WASHINGTON — Disappointed by the industry's poor loan modification efforts, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank warned again Wednesday that Congress is likely to pass a bill that would allow judges to rework mortgages during the bankruptcy process.
Bankers have fiercely opposed the bill, and succeeded in helping to beat back efforts to pass the legislation earlier this year. But as the Treasury Department released more data showing what lawmakers saw as a lack of progress on modifications under the administration's Home Affordable Modification Program, Frank said the industry had run out of time to prove why bankruptcy reform was unnecessary.
"The best lobbyists we have for getting bankruptcy passed are the servicers who are not doing a very good job at modifying mortgages," Frank said. "And if they do not improve their performance, then they improve the chances of legislation."
While observers agree that the chances for the bill's passage are going up, it's unclear how much more leeway Democrats have. During a House subcommittee hearing on HAMP, many Democrats said it was time to revisit bankruptcy reform. While House lawmakers succeeded in passing a bill already, the legislation was hung up in the Senate, where a bill from Sen. Richard Durbin was rejected by a 51-to-45 vote.
There were also signs that the administration's support for mortgage bankruptcy is lukewarm at best. Treasury officials repeated Wednesday that they remain committed to the bill, but they have done little behind the scenes to push the issue. "Bankruptcy reform is an additional tool, but it is not the focus of the way to keep people in their homes," said Michael Barr, the Treasury's assistant secretary for financial institutions.
The administration had hoped public humiliation of servicers that fall behind on modifications would prompt them to step up their efforts.
"This kind of scorecard really helps benchmark servicer against servicer, and no one wants to be a low performer on that scorecard," Federal Housing Administration Commissioner Dave Stevens said.
But so far, it appears to be making little dent. In August, the top servicers started 360,165 trial modifications, up from 235,247 a month earlier. But the rankings of which institutions were doing the most appeared little changed.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. continued to exceed most other banks by modifying 25% of its eligible delinquent borrowers. Citigroup Inc. followed by modifying 23% of its delinquent loans and Wells Fargo & Co. modified 11% of its eligible delinquent loans. Bank of America Corp. however, continued to lag by modifying only 7% of its delinquent loans.
Barr defended the administration's progress, saying HAMP was on track to have 500,000 trial modifications by Nov. 1 and any delay was because of early implementation issues. Still, he reiterated that servicers needed to do more. "We think all the servicers could do more than they are doing now," Barr said. "And we'd like to continue to work with them to see better results."
But that promise was not enough for Democrats who said servicers have already had their chance.
"I am disappointed at the pace of this program," Frank said.
Other Democrats agreed.
"There is a place for bankruptcy," said Rep. Al Green. "That allows the consumer an option that will afford the opportunity to when the servicers can't serve, to go to court and take additional action."
But Republicans argued that unemployment was more of a driver of foreclosures. "I believe the overall approach of the administration's foreclosure prevention initiative was flawed from its inception," said Rep. Spencer Bachus, the lead GOP member of the House Financial Services Committee. "The best way, in fact the only way, to stop this foreclosures, is to get our economy growing again."
To address the unemployed borrowers facing foreclosure, many banks have created temporary forbearance programs. Barr said the administration is considering finalizing a formal plan as part of HAMP.
"Many servicers have forbearance programs for people who are temporarily unemployed, and I do think it makes sense within our program to try and formalize that more," he said.