June 24, 2014

Borrowers Have “Been Through Hell”

By David Reiss

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion, U.S. Bank, N.A. v. David Sawyer et al., 2014 ME 81 (June 24, 2014), that makes you question the sanity of the servicing industry and the efficacy of the rule of law. If you are a reader of this blog, you know this story.

This particular version of the story is taken from the unrebutted testimony of the homeowners, David and Debra Sawyer. They received a loan modification, which was later raised to a level above the predelinquency level; the servicers (which changed from time to time) then demanded various documents which were provided numerous times over the course of four court-ordered mediations; the servicers made numerous promises about modifications that they did not keep; the dysfunction goes on and on.

The trial court ultimately dismissed the foreclosure proceeding with prejudice. Like other jurisdictions, Maine requires that parties to a foreclosure “make a good faith effort to mediate all issues.” (6, quoting 14 M.R.S. section 6321-A(12) (2013); M.R. Civ. P. 93(j)).  Given this factual record, the Supreme Judicial Court found that the trial court “did not abuse its discretion in imposing” that sanction. (6-7) The sanction is obviously severe and creates a windfall for the borrowers. But the Supreme Judicial Court noted that U.S. Bank’s “repeated failures to cooperate and participate meaningfully in the mediation process” meant that the borrowers accrued “significant additional fees, interest, costs, and a reduction in the net value of the borrower’s [sic] equity in the property.” (8)

The Supreme Judicial Court concludes that if “banks and servicers intend to do business in Maine and use our courts to foreclose on delinquent borrowers, they must respect and follow our rules and procedures . . .” (9) So, a state supreme court metes out justice in an individual case and sends a warning that failure to abide by the law exposes “a litigant to significant sanctions, including the prospect of dismissal with prejudice.” (9)

But I am left with a bad taste in my mouth — can the rule of law exist where such behavior by private parties is so prevalent? How can servicers with names like J.P. Morgan Chase and U.S. Bank be this incompetent? What are the incentives within those firms that result in such behavior? Have the recent settlements and regulatory enforcement actions done enough to make such cases anomalies instead of all-too-frequent occurrences? U.S. Bank conceded in court that these borrowers have “been through hell.” (9, n. 5) The question is, have we reached the other side?

 

HT April Charney

June 24, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

June 23, 2014

Kroll: Non-Banks A Non-Systemic Risk

By David Reiss

Kroll Bond Rating Agency released a Commentary on Capital Requirements for Non-Bank Mortgage Companies. I may be missing something, but this just seems to be a love letter to the securitization industry. The Commentary opens,

Federal and state regulators are currently considering the imposition of capital requirements and other prudential rules on various classes of non-bank financial institutions, including insurers and mortgage servicers. This report examines some of the issues involving non-bank financial companies with a focus on non-bank loan mortgage originators and/or servicers (“seller/servicers”) in the context of the evolving discussion among regulators and researchers toward developing “appropriate” regulation and supervision like that traditionally applied to insured depository institutions (IDIs).

We believe that regulatory efforts to impose capital requirements on non-bank financial institutions such as mortgage loan seller/servicers need to consider the following factors:

• First, most non-bank financial companies operating in the mortgage space have significantly higher levels of tangible capital and lower risk-weighted assets than do IDIs, especially when considering that much of the asset base of a seller/servicer is collateralized and that the mortgages which they service typically are owned by third parties, in most cases institutional investors. The chief sources of risk for seller/servicers are operational and legal, not credit or market risk.

• Second, the recent call by state and federal regulators for capital requirements for non-bank mortgage companies somewhat ignores the real point of the 2007-2009 financial crisis, namely the vulnerability of IDIs and non-banks which perform bank-like functions to a sudden decline in investor confidence and a related drop in market liquidity.

• Third, since non-banks in the US are already dependent upon the commercial banking system for short-term funding and are effectively prohibited from capitalizing their asset and maturity transformation activities in the short-term debt capital markets (e.g., commercial paper), it is unclear why capital requirements for non-banks are appropriate.

We believe that large non-bank companies and particularly seller/servicers in the mortgage sector do not require formal capital requirements and other types of prudential regulation. In our view, the real issue behind the 2007-2009 financial crisis involved securities fraud and the resulting withdrawal of investor liquidity behind various classes of securities issued by off balance sheet vehicles, not a lack of capital in either IDIs or non-bank firms. (1, footnotes omitted)

First of all, it is not clear to me why Kroll is conflating mortgage originators with seller/servicers in this analysis. I think that Kroll is right that seller/servicers predominantly face operational risk, and whatever credit risk they might face (unless they own mortgages that they service) is quite low. But mortgage originators are a different story completely. If they fund themselves from the short-term commercial paper market they are subject to runs much like an uninsured bank would be. See generally Gary Gorton, Slapped by the Invisible Hand (2009). One would expect that regulators would prescribe different capital levels for different types of non-banks — and could conceivably exempt some seller/servicers completely.

Second, Kroll writes that the financial crisis was caused by “the vulnerability of IDIs and non-banks which perform bank-like functions to a sudden decline in investor confidence and a related drop in market liquidity.” But capital requirements go directly to investor confidence in individual firms as well as in an entire sector.

Third, Kroll’s analysis is heavily dependent on describing the troubles of IDIs. Yes, big banks were at the heart of the problems of the financial crisis, but that does not mean that non-banks should get a free pass on regulation, one that will allow them to grow to be the 800 pound gorillas of the next crisis.

Finally, Kroll writes,

One of the most widely held views espoused by US regulators is that non-bank financial firms caused the subprime crisis. A better way to state the reality is that the non-bank firms were involved in subprime mortgage origination and sales because the largest commercial banks and their partners such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had a monopoly position in the prime mortgage space. Large banks and the GSEs made the whole subprime market work by being willing to buy the senior tranches of subprime deals. (7)

I am not sure how to best characterize that argument, but it is of the ilk of “The Devil made me do it” or “Everyone else was doing it” or “I was just a small fry — much bigger companies than mine were doing it.” This is really not an argument against regulation — if anything it is a call for regulation. If appropriate incentives do not align without regulation, then that is just when the government should step in.

June 23, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

June 20, 2014

Rent Regulation and Housing Affordability

By David Reiss

NYU’s Furman Center issued a fact brief, Profile of Rent-Stabilized Units and Tenants in New York City, that provides context for the deliberations of the Rent Guidelines Board as it considers a rent freeze for NYC apartments subject to rent stabilization.

Rent regulated (rent stabilized and rent controlled) apartments clearly serve households that have lower incomes than households in market rate apartments. Median household income (fifty percent are below and fifty percent are above this number) is $37,600 for rent regulated and $52,260 for market rate households.Thus, market rate households have median incomes that are nearly 40% higher than rent regulated ones.

The median rent is $1,155 for rent regulated and $1,510 for market rate households.Thus, median rents are about 30% higher for market rate tenants.

Despite these differences, the number of households that are rent burdened (where rent is greater than 30% of income) is similar for the two groups: 58% for rent regulated and about 56% for market rate households. (4, Table D)

The Furman Center brief provides a useful context in which to consider NYC’s rental housing stock as well as the households that live in it. Given the nature of NYC households, however, I would have wished for a more finely detailed presentation of household incomes and rents.

NYC’s distribution of income is skewed toward the extremes — more low-income and high-income households and therefore fewer middle-income ones than the rest of the nation. Given this, it would have been helpful to have seen the range and distribution of incomes and rents, perhaps by deciles. The Furman Center brief indicates that updated data will be available next year, so that may provide an opportunity to give a more granular sense of dynamics of the NYC rental market.

Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan outlines his commitment to preserving affordable housing. One element of that commitment is to preserve rent regulated housing. Understanding that market sector and the households it serves is essential to meeting that commitment.

June 20, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

June 19, 2014

Hawaii Court Holds that Debtor had Standing to Enforce Note and Mortgage Under Haw. Rev. Stat. § 490:3-301(ii) Even Though it was a Non-Holder

By Ebube Okoli

The court in deciding 1250 Oceanside Partners v. Katcher, 2013 Bankr. (D. Haw. 2013) recommended that the district court enter a decree of foreclosure in favor of the debtor.

The debtor in possession of 1250 Oceanside Partners sought to enforce a promissory note and foreclose a mortgage made by defendants, the Katchers. Oceanside sought summary judgment, the Katchers argued that the court lacked jurisdiction, that Oceanside was not entitled to foreclose, and that if it was entitled to foreclose, it was not entitled to a deficiency judgment.

The court found that there was no dispute as to any material fact and that Oceanside was entitled to foreclose on the property, but it was not entitled to a deficiency judgment against the Katchers at this stage in the litigation.

The court held that the debtor had standing to enforce the note and mortgage under Haw. Rev. Stat. § 490:3-301(ii) even though it was a non-holder, as it was in possession of the note and had the rights of a holder. The court also found that the mortgagors’ defenses to foreclosure were based entirely on debtor’s failure to develop a project as the purchase contract required, but the terms of the purchase contract provided that the mortgagors’ claims against debtor would be decided separately from debtor’s foreclosure claims. Moreover, the debtor’s claim for a deficiency judgment related to monetary damages or costs and thus, was subject to arbitration under the agreement.

June 19, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

Investors Unite for High GSE-Fees

By David Reiss

Investors Unite, a “coalition of private investors . . . committed to the preservation of shareholder rights for those invested in” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sent a letter to FHFA Director Watt pushing for higher guarantee fees (g-fees). The technical issue of how high g-fees should be set actually contains important policy implications, as I had blogged about earlier.

Tim Pagliara, the Executive Director of Investors Unite, writes,

g-fees were historically determined by the GSEs and FHFA does not have a mandate as conservator to run the GSEs as not-for-profit entities. We urge you to adhere to a set of principles that takes into account the critical purpose of setting appropriate guarantee fees while respecting the rights of all economic stakeholders, including the GSE’s shareholders. Ideally, after undoing the 2012 sweep, when setting guarantees fees, FHFA should also take into full consideration that:

1. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have profit-making purposes onto which public mandates are layered, and they should charge guarantee fees that earn an appropriate market-based return on the capital employed, whether taxpayer capital or private capital. This is an absolutely critical factor “other than expected losses, unexpected losses and G&A fees” that should be considered when determining g-fees.

2. Increasing guarantee fees will provide more cash flow with which the GSEs can build capital and be restored to “safe and solvent condition.” Maximizing returns is not only consistent with, but arguably required by, the conservatorship.

3. FHFA as conservator has legal duties to the direct economic stakeholders – including all shareholders – that must be respected alongside the interests of other parties.

4. Earning an appropriate return on capital is entirely consistent with the conservatorship and affordable housing mandates. There is no conflict here between the GSEs building capital and setting aside funds for affordable housing. Indeed, it is only when the GSEs have earned their way back to a “safe and solvent condition” that they can sustainably meet their public affordable-housing mandates. After the GSEs have adequate capital, the suspension of those mandates can be reversed, i.e. the affordable housing support can be turned back on.

5. Keeping guarantee fees low to support the housing market in general, including homeowners and homebuyers that are well off and do not need help, is not as important as charging higher guarantee fees (a) to build a capital base to protect against future credit losses, and (b) to redistribute a portion of earnings to targeted constituencies that  particularly need financial support.

6. Guarantee fee rates should be tied to sound underwriting standards. If FHFA directs the GSEs to relax underwriting standards, it is essential that guarantee fees be adjusted upwards to account for the greater credit risk assumed in doing so.

Ultimately, g-fees profits should be allowed to stay within the housing market and should be set at levels that help ensure safety and soundness of the GSEs, that protect long-term health of the housing market, and that respect the rights of all economic stakeholders-including the GSE’s shareholders. (1-2, emphasis added)

This letter goes to the heart of the g-fee debate and the GSE litigation, as far as I am concerned.  The g-fee level will determine whether Fannie and Freddie shares have any value at all. A low g-fee means no profits and no value. A high g-fee means profits and shareholder value. I agree with Pagliara that g-fees should reflect “sound underwriting.” The FHFA should therefore clearly outline the goals that the g-fee is intended to achieve. I may disagree with Pagliara as to what those goals should be, but sound underwriting is key to any vision of a sustainable housing finance market.

June 19, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

June 18, 2014

S&P Must Face The Orchestra on Rating Failure

By David Reiss

After many state Attorneys General brought suit against S&P over the objectivity of their ratings, S&P sought to consolidate the cases in federal court. Judge Furman (SDNY) has issued an Opinion and Order in In Re:  Standard & Poor’s Rating Agency Litigation, 1:13-md-02446 (June 3, 2014) that remanded the cases back to state courts because “they arise solely under state law, not federal law.” (3) Explaining the issue in a bit greater depth, the Court stated,

there is no dispute that the States’ Complaints exclusively assert state-law causes of action — for fraud, deceptive business practices, violations of state consumer-protection statutes, and the like.The crux of those claims is that S&P made false representations, in its Code of  Conduct and otherwise, and that those representations harmed the citizens of the relevant State. (20, citation omitted)

The Court notes that in “the final analysis, the States assert in these cases that S&P failed to adhere to its own promises, not that S&P violated” federal law. (28) The Court concludes that it does not reach this result “lightly:”

Putting aside the natural “tempt[ation] to find federal jurisdiction every time a multi-billion dollar case with national  implications arrives at the doorstep of a federal court,” the federal courts undoubtedly have advantages over their state counterparts when it comes to managing a set of substantial cases filed in jurisdictions throughout the country. Through the MDL process, federal cases can be consolidated for pretrial purposes or more, promoting efficiency and minimizing the risks of inconsistent rulings and unnecessary duplication of efforts. (51, citation omitted)

S&P knew that it would have to face the music regarding the allegations that its ratings were flawed. But it hoped that it could face a soloist, one federal judge. That way, it could keep its litigation costs down, engage in one set of settlement talks and get an up or down result on its liability. The remand means that S&P will face many, many judges, a veritable judicial orchestra. In addition to all of the other problems this entails, it is also almost certain that S&P will face inconsistent verdicts if these cases were to go to trial. This is a significant tactical setback for S&P. From a policy perspective though, the remand means that we should get a better understanding of the issuer-pays model of rating agencies.

June 18, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

June 17, 2014

Reiss on “Generation Rent”

By David Reiss

MSN Real Estate quoted me in ‘Generation Rent’ trend changes the housing game.

Tougher lending requirements, a transient lifestyle and seeing mortgages throw their
parents’ finances in turmoil are causing more millennials to rent instead of buy a
home.

“This attitude shift on homeownership and the rise in demand for rentals is directly influencing the growth of private firms looking to fill out real estate portfolios as well as property management groups that have scooped up business from investors who have no interest in the day-to-day of being a landlord,” said Don Lawby, president of Real Property Management in Utah.

Some 82% of consumers believe owning a home is a critical part of wealth building but 18% said they are not willing to assume the risk of a mortgage, according to a National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) survey.

“The unwillingness to take on a mortgage loan may be a smart decision for some, as many borrowers have learned the hard way that homeownership does not come with a guarantee of continually increasing equity,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson with the NFCC.

The “Generation Rent” phenomenon is not just about younger Americans. As a societal shift has slowly emerged to redefine the American Dream, many older Americans with empty nests are also exploring apartment living.

“Apartments are a maintenance-free alternative to single-family homes and retirement communities,” said Abe Tekippe, a spokesperson with Waterton Associates, a national apartment investor and operator. “They also allow residents to move closer to shopping, dining and entertainment venues, making them more accessible to aging Baby Boomers.”

For many years, homeownership was a policy objective of the federal government, which symbolized a level of achievement for a person or family but these days many are taking a closer look at whether the costs and benefits of home ownership outperforms the cost of renting.

“People are realizing that coming up with funds and motivation each month for maintenance and up-keep isn’t feasible for economic, medical, lifestyle or other
reasons,” said Dillon Baynes, co-founder and managing partner with Columbia Ventures in Atlanta.

If generation rent continues, a slow down in home sales is bound to have a ripple effect. “If renting remains a popular choice, it will certainly have an impact on the broader economy starting with the home building industry,” said David Reiss, professor with Brooklyn Law School.

“There would be a move away from single-family construction to multi-family.”

June 17, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments