Bank Conflicts of Interest on Foreclosures and Modifications

Financial Justice Foreclosure National Politics

Arizona Advocates and Action
Arizona Advocates and Action

New Orleans My god, pinch me!  Unbelievably the august New York Times in its editorial today has bellied up to the right side of the bar in pointing out the obvious and long noted (including by me!) conflicts of interests enjoyed by banks in the foreclosure game where they often pretend to be chicken, but are usually fox.  The Times being the Times can’t quite get it all right.  They put the horns on the Federal Reserve as a sleep-at-the-switch regulator of this mischief and mess, when the Treasury Department and the Administration both deserve at least equal billing of this horror movie showing at homes all around the country.

But let’s not quibble and count our small blessings when they come:

That is a big reason that the Obama administration’s antiforeclosure effort, with its voluntary participation by banks, has fallen so short.

Here is the background. The big banks — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo — service most of the nation’s home mortgages for investors who own the loans. They are paid a fee by the investors and also make money from fees on delinquent loans.

Servicers are obligated to manage the loans in the best interest of the investors. That means modifying a troubled loan, if reduced payments would bring in more money over time than a foreclosure. Or foreclosing if a borrower cannot make the payments on a modified loan.

If only it worked that way in practice.

Take, for example, underwater borrowers — the millions of Americans who owe more on their loans than their homes are worth. For them, the best modification is often to reduce the loan’s principal balance, lowering the monthly payment and restoring some equity. That could be best for investors too, because even reduced payments are often better than a foreclosure sale. A bank’s servicing fee is based on the principal balances of the loan — a strong incentive not to reduce a troubled borrower’s balance.

Another conflict occurs when the bank that services a primary mortgage is also the owner of a second lien on the same property. Resolving a troubled first mortgage generally requires a write-down of the second lien, a step that banks have been loath to take.

Banks also profit from late fees and other default-related charges assessed on borrowers. And there is an additional incentive to pile on charges, since the bigger the loan balance, the higher the fee to manage the loan. A group of prominent investors — including Freddie Mac, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Pimco, the world’s largest bond fund — recently accused Bank of America of fee-padding. The bank denies wrongdoing.

High default charges harm homeowners because they make it increasingly difficult to catch up on late payments and avoid foreclosure. They also disadvantage investors, because the servicer collects the charges from the foreclosure sale before the investors see any money. Everyone loses, except the bank.

I tried to make it easy…follow the “underlines” for the story here.

The punch line though is right in the face of homeowners across the country who are desperate for relief, but instead continued to be fleeced.

I wonder when the White House will realize that part of the bad marks for TARP come from the total, unmitigated failure of all of the platitudes from Pennsylvania Avenue to impact on any of the millions of homes facing foreclosure on Main Street?

Seems like this is another lesson that we will all be paying for again tomorrow on Election Day.