January Housing Scorecard Released by HUD, Treasury

The
Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Treasury issued the
administration’s January Housing Scorecard on Monday.  The report is essentially a summary of
data on housing and housing finance released by public and private sources over
the previous month and/or quarter.  Most
of the data such as new and existing home sales, permits and starts, mortgage
originations, and various house price evaluations have been previously covered
by MND. 

The scorecard incorporates by reference
the monthly report of the Making Home Affordable Program (MHA) through the end
of December.  This includes information
on the universe of MHA programs including the Home Affordable Modification
Program (HAMP), HOPE Now, and Second Lien Modifications and other initiatives. 

Since the
HAMP program began in April 2009 1,774,595 homeowners have entered into trial
loan modifications, 20,074 since the November HAMP report.  About half of these homeowners, 933,327, have
completed the trials and converted to permanent modifications; 23,374
conversions took place during the current report period.  Just over three-quarters of a million of the permanent
modifications are still active.

While the
HAMP program dates to April 2009, it underwent substantial revisions to its
policies and procedures in June 2010, and many of the measures of its
performance are benchmarked at that time. 
Eight-four percent of homeowners who entered a trial modification after
that date have received a permanent modification with an average trial period
of 3.5 months compared to 43 percent who entered a trial prior to the changes.  As of December, 21,002 of the active trials
had been underway for six months or more; in May 2010, the month before the
changes took place, 190,000 trials were six months old or more.  In December every servicer except Ocwen was
above an 80 percent conversion rate.

HAMP
modifications with the largest reduction in mortgage payments continue to
demonstrate the lowest redefault rates.  At
18 months after modification all loans have a 90+ day default rate of 23
percent.  However, loans with a 20
percent or smaller reduction in loan payment are defaulting at the rate of 36.4
percent while loans with a 50 percent payment decrease or greater have a
default rate of 13.3 percent. 

The Home
Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives program offers incentives to homeowners who
wish to exit home ownership through a short sale or deed-in-lieu of
foreclosure.  Thus far 43,368 homeowners
have been accepted into the program and 27,665 transactions have been
completed, the vast majority through a short sale.  More than half of the completed transactions
(18,350) were on loans owned by private investors; 7,711 were portfolio loans
and 1,604 were GSE loans.

There has
been an emphasis in some quarters on reducing the principal balance of
distressed loans since the last HAMP report. 
Some members of Congress have asked for justification from the GSEs as
to why they were not participating in principal reductions and the Treasury
Department recently urged them to do so as well while tripling the incentives
it is paying to other investors to reduce principal.  The HAMP Principal Reduction Alternative
(PRA) has started trial modifications for 63,203 home owners and permanent
modifications for 42,753 of which 40,374 are still active.  The median principal amount reduced in these
modifications is $67,196, a median of 31.1 percent of the principal balance.

Each month
HAMP reports on selected servicer performance metrics.   Servicers
are expected to make Right Party Contact (RPC) with eligible homeowners and
then evaluate their eligibility for HAMP.  HAMP evaluated servicer outreach to 60 days
delinquent homeowners over the previous 12 months (November 2010-December 2011)
and found most services have made RPC at least 85 percent of the time; however
there is a wide range of performance results in terms of completed the evaluations.
 

Servicers
are also expected to identify and solicit homeowners in early stages of
delinquency and, effective October 1, 2011, a higher compensation structure was
put into effect to reward servicers who complete evaluations and place
homeowners in a trial modification within 120 days of first delinquency.  The table below shows the status of major
servicers relative to their eligibility for maximum incentives.

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Geithner Outlines Accomplishments, Future of Financial Reform

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told
the Financial Stability Oversight Council that the financial system is getting
stronger and safer and that much of the excess risk-taking and careless
financial practices that caused so much damage has been forced out.  However, he said, “These gains will erode
over time if we are not able to put our full reforms into place.”

He outlined the basic framework has been
laid, with new global agreements to limit leverage, rules for managing the
failure of a large firm and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
up and running, and the majority of the new safeguards for derivatives markets proposed.  Geithner ticked off the major accomplishments
of reform.

First, banks now face much
tougher limits on risk which are critical to reducing the risk of large
financial failures and limiting the damage such failures can cause.  The focus in 2012 will be “on defining the
new liquidity standards and on making sure that capital risk-weights are
applied consistently.”

 The new rules are tougher on
the largest banks that pose the greatest risk and are being complemented by
other limits on risk-taking such as the Volcker Rules and limits on the size of
firms and concentration of the financial systems.  These will not apply only to banks but to
other large financial institutions that could pose a threat to financial system
stability and this year the Risk Council will make the first of these
designations.

Second, the derivatives market will,
for the first time, be required to meet a comprehensive set of transparency
requirements, margin rules and other safeguards.  These reforms are designed to move
standardized contracts to clearing houses and trading platforms and will be
complemented with more conservative safeguards for the more complex and
specialized products less amenable to central clearing and electronic
trading.  These reforms, the balance of
which will be outlined this year, will lower costs for those who use the
products, allow parties to hedge against risk, but limit the potential for
abuse, the Secretary said. 

Third, is a carefully designed set
of safeguards against risk outside the banking system and enhanced protections
for the basic infrastructure of the financial markets: 

  • Money market funds will have new
    requirements designed to limit “runs.”
  • Important funding markets like the
    tri-party repo market are now more conservatively structured.
  • International trade repositories are
    being developed for derivatives, including credit default swaps.
  • Designated financial market utilities
    will have oversight and requirements for stronger financial reserves;

Fourth; there will be a stronger set
of protections in place against “too big to fail” institutions.  The key elements are:

  • Capital and liquidity rules with
    tough limits on leverage to both reduce the probability of failure and prevent
    a domino effect;
  • New protections for derivatives,
    funding markets, and for the market infrastructure to limit contagion across
    the financial system;
  • Tougher limits on institutional size;
  • A bankruptcy-type framework to
    manage the failure of large financial firms.
    This “resolution authority” will prohibit bailouts for private
    investors, protect taxpayers, and force the financial system to bear the costs
    of future crisis.

Fifth, significantly stronger
protections for investors and consumers are being put in place including the
CFPB which is working to improve disclosures for mortgages and credit cards and
developing new standards for qualified mortgages.  New authorities are being used to strengthen protections
for investors and to give shareholders greater voice on issues like executive
compensation.

Geithner pointed to the failure of
account segregation rules to protect customers in the MF Global disaster as proof
of the need for more protections and said that the Council will work with the
SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Council on this problem.   

Moving forward, reforms must be
structured to endure as the market evolves and to work not just in isolation
but to interact appropriately with each other and the broader economy.  “We
want to be careful to get the balance right-building a more stable financial
system, with better protections for consumers and investors, that allows for
financial innovation in support of economic growth.” 

First, he said, we have to make sure
we have a level playing field at home; that financial firms engaged in similar
activity and financial instruments that have similar characteristics are
treated roughly the same because small differences can have powerful effects in
shifting risk to where the rules are softer. 
A level field globally is also important, particularly with reforms that
toughen rules on capital, margin, liquidity, and leverage, as well as in the
global derivatives markets.  “In these areas we are working to discourage
other nations from applying softer rules to their institutions and to try to
attract financial activity away from the U.S. market and U.S. institutions.” 

It is necessary to align the
developing derivatives regimes around the world; preventing attempts to soften
application of capital rules, limiting the discretion available to supervisors
in enforcing rules on risk-weights for capital and designing rules for
resolution of large global institutions.  Also, because some U.S. reforms are different
or tougher from rules in other markets, there needs to be a sensible way to
apply those rules to the foreign operations of U.S. firms and the U.S.
operation of foreign firms.

 The U.S. also needs to move
forward with reforms to the mortgage market including a path to winding down
the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs.) 
The Administration has already outlined a broad strategy, Geithner said,
and expects to lay out more detail in the spring.  The immediate concern is to repair the damage
to homeowners, the housing market, and neighborhoods.  The President spoke this week about the range
of tools he plans to use.  Our ultimate goals
are to wind down the GSEs, bring private capital back into the market, reduce
the government’s direct role, and better target support toward first-time
homebuyers and low- and moderate-income Americans.

Geithner said the new system must
foster affordable rentals options, have stronger, clearer consumer protections,
and create a level playing field for all institutions participating in the
system.  For this to happen without
hurting the broader economy and adding further damage to those areas that have
been hardest hit, banks and private investors must come back into the market on
a larger scale and they want more clarity on the rules that will apply. 

Credit availability is still a problem
and there is a broad array of programs in place to improve access to credit and
capital for small businesses.  As
conditions improve, it is important that we remain focused on making sure that
small businesses, a crucial engine of job growth, have continued access to
equity capital and credit.

Many Americans trying to buy a home
or refinance their mortgage are also finding it hard to access credit, even for
FHA- or GSE-backed mortgages.  The Administration has been working closely
with the FHA and FHFA to encourage them to take additional measures to remove
unnecessary barriers and they are making progress.  They will probably outline additional reforms
in the coming weeks.

Bank supervisors, in the normal
conduct of bank exams and supervision, as well as in the design of new rules to
limit risk taking and abuse, must be careful not to overdo it with actions that
cause undue damage to the availability of credit or liquidity to markets.

Geithner said the U.S. financial
system is getting stronger
, and is now significantly stronger than it was
before the crisis.  Among the achievements:

  • Banks have increased common equity
    by more than $350 billion since 2009.
  • Banks and other financial
    institutions with more than $5 trillion in assets at the end of 2007 have been
    shut down, acquired, or restructured.
  • The asset-backed commercial paper
    market has shrunk by 70 percent since its peak in 2007, and the tri-party repo
    market and prime money market funds have shrunk by 40 percent and 33 percent
    respectively since their 2008 peaks.
  • The financial assistance we provided
    to banks through TARP, for example, will result in taxpayer gains of
    approximately $20 billion.

The Secretary said the strength of
the banks is helping to support broader economic growth, including the more
than 3 million private sector jobs created over 22 straight months, and the 30
percent increase in private investment in equipment and software.  
Broadly, the cost of credit has fallen significantly since late 2008 and early
2009.  Banks are lending more, with commercial and industrial loans to
businesses up by an annual rate of more than 10 percent over the past six
months.  

He concluded by saying that no
financial system is invulnerable to crisis, and there is a lot of unfinished
business on the path of reform.  The reforms are tough where they need to
be tough.  “But they will leave our financial system safer, better able to
help businesses raise capital, and better able to help families finance safely
the purchase of a house or a car, to borrow to invest in a college education,
or to save for retirement.  And they will protect the taxpayer from having
to pay the price of future crisis.”

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Housing Assistance 2012: Another Herculean Task for the FHA

Beginning the 37th month of his presidency, the Obama Administration today announced a laundry list of new programs to help struggling homeowners, crack down on abusive lending practices, make mortgage documents easier to read, convert REO to rental, and other assorted initiatives.  Some require Congressional approval; others are a work in progress, and a couple can begin quickly.
 
At the heart of the announcement is a broad new refinance program with the venerable FHA stepping in (once again) to help save the mortgage market by offering current but underwater non-FHA borrowers another lifeline.
 
Concurrently, the Administration appears to be on the verge of a broad-based “REO-to-Rental” initiative by announcing a pilot project to be led by FHFA, HUD, and Treasury.  I think the Administration is smart to move this initiative forward as they certainly have the political cover through last year’s RFI process.  They asked for comments and suggestions and reportedly received thousands of responses.  They can now say we are implementing what America said they wanted.   Of course, we do not yet know exactly how it will work.
 
Lawmakers and mortgage industry professionals have previously questioned whether or not FHA can handle yet another herculean task.  Recall in 2007 when the mortgage market sputtered and into 2008 when new higher loan limits were unveiled, FHA saw its share of the mortgage market jump exponentially in a matter of months. What was a $350 billion book of business in 2005 has today mushroomed to $1 trillion with more than 7.4 million homes with FHA insurance.
 
Since presumably these would be riskier borrowers (higher LTVs and underwater) it remains to be seen:

  1. If Congress will give FHA the authority to increase its current LTV caps.
  2. How OMB will “score” the proposal thus dictating the mortgage insurance pricing?
  3. Will proposed new bank fees and presumably higher premium revenue off-set the expected “cost” to FHA?

FHA is reportedly considering placing these loans in an insurance fund separate from its current Single Family books of business, but could ultimately require the FHA to invoke its “permanent indefinite” budget authority to keep it afloat (as opposed to the self-sustaining Mutual Mortgage Insurance fund).
 
That said, the Administration indicated the cost of these programs will “not add a dime to the deficit” and will be off-set by a fee on the “Largest Financial Institutions.”  (Note: Congress might have an opinion here.)
 
Since FHA has not in recent memory refinanced borrowers with LTVs in the 120-140 range (presumably one of the groups targeted by the Administration), I think it will be difficult to estimate the performance of these loans over time and thus their impact on FHA’s actuarial foundation regardless of which fund they place them in.  While the FHA “short re-finance” program announced in 2010 allowed a 115% CLTV, it has had very little participation thus making it difficult to gauge performance relative to what could be even higher LTV participants.
 
It should be noted that the Administration is targeting borrowers who have made 12 consecutive payments so one could argue that despite the fact they are underwater they have been able to afford their mortgage payments – presumably in some cases for several years.  So does that mitigate some of the potential risk meaning that they will certainly be able to afford reduced monthly payments?  But again, given FHA’s limited experience with borrowers outside their established guidelines and requirements predicting their performance with any degree of certainty is difficult at best.
 
And assuming those previously non-FHA borrowers default on their new FHA loan, who do you think will now be at-risk with an underwater property?  Again, the Administration stated these programs “will not add a dime to the deficit” – I hope they are right.
 
FHA’s actuarial soundness has been rocked by the on-going erosion of house prices nationwide which has led to three consecutive years of declines in their capital reserve ratio.  The best medicine for FHA is house price appreciation and the positive ripple effect of increased value to their housing portfolio.  But they have been waiting three years for that to happen.
 
Welcomed news as part of this new refinance program is they would be removed from an FHA lender’s compare ratio within Neighborhood Watch (FHA’s public database of lender’s default rates compared to its peers in a given geographic region).  That said, I suspect FHA will establish a separate category of compare ratios for this book of business, as it did for Negative Equity Refinances and the Hope For Homeowner (H4H) program.
 
So while this action will remove a potential barrier to participation, lenders should be cautioned that performance will still matter and they should stand ready for increased scrutiny especially by the HUD OIG.
 
I give the Administration credit for launching another round of housing assistance as too many homeowners continue to struggle.  Putting politics aside on the surface it appears to be the right and proper thing to do, however it remains to be seen the level of participation (and degree of Congressional acceptance) and ultimately what cost, if any, to the taxpayers – most of which have grown weary of the nagging housing crisis.
 
Note: We will continue to follow this initiative with keen interest as it makes its way through Congress and will offer periodic updates as developments warrant.

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Solemn Remembrance of Those Lost Aboard Shuttle Columbia

Like countless persons across the world, I watched in quiet disbelief as thousands of pieces of debris streaked across the vast Texas sky the morning of February 1, 2003.
 
Unlike what had transpired in 1986 during the launch of the shuttle Challenger, this time the shuttle Columbia was re-entering earth’s atmosphere.  Traveling at Mach 19 at an altitude of 200,000 feet, the shuttle was only a dozen or so minutes from touching down at the Kennedy Space Center – where family and support personnel waited.  Sadly, that landing never happened.
 
What also made this morning different for me was that I had taken over the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs only 10 days earlier.  The Office served as a policy-coordinating body across the White House policy councils, in addition to its primary function as an early warning system for events transpiring across the Executive branch – including NASA.
 
Watching the events unfold on television, I knew to quickly head to the office as I did most Saturdays and not surprisingly my phone went off en route to the White House.  I arrived at 10:00 and already meetings and conference calls related to the disaster were being scheduled.
 
There was no doubt that all aboard were lost – a point made crystal clear to us later that morning.  A human simply cannot withstand the tremendous physical forces from a rapid deceleration of that magnitude.  We also learned quickly that few nations have the capability to shoot down anything traveling at that altitude and speed, thus ruling out the possibility of an act of terror.
 
All we knew was that something had gone horribly wrong.
 
White House Chief of Staff Card entered my West Wing office early that afternoon and told me I was going to be the main point of contact for the White House for this tragic event and for the soon-to-be-announced accident investigation board.  I wasn’t quite sure what that meant at the time but Mr. Card instructed me to get the NASA chief of staff on the phone.
 
That is when I first met Courtney Stadd – an impassioned public servant who had dedicated his life to the US space program.  Courtney was amazingly patient with me and explained in great detail what protocols were already being invoked, as were dictated post-shuttle Challenger accident.  Courtney was laser-focused on the families of the astronauts, as was all of NASA.  Throughout the months-long ordeal of the accident investigation, Courtney worked diligently behind the scenes, focused at all times on the well-being of the families of the fallen astronauts.
 
Following a Homeland Security Council meeting that afternoon, a second meeting was held early in the evening among the various offices within the Executive branch, as we heard more about the soon-to-be-announced Columbia Accident Investigation Board and a memorial service at the Johnson Space Center later that week.
 
While it was not discussed that day, we also learned that, this time, the mindset of the public was questioning the American space program and, specifically, whether or not the risk of space flight was worth the reward.  That was in stark contrast to the mindset post-Challenger accident, when the public was eager for the shuttle to fly safely again as soon as possible.  This new mindset ultimately led us to chart a new course for NASA – a policy announced in January 2004.
 
But that was much later, as more immediate matters took precedent.
 
At the invitation of NASA, I attended the memorial service of Astronaut David Brown of Virginia.  I had never met Mr. Brown, but you could not help but be in awe of his accomplishments, which were many.  He was by training a medical doctor and was the first Navy flight surgeon to become a fighter pilot.  He was also a college gymnast and had somehow managed to remain single.  The similarities between the two of us were few and far between, yet as I sat only three feet from his flag draped coffin, I learned we were only a couple of months apart in age and both not yet married.  And as I heard others tell his life story during the memorial service at the Arlington National Cemetery Chapel, I felt a sense of deep regret that I never had the opportunity to meet him.
 
Following the service, the coffin was placed atop a horse-drawn caisson for the mile long walk to his final resting place near the marble amphitheater.  As we got closer, the crowd was 10 deep and I recall my amazement at seeing so many school kids who, I suspect, were there as part of a school trip.  Here they stood by the hundreds, heads draped and hands over heart as the cortege moved slowly toward Mr. Brown’s final resting place.  Many of them wiped away tears and occasionally cried aloud.  Otherwise, there was compete silence except for the occasional plane landing at nearby Reagan National Airport.
 
America buried many heroes that day and this is only one of many stories to be told of sacrifice and duty to Country which in this instance includes India and Israel.  I would hope that Americans remember them all, and on this — the 9th anniversary of Shuttle Columbia’s tragic accident — pay eternal solemn respect to the crew of her final mission: Commander Rick Husband, Commander William McCool, Commander Michael Anderson, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist Laurel Clark, and Mission Specialist David Brown.  The words of President Reagan spoken many years ago are a fitting tribute to each of them: May God cradle you in His loving arms.

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FHFA Answers Conflict of Interest Charges against Freddie Mac

The
Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) issued a statement late Monday refuting a
story
from ProPublic and NPR
that a complicated investment strategy utilized by Freddie Mac had influenced
it to discourage refinancing of some of its mortgages.  FHFA confirmed that the investments using
Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMOs) exist but said they did not impact
refinancing decisions and that their use has ended. (the NPR Story)

Freddie Mac’s charter calls for
it to make home loans more accessible, both to purchase and refinance their
homes but the ProPublica story, written by Jesse
Eisinger (ProPublica) and Chris Arnold (NPR) charged that the CMO trades “give Freddie a powerful incentive to do
the opposite
, highlighting a conflict of interest at the heart of the company.
In addition to being an instrument of government policy dedicated to making
home loans more accessible, Freddie also has giant investment portfolios and
could lose substantial amounts of money if too many borrowers refinance.”

Here,
in a nutshell, is what the story (we are quoting from an “updated” version)
says Freddie has been doing.  

Freddie
creates a security (MBS) backed by mortgages it guarantees which was divided
into two parts.  The larger portion, backed
by principal, was fairly low risk, paid a low return and was sold to investors.  The smaller portion, backed by interest
payments on the mortgages, was riskier, and paid a higher return determined by
the interest rates on the underlying loans. 
This portion, called an inverse floater, was retained by Freddie Mac.

In
2010 and 2011 Freddie Mac’s purchase (retention) of these inverse floaters rose
dramatically, from a total of 12 purchased in 2008 and 2009 to 29.  Most of the mortgages backing these floaters had
interest rates of 6.5 to 7 percent.

In
structuring these transactions, Freddie Mac sells off most of the value of the
MBS but does not reduce its risk because it still guarantees the underlying
mortgages and must pay the entire value in the case of default.  The floaters, stripped of the real value of
the underlying principal, are also now harder and possibly more expensive to
sell, and as Freddie gets paid the difference between the interest rates on the
loans and the current interest rate, if rates rise, the value of the floaters
falls. 

While
Freddie, under its agreement with the Treasury Department, has reduced the size
of its portfolio by 6 percent between 2010 and 2011, “that $43 billion drop in
the portfolio overstates the risk reduction because the company retained risk
through the inverse floaters
.”

Since
the real value of the floater is the high rate of interest being paid by the
mortgagee, if large numbers pay off their loans the floater loses value.  Thus, the article charges, Freddie has tried
to deter prospective refinancers by tightening its underwriting guidelines and
raising prices.  It cites, as its sole
example of tightened standards that in October 2010 the company changed a rule
that had prohibited financing for persons who had engaged in some short sales
to prohibiting financing for persons who had engaged in any short sale, but it
also quotes critics who charge that the Home Affordable Refinance Program
(HARP) could be reaching “millions more people if Fannie (Mae) and Freddie
implemented the program more effectively.”

It
has discouraged refinancing by raising fees. 
During Thanksgiving week in 2010, the article contends, Freddie quietly
announced it was raising post-settlement delivery fees.  In November 2011, FHFA announced that the
GSEs were eliminating or reducing some fees but the Federal Reserve said that “more
might be done.”

If
Freddie Mac has limited refinancing, the article says, it also affected the whole
economy which might benefit from billions of dollars of discretionary income generated
through lower mortgage payments.  Refinancing
might also reduce foreclosures and limit the losses the GSEs suffer through defaults
of their guaranteed loans.

The
authors say there is no evidence that decisions about trades and decisions
about refinancing were coordinated.  “The
company is a key gatekeeper for home loans but says its traders are “walled
off” from the officials who have restricted homeowners from taking advantage of
historically low interest rates by imposing higher fees and new rules.”

ProPublica/NPR says that the
floater trades “raise questions about the FHFA’s oversight of Fannie and
Freddie” as a regulator but, as conservator it also acts as the board of
directors and shareholders and has emphasized that its main goal is to limit
taxpayer losses.  This has frustrated the
administration because FHFA has made preserving the companies’ assets a
priority over helping homeowners.  The
President tried to replace acting director Edward J. DeMarco, but Congress
refused to confirm his nominee. 

The
authors conclude by saying that FHFA knew about the inverse floater trades
before they were approached about the story but officials declined to comment on whether the
FHFA knew about them as Freddie was conducting them or whether the FHFA had
explicitly approved them.”

The
FHFA statement
said that Freddie Mac has historically used CMOs as a tool to
manage its retained portfolio and to address issues associated with security
performance.  The inverse floaters were
used to finance mortgages sold to Freddie through its cash window and to sell
mortgages out of its portfolio “in response to market demand and to shrink its
own portfolio.”  The inverse floater
essentially leaves Freddie with a portion of the risk exposure it would have
had if it had kept the entire mortgage on its balance sheet and also results in
a more complex financing structure that requires specialized risk management
processes.  (Full FHFA Statement)

The
agency said that for several reasons Freddie’s retention of inverse floaters ended in
2011 and only $5 billion is held in the company’s $650 billion retained
portfolio.  Later that year FHFA staff
identified concerns about the floaters and the company agreed that these
transactions would not resume pending completing of the agency examination.

These
investments FHFA said did not have any impact on the recent changes to
HARP.  In evaluating changes, FHFA
specifically directed both Freddie and Fannie not to consider changes in their
own investment income in the HARP evaluation process and now that the HARP
changes are in place the refinance process is between borrowers and loan
originators and servicers, not Freddie Mac.

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