March 12, 2011
By GRETCHEN MORGENSON
ONE crucial reason the nation’s mortgage industry ran itself — and the entire nation — off the rails was its obsession with speed. Mortgages had to be approved chop-chop, loans pooled instantly. When it came to foreclosure, well, the quicker the better.
So it is disturbing that the same need for speed is at work in the bank settlement being devised by state attorneys general relating to improper loan-servicing and foreclosure practices. When Tom Miller, the Iowa attorney general who leads the talks, announced initial terms of a deal on Monday, he said, “We’re going to move as fast as we can.”
While some might argue that a rapid approach will help borrowers, it is apt to benefit the banks far more. Hurrying to strike a deal means less time to devote to understanding how pernicious the foreclosure practices were at the nation’s largest institutions. How can you determine appropriate penalties for troubling practices when you haven’t conducted a full-fledged investigation?
Remember that the attorneys general who are participating in this settlement process have been a coalition only since October. Two people who have been briefed on the discussions, but who asked for anonymity because the deal was not final, told me last week that no witnesses had been interviewed and that the coalition had sent out just one request for documents — and it has not yet been answered.
And, yet, along comes a 27-page outline of remedies that the banks would have to abide by in their loan servicing and foreclosure businesses. Talk has also circulated that the banks would have to cough up $20 billion to close the deal, though there are no figures in the outline.
Mr. Miller declined to be interviewed about the proposal. But Geoff Greenwood, his spokesman, disputed the notion that the attorneys general have done no investigation. “We have dealt with this issue for some three and a half years on a day-to-day, front-line basis with consumers,” he said. “We know what the problems are, and we know what needs to change.”
Maybe so. But being able to produce reams of deposition testimony from bank employees and documents turned over under subpoena would give those negotiating for consumers and mortgage investors far more leverage than they’d have working with a series of talking points.
Recent lawsuits filed against Bank of America by Terry Goddard, then the Arizona attorney general, and Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s attorney general, show the power that in-depth investigations provide. Both cases contend that the bank engaged in consumer fraud by failing to abide by loan modification provisions of a previous state settlement completed with Countrywide Financial in 2009. The bank has disputed the allegations, but the filings by these officials are chock-full of details gleaned from investigating more than 250 consumer complaints.
Mr. Miller’s list of remedies is helpful in showing just how dysfunctional and abusive the loan servicing business has become. Consider this proposed requirement: “Affidavits and sworn statements shall not contain information that is false or unsubstantiated.” And how’s this for revolutionary: “Loan servicers shall promptly accept and apply borrower payments.” (When they don’t, late fees magically appear.) And, get this: Loan servicers should also track the resolution of customer complaints.
You don’t say!
To be sure, there is substance to Mr. Miller’s proposal. A settlement would bar servicers from foreclosing on borrowers amid a loan modification, for example. And when a modification is denied, the servicer would have to explain why, and in detail.
But the terms severely disappoint in their treatment of second liens, a major sticking point in many loan modifications. The proposal would treat first and subsequent mortgages equally, turning upside down centuries-old law requiring creditors at the head of the line to be paid before i.o.u.’s signed later.
Treating holders of first and second liens alike is a boon to the banks, since so many second mortgages are owned by the nation’s largest institutions; many of the firsts are held by investors in mortgage-backed securities. The banks want the first mortgages to take the hit, leaving the seconds intact. Or at least for them both to share the pain equally.
To some degree, the document presented by Mr. Miller raises more questions than it answers. For example, what will state attorneys general have to give up regarding future lawsuits or enforcement actions against the banks if they sign on to the settlement? Typically, such deals contain releases barring participants from bringing new but related cases.
As they negotiate with Mr. Miller, you can bet the banks will push for aggressive releases. But because these institutions underwrote many toxic loans in the boom, barring attorneys general from bringing actions against them for lending improprieties is no way to hold dubious actors accountable.
One attorney general, Eric Schneiderman of New York, is concerned about such releases. According to a person briefed on the discussions, Mr. Schneiderman has told Mr. Miller that he will not participate in a deal that would preclude his office from pursuing claims against the banks relating to their mortgage origination, securitization and marketing practices. Mr. Schneiderman declined to comment.
IT is also unclear whether the settlement would prevent borrowers or investors from bringing their own lawsuits against loan servicers — a terrible result. And the list of terms has only the briefest mention of restitution for borrowers who have been hurt by questionable loan servicing.
These borrowers are legion. Reparations should not be limited only to those who were removed from homes improperly. Consider four who are suing the Money Store, a lender and loan servicer. Their two cases contend that the Money Store levied improper legal fees while borrowers were in foreclosure; one case has been dragging on for 10 years, the other for eight.
According to court filings, one couple paid $1,125 in legal fees and expenses associated with two bankruptcy motions that were never filed. They also paid $4,418 for legal work said to have been done by an outside firm (which lawyers for the Money Store have not proved it paid).
Another borrower paid $1,750 for legal fees that the Money Store could not show were paid to the firm that supposedly did the work. And yet another borrower paid $5,076 in fees and expenses that do not appear to have been submitted to the outside firm charged with the legal work, according to court filings.
“We picked four plaintiffs out of the hat here, and all four of them had situations where thousands of dollars in legal fees were passed on to them but where the evidence indicates the law firms were never paid,” said Paul Grobman, a New York lawyer for the borrowers. He wants to know if the servicer kept the fees.
The lead lawyer representing the Money Store declined to comment.
Shoddy loan servicing has clearly done significant damage to borrowers. If a state settlement morphs into yet another gift to the banks, let’s hope that at least some attorneys general will take a different path.