Banks Overlooked Foreclosure Laws

The foreclosure news and the subprime lending debacle continue to make headlines in late 2010. According to Mortgage News Post Citigroup and GMAC, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on home foreclosures was outsourced to frazzled workers who sometimes tossed the paperwork into the garbage.   And at Litton Loan Servicing, an arm of Goldman Sachs, employees processed foreclosure documents so quickly that they barely had time to see what they were signing.   “I don’t know the ins and outs of the loan,” a Litton employee said in a deposition last year. “I’m not a loan officer.” The default rate on home loans with bad credit has been unusually high over the last five years.

As the furor grows over mortgage lenders’ efforts to sidestep legal rules in their zeal to reclaim homes from delinquent borrowers, these and other banks insist that they have been overwhelmed by the housing collapse.  But interviews with bank employees, executives and federal regulators suggest that this mess was years in the making and came as little surprise to industry insiders and government officials. The issue gained new urgency on Wednesday, when all 50 state attorneys general announced that they would investigate foreclosure practices. That news came on the same day that JPMorgan Chase acknowledged that it had not used the nation’s largest electronic mortgage tracking system, MERS, since 2008.

That system has been faulted for losing documents and other sloppy practices.  The root of today’s problems goes back to the boom years, when home prices were soaring and banks pursued profit while paying less attention to the business of mortgage servicing, or collecting and processing monthly payments from homeowners.

Banks spent billions of dollars in the good times to build vast mortgage machines that made new home loans, bundled them into securities and sold those investments worldwide. Lowly servicing became an afterthought. Even after the housing bubble began to burst, many of these operations languished with inadequate staffing and outmoded technology, despite warnings from regulators.

When borrowers began to default in droves, banks found themselves in a never-ending game of catch-up, unable to devote enough manpower to modify, or ease the terms of, loans to millions of customers on the verge of losing their homes. Now banks are ill-equipped to deal the foreclosure process.  “We waited and waited and waited for wide-scale loan modifications,” said Sheila C. Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, one of the first government officials to call on the industry to take action. “They never owned up to all the problems leading to the mortgage crisis. They have always downplayed it.”

In recent weeks, revelations that mortgage servicers failed to accurately document the seizure and sale of tens of thousands of homes have caused a public uproar and prompted lenders like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Ally Bank, which is owned by GMAC, to halt foreclosures in many states.  Even before the political outcry, many of the banks shifted employees into their mortgage servicing units and beefed up hiring. Wells Fargo, for instance, has nearly doubled the number of workers in its mortgage modification unit over the last year, to about 17,000, while Citigroup added some 2,000 employees since 2007, bringing the total to 5,000.  “We believe we responded appropriately to staff up to meet the increased volume,” said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Citigroup.

Some industry executives add that they’re committed to helping homeowners but concede they were slow to ramp up. “In hindsight, we were all slow to jump on the issue,” said Michael J. Heid, co-president of at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. “When you think about what it costs to add 10,000 people, that is a substantial investment in time and money along with the computers, training and system changes involved.”

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