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Fed Jumps on Loan Modification Bandwagon


Foreclosure prevention efforts continue to sputter.

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" - and you certainly can't fault lawmakers for a lack of persistence in trying to stem the epidemic foreclosures plaguing America's housing market.

Sadly, they insist on trying the same failed strategies over and over again.

For more than 18 months now, Congress has resolutely believed loan modifications are the path out of the housing jungle. But despite a blitzkrieg of public-relations campaigns and benevolent-sounding foreclosure-prevention programs like "Hope for Homeowners," "HOPE NOW" and the latest, the Federal Reserve's "Homeownership Preservation Policy," modification efforts continue to sputter.

Even private-sector programs announced by big banks like Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC) have had only marginal success.

After months of relentless pressure from the House and Senate alike, the Fed's new policy allows it to review loans supporting the assets it purchased after it rescued Bear Stearns and AIG (AIG) for potential modifications. Barney Frank, the House Financial Services Committee Chairman, told reporters yesterday, "This is a very big deal."

Actually, Mr. Frank, it's not.

The assets acquired when the Fed and Treasury Department backed the JPMorgan (JPM) buyout of Bear Stearns and nationalized AIG were derivatives, not actual loans. These mortgage-backed securities are supported by thousands of individual mortgages, while the interest in those underlying loans was sliced up and allocated to countless securities, derivatives, and derivatives of derivatives.

Securities owners can't modify mortgages: The rules about altering loan terms are pre-determined in securitization documents. It's left up to loan servicers to implement the rules, whether the security owners like it or not.

Nevertheless, according to Bloomberg, the Fed -- after identifying which loans it holds a fractional interest in -- will encourage the servicers of those residential mortgage-backed securities "to implement a loan modification program that is consistent with this policy."

Congress, Treasury and now the Fed have been trying to months now to get servicers on board with modification efforts, to no avail. Even the FDIC, whose highly touted modification program is being tried out at defunct California thrift IndyMac, has been unable to successfully -- and sustainably -- modify loans en masse.

The reason modification efforts aren't working -- amid evidence that Washington continues to ignore the root of the housing problem -- is that the vast majority of loan defaults are being caused by job losses and negative equity. Borrowers can't get a new loan without a job, nor can they qualify for a modification if they owe more on their house than it's worth.

According to data released by JPMorgan yesterday, average equity for subprime loans stands at less than 5%.

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It's negative for all Alt-A adjustable rate mortgages.

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Average equity in jumbo prime loans, which are experiencing defaults at faster rates than either subprime or Alt-A, has tumbled from 45% in January 2006 to less than 20% at the end of last year.

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And, even as regulators force mortgage rates down to record lows to encourage buyers to step in -- catching the falling knife of tumbling home prices and risking financial ruin for the benefit of the rest of us -- property values continue to fall.

Meanwhile, regulators and lawmakers continue to parade bold foreclosure-prevention efforts before the public. And they'll keep trying - even if it bankrupts the country.
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