MERS, Banks Sued by New York State; MERSCORP Responds

Three major banks and Virginia-based
MERSCORP, Inc. and its subsidiary Mortgage Electronic Registrations Systems
(MERS) were sued Friday by the state of New York.  The suit, filed by the state’s Attorney
General Eric T. Schneiderman
, charges that the creation and use of a privately
national electronic registration system, MERS, “has resulted in a wide range of deceptive and fraudulent foreclosure
filings in New York state and federal courts, harming homeowners and
undermining the integrity of the judicial foreclosure process.”  Further, the lawsuit charges that the
employees and agents of the three banks, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase,
and Wells Fargo
, acting as “MERS certifying officers,” have
repeatedly submitted court documents containing false and misleading information
that made it appear that the foreclosing party had the authority to bring a
case when in fact it may not have.  The
suit also names additional defendants for some of the charges including loan
servicing subsidiaries of the three banks.

The
lawsuit, filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Kings County levies
the following charges:   

  • MERS was created to allow financial
    institutions to evade country recording fees, avoid the need to publicly record
    mortgage transfers and facilitate the rapid sale and securitization of
    mortgages. MERS members log all of their
    transfers in a private electronic registry rather than in the local county
    clerk’s office.
     
  • MERS is a shell company with no
    economic interest in any mortgage loan.
    It is the nominal “mortgagee” of the loan in the public records and
    remains as such regardless of how often the loan is sold or transferred among
    its members.
     
  • MERS has few or no employees but
    serves as the mortgagee for tens of millions of mortgages. It has indiscriminately designated over
    20,000 MERS member employees as MERS “certifying officers” expressly
    authorizing them to assign MERS mortgages and execute paperwork to foreclose on
    properties and submit claims in bankruptcy proceedings while failing to
    adequately screen, train, or monitor their activities. Assignments were often automatically
    generated and “robo-signed” by individuals who did not review the
    underlying property ownership records, confirm the documents’ accuracy, or even
    read the documents. MERS certifying
    officers have regularly executed and submitted in court mortgage assignments
    and other legal documents on behalf of MERS without disclosing that they are
    not MERS employees, but instead are employed by other entities, such as the
    mortgage servicer filing the case or its counsel.
     
  • Use of the private database to
    record property transfers has eliminated homeowners’ and the public’s ability
    to track them through the traditional public records system. This data base is plagued with inaccuracies
    and errors which make it difficult to verify the chain of title or the current
    note-holder. In addition, as a result of these
    inaccuracies, MERS has filed mortgage satisfactions against the wrong property.
     
  • This “bizarre and complex end-around
    of the traditional recording system” has saved banks more than $2 billion in
    recording fees and allowed the banks to securitize and sell millions of loans, “often
    misrepresenting the quality and nature of the mortgages being transferred.”
     
  • The creation and use of the MERS
    System by the Defendant Servicers and other financial institutions has resulted
    in a wide range of deceptive and illegal practices, particularly with respect
    to the filing of New York foreclosure proceedings in state courts and federal
    bankruptcy proceedings.

The lawsuit estimates that MERS
members have brought over 13,000 foreclosures against New York homeowners
naming MERS as the foreclosing property when in many cases MERS lacks the
standing to foreclosure.  Even when
foreclosures were not initiated in MERS name, proceedings related to their
registered loans often included deceptive information.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that
the alleged practices violate the law, as well as injunctive relief, damages
for harmed homeowners, and civil penalties. The lawsuit also seeks a court
order requiring defendants to take all actions necessary to cure any title
defects and clear any improper liens resulting from their fraudulent and
deceptive acts and practices.

On January 24 the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the 11th Judicial Court upheld an appeal from MERS that
contended a lower court had erred in finding that a homeowner had been
improperly foreclosed on by MERS on the grounds that:

1).   The assignment of the security deed was
invalid because MERS, as nominee of a defunct lender could not assign the
documents of its own volition.

2.
    The “splitting” of the mortgage and
the note rendered the mortgage null and void and therefore notices of
foreclosure were invalid as not coming from a secured creditor.

The New York suit differs slightly from
the facts in Smith V. Saxon Mortgage,
but if Schneiderman wins his case, it could be that the legitimacy of MERS will
ultimately have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

…(read more)

Forward this article via email:  Send a copy of this story to someone you know that may want to read it.

GSE Reform: The Future is Ours to Shape

We are coming to the close of a watershed year in the financial services field. The most far reaching financial legislation since the era of reform under Franklin D. Roosevelt passed; the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act and creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Every sector of the federal government dealing with the financial services industry will be affected by this far reaching legislation. In addition the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) released its regulations implementing Basel III. These domestic and international acts will, after full implementation, provide the stage for the complete overhaul of the financial services industry not only in America but the World over the next ten years. Still to be decided is the future of the GSE's, Fannie and Freddie. How…(read more)

Forward this article via email:  Send a copy of this story to someone you know that may want to read it.

Housing Industry Reacts to State of the Union

Housing featured prominently in
President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night.  The President made two specific proposals,
one to deal with the ghosts of housing past, the other to provide expanded
credit to homeowners.

In contrast to the settlement with banks
that Obama was widely rumored to announce
at the State of the Union, he instead directed Attorney General Eric Holder to
create a new office on Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses.  The President said, “The American people
deserve a robust and comprehensive investigation into the global financial meltdown
to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”

According to the Huffington Post, the new
office will take a three-pronged approach to the issue, holding financial
institutions accountable for abuses, compensating victims, and providing relief
for homeowners, and will operate as part of the existing Financial Fraud
Enforcement Task Force.  On Wednesday several
news outlets were reporting that the unit will be chaired by State Attorney
General Eric Schneiderman, who has been regarded as among the toughest of state
law enforcement officers with Lanny Breuer, an assistant attorney general in
the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) as co-chair.  Others reported to be in the group are Robert
Khuzami, director of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission,
U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh and Tony West, assistant AG, DOJ. 

The President’s second and more
broad-reaching proposal was for a massive refinancing of mortgage loans that
would reach beyond the current government initiates such as the Home Affordable
Refinance Program (HARP).  While few
details are available, the President said that his proposed initiative would
cut red tape and could save homeowners about $3,000 a year on their mortgage
payments because of the current historically low rates.  Unlike HARP, the program would apply to all
borrowers whether or not their current mortgages are government-backed and
would be paid for by a small fee on the largest financial institutions. Obama
did not mention principal reduction in his proposal.

Bloomberg is reporting that the program is
Obama’s response to a call by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in a paper sent to Congress
earlier this month for the administration to offer more aid for housing.   While largely dealing with the need to
convert excess housing inventory to rental property, the paper also touched on
the benefits of easing refinancing beyond the HARP program.

Bloomberg also outlined some of the
tradeoffs of a super-refinancing program saying it may damage investors in
government-backed securities by more quickly paying off those with high coupons
and limited default risk while aiding holders of other home-loan securities and
banks.  Word that such a proposal might be
forthcoming in the President’s speech, Bloomberg said, “Roiled the market for
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities according to a note to clients by Bank of
America Corp.”

The Associated Press quoted Stan
Humphries, chief economist at Zillow as saying the refinancing could allow 10
million more homeowners to refinance and, by preventing foreclosures and
freeing up money for Americans to spend, could give the economy a $40 to $75
billion jolt.  The Federal Reserve, the
AP said, was more cautious, estimating that 2.5 million additional homeowners
might be able to refinance.

The refinancing initiative would require
approval by Congress, however the day after the speech the focus was on other issues
such as tax reform and we could not find any reaction from members of Congress
specific to the refinancing issue.  Even the
Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) issued a statement from its president David
H. Stevens which did not mention the refinancing program, obliquely addressing
instead the creation of the mortgage fraud office.    

“Like the
President, we believe it is time to move forward with rebuilding this nation’s
housing market and that lenders and borrowers alike contributed to the housing
crisis we are currently in.  Let there also be no mistake, those who
committed illegal acts ought to face the consequences, if they haven’t already.”

Stevens
then called for a clear national housing policy “that establishes certainty for
lenders and borrowers alike.”  This,
according to MBA, requires finalizing the Risk Retention/Qualified Residential
Mortgage (QRM) rule “in a way that ensures access to credit for all qualified
borrowers,” establishing working national servicing standards, developing a
legal safe-harbor for Dodd-Frank QRM/Ability to Repay requirements, and “Move(ing)
quickly to determine the proper role of the federal government in the mortgage market
in order to ensure sufficient mortgage liquidity through all markets, good and
bad.

Creation
of the fraud office generated substantial comment, much of which was
unfavorable.  A lot of the criticism
focused on the lack of prosecutions that have emerged from the existing fraud
task force and there was a strong suspicion voiced by the liberal blogosphere
that the new office was merely a cover for pushing the DOJ/50-state attorneys
general settlement with major banks.  However,
one analysis, written by Shahien Nasiripour in U.S. Politics and Policies pointed out the wider powers of
enforcement available to attorneys general in some states such as New York’s
Martin Act and how the states and federal government might use the new office
to pool their powers and responsibilities to the benefit of each.  

The new
office will not lure California Attorney General Kamala Harris back into the
fold.  Harris and Schneiderman both
withdrew from the national foreclosure settlement last year, feeling that it
did not represent the interest of their respective states.  Despite the appointment of Schneiderman to
head the new office, Harris announced on Wednesday that she would not be
rejoining her fellow AGs
in their negotiations saying that the latest
settlement proposal was inadequate for California.  A spokesman for her office said, “Our
state has been clear about what any multistate settlement must contain:
transparency, relief going to the most distressed homeowners, and meaningful
enforcement that ensures accountability. At this point, this deal does not
suffice for California.”

Here’s the video of the speech beginning at the point discussing housing related issues…

…(read more)

Forward this article via email:  Send a copy of this story to someone you know that may want to read it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS LEAD WHITE HOUSE FORUM ON SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES

WASHINGTON – The Obama Administration today convened a meeting with more than 50 local government and business leaders to discuss the role of sustainability in economic development and job creation. The gathering coincided with the third anniversary of the creation of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a landmark collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Congress Hears Different Views on Appraisal Regulation

Among those testifying at a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Oversight’s subcommittee on
Insurance, Housing, and Community Opportunity were William B.
Shear
, director, Financial Markets and Community Investment, Government
Accountability Office (GAO) and Sara
W. Stephens, president of the Appraisal Institute.  Shear restated GAO’s earlier recommendations
that federal regulators set minimum standards for registering Appraisal
Management Companies (AMC)
before a hearing on
Thursday while Stephens countered
that non-congressionally mandated regulations are threatening to hamstring and jeopardize the real estate appraisal
profession altogether.

Shear presented results of a GAO
study on appraisal oversight which confirmed that appraisals remain the most
popular form of property valuation used by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae (the GSEs) and
major lenders.  While other valuation
methods such as broker opinions and automatic valuation models (AVM) are
quicker and less expensive, they are also considered less reliable and are not
generally used for loan originations.   While GAO did not capture data on the
prevalence of approaches used to perform appraisals, the sales comparison
approach is required by the GSEs and FHA and is reportedly used in nearly all
appraisals.

Charges of conflict of interest have
changed the ways in which appraisers are selected and raised concerns about the
oversight of AMCs which often manage appraisals for lenders, GAO said.  The Dodd-Frank Act reinforced earlier
requirements and guidance about selecting appraisers and prohibiting coercion
and this has encouraged more lenders to turn to AMCs.  This in turn has raised questions about the
oversight of these firms and their impact on appraisal quality.

Federal regulators and the
enterprises said they hold lenders responsible for ensuring that AMCs’ policies
and practices meet their requirements but that they generally do not directly
examine AMCs’ operations.  Some industry
participants voiced concerns that some AMCs may prioritize low costs and speed
over quality and competence. The Dodd-Frank Act requires state appraiser
licensing boards to supervise AMCs and requires other federal regulators to
establish minimum standards for states to apply in registering them. Setting
minimum standards that address key functions AMCs perform on behalf of lenders
could provide greater assurance of the quality of the appraisals those AMCs
provide GAO said, but as of June 2012, federal regulators had not completed
rulemaking for such standards.

The Appraisal Subcommittee (ASC)
established in 1989 by the Title XI of the Financial Institutions Reform,
Recover, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) has been monitoring the appraisal function
but its effectiveness has been limited by several weaknesses which include failing
to both define the criteria it uses to assess state compliance with Title XI and
the scope of its role in monitoring the appraisal requirements of federal
banking regulators.

ASC also lacks specific policies for
determining whether activities of the Appraisal Foundation (a private nonprofit
organization that sets criteria for appraisals and appraisers) that are funded
by ASC grants are Title XI-related. Not having appropriate policies and
procedures is inconsistent with federal internal control standards that are
designed to promote the effectiveness and efficiency of federal activities.

Appraisals and other types of real
estate valuations have come under increased scrutiny following the mortgage
crisis
and Dodd-Frank codified several requirements for the independence of
appraisers and expanded the role of ASC. 
It also directed GAO to conduct two studies which were the source of Shear’s
testimony before the committee.

GAO recommends that federal
regulators consider key AMC functions in rulemaking to set minimum standards
for registering AMCs, that ASC clarify the criteria it uses to assess states’
compliance with Title XI of FIRREA and develop specific policies and procedures
for monitoring the federal banking regulators and the Appraisal Foundation.  ASC and regulators are either taking steps to
implement these recommendations or considering doing so.

Although she was not speaking directly
to the GAO report, Stephens in a written statement told committee members that,
although appraising is the most heavily regulated activity within the mortgage
and real estate sectors
, regulatory agencies are planning to enact further
changes that would threaten to tie the hands of appraisers, curtail innovation
and increase regulatory burdens on appraisers and financial institutions.

Stephens was testifying directly
against The Appraisal Foundation’s creation of a new Appraisal Practices Board
delving into appraisal practice matters without Congressional authorization.
The Foundation does not have authority to codify appraisal methods and
techniques, she said, and called it a dangerous and unjustified move.  “The regulatory burden for appraisers is on
the cusp of being expanded exponentially.”

“Appraisal methods and techniques
require judgment by the appraiser. It is assumed that the appraiser has
been thoroughly trained to judge appropriate situations. The choice of methods
and techniques are the responsibility of the appraiser in the development of
his/her scope of work” she said. For instance, whether to use reproduction cost
or replacement cost or when and how to adjust for sales concessions are
dependent on the actions of the marketplace and should not be mandated by a
body such as the Appraisal Practices Board. Hard “rules of thumb” do not work
within valuation because there always is an exception to the rule, she said.

The Appraisal Institute offered a
long list of recommendations
to Congress including that they:

  • realign the appraisal regulatory
    structure with those of other industries in the real estate and mortgage
    sectors
  • Protect the independence of the
    appraisal standards-setting process and require that standards for federally
    related transactions be issued by an entity that does not develop or offer
    education for appraisers.
  • Establish limitations around the
    Appraisal Practices Board specifying that no tax dollars be used to fund the
    venture, voluntary guidance be truly voluntary, and meaningful oversight over
    the de facto regulatory action of the Foundation be established.
  • Reiterate that the Foundation does
    not have legislative authorization in the area of “methods and techniques” and
    “appraiser education.”
  • Authorize the GSEs and other agencies
    to halt purchase or guarantees of loans in states that maintain deficient
    appraiser regulatory regimes and ensure that ongoing federal support for the
    GSEs or any replacement maintains consistent appraisal rules.

The Institute said states should be restricted from
codifying voluntary guidance into state law or regulation and the Appraisal
Standards Board prohibited from specifically
referencing its works within the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal
Practice and laws should be established to empower state boards to investigate
and prosecute complaints involving appraisers.

…(read more)

Forward this article via email:  Send a copy of this story to someone you know that may want to read it.