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Henry Paulson

Paulson Considers New Plan to Resuscitate U.S.

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Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is considering a new plan to reduce mortgage rates in another bid to revive the U.S. housing market, a government official said.

The Treasury, which already has a program to buy mortgage- backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, could step up those purchases to drive down interest rates on some loans to 4.5 percent, the official said on condition of anonymity. The plan is preliminary and could change.

The deliberations come as President-elect Barack Obama pledges fresh action to help American homeowners, and follow a $600 billion initiative announced by the Federal Reserve last week to buy mortgage debt. Mortgage applications surged by a record last week and the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate loan dropped to 5.47 percent, the lowest level since June 2005, the Mortgage Bankers Association said yesterday.

“Lower mortgage rates will allow households to fortify their balance sheets, and we will likely see consumer spending come back a little quicker than it would otherwise,” said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the same time, “it’s not going to be an instant panacea for what ails the economy,” he said.

While lowering mortgage rates to 4.5 percent would allow most homeowners to refinance into a cheaper loan, far fewer will actually qualify, said Rajiv Setia and Nicholas Strand at Barclays Capital in New York.

Can’t Force Banks

“Over 90 percent of the mortgage universe out there would be refinancable, but you can’t force banks to lend to people,” said Setia, a fixed-income strategist for Barclays.

The Bush administration has been faulted by Democrats and consumer advocates for failing to take sufficient steps to stem record home-loan foreclosures this year. Federal Housing Finance Agency Director James Lockhart has been prodding private mortgage servicers and bond investors to cooperate with government efforts to modify or refinance loans for troubled borrowers.

Treasury “keeps nipping at the edges to come up with a wholesale response, but always ends up with a partial response,” said John Taylor, president and chief executive officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington. “Regardless of whatever rhetoric Paulson keeps throwing around, foreclosures continue to go up.”

Brookly McLaughlin, a Treasury spokeswoman in Washington, declined to comment.

Paulson’s Deals

Paulson last December brokered a deal with banks and mortgage servicers to fix interest rates on some subprime loans for five years. He put together an industry-led coalition called “Hope Now” to help Americans at risk of losing their homes. He first resisted, then accepted, foreclosure relief as part of the $168 billion economic-stimulus package passed in February.

House prices in 20 U.S. cities declined in September at the fastest pace on record. The S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index dropped 17.4 percent from a year earlier. Foreclosure filings in October were up 25 percent from a year ago, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a seller of default data.

Washington-based Fannie and McLean, Virginia-based Freddie, seized by FHFA on Sept. 6 after examiners found the companies’ capital t. be too low or of poor quality, own or guarantee about $5.2 trillion of the $12 trillion U.S. home-loan market.


By Robert Schmidt and Dawn Kopecki

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