A growing recognition that the Obama Administration’s Home Affordability and Stability Program (HASP) is not working in its current design has fingers pointed all over Washington D.C. trying to place blame on mortgage servicers, investors and the administration itself. At hearings this week in Washington, comments ranged from encouraging to total frustration as expressed by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) who said, “It’s just hard to explain to the working families in America how it is we could move so fast with extraordinarily complicated deals with the huge financial institutions, and we are moving so incredibly slowly, mired in paperwork, in rules, in talking to banks back home.”
With predictions for 3.5 million foreclosures by the end of this year and 9 million by the end of 2012, the fact that the program has initiated less than 150,000 loan modifications as it enters its fifth month has industry experts trying to figure out what went wrong and what can done to fix it. While there isn’t yet a full spectrum solution to the issue, the problems of the program have become well defined. They include:
1) When the program was announced in February, there was little to motivate lenders and servicers to hire staff, provide training to processors in the nuances of the program’s guidelines, and build infrastructure to support the flood of requests. While it’s true that the plan provides incentive payments to lenders and servicers, at $1,000 per year for a successful loan modification, the incentives aren’t enough to offset the costs of implementing a full scale department which, in effect, generates only losses.
2) Executing loan modifications results in recordable losses for lenders and investors. In the Spring Congress, hearing the pleas from the mortgage industry, ended the long standing requirement that mortgages be marked to market periodically to reflect losses on the books of lenders and investors. If loan modifications were being handled quickly and efficiently the resulting losses would leave many in the industry short on capital requirements and/or struggling for survival.
3) Investors, even with the passage of the safe harbor bill, can still stand in the way of modifications. Congress passed the bill in May to give servicers more freedom in choosing the concessions they grant in a loan modification and to protect them from lawsuits served by the investors that actually own the mortgages. The problem is that the pooling and stripping of mortgages by insurance companies, pensions and Wall Street institutions can make determining who owns what a job in itself. Even when ownership is clearly defined, servicers and their investors are trying to avoid adversarial relationships as much as possible so getting a sign off on loan modifications can either bog down the process or result in non-approval of the loan modification.
4) The defeat of the cramdown provision in the administration’s foreclosure initiative, which would have allowed judges in bankruptcy court to decide on principle reductions, gives lenders and investors the last word on a modification. Had the provision passed, the threat of having principle balances reduced by an uninterested third party would encourage more approvals and greater concessions in loan modifications. “You have got to have some leverage, something to hold people’s feet to the fire,” said Center for Responsible Lending spokeswoman Kathleen Day. “If you tell the industry this [judge] can do the loan mod if you don’t, that is going to get their attention.” Defeated in the Senate, revisiting cramdowns is seen as a political nonstarter but other actions like the threat of the repeal of certain tax advantages could prove to be a motivator for getting loan modifications done.
5) The program is now being criticized for being too complex and for not strongly emphasizing principal reductions. There is talk now of abandoning the original guidelines and replacing them with blanket programs intended for any one that originated a mortgage that they clearly couldn’t afford between 2005 and 2008. The simplified plan would focus on principle reductions to bring home values closer to the principle balances of the mortgages on the properties. Despite its simplification, the tentative design of that plan has its own issues as well. The first is that statistics are already showing that buyers that clearly couldn’t afford their homes have already been foreclosed. The second is that a massive round of write-downs on properties and mortgages would devastate the financial industry.
6) The program is fighting the wrong battle. According to Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the original plan was well designed for the issues that started crisis but the cause behind most foreclosures has now changed. The original targets of the program including stated income, negative amortization, and other loans that buried homeowners have largely run their course while growing unemployment is now the fuel behind foreclosures occurring on prime, jumbo prime, and fixed interest loans. “The issues have changed, and in some ways the solutions haven’t kept up with the problems,” Retsinas summarized. “The most effective intervention would be to put people back to work.”
Another mistake made by the administration was the dismissal of private efforts by law firms that negotiate loan modifications on behalf of homeowners. By encouraging homeowners to take on the labor intensive and complex task of doing home loan modifications on their own the administration put thousands of people in a position where they were negotiating terms on mortgages that they didn’t understand in the first place. With untrained and overworked processors on the other end of the phone it’s no wonder many loan modifications never got off the ground.