Obama Pushes Infrastructure Bank, Pledges Housing Fix

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WASHINGTON — Two proposals in President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday would have the most direct impact on the banking industry.

First, Obama vowed to take executive action to allow more Americans to refinance their mortgages. Secondly, he urged Congress to pass legislation that would create a national infrastructure bank.

Obama used the speech to preview the American Jobs Act, which he plans send to Congress soon. The bill will include tax cuts, an extension of unemployment insurance, and a series of other job-creation measures.

As was widely anticipated, the legislation will include a national infrastructure bank, an idea that Obama has been talking about since the 2008 presidential campaign. So far it has failed to attract sufficient Republican support in Congress.

Banks have also been chilly to the idea, arguing that it would either subsidize projects that the private sector would have financed anyway, or pay for boondoggles that don't justify the investment on an economic basis.

No details on the size or scope of Obama's most recent infrastructure bank proposal were immediately available, but an earlier version would have allocated $30 billion to the program. In Thursday's speech, the president talked about modernizing 35,000 schools and jump-starting thousands of transportation projects, though it was unclear if he was referring solely to projects that would be financed by the infrastructure banks.

Obama described the infrastructure bank as "an independent fund to attract private dollars and issue loans based on two criteria: how badly a construction project is needed and how much good it would do for the economy."

Based on Obama's speech, it does not appear that his legislative proposal contains a housing component. He did vow, however, to take unilateral action to spur mortgage refinancing.

"My administration can and will take some steps to improve our competitiveness on our own," Obama said. "And to help responsible homeowners, we're going to work with federal housing agencies to help more people refinance their mortgages at interest rates that are now near 4%."

After being interrupted briefly by applause, Obama said, "I know you guys must be for this, because that can put more than $2,000 a year in a family's pocket, and give a lift to an economy still burdened by the drop in housing prices."

The speech included no specifics about the refinancing plan. An existing government refinance program, which is open to homeowners who are current on their mortgages as long as they don't owe more than 25% more than the value of their homes, has helped more than 800,000 families. But initially the administration said the existing program would help 4 million to 5 million households.

Obama in his speech made one additional reference to the financial industry. Responding to Republican arguments that overregulation is hurting the economy, Obama said that he won't allow the economic crisis to be used as an excuse to wipe out certain basic protections, and used as an example existing consumer protections for credit-card users.

"I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies," Obama said.

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