Hidden Mortgage Fees

photo by Tania Liu

TheStreet.com quoted me in Hidden Fees Cost Consumers Billions: Which Ones Are the Worst? It opens,

Consumers are notoriously combative over high product and sales fees, and who can blame them?

Fees for common items like mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts and online deliverables, among many others, can really add up, and do hit consumers hard in the pocketbook.

That goes double for so-called “hidden fees” – shadowy charges on goods and services that buyers usually don’t know about.

A new study by the Washington, D.C.-based National Economic Council shows that Americans lose “billions of dollars” from such hidden fees. Another study of communications firms like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast by the Consumer Federation of America pegs hidden fee costs at $60 billion annually.

Few hidden fees are favored by consumer advocates, but some are worse than others.

“My household bills look very much like those of a typical consumer – two cell phones, cable, broadband and landline telephone,” says Dr. Mark Cooper, the CFA’s Director of Research and author of the communications industry report. “Hidden fees – excluding the price of the service, taxes, and governmental fees – added about 25% to my total bill.”

The CFA’s “Hidden Fees” report documents a pervasive pattern of abuse across many industries, adds Cooper, “but hidden fees on communications services are particularly troubling because these digital services have become absolute necessities in the American household.”
Besides cable and internet service costs, which routinely stand atop the list of industry offenders, what other hidden fees continue to haunt American consumers?

Here’s a quick list:

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Mortgage fees – Outside of the cable/telecom arena, the mortgage sector may well boast the most hidden fees. “When applying for a mortgage, a borrower can be hit with all kinds of obscure fees like processing fees, notary fees, courier fees, even fees for sending emails,” says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. ” Before paying the mortgage application fee, the borrower should ask whether any of the fees are waivable. If they are charged by the lender, as opposed to a third party like a government agency, they may very well be waivable.”

Consumers should be on the lookout for hidden fees, across the board. Some solid due diligence can keep a few more bucks in your pocket and strike a blow against companies with fee programs that operate in the shadows, time and time again.

But as of right now, those hidden fees are paying off for companies, and at U.S. consumers’ expense.

Mnuchin, When No One Is Watching

Alexander Hamilton

My latest column for The Hill is Hamilton Acted in Good Faith. Will Steven Mnuchin Do The Same? I can only blog the first hundred words, so click on the link for the rest of it:

UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden famously said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Steven Mnuchin, another leading citizen of Los Angeles, is now in the spotlight as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Running the Treasury Department requires financial know-how, which this former Goldman Sachs banker has in spades. But it also requires character, as a large part of the Treasury secretary’s job is to embody the good faith that the American people want the rest of the world to have in us.

Click here to keep reading.

To The Mountaintop!

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In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day, the opening of his last speech, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop:

Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It’s always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. And Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world. I’m delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but “fear itself.” But I wouldn’t stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Trust for Trump

photo by David R. Tribble

US News & World Report quoted me in Here’s What We Know About Donald Trump’s Trust Fund. It opens,

With all the talk about how Donald Trump will be handling his vast business empire as he assumes the presidency, some questions were finally answered this week, and this much is clear: Donald Trump is putting his business assets in a trust.

“Through the trust agreement, he has relinquished leadership and management of the Trump Organization to his sons Don and Eric, and a longtime Trump executive, Alan Weiselberg,” says Sheri Dillon, a lawyer for the president-elect.

But what does that mean?

What is a trust to begin with? A trust is a legal structure with three main parties: The trustor, trustee and beneficiary. The trustor gives another party, the trustee, the right to manage the specified assets for the benefit of its designated beneficiaries.

“According to Trump, his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, as well as a business associate, would be the trustees. After transferring the assets to the trust, Trump could then be a beneficiary of the trust,” says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. “The trustees administer the affairs of the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The beneficiary receives the income from the trust or the property within the trust.”

Trump has previously said his children will be the primary financial beneficiaries of the trust, but Trump made it clear that he planned on returning to the Trump Organization when his presidency is over. At that point, it’s possible Trump could have a fat check waiting for him, depending on the trust’s structure.

“The trust’s income or property could be doled out on an ongoing basis or deferred to some future point in time, depending on the terms of the trust,” Reiss says.

Dr. Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials

photo by Gage Skidmore

Law360 quoted me in Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials To Be Confirmation Focus (behind paywall). It opens,

Dr. Ben Carson will face a barrage of questions Thursday on topics ranging from his views on anti-discrimination enforcement to the basics of running a government agency with a multibillion-dollar budget at his confirmation hearing to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Carson, a famed neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate, was President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise choice for HUD secretary, given the nominee’s lack of experience or statements on housing issues. That lack of a track record means that senators and housing policy advocates will have no shortage of areas to probe when Carson appears before the Senate Banking Committee.

“I want to know whether he has any firm ideas at all about housing and urban policy. Is he a quick study?” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Trump tapped Carson in early December to lead HUD, saying that his former rival for the Republican presidential nomination shared in his vision of “revitalizing” inner cities and the families that live in them.

“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Trump said in a statement released through his transition team.

Carson said he was honored to get the nod from the president-elect.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need. We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met,” he said in the transition team’s statement.

The nomination came as a bit of a surprise given that Carson, who has decades of experience in medicine, has none in housing policy. It also came soon after a spokesman for Carson said that he had no interest in a Cabinet position because of a lack of qualifications.

Now lawmakers, particularly Democrats, will likely spend much of Thursday’s confirmation hearing attempting to suss out just what the HUD nominee thinks about the management of the Federal Housing Administration, which provides insurance on mortgages to low-income and first-time home buyers; the management and funding for public housing in the U.S.; and even the basics of how he will manage an agency that had an approximately $49 billion budget and employs some 8,300 people.

“You will have to overcome your lack of experience managing an organization this large to ensure that you do not waste taxpayer dollars and reduce assistance for families who desperately need it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a letter to Carson earlier in the week.

To that end, Carson could help allay fears about management and experience by revealing who will be working under him, said Rick Lazio, a partner at Jones Walker LLP and a former four-term Republican congressman from New York.

“The question is will the senior staff have a diverse experience that includes management and housing policy,” Lazio said.

One area where Carson is likely to face tough questioning from Democrats is anti-discrimination and fair housing.

Carson’s only major public pronouncement on housing policy was a 2015 denunciation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that the Obama administration finalized after it languished for years.

The rule, which was part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act but had been languishing for decades, requires each municipality that receives federal funding to assess their housing policies to determine whether they sufficiently encourage diversity in their communities.

In a Washington Times, op-ed, Carson compared the rule to failed efforts to integrate schools through busing and at other times called the rule akin to communism.

“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote.

Warren has already indicated that she wants more answers about Carson’s view of the rule and has asked whether Carson plans to pursue disparate impact claims against lenders and other housing market participants, as is the current policy at HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Warren’s concerns are echoed by current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who said in an interview with National Public Radio Monday that he feared Carson could pull back on the efforts the Obama administration has undertaken to enforce fair housing laws.

“I’d be lying if I said that I’m not concerned about the possibility of going backward, over the next four years,” Castro said in the interview.

HUD, as the agency overseeing the Federal Housing Administration, has also been involved in significant litigation against the likes of Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among others, seeking to recover money the FHA lost on bad loans they sold to the agency.

“Will you commit to continuing to strictly enforce these underwriting standards in order to protect taxpayers from fraud?” Warren asked.

Carson has also drawn criticism from fair housing advocates for his views on the assistance the government provides to the poor, saying in his memoir that such programs can breed dependency when they do not have time limits.

To that end, housing policy experts will want to hear what Carson wants to do to ease the affordability crisis, boost multifamily building and improve conditions inside public housing units. HUD also plays a major role in disaster relief operations, another area where people will be curious about Carson’s thinking.

“I’d be looking at hints of his positive agenda, not just critiques of past programs,” Reiss said.

Consumer Protection Changes in 2017

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Business News Daily quoted me in 6 Big Regulatory Changes That Could Affect Your Business in 2017. It reads, in part,

It’s a new year and there’s a new incoming administration. That means there are likely some big-time regulation changes in the pipeline, not to mention changes that were already on the agenda. Some proposals will fail, while others will pass, but all of them could significantly affect your business in 2017 and beyond.

Top of the list this year are the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the currently suspended change in Department of Labor overtime regulations, and minimum wage or paid sick leave efforts at local and state levels. However, there are a bevy of other potential changes on the horizon that the savvy entrepreneur should be aware of as well.

Here are some of the proposals we’re keeping an eye on this year, and how they might affect small businesses.

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3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) arbitration rules

Proposed rules from the federal CFPB would prohibit what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses in financial products. Those clauses essentially prevent consumers from filing class-action lawsuits against the company in the event that something goes wrong. The rules would instead leave people to litigate on their own, a time-consuming, costly endeavor that often has very little payoff in the end.

“It is expected that the Obama administration will issue the final rule before President-elect Trump’s inauguration,” David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at the Brooklyn Law School, said. “Entrepreneurs with consumer credit cards should expect that they could join class actions involving financial products. They should also expect that credit card companies will be more careful in setting the terms of their agreements, given this regulatory change.”

Reiss added that the final adoption or rejection of these rules is also subject to the Congressional Review Act, which empowers Congress to invalidate new federal regulations. Even if the rules were adopted, Congress could ultimately reject them.

“Republicans have been very critical of the proposed rule, which they see as anti-business,” Reiss said.

The Cost of Selling Trump’s Empire

photo by KylaBorgPolitico quoted me in Selling His Empire Would Cost Trump Money. A Lot of It. It opens,

Donald Trump’s critics say the only way for him to keep his business interests separate from the public’s interest is to simply get out of business entirely, selling his companies and putting the proceeds into anonymous assets that someone else can manage.

But there’s nothing simple about it: unloading a real estate empire as large as Trump’s is a lengthy, complicated process fraught with ethical pitfalls, one that could end up costing a fortune.

“He has to make a choice,” said David Reiss, director of Brooklyn Law’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. “How much pain is he willing to take?”

Trump, who’s expected to lay out a plan to address conflicts of interest at a press conference Wednesday, heads a particularly difficult estate to unwind. Forbes has pegged his net worth at $3.7 billion in September, attributing most of that to real property holdings tangled in debt, partnership agreements, management contracts, branding deals and tax deferrals.

Ethics watchdogs say Trump’s cleanest break would be to sell his company to the public, but an initial public offering — especially one that folds in most or all of Trump’s scattered businesses — would be complicated, costly and time-consuming.

“The nature of the business doesn’t lend itself to going public,” said Jan Baran, co-chair of Wiley Rein’s election law and government ethics practice. “Rolling in all the real estate and the royalty contracts and all the other orphans like wineries and steaks, it’s a little hard to imagine any public companies that resemble what his business is, because it’s such a hodgepodge of things. It would take a while, it would take at least a year.”

What’s more, Baran noted, an IPO would require underwriters to raise capital and pull together an offering — raising new concerns about investment firms potentially currying favor with the new administration.

“Are the ethics complainers willing to let Goldman Sachs do the underwriting on this public offering?” he said. “Somebody’s got to put it together.”

Even if Trump chose to skip the IPO and just liquidate his assets via direct sales, he’d face a complex task — and a costly one.

“This would be an extraordinarily difficult situation,” said Neil Shapiro, a law partner at Herrick Feinstein in New York. “It would certainly be unprecedented in terms of somebody liquidating a portfolio of this size. We’re in uncharted territories here.”

The problems start with finding a buyer. The pool of people shopping for, say, a Fifth Avenue skyscraper is small, and only the buyer and seller can say for sure whether the price paid is fair. As such, selling a property raises nearly as many ethical quandaries for Trump as owning it. A buyer looking to curry favor with the next president might pay too much. Another might do Trump a favor by making a quick deal while paying too little.