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Financial sector lobbies for lower mortgage rates

Treasury urged to get 30-year loan down to 4.5%

Globe Wire Services / December 4, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Financial industry lobbyists are urging the Treasury Department to take steps to lower mortgage rates in an effort to stabilize the housing market.

Under the proposal, Treasury would seek to lower the rate on a 30-year mortgage to 4.5 percent, Scott Talbott, a vice president at the Financial Services Roundtable, said yesterday. That's about one percentage point below the current rate of 5.6 percent.

Treasury would do so by purchasing mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Talbott and other industry sources said.

While details are in flux, the program could be similar to the effort revealed last week by the Federal Reserve to purchase up to $500 billion of mortgage-backed securities from the two mortgage giants, Talbott said.

Mortgage rates dropped steeply in the wake of the Fed's disclosure.

Mortgage applications in the United States surged a record amount last week as lending rates plunged.

The Mortgage Bankers Association's index of applications to purchase a home or refinance a loan jumped 112 percent to 857.7, the highest level since March, from 404.4 the prior week. The refinance index skyrocketed 203 percent, while the purchase index rose 38 percent.

Fannie and Freddie, which were seized by federal regulators in September, own or guarantee about half of the $11.5 trillion in US outstanding home loan debt.

Treasury is strongly considering the new proposal and could make a decision as early as Monday, industry sources said.

A Treasury spokeswoman said she would not comment on speculation about actions the department may take.

Treasury could make the proposal as part of a request for the second $350 billion of the $700 billion financial rescue fund, industry sources said.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has been criticized by members of Congress for using the bailout money to shore up Wall Street banks, while doing nothing for homeowners facing foreclosure.

The proposal was reported yesterday on The Wall Street Journal's website.

In recent weeks, a diverse set of industry groups from real estate agents to carpet makers have called on lawmakers and the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama to subsidize lower mortgage rates and beef up tax credits to help stimulate housing demand.

The National Association of Realtors has been pushing a plan under which the federal government would spend $50 billion to lower mortgage rates. It says doing so would yield about 500,000 more home sales.

The National Association of Home Builders is leading a "Fix Housing First" coalition to push for aid to the ailing housing sector, including a tax credit of up to $22,000 for anyone who buys a home before the end of 2009.

"The goal is drive mortgage rates so low that home prices not only stop falling but begin to rebound," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate .com.

While the plan, if enacted, will help anybody looking to buy or sell a home, or refinance out of an expensive mortgage, it may not help those whose credit is so damaged that banks don't want to lend to them.

"It may change the number of borrowers seeking loans but it won't change the qualifications for who gets those loans," McBride said.

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