Yes, Regulators Can Stop Foreclosures

Demonstrator Susan King of Washington protests outside the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, November 18, 2009. (REUTERS/Jim Bourg)

Yes, Regulators Can Stop Foreclosures

At House Committee on Financial Services hearing early this week titled "The Private Sector and
Government Response to the Foreclosure Crisis," Julia Gordon, senior
policy counsel for the Center for Responsible
, painted a bleak picture.

According to Gordon, 6 million foreclosures were initiated since 2007.
Six-and-a-half million more homes are "at risk" right now--with
homeowners more than thirty days behind on their mortgage or already in
the foreclosure process. This year, American households will lose $500
billion in equity as a result of foreclosures in their neighborhoods.

"Without significantly more intervention to stop foreclosures, by
the time this crisis abates, as many as 13 million families will have
lost their homes," said Gordon.

Laurie Goodman, senior managing director at Amherst Securities,
agreed. Goodman said in the third quarter this year over 14 percent of
borrowers--7.9 million homeowners--were not making mortgage payments.

"We estimate that approximately 7 million of these 7.9 million
homeowners will be forced into vacating their properties," she said.
And that "does not include the 250,000 new borrowers per month who are
going delinquent for the first time."

Goodman said "negative equity"--also known as being "underwater,"
owing more on one's mortgage than the home itself is worth--is "the
largest single problem" in the foreclosure crisis. Indeed, 25 percent of homeowners are now underwater.

"Most borrowers don't default because of negative equity alone," she
said. "Generally, a borrower experiences a change in financial
circumstances, misses a payment on their mortgage, and then re-evaluates
their financial priorities. If the home has substantial negative equity,
they will choose to walk."

In Goodman's opinion, the administration's modification program is
"destined to fail" because it doesn't address negative equity.

According to Gordon, the Department of Treasury's Home Affordable
Modification Program (HAMP) was supposed to help 3 to 4 million
borrowers. But after nine months approximately 650,000 homeowners are
in a trial modification, and "only a small fraction" of those have
received a permanent loan modification.

The modifications fail to take into account the homeowner's full
financial picture--including second liens on a property or credit card
debt--and they tend to be reductions of interest rates rather than
principal modifications, so the homeowner still faces huge negative

"Servicers generally make most of their money from their monthly
servicing fee, which is a percentage of the outstanding loan principle
balance, so they don't want to write down the principle balance," said

Finally, HAMP aims to structure a mortgage payment that is equal to
31 percent of a borrower's income. But Georgia Democratic Congressman
David Scott said that is too much in many cases.

"In these tough economic times, of soaring unemployment...that
monthly income in many cases goes to zero. Is it practical not to be
able to have an adjustment in there where we can lower that 31 percent
threshold?" asked Scott.

Bruce Marks, a former regulator who is the founder and CEO of the Neighborhood
Assistance Corporation of America
--a community advocacy and
homeownership organization, which had many members at the hearing in
bright yellow shirts that read "Sharks Beware" and "Stop Sharks"--said
there is an easy way to address the unemployment problem.

"When someone does not have stable income because they are unemployed,
do a forbearance agreement," said Marks. "Lenders have been doing
forbearance agreements for many, many years, and they should continue to
do that." A forbearance agreement allows homeowners to not make mortgage
payments over a specified period of time and not accrue additional fees
and charges.

Even more pressing, however, is the need to force banks to make
permanent modifications--including modifications on principals, not just
interest rates--in order to keep people in their homes and structure
loans so they can be paid over the long haul.

"The administration has to stop pleading, begging and bribing the
servicers to do the right thing," said Marks. "Where is the OCC and the
Federal Reserve? Let's require the servicers and the lenders to stop
the foreclosures, to restructure the mortgages and make them

Officials from the Treasury Department, Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation (FDIC), and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC)
were on hand to discuss their respective efforts--and they faced some
skeptical and angry lawmakers.

"What will we do beyond using the 'rising tide raising all boats'
theory, which we find fatally flawed, as it relates to some who don't
have boats and who have boats that are not water-worthy? What do we do?"
asked Texas Congressman Al Green.

"I've been to a lot of these hearings. We have asked a lot of these
questions over and over and over again," said Missouri Congressman
Emanuel Cleaver, his voice straining with frustration. "This will be
the second holiday season that we've been asking these questions.
Nothing has happened. Why can't something happen to these lending
institutions who took taxpayer money?"

"We want to know what you're doing to encourage face-to-face
involvement with the borrowers and the servicers," said California
Congresswoman Maxine Waters. "We want to know what you're doing about
principal write-down. What we hear is a lot of talk about how you're
going to encourage the banks. The banks thumb their nose at all of us.
They don't care about what you're saying."

"We're putting them on notice, and then we will exact penalties of
them, and be publicly outspoken about who's performing well and who's
not," said Herbert Allison, assistant secretary for financial stability
at the Treasury Department. "We're going to move to the point where
we're disciplining the banks if they don't perform better than they are

Waters wasn't satisfied. "Treasury, you're just too slow," she
said. "We've been listening too long."

Waters did praise FDIC for the way it handled loan modifications as
conservator for the failed IndyMac Bank. Waters said that as a result
of that work, she and Chairman Barney Frank had written a letter to the previous administration requesting that FDIC
Chair Sheila Bair oversee the loan modification program.

"We are appreciative for what you have shown can be done," said
Waters. "But it appears to me that some of the advice that FDIC should
be giving to advice that needs to be shared. And it doesn't
appear that it's being looked at."

Her harshest assessment was saved for the OCC. "I don't get a real
sense of what you do," she said. "You do advisories; you look at what
is or is not being doing; and then you issue information that says what
should be done, or what could be done. This is not good enough."

Chairman Frank noted that action to stem foreclosures isn't just
needed for the sake of the homeowners but for the wider economy.

"We're not simply talking about compassion for individuals," he
said. "Foreclosures create concentric circles of harm, primarily to the
individual family, but then to the neighborhood, to the municipality,
and to the whole economy because of the widespread dispersion of
mortgage-backed securities."

There was some good news in the hearing. Congresswoman Waters noted
that an amendment to HR
--the financial reform bill--would provide $3 billion in loans to unemployed people to help them avoid
foreclosure. (It will also designate $1 billion for the Neighborhood
Stabilization Program for the redevelopment of foreclosed properties as
affordable housing.) This amendment was a priority for the Congressional
Black Caucus.

But this is a drop in the bucket when one looks at the scope of the

That's why so many progressives have pinned their hopes on legislation that would permit bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages,
including principals. But the filibustering Senate has already defeated that plan outright
once, and it's likely to thwart it again quicker than you can say
Baucus, Nelson, Landrieu and Lincoln.

I had the opportunity to speak with Marks after the hearing about
what can be done now.

"Very easy--regulators requiring servicers to do principal
reductions. End of story," said Marks. "You know, they did that under
TARP when they said to the institutions--even if you don't want the
money, you're taking it 'cause there's a financial crisis. I used to be
a regulator.... There are a zillion things you can do to get
their attention. Bankruptcy reform is important, but it's a longer
haul. Today, you can say we're going to do this through the

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