As mortgage rates fall, is there a silver lining for automakers?

Cash for Clunkers II?

Not exactly. But a housing-stimulus plan being mulled in Washington could give a big boost to auto sales.

Before you roll your eyes at the prospect of anything getting done in D.C., you should know this: The housing-stimulus proposal does not require Congressional approval.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency is considering easing the rules to let more Americans take advantage of rock-bottom mortgage rates. (The average 30-year fixed rate, by the way, fell below 4 percent this week for the first time ever, to 3.94 percent).

If the feds ease the rules, about 2.9 million mortgages could get refinanced, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. That would help avoid about 111,000 mortgage defaults.

The resulting savings could put extra cash into consumers' pockets -- $213 a month on average for homeowners who are able to refinance.

That could cover a big chunk of the monthly payment for many high-demand car models, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas notes.

For example, Jonas figures that extra cash could be used to cover 85 percent of the monthly payment for a Hyundai Elantra; 63 percent for a Ford Fusion; 77 percent for a Chevy Cruze and 83 percent for a Honda Civic.

"We believe a $200+ decrease in mortgage payments could lead to a material boost in new vehicle sales," Jonas wrote in a note to investors this week.

How big a boost? More than half the size of Clunkers, Jonas figures. But the effect would be spread out, avoiding the big pull-ahead that sent auto sales plunging after that federal program in August 2009.

Jonas estimates that easier mortgage-refi rules would tack on 300,000 to 500,000 light-vehicle sales in 2012. Clunkers added almost 700,000.

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