SAN DIEGO – Mortgage industry leaders sounded a call for unity as the business reels from mounting compliance burdens, aggressive enforcement actions and ongoing demographic shifts.

Bill Cosgrove, the outgoing chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association, spoke of grassroots activism within companies and collaborating with consumer advocate groups as ways to "fortify [the industry's] voice."

"Drive activism through your company culture," Cosgrove said Monday at the trade group's annual convention in San Diego. "Don't let strangers in Washington and state houses determine the direction of your companies."

David H. Stevens, the group's president, virtually came out swinging. While preaching collaboration and open dialogue across the industry, Stevens also pledged to "shine an aggressive spotlight on abusive enforcement."

Specifically, Stevens called out the Department of Justice for its use of the Federal False Claims Act, a piece of legislation designed to protect the Union Army from fraud during the Civil War, "to apply treble damages against lenders for originating an FHA loan with even the most minor of errors."

"As long as the current public policy environment and public discourse continues, it only perpetuates the lack of trust in the financial services system," Stevens said. "We’re going to be stuck in an environment where the very same families some advocates care about most will be the ones blocked from that opportunity."

Referring to the current environment as an "enforcement regime," incoming MBA Chairman Bill Emerson called the authorities' actions "irresponsible" and claimed that the heavy-handedness of "educating by enforcement" creates "true access-to-credit issues."

Echoing Stevens' point about steep penalties for piddling errors, Emerson said, "It is crucial to have the sense to recognize the vast chasm between a mistake and fraud."

Stevens assured attendees that the MBA "will remain steadfast, insisting that the rules create a balanced lending environment for qualified borrowers."

While his first priority is "uniting as a group," Emerson said he is focused on drawing in millennials to the industry, broadly integrating technology and "embracing diversity in lending and hiring practices".

"The millennials are here and they are teaching us that using technology is how they will transact," Emerson said. "We have to embrace this concept today, not tomorrow, if we are to stay relevant in the future."

It is time for the industry to "turn the page" and move on from recession psychology and actions derived from defensive thinking, Emerson said. Ignoring the past would be foolish, he said, but dwelling on it serves only to hamstring progress.

The architecture of a better future is built on a solid foundation, "not something that weighs us down," he said. Stevens similarly warned against "living the recession over and over again."

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