WASHINGTON - Mortgage lenders and brokers are expecting a stiff rebuke of industry practices today at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on predatory lending where consumer representatives outnumber industry voices three to one.
The hearing is this year's first Capitol Hill review of predatory lending, but the issue is likely to continue to draw attention. Both Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank have said legislation is needed to protect consumers from the risk of foreclosure by reining in certain mortgage products and practices.
"I would expect that the hearing will be dominated by consumer group complaints about industry practices," said Wright Andrews, the executive director of the Coalition for Fair and Affordable Lending, a trade group representing major nondepository mortgage lenders. "I certainly expect nontraditional mortgages as well as traditional hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages to be hot topics of discussion."
Consumer groups said they hope to use the hearing to focus on the high rate of foreclosures for nontraditional and subprime mortgages, encourage regulators to include certain products under recently released alternative mortgage guidance, and push for a suitability standard.
While mortgage industry representatives say predatory lending is not a widespread problem, their counterparts in the banking industry privately insist that to the extent it is a problem, mortgage brokers, not banks, are to blame.
But the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the founder and president of the Rainbow Push Coalition, who is one of eight witnesses scheduled to testify today does not buy that argument. He said that many nonbank lenders are financed by banks.
"Banks in fact are making money off the predators," Mr. Jackson said in an interview Tuesday. "The banker, he's still in the front in his blue-striped suit looking like the good guy, the man of honor who gives away donations to the helpless people. The banker is in fact financing the predator. They aren't financing themselves."
Also scheduled to testify is Martin Eakes, the chief executive officer of the Center for Responsible Lending. The group released a study in December that said 2.2 million families with nontraditional or subprime mortgages made since 1998 have faced or will soon face foreclosure because of predatory lending.
"The numbers are just eye-popping," Michael Calhoun, the center's president, said Tuesday. "There is widespread evidence that underwriting standards have been abandoned in the subprime market."
The study has already resonated with Sen. Dodd, who said in a Jan. 24 speech that "these foreclosures will cost homeowners as much as $164 billion in lost wealth, mostly in home equity that has been stripped away."
But Doug Duncan, the chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association and one of two industry representatives testifying at the hearing, is expected to argue there is not a wave of foreclosures.
"We're going to try to make the point that there is no foreclosure crisis right now in this country; that the reasons for foreclosure have not changed; that they are primarily unemployment, health reasons, divorce as opposed to what's sometimes alleged now, which is that products are causing foreclosure," said Kurt Pfotenhauer, the MBA's chief lobbyist.
Hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages also figure to be scrutinized.
In December, Sen. Dodd and five other Banking Committee members sent a letter to federal bank regulators asking them to treat hybrid ARM loans the same as nontraditional mortgages under guidance issued in October. The guidance required more disclosure and stricter underwriting standards.
"Many subprime borrowers simply cannot afford these new, significantly higher payments and will be forced to refinance the loans or fall into default," the senators said.
Another issue expected to come up is a proposed suitability standard, which would require lenders to ensure that borrowers can repay their loans. Consumer groups are seeking to include such a standard in any predatory-lending bill; industry representatives oppose it.
"We'll argue that a suitability standard is a cure that is worse than the disease," Mr. Pfotenhauer said. "We think the net result would be to restrain credit to folks who need it most."