America’s Mortgage Market Is Still Broken

Ten years after the 2008 crisis, crucial flaws need fixing.

May 14, 2018 | Bloomberg           Regulators have done a lot to reform the financial system since the 2008 crisis, but they still haven’t fixed the market where the trouble started: U.S. mortgages. It’s an omission they need to put right before the next crisis hits.

Looking back, it’s easy to see what made U.S. housing finance so vulnerable. Loosely regulated companies, financed with flighty short-term debt, did much of the riskiest lending. Loan-servicing companies, which processed payments and managed relations with borrowers, lacked the incentives and resources needed to handle delinquencies. Private-label mortgages (which aren’t guaranteed by the government) were packaged into securities with extremely poor mechanisms for deciding who — investors, packagers or lenders — would take responsibility for bad or fraudulent loans.  Read more here.

 

U.S. Bank Cited by Federal Authorities for Lapses on Money Laundering

February 15, 2018 | The New York Times       U.S. Bank, the fifth-largest commercial bank by assets in the United States, was charged by the federal authorities on Thursday with failing to guard against illegal activity and, in at least one instance, even abetting it.

The Justice Department accused U.S. Bank, which is based in Minneapolis, of severely neglecting anti-money laundering rules, helping a payday lender operate an illegal business and lying to a regulator about its plans for tracking potential criminal activity by bank customers.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan reached an agreement with U.S. Bank to defer prosecution as long as the bank could show it had improved its monitoring of customer transactions. To settle the Justice Department charges and cases brought by other regulators, the bank agreed to pay various fines and penalties totaling $613 million.  Read more here.

Wells Fargo Says 3.5 million Accounts Involved in Scandal

AP via Houston Chronicle | August 31, 2017           The scope of Wells Fargo's fake accounts scandal grew significantly on Thursday, with the bank now saying that 3.5 million accounts were potentially opened without customers' permission between 2009 and 2016.

That's up from 2.1 million accounts that the bank had cited in September 2016, when it acknowledged that employees under pressure to meet aggressive sales targets had opened accounts that customers might not have even been aware existed. People may have had different kinds of accounts in their names, so the number of customers affected may differ from the account total.

Wells Fargo said Thursday that about half a million of the newly discovered accounts were missed during the original review, which covered the years 2011 to 2015.  Read more here.

The Shame of the Mortgage-Interest Deduction

It’s not just a failure of housing policy. It's a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the American tax code.

 

The Atlantic | May 14, 2017        It might be one of the most important policies in the U.S. economy, but the mortgage-interest deduction sounds esoteric to most people. Perhaps that’s because, for most people, it’s completely irrelevant.

Although about two-thirds of American households own a home, only one-quarter of them claim the deduction, which sometimes gets abbreviated to MID. As Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard University, explains in a magisterial essay on the MID in the New York Times Magazine, this little fact has played an outsized role in the United States’ yawning wealth inequality.

Federal housing policy transfers lots of money to rich homeowners, a bit less to middle-class homeowners, and practically nothing to poor renters. Half of all poor American families who rent spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs. In May, rental income as a share of GDP hit an all-time high. Meanwhile, in 2015, the federal government spent $71 billion on the MID, and households earning more than $100,000 receive almost 90 percent of the benefits. Since the value of the deduction rises as the cost of one’s mortgage increases, the policy essentially pays upper-middle-class and rich households to buy larger and more expensive homes. At the same time, because national housing policy’s benefits don’t accumulate as much to renters, it makes it harder for poor renters to join the class of homeowners.  Read more here.

Supreme Court Says Cities Can Sue Banks Over Predatory Loans

USA Today | May 1, 2017       The Supreme Court ruled Monday that cities can sue banks for discriminatory mortgage lending practices, but they must prove that predatory loans led to damages such as lost tax revenue and higher spending on municipal services.

The decision was a partial victory both for Miami, which sought standing to sue banks under the Fair Housing Act, and for Bank of America and Wells Fargo, which argued that the city's damages were too many steps removed from the original loans. The dispute now returns to lower courts for further action.

The 5-3 ruling was written by Justice Stephen Breyer and backed by the court's liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts. Three justices — Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito — argued that the city had no right to sue under the landmark 1968 civil rights law in the first place. Newly confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in the decision.  Read more here.

New Firms Catching Up to Banks in Foreclosure Rankings

The New York Times | March 30, 2017           The number of home foreclosures is down sharply from the depths of the financial crisis, even as many of the mortgage firms involved remain the same, including Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.

But the latest foreclosure rankings also include a number of firms that barely registered or did not exist when the crisis began a decade ago.

These new entrants include firms affiliated with the private equity giant Lone Star Funds, the mortgage lender PennyMac Loan Services, the investment bank Goldman Sachs and the mortgage firm Carrington Mortgage Services.

This changing of the guard in the foreclosure rankings, based on data compiled by RealtyTrac, reflects the new reality that most foreclosures today are not coming from mortgages written during the post-crisis period, but from soured loans written before the crisis that are in the final stages of liquidation.

Quicken Loans, for instance, one of the top originators of mortgages issued during the last few years, ranks relatively low in terms of recent completed foreclosures, according to the RealtyTrac data.

Most of these newer firms that are moving up in the foreclosure rankings are ones that have bought soured mortgages and are looking to profit by restructuring those loans and getting delinquent borrowers to start making payments again. And when those efforts fail, the firms are foreclosing on borrowers, taking back the homes and reselling them.

Firms affiliated with Lone Star, PennyMac, Goldman and Carrington all have been staple buyers of distressed mortgages, either from big banks directly or from government agencies. Lone Star, a $70 billion private equity firm based in Dallas, has been one of the largest buyers and works in tandem with its wholly owned mortgage firm, Caliber Home Loans.  Read more here.

Foreclosure Prevention Returns to the Unknown

The New York Times | January 25, 2017        After an eight-year run, a troubled government effort to prevent foreclosures and keep struggling borrowers in their homes came to an end last month.

What happens next will be a Trump-era laboratory experiment in how financial services companies conduct themselves when the regulatory fetters are loosened.

The expired Obama-era program — known as HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program — was widely criticized for its poor execution. Participation was voluntary for banks, and many that opted in did so unenthusiastically. (At one bank, “the floor of the room in which the bank dumped the voluminous unopened HAMP applications actually buckled under the packages’ sheer weight,” according to a scathing oversight report.)

Consumer advocates were also not thrilled; many felt that the program did not go far enough to help troubled homeowners or hold accountable the banks that contributed to their predicaments.

But Republican-led Washington has no intention of replacing it. So now it will be entirely up to the private sector to address a lingering social ill that was brought on by the financial crisis.

Banks and mortgage lenders say they are ready to step in with their own foreclosure-prevention programs, modeled on what they learned from the Obama administration’s effort. Armed with years of new data, financial companies say they now know how to make loan-modification programs successful, for both borrowers — who want to protect their homes — and lenders, who want to limit their losses on delinquent loans headed for default.

“There’s tremendous public good in having an industrywide approach,” said Justin Wiseman, the director of loan administration policy at the Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group. “No one wants things to revert to what we had before.”

Still, housing advocates are skeptical, and for good reason: The mortgage industry was largely responsible for HAMP’s shortcomings (as well as for creating the need for the program in the first place). The business has long been littered with errors, confusion and outright abuses.

“We’re going back into uncharted territory,” said Jacob Inwald, the director of foreclosure prevention at Legal Services NYC, which helps low-income residents fight foreclosures and evictions.

Before the government stepped in “it was like the Wild West, with every servicer having their own program,” he said.  Read more here.

Spanish Banks Ordered to Repay Customers Over Unfair Mortgages

The New York Times | December 21, 2016         MADRID — Europe’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that customers of banks in Spain can reclaim billions of euros because lenders did not pass on savings from interest rate cuts on variable-rate mortgages, sending shares in several of the country’s top lenders crashing.

The ruling centered on the use of a “floor clause” in Spanish mortgage contracts during the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Such agreements meant that the interest rate on an adjustable-rate mortgage was always held above a predetermined level, regardless of how low central bank rates fell.

Spain’s lenders began to use the clauses in 2009, after the global financial crisis pushed central banks around the world to slash interest rates. That helped preserve bank profit margins but failed to pass rate cuts on to customers beyond a certain level.

In 2013, Spain’s supreme court ruled that such deals were illegal, in part because the country’s banks did not adequately explain them to customers. The court did not, however, penalize lenders retroactively.

The European Court of Justice on Wednesday confirmed that the agreements were illegal, but went further by ruling that customers could claim reimbursement, without any time limit, for all payments made at a rate that was judged to be too high.

The decision, which cannot be appealed, means Spain’s banks could have to return 4.5 billion euros, or about $4.68 billion, to customers, according to Afi, a Spanish financial consultancy.  Read more here.

What’s Behind a Sudden Foreclosure Spike

CNBC | November 10, 2016     Foreclosures had been falling steadily to the lowest levels in nine years, but a curious spike in October may be the first sign of a crack in the recovery.

The number of properties with a foreclosure filing, which includes default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions, jumped 27 percent in October compared with September, according to a new report from Attom Data Solutions. The volume is still down 8 percent from a year ago, but annual drops had been in the double digits all year, until now. Government-insured FHA loans are fueling much of the jump.

Foreclosures had been falling steadily to the lowest levels in nine years, but a curious spike in October may be the first sign of a crack in the recovery.

The number of properties with a foreclosure filing, which includes default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions, jumped 27 percent in October compared with September, according to a new report from Attom Data Solutions. The volume is still down 8 percent from a year ago, but annual drops had been in the double digits all year, until now. Government-insured FHA loans are fueling much of the jump.

"While some states are still slogging through the remnants of the last housing crisis, the foreclosure activity increases in states such as Arizona, Colorado and Georgia are more heavily tied to loans originated since 2009 — after most of the risky lending fueling the last housing boom had stopped," said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at Attom Data Solutions.

"The increase in October isn't enough evidence to indicate a new foreclosure crisis emerging in these states, but it certainly demonstrates that this housing recovery is not completely devoid of risk."  Read more here.

 

Wells Fargo to Pay $50 Million to Settle Home Appraisal Overcharges

The New York Times | November 1, 2016       In the latest hit to the battered bank, Wells Fargo has agreed to pay $50 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused the bank of overcharging hundreds of thousands of homeowners for appraisals ordered after the homeowners defaulted on their mortgage loans.

The proposed settlement calls for Wells Fargo to automatically mail checks to more than 250,000 customers nationwide whose home loans were serviced by the bank between 2005 and 2010.

The checks will typically be for $120, according to Roland Tellis, a lawyer with Baron & Budd, the law firm that represented Wells Fargo’s customers. If a judge signs off on the settlement, as expected, the checks will be distributed next year.

When a borrower falls behind on a loan, mortgage contracts typically let the lender order an appraisal of the home’s current value. The cost of that appraisal, known as a “broker price opinion,” can be passed on to the borrower, but Wells Fargo used one of its own subsidiaries to conduct appraisals and then routinely marked up the cost, according to the lawsuit.

Borrowers would be charged $95 to $120 for a service that cost the bank $50 or less, the complaint said. The charges were then listed cryptically on mortgage statements, with vague descriptions like “other charges” or “other fees.”

“People who are behind on their loans are the people who can least afford to be charged marked-up fees, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened,” Mr. Tellis said.

Several homeowners filed suit against Wells Fargo in 2012 in a Northern California federal court. Last year, a judge granted class-action status to a portion of the claims related to racketeering charges.  Read more here.