Whenever I hear about how there wouldn’t be a problem with foreclosures if people just paid their mortgages on time, I’m reminded of Alan Grayson’s paraphrase of the Republican Health Care Plan: “Don’t Get Sick. If You Get Sick, Die Quickly.” Yes, the world would be an easier place if people never got sick, or credit risk didn’t exist, and people made payments perfectly all the time. But they don’t, and we need a system of rules and a process for collecting and presenting evidence in order to kick a family out of their home. And we need a system where this process sets the ground rules that in turn allow for lenders and borrowers coming together and negotiating a situation that is best for both of them.
Because the first rule of mortgage lending is that you don’t foreclose. And the second rule of mortgage lending is that you don’t foreclose. I’ll let Lewis Ranieri, who created the mortgage-backed security in the 1980s, tell you: “The cardinal principle in the mortgage crisis is a very old one. You are almost always better off restructuring a loan in a crisis with a borrower than going to a foreclosure. In the past that was never at issue because the loan was always in the hands of someone acting as a fudiciary. The bank, or someone like a bank owned them, and they always exercised their best judgement and their interest. The problem now with the size of securitization and so many loans are not in the hands of a portfolio lender but in a security where structurally nobody is acting as the fiduciary.”
In the past you had Jimmy Stewart banks. The mortgages were kept on the books of the bank. You had someone who you could go to and renegotiate your mortgage. With mortgage-backed securities, the handling of payments and working-out of troubles moved to servicers. If you are learning about this crisis for the first time, understanding what is broken here is very important.
This is Not a New Problem With Servicing
Let’s get some quotes from bankruptcy judges in here:
“Fairbanks, in a shocking display of corporate irresponsibility, repeatedly fabricated the amount of the Debtor’s obligation to it out of thin air.” 53 Maxwell v. Fairbanks Capital Corp. (In re Maxwell), 281 B.R. 101, 114 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2002).
“[t]he poor quality of papers filed by Fleet to support its claim is a sad commentary on the record keeping of a large financial institution. Unfortunately, it is typical of record-keeping products generated by lenders and loan servicers in court proceedings.” In re Wines, 239 B.R. 703, 709 (Bankr. D.N.J. 1999).
“Is it too much to ask a consumer mortgage lender to provide the debtor with a clear and unambiguous statement of the debtor’s default prior to foreclosing on the debtor’s house?” In re Thompson, 350 B.R. 842, 844–45 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. 2006).
(Source.) Notice that consumer rights groups were flagging this as a major problem back in 1999 and 2002 because judges were noticing it was a major problem in their bankruptcy courts. If the late 1990s to 2006 period is a Renaissance period of servicer fraud then we can contrast it with the period we live in now, the Baroque period of servicer fraud. Whatever unity there used to be between the forms and functions of the sloppy documentation and outright fraud in the art of servicing have become detached.
The forms of fraud have gone high art: serving documents on people who could never have been served, signing 10,000 affidavits a month, etc. They are all well covered, and we’ll list more later perhaps. Here are some of my favorites from last year, the reading list in Part One has even more. But what I want to focus on is the function of servicer fraud.
What Do Servicers Do? A Case Study in Bad Design and Worse Incentives
Servicers in a mortgage-backed security have two businesses. The first is transaction processing. This means taking in your mortgage money on one end and walking it over to the crazy tranches and payment waterfalls on the other end. This is clean, efficient, largely automated, requires little discretion and works very well, and implicit in it is that it is most profitable when you can harness economies of scale.
It’s considered a “passive entity” in fact, so there are no taxes applied in this passthrough mechanism. If servicers went “active”, say by looking for mortgage notes not in the trust 90 days after the fact or mortgage notes that are not in the trust that have defaulted, which is what they’d likely have to do to get out of this foreclosure fraud crisis, they’d face very severe tax penalties.
Their other business is to handle default situations. In addition to the fixed fee they get for servicing each individual mortgage they get paid from default fees like late charges. They get to retain most, if not all, of these fees.
So right away they have an incentive to not find ways to negotiate to get a mortgage to a good state. They also have a strong incentive to keep a steady stream of fees and charges going to their books rather than to investors. So anything that puts servicers in charge of negotiating mortgages, say the Obama’s administration’s HAMP program, is designed to fail.
Because even without bad incentives, doing good work on modification is costly, time consuming, requires individual expertise and experience and doesn’t benefit from automation or economies of scale. Which is to say it is the opposite structure of their normal business.
And there are additional worries. Many of the servicers work for the largest four banks – Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citi, and JP Morgan – and these four banks have large exposures to junior liens. These are second or third mortgages or home equity lines of credit that would have to be wiped out before the first mortgage can be modified. The four banks have almost half a trillion dollars worth of these exposures and, from the stress test, are valuing them at something like 85 cents on the dollar. Keeping a homeowner struggling to pay the second lien would be more worthwhile to these middlemen banks than getting him or her into a solid first lien to the benefit of the bond investor.
So keep these in mind as you read about the servicers here. There have been worries that they, as a designed institution, were simply not qualified for this job going back a decade. They have massive conflicts with the investors they are supposed to be working for. They profit when homeowners collapse and lose money when they are brought up to a normal payment schedule (made current). And if the instruments don’t have the notes necessary to bring standing to carry out the foreclosures they have to take a massive tax hit in order to take the note into the trust. And regulation to handle this isn’t in place.
Because for all the talks of regulatory burden, there is no current federal government agency that regulates the servicers. Not the Federal Reserve. Not the Treasury. This is what happens when the financial industry writes the deregulation. Instead you have a patchwork of state regulators and attorney generals. Notice how President Obama has nobody to turn to and tell the press that “So and So is on the case.” In theory the OCC regulates servicers if they are part of a bank or a thrift. This must fall to the new regulatory counsel and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to investigate, where it will properly belong.
(The Fair Debt Collections Act, which applies to debt collectors, doesn’t apply to servicers. Here might be a fun idea for an enterprising staffer – if there is no note producible, are servicers still legally servicers and thus exempt from the Fair Debt Collections Act? Just a thought….)
Is it any wonder that servicers are rushing these foreclosures and making a mockery of the courts and producing systemic risk in the process? There needs to be an investigation of what is being done and why, because this problem is not taking care of itself.
(Special thanks to Katie Porter and Adam Levitin, who you can read at credit slips, as well as Tom Adams and Yves Smith, who you can read at naked capitalism, for in-depth discussions on this material.)
This is the third of a 5 part series from Mike Konczal, a former financial engineer, is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, who also blogs at New Deal 2.0, and is working on financial reform, the 21st century economy, structural unemployment, inequality, risk sharing, consumer access to financial services and more generally what it means to have a social contract in a financialized, post-industrial economy.