Status Report: Mortgage Modification

Published on Friday September 18, 2009 at 12:30 am

Here at the Mortgage Calculator, we try to provide timely updates on the government’s loan modification program. It has many shortcomings, which are responsible for the program’s dismal 9% participation rate. Since then, we’re happy to report that the program has really taken off, as the largest lenders have been shamed by the federal government into submission.

According to Bloomberg News, “Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co., among the worst performers of banks in the U.S. government’s main foreclosure prevention plan, stepped up their pace of mortgage modifications by at least 60 percent in August.” Leading the pack is Morgan Stanley’s mortgage origination unit, which has modified over 40% of eligible loans, defined as owner-occupied homes, with a pre-2009 conforming mortgage that is in danger of “imminent default.”

As always, the devil is in the details, since a loan modification doesn’t necessarily lower the risk of default, and doesn’t even translate into a lower payment. “Of loans modified from Jan. 1, 2008, through March 31, 2009, monthly payments increased on 27% and were left unchanged on an additional 27.5%…Many modified mortgages fall delinquent — 25% to 40%, depending on the type of mortgage — often because of homeowners’ loss of income or additional outstanding debt…”

There are a few reasons for these outcomes. First of all, when executing loan modifications, lenders can choose between lowering one’s interest rate (temporarily or permanently), extending the loan term, and cutting principal from the loan amount. In theory, all would seem to lead to lower payments, but as the statistic above attests to, this is the case less than half the time, due primarily to the adding back of deferred taxes. Astonishingly, over 90% of loan modifications lead to higher principal balances.

Advocates argue that this represents the best approach. They point out that mortgage problems for many are a temporary result of unemployment, rather than long-term financial hardship. “A lot of what’s being done is a misplaced focus on modest, long-term relief when what they need is fast, short-term, massive relief (due to job loss),” maintains one economist. This philosophy is reflected in Bank of America’s approach to loan modification, which offers “mortgage forgiveness for three to six months in hopes the borrower will find a new job in that time.”

Those on the other side of the debate argue that this misses the point, and that the focus instead should be on “permanent debt reduction.” Many have begun to direct their attacks on the industry’s Net Present Value model, which is used to asses whether a loan modification is ultimately in the best interest of the lender. According to critics, this model is overly conservative, and leads to an overly high rate of rejection. At the very least, it confirms what cynics have maintained all along- that the mortgage lending industry still does not remain behind the loan modification program.

There’s even a small minority of critics who insist that loan modifications are a bad deal, on the grounds that it damages the credit of borrowers. “Under reporting guidelines set forth by the credit bureaus and the Consumer Data Industry Association, your loan modification will be reported as a ‘Partial Payment Plan.’ Under the FICO scoring method, that designation will lower your credit scores, even if you have never missed a payment.” From a credit standpoint, then, loan modification is not much different from foreclosure that far away from foreclosure, and might ask some to consider whether the consequences justify it.

Outside of this debate are the millions of people still waiting to receive modifications. For every borrower that is emerged “victorious” from the maze of requirements, there are at least 10 more who are stuck in “loan modification hell,” as one columnist put it. Anecdotal reports indicate that the experience is both time-consuming and frustrating; the best advice is to be patient, and to keep a paper-trail.


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