Hat tip to SM for sending this along, from the nytimes.com:

The Obama administration on Tuesday will launch its most ambitious effort at reducing mortgage balances for homeowners who owe more than their homes are worth.

Officials say between 500,000 and 1.5 million so-called underwater loans could be modified through the program, the first initiative to target homeowners who are current on their mortgage payments but are at risk of default because they have no equity in their homes. Some experts are warning, however, that the same knots that tied up prior initiatives could do so again.

Under the new “short refinance” program, banks and other creditors that write down mortgages to less than the value of the property can essentially hand off the reduced loan to the government. The process involves refinancing borrowers into loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

While the program puts taxpayers at risk—officials estimate one in five loans in the program could default—the government has set aside $14 billion previously earmarked for housing aid from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to cover losses.

The new program, which was announced in March, is starting as the housing market shows signs of renewed trouble and as the Obama administration’s signature Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, falls short of its goals of helping three million homeowners. Half of the 1.3 million borrowers that enrolled in temporary loan modifications have fallen out of HAMP because they didn’t qualify. Only one-third has received permanent modifications.

The initiative also comes as mortgage rates fall to their lowest levels in more than 50 years. Average rates on 30-year fixed-rate loans dropped to 4.43% last week, down from 4.55% during the previous week, according to a survey published Wednesday by the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Analysts say that the program is most likely to succeed on loans that banks already own in their portfolios. It could also provide investors with a vehicle for getting rid of loans that have been modified and are current again. “It’s going to be a ‘take out’ for modified loans,” said Laurie Goodman, a senior managing director at mortgage-bond trader Amherst Securities Group LP in New York.

The program must resolve a stubborn problem that has hindered every other modification program: how to deal with second mortgages. The program says second liens must be reduced so that the total mortgage debt is less than 115% of the home’s current value. The government will make partial payments for banks to reduce those loans, but banks have been very reluctant to write down seconds that are current.

Investors that hold first mortgages are leery of writing down their loans without extinguishing the second because junior-liens are in a first-loss position. On a loan that has a second behind it and is heavily upside-down, “do I take the write-down and effectively pay off the second? I don’t think so. That second is worthless,” said Vincent Fiorillo, portfolio manager at Doubleline Capital, a Los Angeles-based fixed-income manager.

He said the program could work for loans without seconds, though he says it’s possible many borrowers will still have too much debt to qualify for an FHA-backed loan.

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Jim the Realtor
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