Big banks close to satisfying obligations under mortgage settlement, report says

October 16, 2013

The nation’s largest banks have almost met their obligations to provide relief to struggling homeowners under the $25 billion national mortgage settlement, even as government officials question the way some institutions have handled the process.

On Wednesday, the court-
appointed monitor of the settlement said Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup were more than halfway done with their requirements to offer borrowers aid in the form of loan forgiveness, short sales, forbearance or refinancing.

Mortgage servicers, under the landmark agreement to clean up shoddy foreclosure practices, had to provide $20 billion in relief to borrowers, with different types of relief assigned different credit toward that figure. The monitor audited each bank’s files through December and submitted the results Wednesday to federal judges in the District.

“The banks really got to work on this part of the agreement and have accomplished a lot,” said settlement monitor Joseph A. Smith Jr.

According to the report, Bank of America surpassed other mortgage servicers by completing 97 percent of its required $7.6 billion in borrower relief. JPMorgan has met 76 percent of its $3.6 billion obligation, Wells Fargo has doled out 55 percent of its $3.4 billion in required aid, and Citigroup has provided 46 percent of the $1.4 billion it pledged.

Ally Financial, the fifth mortgage servicer named in the settlement, has fulfilled all its obligations. Considering that the report covers activity only through the end of last year, Smith said other servicers may also be done. He said he expects to complete his audits of all the files in the coming months.

JPMorgan spokeswoman Amy Bonitatibus said the bank has to date “provided $11 billion in mortgage relief to 126,000 homeowners under the settlement, earning more than the $4.2 billion in credits necessary to satisfy our consumer relief obligations,” which include compensation.

Of the relief that JPMorgan provided through December, about half, or $1.4 billion, came in the form of short sales, in which lenders agree to allow the home to be sold for less than the borrower owes.

At Wells Fargo, more than a third of the relief tracked in the report involved refinancing home loans. Company spokeswoman Vickee Adams said the nation’s largest mortgage lender self-
reported $4.4 billion in consumer relief to the monitor at the end of June.

Based on that figure, she said, “nearly 67 percent of the credit we requested reflects principal forgiveness on first-lien modifications and borrower benefits from refinancing.”

Although consumer advocates praise this progress, some wonder whether the aid has reached the hardest-hit communities. The monitor said his office does not have the authority to track demographic data.

The settlement was the culmination of more than 16 months of negotiations between lenders and a cadre of 49 state attorneys general and several federal agencies. It arose from allegations that lenders used forged and shoddy paperwork to quickly foreclose on struggling homeowners, a practice known as “robo-signing.”

The agreement aimed to change the way lenders interact with struggling borrowers by preventing banks from initiating a foreclosure while simultaneously negotiating a modification, a practice known as “dual-tracking.” Banks also were supposed to give borrowers a single point of contact to ensure that they weren’t being bounced around to different employees with each interaction.

But advocates say not much has changed.

“The financial part of the settlement was important to the extent that it promoted the notion that principal reduction was a good thing, but issues around servicing have not been resolved,” said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

At least three of the attorneys general involved in negotiating the mortgage deal have accused the banks of violating the servicing standards. This month, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo accusing it of dragging its feet in processing requests from homeowners to have their loan payments lowered, a direct violation of the settlement. Wells Fargo denies the charges.

The monitor acknowledges that banks need to fix the way they handle requests for mortgage relief. To that end, he has added four tests to measure how well the banks are complying. Banks that fail the tests could be dragged into court.

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