FHA-Backed Loans The Next Subprime Crisis Looms
The same people whose reckless practices triggered the global financial crisis are onto a similar scheme that could cost taxpayers tons more.
As if they haven't done enough damage. Thousands of subprime mortgage lenders and brokers -- many of them the very sorts of firms that helped create the current financial crisis -- are going strong. Their new strategy: taking advantage of a long-standing federal program designed to encourage homeownership by insuring mortgages for buyers of modest means.
You read that correctly. Some of the same people who propelled us toward the housing market calamity are now seeking to profit by exploiting billions in federally insured mortgages. Washington, meanwhile, has vastly expanded the availability of such taxpayer-backed loans as part of the emergency campaign to rescue the country's swooning economy.
Foreclosures have spiked in the wake of the subprime crisis, leading to a number of businesses, like this one in Rio Vista, CA, having to close.
More Bad Debt
As a result, the nation could soon suffer a fresh wave of defaults and foreclosures, with Washington obliged to respond with yet another gargantuan bailout. Inside Mortgage Finance, a research and newsletter firm in Bethesda, Md., estimates that over the next five years fresh loans backed by the FHA that go sour will cost taxpayers $100 billion or more. That's on top of the $700 billion financial-system rescue Congress has already approved. Gary E. Lacefield, a former federal mortgage investigator who now runs Risk Mitigation Group, a consultancy in Arlington, Tex., predicts: "Within the next 12 to 18 months, there is going to be FHA-insurance Armageddon."
The resilient entrepreneurs who populate this dubious field are often obscure, but not puny. Jerry Cugno started Premier Mortgage Funding in Clearwater, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in 2002. Over the next four years, it became one of the country's largest subprime lenders, with 750 branches and 5,000 brokers across the U.S. Cugno, now 59, took home millions of dollars and rewarded top salesmen with Caribbean cruises and shiny Hummers, according to court records and interviews with former employees. But along the way, Premier accumulated a dismal regulatory record. Five states -- Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- revoked its license for various abuses; four others disciplined the company for using unlicensed brokers or similar violations. The crash of the subprime market and a barrage of lawsuits prompted Premier to file for U.S. bankruptcy court protection in Tampa in July 2007. Then, in March, a Premier unit in Cleveland and its manager pleaded guilty to felony charges related to fraudulent mortgage schemes.
But Premier didn't just close down. Since it declared bankruptcy, federal records show, it has issued more than 2,000 taxpayer-insured mortgages -- worth a total of $250 million. According to the FHA, Premier failed to notify the agency of its Chapter 11 filing, as required by law. In late October, an FHA spokesman admitted it was unaware of Premier's situation and welcomed any information BusinessWeek could provide.
You'd think the government would have had Premier on a watch list. According to data compiled by the FHA's parent, the U.S. Housing & Urban Development Dept. (HUD), the firm's borrowers have a 9.2 percent default rate, the second highest among large-volume FHA lenders nationally.
Now, members of the Cugno family have started a brand new company called Paramount Mortgage Funding. It operates a floor below Premier's headquarters in a three-story black-glass office building Jerry Cugno owns in Clearwater. In August 2007, only weeks after Premier sought bankruptcy court protection, the FHA granted Paramount a license to issue government-backed mortgages. "I am the only person in the country who really understands FHA," Cugno says with characteristic bravado.
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Similarly worrisome stories are playing out around the country. In Tucson, First Magnus Financial specialized in risky "Alt-A" mortgages, which didn't require borrowers to verify their income. State and federal regulators cited the company for misleading borrowers, using unlicensed brokers, and other infractions. It shut down last summer and laid off its 5,500 employees. But in May, the FHA issued a group of former First Magnus executives a new license to make taxpayer-insured home loans. They have opened a company called StoneWater Mortgage in the same office building that First Magnus had occupied.
G. Todd Jackson, an attorney for StoneWater, said in a written statement that the new company "is not First Magnus." StoneWater employs "a new business model, with different loan products, in a different market," he added. First Magnus had "a long record of compliance," he said. "Isolated incidents and personnel problems occurred, but none were remotely systemic, and all were promptly addressed and corrected by management when discovered."
Back to Life
Nationstar Mortgage, based in suburban Dallas, closed its 75 retail branches in September 2007 after the subprime market crashed. But in August, Chief Information Officer Peter Schwartz told the trade paper American Banker that Nationstar now plans to emphasize FHA-backed loans, which he called a "high-growth channel." The lender received federal approval in March to offer government-guaranteed loans. Just a year earlier, it agreed to pay the Kentucky Financial Institutions Dept. a $105,000 settlement -- one of the largest of its kind in that state -- to resolve allegations that Nationstar employed unlicensed loan officers and falsified borrowers' credit scores. Nationstar didn't admit wrongdoing in the case.
"All loans we originate conform to industry best practices, as well as all applicable federal and state laws," says Executive Vice-President Steven Hess. The settlement in Kentucky, he adds, isn't "relevant to our FHA status."
Lend America in Melville, N.Y., uses cable television infomercials and a toll-free number (1-800-FHA-FIXED) to encourage borrowers in trouble with adjustable-rate mortgages to refinance with fixed-rate loans guaranteed by the FHA. Anticipating the real estate crash, the Long Island firm switched its strategy in 2005 from subprime to FHA-backed mortgages, says Michael Ashley, Lend America's chief business strategist. This year, the company will make 7,500 FHA loans, worth $1.5 billion, he says. "FHA is a big part of the future," Ashley adds. "It's the major vehicle for the government to bail out the housing industry."
But why the federal government would want to do business with Lend America is perplexing. Ashley has a long history of legal scrapes. One of them led to his pleading guilty in 1996 in federal court in Uniondale, N.Y., to two counts of wire fraud related to a mortgage scam at another company his family ran called Liberty Mortgage. He was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine. His father, Kenneth Ashley, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison. "I was just a pawn in a chess game between my father and the government," says the younger Ashley, who is 43. "It doesn't affect my ability to do lending." The default rate on Lend America's current FHA loans is 5.7 percent, or 53 percent above the national average, according to government records.
Asked about FHA oversight of former subprime firms, agency spokesman Lemar Wooley says: "FHA has taken appropriate actions, where necessary, with these lenders with respect to their participation in FHA programs." First Magnus, Nationstar, and Lend America met all applicable federal rules, Wooley says. But on two occasions since 2000 one office of Lend America in New York temporarily lost its authority to originate FHA-backed loans because of an excessive default rate, he says. Wooley says the FHA wasn't aware that Lend America's Ashley had been convicted. The firm didn't list Ashley as a principal, Wooley says. FHA lenders are required to disclose past regulatory sanctions and are forbidden to employ people with criminal records.
Founded during the New Deal, the FHA is supposed to promote first-time home purchases. Open to all applicants, it allows small down payments -- as little as 3 percent -- and lenient standards on borrower income, as long as mortgage and related expenses don't exceed 31% of household earnings. In exchange for taxpayer-backed insurance on attractively priced fixed-rate loans, buyers pay a modest fee. Lenders and brokers can get a license to participate in FHA programs if they demonstrate industry experience and knowledge of agency rules.
During the subprime boom, the FHA atrophied as borrowers migrated to the too-good-to-be-true deals that featured terms such as extremely low introductory interest rates that later jumped skyward. But since the subprime market vaporized in 2007, FHA-backed loans have become all that's available for many borrowers. By fall 2008, FHA loans accounted for 26 percent of all new mortgages being issued nationwide, up from only 4 percent a year earlier. As of Sept. 30, the most recent date for which data are publicly available, the FHA had 4.4 million single-family mortgages under guarantee, worth a total of $475 billion.
A Swelling "Tsunami"
Congress and the Bush Administration are strongly encouraging lenders to apply for FHA approval and tap into the government's loan-guarantee reservoir. In September, the agency guaranteed 140,000 new loans, up from 60,000 in January. In October, as Congress and the White House scrambled to respond to the spreading financial disaster, the FHA began to extend $300 billion in additional loan guarantees under the banner of a new program called HOPE for Homeowners. The limit on the amount buyers may borrow will rise in January to $625,000 from $362,790 in 2007.
Some current and former federal housing officials say the agency isn't anywhere close to being equipped to deal with the onslaught of lenders seeking to cash in. Thirty-six thousand lenders now have FHA licenses, up from 16,000 in mid-2007. FHA "faces a tsunami" in the form of ex-subprime lenders who favor aggressive sales tactics and sometimes engage in outright fraud, says Kenneth M. Donohue Sr., the inspector general for HUD. "I am very concerned that the same players who brought us problems in the subprime area are now reconstituting themselves and bringing loans into the FHA portfolio," he adds.
FHA staffing has remained roughly level over the past five years, at just under 1,000 employees, even as that tsunami has been building, Donohue points out. The FHA unit that approves new lenders, recertifies existing ones, and oversees quality assurance has only five slots; two of those were vacant this fall, according to HUD's Web site. Former housing officials say lender evaluations sometimes amount to little more than a brief phone call, which helps explain why questionable ex-subprime operations can reinvent themselves and gain approval. "They are absolutely understaffed," says Donohue, "and they need a much better IT system in place. That is one of their great vulnerabilities."
- Part 1: The Next Subprime Crisis Looms
- Part 2: Low Income? No Problem