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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Morgenson Watch

by Tanta on 9/30/2007 11:50:00 AM

I don't know how many posts I've written on Gretchen Morgenson's terrible reporting. I guess I'm going to have to start keeping score. "Can These Mortgages Be Saved?" Can this "reporter" be saved?

Her latest attempt to go after Countrywide, for sins real and imagined, contains the following "reportage":

But on the billions of dollars worth of mortgage loans that have been sold to investors in the last few years, it is not the banks or lenders like Countrywide that are hit with big losses when homes go into foreclosure. It is the sea of faceless investors who own pieces of these trusts. Also, under the trusts’ pooling and servicing agreements, Countrywide and other servicers typically recoup any costs they cover in the foreclosure process, such as legal and appraisal fees.

Borrower advocates fear that fees imposed during periods of delinquency and even foreclosure can offset losses that lenders and servicers incur. Few borrowers know, for example, that when they make only partial payments on their mortgages, servicers do not credit those payments against the principal or interest on their loan. Instead, the partial payments are deposited into a so-called suspense account. Servicers can dip into these funds and make use of them as interest-free loans, although the funds have to be accessible when the borrower becomes current on payments. In the meantime, borrowers — whether or not they know it — are still zapped with fees and charges for delinquent mortgage payments.

“The foreclosure process is a profit opportunity for servicers and lenders, but there is very little oversight of the fees imposed,” said Michael D. Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending. “There are a lot of folks trying to squeeze distressed borrowers.”
I cannnot, literally, think of a better way to stir up sympathy for Countrywide than printing crap like this.

1. Servicers recoup foreclosure expenses because servicers are servicers. Investors are investors. Investors buy the credit risk; they therefore cover foreclosure costs. This is a perfectly normal arrangement. If you think there's a problem with it, can you explain how being reimbursed for an out-of-pocket expense, like a fee paid to a lawyer or an appraiser, is "making a profit"? Are you saying there's a markup in there? Do you have evidence for that?

2. Servicers are not now and have never been required to accept partial payments. Mortgage loans are not free-form Option ARMs where the borrower gets to decide how much principal or interest to pay this month; all of them, even the real OAs, have "minimum payments." If a distressed borrower talks a servicer into accepting a period of partial payments, to be made up later, that is called a payment plan or forbearance arrangement or some other "workout," and it takes the servicer's consent.

3. Putting partial payments in "suspense" means they don't get posted to the customer's account. It does not mean that the money goes into the servicer's own account. Those funds go into custodial accounts to which servicers cannot "dip in." Servicers do receive float income on those accounts, but of course in most cases they are also obligated to advance the full payment to the investor, out of their own funds, until it is collected from the borrower. So advances do offset the float. This entire paragraph is such an egregious mismash that it's unbelievable.

4. Foreclosure is a profit opportunity? What does that mean? That mortgage loan servicing--which unfortunately does include having to foreclose loans when they default--is a profitable business? Well, yes. That's why people engage in it. Is the claim here that an unfair or excessive profit is being made off of foreclosures (but not off of performing loan servicing)? How? Specifically? The "examples" in these three paragraphs don't make any sense.

And I cannot begin to make sense of the "Connor" loan example. With the hashed-up timeline and limited information given it's impossible to figure out. All I can say is bang-up job of reporting.

Ms. Morgenson, if you want to keep up on your mission to portray Countrywide in the worst possible light, you are going to have to get an education from a reliable source at some point about how the mortgage industry works.