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New Model Is Forged In Bank's Wreckage

A bank employee, center, talks with customers waiting at IndyMac branch as it reopens after the FDIC takeover.
A bank employee, center, talks with customers waiting at IndyMac branch as it reopens after the FDIC takeover. (By David Mcnew -- Getty Images)
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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

PASADENA, Calif. -- Inside the stone-and-glass headquarters of IndyMac Federal Bank, regulators are carrying out an experiment that could change the course of the financial crisis by tackling the home foreclosures that are at its root.

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With the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. at the helm of IndyMac, which was seized in July after it became one of the country's largest bank failures, regulators are attempting to create a model for reworking mortgages and rescuing homeowners.

A few major banks are also trying to tackle the home foreclosure problem, a major impediment to the nation's economic recovery. J.P. Morgan Chase yesterday said it will begin modifying mortgages under a program that could keep 400,000 families in their homes. Bank of America plans to soon start modifying an estimated 400,000 loans held by its newly acquired Countrywide Financial.

But so far, private efforts have moved slowly. So attention is focused on the work of the FDIC. Its chairman, Sheila C. Bair, has been a fierce advocate of directing more assistance to homeowners instead of just to financial firms. Members of Congress have also pushed the Bush administration to help homeowners. The FDIC and Treasury Department are negotiating a plan to have the government guarantee mortgages of millions of distressed homeowners if lenders agree to significant loan modifications.

The IndyMac initiative is seen as a way to test some aggressive methods for breaking through traditional barriers to loan modification. For instance, regulators are using a formula -- rather than individually scrutinizing each borrower -- to try to decide who should and should not be saved from foreclosure. In addition, regulators have won the cooperation of a major Wall Street firm in their mortgage modification effort, something critical to their success.

But the initiative is also uncovering unexpectedly tough challenges, among them the frustration of having a complicated mix of loans in the bank's portfolio, borrowers who are difficult to reach and a number of homeowners whom regulators cannot legally help.

Jeff Lehman is one of the FDIC's success stories. Lehman, a fur retailer, fell behind in his payments earlier this year after 20 years in his West Hollywood condominium. His initial attempts to modify his loan through IndyMac were rebuffed.

But after the FDIC took over the bank, Lehman said, he received a letter proposing a more-than-$300 drop in his monthly payments. "This was definitely better than losing the place," he said.

About a dozen FDIC employees and a group of contractors have set up operations on four floors of IndyMac's headquarters, working next to the remaining IndyMac employees. With more than 7,000 employees laid off in the past year, many offices and desks are empty.

IndyMac's massive portfolio contains more than 700,000 loans, most of which are for homes in the hardest-hit parts of the country, including Southern California and Florida. More than 50 percent are adjustable-rate mortgages, with many homeowners facing an increase in monthly payments that could push them into delinquency.

The FDIC is skipping the traditional but time-consuming approach of making customized modifications to individual mortgages. Instead, regulators are plugging homeowners' incomes into a formula to determine how much they can afford to pay -- usually 38 percent of their gross monthly income. Regulators first try to reach that payment level by lowering the interest rate. If that is insufficient, they then extend the term of the loan to 40 years. If that also is insufficient, homeowners might pay interest on only a portion of the principal.

"Is it perfect? No. Is it effective? Yes," said Mike Krimminger, special policy adviser to the FDIC, who was dispatched to California to head the program he helped design. "Streamlining makes a big difference in being able to apply this to a lot of mortgages."


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