(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, file)
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Bush administration on Tuesday unveiled a new program to modify mortgages and stabilize the battered real estate market, but the plan stops short of providing direct government financial help to at-risk homeowners.
The plan centers on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which between them own or back about 31 million mortgages worth a combined $5 trillion. The federal government took over the firms in September due to mounting losses on their portfolios of mortgages.
Homeowners who are 90 days or more late in their mortgage payments, who live in the home on which the mortgage was taken and have not filed for bankruptcy are eligible - assuming that loan is owned by Fannie or Freddie.
Their mortgage payments would be adjusted through lower interest rates or longer repayment schedules with the goal of bringing payments below 38% of monthly household income.
Officials said the standards for loan modifications should fast-track changes in payments. The standards will be applied to loans owned by Fannie and Freddie, but officials said they hope they will also be adopted industrywide.
"We expect that it could significantly increase the number of modifications completed," said James Lockhart, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulator that oversees Fannie and Freddie.
But even in cases where declining home prices have taken the value of a home to less than is owed on the mortgage, the balance of the loan will not be lowered under this program.
The fact that mortgage balances will not be reduced for the so-called underwater mortgages -- those in which a homeowner owes more than the home is worth -- will will limited the use and impact of the program, according to some experts.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was quick to criticize the program for not going far enough. He said too many of the loans won't be modified because the investors who own the loan will be able to block a new payment schedule.
"These voluntary plans sound nice, but they don't do the job," Schumer said.
While a number of major banks, including Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), have announced loan modifications programs in recent weeks, they hold only a fraction of those owned or guaranteed by Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500).
Despite calls from members of Congress and some housing advocates for the government to take a more direct role in preventing foreclosures, federal agencies have been slow to present their own plans to modify the loans of millions of homeowners at risk.
Most of the mortgage modification programs announced by banks so far try to cap the payments of homeowners at risk of losing their homes at a level they can afford, typically about 34% to 40% of their income, through lower interest rates, longer repayment schedules or reductions in loan balances. But many of those loan modification programs include the option of reducing the balance of the loan, an option not included in this latest program.
It is clearly in the interest of the mortgage finance firms as well as banks to take steps to halt foreclosures. The market is already flooded with far more new and existing homes for sale than there are buyers, and foreclosures will only further drive down home prices and lead to more foreclosures in the future.
Moody's Economy.com forecasts that even with loan modification programs, 1.6 million Americans will lose their homes this year either in a foreclosure or distressed sale, and another 1.9 million are projected to lose their homes in 2009.
On Monday, Fannie reported a $29 billion loss in the third quarter. The company also reported sharp increases in loan default rates and the amount it is setting aside for future loan losses.