WASHINGTON/CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Banks under fire over their foreclosure practices face twin hearings in Congress this week, at which they will come under renewed pressure to find ways to keep borrowers in their homes.
The hearings on Tuesday and Thursday will include the first appearances by executives from major lenders like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase since the furor over sloppy foreclosure paperwork erupted in September.
Banks are accused of having used “robo-signers” to sign hundreds of foreclosure documents a day, a fiasco that has reignited public anger with banks that received billions of dollars in taxpayer aid during the financial crisis.
Lenders will be pressed on whether the paperwork problems are further evidence that modifying loans is a better alternative to eviction.
“Foreclosure should be the last option and we need to examine barriers to mortgage modifications,” Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, expected to lead the Banking Committee next year, said in an emailed response to Reuters.
Other witnesses at Tuesday’s Senate Banking Committee hearing include Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who is leading a 50-state probe of foreclosure practices.
Miller’s testimony will be closely watched. A settlement with lenders could include fines or commitments to loan modifications.
Bank of America and JPMorgan were among banks that temporarily suspended foreclosures pending internal reviews of their practices, but have since begun to resume sales of foreclosed properties.
Some lawmakers and consumer activists called in October for all lenders to institute a national moratorium on foreclosures, but they failed to gain traction due to fears it would further depress home sales and crimp economic growth.
Real estate data company RealtyTrac said the temporary suspensions by banks led to a 9 percent drop in U.S. foreclosures in October from the month prior.
Republican Representative Spencer Bachus, the front-runner to be chairman of the House Financial Services Committee next year, said the paperwork problems are “disturbing,” but singled out federal regulators for criticism.
“It is disappointing that the regulators didn’t catch this before the media since most of the problems in the contested foreclosure proceedings occurred at the nation’s largest banks,” Bachus told Reuters in an email.
The House panel’s foreclosure hearing is set for Thursday.
The mortgage paperwork mess threatens to eat into bank profits by delaying sales of bank-owned properties, drawing fines from regulators, and spawning lawsuits from both homeowners and investors in mortgage-backed securities.
Some industry analysts have said a bigger cost for banks stems from investor demands that they buy back billions of dollars of mortgage bonds because they misrepresented the quality of the underlying loans.
Georgetown University law professor Adam Levitin, a witness on Tuesday, sees a fundamental danger highlighted by the sloppy paperwork. He believes the mortgage industry has failed to properly track the ownership of loans, undermining the legal standing of mortgage-backed securities.
The U.S. government’s Home Affordable Modification Program has had limited success and banks have been reluctant to reduce the principal owed, a step that can require approval by multiple investors, and causes banks and investors to take losses.
Nevertheless, some economists and housing experts believe the time has come for lenders and mortgage investors to accept reductions in the amounts they are owed.
“It just cannot be the case that foreclosure is preferable to modification — including reductions of principal — for a significant proportion of mortgages where the dead-weight costs of foreclosure, including a distressed sale discount, are so high,” Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo said in a speech at George Washington University law school on Friday.
The Fed and other federal banking regulators are reviewing the processes large banks have in place for foreclosures.
Congress is currently led by the Democrats, but big losses at the November 2 elections mean Republicans will control the House next year while Democrats retain the Senate with a reduced majority.
That split in control could ensure legislative gridlock and minimize lawmakers’ influence on the foreclosure issue.
“I have no hopes for this Congress whatsoever,” said John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Taylor said he is placing his hopes for a mortgage modification push in the state attorneys general.
Reporting by Dave Clarke and Joe Rauch; Additional reporting by Kevin Gray in Miami and Dan Levine in San Francisco; Editing by Tim Dobbyn