WASHINGTON – U.S. bank regulators Friday tightened standards for mortgage lending in a bid to curtail risky practices that have been blamed for a record level of foreclosures.
Borrowers should not be penalized for refinancing a mortgage before a low introductory rate resets to a higher level and lenders must have evidence a borrower can repay, according to a statement of principles issued by the regulators.
While several lawmakers congratulated the regulators' initiative, they said more must be done to prevent the current crisis from happening again and to aid troubled borrowers.
"The regulators have taken an important step in the right direction, but it only gets us part way to our final goal," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who has said the regulators stood aside for too long as the current mortgage crisis unfolded.
The guidelines, which lenders treat as binding, also call for lenders to warn borrowers when a reset is coming and grant them at least 60 days to refinance.
"This guidance ... underscores that the Federal Reserve and other banking regulators expect lenders to make sure subprime borrowers not only can afford their monthly payments while the introductory rate is in effect but also after the interest rate resets," Federal Reserve Governor Randall Kroszner said in a statement.
Many lenders relaxed underwriting standards for subprime borrowers with shaky credit during the recent housing boom. Among the most popular loans were those that offered low early payments that spiked within a few years.
As the housing market has soured, many of those borrowers fell behind in their payments and a record portion of borrowers faced losing their homes in the first three months of the year. Many of the biggest lenders to subprime borrowers have been pushed into bankruptcy.
Besides protecting borrowers from costly refinancing, the guidance discourages loans that have let borrowers inflate their income to qualify for a loan. So-called 'low doc' mortgages were offered to borrowers even if they could not document that they had the resources to make payments.
Lenders should only offer such loans to borrowers if there is other evidence that they can repay, according to the Friday statement.
A borrower who is refinancing a home or has a valuable asset that can be turned into cash might not need to prove all their income but low-doc loans should be the exception rather than the rule, said John Dugan, Comptroller of the Currency.
Dugan said he did not expect the standard to discourage home purchases by immigrants and those who work in a cash economy.
"I don't think this precludes (low-doc loans in) some special circumstances as long as there is some way to look at the income the borrower has ... like a tax return," Dugan said in an interview with Reuters.
Some lenders had hoped regulators would leave space for subprime borrowers to get a new loan without meeting the stringent new underwriting standards.
However, Friday's principles seemed to close the door on those hopes as it stressed that borrowers should be qualified based on whether they can make payments over the life of the loan.
Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, on Friday pushed the Fed to enhance the guidance by requiring lenders to collect and hold a subprime borrower's taxes and insurance in a trust, called escrow. Under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act, the Fed has broad power to stamp out unfair lending practices and it is currently reviewing its authority.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat of New York, said Friday that "there is still more that needs to be done" and called for support of his plan to spend $300 million in assistance to troubled borrowers.
While the guidelines will immediately affect banks and others who lend funds from their depositors, it does not apply to firms that lend money from investors and Wall Street. In recent years, a large share of risky subprime loans came from non-banks that are regulated by the states.
On Friday, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors said it intended to harmonize state regulations with the federal standards.