Mortgage rates in the United States have dropped to their lowest levels since the 1940s, thanks to a trillion-dollar intervention by the federal government. Yet the banks that once handed out home loans freely are imposing such stringent requirements that many homeowners who might want to refinance are effectively locked out.
The scarcity of credit not only hurts homeowners but also has broad economic repercussions at a time when consumer spending and employment are showing modest signs of improvement, hinting at a recovery after two years of recession.
Refinancing could save owners hundreds of dollars a month, which could be spent, saved or used to pay down debts. Extra spending would help lift the economy, and lower payments might spare some people from losing their homes to foreclosure.
The plight of homeowners has become a volatile political issue. On Friday, as the House passed a series of new financial regulations, it narrowly defeated a provision that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of mortgages. The measure was strongly opposed by the banking industry.
President Obama, in his weekly address on Saturday, placed much of the blame for the recession on “the irresponsibility of large financial institutions on Wall Street that gambled on risky loans and complex financial products, seeking short-term profits and big bonuses with little regard for long-term consequences.”
The president is scheduled to meet with banking executives at the White House on Monday in another administration effort to increase the flow of loans to consumers and small businesses. Among those expected to attend are representatives from Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs.
An estimated six of 10 homeowners with mortgages have rates that exceed the 4.8 percent rate currently available on 30-year fixed mortgages, the least risky form of home loans.
Nevertheless, only half as many refinancing applications were reported last week than were reported at the beginning of January, the peak level for the year. The total dollar volume of refinancing activity in 2009 will be about $1 trillion. In 2003, another year when rates fell, it was $2.8 trillion.
(Mortgage applications to purchase houses showed modest improvement for much of the year, but recently fell sharply to their lowest level in 12 years.)
“The government has succeeded in driving mortgage rates down to their lowest level in our lifetime,” said Guy Cecala, the publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance magazine. “That hasn’t been a big home run, because a lot of people can’t take advantage of it.”
It is highly unusual for mortgage money to be available below 5 percent. Average rates fell as low as 4.7 percent in the 1940s, as the government held down interest rates to finance World War II, and stayed just below 5 percent until the early 1950s. Rates went above 5 percent in 1952 and stayed there — until this year.
The super-low rates are not likely to last much longer. The Federal Reserve program that has driven rates to such lows, which involves buying $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities, is scheduled to expire in March, and Fed leaders have said that it would not be renewed.
Some analysts believe rates could jump as high as 6 percent in the spring. On a $300,000 mortgage, such a jump would cost an extra $225 a month.
Andrew Knapp, a sales executive in Bartlett, Ill., has tried twice to refinance, which would save his family several hundred sorely needed dollars every month. Lenders said the house had lost value and the Knapps had too much debt. “There was no urgency for them to do anything,” Mr. Knapp said.
The most recent Federal Reserve survey of lenders found that they were continuing to tighten terms for business and household loans. Banks say they are under pressure from regulators to raise their cash reserves, which means fewer loans. They also argue that a troubled economy breeds extreme caution.
“More than ever before, lenders are very conscious of making good quality loans,” said Michael Fratantoni, the vice president for research at the Mortgage Bankers Association. “They are looking at the value of the collateral and the credit quality of the borrower.”
But some borrowers argue that more refinancings now might well forestall losses for the banks later.
Mark Belvedere bought a condominium in a San Francisco suburb in early 2004 and refinanced it in 2005. He now owes $235,000 on a property that would sell for barely half that today.
Mr. Belvedere said he would be willing to live with all that lost equity if he could refinance his loan from a variable rate, which could eventually go as high as 12 percent, into a 30-year fixed term.
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