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In this, Tuesday, March 12, 2013, photo, a sold sign is posted in front of a home for sale in Mariemont, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman) In this, Tuesday, March 12, 2013, photo, a sold sign is posted in front of a home for sale in Mariemont, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)  

Obama housing agency’s staggering debt won’t stop it from insuring more high-risk loans

Photo of Patrick Howley
Patrick Howley
Political Reporter

The Obama administration’s current push to encourage banks to grant high-risk housing loans to lower-class borrowers insured by taxpayer-funded programs provided by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) may be complicated by the fact that the FHA is in severe debt and faces a potentially disastrous future, records reveal.

The Obama administration, which reportedly believes that the housing recovery is “leaving too many people behind,” hopes to encourage lenders to use “more subjective judgment” in offering loans to people with low credit scores and to people who “owe more than their properties are worth” in order to allow them to refinance at current interest rates.

Though many analysts believe that these kinds of policies were responsible for the 2008 financial collapse, the FHA is reportedly working with the White House to develop “new policies” to encourage lenders to offer high-risk loans that conform to FHA programs, which are designed specifically to provide housing loans to low-income Americans. The Obama administration is assuring banks that if these high-risk loans default, then only government agencies like the FHA will face the financial consequences.

The FHA hopes that government-sponsored lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which helped cause the financial crisis by lending to low-income borrowers in the late 1990s and throughout the Bush administration in order to meet federal quotas, will soon follow its lead.

But the FHA’s ability to handle this new risk is questionable. The agency is in severe debt and currently faces a bleak economic future that might require Treasury funding to keep it afloat, records reveal.

The FHA’s 2012 audit found that the agency has a negative economic value of $34 billion, leading some to predict the inevitability of a taxpayer bailout.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a November 2012 report finding that the FHA’s Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund’s capital reserve ratio “fell below zero to negative 1.44 percent.” The HUD report noted, “While this one-time valuation of the economic net worth of FHA’s portfolio is obviously of concern, it does not mean that FHA will have to draw from the Treasury.”

But FHA commissioner Carol Galante admitted in February 2013 testimony before the House Financial Services Committee that if FHA was required to draw money from the Treasury, the money would be used to help the agency’s reserve fund. Though Galante maintained optimism about her agency in her testimony, House Financial Services chairman Jeb Hensarling excoriated her over the FHA’s finances.

“Commissioner Gallante, as bad as the picture appears … I fear that the true finances could be potentially even worse,” Hensarling said, quoting experts who said that FHA has a net worth of negative $26 billion and a total capital shortfall of $47 billion, and that the FHA’s insurance program is “materially underfunded” and that the amount of capital infusion required to save the agency would be in the $50 billion to $100 billion range.