Friday, July 17, 2009

Obama turns up heat on mortgage servicers

As complaints mount about President Obama's foreclosure prevention program, the administration is ratcheting up the pressure on mortgage servicers.

Financial executives will meet with Treasury Department and administration housing officials on July 28 to discuss how the loan modification and refinancing plan has been implemented. The administration plans to grill servicers that have done few modifications or have had many complaints.

Officials also want financial institutions to hire more people and train them better, expand their call centers, and send more mailings to eligible borrowers, according to a letter sent to servicers last week. The government also said servicers need to establish a way for borrowers to contest their treatment or denial.

"There is a general need for servicers to devote substantially more resources to this program for it to fully succeed and achieve the objectives we all share," according to the letter, signed by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan. "We are asking all servicers expand their servicing capacity and improve the execution quality of loan modifications."

Loan servicers' efforts will be made public on Aug. 4, when the Obama administration plans to start issuing monthly progress reports.

The updates will include data for each servicer participating Obama's $75 billion program. Specifically, they will feature the number of trial modification offers extended and underway by each institution, as well as the number of final modifications and the success of those adjustments.

So far, participating servicers have extended 325,000 loan modification offers and have 160,000 three-month trial adjustments underway, said Herbert Allison, who heads Treasury's financial stability efforts, at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday.

Under the plan, eligible borrowers who are in or at risk of default may be able to lower their monthly payments to no more than 31% of their pre-tax income through a loan modification. The modifications are made permanent after the homeowner makes three on-time payments.

Servicers have also refinanced 43,000 loans under the administration's program that allows people with little or no equity in their home to refinance and take advantage of today's low mortgage rates. People can participate even if they have loans of up to 125% of the value of their property, as long as they meet other criteria.

"Even though we are making rapid progress, we think we can do even more," Allison told lawmakers.

Many industry insiders fear that the foreclosure crisis in outpacing efforts to help troubled borrowers. Thursday's hearing came on the same day as a report revealed a record 1.53 million properties were in the foreclosure process during the first half of 2009, up 15% more than the same period of 2008. One out of every 84 homes received at least one filing between January and June, according to RealtyTrac.

The Obama program has been plagued by problems since its February debut. As soon as most servicers started processing applications in April and May, borrowers began reporting that their paperwork was being lost, their calls were going unreturned and decisions on their cases were being delayed.

"This is disgraceful," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., head of the banking committee. "Why am I still reading about lost files, under-staffed and under-trained servicers, and hours spent on hold on the phone?"

When the president unveiled his program on Feb. 18, he said it could help up to 9 million people. Allison said that goal was still attainable by the end of 2012.

To achieve those figures, the administration is trying to make sure borrowers in need know where to turn. It is pressing banks to do more outreach, as well as holding its own educational events.

Among the issues holding up loan modifications are second liens, which are often owned by banks as opposed to investors. The administration issued revised guidelines in April saying that participating servicers had to modify or extinguish second liens if they adjust the first. But banks are waiting for additional information, which officials say will be available in coming weeks.

After lawmakers grilled administration officials, the committee heard from a borrower and consumer advocates reiterating problems with the program. Mortgage executives from Wells Fargo and Bank of America also spoke, defended their efforts to assist troubled homeowners.

Wells Fargo was in the process of finalizing 52,000 loan modifications under the president's program, as of June 30, said Mary Coffin, head of mortgage servicing for the bank. Only 55% of its seriously delinquent borrowers are eligible for it. During the first half of this year, it boosted its default team staff by 54% to 11,500.

Some 80,000 Bank of America customers, meanwhile, are in trial modifications or are responding to offers, said Allen Jones, the bank's default management executive. Bank of America also has funded nearly 40,000 refinances applications. It has 7,400 people dedicated to home retention, double the number a year ago. They respond to an average of 80,000 calls a day.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jittery investors dump stocks

Stocks tumbled Tuesday morning, as jittery investors dumped shares ahead of the start of the G8 summit and the second-quarter corporate reporting period.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) lost 80 points, or 1% roughly 90 minutes into the session. The S&P 500 (SPX) index lost 8 points, or 0.9% and the Nasdaq (COMP) fell 18 points, or 1%.

Stocks were mixed Monday as investors drifted back in after the long holiday weekend. Stocks have been inching lower since mid-June as a three-month stock market rally has lost steam.

The S&P 500 spiked 40% on bets that the economy is stabilizing, but a recent bout of mixed news has stalled the advance, culminating with last week's weaker-than-expected June jobs report.

Economic news due later this week includes readings on retail sales, the job market, import and export prices and consumer sentiment.

Investors are also primed for the start of the second-quarter reporting period, which unofficially kicks off after the close Wednesday with Dow component Alcoa. The aluminum maker is expected to post a loss of 37 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters estimates. Alcoa earned 65 cents a year ago.

However, most quarterly financial reports are due out later in the month. Market participants will be looking to see not only that companies beat forecasts, but that they provide an encouraging outlook for future quarters.

Also in focus: The G8 summit of the world's leading industrialized nations, beginning Wednesday in L'Aquila, Italy. President Obama is expected to speak about the economic outlook. Leaders of Japan, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Russia will also speak.
0:00 /1:12The G8's new guest list

Bonds: Treasury prices rose, lowering the yield on the benchmark 10-year note to 3.51% from 3.52% late Thursday. Bond markets were closed Friday. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Other markets: In global trade, Asian markets tumbled and European markets were mixed in the afternoon.

Energy prices tumbled, with U.S. light crude oil for August delivery falling 97 cents to $63.08 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In currency trading, the dollar fell versus the euro and the yen.

COMEX gold for August delivery fell 80 cents to $923.50 an ounce.

Market breadth was negative and volume was light. On the New York Stock Exchange, decliners beat advancers five to two on volume of 250 million shares. On the Nasdaq, losers topped winners three to two on volume of 580 million shares.

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