FBI steps up mortgage-fraud fight

Real estate roundup

The following is a real estate news roundup:

FBI shifts more resources to mortgage fraud
The FBI has ordered agents in 26 field offices in areas hard hit by mortgage fraud to put investigations of other financial crimes on hold while they address the problem, Bloomberg reports. An FBI spokesman said mortgage fraud is a "big problem" that requires a shift in resources. Agents in the field offices have been ordered to temporarily stop opening new price fixing, mass marketing, wire fraud, mail fraud, and environmental cases, the spokesman said. The FBI previously had 150 agents working more than 1,300 mortgage fraud cases, Bloomberg said. The FBI recently reported the top 10 hot spots for mortgage fraud were Florida, Georgia, Michigan, California, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, New York, Colorado and Minnesota. Other states "significantly affected" by mortgage fraud are Arizona, Maryland, Utah, Nevada, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut.

OCC now tracking foreclosures, workouts
A lack of consistent reporting has hampered efforts to assess the effectiveness of loss mitigation efforts by loan servicers, Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan told members of the American Securitization Forum. Some servicers count any contact with a borrower as a mitigation in process, while others only tally mitigation plans that had been formally implemented. A new OCC report — the first of a series — takes the latter approach, counting only payment plans or loan modifications entered into through an agreement between servicers and borrowers. "This results in fewer loss mitigation actions reported, but a better picture, we believe of the actual occurrence of such actions," Dugan said.

The report shows the number of new foreclosures declining 21 percent in March from a peak in January, but doesn’t take into account strong seasonal effects and "should be taken with a grain of salt," Dugan said. The OCC looked at loan level data from nine national banks that service about 40 percent of outstanding mortgages, finding that while foreclosures were "plainly on the rise" during a six-month period ending in March, credit quality remained "relatively satisfactory and relatively stable." Foreclosures in process rose from 0.9 percent to 1.23 percent of the portfolio, but 94 percent of all loans were current and serious delinquencies rose only one-tenth of a percentage point, to 2.2 percent. Those results may reflect the fact that the banks surveyed service only about 25 percent of subprime mortgages and a disproportionately higher percentage of conforming loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Dugan said.

Seriously delinquent subprime loans had fewer foreclosure starts than prime or alt-A mortgages, suggesting that the loss mitigation efforts of loan servicers have been targeted at subprime borrowers, Dugan said. Although subprime mortgages made up less than 9 percent of the portfolio serviced by the banks, they accounted for 43 percent of all loss mitigation actions at the end of March. The report found that during March, loan servicers were four times more likely to engage in payment plans than modify the loan terms of troubled borrowers. The HOPE NOW coalition of loan servicers recently reported arranging workouts with 183,000 troubled borrowers in April, up 14 percent from March. A working group of state banking regulators has questioned the effectiveness of the lending industry’s loss mitigation efforts, estimating that only one in four troubled borrowers were being diverted from the foreclosure process at the beginning of the year.

Jumbo lender Thornburg takes hit on margin call crisis
Thornburg Mortgage Inc. posted a $3.31 billion loss during the first quarter and was forced to stop originating loans to preserve capital and meet margin calls, the jumbo lender said in a regulatory filing. Nearly half of the company’s losses — $1.54 billion — were unrealized, and the result of a decline in value in the company’s mortgage-backed securities and securitized loan portfolios. Thornburg was hit with $1.8 billion in margin calls through March 6, forcing the company to cease loan originations. With $349.6 million in loan originations in January, Thornburg had been on track to meet a goal of $6 billion in originations in 2008, but ended the quarter with $548.7 million in originations. Thornburg has since restored its warehouse lines of credit, and funded $239 million in loans since the end of the first quarter, the company said.

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Several states move to cut property taxes
Several states are moving to cut or cap property-tax rates, the Wall Street Journal reports. New York Gov. David Paterson last week announced plans to reduce property taxes in that state, according to the report, and Indiana and Florida have passed tax-cut measures.

The article points out that these initiatives, "while politically popular, mask a hidden truth: They are likely to lead to increases in other kinds of taxes."

BofA committed to Countrywide, shareholder dividend
Bank of America remains committed to purchasing Countrywide Financial Corp. and has no plans to cut dividends to shareholders, Chief Executive Officer Ken Lewis said at a conference this week, Reuters reports. BofA has a green light from regulators to close the deal, but the bank said it might not take responsibility for some of Countrywide’s debts, which suggested it might back out of the deal or negotiate a reduced price.

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