27 March 2010

BofA to Reduce Mortgage Balances

NY Times

Bank of America, under pressure to keep distressed borrowers from losing their homes, said Wednesday that it would begin forgiving some of their mortgage debt.

While limited in scope and by invitation-only, the program is a significant shift in efforts to assist the four million homeowners who are facing foreclosure. It comes as banks and the Treasury Department are under growing pressure from the Obama administration, lawmakers and community groups to stem the foreclosure tide.

With the housing market entering another period of stress, worries about foreclosure are compounded. As the volume of sales drops, prices start to slide as well. When the gap keeps increasing between the size of a mortgage and the value that the home could fetch from a buyer, owners tend to give up.

“Banks are willing to take some losses now to avoid much greater losses later if the housing market continues to spiral, and that’s a sea change from where they were a year ago,” said Howard Glaser, a housing consultant in Washington and a former H.U.D. official.

The Bank of America program is intended for owners who received loans from Countrywide Financial, the biggest and one of the most aggressive lenders during the housing boom. Bank of America bought Countrywide in 2008.

Bank of America executives said the program would work this way: A borrower owes $250,000 on a house now worth $200,000. Fifty thousand dollars of that balance would be moved into a special interest-free account.

As long as the owner continued to make payments on the $200,000, every year $10,000 in the special account would be forgiven until either the balance was zero or the housing market recovered and the borrower once again had positive equity.

“The time has come to test this sort of program,” Jack W. Schakett, who heads credit loss mitigation strategies at Bank of America, said in a briefing. “Modifications are better than foreclosure.”

That was the original notion behind the government’s modification program, which was originally touted as helping millions of borrowers but has resulted in permanently improved loans for less than 200,000. The program, which stresses reductions in interest rates, was criticized Wednesday by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program for over-promising and under-delivering.

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