FDIC to mortgage servicers: Freeze ARM rates
Top bank regulator suggests industry cuts losses now to prevent foreclosures.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The heat on U.S. mortgage lenders and servicers was turned up a few degrees this week when the country's chief bank regulator publicly proposed that they permanently freeze interest rates on subprime adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) for many homeowners.
"Keep it at the starter rate. Convert it into a fixed rate. Make it permanent. And get on with it," Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair said in prepared remarks at an investor's conference.
ARMs often have a low introductory interest rate for two or three years and then reset to much higher levels.
Roughly 1.3 million subprime ARMs are due for a rate reset between now and the end of 2008, according to data from First American Loan Performance.
Bair proposed that servicers convert only those ARMs that haven't reset yet and only for borrowers who are current in their payments and occupy their homes. Loans taken out by speculators who don't live in the homes they bought would not qualify for the automatic conversion.
Consumer advocates have also been calling on lenders and servicers to modify subprime mortgages to make the payments affordable for homeowners who would struggle to keep the house once their rates reset. But rate reductions, while they do happen in some cases, are far from widespread, they say.
"We can't just sit here doing this kind of case-by-case, laborious restructuring process with all these millions of subprime hybrid ARMs," Bair said, citing a recent Moody's survey, which found that less than 1 percent of problem subprime ARMs were being restructured.
"[Bair's recommendation] is exactly what's needed," said Michael Shea, executive director of ACORN Housing, which has offices around the country where counselors have been working with troubled homeowners to renegotiate their subprime mortgages with servicers.
Mortgage servicers - those that administer and collect payments on the loans - may be restricted by the terms of their pool servicing agreements (PSAs), which are their contracts with the investors who own the loans being serviced. Those contracts may specify when and how many loans may be modified.
But the servicer typically does have discretion when a loan has become or is likely to become delinquent. And investors are unlikely to object if the servicer can make the case why a modification will lose less money than a foreclosure, said William Rinehart, vice president and chief risk officer of Ocwen, a loan servicer that administers 470,000 loans.
And in many instances, foreclosures can create bigger losses for investors. "[E]ffective restructuring can preserve credit support [and] reduce credit losses," Bair told the investor conference.
If servicers acted on Bair's suggestion verbatim, "you'd likely have a backlash, particularly from your senior investors," said Larry Litton, president of Litton Loan Servicing, which has been proactive about contacting borrowers before their rates reset and modifying their loans in instances where a rate reset would make the home unaffordable for them.
The message Litton thinks the industry will take away from Bair's proposal is "you have to do a better job of fixing loans that are fixable. And if you don't do it, someone else will do it for you," he said, noting, for instance, that a proposal on the Hill to let bankruptcy judges reduce the mortgages of borrowers filing for Chapter 13 would not go over big with the industry.