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Ties to Insurers Could Land Mortgage Servicers in More Trouble

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bank of America did not comment for the record. The bank's comment is now included.

Circular Arrangement
Commission fees aren't the only way major servicers profit on the force-placed policies in their portfolio. Some, including JPMorgan Chase, have adopted a roughly equivalent if slightly more sophisticated method of profiting from force-placed reinsurance: They reinsure it.

Evidence of the practice comes from Assurant's Securities and Exchange Commission filings as well as the banking companies' boilerplate language for notifying borrowers of their intent to bill them for a force-placed policy.

JPMorgan Chase's force-placed insurance "will have significantly higher premiums than standard insurance premiums," the banking company noted in one letter to a borrower last year, and "Some or all of these premiums will be reinsured through an insurance company that is an affiliate of Chase."

JPMorgan Chase declined to specify what insurer it typically works with, but Assurant's annual report describes precisely such a relationship from an insurer's perspective. In an effort to align its interests with its servicer customers, the company will often reinsure the policies it writes with the same servicer that requested them.

"Such arrangements allow significant flexibility in structuring the sharing of risks and profits on the underlying business," Assurant notes.

The interests of the two parties are so aligned, in fact, that in many cases there ceases to be a clear difference between the entity purchasing insurance and the entity selling it.

According to both Assurant's SEC filings and the marketing materials of a subsidiary of rival QBE Insurance Group, the insurers don't just write policies on request — they also enter into long-term agreements to detect uninsured properties in their clients' servicing portfolios and perform other back-office functions. It was precisely such an arrangement that Golant's first client ran into when she tried to visit her servicer, he says — the insurance company employees had taken over the servicer's role.

Like the direct commission payments that Golant discovered, reinsurance deals cut servicers in on insurer profits. They also come with another potential advantage for the insurer: they provide an incentive for the servicer not to pursue claims, creating an apparent conflict of interest. As a representative of investors, the servicer should vigorously pursue any and all claims arising from its forcibly insured portfolio. But because the servicer reinsures the policies it purchases, any claims it brings could potentially come out of its own profits.

For insurers, opening the door to this circular arrangement has its drawbacks. Assurant warns in investor filings that having reinsuring business with the client that provided the policy, rather than a reinsurer of the company's own choosing, can pose a credit risk: the bank fails to eat its share of claims. Assurant mitigates this danger, it says, by requiring some of its client-counterparties to obtain letters of credit from other financial institutions.

The more vexing issue for Assurant, however, seems to be that giving the servicers part of the deal leaves less for the company. In a section discussing risks arising from servicer industry consolidation, Assurant warns that giant servicers are compressing margins and that it may receive a lower share of premiums if it provides them with bigger reinsurance deals.

Nonetheless, Assurant sees force-placed insurance as its future. The unit handling force-placed insurance has accounted for $811 million of its $879 million in profits during the last two years, and its "business strategy is to pursue long-term growth in creditor-placed homeowners insurance" as well as expand that business into auto insurance and related areas.

Assurant declined to be interviewed for this story, and did not address questions on conflict of interest concerns. But the company, which also provides health, corporate and other types of insurance, issued a statement defending its general force-placed business practices.

"Lender-placed insurance programs are regulated in all states and we comply with those regulations," the statement reads in part. "We believe our rates to be among the lowest in the industry."

QBE Insurance, the parent of the insurer involved in Golant's first force-placed case, did not respond to requests for comment.

The MBA's Vidal denied that reinsurance deals posed a conflict of interest, suggesting they may only cover catastrophic losses.

"Don't get the impression that everyone has reinsurance capacity," she said. "But to the extent they do, they're obviously getting paid for absorbing a portion of the risk."

"No Incentive" To Shop
Force-placed insurance isn't inherently objectionable. It makes sense that the coverage's price must be higher than on voluntarily purchased insurance to account for a higher risk — if a hurricane comes through, a homeowner with a stake in a property is more likely to board up the windows than one in foreclosure. In many states regulators provide at least some oversight and limits on acceptable rates. Moreover, force-placing insurance isn't optional for servicers: investor contracts usually require it.

"Realistically, we're doing whatever investors are telling us to do," Vidal said.