September 23, 2014

Is Freddie the “Government” When It’s In Conservatorship?

By David Reiss

Professor Dale Whitman posted a commentary on Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. v. Kelley, 2014 WL 4232687, Michigan Court of Appeals (No. 315082, rev. op., Aug. 26, 2014)  on the Dirt listserv:

This is a residential mortgage foreclosure case. The original foreclosure by CMI (CitiMortgage, apparently Freddie Mac’s servicer) was by “advertisement” – i.e., pursuant to the Michigan nonjudicial foreclosure statute. Freddie was the successful bidder at the foreclosure sale. In a subsequent action to evict the borrowers, they raised two defenses.

Their first defense was based on the argument that, even though Freddie Mac was concededly a nongovernmental entity prior to it’s being placed into conservatorship in 2008 (see American Bankers Mortgage Corp v. Fed Home Loan Mortgage Corp, 75 F3d 1401, 1406–1409 (9th Cir. 1996)), it had become a federal agency by virtue of the conservatorship with FHFA as conservator. As such, it was required to comply with Due Process in foreclosing, and the borrowers argued that the Michigan nonjudicial foreclosure procedure did not afford due process.

The court rejected this argument, as has every court that has considered it. The test for federal agency status is found in Lebron v. Nat’l Railroad Passenger Corp, 513 U.S. 374, 377; 115 S Ct 961; 130 L.Ed.2d 902 (1995), which involved Amtrak. Amtrak was found to be a governmental body, in part because the control of the government was permanent. The court noted, however, that FHFA’s control of Freddie, while open-ended and continuing, was not intended to be permanent. Hence, Freddie was not a governmental entity and was not required to conform to Due Process standards in foreclosing mortgages. This may seem overly simplistic, but that’s the way the court analyzed it.

There’s no surprise here. For other cases reaching the same result, see U.S. ex rel. Adams v. Wells Fargo Bank Nat. Ass’n, 2013 WL 6506732 (D. Nev. 2013) (in light of the GSEs’ lack of federal instrumentality status while in conservatorship, homeowners who failed to pay association dues to the GSEs could not be charged with violating the federal False Claims Act); Herron v. Fannie Mae, 857 F. Supp. 2d 87 (D.D.C. 2012) (Fannie Mae, while in conservatorship, is not a federal agency for purposes of a wrongful discharge claim); In re Kapla, 485 B.R. 136 (Bankr. E.D. Mich. 2012), aff’d, 2014 WL 346019 (E.D. Mich. 2014) (Fannie Mae, while in conservatorship, is not a “governmental actor” subject to Due Process Clause for purposes of foreclosure); May v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 2013 WL 3207511 (S.D. Tex. 2013) (same); In re Hermiz, 2013 WL 3353928 (E.D. Mich. 2013) (same, Freddie Mac).

There’s a potential issue that the court didn’t ever reach. Assume that a purely federal agency holds a mortgage, and transfers it to its servicer (a private entity) to foreclose. Does Due Process apply? The agency is still calling the shots, but the private servicer is the party whose name is on the foreclosure. Don’t you think that’s an interesting question?

The borrowers’ second defense was that Michigan statutes require a recorded chain of mortgage assignments in order to foreclose nonjudicially. See Mich. Comp. L. 600.3204(3). In this case the mortgage had been held by ABN-AMRO, which had been merged with CMI (CitiMortgage), the foreclosing entity. No assignment of the mortgage had been recorded in connection with the merger. However, the court was not impressed with this argument either. It noted that the Michigan Supreme Court in Kim v JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA, 493 Mich 98, 115-116; 825 NW2d 329 (2012), had stated

to set aside the foreclosure sale, plaintiffs must show that they were prejudiced by defendant’s failure to comply with MCL 600.3204. To demonstrate such prejudice, they must show they would have been in a better position to preserve their interest in the property absent defendant’s noncompliance with the statute.

The court found that the borrowers were not prejudiced by the failure to record an assignment in connection with the corporate merger, and hence could not set the sale aside.

But this holding raises an interesting issue: When is failure to record a mortgage assignment ever prejudicial to the borrower? One can conceive of such a case, but it’s pretty improbable. Suppose the borrowers want to seek a loan modification, and to do so, check the public records in Michigan to find out to whom their loan has been assigned. However, no assignment is recorded, and when they check with the originating lender, they are stonewalled. Are they prejudiced?

Well, not if it’s a MERS loan, since they can quickly find out who holds the loan by querying the MERS web site. (True, the MERS records might possibly be wrong, but they’re correct in the vast majority of cases.) And then there’s the fact that federal law requires written, mailed notification to the borrowers of both any change in servicing and any sale of the loan itself. If they received these notices (which are mandatory), there’s no prejudice to them in not being able to find the same information in the county real estate records.

So one can postulate a case in which failure to record an assignment is prejudicial to the borrowers, but it’s extremely improbable. The truth is that checking the public records is a terrible way to find out who holds your loan. Moreover, Michigan requires recording of assignments only for a nonjudicial foreclosure; a person with the right to enforce the promissory note can foreclose the mortgage judicially whether there’s a chain of assignments or not.

All in all, the statutory requirement to record a chain of assignments is pretty meaningless to everybody involved – a fact that the Michigan courts recognize implicitly by their requirement that the borrower show prejudice in order to set a foreclosure sale aside on this ground.

September 23, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 22, 2014

Lending to Keep Housing Affordable

By David Reiss

New York State Comptroller DiNapoli issued a critical audit of a loan program of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. HPD disagreed with many of the audits key findings. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I am more interested in the Article 8A loan program itself. The program derives its name from its enabling statute, Article 8A of the New York State Private Housing Finance Law.

According to the audit, the program is intended

to improve living conditions and to preserve safe and affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households. The Program attempts to achieve this goal by providing low interest rate loans, of up to $35,000 per unit, to owners of rent-regulated, multiple dwelling buildings in New York City (City). The loans are to be used to correct substandard or unsanitary conditions, to replace and rehabilitate building systems (i.e., heating, plumbing, and electrical work), or for other necessary improvements. (4)

To become eligible for this program, building owners “applying for Article 8-A loans must submit an application demonstrating that the physical condition of the property in question, and the owner’s property-related finances, warrant Program funding; and the applicant was unable to obtain a loan from at least two traditional lenders.” (5)

This is an interesting program design because it makes low-cost City funds available to owners who are already required to provide affordable housing pursuant to applicable rent regulation statutes. Given that many other owners of rent regulated buildings are able to operate their buildings without subsidized loans, one wonders why the relatively small number of buildings in this program should receive special treatment.

Legitimate policy rationales could include (i) preventing rent-regulated units from being left vacant due to their poor condition or (ii) preventing units from exiting rent regulation because they are eligible for the “substantial rehabilitation” exception to further rent restrictions. But better than assuming that a particular subsidized loan was made consistent with a legitimate policy rationale, would be for the City to make a specific finding of what it was getting in return for this subsidy. If subsidized loans were just going to (i) owners who had made bad choices in the past that led them to be rejected by private lenders or (ii) to owners in the “know” about this program, that would be a poor use of public funds.

September 22, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 19, 2014

Performance-Based Consumer Law

By David Reiss

Lauren Willis has posted Performance-Based Consumer Law to SSRN. This article

makes the case for recognizing performance-based regulation as a distinct tool in the consumer-law regulatory toolbox and for employing this tool broadly. Performance-based consumer law has the potential to incentivize firms to educate rather than obfuscate, develop simple and intuitive product designs that align with rather than defy consumer expectations, and channel consumers to products that are suitable for the consumers’ circumstances. Moreover, the process of establishing performance standards would sharpen our understanding of our goals for consumer law, and the process of testing for compliance with those standards would produce data about how to meet those goals in a continually evolving marketplace. Even if performance-based regulation does not directly lead to dramatic gains in consumer comprehension or marked declines in unsuitable uses of consumer products, the process of establishing and implementing such regulation promises dividends for improving traditional forms of regulation. (1)
This seems like a pretty radical change from our current approaches to the regulation of consumer financial transactions. Willis argues that disclosure does not work (no argument there) and industry can easily circumvent bright line rules (no argument there). She claims that a suitability regime, like ones that exist in the brokerage industry, offer a superior alternatives.  She writes,
Suitability standards would be closer to traditional substantive regulation, but more flexible. Regulation might define suitable (or unsuitable) uses of types or features of products, or firms might define suitable uses of their products, provided that they did so publicly. Although suitability might be required of every transaction, testing every transaction for suitably would often be prohibitively expensive and ad hoc ex post enforcement would create only limited incentives for firm compliance. Better to set performance benchmarks for what proportion of the firm’s customers must use the products or features suitably (or not unsuitably) and use field-based testing of a sample of the firm’s customers to assess whether the benchmarks are met. Enforcement levers could include, e.g., fines, rewards, licensing consequences, regulator scrutiny, or unfair, deceptive, or abusive conduct liability. (4)
This is certainly intriguing. But just as certainly, one can see the consumer finance industry raising concerns about a lack of clear rules to guide their actions and the after-the-fact evaluations that this approach would subject them to. Willis is too quick to reject such concerns, but they are legitimate ones that would need to be addressed if performance-based consumer law was to be widely adopted. Nonetheless, this is an intriguing paper and its implications should be further explored.

September 19, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 18, 2014

Frannie Reps and Warranties Crisis Brewing

By David Reiss

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency released an audit, FHFA’s Representation and Warranty Framework. Reps and warranties are a risk-shifting device that sophisticated commercial parties use in transactions. If a party makes a representation or warranty that turns out to be false, they other party may have some remedy — maybe the ability to return something or to get some kind of payment to make up for the failure to live up to the promise.

For instance, a lender may sell a bunch of mortgages to a securitizer and represent that all of the borrowers have FICO (credit) scores of 620 or higher. If it turns out that some of the borrowers had scores of less than 620, the securitizer may be able to make the lender buy back those mortgages pursuant to a rep and warranty clause. The IG undertook this audit because of recent changes to the reps and warranties framework for Fannie and Freddie. Before these changes were implemented,

the Enterprises’ risk management model primarily relied on reviewing loans for underwriting deficiencies after they defaulted as the representations and warranties were effective for the life of the loans. In contrast, the new framework transfers responsibility to the Enterprises to review loans upfront for eligible representation and warranty deficiencies that may trigger repurchase requests. If the Enterprises fail to do so within the applicable period, their ability to pursue a repurchase request expires if it is based upon a representation and warranty that qualifies for repurchase relief. (2)

The IG’s findings are disturbing. It “found that FHFA mandated a new framework despite significant unresolved operational risks to the Enterprises.” (3) It also found that

FHFA mandated a 36-month sunset period for representation and warranty relief without validating the Enterprises’ analysis or performing sufficient additional analysis to determine whether financial risks were appropriately balanced between the Enterprises and sellers. Freddie Mac, in contrast to Fannie Mae which provided analysis limited to a 36-month period, provided FHFA with the results of an internal analysis of loans that indicated loans with a 48-month clean payment history were significantly less likely to exhibit repurchaseable defects than loans with a 36-month clean payment history. Thus, losses to the Enterprise could be less with a longer sunset period. Therefore, FHFA cannot support that the sunset period selected does not unduly benefit sellers at the Enterprises’ expense. (3)

This is all very technical stuff, obviously. But it is of great significance. Basically, the IG is warning that the FHFA has not properly evaluated the credit risk posed by changes to the agreements that Fannie and Freddie enter into with the lenders who convey mortgages to them. It also implies that this new framework “unduly” benefits the lenders.

The FHFA’s response is unsettling — it effectively rejects the IG’s concern without providing a reasoned basis for doing so. Its express rationale for doing so is to avoid “adverse market effects” and because addressing the IG’s concern “may not align with the FHFA objective of increased lending to consumes . . ..” (32)

Whenever federal regulators place increased lending as a priority over safety and soundness, warning bells should start ringing. Crises at Fannie and Freddie (and the FHA, for that matter) begin with this kind of thinking. Increased lending may be important today, but it should not be done at the expense of safety and soundness tomorrow. We are too close to our last housing finance crisis to forget that lesson.

September 18, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 17, 2014

Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Works

By David Reiss

The Urban Institute published a study, National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Program Evaluation Final Report, Rounds 3 Through 5, that it prepared for NeighborWorks® America. The executive summary notes that

The National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling (NFMC) program is a special federal appropriation, administered by NeighborWorks® America (NeighborWorks), designed to support a rapid expansion of foreclosure intervention counseling in response to the nationwide foreclosure crisis. The NFMC program seeks to help homeowners facing foreclosure by providing them with much-needed foreclosure prevention and loss mitigation counseling. The objective of the counseling services provided to clients is to determine the most appropriate solution, given a client’s circumstances and aid them in obtaining this solution. NeighborWorks distributes funds to competitively selected Grantee organizations, which in turn provide counseling, either directly or through Subgrantee organizations. (v)

The Urban Institute found that households counseled through NFMC were nearly 3 times more likely to have received a loan modification than non-counseled households. The authors estimate that “nearly two-thirds of the 151,000 loan modifications that NFMC clients received after entry into counseling would not have happened at all without the assistance of their counselor.” (vii)

On the one hand, these are very significant results and seem to validate this approach to foreclosure mitigation counseling. On the other hand, there is a lot of literature that calls into question the efficacy of various forms of financial counseling. It is important that this study be peer reviewed to ensure that its methods and conclusions are valid. If it holds up, it is equally important that we determine why this approach is so much more effective than many others.

September 17, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 16, 2014

Gimme More Mortgage Data!

By David Reiss

People are always talking about the value of data about web browsing habits. They don’t talk nearly enough about the value of data about mortgage shopping habits. Regulators and researchers do not know nearly enough about how borrowers and lenders interact in the mortgage business — and the stakes are high, given that a home is often the biggest investment that a household ever makes. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is seeking to make some modest improvements to the federal government’s existing data collection pursuant to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) through a proposed rule.

Under this proposed rule,

financial institutions generally would be required to report all closed-end loans, open-end lines of credit, and reverse mortgages secured by dwellings. Unsecured home improvement loans would no longer be reported. Thus, financial institutions would no longer be required to ascertain an applicant’s intended purpose for a dwelling-secured loan to determine if the loan is required to be reported under Regulation C, though they would still itemize dwelling-secured loans by different purpose when reporting. Certain types of loans would continue to be excluded from Regulation C requirements, including loans on unimproved land and temporary financing. Reverse mortgages and open-end lines of credit would be identified as such to allow for differentiation from other loan types. Further, many of the data points would be modified to take account of the characteristics of, and to clarify reporting requirements for,different types of loans. The Bureau believes these proposals will yield more consistent and useful data and better align Regulation C with the current housing finance market. (79 F.R. 51733)
This seems like a reasonable proposal. It increases the amount of information that is to be collected about important consumer products such as reverse 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.
There is more to the proposed rule than this, so take a look at it and consider commenting on it. Comments are due by October 29, 2014.

September 16, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 15, 2014

Housing Goals and Housing Finance Reform

By David Reiss

The Federal Housing Finance Agency issued a proposed rule that would establish housing goals for Fannie and Freddie for the next three years. The Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992 required that Fannie and Freddie’s regulator set annual housing goals to ensure that a certain proportion of the companies’ mortgage purchases serve low-income households and underserved areas. Among other things, the proposed rule would “establish a new housing subgoal for small multifamily properties affordable to low-income families,” a subject that happens to be near and dear to my heart.(54482)

This “duty to serve” is very controversial, at the heart of the debate over housing finance reform. Many Democrats oppose housing finance reform without it and many Republicans oppose reform with it. Indeed, it was one of the issues that stopped the Johnson-Crapo reform bill dead in its tracks.

While this proposed rule is not momentous by any stretch of the imagination, it is worth noting that the FHFA, for all intents and purposes, seems to be the only party in the Capital that is moving housing finance reform forward in any way.

Once again, we should note that doing nothing is not the same as leaving everything the same. As Congress fails to strike an agreement on reform and Fannie and Freddie continue to limp along in their conservatorships, regulators and market participants will, by default, be designing the housing finance system of the 21st century. That is not how it should be done.

Comments are due by October 28, 2014.

September 15, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments