Late-Fee profits may trump plan to modify loans

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investorzzo
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Late-Fee profits may trump plan to modify loans

“It frustrates me when I see the government looking to the servicer for the solution, because it will never ever happen,” said Margery Golant, a Florida lawyer who defends homeowners against foreclosure and who worked in the law department of a major mortgage company, “I don’t think they’re motivated to do modifications at all. They keep hitting the loan all the way through for junk fees. It’s a license to do whatever they want.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/business/30services.html

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investorzzo
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Re: Late-Fee profits may trump plan to modify loans

This week, the Obama administration summoned mortgage company executives to Washington to demand they move faster to lower payments for homeowners sliding toward foreclosure. Treasury officials called on the companies to hire and train more people quickly to field applications for relief.

But industry insiders and legal experts say the limited capacity of mortgage companies is not the primary factor impeding the government’s $75 billion program to prevent foreclosures. Instead, it is that many mortgage companies are reluctant to give strapped homeowners a break because the companies collect lucrative fees on delinquent loans.

Even when borrowers stop paying, mortgage companies that service the loans collect fees out of the proceeds when homes are ultimately sold in foreclosure. So the longer borrowers remain delinquent, the greater the opportunities for these mortgage companies to extract revenue — fees for insurance, appraisals, title searches and legal services.

“It frustrates me when I see the government looking to the servicer for the solution, because it will never ever happen,” said Margery Golant, a Florida lawyer who defends homeowners against foreclosure and who worked in the law department of a major mortgage company, Ocwen Financial. “I don’t think they’re motivated to do modifications at all. They keep hitting the loan all the way through for junk fees. It’s a license to do whatever they want.”

Rich Miller, a governance project manager at Countrywide Financial and Bank of America before he left in January, said Bank of America had been reluctant to modify loans, which hurt the bottom line. The company has been waiting and hoping the economy will improve and delinquent customers will resume making payments, he said.

“That’s the short-term strategy,” said Mr. Miller, who oversaw training programs at Countrywide, which was bought by Bank of America. He now works as an industry consultant.

Bank of America disputed that characterization. “To think that somehow or other we would jeopardize investor relationships and customer relationships for the very small incremental income we would receive by delaying seems ludicrous,” said Robert V. James, the bank’s senior vice president for mortgage operations and insurance. “It’s not the right thing to do.”

Mortgage companies, some of which are affiliated with the nation’s largest banks, are paid to manage pools of loans owned by investors. The companies typically collect a percentage of the value of the loans they service. They extract their share regardless of whether borrowers are current on their payments. Indeed, their percentage often increases on delinquent loans.

Legal experts say the opportunities for additional revenue in delinquency are considerable, confronting mortgage companies with a conflict between their own financial interest in collecting fees and their responsibility to recoup money for investors who own most mortgages.

“The rules by which servicers are reimbursed for expenses may provide a perverse incentive to foreclose rather than modify,” concluded a recent paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Under the Obama administration’s foreclosure program, a servicer that modifies a loan for a homeowner collects $1,000 from the government, followed by $1,000 a year for each of the next three years. A senior Treasury adviser, Seth Wheeler, said these payments amounted to “meaningful incentives to servicers to help overcome the challenges and competing demands they face in considering and completing loan modifications.” He added that mortgage companies “are contractually obligated to the terms of this program, which require them to offer modifications to qualified borrowers.”

But experts say the administration’s incentives are often outweighed by the benefits of collecting fees from delinquency, and then more fees through the sale of homes in foreclosure.

“If they do a loan modification, they get a few shekels from the government,” said David Dickey, who led a mortgage sales team at Countrywide and Bank of America, leaving in March to start his own mortgage advisory firm, National Home Loan Advocates. By contrast, he said, the road to foreclosure is lined with fees, especially if it is prolonged. “There’s all sorts of things behind the scenes,” he said.

When borrowers fall behind, mortgage companies typically collect late fees reaching 6 percent of the monthly payments.

“For many subprime servicers, late fees alone constitute a significant fraction of their total income and profit,” said Diane E. Thompson, a lawyer for the National Consumer Law Center, in testimony to the Senate Banking Committee this month. “Servicers thus have an incentive to push homeowners into late payments and keep them there: if the loan pays late, the servicer is more likely to profit.”

She cited Ocwen Financial, which reported that nearly 12 percent of its income in 2007 came from fees to borrowers.

Paul A. Koches, Ocwen’s general counsel, said: “We’d prefer that to be zero. The costs associated with our delinquent loans are in every instance in excess of the late fees.”

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