From the WSJ:
hree years after virtually nationalizing the U.S. mortgage market, the government has embarked on a pullback to see whether private industry picks up the slack.
Some people in the housing industry worry that Washington’s move will cause fresh pain in many regions where demand has yet to recover amid the sluggish economy.
At issue are the loan limits that Congress expanded in 2008, allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy mortgages that exceeded the national cap of $417,000.
When the mortgage market melted down four years ago and sent private mortgage investors fleeing, interest rates rose sharply on “jumbo” mortgages—those too large for backing by Fannie, Freddie or agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration. That accelerated home-price declines in high-end markets throughout California and the Northeast, where many pricey homes couldn’t be bought with a government-backed loan.
To stem the fallout in prices, Congress raised the loan caps to as high as $729,750 in markets such as Los Angeles and New York. It then passed a series of one-year extensions to keep the higher limits in place. But this year, Congress and the Obama administration opted against an extension.
As a result, the limits in hundreds of counties fell by 10% or more on Oct. 1. For loans backed by Fannie and Freddie, the limits declined to between $417,000 and $625,500 in about 200 counties.
More worrisome to real-estate agents are declines in the FHA limits, which fell to between $271,050 and $625,500 in 600 counties. Those changes are causing heartburn because the FHA allows buyers to make down payments of just 3.5%, and it has financed as many as half of all home purchases in recent quarters.
Policy makers allowed the limits to fall because they want private companies to hold more mortgage risk, and dialing down loan limits is one way to carve out space for those investors. Fannie, Freddie, and the FHA currently back nine in 10 new mortgages. Taxpayers already are on the hook for $141 billion in losses at Fannie and Freddie, and the FHA’s reserves have plunged to razor-thin levels.