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Banks Bristle at Mortgage-Loan Plan
By Nick Timiraos, Dan Fitzpatrick and Ruth Simon
The banking industry privately knocked the Obama administration’s nascent proposal to force banks to modify mortgage loans, saying the plan won’t help solve problems facing troubled borrowers.
The nation’s largest banks haven’t yet seen a proposal that is designed to help resolve mortgage-servicing errors that affected troubled borrowers. But industry executives are bristling at the administration’s new approach, disagreeing that principal reductions will help borrowers and, in turn, the broader housing market.
Though a unified settlement is uncertain and would have to appease regulators, banks and state attorneys general, some officials are pushing for banks to pay more than $20 billion in civil fines or to fund a comparable amount of loan modifications for distressed borrowers.
The proposal “would bring with it enormous costs that would far outweigh any potential benefits,” Chris Flanagan, a Bank of America Corp. mortgage strategist, said in a research note Thursday.
Even an amount of $20 billion “would accomplish little” in addressing borrowers who currently owe $744 billion more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, Mr. Flanagan added.
Asking servicers to assume the costs of all write-downs is unfair unless the administration can pinpoint the “source of harm,” said Bob Davis, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association. If the loans are going bad because of economic conditions and job loss, “it’s not clear why servicers would bear the brunt because it’s outside their control.”
The pushback is the latest symptom of the warring interests in the housing market and the difficulty fixing problems that existed long before the foreclosure-paperwork crisis erupted last fall. Economists have said that the U.S. economy’s recovery is threatened the longer the foreclosure process is delayed.
The proposal is the Obama administration’s latest effort to revamp the way mortgage companies help troubled borrowers and address concerns that past initiatives didn’t go far enough to help troubled borrowers.
The administration’s signature Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, helped more than 500,000 borrowers lower their monthly payments through interest-rate reductions. But it has fallen short of ambitious goals to modify millions of loans since its introduction two years ago. Last year, the White House unveiled new measures to encourage banks to write down loan balances, but they haven’t been widely used.
Given the banks’ track record in reworking loans, some attorneys who represent borrowers in foreclosure question whether the administration’s proposal could work. “Requiring banks to eat the loss, and at the same time allowing them to administer the program, is a recipe for a program that will not do anything except raise people’s expectations and frustrate them,” said Gloria Einstein, an attorney at Jacksonville Legal Aid Inc. She said an independent third party should administer the program.Banks have resisted reducing loan balances in part because of concerns that it could encourage more borrowers to stop making payments in order to receive a smaller loan.
The plan also may face some resistance on Capitol Hill. House Republicans on Thursday said they would prepare bills next week to terminate HAMP and similar programs. The administration’s proposal appeared to be a ploy to “revamp” the HAMP program, said U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R., N.C.). “If this is their attempt to create HAMP 2, then I find it deeply troubling.”
The White House declined to comment.
“The administration’s ongoing review is focused on getting to the bottom of the problems in the foreclosure process and holding appropriate parties accountable,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Doing so will help homeowners, the housing market and our economy, and any suggestions to the contrary are simply wrong.”
Any settlement that includes loan write-downs would require banks such as Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. to complete modifications within one year from the settlement’s date, said people familiar with the matter. Banks could face additional fines if they don’t comply with the terms of the settlement, and they would have to hire independent auditors to provide monthly updates on their progress and compliance with the terms.
Penalties could be assessed depending on the volume of loans that are 90 days or more delinquent in each bank’s servicing portfolio, and by the extent of any deficiencies uncovered by bank examiners, these people said.
Any settlement that includes loan write-downs would require banks such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase to complete modifications within one year from the settlement’s date, said people familiar with the matter.
Elizabeth Warren of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has floated a figure of about $25 billion for a unified settlement, according to people familiar with the situation.
The push for write-downs likely would focus on loans that banks service on behalf of other parties, and not for loans that they hold on their books. The settlement would require servicers to comply with existing investor contracts, and some of those contracts could complicate efforts because they give investors authority to reject reductions of loan balances.
Banks consider their mortgage-servicing problems as technical matters, such as the filing of foreclosure documents that were never verified by so-called robo-signers, say people familiar with the situation. Bank executives also want any penalties to reflect the fact that few borrowers have been improperly ejected from homes, these people say.
But some state attorneys’ general and federal regulators are pushing for as high a figure as possible, arguing that mortgage servicers have chronically underinvested in their operations, making it difficult for borrowers to get timely, effective help before falling further behind on their mortgages.
Susan Wachter, a real-estate finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the proposed settlement would provide “disincentives for wrongful behavior” by mortgage servicers.
July 09, 2013
Nick Timiraos, Dan Fitzpatrick and Ruth Simon
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