A stunning 48 percent of the nation's homeowners who have a subprime, adjustable-rate mortgage are behind on their payments or in foreclosure, and that's not the worst of it, new data Thursday showed.
The reckless lending practices in states like Florida, California and Nevada that were the epicenter of the housing crisis are no longer driving up the nation's delinquency rate. Instead, the foreclosure crisis now is being fueled by a spike in defaults in states like Louisiana, New York, Georgia and Texas, where the economies are rapidly deteriorating and thousands are losing their jobs.
A record 5.4 million American homeowners with a mortgage of any kind, or nearly 12 percent, were at least one month late or in foreclosure at the end of last year, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported. That's up from 10 percent at the end of the third quarter, and up from 8 percent at the end of 2007.
Prime and subprime fixed-rate loans saw sharp increases in the fourth quarter, a sign that the problem is now the economy.
"We're seeing increases in fixed-rate categories and that's where the problems are coming from," said Jay Brinkmann, the group's chief economist. "The foreclosure picture is more clearly driven by the jobs market."
That trend highlights one of the biggest challenges confronting the Obama administration's mortgage relief plan launched this week. While the $75 billion plan could help change the loan terms or refinance up to 9 million homeowners, unemployed borrowers will have a hard time qualifying.
On Thursday, the Labor Department said new unemployment claims last week totaled 639,000, lower than expected, but still at elevated levels. Factory orders also slipped for the sixth month in a row in January, the Commerce Department reported.
"There can be no doubt that employers continue to shed labor at a frightening pace, with no end in sight," Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a client note Wednesday.
The news comes a day after the Obama administration kicked off a new program that’s designed to help up to 9 million borrowers stay in their homes through refinanced mortgages or loans that are modified to lower monthly payments.
Borrowers, however, are being advised to be patient in their efforts to get help because mortgage companies are likely to be flooded with calls.
Government officials, launching the “Making Home Affordable” program also acknowledge that the initiatives are only a partial fix for a sweeping problem that has helped plunge the U.S. economy into the worst recession in decades. In fact, tens of thousands of homeowners in some of the most battered real estate markets — concentrated in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona — won’t be eligible for the two programs.
Meanwhile, debt-strapped homeowners unable to afford their mortgages could get their monthly payments lowered in bankruptcy court under a controversial element of President Barack Obama’s housing rescue plan.
The legislation is part of a broader housing package scheduled for a House vote Thursday. It’s the toughest piece of Obama’s efforts to prevent foreclosures — a stick to go with the many carrots he is offering the mortgage industry to help borrowers afford their home loans.