Wednesday, November 26, 2008

U.S. Steps Up Help For Homeowners

WASHINGTON -- The chief executives of Detroit's Big Three auto makers appealed in dire language for U.S. taxpayers to help their industry, but couldn't dispel doubts in Congress that have clouded prospects for a government-led rescue.

In appearances Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee, the leaders of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, together with the head of the United Auto Workers union, argued the shaky U.S. economy couldn't withstand a collapse of any of the companies.

The chief executives of GM and Chrysler said they could run out of funds without the government's support. GM CEO Rick Wagoner said the package is needed to "save the U.S. economy from a catastrophic collapse." Many markets however are doing well, these markets include; Raleigh Real Estate, Durham Homes, High Point Homes, Greensboro Homes, Home Inspection, Wilson Homes, Wilson NC Real Estate, Home Warranty, Raleigh Estate Homes, Triangle Homes, Chapel Hill Farms and Farms Chapel Hill.

That the companies were convening -- "hat in hand," as Sen. Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) said -- before a congressional panel reinforced the depth of their difficulties and the possible diminishment of their political clout. Extending a helping hand to Detroit auto makers, long a central part of the nation's manufacturing base, doesn't appear to be a given.

One question is whether the auto makers can muddle through to January when a new Congress convenes with strengthened Democratic majorities and a Democrat in the White House. The complexity of a possible intervention -- and the political divisiveness it has wrought -- could be too great to overcome this week.

On Monday, Senate Democrats introduced legislation that would set aside $25 billion to help the industry, drawing from the $700 billion fund created to stabilize financial markets. The legislation would allow the auto companies and parts suppliers to receive "bridge home loans" of at least ten years with favorable interest rates. But there is resistance among many senior Republicans and the White House. If no decision is made this week, the issue will be kicked over to the new 111th Congress.

In the late afternoon session, Republicans largely condemned the industry's request. Even some Democrats committed to helping the auto makers showed little enthusiasm for the task at hand.

While noting he backs aid, Senate Banking Chairman Mr. Dodd denounced the companies for failing to move more aggressively to reverse their sharp declines in market share. "They're seeking treatment for wounds that, I believe, are largely self-inflicted," Mr. Dodd said, adding the industry has failed to adapt and "we're all paying the price for it."

As the hearing stretched past its third hour, the top executives disclosed how much they might each apply for if Congress approved the $25 billion loan package: $10 billion to $12 billion for GM; $7 billion to $8 billion for Ford; and $7 billion for Chrysler.

The companies said they would use the money to pay employees, cover current operating costs and develop new products.

Both GM and Ford are on a pace to use up $2 billion each a month, based on their third-quarter earnings. Not getting funding immediately threatens GM most directly because the firm is operating close to its minimal funding requirements. The supply chain is shared among the Big Three, so a bankruptcy filing of one could spell problems for the other two.

Some analysts suggest GM, Ford and Chrysler can cut costs enough to survive until January. But if the U.S. auto market continues to sink, the companies' cash drain could outpace their ability to cut costs.

GM has said that without government aid, the company would run out of operating funds as early as early 2009.

Chrysler joined GM for the first time in linking its survival to a federal bailout. "Without immediate bridge financing support, Chrysler's liquidity could fall below the level necessary to sustain operations in the ordinary course," Robert Nardelli, the company's chairman and CEO, said. He added that the company was currently spending about a $1 billion a month more than they were taking in, leaving the auto maker with slightly more than $6 billion cash on hand.

Only Ford says that while the loan package is necessary for the betterment of the U.S.-based auto companies, it could withstand the downturn without government assistance.

The auto makers and the union sketched their companies' far-reaching impact. They also argued that Chrysler, Ford and GM are on the right track to compete with foreign-based auto makers, but that turmoil in the broader economy foiled their good planning. The companies together employ 239,000 people in the U.S.

Under pressure from senators over the issue of executive compensation, Chrysler's Mr. Nardelli said he would be willing to accept a salary of $1 a year as part of a federal bailout. Lee Iacocca made the same commitment when he ran Chrysler and secured federal loan guarantees in 1979. The chief executives of GM and Ford declined to make the same commitment.

The Banking Committee testimony is part of a broader lobbying campaign that includes parts suppliers and dealers. The executives will appear before the House Financial Services Committee Wednesday. All told, the companies are seeking $25 billion to weather the weakening economy, which has dampened demand for autos and restricted consumer access to home loans.

In another indication of the industry's problems, the world's three dominant credit insurers now consider the U.S. auto industry among the riskiest sectors for default.

Few lawmakers in either party doubt the economic challenges facing the Big Three. At issue is how -- and whether -- Congress should get involved.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R., Ky.) said a rescue proposal by Senate Democrats would give the industry "virtually a blank check," and doesn't require the companies to improve productivity and lower labor costs. "Major changes are needed, if federal dollars are to be made available," he said.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said he has doubts about whether the money will be enough to meet the industry's needs: "Is this the end, or just the beginning?"

Industry supporters, such as Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) want action this week. "The stakes are great and time is short," said Sen. Levin, who is scrambling to find the 60 votes needed to overcome objections in the Senate. Sen. Levin drafted the legislation that would set aside $25 billion to help the industry using bridge home loans.

To qualify, companies would have to accept limits on executive compensation, allow the government to take stock in the firms, and submit a detailed plan showing how they intend to return to sound financial footing and improve their capacity to produce fuel-efficient vehicles.

It wasn't clear whether Congress would demand management changes as a condition to any bailout, although the topic was on the minds of some lawmakers. Sen. Bob Bennett (R., Utah) predicted the jobs of hourly workers and executives are on the line as the industry restructures itself. "Everybody's going to get hurt in the process," he said, adding that the idea "that we in the Congress can prevent that from happening is wishful thinking."

The proposed assistance would be on top of $25 billion in already-approved home loans intended to help the industry retool to meet higher fuel-efficiency standards. The White House is pushing a rival plan to speed release of the previously approved home loans, by removing certain restrictions.

In testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Tuesday the collapse of one of the auto companies "would be something to be avoided." But he said giving the industry access to the $700 billion fund isn't the answer. "I don't see this as the purpose" of the bailout program, he said.

Some Democrats aren't showing enthusiasm. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) said she has problems with helping the industry without first receiving "a new business plan" that shows how the companies will return to competitiveness.

Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) said the idea of additional government intervention isn't popular with voters: "People in Montana are experiencing bailout fatigue."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

'Underwater' Need Not Mean Foreclosure

What does being "underwater" in your house really mean? Probably not that you're drowning.

The number of underwater homeowners -- those who owe more on their mortgages than their home is now worth -- has been growing sharply since 2006 as real-estate prices have tumbled. By some estimates, between one in six and one in eight homeowners are in that position, most of them people who bought homes in the past few years or who put down small or no down payments.

This worries economists and policy makers, since owing more than your home is worth is the first step toward foreclosure. And it's a concern to the rest of us because foreclosures are roiling the financial markets and, closer to home, they drag down our neighborhoods. (Most people who still have equity, by contrast, would rather sell their houses at a loss than lose what's left of their investment.)

In response to concerns about rising foreclosure and delinquency rates, federal regulators are studying possible new programs aimed at needy homeowners. There are concerns that such programs could attract a flood of applications from those who don't truly need assistance or encourage lenders to push homeowners into foreclosure. At the same time, lenders such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America have committed to working on new loan terms for the most-distressed homeowners.

But experts who have studied previous sharp housing downturns in Texas, California, New York and Massachusetts say that being underwater, while unpleasant, doesn't lead huge numbers of homeowners to default on their mortgages and end up in foreclosure.

Christopher L. Foote, Kristopher Gerardi and Paul S. Willen of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank studied more than 100,000 homeowners who were underwater in Massachusetts in 1991 and found that just 6.4% of them lost their homes to foreclosure over the next three years, according to a paper published in the September Journal of Urban Economics. The vast majority of homeowners simply continued paying as usual because they focused on the affordability of their payments, not on what they owed, and they believed home values would eventually recover.

The economists found that homeowners typically lost their homes only after at least two things happened: Their home values dropped and they either couldn't afford the payments or stopped making payments after losing hope that prices would eventually recover.

Homeowners in California also were more likely than expected to keep paying during the deep 1990s slump, says Richard Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California. More people turned in their keys in Ohio and Michigan during the difficult 1980s downturn because they lost faith in an economic turnaround.

Typically, homeowners fall behind after a job loss, divorce or serious illness. In the current downturn, foreclosures are higher than in previous cycles because more homeowners reached beyond their means to buy their homes and simply can't keep up the payments. As a result, the Boston economists project that up to 8% of underwater Massachusetts homeowners could lose their homes between now and 2010 -- a significant amount, but still not catastrophic.

So what does this all mean for you?

If you have a low-interest fixed-rate loan, you have a valuable asset that might be hard to replace in the current market, no matter what your home's value is. Keeping that mortgage current has some value, even if it means cutting other household expenses.

In addition, the penalties for defaulting are great. In most cases, walking away from a mortgage can knock a top credit score down to the cellar, says Ethan Dornhelm, a senior scientist at Fair Isaac Corp., which sells credit-scoring formulas to credit bureaus.

A person with a stellar credit score from the high 700s to the top score of 850 would see it drop more than 200 points. A person whose credit score is lower may see it fall by fewer points, but still end up with a score in the mid 500s. At that level, reasonably priced new debt, from credit cards to car loans, will be out of reach. In addition, a default could lead landlords and utilities to require more cash up front and even affect your job prospects.

If the borrower continues to pay other debts on time, the score will climb gradually, though it may take three to five years to return to "good" scores, from the mid-600s and up. Scores of 790 or more -- which are rewarded with the lowest interest rates -- won't be attainable for at least seven years, when the default blemish finally disappears, Mr. Dornhelm says.

Fannie Mae requires borrowers who have lost their homes to foreclosure to wait five years before it will accept a loan from them, though borrowers who had extenuating circumstances, such as an illness or job loss, may requalify within three years.

What's more, lenders in most states can go after homeowners for an unpaid balance on a mortgage. That's a real risk, especially if you have other assets.

The longer you stay in your house, the better the chances of making it through this down cycle. Though a return to peak prices may take five or 10 years, some housing markets may start to bounce back once credit becomes more available. Meanwhile, you'll be reducing your mortgage as you make your payments.

Lenders aren't going to renegotiate just because prices have fallen, but if you truly can't afford your payments, contact your mortgage servicer to see if you can rework your interest rate or work out new payment options. The federal Hope for Homeowners program, which began Oct. 1, is intended to provide some relief if lenders will agree to reduce the loan amount to 90% of the home's current value.

If you can't get help from your lender, try contacting a credit counselor certified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These counselors have direct access to lenders' loss-mitigation departments, which consumers don't, says Natalie Lohrenz, counseling administrator for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Orange County, Calif. A list of HUD-certified counselors is available through Hope Now, a consortium of lenders and counselors. (Call 888-995-HOPE or go to

If you need to sell the property and can't afford to cover the shortfall, your lender may agree to a "short sale," in which you sell at a price below the mortgage amount. This is a much more complicated transaction to pull off than a regular home sale, though, and it may hurt your credit score if the lender reports that you failed to pay off the whole obligation.