By Nick Timiraos
Don’t call us, we’ll call you!
That was the message on Wednesday from Bank of America executives who announced the bank’s new effort to modify mortgages by cutting loan balances.
Under the program, Bank of America will reduce certain loans by up to 30% in order to lower monthly payments for borrowers facing foreclosure. While banks have selectively used principal write-downs to modify loans that they own, Bank of America’s approach could represent the beginning of broader efforts by banks to add write-downs as a more common tool in their loan-modification arsenal.
Here’s how it works: only borrowers who had loans from Countrywide Financial, which Bank of America acquired in mid-2008, will be eligible. And only the riskiest loans will qualify: subprime loans, “option adjustable-rate” mortgages that have low initial monthly payments but that can adjust sharply higher, and certain prime loans that have a fixed interest rate for the first two years before starting to adjust annually.
The program is also limited to customers who have missed at least two consecutive payments, who can demonstrate that a financial hardship prevents them from making payments at the current level, and whose loan balance is at least 120% of the estimated home value.
Bank of America will go through its loan book to see which loans might qualify for reductions (while checking property values to see which ones are far enough under water), and then the bank will reach out to those who may be eligible. “Our customers do not need to take any actions at this time,” said Jack Schakett, a credit-loss mitigation executive.
Why all the qualification restrictions? For starters, banks and policy makers have long worried that they could up end the housing market if they offer principal write-downs too widely. Borrowers who are current but who owe more than their homes are worth, known as being “under water,” might stop paying to get a better deal. So it makes sense to start with a narrow pool of borrowers, particularly one that already has sky-high default rates.
Another reason: Bank of America is offering these modifications as part of a settlement reached Wednesday with the commonwealth of Massachusetts. The settlement is fairly detailed in prescribing what kinds of modifications Bank of America has to take with its Countrywide loans. (In an interview, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said she pushed for principal reductions in the settlement because she didn’t want any bank to be “modifying a loan for the sake of modifying it, and finding two months, or six months, or a year later that it’s still going to be foreclosed on without getting to the root of the problem.”)
Bank of America says that around 45,000 borrowers could see their loan balances reduced with an average reduction of more than $62,000.
Bank of America’s approach has an interesting design feature in an attempt to prevent homeowners who are still paying their loans from defaulting and becoming eligible for the program. Loan balances aren’t reduced in one clean strike. Instead, Bank of America is offering what’s called “earned forgiveness.”
The program works like this: for a borrower who owes $300,000 on a home worth $200,000, the bank would reduce up to $100,000 in principal and place it in an interest-free account. For each of five years, the bank would forgive another $20,000 as long as the borrower continued to make payments and until the borrower was returned to a 100% loan-to-value ratio. If home prices have recovered by the fourth or fifth year to meet the amount owed, Bank of America would stop forgiving money in the interest-free account, which would have to be paid off when the home is sold or the loan is refinanced.
To be sure, there are drawbacks. One big challenge in modifying loans has been the presence of second mortgages. Bank of America said it will modify first mortgages that have seconds behind them only when Bank of America owns the first mortgage in its portfolio. The government’s modification program, Home Affordable Modification Program, has faced challenges because borrowers haven’t been able to document their incomes, and those requirements don’t go away in this effort.
But it does offer an interesting test case to see if, for the riskiest and worst performing loans, borrowers will stick with a better payment program.