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GOP senators press Obama official on FHA losses

WASHINGTON — Republican senators are pressing the US government’s housing official to take steps to shore up the federal agency that insures mortgages for millions of borrowers. An audit shows the agency faces $16.3 billion in losses and might require a taxpayer bailout.

Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development, said Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee that the agency, the Federal Housing Administration, has already taken action to strengthen its finances.

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Republican senators said more must be done, such as ending the FHA’s backing of reverse mortgages. They said the FHA has sustained big losses from defaults on those loans, which allow homeowners age 62 or older to borrow against their home’s equity.

The independent audit showed that the FHA’s estimated losses were steeper than earlier projections. High numbers of mortgage defaults triggered by the housing crisis have reduced the agency’s reserve funds, it showed. Mortgages insured by the FHA that were issued in 2007 and 2008 caused a major part of the losses, Donovan said.

The agency has expanded so-called short sales — when a home sells for less than what is owed on the mortgage. And it has raised annual insurance premiums paid by FHA borrowers by an average of $13 a month. ‘‘Based on those steps, I believe we have significantly decreased the chance of having a bailout at the end of 2013,’’ Donovan said.

But Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the committee’s senior Republican, said the agency must do more. ‘‘It is time for serious reform of the FHA before it needs a taxpayer bailout, if it isn’t too late already.’’

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