The easiest and most effective economic stimulus the Obama administration could accomplish doesn’t require an act of Congress. Executive action could change the rules to allow responsible homeowners with underwater loans to refinance at today’s rock-bottom interest rates, stemming the tide of foreclosures that is crippling recovery across the country and hitting California harder than any other state except Nevada.
Recently, a rare bipartisan contingent of the U.S. Senate—with Democrats including California’s Barbara Boxer and Republicans from Massachusetts, North Carolina and Georgia—urged the president to act. His jobs bill has the proverbial snowball’s chance of survival in the House, and if any of it does get through, it will only be after endless partisan posturing. Putting new mortgage financing rules in place could have a nearly instant effect.
It would give hope to families now thinking about abandoning their homes, not because they can’t make the high payments but because it doesn’t make financial sense to do so. Millions of borrowers could benefit. And it would give hope to regions like California’s Central Valley overwhelmed by foreclosures, which have the effect of further undermining home values in general and accelerating the downward economic spiral.
Banks and Wall Street lit the fuse of this economic disaster, but housing is the industry that was most devastated. Many business leaders believe the nation can’t really recover from the last recession, let alone avoid a double-dip, unless the housing market stabilizes. Obama has this in his power.
The change in rules would help only borrowers who have kept up their mortgage payments, not gone into default. Many of them now have loans at well over 5 percent when current rates are under 4 percent, an all-time low. In their letter to top administration officials Tuesday, the senators say there are nearly 19 million loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that could benefit from a refinance nationwide.
The difference could mean $2,000 a month to many families, Obama himself said in his speech to Congress in September. It’s money people could spend on consumer goods and services, but more than that, it could enable more families to stay in their homes and bring more stability to society.
Collectively, the ongoing pattern makes it impossible to build confidence in a recovery and to stimulate individual and business spending, which is what will actually fuel a recovery.
©2011 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)