Emptywheel on the Stress Tests, Servicing Fraud as a Counter-Cyclical Diversification Strategy.

Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel asks Remember the Stress Tests? (Do I!), and writes:

First, remember that the top servicers also happen to be the biggest banks. Here is Reuters’ list of the top loan servicers.

  • Bank of America (19.9%)
  • Wells Fargo (16.9%)
  • JPMorgan Chase (12.6%)
  • Citi (6.3%)
  • GMAC (3.2%)
  • US Bancorp (1.8%)
  • SunTrust (1.6%)
  • PHH Mortgage (1.4%)
  • OneWest (IndyMac) (1.4%)
  • PNC Financial Services (1.4%)

[…]

So all of the top mortgage servicers–Bank of America, Wells, JP Morgan Chase, Citi, and even GMAC–had to undergo a stress test last year to prove their viability before the government would allow them to repay TARP funds and therefore operate without that government leverage–which was threatened to include limits on executive pay, lobbying, and government oversight of major actions–over their business….

But in letters between Liz Warren (as head of the TARP oversight board) and Tim Geithner in January and February 2009 discussed foreclosure modification, stress tests, and accountability for the use of TARP funds (Geithner made very specific promises about foreclosure modifications and refinancing which Treasury has failed to meet). And those discussions–and the stress tests–took place as COP reported on the problems with servicer incentives, servicer staffing and oversight, and the lack of regulation of servicers more generally (the COP report came out March 6, 2009; the stress test results wereannounced May 7, 2009). So at the same time as the Administration was officially learning of problems with servicers, it was also giving those servicers’ bank holding companies a dubious clean bill of health. And with it, beginning to let go of one of the biggest pieces of leverage the government had over those servicers.

For what it is worth, I’m sure those conducting the stress test knew that this conflict existed and knew that it was very profitable to the banks. Servicing is considered a “hedge”, because as the origination business dries up foreclosures will increase and servicing income would go up, something Countrywide and others loved to talk about.

Let’s go to a Countrywide Earnings call from Q3 2007:

Now, we are frequently asked what the impact on our servicing costs and earnings will be from increased delinquencies and lost mitigation efforts, and what happens to costs. And what we point out is, as I will now, is that increased operating expenses in times like this tend to be fully offset by increases in ancillary income in our servicing operation, greater fee income from items like late charges, and importantly from in-sourced vendor functions that represent part of our diversification strategy, a counter-cyclical diversification strategy such as our businesses involved in foreclosure trustee and default title services and property inspection services.

The servicing operation will “fully offset” lost income from increased delinquencies and lack of origination business. This is by design. It’s tough to find good counter-cyclical strategies, but this appears to be one. If you were both TBTF and really in need of cash, could you squeeze this a bit further, say by violating the rule of law?

That call is hat-tipped to Katie Porter who adds this important commentary:

I think the most damning part of this statement is the reference to “in-sourced vendor functions.” Allegations are swirling around that servicers, and their agents such as MERS, bloat their actual costs of collection or default and build in a profit margin. This is illegal, in part, because most mortgages only permit the recovery of “costs,” which most courts read to mean actual costs incurred, not some amount chosen to “offset” the costs of servicing delinquent loans. Judge Elizabeth Magner has a recent opinion that addresses the propriety of this practice. She writes in the Memorandum Opinion in In re Stewart (07-11113, Bankr. E.D. La. April 10, 2008) that “Wells Fargo’s national counsel has represented to this Court that only $50.00 of each invoice represents the actual cost incurred by Wells Fargo fro a BPO. The remaining amounts, approximately $880.00 in total, were added to the actual costs by Wells Fargo. The Court concludes that these additional charges are an undisclosed fee, disguised as a third party vendor cost, and illegally imposed by Wells Fargo.” Her opinion, combined with the statement in Countrywide’s earnings statement, suggest that Senator Schumer may be too generous in calling servicers’ practices “piling on.” If this practice is widespread, the more apt term may be “ripping off” struggling homeowners.

Someone enterprising on the hill could ask how the servicing income was incorporated into the stress test and how predictive it was in the adverse scenario case. Things like this make it even more important that the government takes a strong hand in rooting out foreclosure fraud.  We cannot allow an impression to form that we collectively looked the other way at issues of foreclosure abuse, issues well documented since before the stress test, because this business line is one of the few profitable things available to TBTF firms.  TBTF firms that needed cash, were (and are) backstopped by taxpayers and wanted to get out of TARP to issue bonuses.   Nobody gets to be above the law, regardless of how systemically important they are or whatever numbers needed to be hit on the stress test.

And for what it is worth, remember this counter-cyclical strategy of foreclosure fraud when you see the record bonuses on Wall Street.

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One Response to Emptywheel on the Stress Tests, Servicing Fraud as a Counter-Cyclical Diversification Strategy.

  1. MinnItMan says:

    I’m unclear about how servicing can be profitable when there is high level of distressed loans. Servicers have to front foregone interest to the “investors,” and much of the tacked on (inflated, padded) costs are not ultimately recouped (I don’t think). Going to the end of the chain, at the point of the REO sale that finally gets the “loan” off the books – I don’t know, so I’m asking – how do the servicers get paid back for attorney’s fees, BPOs, asset management, insurance, as well as their lost cut of loan payments, etc.?

    The 2007 statement sounds like a hedge, but like a lot of their smart ideas, I have to ask whether it really works that way.

    One school of thought is that the servicers won’t modify because they want an exit as soon as they can get it, basically because default servicing is such a losing proposition.

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