U.S. may expand mortgage refinance program

A sign advertising housing is displayed on September 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida.

Since 2009, underwater homeowners whose mortgages are owned or guaranteed by one of the government-backed mortgage giants -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- have been able to lower their monthly payments with what's called a "HARP" refinance.

This morning the Wall Street Journal reports on efforts in the Obama administration to expand the safety-net for people who owe more than their homes are worth.

"This is really a way of bringing the recovery to parts of the country that haven't seen a recovery," such as Nevada, California, Cleveland and Detroit, says Chris Mayer, a professor of real estate at Columbia Business School.

Mayer says he expects the HARP expansion would aid homeowners with high interest rates who are current on their payments.

But Juli Niemann, an analyst at Smith, Moore & Company, says the program might do more to help big banks.

"The banks are the ones who are really pushing for this because they want to foist their risky loans on already bankrupt Freddie and Fannie, which means you're pushing off [risk] onto the tax payers ultimately," she says. 

Mayer agrees there is a risk for tax payers. However, he says the risk of the targeted expansion -- likely only to apply to 700,000 or 800,000 mortgages -- is small in the context of the larger federal budget.

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.

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