Surveying Mortgage Originations, Going Forward


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As I had earlier noted, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has issued a request for comments on the National Survey of Mortgage Originations (NSMO).  The NSMO is “a recurring quarterly survey of individuals who have recently obtained a loan secured by a first mortgage on single-family residential property.” (81 F.R. 62889) I submitted my comment, written in the context of the newly-elected Trump Administration. It reads, in part,

I write to support this proposed collection, but also to raise some concerns about its efficacy.

The NSMO is very important to the health of the mortgage market.  We need only look at the Subprime Boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s to see why this is true:  subprime mortgages went from “making up a tiny portion of new mortgage originations in the early 1990s” to  “40 percent of newly originated securitized mortgages in 2006.” David Reiss, Regulation of Subprime and Predatory Lending, International Encyclopedia of Housing and Home (2010). During the Boom, subprime lenders like Countrywide changed mortgage characteristics so quickly that information about new originations became outdated within months.See generally Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Financial Crisis Inquiry Report 105 (2011) (“Countrywide was not unique: Ameriquest, New Century, Washington Mutual, and others all pursued loans as aggressively. They competed by originating types of mortgages created years before as niche products, but now transformed into riskier, mass-market versions”) Policymakers and academics did not have good access to the newest data and thus were operating, to a large extent, in the dark.  The information in the NSMO will therefore not only help regulators, but will also assist outside researchers to “more effectively monitor emerging trends in the mortgage origination process . . ..” (81 F.R. 62890)

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there is no question that this “collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of FHFA functions . . ..” (81 F.R. 62890) Given the likely changes to the federal role in the mortgage markets over the next four years, the NSMO can provide critical insight into whether homeowners feel that that market serves their needs.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Subprime Scriveners

Milan Markovic has posted Subprime Scriveners to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Although mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”) and other financial products that nearly caused the collapse of the global financial system could not have been issued without attorneys, the legal profession’s role in the financial crisis has received relatively little scrutiny.

This Article focuses on lawyers’ preparation of MBS offering documents that misrepresented the lending practices of mortgage loan originators. While attorneys may not have known that many MBS would become toxic, they lacked incentives to inquire into the shoddy lending practices of prominent originators such as Washington Mutual Bank (“WaMu”) when they and their clients were reaping considerable profits from MBS offerings.

The subprime era illustrates that attorneys are unreliable gatekeepers of the financial markets because they will not necessarily acquire sufficient information to assess the legality of the transactions they are facilitating. The Article concludes by proposing that the Securities and Exchange Commission impose heightened investigative duties on attorneys who work on public offerings of securities.

The article addresses an important aspect of an important subject – which professionals could and should be held responsible for the rampant misrepresentation found throughout the MBS industry in the early 2000s. The prevailing wisdom is that no one can be held responsible, because no one did anything that made him or her personally culpable.  Markovic argues that lawyers can and should be held responsible for the misrepresentations found in MBS offering documents.  While I buy his argument that lawyers have been unreliable gatekeepers, I am not sure that I fully agree with diagnosis of the problem.

Markovic writes,

The large financial institutions that issued MBS presumably understood the implications of incorporating questionable representations from loan originators into MBS offering documents. They also would have been able to consult with their in-house counsel about the risks of securitizing poor quality mortgages. It is not self-evident that ethical rules should compel attorneys to investigate what sophisticated clients advised by in-house counsel do not believe needs investigating. (45)

In fact, sophisticated parties often use reps and warranties to allocate risk. For instance, a provision could require that an originating lender buy back mortgages that failed to comply with reps and warranties. This is not a situation where any of the parties would expect anyone to investigate the “representations from the loan originators.”  Rather, the parties assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the originator would stand behind the representation if and when it was proved to be false. And, indeed, solvent originators have had to do so.

As I do not fully agree with Markovic’s diagnosis of the problem, that leads me to have concerns with his proposed solution as well. But the article raises important questions that we have not yet answered even though the events leading to the financial crisis are nearly a decade behind us.

What $4 Billion Does for Homeowners

Enterprise released a Policy Focus on What the JPMorgan Chase Settlement Means for Consumers: An Analysis of the $4 Billion in Consumer Relief Obligations. It opens,

On November 19, 2013, JPMorgan Chase reached a record-setting settlement deal with the federal government’s Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) Working Group for $13 billion, which included $4 billion in consumer relief for struggling homeowners and hard-hit communities.

This brief examines how the $4 billion obligation will likely flow to consumers over the next four years. According to the settlement terms, eligible activities for which JPMorgan Chase will receive credit broadly include: loan modifications; rate reduction and refinancing; low- to moderate-income/disaster area lending; and anti-blight work. (1)

Enterprise projects that JPMorgan’s $4 Billion obligation will

translate into $4.65 billion in relief for existing homeowners, with an additional $15 million going to homebuyers, and as much as $380 million in cash and REO properties allocated to reducing foreclosure-related blight. Our analysis projects that over 26,500 borrowers will receive a total of $2.6 billion in principal forgiveness, which translates into $1.5 billion in credit toward the bank’s obligation. Forbearance will be extended on 17,000 loans, and slightly more than 7,000 second liens will be fully or partially forgiven. In addition to forgiveness or forbearance, we anticipate the interest rates on approximately 26,500 loans will be reduced, resulting in a real borrower savings of $1.4 billion. (1)

We’re talking about some pretty big numbers here, so it might be useful to break them down on a per borrower basis.

  • 26,500 loans will receive interest rate reductions resulting in $1.4 billion in consumer benefit, or $52,830 per loan.
  • 26,500 borrowers will receive $2.6 billion in principal forgiveness, or $98,113 per homeowner.

The report, unfortunately, does not parse these big numbers out so well. For instance, do they reflect savings over the expected life of the loans or over the remaining term? We also do not know whether these changes, large as they are, will leave sustainable loans in their place. So, this is a report provides a useful starting point, but some very big questions about the settlement still remain to be answered.

Doing Justice with the $13B JPMorgan Settlement

I have posted a couple of items on this massive settlement (here and here).  This should be my last one. Perhaps I am ungrateful, but the Statement of Facts agreed upon by the Department of Justice and JPMorgan Chase left me with an empty feeling. Recovering $13 billion for homeowners, investors and the government is certainly a key aspect of the justice done in this case. But the law can and should have an expressive function — it should make a statement about the difference between right and wrong behavior. Unfortunately, the Statement of Facts almost completely fails as an expressive document.

It only makes it clear at one point that JPMorgan, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual did something very wrong:

employees of JPMorgan, Bear Stearns, and WaMu received information that, in certain instances, loans that did not comply with underwriting guidelines were included in the RMBS sold and marketed to investors; however, JPMorgan, Bear Stearns, and WaMu did not disclose this to securitization investors. (1)

The Statement of Facts provided a couple of facts that made clear what JPMorgan did wrong (see page 2), but I could not even parse the sections of Bear Stearns and WaMu to tell you what they did wrong. This is about as strong as it gets:

in 2008, internal WaMu reviews indicated specific instances of weaknesses in WaMu’s loan origination and underwriting practices, including, at times, non-compliance with underwriting standards; the reviews also revealed instances of borrower fraud and misrepresentations by others involved in the loan origination process with respect to the information provided for loan qualification purposes. (10)

You can’t tell from such language whether WaMu was acting intentionally, recklessly or negligently.  You can’t really tell whether this behavior was endemic, frequent, occasional or rare. You can’t tell whether it was the fault of some low-level employees or of upper management. Just about the only thing you can tell from the WaMu section (and the Bear Stearns section, for that matter) is that it was not JPMorgan’s fault:

The actions and omissions described above with respect to WaMu occurred prior to OTS’s closure of WaMu and JPMorgan’s acquisition of the identified WaMu assets and liabilities. (11)

No doubt, JPMorgan tried to control the PR and legal liability to third parties that this Statement of Facts could engender. But Justice could have held the line on the expressive aspect of the settlement just as it did with the monetary aspect. In the long run, that could turn out to be just as important.

Reiss on $13B JPMorgan Settlement in CSM

The Christian Science Monitor quoted me in JPMorgan Chase settles. Is $13 billion for role in mortgage crisis fair? The story reads in part,

The settlement does not, however, release any individuals within JPMorgan from further criminal or civil charges. The bank has agreed to cooperate fully in any investigations related to the fraud covered in the agreement.

“I think that the Department of Justice has heard the public in terms of saying, if people were criminally responsible, they should be held liable,” says David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, who has written extensively on the mortgage crisis. “Just a handful of people have faced any serious personal liability as a result of the events of the financial crisis of the 2000s.”

But some feel that the unprecedented scope and size of the penalty is unfair for the bank behemoth, which was seen as something of a financial savior when it took on the imploding assets of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual after the financial collapse. Some estimate that employees at these banks conducted up to 80 percent of the fraud found by the Justice Department. JPMorgan assumed these firms’ legal jeopardy when it took on their troubled assets.

“There’s a moral narrative about this, that it’s unfair to go after JPMorgan because they stepped in to help,” says Mr. Reiss.

A REMIC Unraveling?

An unpublished opinion, Glaski v. Bank of America, No. F064556 (7/31/13, Cal. 5th App. Dist.), presents one possible future for REMICs that failed to comply with the strict rules set for them by Congress and the IRS. Glaski, a homeowner, argues that the trial court erred by dismissing his case challenging the nonjudicial foreclosure of the deed of trust secured by his home. For my purposes, I am interested in the Court’s consideration of “whether a post-closing date transfer into a [REMIC] securitized trust is the type of defect that would render the transfer void.” (20) I am going to quote the opinion at length because the reasoning is somewhat complex:

The allegation that the WaMu Securitized Trust was formed under New York law supports the conclusion that New York law governs the operation of the trust.  New York Estates, Powers & Trusts Law section 7-2.4, provides:  “If the trust is expressed in an instrument creating the estate of the trustee, every sale, conveyance or other act of the trustee in contravention of the trust, except as authorized by this article and by any other provision of law, is void.”

Because the WaMu Securitized Trust was created by the pooling and servicing  agreement and that agreement establishes a closing date after which the trust may no longer accept loans, this statutory provision provides a legal basis for concluding that the trustee’s attempt to accept a loan after the closing date would be void as an act in contravention of the trust document.

We are aware that some courts have considered the role of New York law and rejected the post-closing date theory on the grounds that the New York statute is not interpreted literally, but treats acts in contravention of the trust instrument as merely voidable.

Despite the foregoing cases, we will join those courts that have read the New York statute literally.  We recognize that a literal reading and application of the statute may not always be appropriate because, in some contexts, a literal reading might defeat the statutory purpose by harming, rather than protecting, the beneficiaries of the trust.  In this case, however, we believe applying the statute to void the attempted transfer is justified because it protects the beneficiaries of the WaMu Securitized Trust from the potential adverse tax consequence of the trust losing its status as a REMIC trust under the Internal Revenue Code.  Because the literal interpretation furthers the statutory purpose, we join the position stated by a New York court approximately two months ago:  “Under New York Trust Law, every sale, conveyance or other act of the trustee in contravention of the trust is void.  EPTL § 7-2.4.  Therefore, the acceptance of the note and mortgage by the trustee after the date the trust closed, would be void.” [quoting Erobobo] Relying on Erobobo, a bankruptcy court recently concluded “that under New York law, assignment of the Saldivars’ Note after the start up day is void ab initio.  As such, none of the Saldivars’ claims will be dismissed for lack of standing.”(quoting Saldivar)

We conclude that Glaski’s factual allegations regarding post-closing date attempts to transfer his deed of trust into the WaMu Securitized Trust are sufficient to state a basis for concluding the attempted transfers were void.  As a result, Glaski has a stated cognizable claim for wrongful foreclosure under the theory that the entity invoking the power of sale (i.e., Bank of America in its capacity as trustee for the WaMu Securitized Trust) was not the holder of the Glaski deed of trust. (20-22, citations and footnotes omitted)

We are now seeing a trend that started with Erobobo and continued with Saldivar:  courts are finally addressing the REMIC attributes of the mortgage-backed securities at issue in downstream cases. I am not sure that the reasoning of those three cases will hold up on appeal, but it is interesting to see judges add another level of understanding to foreclosures in the age of of the mortgage-backed security.

[Hat tip April Charney]

UPDATE:  I just heard (August 8, 2013) from Richard L. Antognini, Glaski’s appellate lawyer, that the court has decided to publish this opinion. As he notes, “It now can be cited to other California and federal courts, and it is binding authority, until another court of appeal disagrees or the California Supreme Court decides to review it.”