The Wall Street Journal
By: Victoria Mcgrane, Alan Zibel & Robin Sidel
April 14, 2011
Regulators Detail Steps Lenders Must Take to Revamp Processes; Fines Are Still to Come.
U.S. regulators hit the nation's largest banks with a first round of sweeping penalties for improper home-foreclosure practices, issuing detailed orders to revamp the way they deal with troubled borrowers.
The orders issued on Wednesday to 14 financial institutions didn't include fines. Officials said they are coming.
"There will be civil money penalties; the question is timing and amount. But we're not letting that clock run forever," Acting Comptroller of the Currency John Walsh told reporters. The orders were issued by his office, the Federal Reserve and the Office of Thrift Supervision.
The bank regulators' action came as Obama administration officials and representatives of state attorneys general met with the bank representatives in an ongoing effort to reach a broader deal over alleged mortgage-servicing abuses, which brought foreclosures to a near halt last fall. All sides want a settlement that can resolve the issue so foreclosures can proceed again, which could help the sickly housing market.
Some attorneys general and administration officials have pushed for banks to pay more than $20 billion in civil fines or to devote a comparable amount to modifying mortgages held by distressed borrowers.
As Other Banks Move Forward, BofA Wrestles with Past Access thousands of business sources not available on the free web. Learn More Several officials said the regulators' action wouldn't undermine the broader settlement talks. "This doesn't change what we are doing," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller in an interview. Mr. Miller, who is spearheading the 50-state investigation, said, "We are moving ahead full speed."
Outside observers said the orders could make it harder for state attorneys general to extract greater concessions from the banks.
"The biggest stick in this fight just settled, so there's going to be a lot less pressure on the banks to agree to a radical resolution to resolve the state complaints," said Jaret Seiberg, an analyst in Washington with MF Global.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said the agreement appears to require only "modest changes" to banks' foreclosure process and is unlikely to have a big impact on the housing market or broader economy. Still, Mr. Zandi added, "the foreclosure process will remain bogged down and a true bottom in the housing market elusive" until the banks reach a complete settlement with the state attorneys general.
Bank executives said the changes ordered would be anything but modest. "It's very demanding and there is a lot that we have to do," said one bank official. "It will be fairly expensive and a big resource drain."
The regulators issued the orders to the nation's four largest banks--Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. Also receiving orders were Ally Financial Inc., HSBC Holdings PLC, MetLife Inc., PNC Financial Services Group Inc., SunTrust Banks Inc., U.S. Bancorp, Aurora Bank, EverBank, OneWest Bank and Sovereign Bank.
Under the orders, banks have 60 days to establish plans to clean up their mortgage-servicing processes to prevent documentation errors.
The orders also direct banks to take steps to ensure they have enough staff to handle the flood of foreclosures, that foreclosures don't happen when a borrower is receiving a loan modification and that borrowers have a single point of contact throughout the loan-modification and foreclosure process.
Banks must hire an independent consultant to conduct a "look back" of all foreclosure proceedings from 2009 and 2010 to evaluate whether they improperly foreclosed on any homeowners and require each company to establish its own process to consider whether to compensate borrowers who have been harmed.
Critics, including other regulators, believe this process and other aspects of the orders leave too much discretion to banks.
J.P. Morgan, in a statement, acknowledged that the consent orders "are targeted directly at weaknesses in our processes and controls." The New York bank took a charge of $1.1 billion in the first quarter to reflect higher mortgage-servicing costs that resulted from a string of new regulations enacted after the financial crisis.
Other banks said many of the required changes already are under way. "This is an unprecedented measure and a tough message to take, but it will make mortgage servicing practices better across the board," Wells Fargo said. The San Francisco bank said it already has taken numerous actions to address the issues, including hiring 10,000 employees since 2009 to deal with foreclosure issues.
PNC Financial Services sought to distance itself from the industry's mess, saying that it represents just 1.5% of the mortgage-servicing business. A spokesman for the Pittsburgh bank said that its internal review had determined that the bank didn't foreclose on customers without a "valid reason or appropriate documents."
Even before the orders became public, critics charged that the bank regulators were letting servicers off too easy and were undercutting the broader talks.
The OCC, which has been the target of most criticism, defended the enforcement orders. "They require substantial corrective actions," Mr. Walsh said. "The banks are going to have to do substantial work, bear substantial expense to fix the problems that we identified" as well as to identify and compensate homeowners that suffered financial harm.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in a statement called the orders "only a first step" and declared its full support for the broader talks. "The enforcement orders announced [Wednesday] complement, rather than pre-empt or impede, this ongoing collaboration," it said.
--Ruth Simon contributed to this article.