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Stakes are high as government plans exit from mortgage markets

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 25, 2010

For more than a year, the government pulled out the stops to revive home buying by driving down mortgage rates.

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Now, whether the housing market is ready or not, the government is pulling out.

The wind-down of federal support for mortgage rates, set to end in two months, is a momentous test of whether the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve have succeeded in jump-starting the housing market and ensuring it can hold its own. The stakes for the economy are massive: If the market again falls into a tailspin, homeowners could face another wave of trouble, and it would deal a body blow to President Obama's efforts to get the economy on track.

Keeping the mortgage rates at historic lows, which required a commitment of more than $1 trillion, was viewed within the administration as a central plank of the economic strategy last year, senior officials said. Though the policy did not attract as much attention as rescue efforts to bail out banks, it helped revitalize home buying in some parts of the country and put money in the pockets of millions of homeowners who were able to refinance into lower monthly payments, the officials added.

"We did what we thought was necessary to stabilize the market, but we don't think the government should continue special efforts forever," said Michael S. Barr, an assistant secretary at the Treasury Department. "As you bring stability, private participants come back in. We do expect this now that the market has stabilized. I'm not going to say there will be no effect on rates, but we do think you are seeing market signs and market signals that there should be an orderly transition."

A few federal officials and many industry advocates disagree, saying the government is exiting too soon. They offer dire warnings of higher rates and a slowdown in home sales. Fed leaders say they will end a marquee program supporting the mortgage markets in March. Obama's economic team, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, has decided not to replace it and has been shutting down its own related initiatives.

Over the past year, these programs have enabled prospective home buyers to get cheap loans, helping those buying and selling property as well as those eager to refinance existing mortgages. If the end of the initiative drives up interest rates, say from 5 percent to 5.5 percent, homeowners could be deterred from refinancing, industry officials say. A sharper increase in rates could make homes too expensive for many buyers, forcing them from the market and causing the recent pickup in home sales to stall.

"Mortgage rates are the lifeblood of the housing market, and we have cautioned the Fed about the sudden stoppage of this program," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors.

But senior government officials said it could be hard to reverse course without damaging the credibility of the Fed and the administration. If the government loses the trust of the financial markets, preparing them for policy changes could be tougher, possibly resulting in economic disruptions. The officials said they also worry that the mortgage market is becoming overly dependent on federal support, inserting the government too deeply into private enterprise.

Only a new crisis would be able to persuade the administration and the Fed to change their minds, officials said.

"This is a worthy experiment to see if they can begin exiting after providing an unprecedented amount of money to one sector of the economy," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "It's a close call, though. I can see why they are debating it."

Filling in the void

The Fed's policymaking body sets a key interest rate at periodic meetings, which in turn influences rates for all kinds of loans. But mortgage rates also are shaped by the health of the market financing these loans.


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