Wednesday, November 28, 2007

CFC BK Investigation: It's About Costs, Again

by Tanta on 11/28/2007 09:38:00 AM

Given the tizzy certain segments of the press and internet commentariat went through over a handful of Federal District Court Judges sending foreclosing lenders back to the office to dig up the correct paperwork, I anticipate similar tizzy over this, from Gretchen Morgenson:

The federal agency monitoring the bankruptcy courts has subpoenaed Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest mortgage lender and loan servicer, to determine whether the company’s conduct in two foreclosures in southern Florida represented abuses of the bankruptcy system. . . .

In court documents, the trustee said that it intended to examine the procedures Countrywide used to determine that it had a valid claim to the properties and that it had correctly calculated the amounts it said the borrowers owed. The trustee’s office asked Countrywide to produce a copy of the notes and mortgages, a payment history on both loans and the correspondence it had with the borrowers.
So what does this mean?

First, it is perfectly possible that the charges to the borrowers were intentionally inflated. If so, this action by the trustee will remove a major incentive for lenders to do that, and is therefore to be applauded.

Second, it is perfectly possible that the charges to the borrowers were wholly and completely effed up beyond all recognition by a servicing operation that doesn't bother to assemble all the right documents, review each item for accuracy, and cross-check with the payment history (the printout of all transactions on the account since inception). PJ at Housing Wire makes a good case that the foreclosure filing dustups in Ohio have a lot to do with the way the operations are structured and a "timeline" built into them that encourages attornies to file first, review the case later.

Item the second here is not, by the way, a "defense" of Countrywide or anyone else. Frankly, it'd be better news for all of us if this turned out to be a case of intentional misconduct. I'm betting, frankly, that it's probably a case of operational slovenliness, undertrained staff, bad "timeline" policies, and low-bid contract legal work on the ground being unmanaged by a huge national servicer headquartered a continent away. This is the worst case because, well, that's how the business model of the 800-pound gorilla mortgage servicer works.

Force the giant, "efficient" servicers to do their homework--which is what both the bankruptcy trustees and the foreclosure judges are doing--and you just "added back" the costs of doing business that the consolidation and automation and outsourced-legal work processes were supposed to subtract out of the whole thing. Do enough of that, and all of a sudden it's as expensive for a Countrywide to service a $1.5 trillion mortgage portfolio as it is for ten small regional servicers to handle $150 billion a pop.

Now is that bad news? It depends on your point of view. If you think deconsolidation would manage risk better, improve customer service, and slow down the magic refi machine by sending mortgage transaction costs back to their appropriate levels, then you probably don't think this is bad news at all. If you have a financial or political interest in keeping the punch bowl out, you will find this a distressing idea.

Please, let's be clear here. This kind of thing is going to do a real number on mortgage lending, servicing, and securitization profitability not, in my view, because that profitability has been exclusively due to inflated BK bills. That profitability has been due to "efficiencies" that result, among other things, in inflated BK bills (and insufficiently documented foreclosure filings). In other words, this is going to end up like Sarbanes-Oxley, I suspect: it'll hurt not because it will flush out a bunch of Enrons, but because it will force everyone to pay their risk management and operational control costs.

So let's please skip the uproar over "Countrywide has to prove it owns the loans!" That's not the point here with requiring copies of the notes and mortgages and payment histories and correspondence files. The point of all that is making Countrywide--and everyone else, eventually--"show its work" in its filings. If you present a bill to the trustee, you back it up with documentation of the charge. That's a perfectly unexceptional requirement. That the industry will spin as "red-tape paperwork burdens" is inevitable and should be dismissed as the usual defensive piffle.

What we are seeing here on both the foreclosure and the bankruptcy front is a movement toward having to deal with the true costs of secured lending: the costs involved in maintaining one's security and liquidating it in the event of default. That is going to change the math of securitization economics as well as the profitability of mortgage servicing operations, and that is going to directly impact the consumer in terms of curtailing easy credit and increasing the cost of mortgage financing. Not all of us think that's a bad outcome. If it means servicers hiring specialists with deep skill sets instead of paper-pushing temps, then I for one have no problems with it. I'd like to see the costs of that come out of executive bonuses and dividends rather than new fees to consumers, of course, but no bankruptcy trustee or foreclosure judge is going to make that happen. That'll take a shareholder revolt. Good luck.