Foreclosure Defense and Offense: Rating Agencies and Appraisals

Taking the entire Mortgage Meltdown process as a single transaction starting with the origination of the loan to the borrower and ending with the sale of an asset backed security to an investor, a pattern of deception and confusion emerges — providing the borrower with an arsenal of offensive and defensive strategies to avoid foreclosure, recover damages and even free their property from the mortgage altogether. In foreclosure defense and particularly offense for “lender” liability, keep in mind that there was a chain of entities who all knowingly conspired (under a cloak of what they deemed “plausible deniability”).

This chain was never disclosed to the borrower — thus the disclosure obligations set forth in TILA, state law, RICO, common law and other resources were never met and the right to rescission was blocked by lack of information, to wit: the borrower in most cases does not know who to send the rescission letter to because in all likelihood there are now multiple parties who have an interest in the security instrument, the note and the risk of loss, none of whom were disclosed to the borrower at or after closing. 

These participants are subject to liability for monetary damages and many are insured as well as having deep pockets of their own. They also de-linked several aspects of what had been a single event — the purchase of a home with a first mortgage on residential property using money in part loaned by a lender who took the risk of non-payment, followed underwriting guidelines set by the banking industry and regulators, and therefore had a direct stake in the outcome of the loan and a specific desire to avoid default on the loan. 

The de-linking of teht ransaction and overlapping with other parts of the entire single “mortgage meltdown” chain resulted in separation of the security interest from the the obligation to pay, adding obligors who had liability for payment, and adding receivers of income. Thus the classic and relatively simple foreclosure that involved non-payment by the borrower to the lender, was converted in a complex series of transactions leaving the investor who bought the asset backed security with the right to the income and some rights to the security interests, and others with the the right to the security interest but no right to payment, and still others who made payments to the investor or who were liable for non-payment to the investor who acquired the right to payment from the underlying mortgage and note from which his asset backed security derived its value.

The significance of this in foreclosure defense is that the party alleging non-payment by the borrower is NOT and CANNOT allege non-payment to the entity or person (investor) who is entitled to that payment. The usual person entering the foreclosure process is the trustee posting notice of sale or the originating lender filing foreclosure. But they do not know if the investment bank, an insurer or some other third party, including another borrower was contributing to the flow of payments that the investor received, nor do they know the allocation of those funds which the investor received.

Thus the party entitled to income from the borrower’s note may or may not have been paid by the borrower (through overcharges and other TILA violations in addition to regular monthly payments, or by third parties whose obligation derived in part from the note signed by the borrower and in part by hundreds or thousands of other notes in cross collateralization agreements or cross guarnatees, indemnifications, indentures and covneants between the lender, mortgage agregator, investment banker, seller of teh security and the investor who bought the security. 

You can therefore take the position that if the default alleged is non-payment, the entity or person making the allegation must prove the non-payment and that proving that the borrower did not make one or more payments does not prove that the party (investor) entitled to payment did not get paid in whole or in part. Thus no default has been alleged without alleging that no payment was received by the holder of the original note and mortgage and the party to whom payment was to be received as a result of the income stream from this mortgage combined with thousands of other mortgages.

Production of the original note and mortgage becomes critical and a condition precedent to any action, sale, motion for summary judgment, judgement of foreclosure, sale or rights of redemption. Equally important and perhaps more so is the production of the documents that assigned, sold or otherwise transferred the security interest, the income from the note or the risk of non-payment to one or more parties. You will find that in many cases, those are all different third parties with different interests and agendas.

Perhaps the most important, we are finding in Ohio and other states, that NOBODY can come up with documents that directly link a particular borrower with any of these third parties holding primary or secondary rights to the security instrument, the note, or the risk of loss. In those cases, we are seeing borrowers walk away with their home free and clear of any encumbrances and lawyers getting paid fat bonuses or contingency fees for eliminating the risk of foreclosure, and feeing the borrower from the entanglement in a complex transaction that was never disclosed to him/her/them.

The appraisers, who are usually insured by errors and omissions policies, state the fair market value of real property through supposedly independent analysis of comparable statistics and other factors. The standards are governed by the regulatory board in each state that licenses them, although there might still be some states who do not license appraisers. In states without licensing, they are governed by common law and other applicable law concerning deceptive business practices.

The rating agencies state the quality of a security that is used to determine the fair market value of the security. They too are supposedly using objective means, analysis and due diligence to issue their rating. In the world of the mortgage meltdown, rating agency objectivity broke down y virtue of two main factors: (a) the rating agencies were competing for customers and revenue and (b) in a related factor, the rating agency analysts were receiving gifts, pressure from clients (issuers) and pressure from management to “accommodate” the client (issuer). A Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (or “NRSRO”) is a credit rating agency which issues credit ratings that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) permits other financial firms to use for certain regulatory purposes.

The nine organizations currently designated as NRSROs are:

Ratings by NRSRO are used for a variety of regulatory purposes in the United States. In addition to net capital requirements (described in more detail below), the SEC permits certain bond issuers to use a shorter prospectus form when issuing bonds if the issuer is older, has issued bonds before, and has a credit rating above a certain level. SEC regulations also require that money market funds (mutual funds that mimick the safety and liquidity of a bank savings deposit, but without FDIC insurance) comprise only securities with a very high rating from an NRSRO. Likewise, insurance regulators use credit ratings from NRSROs to ascertain the strength of the reserves held by insurance companies.

The following article described the efforts of the New York Attorney general to address the break down of objectivity caused by competition for fees.

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Bond-Rating 
Shifts Loom 
In Settlement

N.Y.’s Cuomo Plans 
Overhaul of How 
Firms Get Paid
By AARON LUCCHETTI
June 4, 2008; Page C1

The three major bond-rating firms are set to overhaul the way they collect fees as part of a settlement with New York state’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, that could be announced as soon as this week, people familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is reached, it could change the $5 billion-a-year bond-rating industry as fundamentally as Mr. Cuomo’s predecessor Eliot Spitzer did six years ago with his settlement with Wall Street firms over stock-research analysts whose recommendations were compromised by investment-banking ties.

[Andrew Cuomo]

Terms of Mr. Cuomo’s settlement with Moody’s Corp.’s Moody’s Investors Service; McGraw-Hill Cos.’ Standard & Poor’s unit; and Fimalac SA’s Fitch Ratings deal with what many critics claim has been a chronic problem with bond ratings: They are paid for by the entities being rated. That financial dependence has been blamed for the industry’s failure to predict that risky subprime mortgages would crumble, resulting in losses and shaken confidence.

The accord attempts to change the incentive structure for the ratings firms. Now, while more than one ratings firm reviews most deals, not all of them always rate the deal and get paid. That gives the firms an incentive to go easy on their rating in order to win the business.

Under the Cuomo settlement, which would cover the hardest-hit portions of the mortgage market, the firms would get paid for their review, even if they didn’t end up getting hired to rate the deal. This would mean the firms would get paid even if they were tough. The plan, which requires final agreement by Mr. Cuomo’s office and the rating firms, wouldn’t dictate the exact fees rating firms could charge. But the firms would be required to charge more than a nominal fee for their preliminary work.

The bond-rating firms also have tentatively agreed to disclose on a quarterly basis the fees they are paid for nonprime-mortgage-backed securities, which include subprime mortgages and so-called Alt-A mortgages that have less documentation or don’t conform with prime-mortgage standards.

Such disclosures are seen as a potential red flag to help investors detect instances where bond issuers or their bankers may have essentially pitted different rating firms against each other in order to get a higher rating.

In an interview late last year, Brian Clarkson, then the president and chief operating officer of Moody’s Investors Service, acknowledged that “there is a lot of rating shopping that goes on…What the market doesn’t know is who’s seen” certain transactions but wasn’t hired to rate those deals. Last month, Mr. Clarkson, who once ran the Moody’s group overseeing mortgages and other structured-finance products, stepped down, effective in July.

The settlement is unlikely to satisfy critics who have urged that bond-rating firms stop being paid altogether by bond issuers or that the firms be permitted to rate any deal they choose, regardless of whether the issuer cooperates. Following the settlement, bond issuers still would get a strong say over which firms published the final rating, as well as those invited to look over a pool of loans in the first place.

For Moody’s, S&P and Fitch, the agreement largely eliminates the possibility of a nasty showdown with Mr. Cuomo, whose office has been investigating the industry for about nine months, poring through thousands of pages in documents and emails and interviewing senior executives at each of the three big rating firms, people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Cuomo has leverage over the bond-rating industry partly because Moody’s and S&P are based in New York. The attorney general also has one of the most powerful legal tools in the nation: the 1921 Martin Act, which spells out a broad definition of securities fraud without requiring that prosecutors prove intent to defraud.

In a statement, Deven Sharma, S&P’s president, said the firm “is pleased to work with New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo and other rating agencies on these important measures, which we believe will help ensure our ratings process continues to be of the highest quality.”

Rating-company shares rose after The Wall Street Journal reported news of the settlement talks Tuesday afternoon. In 4 p.m. composite trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Moody’s was at $38.45, up $1.80, or 4.9%. McGraw-Hill was up 38 cents at $41.20.

As the probe proceeded, attorneys in Mr. Cuomo’s office concluded that rating firms could be more effective if Wall Street had less control over which ones were paid, these people said. As part of the deal, the firms would cooperate with Mr. Cuomo’s continuing investigation into investment banks and other financial firms that issued mortgage-backed securities later plagued by high levels of defaults. The New York attorney general is trying to determine if banks intentionally overlooked or hid flaws in loans that were securitized and sold to investors.

The decision not to seek fines from the three major bond-rating firms partly reflects Mr. Cuomo’s firm but less-confrontational style than that of Mr. Spitzer. The 50-year-old Mr. Cuomo, elected in 2006, has promised to aggressively pursue financial wrongdoing, and the likely pact shows he believes investor confidence can be shored up without an all-out attack on the bond-rating industry.

Mr. Cuomo’s settlement will likely be structured in a way that doesn’t contradict rules being proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It will take up to six months to implement and may also need to address antitrust concerns at investment banks or among smaller rating firms. “Without knowing all the details, I’m concerned it would entrench the three large rating firms,” said David Schroeder, chief operating officer of DBRS, a Toronto rating firm not included in the settlement talks.

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