By William Hudson
Ocwen Financial, one of the largest subprime mortgage servicers in America, has big problems. Analysts predict that Ocwen will be forced to file bankruptcy as the SEC opens up two more investigations into the loan servicers business practices while the stock goes into free-fall.
A further hurdle will befall homeowners if Ocwen files for bankruptcy protection because another shield is placed between the homeowners and the banks who are the culprits- but just happen to control all of the “loan” information. As Neil Garfield would say, “They have plenty of bodies to throw under the bus.” To date, homeowners and their attorneys in litigation have been frustrated by attempts to discover who the true creditor is especially when the servicer hides behind bankruptcy, mergers and receivership (Fannie and Freddie).
Ocwen reported a $247 million annual loss while revenues tumbled 17.5% last week at the same time the SEC is continuing to scrutinize their shoddy and abusive servicing practices. Despite the fact that Ocwen previously settled with multiple government regulators upon findings of fraudulent servicing practices, apparently it is business as usual for Ocwen as authorities continue to investigate their business practices- without administering any penalty with teeth or consequences.
Only a month ago, Ocwen settled with the SEC for misstating their 2013 and 2014 financial results and were fined a paltry $2 million dollar fine for poor internal controls and failing to disclose the financial conflicts of their former CEO Bill Erby. In 2014 alone, Ocwen would pay a $100 million civil monetary penalty to the New York Department of Financial Services for violations and non-compliance with a prior consent order with a regulator. Last year they paid an additional $2.5 million fine to the California Department of Business Oversight on their servicing practices that ultimately led to Ocwen being barred from acquiring new Mortgage Servicing Rights in the state of California. Predictably, although the Department of Business Oversight had threatened to revoke their mortgage license- and should have- they failed to do so.
On the upside for Ocwen, is that they will remain in the business of servicing Ginnie Mae loans and will also continue to originate and service new Fannie and Freddie loans. My advice would be to steer clear of GSE loans like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if at all possible since it presents one more ‘layer’ to navigate if at a future time you suspect fraud may have been involved in your loan. Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are quasi-governmental institutions that are immune to Freedom of Information Requests and federal transparency, while still benefiting from being private corporations. The GSE’s have a cushy little deal where they appear to exist outside of both governmental and corporate regulations.
Last year Ocwen demonstrated that they couldn’t effectively service government guaranteed loans, and was forced to sell $45 billion in mortgage servicing rights (MSRs) on loans originated by Fannie Mae to JPMorgan Chase. Ocwen was also forced to sell a total of $34.8 billion in MSR’s on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans to competitor Nationstar Mortgage in two separate deals to unwind servicing legacy agency loans. Although I could go on and on about the abusive servicing practices that have resulted in Ocwen being financially fined and forced to sell its servicing rights, let’s just say these issues are indicative of the regulatory and investor pressures the servicing giants are now facing- across the board. At present, bondholders have requested that Ocwen be removed from servicing 119 different residential mortgage backed securities trusts with more requesting removal weekly.
Last Monday Ocwen was notified that the SEC would launch a new SEC probe into its servicing operations. The SEC is investigating Ocwen’s use of collection agents by the company’s various mortgage loan servicers, a practice that Ocwen has argued is a standard practice across the servicing industry. President Ronald Faris commented that their practices and fees are considered standard and should be of no concern. Faris is correct in that Ocwen’s illegal practices of using forged and fraudulent documents presented to courts across the country in order to foreclose is standard practice among loan servicing agents. However, Faris is delusional if he believes these practices should be of no concern. To whom? The shareholder who has no idea the loans Ocwen services are owned by phantom entities with no standing to foreclose, or the homeowner who is subjected to predatory servicing and foreclosure tactics? If the government agencies would do their jobs- Ocwen would cease to exist tomorrow.
The SEC has opened an investigation into the fees and expenses the company charges in connection with its management of liquidating mortgage loans and real estate properties in different RMBS trusts. Unfortunately, Ocwen is not being investigating for violations against consumers, but only because investors have complained and when investors complain the regulators and government take notice. Groups of investors have a tendency to get better results when they go up against a large corporation and can retain the best representation that money can buy. A homeowner in a small town outside Des Moines with an attorney specializing in family law doesn’t pose much of a threat or incite the same action.
It is unusual for the SEC to investigate business practices. Typically the SEC will only investigate the integrity of financial statements. CEO Ronald Faris spoke on a conference call Monday evening and addressed the investigation. He said what all good CEO’s say to distance themselves from controversy, “I can’t really comment except to say that we feel confident that the fees that are part of the servicing business that are either assessed to borrowers or passed on to RMBS investors are – they’re monitored closely by master servicers and trustees and others. We’ve had various third parties look at them. We have a good sense as to what other servicers have done since we’ve acquired a lot of servicing portfolios and been able to see what industry practice has been. And we feel comfortable that our process is within industry practice. So, we can’t comment on what exactly a regulator may be looking for, but we do believe that our processes are appropriate.” Faris confirms that he is simply going along with industry “best practices”. Best practices that have been revealed to include falsifying affidavits and forging mortgage documents in order to create the illusion of having standing to foreclose.
In January, Ocwen announced that Phyillis R. Caldwell joined the Board of Directors. Caldwell previously served as Chief of the Homeownership Preservation Office at the U.S. Department of the Treasury where she was responsible for oversight of the U.S. housing market stabilization, economic recovery, and foreclosure prevention initiatives established through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Since Caldwell did such an outstanding job with TARP what could go wrong? Under TARP millions of TPP modification agreements were extended and revoked for no reason while the homeowner was in compliance with the terms of the agreement.
Upon announcing Ocwen’s director, the company issued a press release stating, “Phyllis’ character, deep experience in the housing and mortgage markets, and commitment to borrowers and communities makes her the right choice to move Ocwen forward and emerge as a stronger company with the highest standards in our industry.” Unfortunately, we know what commitment to borrowers and communities’ means for homeowners under Ocwen. It means that investors will be able to come in, purchase properties for pennies on the dollar and displace families while Ocwen alters legal instruments to give the illusion of standing and forecloses on properties. Becoming a stronger company refers to cashing in a few favors she has coming her way so Ocwen can escape extinction. Caldwell’s appointment is disturbing and it is obvious what type of ‘help’ she will provide to Ocwen (cronyism and assistance covering their fraud scheme).
Remember, Ocwen was issued a consent order from the CFPB in every state but Oklahoma last year that illustrated the “continued, systemic abuse of the American homeowner.” Ocwen was accused of “violating consumer financial laws at every stage of the mortgage servicing process,” according to CFPB Director Richard Cordray. However, under that settlement, Ocwen executives faced no criminal charges, did not pay the majority of penalties themselves, and were not forced to admit wrongdoing in the case.
Ocwen, like JPMorgan Chase, Citicorp, Bank of America and other bank servicers settled cases of mortgage servicing abuse in the National Morgan Settlement back in 2012 for 25 billion dollars. The banks paid a nominal fine, and transferred or sold their servicing operations to non-bank servicers like Ocwen.
As a non-bank servicer, Ocwen doesn’t own any of the loans. They merely service loans, collecting monthly payments and dealing with loan modifications and foreclosures, for investors who purchased them as part of mortgage-backed securities. Ocwen makes the erroneous assumption that the loans they are servicing actually made it into the trusts they claim to. Ocwen has no way to verify if the note is where it is supposed to be but makes false assertions that it is simply because the bank “says so”.
Although Ocwen is not a bank, they have engaged in the exact same servicing practices as the big banks. Eric Mains who is suing CitiMortgage likes to call this game of passing around servicing rights while also claiming creditor rights, “Whack-a-Mole.” The entire servicing industry, by design, is about keeping the homeowner in the dark until they can properly execute the foreclosure action. Servicers change, account numbers change, customer service representatives provide account disinformation and banks routinely fail to comply with any statute meant to protect the homeowner from this type of exploitation and predation.
“Too often trouble began as soon as a loan transferred to Ocwen,” said CFPB Director Cordray when he announced the enforcement action last year. Ocwen was accused of charging borrowers more than stipulated in the mortgage contract; forcing homeowners to buy unnecessary insurance policies; charging borrowers unauthorized fees; providing inaccurate information to borrowers when questioned about excessive and unauthorized fees; lying about loan modification options; misplacing documents and ignoring or losing loan modification applications, deliberately causing homeowners to slip into foreclosure; illegally denying eligible borrowers loan modifications, and then lying to cover up their crimes. These activities result in foreclosures and a windfall of profits to the loan servicer who will then reap a free house, insurance proceeds and other undisclosed rewards granted for successfully foreclosing on a home. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ocwen had a Pirate of the Week award that includes a parking spot upfront near the CEO.
Finally, if Ocwen goes into bankruptcy, homeowners who have loans serviced by Ocwen will face further hardships attempting to unravel who their creditor is, if the loan was legitimately transferred, while being subjected to some unsavory servicing practices that appear to be designed to ensure the appearance of homeowner non-compliance. It is time that Ocwen ADMIT wrongdoing so that their executives will not be protected from legal consequences. Ocwen also needs to be forced to pay any penalties with their own money, not the investors. To date, Ocwen has only faced trivial administrative fines while foreclosing on thousands of homeowners under false pretenses, with fraudulent documents, by predatory means. Until the government regulators take real action- this is business as usual for the loan servicers.