Monday, January 31, 2011

Adjustable-rate mortgages are making a comeback

Hybrid ARMs, some of which have rates significantly lower than 30-year fixed-rate mortgage alternatives, are growing in popularity.

After years of virtual exile from the home loan arena, is the adjustable-rate mortgage staging a quiet comeback? Could an ARM be on your shopping list the next time you need to buy a house or refinance?

You might be surprised.

A new survey of 112 lenders by mortgage giant Freddie Mac found that ARMs are starting to attract applicants again. Adjustables accounted for just 3% of new home loans in early 2009 but are projected to be picked by nearly 1 out of 10 borrowers in 2011. In the jumbo and super-jumbo segments, the share will be even larger, according to Freddie Mac chief economist Frank Nothaft.

How could this be, with fixed 30-year rates at half-century lows, hovering just under 5%? Isn't it axiomatic that it's always smarter to lock in a low fixed rate for as long as possible rather than gamble on a loan whose rate might bounce around in the years ahead?

That logic still holds up for most people, but not for everybody. Here's why. The boom-era models of the ARM have pretty much disappeared — there are no more of the two-year adjustables that hooked record numbers of consumers in 2003 and 2004 with teaser rates that needed to be refinanced with heavy fees within 24 months. No more "pick-a-pay" ARMs that were mass-marketed with loosey-goosey underwriting and the potential for negative amortization.

The most popular ARM in the market today, according to the Freddie Mac survey, is the 5-1 hybrid. Its rate is fixed for the first five years of the loan, then adjusts annually for as much as the next 25 years, with rate caps to cushion payment shocks if rates suddenly soar. There are also 7-1 and 3-1 hybrids. The antique one-year ARM still is available but doesn't get a lot of takers.

The real key to the growing popularity of hybrid ARMs is in their pricing. Rates are significantly lower than fixed 30-year alternatives, with no teasers or negative amortization involved. In some cases, they also come with other attractive terms, such as more flexible underwriting standards.

According to data supplied by Dan Green, a loan officer with Waterstone Mortgage Corp. in Cincinnati and author of blog, the rate spread between 5-1 hybrid ARMs and 30-year fixed-rate loans has widened to around 1.625 percentage points.

To illustrate, say you're interested in a $250,000 conventional loan to buy a house. You've got a FICO credit score of 740 and want to close in 45 days. You could opt for a 30-year fixed loan at 4.75%, requiring a monthly principal and interest payment of $1,304. Alternatively, you could opt for a 5-1 ARM fixed at 3.125%, costing $1,071 in principal and interest per month — a $233 saving.

But now check out the niche where hybrid ARMs really shine: jumbo and super-jumbo mortgages. Generally jumbos range from $417,000 to $729,750, depending on home prices in your local market. Super jumbos can go into the millions.

Say you need a $450,000 mortgage with a 45-day closing and you have a FICO score of 740. According to Green, you should be able to get a 30-year fixed-rate jumbo for around 5.625%. Monthly principal and interest on a fixed-rate jumbo would total $2,590 a month.

Compare that with a $450,000 hybrid 5-1 ARM: 3.5% for the initial five years, requiring $2,020 a month in principal and interest. That's a rate spread of 2.125 points — "the best we've seen in years," Green said. "It's very aggressively priced" by banks that want to originate the loans to hold in their own portfolios.

The savings go even higher in the super-jumbo space — a $1-million 5-1 ARM goes for 3.5% and saves a borrower $1,266 a month compared with a competing fixed-rate 30-year loan at 5.6%.

Cathy Warshawsky, president and senior loan officer of Bay Area Loan Inc. in San Jose, cites another advantage for some jumbo borrowers — special enhancements in payment terms. For example, a client of Warshawsky's needed a $950,000 mortgage at the lowest rate and monthly payment. She signed him up for a 5-1 hybrid at 5.75%, interest-only.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that hybrid adjustables make financial sense for everybody. They don't. But if you fit one of the niches — you need a jumbo, you know you're likely to be transferred or you expect to sell the house within five to seven years — they merit a serious look.

By Kenneth R. Harney January 30, 2011
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Govt's Loan Modification Program Crippled

Govt's Loan Modification Program Crippled by Lax Oversight and Deference to Banks:
With millions of homeowners still struggling to stay in their homes, the Obama administration’s $75 billion foreclosure prevention program has been weakened, perhaps fatally, by lax oversight and a posture of cooperation—rather than enforcement—with the nation’s biggest banks. Those banks, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and Citibank, service the majority of mortgages.

Despite a dismal showing for the program, rising complaints from homeowners, and repeated threats from officials, the government has levied no penalties against even the most error-prone banks and mortgage servicers. In fact, despite issuing public warnings for more than a year about imposing penalties, the Treasury Department told ProPublica this week they don’t even have the power to punish servicers for wrongfully denying help to homeowners. Instead of toughening the program, Treasury has actually loosened it in the face of industry lobbying.

Over the past year, ProPublica has been exploring why the government’s program has helped so few homeowners. Over the coming weeks, we will be detailing how the administration quietly retreated from a plan to get tough on banks, why the mortgage servicing industry lacks incentives to invest in helping homeowners, how the industry succeeded in thwarting oversight, and what reforms could lead to more help for homeowners.

The stories are based on newly disclosed data, lobbying disclosures, dozens of interviews with insiders, members of Congress, and others. Today’s story looks at the timidity of Treasury’s oversight, a conclusion echoed in a government report Wednesday.

“At some point, Treasury needs to ask itself what value there is in a program under which not only participation, but also compliance with the rules, is voluntary,” says the new report, from the special inspector general for the TARP. “Treasury needs to recognize the failings of [the program] and be willing to risk offending servicers. And if getting tough means risking servicer flight, so be it; the results could hardly be much worse.”

The administration launched the program nearly two years ago, in early 2009, promising it would help three million to four million troubled American borrowers rework the terms of their mortgages. Amid widespread reports that servicers have been wrongly rejecting homeowners, losing paperwork, and otherwise breaking the program’s rules, it appears the program will fall far short. The Congressional Oversight Panel now estimates fewer than 800,000 homeowners will ultimately get lasting mortgage modifications.

An early problem for the program was that banks and other mortgage servicing companies were quickly letting homeowners into the program on a trial basis, but failing to make decisions regarding hundreds of thousands of homeowners while multiple government deadlines passed.

To push banks to solve the problem, senior Treasury official Michael Barr, who has since left the department, warned in a November 2009 conference call with journalists that if the banks didn't clear their backlogs, the firms would "suffer consequences." Treasury issued a press release the same day saying banks could face “monetary penalties and sanctions.”

It turns out Treasury had already taken most penalties off the table.

The program rests on contracts that Treasury drafted and banks signed onto. To participate in the program and receive potentially billions in government incentives, banks and mortgage servicers agreed to offer homeowners modifications under guidelines subsequently drawn up by the government. In exchange, they would receive $1,000 for a completed modification and up to $4,000 if the loan continued to perform.

The contracts say Treasury can withhold or claw back incentive payments to servicers when they violate the contract. Members of Congress and homeowner advocates have long pushed Treasury to issue such penalties. There have also been calls within Treasury itself.

Around the same time that Barr and other officials were making public threats, Treasury staffers were looking at reports showing that some banks were modifying virtually no loans. Frustrated, they called at an internal meeting for withholding payments to the worst offenders or imposing fines, according to a person familiar with those discussions. But the staffers were walked back by Treasury lawyers, who said the government was only party to a commercial contract with servicers and not acting as their regulator.

Despite Treasury officials appearing before Congress and elsewhere warning of potential penalties, the department told ProPublica after months of questioning that its hands are tied. Treasury now says it has a very narrow authority to withhold incentives under the contracts. Only in cases where the servicer incorrectly granted a modification and claimed a payment can Treasury withhold or claw back a payment as a punishment.

That interpretation of the contracts means that if a homeowner was wrongfully denied help through the program, there is no possible financial penalty.

“There is no provision in the contract that permits Treasury to assess punitive fines or penalties for a servicer's failure to modify a loan, for an improper modification of a loan, or for failure to adhere to any other program requirements,” said a Treasury spokeswoman.

Experts say Treasury is handcuffing itself. Alan White, a law professor at Valparaiso University, called Treasury’s interpretation of its own contracts “extremely crabbed.” Treasury does have the power to punish servicers for broad violations by withholding incentive payments, he said, and it could also sue servicers for not fulfilling the contract.

Additionally, Treasury has the power to change the contracts, said Julia Gordon from the Center for Responsible Lending. (The Sandler Foundation is a major funder of both the Center and ProPublica, which operate independently of each other.)

The reason Treasury hasn’t changed them, Gordon said, is that Treasury is afraid servicers would drop out of the voluntary program, known as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), in the face of real penalties.

"If servicers don't get paid for future modification activity, there is a risk that they will be less inclined to continue completing HAMP modifications or to follow HAMP guidelines to evaluate homeowners for all loss mitigation options before referring them to foreclosure," said a Treasury spokeswoman.

Instead of getting tough with servicers, Treasury says they work with banks to make sure problems are fixed.

When government audits of banks' modification practices revealed they were frequently breaking the rules, Treasury officials worked through a process they call "remediation."

One audit, conducted on Treasury's behalf by the government-supported mortgage company Freddie Mac, found that 200,000 struggling homeowners had not been told they were eligible for the program, as servicers are required to do. Auditors also found 15 of the largest 20 participating servicers were incorrectly using the Treasury formula that determines if homeowners qualify for the program.

Rather than imposing penalties, Treasury simply asked the servicers to contact the homeowners that had been missed and rerun the numbers for those who had been wrongfully denied because of the formula error.

"The servicer says, 'you've caught me this time,' but it doesn't improve widespread non-compliance because there's no real penalty," said Alys Cohen of the National Consumer Law Center.

Dawn Patterson, Treasury's chief of compliance for the program, explained that the idea was to allow servicers time to get "their programs built, their processes more shored up." Patterson says Treasury is continuing to use that approach.

Treasury’s own records call into question the impact of those efforts. Documents obtained by ProPublica via a Freedom of Information Act request show homeowner complaints to a Treasury-sponsored hotline have actually increased during the past year. The most common complaint is that the servicer has violated the program's guidelines.

Servicers have also at times been uncooperative with the government’s own auditors. Even getting the right documents from servicers has "been a cumbersome process," the head of the government's audit team, Paul Heran, said last year at an industry conference. It seemed, he added, the task was often relegated to low-level staff who didn’t understand the requests. Another manager in the unit, Vic O’Laughlen, said servicers tended to respond with “at best fifty percent of what we’re expecting to see.”

A Treasury spokeswoman said that "servicer operations, especially in larger organizations, are complex," and producing the documents can be difficult.

The government’s oversight has also been hampered by a lack of transparency by Treasury itself. The department has kept its audits of servicers secret. It also does not have a written policy for how it would address rule violations by banks, an omission criticized in a Government Accountability Office report last year and not yet addressed. Treasury says it does have a process for dealing with banks' noncompliance, just not a written one.

The lack of oversight has been particularly damaging, since mortgage servicers have little incentive to do modifications on their own.

Servicers handle homeowner payments for investors who own the loans. Since servicers don’t own the vast majority of the loans they service, they don’t take the loss if a home goes to foreclosure, making them reluctant to make the investments necessary to fulfill their obligations to help homeowners.

"By every metric, the failure of the largest servicers to carry out the program is obvious," said Prof. White. The noncompliance has gone unpunished, he said, because "Treasury staff are preoccupied with friendly relations with the banks. Sometimes it seems the banks own Treasury.”

Meanwhile, the industry has continued to lobby for changes in the program.

Last summer, Treasury significantly weakened a tool that would have helped keep servicers accountable after officials met with industry lobbyists, documents show.

When banks entered the program, they agreed to certify annually that they've followed the rules of the program. But lobbyists from the Financial Services Roundtable and the Mortgage Bankers Association suggested adding exemptions.

Instead of certifying that banks had followed all the rules, the industry proposed that they could ignore problems affecting less than five percent of homeowners eligible for the program. In the case of Bank of America, which handles more mortgages than any other bank, that meant the bank would not have to report an error that occurred nearly 20,000 times.

The industry also suggested that no matter how widespread a problem, servicers could assert they were complying with the law as long as they pledged to fix problems "to the extent practicable." The previously unreported proposal was disclosed through an administration policy of releasing lobbying contacts related to the TARP.

Later that month, the Treasury revised its certification requirements, making them similar to those the industry sought. Under the new rules, servicers can define for themselves what violations were significant enough to disclose.

The new policy is "not only like putting the fox in charge of the hen house," said Cohen of the National Consumer Law Center, "but asking the fox to fine itself for each chicken eaten."

A Treasury Department spokeswoman said the industry's lobbying did not affect the final guidance, because Treasury was already going to make several of the servicers' suggested changes. It was never the department’s intention that “a servicer submit a list of every individual instance of non-compliance.” If servicers give themselves inappropriate leeway, she said, Treasury would work with them to address the problem.

Unless servicers fear real penalties, the troubled program is unlikely to improve, said Richard Neiman, New York state's chief bank regulator. "There needs to be a greater effort on enforcement, on assigning sanction and fines where there has been noncompliance. We cannot rely solely on servicers to police themselves."

-Thursday 27 January 2011 by: Paul Kiel and Olga Pierce

All republished content that appears on Truthout has been obtained by permission or license.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

FHA extends suspension of 'anti-flipping' rule for another year

The rule was intended to prevent speculators from defrauding the government, but it also stifled the purchase and renovation of foreclosed homes by legitimate investors.For years the federal government prohibited the use of Federal Housing Administration mortgage financing by buyers purchasing homes from sellers who had owned the property for less than 90 days. The idea was to prevent speculators from defrauding the government through quick flips of houses — often involving straw buyers and corrupt appraisers — at wildly inflated prices.

One side effect of that policy had been to stifle purchase-and-renovate projects by legitimate, small-scale investors who buy houses after foreclosure or loan defaults and then resell them in substantially improved condition. In many parts of the country, first-time and moderate-income buyers often sought to buy these fixed-up houses using FHA-insured mortgages with 3.5% down payments, but were prevented from doing so by the "anti-flipping" rule.
This left large numbers of foreclosed, vacant houses sitting unsold and deteriorating, with negative effects on the values of neighboring properties.

Last January, FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens announced a one-year suspension of that rule, permitting qualified buyers to obtain FHA mortgages on properties that were acquired by rehabbers less than 90 days before. The plan, set to expire at the end of this month, came with safeguards for purchasers, including inspections and multiple appraisals in some cases to document the amounts spent by investors on the improvements.

Vicki Bott, deputy assistant secretary for single-family housing at the FHA, confirmed in an interview that the agency expects to continue the policy for another year. Not only have first-time buyers responded overwhelmingly to the opportunity to buy "turnkey" renovated homes with low down payments, she said, but they have performed well on their mortgage obligations.

"Obviously we have concerns about flipping in general," Bott said, but the FHA has seen none of the fraud problems, defaults and re-foreclosures that cost the agency millions in insurance payouts in earlier years.

Investor Paul Wylie, who with a group of partners and contractors specializes in acquiring, renovating and reselling foreclosed and distressed houses in the Los Angeles area, says the government's policy "has been a very positive approach" because "it recognizes the role that [private investors] can play in helping the housing market get back on its feet."

In the L.A. market, Wylie said, FHA financing accounts for 40% of all home purchases and 60% of purchases in predominantly Latino and African American communities.

Buying foreclosed houses "comes with a lot of risk factors," Wylie said. "There's no title insurance. We don't have a good idea of the extent of the defects" inside properties that have been sitting vacant or vandalized for months. Some houses come with delinquent property taxes, which Wylie's group typically must pay.

Then again, the profit opportunities can be significant as well. Most of the Wylie group's houses sell for more than 20% higher prices than Wylie paid at acquisition — a quick turnaround gain that potentially works for buyers, sellers, neighborhoods and, yes, the FHA itself.

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank slapped in court over improper foreclosures

The highest court in Massachusetts has invalidated foreclosures initiated by Wells Fargo Bank and U.S. Bank, saying the banks failed to prove in court that they they owned the mortgages and thus had legal standing to seize the homes.

The ruling Friday in twin cases involved mortgages that were sold off and pooled with other loans in complex processes to create mortgage-backed securities, a type of bond widely traded by investors worldwide.

It's another setback for the home lending industry, which has been rocked by such disclosures as "robosigning" -- the practice at big banks of having employees certify in court to facts underlying foreclosures without taking the time to read the supporting paperwork.

Lenders including Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Ally Financial Inc.'s GMAC Mortgage unit say they have been redoing the paperwork in those robosigning cases and are proceeding with the foreclosures.

But the issue of whether ownership was properly transferred to firms foreclosing on securitized mortgages appears potentially more problematic. It could affect states such as California, where foreclosures generally are allowed without court approval.

While the foreclosures at issue in Friday's ruling were made in the names of Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, neither of those banks had written the mortgages involved. Instead, they were acting as trustees, or financial caretakers, for pools of loans made and serviced by other lenders.

The ramifications of Friday’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston were unclear. A trade group for the mortgage securities industry said the problems merely involved improper paperwork and not the procedures used. But shares of Wells Fargo & Co. and and other participants in the mortgage securitizing and customer-service business traded sharply lower before recovering somewhat later in the day.

U.S. Bancorp spokeswoman Teri Charest said that since the bank was only the trustee for the pool of loans at issue, not the owner of the mortgage, the ruling would not affect its bottom line. Wells Fargo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Walter H. Hackett, a Walnut attorney who has represented aggrieved homeowners in mortgage cases, said the principles involved in Massachusetts may well apply in California.

Hackett said he hoped such rulings would make it easier for distressed borrowers to obtain loan modifications while the mortgage ownership issues are sorted out. He cautioned homeowners, though, not to interpret the court's opinion as a "free house" ruling absolving delinquent borrowers of their debts.

Christopher Whalen, co-founder of the bank research firm Institutional Risk Analytics, saw less significance in the ruling, calling it "media hype over substance."

"It will be a mess for banks but in general is not nearly as big a deal as other issues," he said.

-- E. Scott Reckard, January 7, 2011