But with new efforts by federal housing regulators underway to make it easier for homeowners and the Fed running out of other tools, the idea of further intervention in the mortgage markets is gaining new attention at the central bank.
“Clearly we’ve indicated our interest in supporting the mortgage market,” New York Fed President William C. Dudley said following a speech Monday, according to wire reports. “Depending on how the world evolves, we potentially could move to do more in that direction.”
Fed leaders will likely discuss specific options at a policy meeting next Tuesday and Wednesday, though they appear unlikely to take any major actions then. Data in recent weeks have pointed to a slightly improved economy, and many officials are skeptical that any new measures from the Fed to try to lower mortgage or other interest rates would really provide a boost. Three dissented from a related move at a September policy meeting.
“They’re very concerned about what’s going on in the mortgage market, and they’re seriously considering what they can do to help,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “But it’s more likely to happen in December or January than now.”
A growing chorus of Fed officials appears inclined to try to support the ailing housing market by buying the mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The move would be expected to lower mortgage rates and could have other effects, such as leading private investors to shift money into the stock market and corporate bonds, strengthening financial markets broadly.
“I believe we should move back up toward the top of the list of options the large-scale purchase of additional mortgage-backed securities,” Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo said in a speech last week.
The logic behind such a move is simple: The economy is being held back by consumers who racked up too much debt, particularly home mortgages, in the years leading up to 2007. If the Fed could make those debts more manageable by lowering rates, the economy would be able to heal faster.
Such a policy would work in concert with a new effort by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, announced Monday, to remove some of the obstructions that are keeping large numbers of homeowners from refinancing. The idea is that the combination of low rates and more people able to refinance could leave more money in Americans’ pockets.