WASHINGTON - An effort by Freddie Mac to speed up the mortgage lending process is starting to spark a backlash from lenders.
Some leading executives say that the agency's use of "credit scoring" after buying mortgages is unfair to lenders and could curb lending to members of minority groups.
Ralph Mozilo, executive vice president of Countrywide Credit Industries, Pasadena, Calif., says that Freddie Mac is using credit scoring "almost like a weapon" against lenders.
But Freddie Mac, which buys mortgages from lenders around the country, defends credit scoring as fair and efficient. The technique, widely used by credit card issuers and auto lenders, seeks to boil down a borrower's creditworthiness to a single number.
The debate could move to center stage next week as the Mortgage Bankers Association of America holds its annual convention, in San Diego. Critics are planning to use the gathering to press their concerns with agency officials.
Freddie Mac, formally the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., adopted credit scoring earlier this year as part of a broader effort to cut down on the time and money that the industry spends in originating loans.
It is pursuing the technique much more aggressively than its chief rival, Fannie Mae, insisting that most of the loans it buys be subjected to scoring.
Mr. Mozilo said that the test has caused Freddie Mac to reject a number of otherwise good loans that Countrywide had sold to the agency, thus forcing Countrywide to buy back mortgages. Such repurchases are costly because other buyers must be found and the resale can result in losses.
Most of those loans, Mr. Mozilo said, were to people with low and moderate incomes - groups for which the industry is trying to bolster service. While the actual borrowers are not affected by Freddie's rejections, the fear is that lenders will adopt more stringent standards rather than face repurchases, and that could restrict the funds available to such households.
Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said other lenders have reported experiences similar to Countrywide's.
If loans that Freddie Mac bought in the past score poorly, agency officials "find a reason to at least ask for a buyback," Mr. Lasko said. "I must say I think that's unfair."
Freddie Mac says credit scoring is eminently fair, because it is applied equally to all loans.
"It is an objective, unbiased, consistent tool," said John Hemschoot, director of mortgage standards at Freddie Mac.
Moreover, after scoring millions of loans it has already made, Freddie Mac has found that the technique accurately predicts the actual performance of these loans, Mr. Hemschoot said.
As to Countrywide's charge that Freddie Mac's use of credit scoring unfairly harms borrowers with low and moderate incomes, Mr. Hemschoot suggested that the problem is that many lenders have been willing to bend credit standards for these borrowers.
If lenders have been making low and moderate income loans "for convenience, they will have an adverse experience with us," Mr. Hemschoot added. "We don't have two separate credit standards, only one."
Credit scoring taps into a borrower's credit and job histories, and a host of other financial attributes, to get a snapshot of whether the borrower will repay a loan.
A typical system will look at how well the borrower has paid off previous debt, such as credit cards and auto loans. It will also look at how long the borrower has been at his or her job.
One national credit scoring system factors in whether the potential borrower already own a house or rents. Those who already own a home score better than renters.
Other factors considered include what kind of bank accounts the borrower has. Those with checking and savings accounts do better than those who have just the basic checking account. Borrowers who invest in mutual funds do even better.
Credit scoring systems may be inherently discriminatory, because the factors that make up most credit scores favor white, middle-class, male borrowers, according to William Dallas, president of First Franklin Financial Corp., San Jose, Calif. Black applicants, on average, score poorly compared to white applicants, Mr. Dallas said.
As chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association's Freddie Mac liaison committee, Mr. Dallas will raise this issue with agency officials at next week's convention .
And Mr. Lasko warns that if credit scoring systems such as Freddie Mac's disproportionately reject applications from minorities, the Justice Department can be expected to intervene.