Federal Housing Administration could require bailout, audit finds
There is a nearly 50% chance that the Federal Housing Administration will require a taxpayer bailout as the struggling housing market continues to eat away at the cash reserves of the agency, which insured about one in seven residential mortgages issued this year, according to a government audit released Tuesday.
The reserves, which are not supposed to be below 2% of projected losses, continued to fall this year, dropping to 0.24% from the already seriously low level of 0.5% last year, the report said. The drop was caused by the FHA's cash reserves falling by $2.1 billion, to just $2.6 billion.
But under the report's baseline projection for housing prices, which assumes they will drop 5.6% in 2011 before rebounding next year to 1.3% growth, the FHA would not need a bailout, the report said. In fact, the reserve fund would return to its mandated 2% level by 2014, slightly earlier than projected last year.
"It would take very significant declines in home prices in 2012 to create a situation in which the current portfolio would require any kind of additional support," said acting FHA Commissioner Carol Galante. She said the agency's reserve fund continues to be "actuarially sound."
But the report by an independent actuary found that if home prices continue to decline next year, the FHA probably would need a bailout. The size of the bailout would depend on how much housing prices drop.
If the FHA needs taxpayer money to keep it afloat, it does not have to seek approval from Congress or the White House. The agency has existing authority to tap the U.S. Treasury for funds.
The FHA, which was created during the Great Depression to help revive a devastated housing market, has never required taxpayer assistance. It has been playing a major role in the housing market since the subprime housing bubble burst, and most of the losses come from loans it guaranteed that were made before early 2009.
With its reserves dwindling because of losses on insurance for those loans, the FHA took steps in late 2009 to improve its finances. Those steps included requiring higher premiums and better credit scores from borrowers. Those moves have helped buffer the agency against the continued slide in housing prices, and the high average credit score of 700 for borrowers whose loans were insured this year set a record for the FHA, Galante said.
-- Jim Puzzanghera in Washington
Photo: A house for sale in Glendale in September. Credit: Getty Images