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July 8, 2008

Economy: New Mortgage Rules To Protect Future Homeowners

  In an effort to prevent a repeat of the current mortgage mess, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke says the Fed next week will issue new rules aimed at protecting future homebuyers from dubious lending practices.

The mortgage rules will crack down on a range of shady lending practices that has burned many of the nation’s riskiest “subprime” borrowers who were hardest hit by the housing and credit debacles. The plan would apply to new loans made by thousands of lenders of all types, including banks and brokers.  The plan would:

·        Restrict lenders from penalizing risky borrowers who pay loans off early

·        Require lenders to make sure these borrowers set aside money to pay for taxes and insurance

·        Bar lenders from making loans without proof of a borrower’s income

·        It also would prohibit lenders from engaging in a pattern or practice of lending without considering a borrower’s ability to repay a home loan from sources other than the home’s value.

In an extraordinary action, the Fed in March agreed to let investment houses go to the Fed – on a temporary basis – for a quick, overnight source of cash. Those loan privileges, which are supposed to last through mid-September, are similar to those permanently afforded to commercial banks for years.

“We are currently monitoring developments in financial markets closely and considering several options, including extending the duration of our facilities for primary dealers beyond year-end should the current unusual and exigent circumstances continue to prevail in dealer funding markets,” Bernanke said in prepared remarks to a mortgage-lending forum in Arlington, Va.

The Fed’s decision to act – temporarily at least – as a lender of last resort for Wall Street firms was made after a run on Bear Stearns pushed the investment bank to the brink of bankruptcy and raised fears that others might be in jeopardy. It was the broadest use of the Fed’s lending powers since the 1930s.

Those controversial decisions have drawn criticism from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere that the Fed is bailing out Wall Street and putting billions of taxpayer dollars at risk.

Bernanke, in appearances on Capitol Hill has said he doesn’t believe taxpayers will suffer any losses.

In his speech Tuesday, the Fed chief defended those actions anew. If the Fed didn’t intervene, he said, problems in financial markets would have snowballed, imperiling the country.

“Allowing Bear Stearns to fail so abruptly at a time when the financial markets were already under considerable stress would likely have had extremely adverse implications for the financial system and for the broader economy,” Bernanke said to the mortgage forum, organized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The Fed’s consideration of giving Wall Street firms more time to tap the Fed’s emergency loan program is part of an ongoing effort by the central bank to bring back stability to fragile financial markets and help to bolster shaky confidence on the part of investors.

Policymakers – in the White House, in Congress and other federal agencies – will need to work together to come up with ways to make the U.S. financial system more resilient and stable and to prevent a repeat of the types of problems that brought about the end of Bear Stearns, an 85-year-old institution, Bernanke said.

Although those efforts are already under way, it will fall to the next president and next Congress to settle them.

Over the longer term Congress may need to adopt legislation to bolster supervision of investment banks and other large securities dealers, Bernanke said.

Bernanke recommended that Congress give a regulator in the future the authority to set standards for capital, liquidity holdings and risk management practices for the holding companies of the major investment banks. Currently, the SEC’s oversight of these holding companies is based on a voluntary agreement between the SEC and those firms.

“Strong holding company oversight is essential,” he said.

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