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Foreclosures Are Often In Lenders' Best Interest

"You want to wait and see what figures they come up with," he said.

Administration officials have not said publicly how many borrowers they expect to re-default under Obama's program.

But the experience of a separate program run by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. could be instructive. After taking over the failed bank IndyMac last year, the FDIC began modifying troubled mortgages held or serviced by the company. Richard Brown, the FDIC's chief economist, said the agency expects up to 40 percent of those borrowers to re-default.

Even at that rate, he said, the modification program is more profitable than doing nothing. "The idea that 30 to 40 percent re-default is a failure to a program is false," Brown said.

The administration has estimated that its foreclosure-prevention program would help 3 million to 4 million borrowers by 2012. But lenders' reluctance could limit the impact to less than half that, said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Economy.com. Coupled with re-defaults, this would mean that the number of people losing their homes to foreclosure could reach nearly 5 million by 2011, he said.

Mark A. Calabria, director of financial-regulation studies at the Cato Institute, warned that political rhetoric is driving the policy discussion. "What we really need to do is have an honest debate about what are the magnitudes of people we really can help," he said. But administration officials defended their program's progress, reporting that it has surpassed an initial goal of offering 20,000 modifications a week. These officials said they have taken into account the re-default risk and possibility for self-cure in designing the effort.

Michael S. Barr, assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions, noted that the report by the Boston Fed does not cover the period since the administration launched its initiative. "We will continue to refine the program as new data becomes available," he said. "We are committed to studying the effectiveness and efficiency of the program, and we welcome outside analysis."

Willen, of the Boston Fed, said the government program could boost several-fold the number of seriously delinquent borrowers receiving modifications. But so few people had been getting their loans modified that even a dramatic increase in the percentage would still touch only a small fraction of troubled borrowers, he said.

"We're still not talking about a program that will stop a large number of foreclosures," he said. "We're talking about a program that, at the margins, will assist more people. It is unlikely we will see a sea change."


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