have drafted a bill that would wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with no government-backed replacement. Written by Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who leads the House Financial Services Committee, the measure would leave the FHA as the sole U.S. mortgage backstop. No Democrats are backing the legislation.

The cost of the House bill for borrowers would be even greater than those of the Senate bill, according to Moody’s Analytics. Borrowers would see interest rates rise by 90 basis points if the measure were enacted, Moody’s said.

Hensarling said yesterday that the House version would achieve the goals set out by Obama, and he faulted government policies that he said “browbeat financial institutions to loan money to people to buy homes they ultimately could not afford.”

Additional Steps

The White House would support additional measures ensuring that housing is affordable for first-time homebuyers and renters, according to Obama administration officials.

“We can’t go back to the housing-finance system that we had before,” Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said on Bloomberg Television yesterday. “We can’t go back to a place where trillions and trillions of dollars of wealth is wiped out and the world economy is put at risk.”

The president also called for passage of a new immigration law, citing home purchases by immigrants as a boon to the market.

Obama’s trip to Phoenix and Los Angeles is the latest campaign-style effort to put pressure on Congress to pass measures to help boost economic growth. Last week, he traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and visited an Amazon.com Inc. distribution center to argue for a lower corporate tax rate, with initial revenue designated for jobs programs.

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