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In Foreclosure Settlement Talks With Banks, Predictions of a Long Process
By David Streitfeld
Little was settled in the first round of foreclosure settlement talks.
The nation’s top mortgage servicers met Wednesday in Washington with the attorneys general from five states as well as Obama administration officials, beginning negotiations in earnest over new rules for homeowners who are in default.
The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that an agreement was going to take time.
“We have a long way to go,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who is leading the effort from the states’ side, said after the afternoon session broke up.
“Obviously this is a very large set of issues, and it’s going to take some time to work through,” Thomas J. Perrelli, associate United States attorney general, said.
The quest to secure new foreclosure rules, which began last fall after the banks were shown to be breaking the rules as they pursued evictions, may be slow but it is playing out in public. When the effort was started, every attorney general signed on, but the coalition has begun to fracture.
Several Republican attorney generals are accusing their colleagues of overreaching in their attempt to bring the banks under control, while at least one Democrat, Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, has expressed concern that any deal would immunize the banks from future legal action.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Mr. Schneiderman said through a spokesman that he remained worried about “providing broad amnesty to servicers.”
The banks at the meeting were Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and GMAC. A spokeswoman for GMAC, which is partly owned by taxpayers as a result of failing during the recession, called the session “productive and useful” but added it was “an extremely complex topic.” The other banks declined to comment.
Lengthy negotiations work to the banks’ advantage, critics say.
“The banks’ strategy is to run the clock,” a Georgetown University law professor, Adam Levitin, said. “The chances of a settlement that meaningfully reforms mortgage servicing and makes the banks pay an appropriate price for illegal conduct are rapidly slipping away.”
The government negotiators may receive some support from the imminent release of a report by banking regulators. The report, based on investigations conducted over the winter, is expected to establish what many households in default knew long ago: that banks cared little for the legal niceties governing foreclosure, exacerbating the troubles of millions at a particularly vulnerable point of their lives.
In addition, the report is expected to show that bank employees were poorly trained, that they let law firms and other third party contractors run wild, and that they had little interest in keeping people in their houses.
Lenders say they have fixed these problems, and that few if any homeowners were evicted who did not deserve it. But as recently as a few weeks ago, a major bank, HSBC, which is based in London, was forced to suspend foreclosures when regulators found a number of deficiencies.
Enforcement action is expected to follow the release of the report by the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and other banking regulators. Those fines and penalties would be separate from any monetary settlement that results from talks with the state attorneys general.
The banking regulators were not present at Wednesday’s all-day meeting.
About two million households are in foreclosure, and another two million are in severe default. Data released this week by an analytics firm, LPS Applied Analytics, showed that banks were making some progress with modifications but that foreclosure was becoming, for better or worse, a permanent state for many families.
The government proposals require homeowners in foreclosure to be treated on an individual basis and would put in place a variety of measures that would encourage banks to modify mortgages rather than evict.
“I’m really hopeful something comes out of this,” said Jay Speer of the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “It’s starting to look like the last chance for real reform. The Virginia legislature still has this amazing allegiance to the big banks.”
If the negotiations are being conducted behind the scenes, the banks and their supporters are openly waging a battle for popular sentiment. The banks are presenting themselves as champions of those homeowners who might be hostile to the idea of someone in default getting an undeserved break.
Banks say cutting the mortgage debt of foreclosed families into something more bearable creates issues of moral hazard — that people will default to get a better deal.
Even as JPMorgan Chase representatives were meeting with the task force, the bank’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, was rejecting the idea of writing down delinquent balances.
“Yeah, that’s off the table,” Mr. Dimon told reporters after a United States Chamber of Commerce forum in Washington.
His comments echoed previous remarks by other bankers, including the Wells Fargo chief executive John G. Stumpf, who said “it makes no sense” to entice people not to pay their debts.
Four Republican attorneys general wrote a letter last week to Mr. Miller of Iowa, expressing concern with the “scope, regulatory nature and unintended consequences,” of the settlement proposals, particularly with the question of principal reductions. The attorney general of Virginia, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, one of the signatories, was invited to Wednesday’s session to allay his concerns.
Critics of the banks say the entire issue is a red herring, and that principal writedowns are not such a gift that people would default to get them.
“Moral hazard is being invoked by the banks and their defenders as an excuse to do nothing, rather than out of any real concern for fairness,” Mr. Levitin said.
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