Posts Tagged ‘Shaun Donovan’

As Foreclosures Decline, Federal Government Makes Deal With 49 States

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

In good news for beleaguered homeowners, the Obama administration announced a $26 billion mortgage settlement, which 49 out of 50 state attorneys general signed on to.  The deal won praise from such groups as the Mortgage Bankers Association, the industry trade group for lenders, and the Center for Responsible Lending, a public interest group advocating for borrowers.

Conservatives suggested that the Obama administration is overreaching, and that the agreement rewards homeowners who haven’t been paying their mortgages.  On the other side, some liberal groups say it falls far short of providing the needed level of help to troubled homeowners hurt by the housing bubble, problems they blame on Wall Street banks and investors.  They would prefer additional relief for homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages.

“It’s a big check with narrow immunity,” said Paul Miller, a former examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and currently an analyst with FBR Capital Markets in Arlington, VA.  “You get the state attorneys general off your back, but you’re not getting immunity from securitizations, which could come with their own steep cost down the road.”

Regulators are “aggressive” on pursuing securities claims and have set up a task force to do so, said Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.  The $26 billion deal doesn’t protect banks from claims related to faulty loans sold to government-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he said.  “It wasn’t the servicing practices that created the bubble, nor caused its collapse,” Donovan said.  “It was the origination and securitization of these horrendous products.”

Writing on Salon, Matt Stoller says that the deal lets the banks down relatively easily.  “Rather than settling anything, this agreement is simply a continuation of the policy framework of both the Bush and the Obama administrations.  So what exactly is that framework?  It is, as Damon Silvers of the Congressional Oversight Panel which monitored the bailouts, once put it, to preserve the capital structures of the largest banks.  ‘We can either have a rational resolution to the foreclosure crisis or we can preserve the capital structure of the banks,’ said Silvers in October, 2010.  “’We can’t do both.’  Writing down debt that cannot be paid back — the approach Franklin Roosevelt took — is off the table, as it would jeopardize the equity keeping those banks afloat.  This policy framework isn’t obvious, because it isn’t admissible in polite company.  Nonetheless, it occasionally gets out.  Back in August 2010, at an ‘on background’ briefing of financial bloggers, Treasury officials admitted that the point of its housing programs were to space out foreclosures so that banks could absorb smaller shocks to their balance sheets.  This is consistent with the president’s own words a few months later.”

Very gradually, the foreclosure crisis seems to be easing. The number of homes in foreclosure declined by 130,000, or 8.4 percent last year to 830,000, according to a report from CoreLogic, an economic research firm.  That compares with 1.1 million homes foreclosed in 2010.  These are homes whose owners had fallen far behind on payments, forcing lenders to put them into the foreclosure process.  The homes remain in the foreclosure inventory until they’re sold — either at auction or in a short sale, which is when a home is sold for less than the mortgage value — or until homeowners are current again on payments

There are two reasons for the decline in the foreclosure inventory, according to Mark Fleming, CoreLogic’s chief economist.  “The pace at which properties are entering foreclosure is slowing,” he said.  “And servicers nationwide stepped up the rate at which they were able to process distressed assets.”

In the last few years, homes have entered foreclosure more slowly because lenders carefully scrutinized applicants; only low-risk borrowers are granted loans.  Along with a measured improvement in the economy, this equals fewer borrowers getting into trouble.  Even borrowers in default are avoiding foreclosure in many instance and are being held up by judicial and regulatory constraints, according to Fleming.

The practice of robo-signing, in which banks filed slapdash and sometimes improper paperwork, made lenders more cautious about getting their paperwork in order before foreclosing.  When a bank does put a home into foreclosure, they are trying to speed the process.  One way they’ve done that is by encouraging short sales.  Another is that they’ve stepped up their foreclosure prevention efforts — often with the aid of government programs such as Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which the government says has helped nearly one million Americans stay in their homes.

After foreclosures are completed and the homes are back in the lenders’ hands, they sell quickly.  “This is the first time in a year that REO sales (those of bank-owned properties) have outpaced completed foreclosures,” Fleming said.  In December, there were 103 sales of bank-owned homes for every 100 homes in the foreclosure inventory.  That was a significant increase from November of 2010, when there were only 94 REO sales for every 100 homes in the foreclosure process.

As of December of 2011, Florida still topped the nation’s foreclosure inventory at 11.9 percent, followed by New Jersey with 6.4 percent and Illinois 5.4 percent.  Nevada, consistently the number one foreclosure state in the nation, has fallen to fourth place with 5.3 percent.

Obama Bypasses Congress to Boost Housing

Monday, October 31st, 2011

President Barack Obama executed an end run around Congress when he announced a significant retooling of a plan designed to help homeowners who are paying their mortgages, but still underwater, refinance their loans at a more affordable interest rate.  Administration officials said the changes will streamline the government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) and could dramatically increase the number of borrowers who have refinanced their loans under the program past the current 894,000.  They did not specify how many borrowers might be eligible or likely to participate.  The program, which is voluntary to lenders, will be available only to homeowners whose mortgages were sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on or before May 31, 2009, and who have a loan-to-value ratio above 80 percent.

The downside is that hundreds of thousands more could not qualify — primarily because of the previous 125 percent loan-to-value limit on the program or because banks refused to take on the risk.  Raising the loan-to-value restrictions may help a limited number of borrowers, according to Jaret Seiberg, an analyst for MF Global Inc.’s Washington Research Group, which analyzes public policy for institutional investors.  The difficulty is that mortgage holders still must be up-to-date on their payments for the past six months — with no more than one missed payment in the past year.  Additionally, they also must qualify for a new loan.

Qualifying homeowners will be able to refinance their mortgages at the current low rates, which are currently near four percent. Obama’s move comes at a time when there is a fast-growing consensus that the nation’s declining housing market is negatively impacting the economic recovery.  Home values are at eight-year lows; and more than 10 million people are underwater, meaning that they owe more than their homes are worth.  “It’s a painful burden for middle-class families,” Obama said.  “And it’s a drag on our economy.”  The administration’s proposal underscores the scale of the problem, as well as the limits of public policy in resolving it.  By cutting monthly payments, the Obama administration hopes to make cash available for consumers to spend elsewhere.

According to housing regulators, one million borrowers might be eligible to participate in the program.  Unfortunately, that is just 10 percent of the number of homeowners who need help.  Although the Obama administration’s estimates say the average homeowner could save $2,500 per year, other projections said savings would be in the range of $312 annually.  This depends on the upfront fees the borrower pays, which can include thousands of dollars in closing costs.

Obama promoted the plan under his “We Can’t Wait” campaign, in which he will use the executive branch’s existing tools to improve the economy while Congress debates further legislation.  “We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job,” he said.  “Where they won’t act, I will.”

“We know there are many homeowners who are eligible to refinance under HARP and those are the borrowers we want to reach,” said Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which administers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The program expires at the end of 2013.  “We believe these changes will make it easier for more people to refinance their mortgage,” DeMarco said.  “Breaking this vicious cycle is one of the most pressing issues facing policy makers,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William C. Dudley said.  The HARP revamp is part of multiple efforts the government is making to boost home prices and consumer spending.  “It’s the equivalent of a tax cut for these families,” HUD’s Donovan said.

Mortgage lenders are “particularly gratified” at the revised plan, said David H. Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Mortgage Bankers Association.  “These changes alone should encourage lenders to more actively participate.”

Writing in The Atlantic, Daniel Indiviglio believes that the revised program has potential.  “The administration appears to have accounted for all of the major obstacles to refinancing and eliminated them.  A home’s value no longer matters.  The cost should be less prohibitive to borrowers.  Much legal red tape has been cut.  Other loans tied to the home won’t stand in the way.  Ample time to refinance is provided.  This should help to allow at least a million Americans to refinance who haven’t had the opportunity to do so in the past.  If this works as hoped, then those consumers will have more money in their pockets each month.  Borrowers who see their mortgage interest rates drop from five percent or six percent to near four percent will often have a few hundred dollars more per month to spend or save.  If they spend that money, then it will stimulate the economy and create jobs.  If they save it or pay down their current debt, then their personal balance sheets will be healthier sooner and their spending will rise sooner than it would have otherwise.  The effort may even prevent some strategic defaults, as underwater borrowers won’t feel as bad about their mortgages if their payment is reduced significantly,” Indiviglio said.

Felix Salmon, writing in Reuters, could not disagree more. “For many reasons, it is very difficult to project the number of mortgages that may be refinanced under the enhancements to HARP, including the future path of interest rates, borrower willingness to undertake a refinance transaction and the number of lenders and servicers who choose to offer the program.  Given current market interest rates, our best estimate is that by the end of 2013 HARP refinances may roughly double or more from their current amount but such forward-looking projections are inherently uncertain.  First, by the end of 2013?  Never mind mortgage relief now, we’ll try and get you mortgage relief in two years’ time?  Secondly, the current pace of HARP refinancing is pathetic.  We’ve been managing to do less than 30,000 HARP refinancing a month.  And in the 28-month history of HARP, we’ve managed a grand total of 894,000 HARP refinancing, which works out to about 32,000 per month.  The FHFA is projecting that the pace of HARP refinancing won’t increase at all as a result of this plan. We’ll still average out at about 30,000 per month — maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less, but you’re never going to make a dent in the mountain of 11 million underwater mortgages at that rate.”

HUD Head Says Housing Bottoms Off

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

American home prices may start rising as soon as the 3rd quarter as a foreclosure decline makes more homes available for sale, according to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.  “It’s very unlikely that we will see a significant further decline,” Donovan said.  “The real question is when will we start to see sustainable increases.  Some think it will be as early as the end of this summer or this fall.”  Home sales have increased in six of the past nine months; the number of homeowners in default is declining, Donovan said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

“In the long run, it’s a good time to buy,” Donovan said.  “It’s so affordable today compared to where it’s been for generations.”  Contracts to purchase previously owned homes rose 8.2 percent in May, following a revised 11 percent drop in April, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).  Another NAR report showed sales of existing houses, which make up about 96 percent of the market, fell in May to a six-month low.  Home prices fell four percent in April over 2010, the biggest decline in 17 months according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index of values in 20 cities.  An estimated 1.7 million U.S. homes were in the foreclosure process and expected to be put on the market in April, representing an 18 percent decline from the peak, as fewer loans entered delinquency and more distressed homes were sold, CoreLogic Inc. said.

Additionally, Donovan said that foreclosures are down approximately 40 percent when compared with last year.  Although 1.3 million homes are still in the foreclosure process, Donovan said that housing prices are stabilizing in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  According to Donovan, “So, we are making progress, but rightly, the American people recognize we’re not where we need to be.  We still have a ways to go.”

On the subject of requiring 20 percent downpayments to buy homes, Donovan said there should be a way for qualified people to buy a home with less money upfront.  “We can’t go so far in the other direction that we cut off home ownership for people who really can be successful homeowners.  We can get back to the place where it’s a good investment and we will be able to make money over time,” Donovan said, noting that Americans should no longer view their homes as ATMs.

Financial analyst A. Gary Shilling, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, isn’t as optimistic.  In fact, he thinks that housing prices are likely to fall another 20 percent before bottoming out.  According to Shilling, “Many housing optimists a year ago believed not only that the housing collapse was over, but also that a robust rebound was under way.  Low mortgage rates and collapsed housing prices, not to mention the $8,000 federal tax credit for new home buyers and other initiatives, seemingly were going to kick-start housing activity nationwide.  Then a funny thing happened on the way to the housing recovery.  The tax credits expired, home sales dried up, and prices resumed their declines from their 2006 peak.  Excess inventories piled up due to overbuilding and mounting foreclosures.  In the meantime, buying those lower-priced houses became more difficult as lenders, burned by the housing crash, tightened lending standards and increased downpayment requirements.  As a result, the housing sector not only has failed to bolster the weak economic recovery but is also likely to continue to struggle for years.  And that’s bad news for the economy, which has softened in recent months.  Excess inventories are the mortal enemy of housing prices.  Lower prices are needed to unload surplus inventory, but in turn, lower prices bring forth more inventory from anxious sellers.  The anxiety of house sellers and the reluctance of buyers are enhanced by the realization that house prices can fall – and are falling for the first time in 70 years.”

The idea of owning a home is becoming less attractive as many people realize that it may be many years before prices stop falling and stabilize, let alone revive.  As proof, the national homeownership rate has fallen from its late 2009 peak of 69.2 percent to 66.4 percent in the 1st quarter of 2011 – the exact same level as in late 1998.  As homeownership loses its luster, rental apartments are gaining.  The homeownership rate is likely to continue to decline to its earlier long-term trend of around 64 percent as people continue to separate their abodes from their investments and as the baby boomers age, retire, and downsize.  That means approximately 4.5 million new renters in coming years.  Apartment construction, which normally totals 300,000 units annually, will be vigorous once surplus vacancies disappear.

Government Investigating Possible Law Violations in Foreclosure Crisis

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

 Feds are investigating foreclosure irregularities, searching for possible law violations.  The Department of Justice has opened an investigation to determine whether banks and other financial institutions broke federal law by using deceptive court documents to foreclose on homes.  Although the investigation is just underway, it will probe whether companies deceived federal housing agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which currently insure a large percentage of American homes.  The investigation will also examine whether firms committed wire or mail fraud in filing false documents.

The probe is intended to send the message that banks will be held accountable for illegal foreclosures.  President Barack Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force is also taking a look at the foreclosure mess.  “In more than 25 years dealing with major financial crisis issues, I have never seen this many agencies focused on a single issue,” said Andrew Sandler, an attorney who specializes in government investigations.  “We are beginning to see signs of extensive governmental investigation that may also have criminal law implications.”

With reports that big banks filed court documents without proper review, federal investigators want to know if similar paperwork was submitted to housing agencies to collect insurance payouts.  Bank employees have admitted to signing documents without reading them.  If similar filings occurred at the governmental agencies, that action could constitute a violation of United States law.  Although the investigation so far has no specific target, it could center on banks, independent mortgage servicers, law firms and other companies involved in the foreclosure process.  Shaun Donovan, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, is working with other regulators to assure that all foreclosures are legal.  “We are working closely with others in the administration, as well as independent regulators and law enforcement agencies, in insuring that no one loses their home as a result of a mistake or criminal behavior,” Donovan said.

Obama Administration Sets Its Sights on Housing Reform

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Obama administration turns to reforming the root of the financial crisis – the housing market.  The Obama administration – fresh from its financial regulation reform legislative victory – is not resting on its laurels.  Next on the busy agenda is reforming the American housing market, which is viewed by many as the root of the financial crisis. In a response to collapsing housing prices and waves of foreclosures, the administration it looking at overhauling the government’s housing policy, although the specifics of the proposed legislation are still under discussion.

The new approach could include bigger downpayments and higher interest rates, as well as more barriers to lower-income people purchasing houses they cannot afford.  The goal is to create a more stable housing market that puts fewer taxpayer dollars on the line and lessens the risk that owners will be unable to pay their mortgages.  Reform also could bring changes to the financial markets as investors are forced to find new investment vehicles if the government removes incentives for putting their money in the mortgage market.  Since the financial crisis began in 2008, the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to keep housing afloat and assure that borrowers can get loans – and much of that money will never be recovered.  Since the federal government seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants and the Federal Housing Administration have more or less been the sole sources of backing for new mortgages for nearly two years.

The Treasury Department’s new Office of Capital Markets and Housing Reform is studying options and has decided that federal policy should highlight “sustainable homeownership” rather than merely growing the rate of ownership.  According to Vincent O’Donnell of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, “My impression is that the administration at pretty much every level is serious about a balanced policy.  Their purpose is to make more workable rental housing programs.”

Next Up on the Presidential Agenda? Reforming Fannie and Freddie

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is next on President Obama’s to do list.  The next item on President Barack Obama’s ambitious agenda is likely to be overhauling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage firms that so far have cost American taxpayers $145 billion to keep afloat.  The two firms, which own more than half of the nation’s $11 trillion in home mortgages, collapsed along with the housing market and were taken over by the federal government in September of 2008.

Many Congressional Republicans believe that scrapping Fannie and Freddie is mandatory; Democrats disagree and President Obama is expected to support reforms backed by consumer, real estate and banking groups.  The core of the emerging consensus is to preserve the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.  Susan Woodward, former chief economist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and a founder of Sand Hill Econometrics, said “People regard it as a right as Americans to get a 30-year, fixed-rate loan.”

Banks and builders agree with consumer advocates representing homebuyers that it’s good for the government to promote residential lending by supporting what Fannie and Freddie have done for years – purchasing mortgages and bundle them into securities that they sell to investors.  When the system works as intended, the MBS market creates additional money that is funneled back into the market to make new affordable loans.  The task is to determine how to accomplish this without the lax practices that the taxpayers had to pay for when catastrophic losses occurred in 2008.

The Obama Administration and leading Democrats strongly believe that the federal government should have a role in promoting homeownership.  Shaun Donovan, HUD Secretary, said “We should not compromise any of our core policy goals in the decisions we make in structuring our house financing system.”