WASHINGTON — It may not be perfect, but the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s loan modification plan is the government's best attempt yet to stem the tide of foreclosures, observers said Friday.
Though questions remain, including whether the proposal adequately resolves conflicts between servicers and investors, most sources concluded it is superior to other government and industry initiatives to date.
"I believe [FDIC Chairman] Sheila Bair should be showered with praise and medals for the battle she is apparently doing," said Alan Blinder, a former Federal Reserve Board vice chairman and now a principal at Promontory Financial Group LLC. The plan could be improved, but "I would support this plan 1,000% over the Paulson 'sit on your hands' plan."
Ms. Bair has been hammering Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to endorse systematic modifications.
The Bush administration is resistant to the idea, but many in Congress are enthusiastic and likely to press Mr. Paulson to get on board when he testifies Tuesday before the House Financial Services Committee. During the hearing Mr. Paulson will sit side by side with Ms. Bair and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
FDIC officials took issue with a claim last week by Mr. Paulson that the proposal was a spending program and not an appropriate use of the $700 billion his department received from Congress.
"The juxtaposition that some have drawn between investing and spending is a false dichotomy, because we are investing in trying to solve the mortgage problem and investing in the mortgages that need to be restructured," said Michael Krimminger, a special adviser for policy at the FDIC. "We've supported the actions that Treasury has taken, but I think now we actually need to deal with the underlying problem, too."
According to details released Friday by the FDIC, roughly 4.4 million loans -- 1.4 million loans 60 days or more past due and 3 million projected to become delinquent by the end of 2009 - would be considered. The FDIC expects roughly half of those would actually be modified after the government agreed to absorb 50% of losses on loans modified by lenders that agreed to standardized procedures. (The guarantee would be 20% on loans already underwater.) Only owner-occupied properties would be eligible and the loss-sharing guarantee would evaporate if the borrower defaulted within the first six payments of the modified loan.
Servicers would receive $1,000 for each successful workout, and would conduct a "systematic review" of loans they service and ensure modifications would result in a greater "net-present" value for investors than a foreclosure.
Observers said the plan was much broader than the most recent government-endorsed effort: a Hope Now initiative launched last week to modify delinquent loans held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The FDIC plan would apply to privately held mortgages.
The plan "could make a difference," said Ellen Seidman, director of the New America Foundation's Financial Services and Education Project. "They've put some safeguards in here that should mean this doesn't become an incentive for servicers to dump lousy loans."
Some observers did express concern that loan guarantees may not satisfy investors in asset-backed securities, who — claiming authority from the pooling and servicing agreements — have pressured services not to modify loans out of fear of lower returns.
The plan is "effectively telling servicers in order to modify loans, you may have to breach your servicing contracts, and no servicer is going to agree up front to that," said Laurence Platt, a partner in Washington with K&L Gates LLP.
Joe Belew, the chief executive of the Consumer Bankers Association, said the plan may be too aggressive, since it would commit a massive amount of resources to restructuring loans without a firm idea of how many modifications would succeed.
Modifications on a case-by-case basis — something the FDIC claims slows the process down — may still be more attractive to the industry, he said. "If you simply modify wholesale all the portfolio or all of the segment of a portfolio, you still don't know how many people will make it, so it's a real unknown for a lender."