WASHINGTON — After months of stating that the housing market needs to bottom out in order to hasten an economic recovery, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney shifted to a more proactive message on housing during a weekend campaign appearance.
Speaking at a town hall meeting Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, Romney called on banks to grant more loan modifications. He blamed the federal government for taking steps that deter the private sector from modifying loans to borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth.
"Don't put the home into foreclosure if those people are able to stay in the home and meet those obligations," Romney said. "That's something which a lot of small banks don't feel they can do because they're frightened with Dodd-Frank, and they're frightened whether the regulators, or the inspectors, are going to come in and punish them for having renegotiated those loans."
"I want more flexibility, not less, so we can keep people in homes that can make reasonable payments," he continued.
Of the many criticisms that Republicans have made of the Dodd-Frank Act, the idea that the 2010 law is discouraging banks from modifying mortgages is a new one.
Romney did not explain why Dodd-Frank is to blame. He also did not point out that the Obama administration makes incentive payments to banks that grant modifications.
The former Massachusetts governor's remarks represented a shift in emphasis on housing. In the past, Romney has stated that the federal government should let the market hit bottom, and argued that government programs to aid homeowners are lengthening the pain.
Romney has also been noting that the housing sector is tied to the health of the broader U.S. economy, and he hit that theme again Saturday.
"The right way to get the housing market going is to have people working again," Romney said.
In other remarks, Romney vowed to repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which he had previously promised only to pare back.
Sarbanes-Oxley, passed in the wake of accounting scandals at Enron and other companies, required companies to make more disclosures related to financial transactions.
Fellow GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul called for the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley before Romney did. In an economic plan released last year, Romney supported a partial repeal to reduce burdens on mid-size companies.
But when Romney was asked Saturday whether he supports the law's repeal, he responded, "Yes. There's a direct answer."
Romney went on to decry the impact of both Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank. "These legislative monsters that have been created kill jobs," he said.
He also argued that community banks, unlike large Wall Street banks, do not have the resources to cope with the burdens of Dodd-Frank.
Romney recalled speaking to a banker at a big money-center bank who said that the institution has hundreds of lawyers working on Dodd-Frank implementation.
"Now guess how many community banks have hundreds of lawyers? None of them," Romney said. "Community banks can't possibly have that kind of legal help. And so they struggle along, they pull back from making loans. So after Dodd-Frank, guess what's happening? Bigger banks are getting bigger. Smaller banks are pulling back."