Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

How To Buy A Foreclosed Home

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in  How to Buy a Foreclosed Home. It opens,

As home prices soar in many cities, buyers might look to foreclosures as an affordable option for landing their dream home. Typically, a foreclosure occurs when a homeowner no longer can make the mortgage payments and the lender seizes the property. The lender then requires the former owner to vacate the property before offering it for sale, usually at a discounted price. In some cases, the home is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Foreclosures offer home shoppers the potential to score a great deal, says Elizabeth Mendenhall, a Realtor in Columbia, Missouri, who is president of the National Association of Realtors.

“Sometimes people think a foreclosure only happens to the lower end of the market, but you can definitely find foreclosures at any price range,” she says.

But while buying a foreclosure can save you a lot of cash, it does come with risks. If you pursue a foreclosure, it helps to have a “stomach of steel,” says David Reiss, law professor and academic programs director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
“There’s going to be a lot more ups and downs” than in a typical homebuying process, says Reiss, whose work focuses on real estate finance and community development.

Why Buy a Foreclosure?

In recent years, foreclosure sales have been trending downward, according to national property data curating company Attom Data Solutions. That is largely because a strengthening U.S. economy has reduced the number of borrowers who lose their homes as a result of failing to pay the mortgage. In 2017, distressed home sales – including foreclosures and short sales – made up 14 percent of all U.S. single family home and condo sales, according to Attom Data Solutions. That number was down from 15.5 percent in 2016 and a recent high of 38.6 percent in 2011.

Still, some buyers look to foreclosures to get the best possible deal. Homes may be for sale in various states of foreclosure. For example, pre-foreclosure is a period when the owner has fallen behind on payments, but the lender has not actually taken the home from the owner. Homes sold at this point often go through the short sale process, where the lender agrees to accept an amount of money from the buyer that is less than what the current owner owes on the mortgage.

Properties that are already in foreclosure are sold at an online or offline auction, or by a real estate agent. The biggest lure of buying a foreclosure is the potential savings you get compared with buying a similar nondistressed property.

“It can be like a 15 percent discount on your neighboring houses,” Reiss says. “So, it can be significant.”

But Mendenhall says how much you will save depends on the local real estate market and the stage of foreclosure of the property.

The Risks of Buying a Foreclosure

Purchasing a foreclosure involves several substantial risks, so buyers must enter the process with their eyes wide open. In many cases, if you buy a foreclosure at auction, you must purchase the property sight unseen. Reiss says this is the biggest potential danger of buying a foreclosure.

“The big, scary thing is that with a number of foreclosures, you can’t actually inspect the property before you actually bid,” he says. “That’s in part why the prices are below the market.”

Even if you can get a professional inspection on a foreclosure, you typically have to buy the house “as is.” Once you purchase the home, any problems that pop up are yours – as is the responsibility for finding and paying for a remedy. Such problems are more likely in a foreclosure than in a nondistressed property. For example, in some cases, a frustrated family might strip the home of valuable elements before vacating the house.

“Or they kind of just beat it up because they were angry about having to go through the foreclosure,” Reiss says.

The mere fact that the home is vacant also can lead to problems. Reiss says a home is like a plant – if you don’t tend to it regularly, it can wither and die. “If you happen to leave it alone on its own for too long, water leaks in, pipes can burst, rodents can get in, just the elements can do damage,” he says.

Mendenhall adds that people who lose their homes to foreclosure typically have major financial troubles. That can trigger other troubles for the new owner. “If the previous owner was in financial distress, there’s a chance that there’s more maintenance and work maybe that they haven’t completed,” she says.

Reducing the Dangers of Buying a Foreclosure

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risks associated with buying a foreclosure. For starters, see if you can get a professional inspection of the property. Although buyers often cannot inspect a foreclosure property, that is not always the case. So, be sure to ask a real estate agent or the seller about hiring a home inspector.

“Even though it may extend the process, if you can have a qualified inspector come in, you can know a little bit more about what you’re getting into,” Mendenhall says.

If you can’t inspect the property, Reiss recommends researching its history. Look at publicly available records to find out when the property was last sold and how long the current owner had possession. Also, check whether building permits were drawn and what type of work was done. “Maybe you’ll see some good news, like a boiler was replaced two years ago,” Reiss says. “Or maybe you’ll see some scary news, like there’s all these permits and you don’t know if the work was completed.”

Also, visit the house and perform a “curbside inspection” of your own, Reiss says. “Even if you can’t go inside the house, you want to look at the property,” he says. “If you can peek in the windows, you probably want to peek in the windows.”

Knock on the doors of nearby neighbors. Tell them you want to bid on the property but need to learn all that you can about the previous owners, including how long they lived in the home and whether they took care of it. And ask if there have been any signs of squatters or recent break-ins.

“Try to get all that information,” Reiss says. “Neighbors are probably going to have a good sense of a lot of that, and I think that kind of informal due diligence can be helpful.”

Working with a real estate agent experienced in selling distressed property may help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of buying foreclosures, Mendenhall says. Some agents have earned the National Association of Realtors’ Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource Certification, or SFR. Such Realtors can help guide you through processes unique to purchasing distressed properties, Mendenhall says.

How to Find a Foreclosure

You can find foreclosures by searching the listings at bank websites, including those of giants such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The government-sponsored companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also have listings on their websites.

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development owns and sells foreclosed homes. You can find listings on the website.

Private companies such as RealtyTrac offer foreclosure listings online, typically for a fee. Finally, you can contact a real estate agent who will find foreclosures for you. These agents may help you find foreclosures before others snatch them up.

Is a Foreclosure Right for You?

Before you pursue a foreclosure, Reiss encourages you to ask yourself whether you are in a good position to take on the risk – and, hopefully, to reap the reward – of buying a foreclosure. It is possible to use conventional financing, or even a loan from the Federal Housing Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs, to buy a foreclosure. However, people with deeper pockets are often better candidates for buying a foreclosure.

Because the process can be highly competitive, buyers with access to large amounts of cash can swoop in and land the best deals. “You can get financing, but you need to get it quickly,” Reiss says. “I think a lot of people who go into purchasing foreclosure(s) want to have the cash to just kind of act.”

Sellers of distressed properties love cash-only buyers, because the home can be sold without a lender requiring either a home appraisal or a home inspection. “So, the more cash you have on hand, the more likely you’re playing in those sandboxes,” Reiss says.

In addition, buyers of foreclosures often need to spend money to bring a property up to code or to make it competitive with other homes in the neighborhood. “Have a big cushion in case the building is in much worse condition than you expected,” Reiss says.

He cites the example of someone who buys a foreclosure, only to discover that the piping has been stripped out of the basement and will cost $10,000 to repair and replace. “You need to know that you can handle that one way or the other,” Reiss says.

People with solid home maintenance and repair skills also are good candidates for buying a foreclosure. “I think if you’re a handy person, you might be able to address a lot of the issues yourself,” Reiss says. He describes such buyers as anyone who has “a can-do attitude and is looking to trade sweat equity for home equity.”

Reiss and Mendenhall agree that flexibility is crucial to successfully shopping for and purchasing a foreclosure. Mendenhall notes that a foreclosure sale can take a long time to complete. “It can be a long process, or a frustrating one,” she says. “It can depend upon where they are in the foreclosure process. It can take a much longer time to go from contract to close.”

For that reason, a foreclosure might not make sense for buyers who need to move into a property quickly, she says. Also, think hard about how you really feel about buying a house that needs extensive renovation work that might take a long time to complete.

“It can be hard for some people to live in a property and do repairs at the same time,” Mendenhall says.

Running The CFPB out of Town

photo by Gabriel Villena Fernández

My latest column for The Hill is America’s Consumer Financial Sheriff and The Horse it Rides Are under Fire. It reads,

Notwithstanding its name, the Financial Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs Act, or Financial Choice Act, will be terrible for consumers. It will gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and return us to the Wild West days of the early 2000s where predatory lenders could prey on the elderly and the uneducated, knowing that there was no sheriff in town to stop ‘em.

The subprime boom of the early 2000s has receded in memory the past 15 years, but a recent Supreme Court decision reminds us of what that kind of predatory behavior could look like. In Bank of America Corp. v. Miami this year, the court ruled that a municipality could sue financial institutions for violations of the Fair Housing Act arising from predatory lending.

Miami alleged that the banks’ predatory lending led to a disproportionate increase in foreclosures and vacancies which decreased property tax revenues and increased the demand for municipal services. Miami alleged that those “‘predatory’ practices included, among others, excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser low-rate loans that overstated refinancing opportunities, large prepayment penalties, and — when default loomed — unjustified refusals to refinance or modify the loans.”

The Dodd-Frank Act was intended to address just those types of abusive practices. Dodd-Frank barred many of them from much of the mortgage market through its qualified mortgage and ability-to-repay rules. More importantly, Dodd-Frank created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB was designed to be an independent regulator with broad authority to police financial institutions that engaged in all sorts of consumer credit transactions. The CFPB was the new sheriff in town. And like Wyatt Earp, it has been very effective at driving the bad guys out of Dodge.

The Financial Choice Act would bring the abusive practices of the subprime boom back to life. The act would gut the CFPB. Among other things, it would make the Director removable at will, unlike other financial institution regulators. It would take away the CFPB’s supervisory function of large banks, credit unions and other consumer finance institutions. It would take away the CFPB’s power to address unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices. It would restrict the CFPB from monitoring the mortgage market and thereby responding to rapidly developing abusive practices.

The impacts on consumers will be immediate and harmful. The bad guys will know that the sheriff has been undercut by its masters, its guns loaded with blanks. The bad guys will re-enter the credit market with the sorts of products that brought about the subprime crisis: teaser rates that quickly morph into unaffordable payments, high costs and fees packed into credit products, and all sorts of terms that will result in exorbitant and unsustainable credit.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is the chief proponent of the Financial Choice Act. Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank and the CFPB place massive burdens on consumer credit providers. That is not the case. Interest rates remain near all-time lows. Consumer credit markets have many providers. Credit availability has eased up significantly since the financial crisis

One only needs to look at his top donors to see how the Financial Choice Act lines up with the interests of those consumer credit companies that are paying for his re-election campaign. These top donors include people affiliated to Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One Financial, Discover Financial Services, and the American Bankers Association, among many others.

Dodd-Frank implemented regulations that work very well in the consumer credit markets. It created a regulator, the CFPB, that has been very effective at keeping the bad guys out of those markets. The Financial Choice Act will seriously weaken the CFPB. When vulnerable consumers cry out for help, Hensarling would heave the CFPB over its saddle and let its horse slowly trot it out of town.

Banks v. Cities

The Supreme Court issued a decision in Bank of America Corp. v. Miami, 581 U.S. __ (2017). The decision was a mixed result for the parties.  On the one hand, the Court ruled that a municipality could sue financial institutions for violations of the Fair Housing Act arising from predatory lending. Miami alleged that the banks’ predatory lending led to a disproportionate increase in foreclosures and vacancies which decreased property tax revenues and increased the demand for municipal services. On the other hand, the Court held that Miami had not shown that the banks’ actions were directly related to injuries asserted by Miami. As a result, the Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether that in fact was the case. This case could have big consequences for how lenders and others and other big players in the housing industry develop their business plans.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the banks’ activities of the banks that Miami alleged they engaged in during the early 2000s. It is important to remember the kinds of problems that communities faced before the financial crisis and before the Dodd-Frank Act authorized the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As President Trump and Chairman Hensarling (R-TX) of the House Financial Services Committee continue their assault on consumer protection regulation, we should understand the Wild West environment that preceded our current regulatory environment. Miami’s complaints charge that

the Banks discriminatorily imposed more onerous, and indeed “predatory,” conditions on loans made to minority borrowers than to similarly situated nonminority borrowers. Those “predatory” practices included, among others, excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser low-rate loans that overstated refinancing opportunities, large prepayment penalties, and—when default loomed—unjustified refusals to refinance or modify the loans. Due to the discriminatory nature of the Banks’ practices, default and foreclosure rates among minority borrowers were higher than among otherwise similar white borrowers and were concentrated in minority neighborhoods. Higher foreclosure rates lowered property values and diminished property-tax revenue. Higher foreclosure rates—especially when accompanied by vacancies—also increased demand for municipal services, such as police, fire, and building and code enforcement services, all needed “to remedy blight and unsafe and dangerous conditions” that the foreclosures and vacancies generate. The complaints describe statistical analyses that trace the City’s financial losses to the Banks’ discriminatory practices. (3-4, citations omitted)

Excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser interest rates and large prepayment penalties were all hallmarks of the subprime mortgage market in the early 2000s. The Supreme Court has ruled that such activities may arise to violations of the Fair Housing Act when they are targeted at minority communities.

Dodd-Frank has barred many such loan terms from a large swath of the mortgage market through its Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules. Trump and Hensarling want to bring those loan terms back to the mortgage market in the name of lifting regulatory burdens from financial institutions.

What’s worse, the  burden of regulation on the banks or the burden of predatory lending on the borrowers? I’d go with the latter.

Consumer Protection, Going Forward

photo by Lawrence Jackson

Warren, Obama and Cordray

The New York Times quoted me in Consumer Protection Bureau Chief Braces for a Reckoning. It opens,

Mild-mannered, lawyerly and with a genius for trivia, Richard Cordray is not the sort of guy you picture at the center of Washington’s bitter partisan wars over regulation and consumer safeguards.

But there he is, a 57-year-old Buckeye who friends say prefers his hometown diner to a fancy political reception, testifying in hearing after hearing on Capitol Hill about the agency he leads, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Republicans would like to do away with it — and with him, arguing that the agency should be led by a commission rather than one person.

And with a Republican sweep of Congress and the White House, they may get some or all of what they wish.

Mr. Cordray, a reluctant Washingtonian who has commuted here for six years from Grove City, Ohio, where his wife and twin children live, is the first director of the consumer watchdog agency, which was created in 2010 after Wall Street’s meltdown. By aggressively deploying his small army of workers — he has 1,600 of them — Mr. Cordray has turned the fledgling agency into one of Washington’s most powerful and pugnacious regulators.

The bureau has overhauled mortgage lending rules, reined in abusive debt collectors, prosecuted hundreds of companies and extracted nearly $12 billion from businesses in the form of canceled debts and consumer refunds. In September, it exposed the extent of Wells Fargo’s creation of two million fraudulent customer accounts, igniting a scandal that provoked widespread outrage and toppled the company’s chief executive.

And, according to Mr. Cordray, he and his team have barely scratched the surface of combating consumer abuse.

“We overcame momentous challenges — just building an agency from scratch, let alone one that deals with such a large sector of the economy,” Mr. Cordray said in an interview at his agency’s office here. “I’m satisfied with the progress we have made, but I’m not satisfied in the sense that there’s a lot more progress to be made. There’s still a lot to be done.”

But his future and the agency’s are uncertain. Democrats in Ohio are encouraging Mr. Cordray to run for governor in 2018, which would require him to quit his job in Washington fairly soon, rather than when his term ends in mid-2018. Champions of the agency are imploring him to stay, arguing that if he leaves, the agency is likely to be defanged, its powers to help consumers sapped.

Opponents of the bureau just won a big legal victory: The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said last month that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was unconstitutional, and that the president should have the power to fire its director at will.

The agency is challenging the decision — which was made in a lawsuit brought by the mortgage lender PHH Corporation that contests the consumer bureau’s authority to fine it — and that has temporarily stopped the decision from taking effect. But the ruling has kept alive questions about whether too much power is concentrated in Mr. Cordray’s job, and whether the agency should be dismantled or restructured.

Mr. Cordray, who also battled on behalf of consumers in his previous jobs as Ohio’s attorney general and, before that, its treasurer, is praised in some circles as enormously effective, wielding the bureau’s power to restructure some industries and terrify others.

The bureau has “helped save countless people across the country from abusive financial practices,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the N.A.A.C.P.’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

Even the regulator’s frequent foes — including Alan S. Kaplinsky, a partner at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia, who says the agency often overreaches — acknowledge its impact.

“I’ve been practicing law in this area for well over 40 years, and there’s nothing that compares to it,” Mr. Kaplinsky said. “Every company in the consumer financial services market has felt the effects.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has nearly replaced the Better Business Bureau as the first stop for dissatisfied customers seeking redress. It has handled more than a million complaints, many of which it has helped resolve.

*     *    *

The housing crisis dominated the bureau’s early days. When Congress created the new overseer, it also dictated its first priority: making mortgages safer. The deadline was tight. If the bureau did not introduce new rules within 18 months, a congressionally mandated set of lending guidelines would automatically take effect.

The bureau made it with one day to spare.

It banned some practices that had fueled the crisis, like home loans with low teaser rates or no documentation of the borrower’s income, and steered lenders toward “qualified” loans with a stricter set of safeguards, including checks to ensure that customers could afford to repay what they borrowed.

After much grumbling — and many dire forecasts that the new rules would limit credit and harm consumers — mortgage lenders adjusted. They made nearly 3.7 million loans last year for home purchases, the highest number since 2007, according to government data.

“It seems like the financial services industry has figured out how to adapt to this new regulatory regime,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who studied the effects of the bureau’s rule-making. “We’ve moved from the fox-in-the-henhouse market in the early 2000s, where you could get away with nearly anything, to this new model, where someone is looking over your shoulder.”

Miami Vice?

by Roberlan Borges

REFinBlog has been nominated for the second year in a row for The Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Competition in the Education Category.  Please vote here if you like what you read.

The BNA Banking Report quoted me in BofA, Wells Fargo Try to Squelch High-Risk City Bias Suits (behind a paywall). It opens,

Bank of America and Wells Fargo are hoping an Election-Day U.S. Supreme Court argument will help them sidestep allegations of biased lending practices and the massive liability that could follow (Bank of Am. Corp. v. Miami, U.S., No. 15-cv-01111, argument scheduled 11/8/16).

At issue is a 2015 federal appeals court ruling that reinstated a Fair Housing Act lawsuit by the city of Miami. The suit said Bank of America and Wells Fargo made discriminatory home loans that spurred widespread foreclosures while driving tax revenues down and city expenditures skyward.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Nov. 8, with a focus on two questions – whether Miami has the right to assert such claims, and whether it can establish the critical “causal link” by tracing its problems to actions by the banks.

The case is high on the “must-watch” list of banks and consumer advocates. The court’s decision will affect a series of separate lawsuits against Bank of America and Wells Fargo by other cities that are now on hold and awaiting a decision in this case, as well as lawsuits against JPMorgan, Citigroup, and HSBC.

“There are suits all over the country raising these issues,” said Karen McDonald Henning, associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “The potential exposure to banks could be enormous.”

The case also could clarify how the law is applied to address societal wrongs, Henning added in an assessment echoed by Mehrsa Baradaran, associate professor of law at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens, Ga.

“This could really give the Fair Housing Act some teeth to do away with problems it was meant to remedy,” she said.

Fair Housing Act

According to Miami, Bank of America and Wells Fargo violated the Fair Housing Act in two ways. The city said the banks intentionally discriminated against minority borrowers by targeting them for loans with burdensome terms.

Miami also said the banks’ practices had a disparate impact on minority borrowers that resulted in a disproportionate number of foreclosures and exploitive loans in minority neighborhoods.

Bank of America did not immediately respond to a request for comment ahead of the argument. Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda declined to comment.

Both banks have consistently defended their lending practices, citing efforts to boost community development and trying in some cases to take what Wells Fargo has called “a collaborative approach” when it comes to disputes.

But both banks say the lawsuits are off-base as a matter of law. In its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in June, Bank of America said the plaintiffs are making demands “based on a multi-step theory of causation that would have made Rube Goldberg proud.”

Risk Goes Local

Even so, if Miami’s suit is allowed to go forward, it could expose global financial institutions to liability from local governments across the nation, said Professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School in New York.

That’s new, he said. Although the federal government and state attorneys general have reached multi-billion settlements with banks in the wake of the financial crisis, local governments haven’t had much of a role in those battles, Reiss told Bloomberg BNA.

But if Miami’s suit goes ahead, mortgage lenders could face significant litigation costs and monetary judgments under new theories of liability. “These new theories are independent of the theories relied upon by the federal government and the states and could therefore expand the overall liability of financial institutions from the same underlying set of facts,” Reiss said.