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Despite Improvement in Loan-Mod Defaults, Report Raises Alarms

A new report released on Wednesday raised an interesting criticism of HAMP—that borrowers aren’t staying current on modified payments even though HAMP has reduced, on average, borrowers’ monthly payments by more than $400.

The report, from the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or Sigtarp, said there was an “alarming rate” of homeowners who were defaulting after receiving a permanent mortgage modification.

The report says data show that the longer a homeowner remains in HAMP, the more likely he or she is to redefault out of the program. This is true of almost any mortgage-modification program.

But the report raises broader questions about whether mortgage modifications have been worth the costs, and against what yard stick success in any such program should be measured.

There are plenty of faults to find with HAMP. Officials struggled to ensure taxpayer money wasn’t wasted, so they required lots of documentation. That created new headaches: banks rejected borrowers that they said provided incomplete forms, while borrowers routinely complained that banks lost their paperwork. In an interview last year, Shaun Donovan, the housing secretary, said it was a “fair criticism that programs initially were too complicated and had too many restrictions.”

Mortgage servicers were also overwhelmed. During tense meetings at the Treasury Department throughout 2009 and 2010, officials laid into the banks for not staffing up. Executives groused that HAMP rules changed so often that they couldn’t keep up and that new headline-grabbing initiatives were announced before they could be rolled out to be offered to borrowers.

Others said HAMP didn’t do enough to deal with negative equity, which prompted the administration to launch a belated effort two years ago to encourage principal reduction. The Treasury never made it mandatory because they feared it would both be too expensive and that it would lead banks to opt out of HAMP.

Under HAMP, banks received modest incentive payments to reduce borrowers’ monthly payments to around 31% of their current income, often by extending the loan term and dropping the interest rate. Modifications have resulted in an average monthly payment reduction of $545 or $400, depending on which type of modification lenders provide under the program.

So far, around 860,000 borrowers have active HAMP modifications, and around 290,000 have fallen out of the program. The Sigtarp report said it was “alarming” that 46% of a few thousand permanent modifications made in the third quarter of 2009 had redefaulted, as well as 39% of those made in the last quarter of 2009.

But some industry executives have said that, for all its faults, HAMP succeeded in giving the industry a template for a more sustainable loan modification. Before 2009, many modifications didn’t result in lower monthly payments, and mortgage modifications in the post-HAMP world have performed drastically better than those that came before. Around 25% of borrowers who received a modification in 2011 had fallen behind on payments within one year, down from 57% in 2008, according to banking regulators.

Moreover, more recent HAMP modifications are performing significantly better than earlier HAMP “mods,” something that may be owed to an improving economy as much as any program improvements. Around 11% of HAMP modifications made in late 2011 had defaulted after one year, compared with more than 20% for those made when the program launched in mid-2009.

Data also show that HAMP modifications, which typically offer the most generous payment relief, perform better than privately issued modifications.

Among the bigger questions raised by the report: If mortgage modification redefault rates under HAMP are too high, what’s an acceptable level? And can any mortgage modification program hit those targets?

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