The Federal Reserve will issue new rules next week aimed at protecting future homebuyers from dubious lending practices, its most sweeping response to a housing crisis that has propelled foreclosures to record highs.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke of the much-awaited rules in a broader speech Tuesday about the challenges confronting policymakers in trying to stabilize a shaky U.S. financial system. To that end, Bernanke said the Fed may give squeezed Wall Street firms more time to tap the central bank's emergency loan program.
To prevent a repeat of the current mortgage mess, Bernanke said the Fed will adopt rules cracking down on a range of shady lending practices that have burned many of the nation's riskiest “subprime” borrowers — those with spotty credit or low incomes — who were hardest hit by the housing and credit debacles.
The plan, which will be voted on at a Fed board meeting Monday, would apply to new loans made by thousands of lenders of all types, including banks and brokers.
Under the proposal unveiled last December, the rules would restrict lenders from penalizing risky borrowers who pay loans off early, require lenders to make sure these borrowers set aside money to pay for taxes and insurance and bar lenders from making loans without proof of a borrower's income. It also would prohibit lenders from engaging in a pattern or practice of lending without considering a borrower's ability to repay a home loan from sources other than the home's value.
Consumer groups have complained that the proposed rules aren't strong enough, while mortgage lenders worry that they are too tough and could crimp customers' choices.
The Mortgage Bankers Association urged the Fed to “take a balanced approach in devising final regulations so that the credit crisis is not worsened.”
Meanwhile, the Center for Responsible Lending, a group that promotes homeownership and works to curb predatory lending, warned the Fed that weak regulation and oversight has led to the “worst credit crunch in generations.”
In an extraordinary action aimed at averting a financial catastrophe, the Fed in March agreed to let investment banks go to the Fed — on a temporary basis — for a quick, overnight source of cash. Those loan privileges, which are supposed to last through mid-September, are similar to those permanently afforded to commercial banks for years.
The Fed's decision to act — temporarily at least — as a lender of last resort for Wall Street firms was made after a run on Bear Stearns pushed the investment bank to the brink of bankruptcy and raised fears that others might be in jeopardy. It was the broadest use of the Fed's lending powers since the 1930s. Bear Stearns was eventually taken over by JPMorgan Chase & Co., with the Fed providing $28.82 billion in financial backing.
Those controversial decisions have drawn criticism from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere that the Fed is bailing out Wall Street and putting billions of taxpayer dollars at risk.
Bernanke, in appearances on Capitol Hill, has said he doesn't believe taxpayers will suffer any losses. In his speech Tuesday, the Fed chief defended those actions anew. If the Fed didn't intervene, he said, problems in financial markets would have snowballed, imperiling the country.
“Allowing Bear Stearns to fail so abruptly at a time when the financial markets were already under considerable stress would likely have had extremely adverse implications for the financial system and for the broader economy,” Bernanke said to the mortgage forum, organized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The Fed's consideration of giving Wall Street firms more time to tap the Fed's emergency loan program is part of an ongoing effort by the central bank to bring back stability to fragile financial markets and help to bolster shaky confidence on the part of investors.
Policymakers — in the White House, in Congress and other federal agencies — will need to work together to come up with ways to make the U.S. financial system more resilient and stable and to prevent a repeat of the types of problems that brought about the end of Bear Stearns, an 85-year-old institution, Bernanke said.