Homeowners Lost in the Shuffle

The Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) issued a report, Homeowners Can Get Lost in the Shuffle And Suffer Harm When Their Servicer Transfers Their Mortgage But Not the HAMP Application or Modification, that highlights some of the structural problems in the servicing industry. The report notes, for instance, that, “Homeowner calls to SIGTARP’s Hotline about difficulties experienced in HAMP as a result of mortgages being transferred from one servicer to another have persisted throughout the life of the program and have escalated in the last year.” (1) This is just the most recent reminder that servicing transfers continue to be a major source of trouble for homeowners.

SIGTARP concludes,

Given the scale of the reported problems related to transfers to new servicers, and the potentially serious harm to struggling homeowners who need relief from HAMP, Treasury must be aggressive and swift in sending the message to servicers that Treasury will not tolerate harm to homeowners in HAMP from servicing transfers. HAMP is five years old, and servicers have had ample time to understand the rules and to follow them. Treasury should no longer tolerate a failure to follow HAMP rules. Treasury should report on violations publicly, and permanently withhold incentive payments from servicers that do not comply with HAMP rules on transfers. (12)
The problems in the servicer industry are structural, but it is far from clear that there are sufficient structural changes in the works to deal with them. This sad state of affairs will last far into the future unless thoughtful solutions are designed and implemented in the present. So, while it is important that SIGTARP draws attention to this problem, it is more important for other regulators like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Housing Finance Agency to take up the cause and start implementing far-reaching solutions.

Reiss on Refinancing

MainStreet quoted me in Fed’s End to Quantitative Easing Will Affect How You Invest and Buy a House. It reads in part,

The Federal Reserve’s decision to end its bond buying program after six years to help boost the economy is a sign that more recovery and growth will occur. So what does the typical American on Main Street need to know?

While the Fed did not indicate a timeline for when interest rates will rise, consumers should be prepared and “see the writing on the wall” since variable rates such as credit cards, adjustable rate mortgages and home equity loans will start to rise slowly and gradually, said Bankrate.com chief financial analyst Greg McBride, CFA.

“The low interest rates will come to an end,” he said. “Consumers should pay down debt while the rates are low rather than contend with it once rates move up.”

Mortgage rates will remain low but will fluctuate according to global risks, not because of any actions taken by the Fed, said Ernie Goss, a professor of economics at Creighton University in Omaha. Consumers should expect rates for short term rates such as auto loans to rise “ever so slightly” between now and July 2015, he said.

The good news about rising interest rates is that savers will begin earning more on their nest eggs, but the increase could be offset by a higher cost of borrowing and could discourage people from getting loans and spending, said Gail Cunningham, a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization.

“If mortgage rates rise, consumers with variable rate mortgages will see their monthly payments go up, putting a dent in the amount they have available for disposable spending,” she said.

Even if mortgage rates do increase, consumers need to consider the costs of refinancing before they embark on the process, said David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School in New York. Homeowners need to determine how long they plan to live in their home and if the cost of refinancing outweighs the lower monthly payments.

“If you are not sure that you will be there for a few years at least, the cost of refinancing may be more than the amount you save in decreased interest payments,” he said. “How many years will it take you to recoup that cost in reduced interest rate payments?”

Reiss on Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Proposed Rulemaking

I have submitted a Comment on Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Proposed Rulemaking to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Basically, I argue

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Home Mortgage Disclosure Act proposed rulemaking (proposed Aug. 29, 2014) is a reasonable one.  It increases the amount of information that is to be collected about important consumer products, such as reverse mortgages.  It also increases the amount of important information it collects about all mortgages.  At the same time, it releases lenders from having to determine borrowers’ intentions about how they will use their loan proceeds, something that can be hard to do and to document well.  Finally, while the proposed rule raises some privacy concerns, the CFPB can address them.

 

Reiss on Who Should Be Providing Mortgage Credit to American Households?

I have posted a short Response, Who Should Be Providing Mortgage Credit to American Households?, to SSRN (as well as to BePress).  The abstract reads,

Who should be providing mortgage credit to American households? Given that the residential mortgage market is a ten-trillion-dollar one, the answer we come up with had better be right, or we may suffer another brutal financial crisis sooner than we would like. Indeed, the stakes are as high as they were in the Great Depression when the foundation of our current system was first laid down. Unfortunately, the housing finance experts of the 1930s seemed to have a greater clarity of purpose when designing their housing finance system. Part of the problem today is that debates over the housing finance system have been muddled by broader ideological battles and entrenched special interests, as well as by plain old inertia and the fear of change. It is worth taking a step back to evaluate the full range of options available to us, as the course we decide upon will shape the housing market for generations to come. This is a Response to Brent Horton, For the Protection of Investors and the Public: Why Fannie Mae’s Mortgage-Backed Securities Should Be Subject to the Disclosure Requirements of the Securities Act of 1933, 89 Tulane L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2014-2015).

Reiss and Lederman on Affordable Housing Goals

Jeff Lederman and I have posted our comment to the FHFA’s proposed housing goals for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for 2015 through 2017.  We argue,

As the FHFA sets the housing goals for 2015-2017, it should focus on maximizing the creation and preservation of affordable housing. Less efficient proposed subgoals should be rejected unless the FHFA has explicitly identified a compelling rationale to adopt them. The FHFA has not identified one in the case of the proposed small multifamily subgoal. Thus, it should be withdrawn.

Reiss on Legal Snares for Entrepreneurs

Inc.com quoted me in 6 Legal Snares All Entrepreneurs Should Be Ready to Dodge. It reads,

The last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur is pour through long dull documents written by lawyers for lawyers. But there’s a reason it’s called work and not fun. Miss taking care of this aspect of your business and you might find yourself being investigated by the federal government, on the hook for thousands in otherwise unnecessary costs, in a never- ending fight with others involved in the company, or stuck at the exact time you need to be moving.

I was speaking with David Reiss, a professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School and research director of its Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE). Entrepreneurs often lack the broad business experience that would help them avoid a number of traps on the way to growing a business, he said. Here are some of the most common.

Real estate contract snags

“You have a great idea but know nothing about the basics of being a small business person, so you sign the first lease [you're offered],” he said. But a commercial property lease is a complex document that makes an apartment lease look like nothing in comparison. It typically is something to be negotiated, and getting help to understand the ramifications of various clauses is crucial. “Often there are pretty complicated rent increase provisions that entrepreneurs don’t get,” he said. The document as written might assign you a portion of the building’s increased operating expenses in addition to rent increases. Overly strong restrictions on the ability or reassign or sublease the lease’s obligations could mean an inability to move to a larger space when the business grows. “What are the use restrictions?” Reiss asked “What if the business morphs into something else? Does that violate the use limitations on the space? “

Pick the right corporate structure

You’ll likely have many choices of how to legally and financially structure the company. Some are an LLC, sole proprietorship, partnership, S-corp. , or C-corp. “They have different tax implications, different implications as you increase in size and revenues,” Reiss said. If you have the wrong structure in place, you might find yourself having to unwind it as the business expands. Not only might that be unnecessarily expensive, but you’ve potentially opened yourself to renegotiating some basic arrangements that could be troublesome.

Get a fitting partner agreement

If you need a reminder of how badly partnerships can go, look at Snapchat or Square. One day everything is fine. The next, former best friends are at each other’s throat. You have to consider how to allocate both profits and losses (some investors might like more of the latter).

“Some people are putting in time, some are putting in intellectual property, and some are putting in cash,” Reiss said. “People have different expectations for each of those contributions.” A thorough and well-constructed partner agreement provides a framework for addressing the important issues before everyone is at an impasse.

Have appropriate protection for intellectual property

All businesses have intellectual property. Getting protection on every aspect can burn through cash. For example, patents are great, but if you can’t lock down broad enough protection, competitors might be able to easily work around the walls you built, in which case you may have wasted money. Perhaps trade secrets might be more appropriate. Do you really need to trademark every single name and phrase? Maybe yes, maybe no. Talk to a professional to devise a useful strategy, keeping an eye on what you can afford and how much effort you might need to divert from getting business done.

Check insurance

You’ll need commercial general liability insurance and might also need property insurance. Might directors and officers liability insurance, also known as D&O, be advisable to protect principals in the company? Does your lease or contracts with clients demand particular levels of coverage?

Regulatory compliance

On one hand, anyone who says that regulations make it impossible to open a business is someone to be questioned. On the other, you can get badly tripped up in some common areas like taxes, handling inventory, or labor laws. “A little bit of planning can save you lots of headaches, money, and bandwidth,” Reiss said. “If you’re working 16 hours a day, you don’t want to be thinking about an investigation by the Department of Labor. You need someone to run through a checklist with you of the regulatory overlays on small businesses.”

Bringing lawyers, accountants, insurance brokers, and others in for reviews and discussions isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot less expensive than trying to solve problems after they’ve snared and tripped you.

Tall Mortgage Tales

Todd Zywicki has posted The Behavioral Law and Economics of Fixed-Rate Mortgages (and Other Just-So Stories) to SSRN. The article contains

SPOILER ALERT!

a spoof, in order to make a larger point.

The abstract reads,

A major cause of the recent financial crisis was the traditional American mortgage, which is distinctive for the following features: it is a thirty-year, self-amortizing loan with an unlimited right to prepay. The United States is unique in the world for standardizing on a mortgage product with these features. Yet not only have a majority of the foreclosures that occurred during the financial crisis been fixed-rate mortgages, the fixed-interest-rate characteristics have undermined efforts by the Federal Reserve and government to assist recovery of the housing market. Moreover, the long fixed-rate term and ability to refinance are highly expensive and suboptimal features for many consumers. Nevertheless, many consumers persist in purchasing this mortgage. Drawing on the methodology of behavioral law and economics, this article provides rationalizations for how behavioral law and economics can explain the persistence of a product that is so harmful to many consumers and to the economy at large. The article then draws conclusions about what this analysis means for the behavioral law and economics research program generally and for the use of behavioral law and economics in government policymaking.

 I have a lot to say about this article but I don’t want to ruin it for you!  Suffice it to say, the article is a provocative critique of behavioral law and economics. Those of us who hope to see a healthy mortgage market develop would do well to take this critique seriously — even if you end up rejecting its broader implications.