Obama wants to help people refinance their mortgages. Is it too late?

August 6, 2013

Hope you already got that refi done! (Associated Press)

For years, the Obama administration and regulators have been working to find ways to make it easier for Americans to refinance their mortgages, so that low interest rates might do more to stimulate economic growth. The president announced new proposals just this afternoon that includes streamlining paperwork, waiving closing costs for those with shorter-term loans and allowing families without government-backed mortgages to qualify.

But is it too late?

New government efforts might help streamline the process for refinancing, but there’s one roadblock Obama can’t remove: rising interest rates. Mortgage rates have shot up nearly a percentage point since the start of the year, with the biggest jump occurring over the past two months. The average rate for a traditional 30-year fixed rate loan last week was 4.39 percent, compared to 3.34 percent in January.

That has made refinancing look a lot less attractive for many households – and their prospects are unlikely to get any better. That’s partly because the Federal Reserve is weighing pulling back its support for the housing market, which would push rates even higher. James Marple, senior economist for TD Bank, predicts mortgage rates will rise to 4.8 percent by the end of next year and hit 5.5 percent in 2015.

“The low watermark for mortgages has passed,” he wrote in a note to clients.

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s index of refinance activity is at the lowest point in two years and 55 percent below its recent peak. Marple estimates that refinancing has saved households about $14 billion since 2009.

Many of the refinanced loans were initially originated in 2006-2007, when mortgage rates averaged about 6.4 percent. The White House says some borrowers could save $3,000 a year under its new proposal and that 2.6 million underwater homeowners have taken advantage of its refinancing program. But as the pool of loans leftover from the peak of the boom dries up, and interest rates continue their creep, it will be harder to get the math to add up.

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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