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To Stem Foreclosures, FDIC Chief Mulls Guarantees

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. In the beginning, the government's $700 billion rescue package was aimed at buying up mortgage-related securities gone bad. Then the attention shifted to buying up equity stakes in banks. Now the focus is turning to homeowners facing foreclosure. The Senate Banking Committee took up the matter today. And all of those present, including Sheila Bair who heads the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, agreed much more needs to be done to get lenders to rework troubled loans. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has our story.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Sheila Bair's agency insures bank deposits, not mortgages. But she's outspoken about saying that government should put its money behind stemming the spike in foreclosures.

Ms. SHEILA BAIR (Chairman, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation): We need to prevent unnecessary foreclosures, and we need to modify loans at a much faster pace. Preventing unnecessary foreclosures will be essential to stabilizing home prices and providing stability to mortgage markets and the overall economy.

NOGUCHI: Everyone agrees it's urgent. Foreclosures depress home prices, creating a vicious cycle. But the question is how do you stop it? To date, government programs such as Hope for Homeowners have tried to get lenders to voluntarily come to the table and rework loans. The programs help borrowers on the brink of foreclosure negotiate lower payments with their lenders. But critics like New York Democrat Charles Schumer say voluntary programs lack teeth and haven't helped enough people keep their homes. And Bair agreed.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Do you have any hope for a voluntary model? I don't.

Ms. BAIR: No. I think there - no, there needs to be a package of carrot-and-stick incentives. I agree with that.

NOGUCHI: One of the biggest complications is that loans aren't held by just one lender. Many home loans are packaged into bonds that can be held by hundreds of investors, so it's hard to get everyone to the table. But Bair held up IndyMac Bank as a model of how it can be done. That bank failed in July and has been run by the FDIC. By standardizing the process, Bair said the bank has since reworked 3,500 loans. She says that model could work nationally. And to get lenders to step up, she favors using some of the $700 billion rescue package to create loan guarantees. So that if a lender reworks a loan and it goes into default a second time, the government would be on the hook.

Ms. BAIR: And if economic incentives need to be provided to help make the economics of those work, then I think that is what we need to do.

NOGUCHI: Neel Kashkari is an assistant Treasury secretary administering the $700 billion rescue plan. He also testified before the banking committee and said he hoped to give guidelines on how loan guarantees would work within several weeks. But he added there are many things that make modifying loans difficult.

Mr. NEEL KASHKARI (Interim Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability): The hardest part about a loan modification is not the calculation. A first year finance student could do the calculus of which is better. It's getting to the homeowner. It's getting them to pick up the phone and call.

NOGUCHI: Peter Morici is a professor at the University of Maryland. He said it doesn't matter whether the government puts more money on the table to try to get mortgages reworked. The problem is so vast and complex that many, many homeowners are bound to fall through the cracks.

Dr. PETER MORICI (Professor of International Business, University of Maryland): The hard truth is more people are going to lose their homes than we are comfortable with politically.

NOGUCHI: Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut senator who chairs the banking committee, said he plans to draft legislation before the new year addressing how the government can help accelerate mortgage workouts. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.