Secrets of The Title Insurance Industry

The New York State Department of Financial Services has proposed two new regulations for the title insurance industry. Premiums for title insurance in New York State are set by regulators, so title insurance companies cannot compete on price. Instead, they compete on service.  “Service” has been interpreted widely to include all sorts of gifts — fancy meals, hard-to-get tickets, even vacations. The real customers of title companies are the industry’s repeat players — often lawyers and lenders who recommend the title company — and they get these goodies.  The people paying for title insurance — owners and borrowers — ultimately pay for these “marketing” costs without getting the benefit of them.

The first regulation is intended to get rid of these marketing costs (or kickbacks, if you prefer). This proposed regulation makes explicit that those costs cannot be passed on to the party ultimately paying for the title insurance. The proposed regulation reads, in part,

(a) As used in this section:

(1) Compensation means any fee, commission or thing of value.

(2) Licensee means an insurance agent, title insurance agent, insurance broker, insurance consultant, or life settlement broker.

(b) Insurance Law section 2119 authorizes a licensee to receive compensation provided that the licensee has obtained a written memorandum signed by the party to be charged, in accordance with such section.

(c) A licensee shall not charge or collect compensation without such a memorandum, nor shall any such licensee charge or receive compensation except as provided in Insurance Law section 2119.

(d) The memorandum shall include the terms and date of the agreement, and the amount of the compensation. Where compensation is permitted, to the extent practical, the licensee shall obtain the written memorandum prior to rendering the services. The licensee shall not stipulate, charge or accept any compensation if the licensee has not fully disclosed the amount or nature of the compensation or the basis for determining the amount of the compensation prior to the service being rendered. (5-6)

The second regulation is intended to ensure that title insurance affiliates function independently from each other.

While these proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, I wonder how effective they will be, given that title companies cannot compete on price. Maybe it would be better to let them do just that, as some other states do . . .

These are mighty technical proposed regulations, but they will have a big impact on consumers. Have no doubt that industry insiders will comment on these regs. Those concerned with the interests of consumers should do so as well.

The Department of Financial Services is accepting comments on these two proposed regulations through June 19th, 2017.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

  • BNY Mellon files a brief on writ for cert with the Supreme Court warning the potential for “warping” the residential mortgage-backed securities market if it overturns the Second Circuit’s decision finding that provisions of the Trust Indenture Act did not apply to the securities at issue.
  • Investors of Citibank file a class action in NY state court claiming that Citibank ignored toxic residential mortgage-backed securities causing $2.3 billion in losses.
  • Investors sue RAIT Financial Trust and its trustees alleging that the trust knew about subsidiary pocketing fees leading to a $21.5 million SEC settlement.

NYC’s 421-Abyss

Andrew_Cuomo_by_Pat_Arnow_cropped

New York City’s 421-a tax exemption has lapsed as of yesterday because of disagreements at the state level (NYS has a lot of control over NYC’s laws and policies, for those of you who don’t follow the topic closely). 421-a subsidizes a range of residential development from affordable to luxury. In the main, though, it subsidizes market-rate units.

This subsidy for residential development is heavily supported by the real estate industry. Many others think that the program provides an inefficient tax subsidy for residential development, particularly affordable housing development.

I fall into the latter camp. I would note, however, that NYC’s dysfunctional property tax system is highly inequitable because it taxes different types of housing units (single family, coop and condo, rental) so very differently.

With that in mind, let me turn to a policy brief from the Community Service Society, Why We Need to End New York City’s Most Expensive Housing Program. The reports key conclusions are,

At $1.07 billion a year, 421-a is the largest single housing expenditure that the city undertakes, larger than the city’s annual contribution of funds for Mayor de Blasio’s Housing New York plan.

The annual cost of 421-a to the city exploded during the recent housing boom as a result of market changes, not because of any intentional policy decision to increase the amount of tax incentives for housing construction.

Half of the total 421-a expenditure is devoted to Manhattan.

The 421-a tax exemption is a general investment subsidy that has been only superficially modified to contribute to affordability goals.

The 421-a tax exemption is extremely inefficient as an affordable housing program, costing the city well over a million dollars per affordable housing unit created.

The reforms made to 421-a in 2006 and 2007 have not resulted in a significant improvement of 421-a’s efficiency as an affordable housing program.

A large share of buildings that receive 421-a and include affordable housing also receive other subsidies, such as tax-exempt bond financing. Affordable units in these buildings cannot be credited entirely to the 421-a program.

The great majority of the tax revenue forgone through 421-a is subsidizing buildings that would have been developed without the tax exemption. (3-4)

The brief argues that 421-a should be allowed to expire and be replaced “with a targeted tax credit or other new incentive that is structured to provide benefits only in proportion with a building’s contribution to the affordable housing supply.” (4)

I don’t have any real disagreement with the thrust of this brief. I would just add that the fight over 421-should be expanded to include an overhaul of the City’s property tax regime. It is unclear, of course, whether Governor Cuomo and NYS legislators have the stomach for a battle so large.

Reiss on Lawsky Legacy

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Law360 quoted me in Lawsky’s Aggressive Tactics Provided Model For Regulators (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

New York Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin Lawsky’s frequent, aggressive and often creative enforcement actions generated billions of dollars for the state and put his agency at the forefront in financial services regulation, and observers expect a similar approach from Lawsky’s successor when he leaves his post next month.

Confirmed to lead the New York Department of Financial Services in May 2011, few expected the new agency, which combined the state’s banking and insurance regulators, to make much of a mark. But after collecting $3.3 billion in penalties and forcing several traders and top executives out of their positions, Lawsky’s agency has proven to be a powerful enforcer.

“His biggest legacy is simply that he stood up a brand new regulator in one of the global financial centers and made it matter almost immediately,” said Matthew L. Schwartz, a partner at Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP and a former federal prosecutor. Lawsky, who announced his departure from the agency on May 20, established a name for himself and for the Department of Financial Services when he jumped ahead of federal banking regulators and prosecutors in announcing a $340 million settlement with British bank Standard Chartered PLC over its alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran and other countries in August 2012.

That a newly formed state regulatory agency would move ahead with a stiff penalty and threaten to wield the most powerful of weapons — the pulling of Standard Chartered’s license to operate in New York state — reportedly rankled his federal counterparts

*     *      *

“He made clear that consumer protection is integral to the mission of the agency,” Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss said.

Despite Lawsky’s frequent reminders that he works for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — for whom he has also served as chief of staff — and the superintendent’s constant praise for his staff, there is fear among some reformers that the DFS won’t be the same without Lawsky at the helm.

“Lawsky proves that the character of individual regulators can make a crucial difference more than the letter of the law itself,” said Bartlett Naylor of Public Citizen.

“Ideally, he’ll inspire his successor and other regulators that honor awaits the vigilant and opprobrium will fall upon the indolent. More practically, however, the problems of regulatory capture by an enormously influential industry reliant on government favor can prove overwhelming,” Naylor added.

Others are more confident that the agency Lawsky set up will continue its work even after his move to the private sector.

In part, that’s because the penalties the DFS has wracked up have been a boon to New York’s budget.

Cuomo, the state’s former attorney general, has an interest in many of the issues Lawsky acted on, as well.

“I have every reason to expect that Cuomo would want to have a very vigorous enforcer to replace Lawsky,” Reiss said.

Facts and Myths About Rent Regulation

Polonius

Few topics are more fraught in NYC than rent regulation and stances about it are typically set by where people are financially and ideologically. It is always useful when someone tries to add some good old-fashioned facts to the debate in order to help craft good policies. That is particularly true now, given that NYC’s rent laws are supposed to expire on June 15th.

The Citizens Budget Commission has issued a report, 5 Myths About Rent Regulation in New York City. The CBC is hoping that that this report will inform the New York State legislature’s debates over the renewal of New York City’s rent laws (for those who don’t follow this carefully, NYS has jurisdiction over NYC’s rent regulation). Unfortunately, the report is ideologically skewed, which limits its usefulness for those trying to get their hands around this topic.

Here are the CBC’s five “Myths” and “Facts:”

Myth 1: A majority of tenant households in New York City are rent burdened.

Fact 1: 38 percent of tenant households in New York City are rent burdened.

Myth 2: Market-rate units in New York City are not affordable to most tenants.

Fact 2: In market-rate units, 54 percent of tenants have affordable rent.

Myth 3: A rent-regulated housing unit is an affordable unit.

Fact 3: Among tenants in rent-regulated units, 44 percent are rent-burdened.

Myth 4: Middle-income households cannot find affordable housing in New York City.

Fact 4: Outside of Manhattan, 96 percent of middle-income tenant households are not rent burdened.

Myth 5: The number of rent-regulated units is rapidly declining.

Fact 5: The number of rent-regulations is stabilizing.

The CBC claims that public officials and housing advocates are using “problematic” figures and characterizations. That is most certainly true in many cases, and par for the course for advocates. But the CBC does much the same, which should not be par for the course for a nonpartisan civic organization.

The second “Fact” is particularly laughable because CBC is doing exactly what it accuses advocates of doing — some form of rhetorical bait and switch. The second “Myth” is about tenants overall, while the second “Fact” is just about tenants who are currently in market-rate apartments. This is an apples to oranges comparison. Once you see the bait and switch, you see that CBC’s figures actually support the truth of this supposed second “Myth.” There are more problems contained in this document, but I leave it to you to find them for yourself.

I have no problem with CBC trying to make the debate over rent regulation more fact-based. But CBC should follow the wise advice of Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Picture: "Polonius" by http://www.oregonlink.com/elsinore/poveyglass/polonius.html.

En-Titled Insurance

Benjamin M. Lawsky, the New York State Superintendent of Financial Services, has promulgated a proposed regulation regarding title insurance that is sure to shake up the title industry and, more importantly, reduce closing costs for NY homeowners.

The proposed regulation opens with a statement of its scope and purpose:

(a) The purpose of this Part is to promote the public welfare by proscribing practices that are not in accordance with Insurance Law section 2303, which provides that insurance rates shall not be excessive, inadequate, or unfairly discriminatory. This Part also interprets and implements Insurance Law section 6409(d), which prohibits giving any consideration or valuable thing as an inducement for title insurance business, as well as Insurance Law section 6409(e), which states that title insurance premiums shall reflect the anti-inducement prohibition of Insurance Law section 6409(d).

(b) This Part further protects consumers, pursuant to the authority of Insurance Law sections 2110 and 2119 and Article 24 and Financial Services Law sections 301 and 302, by ensuring that the title insurance industry provides valuable products and services to consumers at reasonable rates and fees and does not overcharge consumers or charge improper and excessive fees that constitute engaging in untrustworthy behavior and unfair and deceptive acts and practices. (Section 227.0 )

New York has long had some of the most expensive title insurance premiums in the country, so homeowners and other owners of real estate should welcome this development. Title insurance agents are not allowed to compete on price in NY, so they compete for business from real estate lawyers (who typically select the title insurance agent for any given transaction) by offering them all sorts of perks such as hard-to-get tickets to events and fancy meals. The proposed regulation attempts to rein in this behavior.

The NYS Department of Financial Services will be accepting comments for 45 days after the proposed regulation is published in the State Register, so get crackin’.

Tenants in Foreclosure

Judge Demarest issued a Decision and Order in 650 Brooklyn LLC v. Hunte et al. (No. 504623/2013 Feb. 5, 2015). The defendants moved for dismissal because the foreclosing plaintiff failed to comply with a relatively new NY statute that requires that the “foreclosing party in a mortgage foreclosure action, involving residential real property shall provide notice to: (a) any mortgagor if the action relates to an owner-occupied one-to-four family dwelling; and (b) any tenant of a dwelling unit in accordance with the provisions of this section . . ..” (12, citing NY RPAPL section 1303(1))

The Court dismissed defendants’ motion, relying on the plain language of the statute. The Court also noted that the purpose of the RPAPL notice provision, according to the 2009 Sponsor’s Memorandum, was to “establish protections for tenants residing in foreclosed properties” and noting that

20% of all foreclosure filings across the country were in non-owner occupied properties . . . Often, renters have been unaware that their landlords are in default until utilities are shut off or an eviction notice appears on their door . . . This [notice] provision will allow tenants to be fully aware of the status of the property and allow them to make informed decisions about whether they should remain in such property. (15)

Given the straightforward language of the statute, this seems like the right result as a matter of law. It also seems like the right result as a matter of policy. Certain dense jurisdictions, like NYC, have a lot of of tenants living in 2-4 family buildings. Many of these buildings are in areas that have been hard hit by the foreclosure epidemic. Indeed, according to the State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods in 2013, “most of the foreclosure filings in 2013 and other recent years have been on 2–4 family properties.” (3) Many foreclosures have unnecessary collateral damage and improving notice to affected parties like tenants seems like a small and reasonable step for any jurisdiction to take.