Obama moves to bolster housing market

One of the more dramatic drags on the national economy is the ongoing crises in the housing market, with 10 million Americans underwater, owing more on their home than it’s worth. The Obama administration took steps in 2009, including the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), which had a very limited effect.

Yesterday, President Obama unveiled a new, and almost certainly better, initiative as part of the White House’s “We Can’t Wait” campaign. The point to provide assistance to 1 million households, helping them refinance at today’s strikingly-low interest rates and lowering their mortgage payments.

There are, of course, concerns about the scope of the effort. It’s a modest program that won’t directly affect most of those underwater, and there are questions about exactly how much savings the typical participant will find. That said, the administration is also taking steps to improve the existing HARP to provide more options to the rest of the underwater population.

So, will the program help? For those participating, yes, possibly quite a bit. But the larger economic impact is limited because the economy needs a more substantial jolt. Passing the American Jobs Act would be far more significant, but congressional Republicans refuse.

Still, Brian Beutler reports there are some experts who see cause for cautious optimism.

“Under the restrung HARP, I expect an additional 1.05 million [refinancings] through the end of 2012 and 1.6 million [refinancings] through the end of 2013 when the program ends,” said Moody’s top economist Mark Zandi in an email. “While HARP won’t live up to the initial expectations of 4-5 million in refinancings, the program will ultimately provide a meaningful boost to the broader economy as financially stressed households will benefit from much lower mortgage payments. It will also provide a bit of help to the housing market by forestalling some mortgage defaults.”

“While I think this was a very positive step, it isn’t a magic bullet for the housing market and economy,” Zandi added. “Policymakers will thus very likely have to do more to support the housing market and economy.”

Paul Krugman pointed to this analysis from economist Joe Gagnon, who believes the positive impact of the policy may be even more significant.

And, of course, there’s the prospect of an indirect stimulative benefit. If struggling homeowners are able to bring down their monthly payments, they’ll have some additional money in their pocket — potentially, a few thousand dollars a year — that they can spend.

It’s a modest step, but at least it’s in the right direction. Coupled with other steps, we might even start to see some larger progress. It certainly beats watching Congress implode into an obstructionist mess.