Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

CFPB Mortgage Highlights Fall ’15

Mike Licht

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released its Fall 2015 Supervisory Highlights. In the context of mortgage origination, the CFPB found that

supervised entities, in general, effectively implemented and demonstrated compliance with the rule changes, there were instances of non-compliance with certain [rules] . . .. There were also findings of violations of disclosure requirements pursuant to the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), implemented by Regulation X; the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), implemented by Regulation Z; and consumer financial privacy rules, implemented by Regulation P. (9, footnotes and sources omitted).

Specifically, it found that one or more entities failed to

  • “fully comply with the requirement that charges at settlement not exceed amounts on the good faith estimate by more than specified tolerances.” (10)
  • comply with the regulations governing HUD-1 settlement statements because of fees on the HUD-1 did match those on invoices; improper calculations on the HUD-1; and fees charged for services that were not provided, among other things.
  • provide required disclosures.
  • reimburse borrowers for understated APRs and finance charges, as required by Regulation Z.

In the context of mortgage servicing, the CFPB found that while it

continues to be concerned about the range of legal violations identified at various mortgage servicers, it also recognizes efforts made by certain servicers to develop an adequate compliance position through increased resources devoted to compliance. . . . Supervision continues to see that the inadequacies of outdated or deficient systems pose considerable compliance risk for mortgage servicers, and that improvements and investments in these systems can be essential to achieving an adequate compliance position. (15)

This is all well and good, but as I have noted before, it is hard to estimate how much of a problem exists from such a report — one or more entities did this, we are concerned about a range of legal violations of that . . .. I understand that the CFPB’s primary audience for this report are CFPB-supervised entities concerned with the CFPB’s regulatory focus, but this approach barely rises to the level of anecdote for the rest of us.

CFPB Mortgage Highlights

Richard Cordray 2010

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued its most recent Supervisory Highlights. The CFPB is “committed to transparency in its supervisory program by sharing key findings in order to help industry limit risks to consumers and comply with Federal consumer financial law.” (3)

There were a lot of interesting highlights relating to mortgage origination and servicing, including,

  • one or more instances of failure to ensure that the HUD-1 settlement statement accurately reflects the actual settlement charges paid by the borrower.
  • at least one servicer sent borrowers loss mitigation acknowledgment notices requesting documents, sometimes dozens in number, inapplicable to their circumstances and which it did not need to evaluate the borrower for loss mitigation.
  • one or more servicers failed to send any loss mitigation acknowledgment notices. At least one servicer did not send notices after a loss mitigation processing platform malfunctioned repeatedly over a significant period of time. . . . the breakdown caused delays in converting trial modifications to permanent modifications, resulting in harm to borrowers, and may have caused other harm.
  • At least one other servicer did not send loss mitigation acknowledgment notices to borrowers who had requested payment relief on their mortgage payments. One or more servicers treated certain requests as requests for short-term payment relief instead of requests for loss mitigation under Regulation X.
  • At least one servicer sent notices of intent to foreclose to borrowers already approved for a trial modification and before the trial modification’s first payment was due without verifying whether borrowers had a pending loss mitigation plan before sending its notice. As the notice could deter borrowers from carrying out trial modifications, it likely causes substantial injury . . .
  • at least one servicer sent notices warning borrowers who were current on their loans that foreclosure would be imminent. (14-18, emphasis added)

All of these highlights are interesting because they reflect the types of problems the CFPB is finding and it thus helps the industry comply with federal law. But from a public policy perspective, the CFPB’s approach is lacking. By repeating that each failure was found at “one or more” company, a reader of these Highlights cannot determine how widespread these problems are throughout the industry. And because the Highlights do not say how many borrowers were affected by each company’s failure, it is hard to say whether these problems are isolated and technical or endemic and intentional.

Future Supervisory Highlights should include more information about the number of institutions and the number of consumers who were affected by these violations.

CFPB Mortgage Supervision Highlights

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued its Supervisory Highlights for Winter 2015. The highlights include a section on Mortgage Origination and “largely focuses on Supervision’s examination findings and observations from July 2014 to December 2014.” (9)

The headings of this section give a sense of the CFPB’s work in this area:

  • Loan originators cannot receive compensation based on a term of a transaction
  • Improper use of lender credit absent changed circumstances
  • Failing to provide the Good Faith Estimate in a timely manner
  • Improperly using advertisements with triggering terms without the required additional disclosures
  • Adverse action notice deficiencies and failure to provide the notice in a timely manner
  • Deficiencies in compliance management systems

For good or for ill, these are pretty modest examination findings. They certainly don’t reveal the fire-breathing regulator that some had prophesied. I was particularly interested in the last finding:

an effective compliance management system includes board and management oversight, a compliance program, a consumer complaint management program, and a compliance audit program. The board of directors and senior management should, among other things, adopt clear policy statements concerning consumer compliance, establish a compliance function to set policies and procedures, and assign resources to the compliance function commensurate with the size and complexity of the supervised entity’s practices and operations. A compliance program should include policies and procedures, training, and monitoring and corrective action processes. A compliance audit program should assist the board of directors or board committees in determining whether policies and standards adopted by the board are being implemented, and should also identify any significant gaps in board policies and standards. (13)

Compliance management systems are intended to create a culture of compliance within an organization, from top to bottom. The CFPB found that one or more financial institutions had weak compliance management systems that would allow for numerous violations of federal regulations governing mortgage lending. It is important for the CFPB to focus on these compliance issues now, before the mortgage market really froths up and carries mortgage professionals away from appropriate underwriting and servicing.

CFPB Highlights: Leviathan Heeled

The CFPB issued its Winter 2013 Supervisory Highlights.  Here are some mortgage highlights from the Highlights:

  • CFPB examiners found that two servicers had engaged in unfair practices in connection with servicing transfers. Specifically, these servicers failed to honor existing permanent or trial loan modifications after a servicing transfer. . . . These servicers also engaged in deception in connection with this practice by communicating to borrowers that they should have made the payments required by the original note, instead of acknowledging that the borrowers were to make reduced payments set by their trial modification agreements with the prior servicer. (5-6)
  • The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) is intended to provide the public with loan data that can be used: (i) to help determine whether financial institutions are serving the housing needs of their communities, (ii) to assist public officials in distributing public-sector investment to help attract private investment to areas where it is needed, and (iii) to assist in identifying possible discriminatory lending patterns and enforcing antidiscrimination statutes, such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). The CFPB considers accurate HMDA data and effective HMDA compliance management systems to be of great importance.  . . . However, several HMDA reviews at financial institutions found error rates over the resubmission thresholds and Supervision directed the financial institutions to resubmit their HMDA data and improve their HMDA compliance systems.In October, the CFPB entered into Consent Orders with two lenders to address violations of HMDA. One entity, Mortgage Master, Inc., is a nonbank headquartered in Walpole, Massachusetts. The other entity, Washington Federal, is a bank headquartered in Seattle, Washington. (10-11, footnote omitted)

I’d have to say that the CFPB enforcement actions described in the Highlights are relatively small potatoes. One can read that in a couple of ways:

  • The industry is taking consumer financial protection far more seriously than it had before the CFPB was created; or
  • the CFPB is looking in the wrong place for regulatory noncompliance in the industry.

I think that the evidence bears out the former explanation. But I think that these highlights also demonstrate that the CFPB is not behaving like some out of control Leviathan, destroying all of the financial institutions in its grasp. Rather, it is taking very discrete actions based on documented misbehavior. Seems like a reasonable approach.