A Deal That Wouldn’t Sting
Published: October 29, 2011
AFTER months of back and forth, a deal that is supposed to punish large financial institutions for foreclosure misconduct may be nigh.
Times Topic: Gretchen Morgenson
While the exact terms remain under wraps, some aspects of this agreement — between banks on one side, and the federal government and a raft of state attorneys general on the other — are coming into focus.
Things could change, of course, and the deal could go by the boards. But here’s the state of play, according to people who have been briefed on the negotiations but were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
Cutting to the chase: if you thought this was the deal that would hold banks accountable for filing phony documents in courts, foreclosing without showing they had the legal right to do so and generally running roughshod over anyone who opposed them, you are likely to be disappointed.
This may not qualify as a shock. Accountability has been mostly A.W.O.L. in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. A handful of state attorneys general became so troubled by the direction this deal was taking that they dropped out of the talks. Officials from Delaware, New York, Massachusetts and Nevada feared that the settlement would preclude further investigations, and would wind up being a gift to the banks.
It looks as if they were right to worry. As things stand, the settlement, said to total about $25 billion, would cost banks very little in actual cash — $3.5 billion to $5 billion. A dozen or so financial companies would contribute that money.
The rest — an estimated $20 billion — would consist of credits to banks that agree to reduce a predetermined dollar amount of principal owed on mortgages that they own or service for private investors. How many credits would accrue to a bank is unclear, but the amount would be based on a formula agreed to by the negotiators. A bank that writes down a second lien, for example, would receive a different amount from one that writes down a first lien.
Sure, $5 billion in cash isn’t nada. But government officials have held out this deal as the penalty for years of what they saw as unlawful foreclosure practices. A few billion spread among a dozen or so institutions wouldn’t seem a heavy burden, especially when considering the harm that was done.
The banks contend that they have seen no evidence that they evicted homeowners who were paying their mortgages. Then again, state and federal officials conducted few, if any, in-depth investigations before sitting down to cut a deal.
Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said the settlement, which is still being worked out, would hold banks accountable. “We continue to make progress toward the key goals of the settlement, which are to establish strong protections for homeowners in the way their loans are serviced across every type of loan and to ensure real relief for homeowners, including the most substantial principal writedown that has occurred throughout this crisis.”
Still, a mountain of troubled mortgages would not be covered by this deal. Borrowers with loans held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be excluded, for example. Only loans that the banks hold on their books or that they service for investors would be involved.
One of the oddest terms is that the banks would give $1,500 to any borrower who lost his or her home to foreclosure since September 2008. For people whose foreclosures were done properly, this would be a windfall. For those wrongfully evicted, it would be pathetic. Roughly $1.5 billion in cash is expected to go into this pot.
The rest of the cash that would be paid by the banks is expected to be split this way: the federal government would get about $750 million, state bank regulators about $90 million. Participating states would share about $2.7 billion. That money is expected to finance legal aid programs, housing counselors and other borrower support. If 45 states participated, that would work out to about $60 million apiece.
OBVIOUSLY, the loan modifications would make up a majority of the deal. And this is where real questions arise. For example, how can we be sure this plan won’t reward banks for modifications that they would have agreed to or should already have done absent the deal?
Perhaps most important, will the banks change the terms of loans enough to ensure that borrowers can actually meet their obligations over time? Or will these modifications default again, as is often the case? If so, the banks will have received a lucrative credit, even though borrowers fall back into trouble.
Such concerns are justified because past settlements promising big help to borrowers have failed to live up to their hype. An example is the 2008 settlement with Countrywide Financial that was struck by Illinois and California. Characterized as providing $8.7 billion in relief to troubled borrowers, it turned out to generate nowhere near that benefit.
The deal being discussed now may also release the big banks that are members of MERS, the electronic mortgage registry, from the threat of some future legal liability for actions involving that organization. MERS, which wreaked havoc with land records across the country, was sued last week by Beau Biden, Delaware’s attorney general, on accusations of deceptive trade practices.
The MERS registry was also subpoenaed last week by Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, as part of his investigation into the fun-while-it-lasted mortgage securitization fest. If he were to sign on to the settlement, his investigation into MERS could not move forward.
“Rules matter,” Mr. Biden said in announcing his suit. “A homeowner has the obligation to pay the mortgage on time and lenders must follow the rules if they are seeking to take away someone’s house through foreclosure.”
Abiding by the rules has not been the modus operandi in the foreclosure arena. That’s why any settlement must be tough, truly beneficial to borrowers and monitored for compliance. Otherwise, the deal would be another case where our government let the big banks win while Main Street loses.