Riding the SubBy David F. Carr | Posted 2005-09-09 Print
No mortgage loan gets made without a processor; and no processor makes a loan without running the applicant's personal and financial background through software that canin theory, if not in practicereject those borrowers who can't legitimately-Prime Wave">
As interest rates fell to a 40-year low in June 2003, large lenders such as Ameriquest began advertising loans for potential borrowers "regardless of their credit histories."
Ameriquest and other lenders offered interest-only loans, to entice borrowers to purchase second homes or to qualify for higher-priced homes they otherwise could not afford.
As one mortgage industry veteran in New York puts it, "Anyone who can fog a mirror can get a mortgage loan in today's environment."
Because these loan agents are relying on and, in some cases, abusing the information systems used to generate the loans that have made the real estate explosion possible, they also stand to share much of the blame if and when these risky loans begin to foreclose, says Richard Harmon, vice president of scoring analytics and software for San Francisco-based LoanPerformance, a firm that specializes in developing analytical software for the mortgage industry.
"It's always dangerous to paint issues of this type with a broad brush, but it's clear that more and more people are leveraging themselves to the breaking point," Harmon says. The danger is particularly great in overheated markets, such as California and Florida.
It doesn't have to be this way. The software systems that mortgage brokers use are capable of weeding out applicants with shaky financial backgrounds. But if the same software is used to fulfill sales quotas, these systems can simply make it faster to fill out unverified reports.
Empower, for instance, automates almost half of the steps needed to process a loan. Once the application has been filled out by the borrower, the data is keyed into the system. Loan agents can enter that data directly while talking to the borrower or, in some cases, without their consent, according to Bomchill.
At the underwriting stage, the loan is passed along for review by the underwriter to determine the viability of the borrower and recommend approval or denial of the loan.
In the past, the loan application and supporting documents such as W-2s, bank statements, 401(k) statements and other financial records were kept together in one file for review.
Now, all that documentation is entered electronically at the beginning of the process by the loan agent. In some cases, the underwriter is merely reviewing the data entered into the system by the loan agent and not double-checking the actual physical documents, Bomchill says.
These steps and processes, if done properly and with proper supervision and documentation, speed up the transactions for all parties. But in some of the cases detailed in the class-action suits Ameriquest recently settled, many of the appropriate checks and balances appear to have been ignored.
Ameriquest CIO Mark Sarago says the company's information systems are designed to ferret out abuses, but he declined to offer any specifics.
"Are there ways for anyone to do anything to the software? Yes," he says. "If someone is entirely enterprising, they can find ways to beat the system. If someone really focuses on breaking something, I'm sure they can do it. But we think it's a very tight system."
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