Fox in The CRA Henhouse

Law360 quoted me in Treasury’s Fair Lending Review Worries Advocates (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

President Donald Trump’s Treasury Department said Monday that revisiting a 1977 law aimed at boosting bank lending and branches in poor neighborhoods was a “high priority,” but backers of the Community Reinvestment Act fear that any move by this administration would be aimed at weakening, not modernizing, the law.

Critics and some backers of the Community Reinvestment Act say that the law does not take into account mobile banking and the decline of branch networks among a host of other updates needed to meet the realities of banking in 2017.

While there is some agreement on policy, the politics of reworking the CRA are always difficult. Those politics will be even more difficult with the Trump administration and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who ran into problems with the CRA when he was the chairman of OneWest Bank, leading the review, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“A team at Treasury led by the OneWest leadership should give consumer advocates pause,” he said.

*   *   *

Across the administration, from the U.S. Department of Education to the Department of Justice, civil rights enforcement has taken a back seat to other concerns. And Mnuchin is in the process of populating the Treasury Department with former colleagues from OneWest.

Trump nominated former OneWest CEO Joseph Otting to be comptroller of the currency earlier this month and is reportedly close to nominating former OneWest Vice Chairman and Chief Legal Officer Brian Brooks as deputy Treasury secretary. Brooks is currently the general counsel at Fannie Mae.

Activists who fought the CIT-OneWest merger on CRA grounds say that the placement of those former OneWest executives in positions of authority over the law should raise alarms.

“[Mnuchin’s] bank, OneWest, also had one of the worst community reinvestment records of all the banks that CRC analyzes in California, which raises questions about his motivation in ‘reforming’ the Community Reinvestment Act. Is he interested in reforming it to help communities, or to help the industry do even less?” said Paulina Gonzalez of the California Reinvestment Coalition.

The Treasury secretary has defended his bank’s foreclosure practices and others that drew fair lending advocates’ ire, saying that most of the problems at OneWest were holdovers from IndyMac, the failed subprime lender OneWest’s investors purchased after it failed.

Discussing reforms to the CRA under any administration, particularly a typical Republican administration, would be difficult on its own for lawmakers and inside regulatory agencies, Schaberg said.

“Anybody down in the middle-management tier of any of the banking agencies, they’re not going to touch this because it’s so politically charged,” he said.

The added distrust of the Trump administration and Mnuchin among fair housing advocates makes the prospect of any legislation to reshape even harder to imagine. Even without legislation, new leadership at the regulatory agencies that monitor for CRA compliance could take a lighter touch. And that has fair housing backers on edge.

“In my mind, there’s a fox-in-the-henhouse mentality,” Reiss said.

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.

The Sloppy State of the Mortgage Market

photo by Badagnani

I published a short article in the California Real Property Law Reporter, Sloppy, Sloppy, Sloppy: The State of the Mortgage Market, as part of a broader discussion of Foreclosures Following Problematic Securitizations.  The other contributors were Roger Bernhardt, who organized the discussion,  as well as Dale Whitman, Steven Bender, April Charney and Joseph Forte.  My article opens,

Much of the discussion about the recent California Supreme Court case Yvanova v New Century Mortgage Corp. (2016) 62 C4th 919  has focused on the scope of the Court’s narrow holding, “a borrower who has suffered a nonjudicial foreclosure [in California] does not lack standing to sue for wrongful foreclosure based on an allegedly void assignment merely because he or she was in default on the loan and was not a party to the challenged assignment.” 62 C4th at 924. This is an important question, no doubt, but I want to spend a little time contemplating the types of sloppy behavior at issue in the case and what consequences should result from that behavior.

Sloppy Practices All Over

The lender in Yvanova was the infamous New Century Mortgage Corporation, once the second-largest subprime lender in the nation.  New Century was so infamous that it even had a cameo role in the recently released movie, The Big Short, in which its 2007 bankruptcy filing marked the turning point in the market’s understanding of the fundamentally diseased condition of the subprime market.

New Century was infamous for its “brazen” behavior.  The Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States (Jan. 2011) (Report) labeled it so because of its aggressive origination practices.  See Report at page 186. It noted that New Century “ignored early warnings that its own loan quality was deteriorating and stripped power from two risk-control departments that had noted the evidence.” Report at p 157. And it quotes a former New Century fraud specialist as saying, “[t]he definition of a good loan changed from ‘one that pays’ to ‘one that could be sold.”  Report at p 105.

This type of brazen behavior was endemic throughout the mortgage industry during the subprime boom in the early 2000s.  As Brad Borden and I have documented, Wall Street firms flagrantly disregarded the real estate mortgage investment conduit (REMIC) rules and regulations that must be complied with to receive favorable tax treatment for a mortgage-backed security, although the IRS has let them dodge this particular bullet.  Borden & Reiss, REMIC Tax Enforcement as Financial-Market Regulator, 16 U Penn J Bus L 663 (Spring 2014).

The sloppy practices were not limited to the origination of mortgages. They were prevalent in the servicing of them as well. The National Mortgage Settlement entered into in February 2012, by 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government, on the one hand, and the country’s five largest mortgage servicers, on the other, provided for over $50 billion in relief for distressed borrowers and in payments to the government entities. While this settlement was a significant hit for the industry, industry sloppy practices were not ended by it. For information about the Settlement, see Joint State-Federal National Mortgage Servicing Settlements and the State of California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Mortgage Settlements: Homeowners.

As the subprime crisis devolved into the foreclosure crisis, we have seen those sloppy practices have persisted through the lifecycle of the subprime mortgage, with case after case revealing horrifically awful behavior on the part of lenders and servicers in foreclosure proceedings.  I have written about many of these Kafka-esque cases on REFinBlog.com.  One typical case describes how borrowers have “been through hell” in dealing with their mortgage servicer. U.S. Bank v Sawyer (2014) 95 A3d 608, 612 n5.  Another typical case found that a servicer committed the tort of outrage because its “conduct, if proven, is beyond the bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in our community.” Lucero v Cenlar, FSB (WD Wash 2014) 2014 WL 4925489, *7.  And Yvanova alleges more of the same.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Enhancing Mortgage Data and Litigation Risk

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Law360 quoted me in CFPB Data Collection Boost May Bring More Lending Cases (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has given lenders more time to prepare for its new mortgage data reporting rule and streamlined some of the information lenders will have to provide to regulators, but worries persist that the new data will be used to bring more fair-lending enforcement actions.

The federal consumer finance watchdog on Thursday released a final version of its update  to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act — a key tool that regulators for decades have used to determine which populations were receiving home loans and which were being shut out — that more than doubles the amount of information that lenders will have to provide about the mortgages they issue.

That alone will make for a major technical overhaul of lenders’ operations, an overhaul that is likely to be expensive both in purchasing and developing new technology but also in the number of hours lenders will have to spend to get up to speed. But a second concern revolves around the vast new amount of information that the CFPB will have, and how it could use that information to review lenders’ compliance with fair-lending laws, said Donald C. Lampe, a partner with Morrison & Foerster LLP.

“I don’t think the full cost has yet been established, and I think what you’re seeing here are that there are concerns that this level of granular data can be misinterpreted,” he said. “There’s enough information here from a practical standpoint to re-underwrite the loan.”

*     *      *

“My position is that collecting more data about the mortgage market is a very good thing for consumers,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. “The more data [lenders] provide, the more likely it is that academics or the feds could find patterns of discriminatory lending.”

The added litigation risks do not come solely from the CFPB. The HMDA data is released publicly each year, meaning that activist groups, state regulators and plaintiffs attorneys will be able to comb through the vastly more comprehensive information, said Warren Traiger, counsel at BuckleySandler LLP.

“This is public data, so in addition to bank examiners and the [U.S. Department of Justice utilizing the data, there’s nothing preventing state attorneys general from using it as well,” he said.

And when state regulators, private plaintiffs or other parties come along with new complaints, the expanded data set will allow them to make far more specific discrimination claims than the current HMDA data makes possible.

“There will be a number of additional fields that will be out there that will allow regulators and the public to make more specific allegations regarding discrimination in mortgage lending than the current HMDA data allows,” Traiger said.

Bank Settlements and the Arc of Justice

Ron Cogswell

MLK Memorial in DC

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A recent report by SNL Financial (available here, but requires a lot of sign-up info) offers us a chance to evaluate that claim in the context of the financial crisis.

SNL reports that the six largest bank holding companies have paid over $132 billion to settle credit crisis and mortgage-related lawsuits brought by governments, investors and other financial institutions.

In the context of the litigation over the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships, I had considered whether it is efficient to respond to financial crises by allowing the government to do what it needs to do during the crisis and then “use litigation to make an accounting to all of the stakeholders once the situation has stabilized.” (121)

Given that the biggest bank settlements are now in the rear view window, we can now say that the accounting for the financial crisis comes in at around $132 billion give or take. Does that number do justice for the wrongs of the boom times?  I don’t think I have my own answer to that question yet, but it is certainly worth considering.

On the one hand, we should acknowledge that it is a humongous number, a number so big that that no one would have considered it a likely one at the beginning of the financial crisis. This crisis made nine and ten digit settlement numbers a routine event.

On the other hand, wrongdoing (along with good old-fashioned boom mentality) during the financial crisis almost sent the global economy into a depression.  It also wreaked havoc on so many individuals, directly and indirectly.

I look forward to seeing metrics that can make sense of this (ratio of settlement amounts to annual profits of Wall Street firms; ratio to bonus pools; ratio to home equity lost), but I will say that I am struck by the lack of individual accountability that has come out of all of this litigation.

Individuals who made six, seven and eight figure paychecks from this wrongdoing were able to move on relatively unscathed.  We should think about how to avoid that result the next time around. Otherwise the arc of justice will bend in the wrong direction.

 

AG Lynch on Wall Street

Loretta_Lynch_US_Attorney

Institutional Investor quoted me in Will New Attorney General Loretta Lynch Shake up Wall Street? It opens,

Those unhappy with the lack of personal accountability for the 2008–’09 financial crisis are running out of time to see justice served: In the U.S., the statute of limitations for many bank-related criminal charges is ten years. But the recent appointment of Loretta Lynch as the first black woman to the post of attorney general could present a window of opportunity.

Given mounting public frustration over the failure to punish financial executives who helped push the world to the brink of another Great Depression, Lynch may be well positioned to act where her predecessor, Eric Holder, was unsuccessful. The U.S. Department of Justice has often talked up its efforts to hold individuals responsible for crimes they may have committed, but there hasn’t been much progress. Last year, however, saw an uptick in the size of bank settlements related to the crash, including a $16.65 billion deal with Bank of America Corp. and a $7 billion agreement with Citigroup.

Some industry observers believe Lynch, who turns 56 on Thursday, could use this momentum to target people. “If she does anything differently [than Holder did], she may push her folks to try to make those cases against individuals higher up the corporate ladder,” says Glen Kopp, former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and a New York–based partner in the white-collar practice at law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

Lynch’s critics have griped that she may be not be strict enough with Wall Street. They point to her 1980s stint with law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel, which has counted among its clients BofA, Credit Suisse Group and HSBC Holdings, and to a spell early last decade at Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), where she practiced white -collar criminal defense.

Detractors say both positions, as well as her tenure at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2003 to 2005, have compromised her ability to prosecute big banks by establishing relationships that she may not wish to jeopardize as attorney general. During Lynch’s lengthy confirmation process, Republicans criticized her for being too soft on HSBC in a 2012 settlement; the British bank agreed to pay $1.92 billion in a money-laundering case after New York and federal authorities decided that criminal charges might bring down the institution.

But many in the legal community believe the more likely outcome will be somewhere in the middle.

“The financial industry will be dealing with an extremely well-informed AG who will seek to balance the competing concerns that arise when investigating and prosecuting large enterprises like those that dominate Wall Street,” says David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School with expertise in property, mortgage lending and consumer financial services matters.