Ginnie Mae threatens to dump lenders from veterans mortgage program

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Nine lenders have been warned by the U.S. that they will be kicked out of a top mortgage program within months unless they find ways to stop costly rapid refinances of veterans' loans.

The warnings stem from a probe by Ginnie Mae, a government-owned corporation that makes mortgages cheaper by protecting bond investors against homeowner defaults. Ginnie Mae guarantees about $2 trillion in bonds containing loans backed by agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Some lenders have boosted their revenue through repeated, unneeded refinancing of veterans' home loans, according to regulators. That process, called "churning," lowers prices investors are willing to pay for bonds, effectively raising rates for veterans, first-time homebuyers and others whose loans are included in Ginnie Mae-backed securities.

Letters sent to the nine lenders this week warn that they are at risk of being forced to issue "custom pools" of Ginnie Mae mortgage-backed securities instead of the traditional Ginnie Mae bonds that most lenders offer. Those bespoke securities probably would be shunned by investors because they would be harder to trade and carry much higher refinance rates.

The letters are the latest step in the government's effort to stamp out churning. In December, Ginnie Mae restricted how often a lender is allowed to put a mortgage to a particular borrower into a bond it backs.

Targeted Lenders

The targeted lenders include NewDay Financial and Nations Lending Corp., which were given 30 days to respond to the letter, according to a person familiar with the matter. Others, including Freedom Mortgage Corp., LLC and Flagstar Bank, were given 60 days, according to the person.

Representatives for NewDay and Flagstar said that they do not comment on agency communications but do not churn mortgages. A spokeswoman for Freedom said the company's chief executive officer wasn't available to comment. Representatives for the other lenders didn't respond to requests for comment.

"We are targeting our actions at outliers, not at lenders who are genuinely helping to support responsible lending," Ginnie Mae Chief Operating Officer Michael Bright wrote in a statement through a spokesman. Removing bad actors from the program would cut mortgage rates for veterans and others by as much as half a percentage point, Bright said in the statement.

Boom Era

Some veterans have been sent misleading fliers that claim rapid refinances will allow them to skip mortgage payments, while others have gotten new loans that cut their interest rate by a tiny amount and then been targeted for another refinance a few months later. Former Ginnie Mae president Ted Tozer has said that some of the lending practices he observed seemed to be similar to those of the boom era of predatory lending.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, introduced legislation last month to create new requirements. The bill would, for example, allow a new VA loan for a particular borrower only if the fixed rate would drop by at least half a percentage point.

The letters require the lenders to submit a detailed plan to reduce the refinance rate of their bonds to be more comparable with those of other lenders. If they don't, or if Ginnie Mae doesn't think the response is satisfactory, they'll be exiled from the main bond program.

Higher Rates

Not all of the lenders are necessarily churning loans themselves. Ginnie Mae says some are making mortgages with rates far above those of other lenders, in effect setting up the borrower for a refinance shortly after the initial loan is made.

Susan Bergesen, a Flagstar spokeswoman, said in a written statement that "we can say very firmly that Flagstar does not churn" and that it guards against such activity by third-party loan originators.

"The record is abundantly clear that NewDay does not churn veteran loans," NewDay said in a statement. The company said it supports the legislation sponsored by Tillis and Warren and that "policymakers should also ensure that well-meaning efforts to end loan churning will not have the unintended consequences of denying veterans' access to their hard-earned VA benefits."

Bloomberg News