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Treasury urged to cut mortgage rates

Financial industry lobbyists are urging the Treasury Department to take steps to lower mortgage rates in an effort to stabilize the housing market.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Financial industry lobbyists are urging the Treasury Department to take steps to lower mortgage rates in an effort to stabilize the housing market.

Under the proposal, Treasury would seek to lower the rate on a 30-year mortgage to 4.5 percent, Scott Talbott, a vice president at the Financial Services Roundtable, said Wednesday. That’s about one percentage point below the current rate of 5.6 percent.

Treasury would do so by purchasing mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Talbott and other industry sources said.

While details of the proposal are in flux, the program could be similar to the effort announced last week by the Federal Reserve to purchase up to $500 billion of mortgage-backed securities from the two mortgage giants, Talbott said.

Mortgage rates dropped steeply in the wake of the Fed’s announcement. Additional purchases could drive mortgage rates down further, and enable Fannie and Freddie to purchase or back more home loans.

Fannie and Freddie, which were seized by federal regulators in September, own or guarantee about half of the $11.5 trillion in U.S. outstanding home loan debt.

Treasury is strongly considering the proposal and could announce a decision as early as Monday, industry sources said.

Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said she would not comment on speculation about actions the department may take in the future.

Treasury could make the proposal as part of a request for the second $350 billion of the $700 billion financial rescue fund, industry sources said.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has been criticized by members of Congress for using the bailout money to shore up Wall Street banks, while doing nothing for homeowners facing foreclosure.

The proposal was reported Wednesday on The Wall Street Journal’s Web site.

In recent weeks, a diverse set of industry groups from real estate agents to carpet makers have called on lawmakers and the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama to subsidize lower mortgage rates and beef up tax credits to help stimulate housing demand.

The National Association of Realtors has been pushing a plan under which the federal government would spend $50 billion to lower mortgage rates. It says doing so would yield about 500,000 more home sales.

The National Association of Home Builders is leading a new “Fix Housing First” coalition to push for aid to the ailing housing sector, including a tax credit of up to $22,000 for anyone who buys a home before the end of 2009.

“The goal is drive mortgage rates so low that home prices not only stop falling but begin to rebound,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at

While the plan, if enacted, will help anybody looking to buy or sell a home, or refinance out of an expensive mortgage, it may not help those whose credit is so damaged that banks don’t want to lend to them.

“It may change the number of borrowers seeking loans but it won’t change the qualifications for who gets those loans,” McBride said.