Saturday, August 16, 2008

More Proof A Lot Of Bankers Should be Bounced Out of the Business

WSJ is featurng a story today on the infamous "incentives" home builders were giving buyers in the early stages of the housing crisis. Nick Timiraoswrites at WSJ:

The FBI ... confirmed that it is looking at cases where the disclosures of incentives "haven't made it all the way to the ultimate lender," says William Stern, financial crimes supervisor for the FBI in Palm Beach County, Fla., and the bureau's former national mortgage-fraud coordinator.

Interviews with real-estate agents, home buyers and former employees at home builders describe an industry where competitive pressures fueled unusually creative giveaways in a last-ditch attempt to prevent price cuts....

"You weren't buying a house. You were buying a package," says Dana Ellis, who worked as an escrow manager for Centex from 2004 to 2006. To qualify, Centex required the buyer to use the company's in-house mortgage unit to originate the loan, and the loan application included an incentive "addendum" that listed the incentives but wasn't always sent to the lender. "They weren't disclosing any of this. That was on separate paper that was pulled," she says.

Centex says that the program was confined to about 50 sales and was shut down in June 2006, about six months after it began. Centex averaged 63 home sales a month for the year beginning April 2006. "These incentives did not reflect standard corporate practice and, once discovered, the practice was immediately halted," Centex spokesman David Webster says. Centex says only one of the loans was government-backed, through the Veterans Administration home-loan program, and the builder has promised to stand behind all of those loans.

Elsewhere, developers offered "sweat equity," or payments for buyers to receive home improvements such as landscaping. "You're basically getting banks to give you a cash advance," says Chip Hickman, the general manager of Easy Street Realty in Las Vegas. He said such programs weren't heavily advertised and were offered by many area builders, although he declined to name them. "It was more sales agents in the model home saying, 'Look, tell me what you need and I got a lot of money to play with.' "

There aren't any strict limits on incentives, but they could run afoul of federal regulations if they cause the mortgage to increase by more than the cost of the incentive. "It's a phantom incentive to mask it in an excessive loan," says Brian Sullivan, a Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesman.

So big deal, the banker just sends in his own appraiser to tell him what the house is worth?

But WSJ drops this bomb:

Stronger due diligence by banks might have caught some of these problems. Banks, however, say they relied on professional appraisal companies to insure property pricing. Mortgage-fraud experts say appraisers sometimes cooperated with builders because it was the only way to get business...

What banker in his right mind would use an appraiser that was in bed with builders? Further, the special incentive programs were no secret, stories were featured about them last year in WSJ. A banker with his ear to the ground would have also picked up the scent.

All of this could have led to a simple form provided to buyer and seller that said, "Please provide complete details with regard to any incentives that have or will be provided as a result of this transaction being completed."

A real banker would have caught this problem before $1 left the bank vault.

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