US Financial Meltdown Was ‘Avoidable’

Posted in American Economy on January 26, 2011 by David Griffith

 NY TIMES – SEWELL CHAN, On Wednesday January 26, 2011

WASHINGTON — The 2008 financial crisis was an “avoidable” disaster caused by widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street, according to the conclusions of a federal inquiry.

The commission that investigated the crisis casts a wide net of blame, faulting two administrations, the Federal Reserve and other regulators for permitting a calamitous concoction: shoddy mortgage lending, the excessive packaging and sale of loans to investors and risky bets on securities backed by the loans.

“The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done,” the panel wrote in the report’s conclusions, which were read by The New York Times. “If we accept this notion, it will happen again.”

While the panel, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, accuses several financial institutions of greed, ineptitude or both, some of its gravest conclusions concern government failings, with embarrassing implications for both parties. But the panel was itself divided along partisan lines, which could blunt the impact of its findings.

Many of the conclusions have been widely described, but the synthesis of interviews, documents and testimony, along with its government imprimatur, give the report — to be released on Thursday as a 576-page book — a conclusive sweep and authority.

The commission held 19 days of hearings and interviews with more than 700 witnesses; it has pledged to release a trove of transcripts and other raw material online.

Of the 10 commission members, the six appointed by Democrats endorsed the final report. Three Republican members have prepared a dissent focusing on a narrower set of causes; a fourth Republican, Peter J. Wallison, has his own dissent, calling policies to promote homeownership the major culprit. The panel was hobbled repeatedly by internal divisions and staff turnover.

The majority report finds fault with two Fed chairmen: Alan Greenspan, who led the central bank as the housing bubble expanded, and his successor, Ben S. Bernanke, who did not foresee the crisis but played a crucial role in the response. It criticizes Mr. Greenspan for advocating deregulation and cites a “pivotal failure to stem the flow of toxic mortgages” under his leadership as a “prime example” of negligence.

It also criticizes the Bush administration’s “inconsistent response” to the crisis — allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse in September 2008 after earlier bailing out another bank, Bear Stearns, with Fed help — as having “added to the uncertainty and panic in the financial markets.”

Like Mr. Bernanke, Mr. Bush’s Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., predicted in 2007 — wrongly, it turned out — that the subprime collapse would be contained, the report notes.

Democrats also come under fire. The decision in 2000 to shield the exotic financial instruments known as over-the-counter derivatives from regulation, made during the last year of President Bill Clinton’s term, is called “a key turning point in the march toward the financial crisis.”

Timothy F. Geithner, who was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the crisis and is now the Treasury secretary, was not unscathed; the report finds that the New York Fed missed signs of trouble at Citigroup and Lehman, though it did not have the main responsibility for overseeing them.

Former and current officials named in the report, as well as financial institutions, declined Tuesday to comment before the report was released.

The report could reignite debate over the influence of Wall Street; it says regulators “lacked the political will” to scrutinize and hold accountable the institutions they were supposed to oversee. The financial industry spent $2.7 billion on lobbying from 1999 to 2008, while individuals and committees affiliated with it made more than $1 billion in campaign contributions.

The report does knock down — at least partly — several early theories for the financial crisis. It says the low interest rates brought about by the Fed after the 2001 recession; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants; and the “aggressive homeownership goals” set by the government as part of a “philosophy of opportunity” were not major culprits.

On the other hand, the report is harsh on regulators. It finds that the Securities and Exchange Commission failed to require big banks to hold more capital to cushion potential losses and halt risky practices, and that the Fed “neglected its mission.”

It says the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates some banks, and the Office of Thrift Supervision, which oversees savings and loans, blocked states from curbing abuses because they were “caught up in turf wars.”

“The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire,” the report states. “The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble.”

The report’s implications may be felt more in the political realm than in public policy. The Dodd-Frank law overhauling the regulation of Wall Street, signed in July, took as its premise the same regulatory deficiencies cited by the commission. But the report is sure to be a factor in the debate over the future of Fannie and Freddie, which have been run by the government since 2008.

Though the report documents questionable practices by mortgage lenders and careless betting by banks, one striking finding is its portrayal of incompetence.

It quotes Citigroup executives conceding that they paid little attention to mortgage-related risks. Executives at the American International Group were found to have been blind to its $79 billion exposure to credit-default swaps, a kind of insurance that was sold to investors seeking protection against a drop in the value of securities backed by home loans. At Merrill Lynch, managers were surprised when seemingly secure mortgage investments suddenly suffered huge losses.

By one measure, for about every $40 in assets, the nation’s five largest investment banks had only $1 in capital to cover losses, meaning that a 3 percent drop in asset values could have wiped out the firm. The banks hid their excessive leverage using derivatives, off-balance-sheet entities and other devices, the report found. The speculative binge was abetted by a giant “shadow banking system” in which the banks relied heavily on short-term debt.

“When the housing and mortgage markets cratered, the lack of transparency, the extraordinary debt loads, the short-term loans and the risky assets all came home to roost,” the report found. “What resulted was panic. We had reaped what we had sown.”

The report, which was heavily shaped by the commission’s chairman, Phil Angelides, is dotted with literary flourishes. It calls credit-rating agencies “cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.” Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” it states, “The fault lies not in the stars, but in us.”

Of the banks that bought, created, packaged and sold trillions of dollars in mortgage-related securities, it says: “Like Icarus, they never feared flying ever closer to the sun.”

Getting America Back to Work

Posted in American Economy, American Workers on January 19, 2011 by David Griffith

In Wreckage of Lost Jobs, Lost Power

NY TIMES

DAVID LEONHARDT, On Wednesday January 19, 2011

Alone among the world’s economic powers, the United States is suffering through a deep jobs slump that can’t be explained by the rest of the economy’s performance.

The gross domestic product here — the total value of all goods and services — has recovered from the recession better than in Britain, Germany, Japan or Russia. Yet a greatly shrunken group of American workers, working harder and more efficiently, is producing these goods and services.

The unemployment rate is higher in this country than in Britain or Russia and much higher than in Germany or Japan, according to a study of worldwide job markets that Gallup will release on Wednesday. The American jobless rate is also higher than China’s, Gallup found. The European countries with worse unemployment than the United States tend to be those still mired in crisis, like Greece, Ireland and Spain.

Economists are now engaged in a spirited debate, much of it conducted on popular blogs like Marginal Revolution, about the causes of the American jobs slump. Lawrence Katz, a Harvard labor economist, calls the full picture “genuinely puzzling.”

That the financial crisis originated here, and was so severe here, surely plays some role. The United States had a bigger housing bubble than most other countries, leaving a large group of idle construction workers who can’t easily switch industries. Many businesses, meanwhile, are reluctant to commit to hiring workers out of a fear that heavily indebted households won’t spend much in coming years.

But beyond these immediate causes, the basic structure of the American economy also seems to be an important factor. This jobless recovery, after all, is the third straight recovery since 1991 to begin with months and months of little job growth.

Why? One obvious possibility is the balance of power between employers and employees.

Relative to the situation in most other countries — or in this country for most of the last century — American employers operate with few restraints. Unions have withered, at least in the private sector, and courts have grown friendlier to business. Many companies can now come much closer to setting the terms of their relationship with employees, letting them go when they become a drag on profits and relying on remaining workers or temporary ones when business picks up.

Just consider the main measure of corporate health: profits. In Canada, Japan and most of Europe, corporate profits have still not recovered to precrisis levels. In the United States, profits have more than recovered, rising 12 percent since late 2007.

For corporate America, the Great Recession is over. For the American work force, it’s not.

Unfortunately, fixing the job market will take years. Even if job growth accelerated to the rapid pace of the late 1990s and remained there, the unemployment rate would not fall below 6 percent (which some economists consider full employment) until 2016. We could now be in only the first half of the longest stretch of high unemployment since World War II.

The best way to put people back to work is to lift economic growth. For Washington, lifting growth will first mean avoiding the mistakes of 2010, when the Fed, the White House and some members of Congress prematurely assumed that a solid recovery was under way. The risk this year is that they will start reducing the budget deficit immediately by cutting federal programs, rather than having the cuts take effect in future years.

Policy makers could also help the unemployed by spreading economic pain more broadly among the population. I realize this idea may not sound so good at first. Who wants pain to spread? But the fact is that this downturn has concentrated its effects on a relatively narrow group of Americans.

In Germany and Canada, some companies and workers have averted layoffs by agreeing to cut everyone’s hours and, thus, pay. In this country, average wages for the employed have risen faster than inflation since 2007, which is highly unusual for a downturn. Yet unemployment remains terribly high, and almost half of the unemployed have been out of work for at least six months. These are the people bearing the brunt of the downturn.

Germany’s job-sharing program — known as “Kurzarbeit,” or short work — has won praise from both conservative and liberal economists. Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, has offered a bill that would encourage similar programs. So far, though, the White House has not pursued it aggressively. Perhaps Gene Sperling, the new director of the National Economic Council, can put it back on the agenda.

Restoring some balance to the relationship between employers and employees will be more difficult. One problem is that too many labor unions, like the auto industry’s, have been poorly run, hurting companies and, ultimately, workers. Of course, many other companies — AT&T, General Electric, Southwest Airlines — have thrived with unionized workers, and study after study has shown that unions usually do benefit workers. As one bumper sticker says, “Unions: The folks who brought you the weekend.”

Today, unions are clearly playing on an uneven field. Companies pay minimal penalties for illegally trying to bar unions and have become expert at doing so, legally and otherwise. For all their shortcomings, unions remain many workers’ best hope for some bargaining power.

The list of promising solutions to the jobs slump can go on and on. Reforming the disability insurance system so it does not encourage long-term joblessness would help. “Once people enter the system,” as Mr. Katz of Harvard says, “they basically never come back.” Improving high schools and colleges — reclaiming the global lead in education — would help even more. Remember, the jobless rate for college graduates is only 4.8 percent, and some highly skilled jobs continue to go unfilled.

The jobs slump has become too severe to disappear anytime soon. It will be part of the American economy and American politics for years to come. But there is no reason to treat it as a problem that’s immune from solutions. For starters, it would be worth figuring out what other countries are doing right.

 

Why Businesses Are Leaving California

Posted in California Businesses, Doing Business in California with tags on December 28, 2010 by David Griffith

Top 10 list why firms leave California

Orange County Register

December 28th, 2010 by Jan Norman

Irvine consultant Joe Vranich has made a name for himself in the past couple of years documenting companies that are moving jobs out of California, expanding outside the Golden State because of its business regulations/ taxes or packing up and leaving completely.

So the California Chapter of Americans for Prosperity asked Vranich to come up with a David Letterman-type top 10 list of reasons businesses are leaving California:

Americans for Prosperity is a 1.5 million-member nonprofit that promotes limited government and free markets. Vranich cites several studies and surveys in his list:

10. Unfair taxes (Tax Foundation ranks California as 48th for tax fairness.)

9. Most expensive business locations (Rose Institute for State and Local Government has many California cities as the most expensive U.S. places in which to do business.)

8. Worst performing labor (Pacific Research Institute rates California’s labor performance over a five-year period) as lowest in the nation.)

7. Dreadful legal treatment (Civil Justice Association of California ranks California as 44th in legal fairness to business.)

6. Worst regulatory burden (Consultant Bain & Co., in a 2004 report for the California Business Roundtable,  said California is far worse than any other state on its “regulatory hassle index,” based on cost, uncertainty and complexity of government regulations.)

5. Harsh treatment motivates exits (Bain & Co. also said more than half of California’s business leaders said their companies had a policy to restrict job growth in this state.)

4. Unfriendliness (The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council ranks California 48th — Vranich says 49th based on the council’s 2009 report — in business friendliness.)

3. High misery index (Associated Press publishes a monthly economic stress index that ranked California 3rd highest in December.)

2. Uncontrollable spending (Several pollsters say people are angrier about California government than at any other time in the polls’ history.)

1. Worst state to do business (Chief Executive magazine surveyed company executives to conclude that California is the worst place in which to do business.)

David Spady of the Americans for Prosperity says the California chapter has been posting a YouTube video each week as a way to educate people about issues. Another video in the series that Spady did entitled “Around the World on $69 million in Welfare Funds” has been viewed more than 276,700 times.

Vranich views California’s situation somewhat differently than do state Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. They defend the state in this Los Angeles Times opinion piece.

However, Vranich isn’t imagining the outbound moving vans. The Tax Foundation has an interactive database that shows Americans’ movement around the country. And more recently, the California Dept. of Finance documents moves by county.

I’ve given periodic updates of Vranich’s list of dearly departed companies. Here and here and here for example.

The Public Policy Institute of California says such anecdotes don’t add up to much impact. Its study of 1992 to 2006 (pre-recession) data concludes that “just 1.7% of California’s job losses” are tied to companies moving out of state.

California Lawyers Hard to Find for Foreclosure Help

Posted in Foreclosures and Loan Modifications, Real Estate Law on December 21, 2010 by David Griffith

Homes at Risk, and No Help From Lawyers

NEW YORK TIMES  DAVID STREITFELD, On Tuesday December 21, 2010, 4:50 am EST

In California, where foreclosures are more abundant than in any other state, homeowners trying to win a loan modification have always had a tough time.

Now they face yet another obstacle: hiring a lawyer.

Sharon Bell, a retiree who lives in Laguna Niguel, southeast of Los Angeles, needs a modification to keep her home. She says she is scared of her bank and its plentiful resources, so much so that she cannot even open its certified letters inquiring where her mortgage payments may be. Yet the half-dozen lawyers she has called have refused to represent her.

“They said they couldn’t help,” said Ms. Bell, 63. “But I’ve got to find help, because I’m dying every day.”

Lawyers throughout California say they have no choice but to reject clients like Ms. Bell because of a new state law that sharply restricts how they can be paid. Under the measure, passed overwhelmingly by the State Legislature and backed by the state bar association, lawyers who work on loan modifications cannot receive any money until the work is complete. The bar association says that under the law, clients cannot put retainers in trust accounts.

The law, which has few parallels in other states, was devised to eliminate swindles in which modification firms made promises about what their lawyers could do, charged hefty fees and then disappeared. But foreclosure specialists say there has been an unintended consequence: the honest lawyers can no longer afford to assist Ms. Bell and all the others who feel helpless before lenders that they see as elusive, unyielding and skilled at losing paperwork.

The revelations three months ago that large banks were sloppy and negligent in preparing foreclosure documents underscore just how important it is for distressed homeowners to have representation, lawyers and consumer advocates say. Homeowners whose cases were handled improperly have little way of knowing it. Even if they found out, they would be hard-pressed to challenge a lender without a lawyer.

“Consumers just don’t know what is going on,” said Walter Hackett, a former banker who is now a lawyer for a nonprofit service in Riverside. “They get a piece of paper saying they are going to lose their homes and they freak out.”

The problem for lawyers is that even a simple modification, in which the loan is restructured so the borrower can afford the monthly payments, is a marathon, putting off their payday for months if not years. If the bank refuses to come to terms, the client may file for bankruptcy. Then the lawyer will never be paid.

Alice M. Graham, a lawyer in Marina del Rey, said a homeowner in default recently tried to hire her. When Ms. Graham declined, the despairing owner begged her in vain to accept payments under the table.

“The banks have all the lawyers they want, and the consumers are helpless,” Ms. Graham said.

In some states, including New York and Florida, foreclosure proceedings are overseen by courts. In California, the process is more of a private matter between the bank and the homeowner. Through Sept. 30, lenders filed notices of default on 229,843 homes in California this year, according to the research firm MDA DataQuick.

The length of time California households spend in foreclosure, which was rising as owners pursued modifications, fell in the third quarter to 8.7 months, from 9.1 months in the second quarter. That could indicate that the absence of defense lawyers is beginning to accelerate the process.

While lawyers for nonprofits like Mr. Hackett continue to represent clients, they are too overwhelmed to help everyone. “A homeowner in California is going to have an extraordinarily difficult time finding an attorney,” he said.

That group includes Ms. Bell, who owned two properties free and clear and then gave in to a friend’s urging to “put your money to work.” That friend was an agent, and soon Ms. Bell owned two more properties and was making unsecured loans.

The loans went bad, the investments went bust, and Ms. Bell is trying to salvage her home. She wants an advocate but is reluctant to respond to any of the solicitations that fill her mailbox. “I know better,” she said.

Many people did not. Defaulting owners saw television commercials or heard radio ads where a lawyer promised relief. They handed over a few thousand dollars and heard no more.

Two years ago, the state bar association had seven complaints of misconduct in loan modifications. By March 2009, there were more than 100 complaints, and a task force was formed to deal with the problem. Soon, there were thousands of complaints.

It was a public relations disaster. The president of the bar association wrote in a column last year that “hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of California lawyers” were victimizing people “at the most vulnerable point in their lives.”

Politicians heard complaints, too. Ron Calderon, a state senator who represents several communities east of Los Angeles, sponsored a bill that prohibits advance payments for modifications and required lawyers to warn clients that they could do the job themselves without professional assistance. Lenders were supportive of the bill, Senator Calderon said.

It passed 36 to 4 in September 2009. The maximum punishment is a $10,000 fine and a year in jail.

The law is working well, Senator Calderon said. “You do not need a lawyer,” he said.

Mark Stone, a 56-year-old general contractor in Sierra Madre, feels differently. A few years ago, he got sick with hepatitis C. Unable to work full time, he began to miss mortgage payments. The drugs he was taking left him “a little confused,” he said.

Mr. Stone knew that his condition put him at a disadvantage in negotiations with his bank. So he hired Gregory Royston, a real estate lawyer in Redondo Beach. It took Mr. Royston nearly a year, but he restructured the loan.

Without the lawyer, Mr. Stone said, “I’d be living under a bridge.”

The legal bill, paid in advance, was $3,500. “Worth every penny,” said Mr. Stone, who is now back at work.

Mr. Royston said winning modifications was never easy and often impossible. “The banks stymie the borrower, and they really stymie any third party who works on behalf of the borrower,” he said.

A spokesman for the Mortgage Bankers Association said it simply wanted to protect homeowners from fraud. “Be very careful about anyone who wants you to pay them to help you get a loan modification,” said the spokesman, John Mechem.

That advice has never been more true. If any honest lawyers still do modifications, they are lost in a sea of swindles. “This law,” Mr. Royston said, “took the wrong people out of the game.”

Suzan Anderson, supervising trial counsel of the California bar’s special team on loan modification, defended the law, saying that in other types of cases, including personal injury and medical malpractice, the lawyers do not get paid until the end. She acknowledged, however, it was “a very problematical situation.”

As for the swindlers singled out by the law, they appear unfazed. The state bar is investigating 2,000 complaints of modification fraud.

“I wish the law had worked,” Ms. Anderson said.

 

FDIC Goes After CEOs of Failed Banks

Posted in Foreclosures and Loan Modifications, Real Estate Law on November 11, 2010 by David Griffith

November 10, 2010|By E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times

For former insiders at some of the several hundred banks that collapsed during the financial crisis and in its aftermath, a day of reckoning has arrived.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has told dozens of former bank officers and directors that it has drawn up lawsuits accusing them of misdeeds such as fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. The federal agency is seeking damages to help offset losses in the nation’s deposit insurance fund.

It’s time, the FDIC warns these officials, to sit down and work out settlements — or head to court to decide the matters there.

The letters being sent by the agency are “very detailed,” said Jeffrey A. Tisdale, a Los Angeles lawyer for former officials of five banks targeted by the agency.

“I mean eight to 10 single-spaced pages of purported misdeeds,” he said.

The showdowns follow FDIC probes that typically take well over a year.

“We’re only doing this after careful investigation. We don’t bring suit every time a bank fails,” said Richard Osterman, the FDIC’s acting general counsel.

The FDIC board has authorized suits seeking to recover more than $2 billion from more than 80 former bank officials, up from about 50 a month ago, Osterman said. The number could multiply as the agency works through its investigative backlog.

The agency could end up suing or settling with former insiders of about one-quarter of the more than 300 banks that have failed since the start of 2008, officials say.

“This is only the first wave,” Tisdale said. “I’ve got my next five-year professional plan laid out pretty well.”

Although the FDIC says it will try to settle the cases, officials expect to file a significant number of suits. Criminal charges could result in a few cases.

“We are investigating [criminal] bank fraud and related cases in many different parts of the country, including in California,” said Fred Gibson, deputy inspector general at the agency.

So far only two civil suits have been filed. The first, filed in July, accuses four executives of Pasadena‘s defunct IndyMac Bank of negligence in granting construction and development loans that the suit says were unlikely to be repaid. The defendants are contesting the suit, which seeks $300 million in damages.

Homeowners Say Loan Mods Led Them to Foreclosure

Posted in Foreclosures and Loan Modifications on November 10, 2010 by David Griffith

 By JACOB ADELMAN, Associated Press – Sun Nov 7, 3:08 pm ET

LOS ANGELES – Grocery store owners William and Esperanza Casco were making enough money to stay current on their mortgage, but when JPMorgan Chase & Co. offered a plan that reduced their payments, they figured they could use the extra cash and signed up.

The Cascos say they never missed a subsequent payment, so they were horrified when the bank decided the smaller payments weren’t enough and foreclosed on their modest Long Beach home.

Their story is echoed across the country by people who claim — some in lawsuits — that banks didn’t live up to their end of the deal when they agreed to trial mortgage modifications.

The suits add to a feeling among many struggling homeowners that they’re getting little help from the part of the government’s $700 billion Wall Street rescue that aimed to help them directly.

Indeed, Treasury statistics show that only about one-third of the nearly 1.4 million homeowners accepted into the government’s payment reduction program over the past year have had their reductions made permanent.

“It is extremely unfair that someone like me and my wife who have owned our home for 17 years and never missed a payment could end up in foreclosure,” Casco, 47, said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Chase spokesman Gary Kishner was unable to comment on whether Cascos had been current on their payments but insisted the bank had treated the couple fairly.

“We worked with the borrower to give him as many opportunities as possible to qualify for a modification,” he said. “However, they were not able to do so and therefore we were forced to foreclose on the property.”

Several federal lawsuits filed in Boston accuse major lenders of breach of contract under the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program, in which banks agreed to participate as part of the bank bailout.

The lawsuits say the banks agreed under HAMP to grant permanent mortgage modifications to borrowers who make all payments during trial modifications.

Attorney Shennan Alexandra Kavanagh said several of the plaintiffs lost their homes after their payments reverted to their original sums that they were unable to pay. She said she believes tens of thousands of borrowers in Massachusetts alone could be covered by the suits if they get class-action status.

One of the lawsuits, against Bank of America Corp., was consolidated earlier this month with similar complaints in five other states, Kavanagh said.

Bank of America spokeswoman Shirley Norton said in an e-mail that the lender will continue aggressively defending itself against the cases.

More lawsuits have been filed against other lenders elsewhere.

In San Francisco, the Housing and Economic Rights Advocates legal services group sued Chase, accusing the New York bank of profiting from collecting payments during long trial modifications that ultimately end in foreclosure.

“They’re participating in the crisis they had helped to foment by refusing to honor loan modifications they had already agreed to,” said attorney James C. Sturdevant, whose firm is assisting in the lawsuit.

Chase’s Kishner said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

Joseph R. Mason, a professor at Louisiana State University’s business school who has written widely on the subprime lending debacle, said he suspects the loan modification disputes are a legacy of the federal government’s rush to stem the flow of foreclosures before it had adequate plans in place.

“These policymakers said, just go out and do this and don’t let us worry about the details,” he said. “These details are now what are coming to the fore in these modification cases.”

Laurie Maggiano, policy director at the Treasury Department’s Homeownership Preservation Office, said banks were encouraged to offer trial modifications based on interviews with borrowers about their incomes and expenses while they sorted out the paperwork to qualify for permanently reduced payments.

The banks were under no obligation to make trial modifications permanent until this June, when new regulations stopped loan servicers from offering the trials based on stated income, Maggiano said.

Now, incomes and other details are being fully vetted before trial periods, and borrowers are preapproved for a permanent modification as long as they make three trial period payments, she said.

She also said banks are only obliged to grant modifications if the investors who hold the mortgages also benefit from the modification, as mandated by the October 2008 legislation approving the bailout.

Those explanations provide little comfort to the Cascos.

“I think that banks are playing games with us,” William Casco said.

Casco said his monthly mortgage payments to Washington Mutual Inc. went up to $2,765 when he refinanced his home in 2006 to pay for a new a meat counter at his store in the industrial Los Angeles suburb of South Gate.

Chase was in the process of acquiring Washington Mutual in January 2009 when Casco said it sent a note telling him he qualified for a lower forbearance rate. The El Salvador native sent the tax returns and business documents the bank was requesting.

His payment was reduced to $1,250, where it remained for several months until Chase told him to apply for a trial loan modification.

Again, Casco said, he sent Chase the documentation they requested. His payment rose to $2,363 in June, then returned to the forbearance rate in October.

Casco said he continued paying what he was asked until August 2010, when Chase told his family that they were $50,000 behind on their payments and put them into foreclosure.

The home has since been sold and Casco is currently fighting eviction. That has him considering joining an existing lawsuit against the bank or seeking support to file a suit on his own.

“I’m determined to do whatever it takes in order to keep my house,” he said. “I feel that a great injustice has been done to my family.”

Note to Banks: Give Short Sales a Chance!

Posted in Uncategorized on October 25, 2010 by David Griffith

David Griffith Commentary: We’re now facing a lost generation of homeowners, where the American dream has been damaged beyond repair… to paraphrase John Lennon, ‘… give short sales a chance…’

Owners Seek Short Sales as Banks Push Foreclosure

NY TIMES      MICHAEL POWELL, On Monday October 25, 2010, 6:48 am EDT

PHOENIX — Bank of America and GMAC are firing up their formidable foreclosure machines again today, after a brief pause.

But hard-pressed homeowners like Lydia Sweetland are asking why lenders often balk at a less disruptive solution: short sales, which allow owners to sell deeply devalued homes for less than what remains on their mortgage.

Ms. Sweetland, 47, tried such a sale this summer out of desperation. She had lost her high-paying job and drained her once-flush retirement savings, and her bank, GMAC, wouldn’t modify her mortgage. After seven months of being unable to pay her mortgage, she decided that a short sale would give her more time to move out of her Phoenix home and damage her credit rating less than a foreclosure.

She owes $206,000 and found a buyer who would pay $200,000. Last Friday, GMAC rejected that offer and said it would foreclose in seven days, even though, according to Ms. Sweetland’s broker, the bank estimates it will make $19,000 less on a foreclosure than on a short sale.

“I guess I could salute and say, ‘O.K., I’m walking, here’s the keys,’ ” says Ms. Sweetland, as she sits in a plastic Adirondack chair on her patio. “But I need a little time, and I don’t want to just leave the house vacant. I loved this neighborhood.”

GMAC declined to be interviewed about Ms. Sweetland’s case.

The halt in most foreclosures the last few weeks gave a hint of hope to homeowners like Ms. Sweetland, who found breathing room to pursue alternatives. Consumer advocates took the view that this might pressure banks to offer mortgage modifications on better terms and perhaps drive interest in short sales, which are rising sharply in many corners of the nation.

But some major lenders took a quick inventory of their foreclosure practices and insisted their processes were sound. They now seem intent on resuming foreclosures. And that could have a profound effect on many homeowners.

In Arizona, thousands of homeowners have turned to short sales to avoid foreclosures, and many end up running a daunting procedural gantlet. Several of the largest lenders have set up complicated and balky application systems.

Concerns about fraud are one of the reasons lenders are so careful about short sales. Sometimes well-off homeowners want to portray their finances as dire and cut their losses on a property. In other instances, distressed homeowners try to make a short sale to a relative, who would then sell it back to them (a practice that is illegal). A recent industry report estimates that short sale fraud occurs in at least 2 percent of sales and costs banks about $300 million annually.

Short sales are also hindered when homeowners fail to forward the proper papers, have tax liens or cannot find a buyer.

Because of such concerns, homeowners often are instructed that they must be delinquent and they must apply for a modification first, even if chances of approval are slim. The aversion to short sales also leads banks to take many months to process applications, and some lenders set unrealistically high sales prices — known as broker price opinions — and hire workers who say they are poorly trained.

As a result, quite a few homeowners seeking short sales — banks will not provide precise numbers — topple into foreclosure, sometimes, critics say, for reasons that are hard to understand. Ms. Sweetland and her broker say they are confounded by her foreclosure, because in Arizona’s depressed real estate market, foreclosed homes often sit vacant for many months before banks are able to resell them.

“Banks are historically reluctant to do short sales, fearing that somehow the homeowner is getting an advantage on them,” said Diane E. Thompson, of counsel to the National Consumer Law Center. “There’s this irrational belief that if you foreclose and hold on to the property for six months, somehow prices will rebound.”

Homeowners, advocates and realty agents offer particularly pointed criticism of Bank of America, the nation’s largest servicer of mortgages, and a recipient of billions of dollars in federal bailout aid. Its holdings account for 31 percent of the pending foreclosures in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and Scottsdale, according to an analysis for The Arizona Republic.

The bank instructs real estate agents to use its computer program to evaluate short sales. But in three cases observed by The New York Times in collaboration with two real estate agents, the bank’s system repeatedly asked for and lost the same information and generated inaccurate responses.

In half a dozen more cases examined by The New York Times, Bank of America rejected short sale offers, foreclosed and auctioned off houses at lower prices.

“When I hear that a client’s mortgage is held by Bank of America, I just sigh. Our chances of getting an approval for them just went from 90 percent to 50-50,” said Benjamin Toma, who has a family-run real estate agency in Phoenix.

Bank of America officials also declined interview requests. A Bank of America spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the bank had processed 61,000 short sales nationwide this year; she declined to provide numbers for Arizona or to discuss criticisms of the company’s processing.

Fannie Mae, the mortgage finance company with federal backing, gives cash incentives to encourage servicers, who are affiliated with banks and who oversee great bundles of delinquent mortgages, to approve short sales.

But less obvious financial incentives can push toward a foreclosure rather than a short sale. Servicers can reap high fees from foreclosures. And lenders can try to collect on private mortgage insurance.

Some advocates and real estate agents also point to an April 2009 regulatory change in an obscure federal accounting law. The change, in effect, allowed banks to foreclose on a home without having to write down a loss until that home was sold. By contrast, if a bank agrees to a short sale, it must mark the loss immediately.

Short sales, to be sure, are no free ride for homeowners. They take a hit to their credit ratings, although for three to five years rather than seven after a foreclosure. An owner seeking a short sale must satisfy a laundry list of conditions, including making a detailed disclosure of income, tax and credit liens. And owners must prove that they have no connection to the buyer.

Still, bank decision-making, at least from a homeowner’s perspective, often appears arbitrary. That is certainly the view of Nicholas Yannuzzi, who after 30 years in Arizona still talks with a Philadelphia rasp. Mr. Yannuzzi has owned five houses over time, without any financial problems. When his wife was diagnosed with bone cancer, he put 20 percent down and bought a ranch house in North Scottsdale so that she would not have to climb stairs.

In the last few years, his wife died, he lost his job and he used his retirement fund to pay his mortgage for five months. His bank, Wells Fargo, denied his mortgage modification request and then his request for a short sale.

The bank officer told him that Fannie Mae, which held the mortgage, would not take a discount. At the end of last week, he was waiting to be locked out of his home.

“I’m a proud man. I’ve worked since I was 20 years old,” he said. “But I’ve run out of my 79 weeks of unemployment, so that’s it.”

He shrugged. “I try to keep in the frame of mind that a lot of people have it worse than me.”

Back in Phoenix, Ms. Sweetland’s real estate agent, Sherry Rampy, appeared to receive good news last week. GMAC re-examined her client’s application and suggested it might be approved.

But the bank attached a condition: Ms. Sweetland must come up with $2,000 in closing costs or pay $100 a month for 50 months to the bank. Ms. Sweetland, however, is flat broke.

A late afternoon desert sun angles across her Pasadena neighborhood.

“After this, I’ll never buy again,” Ms. Sweetland says. “This is not the American dream. This is not my American dream.”

 

Bankers Ignored Signs of Trouble on Foreclosures

Posted in Foreclosures and Loan Modifications, Real Estate Law on October 14, 2010 by David Griffith

David Griffith’s Comment: Unfortunately, it looks like the banks rehired all the same incompetent loan representatives that had approved all the bad loans in the first place to now process foreclosures and kick-out the same homeowners they had helped years ago to secure the loans that have gone bad.  What a fiasco!

NY TIMES

ERIC DASH and NELSON D. SCHWARTZ, On Thursday October 14, 2010, 7:38 am EDT

At JPMorgan Chase & Company, they were derided as “Burger King kids” — walk-in hires who were so inexperienced they barely knew what a mortgage was.

At 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.”

As the furor grows over 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 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.”

Other officials say as foreclosures were beginning to spike as early as 2007, no one could have imagined how rapidly they would reach their current level. About 11.5 percent of borrowers are in default today, up from 5.7 percent from two years earlier.

“The systems were not ever that great to begin with, but you didn’t have that much strain on them,” said Jim Miller, who previously oversaw the mortgage servicing units for troubled borrowers at Citigroup, Chase and Capitol One. “I don’t think anybody anticipated this thing getting as bad as it did.”

Almost overnight, what had been a factorylike business that relied on workers with high school educations to process monthly payments needed to come up with a custom-made operation that could solve the problems of individual homeowners. Gregory Hebner, the president of the MOS Group, a California loan modification company that works closely with service companies, likened it to transforming McDonald’s into a gourmet eatery. “You are already in chase mode, and you never catch up,” he said.

To make matters worse, the banks had few financial incentives to invest in their servicing operations, several former executives said. A mortgage generates an annual fee equal to only about 0.25 percent of the loan’s total value, or about $500 a year on a typical $200,000 mortgage. That revenue evaporates once a loan becomes delinquent, while the cost of a foreclosure can easily reach $2,500 and devour the meager profits generated from handling healthy loans.

“Investment in people, training, and technology — all that costs them a lot of money, and they have no incentive to staff up,” said Taj Bindra, who oversaw Washington Mutual’s large mortgage servicing unit from 2004 to 2006.

And even when banks did begin hiring to deal with the avalanche of defaults, they often turned to workers with minimal qualifications or work experience, employees a former JPMorgan executive characterized as the “Burger King kids.” In many cases, the banks outsourced their foreclosure operations to law firms like that of David J. Stern, of Florida, which served clients like Citigroup, GMAC and others. Mr. Stern hired outsourcing firms in Guam and the Philippines to help.

The result was chaos, said Tammie Lou Kapusta, a former employee of Mr. Stern’s who was deposed by the Florida attorney general’s office last month. “The girls would come out on the floor not knowing what they were doing,” she said. “Mortgages would get placed in different files. They would get thrown out. There was just no real organization when it came to the original documents.”

Citigroup and GMAC say they are no longer giving any new work to Mr. Stern’s firm.

In some cases, even steps that were supposed to ease the situation, like the federal program aimed at helping homeowners modify their mortgages to reduce what they owed, had actually contributed to the mess. Loan servicing companies complain that bureaucratic requirements are constantly changed by Washington, forcing them to overhaul an already byzantine process that involves nearly 250 steps.

Foreign Buyers See Big Opportunity in US Housing Bust

Posted in Uncategorized on October 4, 2010 by David Griffith

Michelle Conlin, AP Real Estate Writer, On Monday October 4, 2010, 5:46 pm EDT

The Viceroy, a swanky condominium complex in downtown Miami, gives the impression that the United States is in another real estate boom. The sales office is strangely exuberant. Buyers gush about the glam condos — designed by hipster tastemaker Kelly Wearstler — and their hotel-like amenities: poolside libations, daily housekeeping and room service food stirred up by a celebrity chef.

Since January, 262 of the Viceroy’s 372 units have sold. But there’s a twist: Almost 90 percent of the buyers are foreigners. And they all paid cash.

The Viceroy’s story is playing out across Miami. Individual investors from as far as Argentina, Canada, Colombia, France, Israel, Italy, Norway and Venezuela are swarming the city’s sales offices to get in on what they see as one of the greatest real estate fire sales in the history of the United States.

At one time, these people would have invested in the U.S. stock market. Now they see the opportunity of a lifetime in the nation’s debilitated housing market. The idea is to rent out the properties and then sell them once the economy turns around.

The math is seductive: Prices at the Viceroy are roughly 52 percent off the 2007 peak. Units once sold for as much $670 a square foot. Today the average price is $319.

“I have never seen such a high concentration of foreign nationals acquiring real estate,” says Peter Zalewski, who has been in real estate for 15 years and founded Condo Vultures, a consulting and brokerage firm. “Eighty percent of the sales in downtown Miami are foreign-based. This is unprecedented.”

Miami is hardly the only hot spot for buyers from outside the United States. Real estate brokers say they’ve seen a surge in Washington, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Seattle, Asians are buying property sight unseen, says Joe Brazen of Brazen Sotheby’s International. In New York, 25 percent of buyers at the Armani-designed 20 Pine building, near the World Trade Center site, are from overseas.

“It’s a positive in a sea of negatives,” says Jonathan Miller, chief executive of Miller Samuel, a real estate consulting firm in New York.

This year in Phoenix, for the first time, there have been more buyers from Canada than from California, according to real estate data outfit Information Market. With the Canadian dollar approaching parity with its U.S. counterpart, the opportunity was simply irresistible to Jim Chuong, a 38-year-old Novartis sales manager from Toronto.

Chuong, whose house in Canada is already paid off, used to invest in U.S. stocks. Now he’s investing in Phoenix condos, paying $50 a square foot for units that would cost $500 a square foot in Toronto.

“It’s ridiculous is what it is,” Chuong says.

For foreigners with cash, the deals can make them money from day one. Chuong buys two-bedroom condos for less than $40,000 in low-crime areas. He only picks up units that already have renters. After paying association fees and taxes, he walks away with $300 a month, pre-tax, on each. The deals are now easy to do, thanks to the cottage industry of companies that has grown up to manage virtually everything for foreign buyers, down to badgering renters for the monthly check.

For the international investor class, the United States’ bloated inventory of homes, high unemployment and weak currency make for an unusually attractive buyer’s market.

“Never before have all these things come together like this,” says Patrick O’Neill, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong-based O’Neill Group, which helps Chinese invest in international real estate. O’Neill says Chinese buying in places like New York is on track to double this year.

“Unless you want to go to Baghdad,” O’Neill says, “the United States is the best you can get.”

The trend is showing up in the statistics. In a National Association of Realtors report released in July, 28 percent of brokers reported they had worked with at least one international client, up from 23 percent a year earlier. Among those, 18 percent had completed at least one sale, compared with 12 percent in the 2009 report.

“I was going invest in the stock market, but I decided to invest in real estate instead,” says Diego Garcia, a Mexico City native on assignment in New York City with Pfizer Inc., where he is a regional finance director. Garcia paid $850,000 for a Manhattan one-bedroom in a gleaming new high-rise that he plans to live in for now. “I’m a conservative guy,” Garcia says, “and this was more conservative.”

That’s not to say there aren’t steep risks. An economic jolt could easily throw the whole plan into disarray. The housing market is far from a recovery. In many places, prices continue to fall. What happens if currency values reverse and a foreign owner needs a quick sale? Or a renter bolts in the middle of the night, leaving an empty unit and no cash flow?

It’s not as if foreign buying can be counted on for a housing market turnaround. Overseas buyers represent a mere 7 percent or so of today’s total. Yet in some cities, such as Miami and Washington, the foreign sales are helping to stabilize the markets.

In past downturns, buying a property in the U.S. was the prestigious purview of the wealthy, but today the market is within reach of the swelling ranks of the global upper-middle class.

Colombians, who often call Miami the most beautiful city in their country, have always been drawn to Florida. The difference now is the upside-down economics. It is cheaper to buy in Miami than in Bogota, and you can fly between the two cities for $59 each way.

“Muchos muchos muchos muchos opportunity,” says Elsa de Blaschke, who owns a construction company with her husband in Barranquilla, Colombia, and is hunting for an investment property to buy in Miami. De Blaschke chose not to invest the capital at home because she says Florida offers a better chance of a bigger return.

“The international buyer pool is better than we have ever seen it before,” says Phillip White, president of Sotheby’s International, based in New York.

To match demand, U.S. brokerages are hiring agents who can speak foreign languages and are pouring more resources into marketing overseas.

In October, agents from 11 Sotheby’s International branches will descend on Hong Kong’s convention center to regale wealthy buyers there with slick visuals on showcase properties. In Toronto, agents from Florida Home Finders play to crowds of 800 every other Sunday at a Holiday Inn banquet hall. Jenny Huertas, Condo Vultures’ international sales director, throws seminars for potential clients across South America.

“Their jaws drop. They can’t believe it,” Huertas says. “They think these deals are too good to be true.”

How To Buy a House at a $100,000 Discount

Posted in Uncategorized on October 4, 2010 by David Griffith

By Anna Maria Andriotis
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

To pare down their growing inventory of properties, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are scrambling to unload nearly 150,000 foreclosed homes. And that means 2004-esque deals — like requiring as little as 3% down, offering to pay a portion of the closing costs and arranging special financing and warranties for repairs and renovations.
It’s another option for home owners who want to trade up — and an easier way into the market for first-time home buyers, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research who studies the housing market.

The best bargain might be the home’s price. A SmartMoney analysis revealed that buyers could save $100,000 by buying a Fannie or Freddie home instead of similar fair-market properties just a few blocks away.

And while many of Fannie and Freddie’s homes are at the lower end of the market and in less-desirable areas, a SmartMoney.com search of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac listings revealed that buyers could find properties in good neighborhoods — and for $100,000 less than comparable houses nearby. For example, a five-bedroom, three-bath with a backyard, deck and two-car garage in tony Alexandria, Va., was listed for $445,000, $100,000 less than the average listing price in the area, according to Trulia.com. Four blocks away, a similar non-foreclosed colonial is listed for $639,900.

Or how about a three-bedroom, two-bath in Bergen County’s leafy River Edge, N.J for $359,900 — $85,000 less than the average listing in the area. One avenue over, a non-foreclosed similar home is listed for $474,888.
The downside: Angry neighbors. These types of listings are devaluing nearby properties, says David Howell, realtor and executive vice president at McEnearney Associates, which sells homes in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area. That means in some areas where Freddie and Fannie homes are on the market, buyers could find a better deal on a nearby market-rate home that doesn’t require repairs, he says.

Buying a Fannie or Freddie home can be more complex than pursuing an open-market real estate listing — or even a commercial bank foreclosed property. There’s a smaller selection of appealing properties — there were just six higher-end homes listed on a recent day in Alexandria, for example — and those tend to sell the fastest. And there’s little room to negotiate price.
“Our goal is to recover as much as we can to offset our loss and not to be low balling properties just to move them,” says a Freddie Mac spokesman. “We absolutely have no motivation to be leading a downward spiral in home prices.”
The three best features of Fannie and Freddie foreclosures that make digging for these deals worthwhile:

Small Down Payment
For its foreclosed properties, Fannie Mae will accept down payments as low as 3% on 30-year mortgages at the same interest rates banks are currently offering. And Fannie Mae doesn’t require private mortgage insurance. Compared to a typical bank mortgage, which requires 10% down, plus PMI for buyers with less than 20%, that’s a huge savings — an estimated $51,000 up front and upwards of $2,500 per year PMI on a $300,000 mortgage.
It’s a tradeoff, though. For buyers with 20% down, mortgage payments on a 30-year mortgage loan at 5% would be $1,288 a month. With just 3% down, the buyer would need to borrow $291,000 and make a $1,562 monthly payment.
Help with Renovations
Fannie and Freddie have fixed big flaws like leaky roofs and damaged electrical work, and they often handle small projects like replacing appliances that are broken or missing, tearing up old carpet, or fixing other damage left by former owners or vandals.
Now, to entice buyers who want to update or upgrade, many of Fannie Mae’s properties come with an optional mortgage that includes extra financing up to $30,000 for repairs and improvements. But with a little down payment and the extra amount tacked on, the buyer could end up owing more than the house is worth — especially if home prices continue to drop.
First Dibs
Buyers who plan to live in their Freddie Mac-purchased home will get to see properties for at least the first 15 days they’re on the market — before the listing opens to would-be landlords. Many bank-owned foreclosure properties are snatched up by cash-stocked investors who can wait out the downturn to sell later at a profit.
And Fannie and Freddie homes can be seen inside and out — unlike some regular foreclosure listings. Consider bringing along a contractor when you view the home to help spot areas that need repairs and provide pricing. (Most contractors will do this for free.)
“It gives families who want to buy a home to live in the opportunity to look and bid without competition from cash-rich investors,” says a Freddie Mac spokesman.