Rock-bottom mortgage interest rates offer borrowers the opportunity to free up a significant amount of cash by refinancing their loans and lowering their monthly payments. Unfortunately, that option isn't available to millions of borrowers because plummeting property values have left them owing more than their homes are worth, rendering them ineligible for a better loan. Others are trapped by poor credit ratings or restrictions imposed by their second mortgages. The Obama administration, which has tried without much success to help some of these borrowers refinance, is looking for ways to enable more of them to do so. There are trade-offs, but it's an effort worth making.
At issue are several trillion dollars' worth of mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that charge interest well above today's prevailing rate. Enabling these borrowers to refinance could save them hundreds of dollars a month. It also would help more of them avoid foreclosure, reducing the amount Fannie and Freddie lose to defaults. That's good for the taxpayers, who are covering the companies' losses. Cutting the borrowers' payments, however, would necessarily trim the revenue collected by Fannie, Freddie and the investors who purchased securities based on those mortgages — potentially by billions of dollars.
Advocates say that the public would come out ahead because the reduced payments would be more than offset by the reduction in defaults and the benefit to the economy. The Congressional Budget Office agreed in a recent report based on one possible implementation of a refinancing plan. Even so, it's not a slam dunk. Some barriers to refinancing, such as those posed by second mortgages, are stubbornly hard to overcome; that's one reason the existing refinancing program for "underwater" borrowers has helped only a fraction of the number anticipated. Nor would the program do much for those most at risk of foreclosure, given that borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments aren't likely to be eligible.
Nevertheless, the government should try to enable more people whose property values have plummeted to refinance. These borrowers are caught in a trap not of their own making; if not for that trap, Fannie, Freddie and investors would have seen their revenues cut long ago. Lowering more borrowers' monthly payments won't cure all of the housing market's many ills, but it will brighten those households' financial outlooks. That will boost consumer spending and avert some foreclosures, helping the communities hit hardest by the housing slump.