U.S. News

Loan Industry Fighting Rules on Mortgages

STephen Labaton|The New York Times

The mortgage industry, facing the prospect of tougher regulations for its central role in the housing crisis, has begun an intensive campaign to fight back.

As the Federal Reserve completes work on rules to root out abuses by lenders, its plan has run into a buzz saw of criticism from bankers, mortgage brokers and other parts of the housing industry. One common industry criticism is that at a time of tight credit, tighter rules could make many mortgages more expensive by creating more paperwork and potentially exposing lenders to more lawsuits.

To the chagrin of consumer groups that have complained that the proposed rules are not strong enough, the industry’s criticism has already prompted the Fed to consider narrowing the scope of the plan so it applies to fewer loans.

The debate over new mortgage standards comes in response to a severe crisis in the housing and financial markets that many economists trace back to overly loose credit and abusive loans. Those practices, combined with low interest rates, led to inflated market values that have declined rapidly in recent months as investors have begun to lose confidence in the financial instruments tied to those loans.

The Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington, DC.

Four months ago, the Fed proposed the new standards on exotic mortgages and high-cost loans for people with weak credit. The Fed’s proposals came after it was criticized sharply as a captive of the mortgage lending industry that had failed over many years to supervise it adequately.

Proposals are pending in Congress on mortgage standards, but it is not clear whether they will be adopted this year. The Fed has its own authority under housing and lending laws to adopt mortgage standards.

The plan presented by the Fed was proposed by its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, and Randall S. Kroszner, a former White House economist in the Bush administration who is now a Fed governor and leads the Fed’s consumer and community affairs committee.

The plan would not cover existing mortgages but would apply only to new ones. It would force mortgage companies to show that customers can realistically afford their mortgages. It would require lenders to disclose the hidden fees often rolled into interest payments. And it would prohibit certain types of advertising considered misleading.

The Fed is expected to issue final rules this summer.

Earlier this month, as the comment period was about to close, the Fed was deluged with more than 5,000 comments, mostly from lenders who said the proposals could affect loans that have not presented problems. Some bankers and brokers also said the rules would discourage them from lending to some creditworthy borrowers.

The plan was criticized in separate filings by three of the industry’s most influential trade groups — the American Bankers Association, the Mortgage Bankers Association and the Independent Community Bankers of America. More modest concerns about some of the provisions were also raised by the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors.

Regulators have been meeting about the proposals with bankers, brokers and consumer groups in recent weeks and are continuing to do so.

Some of the groups seeking changes maintain that the proposals threaten to make borrowing for a home far more expensive and would unfairly deny mortgage brokers the right to earn certain fees.

Small community banks, which have played no significant role in the housing crisis, have urged the Fed to limit the scope of the proposed rules so that they do not discourage them from issuing loans. Lending groups have also raised concern that they would lead to frivolous and expensive litigation.

“We support many of the provisions in the proposed rule, but we do have concerns about the increased regulatory burden, liability and reputational risks that lenders might face,” said Kieran P. Quinn, chairman of Column Financial, Credit Suisse’s mortgage lending subsidiary in Atlanta, and the chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

On at least one major aspect of the proposed restrictions — how broadly they should apply — the industry appears to be making headway. In a recent speech, Mr. Kroszner suggested that in response to criticism that the plan was including too many kinds of loans the Fed was considering whether to narrow the plan.

“We have heard from commenters who have expressed concern that in the current market environment, the proposed trigger could cover the market too broadly, and we will carefully consider the issues they raise and other possible approaches to achieve our objective,” Mr. Kroszner said last month at a conference of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

The unintended consequences of deregulation

Before this year, the Fed had applied an extra set of protection from abusive lending practices to a subset of subprime borrowers under the Home Ownership Equity Protection Act of 1994. The Fed has applied the law to fewer than 1 percent of all mortgages — those with interest rates at least eight percentage points above prevailing rates on Treasury securities.

Some economists and housing experts say the Fed’s lax oversight helped enable lending companies to reap enormous profits by providing millions of unsuitable and abusive loans to homeowners who often did not fully understand the terms or appreciate their risk.

As of January, the most recent month of available data, about a quarter of all subprime adjustable mortgages were delinquent, twice the level of the same period last year. Lenders began foreclosure proceedings on about 190,000 of these mortgages in the last three months of 2007.

The new rules would apply extra protection to any mortgage with an interest rate three percentage points above Treasury rates. Officials said that they would cover all subprime loans, which accounted for about a quarter of all mortgages last year as well as many exotic mortgages known in the industry as “Alt-A” loans.

These loans are made to people with relatively good credit scores but who might provide little documentation of their income or assets, or who make smaller than usual down payments or purchase loans that have unusual terms, like interest-only payments for an initial period.

Many mortgage brokers and bankers complain that the lower threshold would unnecessarily include many borrowers who are not at risk from abusive practices.

“There are a lot of community banks that have shied away from these loans because nobody wants to be a higher-priced lender,” said Karen Thomas, a lobbyist for the Independent Community Bankers. “With the trigger being set so low, it is encroaching on traditional, common sense mortgages. Our fear is it will result in less credit availability, which is not what we need in an already tight credit market.”

But consumer groups say that the proposed rules are already weak and that efforts to further weaken them would render them all but useless.

“The Fed has accurately diagnosed that this is a brain tumor and responded by prescribing an aspirin,” said Kathleen E. Keest, a former state regulator who is now a senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a group supporting home ownership. “In the industry, there is a fair amount of denial. They just don’t get it. There is a calamity within the industry, and they don’t have a new script yet, so they rely on the old script, which is that regulation will raise costs.”

But, she went on, “What we now see is that the unintended consequences of deregulation are worse. Their line is that regulation will cut back access to credit. That’s been their line ever since the small loan laws were adopted in the early 1900s.”

At the same time, letters urging the Fed to further tighten the rules were sent by Sheila C. Bair, the Republican head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, as well as senior members of the House Financial Services Committee.

In her letter, Ms. Bair, whose agency regulates many banks, urged the Fed to apply the proposed restrictions to loans that are three percentage points or higher than equivalent Treasuries. To prevent lenders from evading the limit by creatively structuring the loan and fees, she also suggested that the Fed impose the tighter restrictions if the loan fees exceeded a dollar amount.

While the Fed plan would require disclosures that could make it harder for lenders to include hidden sales fees that are usually paid to the mortgage broker, Ms. Bair suggested that the plan go further and ban some practices.

The plan, for instance, would require subprime lenders to explicitly describe fees that are now hidden. But Ms. Bair has proposed the elimination of such fees, saying such a ban would “eliminate compensation based on increasing the cost of credit and make the amount of the compensation more transparent to consumers.”

Ms. Bair also proposed making it easier for borrowers to sue lenders without having to show that they were engaged in a pattern of abusive practices, which is a requirement under the proposed Fed rules. She said that forcing borrowers to show a pattern of abuse “clearly favors lenders by limiting the number of individual consumer lawsuits and the ability of regulators to pursue individual violations.”

Ms. Bair also recommended that the Fed eliminate a so-called safe harbor provision in the proposal that protects lenders who fail to verify the income or assets of a borrower in some circumstances.