As I write this, the answer to these and other questions are being fought out in the trenches, in an out-of-sight but increasingly heated battle involving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the law firms that specialize in creditor’s rights, default industry service providers, and various private equity interests.
It’s a complex fight that many say will ultimately shape the way U.S. mortgages are serviced over the course of the next decade — and perhaps beyond. It’s also a debate that promises to spill over into how loans are originated and priced.
“No aspect of the U.S. mortgage business will go untouched by the outcome of this current debate,” said one attorney I spoke with, on condition of anonymity. “This is the single most important issue facing mortgage markets today, and will even determine how securities are structured in the future.”
How foreclosures are managed
Typically, a foreclosure involves legal and court filing fees — it is, after all, a legal process involving the forced transfer of a property from a non-paying borrower to secured lender. But the foreclosure process also typically involves a host of other associated fees, including necessary title searches, potential property insurance, homeowner’s association dues, property maintenance and repair, and much more.
Many of these fees are ultimately tacked onto the “past due” amounts tied to a delinquent borrower — and done so legally. Much like when a credit card becomes past due and the interest rate kicks into high oblivion, consumers looking to catch up on their delinquent mortgage payments must also make up the difference in additional fees in order to successfully do so.
Legal fees in the foreclosure business, however, aren’t what you might think. Instead of billing hourly for most work, as most attorneys in other fields would do, attorneys that specialize in processing foreclosures are paid on a flat-fee basis, using pre-determined fee schedules.
Thanks to the market-making power of the GSEs, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — both of whom publish allowable fee schedules for every imaginable legal filing and process in the foreclosure repertoire — the entire foreclosure process has been reduced to a set of flat fees.
And not even negotiated fees, at that. For firms that operate in the field of foreclosure management, the GSE allowable fees amount to a take-it-or-leave-it menu of prices.
“For us, it doesn’t matter who the client is, even if it isn’t Fannie or Freddie,” said one attorney I spoke with, under condition of anonymity. “We know we’re only going to be able to claim whatever that flat fee schedule they set says we can claim, since other investors tend to employ whatever the GSE fee caps are.”
Fannie and Freddie as housing HMOs? In the foreclosure business, that’s pretty much what it amounts to.
But beyond determining the legal fee schedule for much of the multi-billion dollar default services market, the GSEs also largely determine who gets their own foreclosure work. Both Fannie and Freddie maintain networks of law firms called “designated counsel” or “approved counsel” in key states marked with significant foreclosure volume — and they either strongly suggest or require that any servicers managing a Fannie or Freddie loan in foreclosure refer any needed legal work to their approved legal counsel.
Each state will have numerous designated counsel — sometimes as many as five law firms — but in practice, attorneys say, two to three firms end up with the lion’s share of each state’s foreclosure work. In states hit hard by the housing downturn and foreclosure surge, like Florida, the amount of work can be substantial.
“The GSEs can force a servicer to use their designated counsel, especially if timeline performance in foreclosure management is out of some set boundary,” said one servicing executive at a large bank, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s usually easiest to simply use their counsel on their loans, even if we don’t see that firm as best-in-class.”
With the vast majority of the mortgage market now running through the GSEs, and much of what’s left of the private market following the guidelines Fannie and Freddie establish, it should come as no surprise to find that a few law firms in each state end up with the majority of the foreclosure work, sources say.
The rise of the ‘foreclosure mills’
Being designated as approved counsel by Fannie Mae and/or Freddie Mac does carry risk. Just ask Florida’s David Stern, who has seen his burgeoning operation pejoratively branded a ‘foreclosure mill’ by consumer groups, dragged through the press for both alleged and real consumer misdeeds, and facing numerous investor lawsuits surrounding the operation of DJSP Enterprises, Inc. (DJSP: 3.22 -1.23%) — the publicly-traded processing company tied to the law firm.
While Stern’s operation may win the award for ‘most susceptible to negative publicity,’ how the law firm operates is far from unique in the foreclosure industry.