Foreclosure Mitigation:

Agencies Could Improve Effectiveness of Federal Efforts with Additional Data Collection and Analysis

GAO-12-296: Published: Jun 28, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 2012.

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What GAO Found

In an effort to help the millions of homeowners struggling to keep their homes, a range of federal programs have offered relief in the form of loan modifications and refinancing into loans with lower interest rates, among other things. Under Treasury’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), initiated in early 2009, servicers have modified almost 1 million loans between 2009 and 2011. During the same period, servicers modified nearly 1 million additional loans under programs administered by the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Veterans Affairs (VA), Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the enterprises). Servicers have also modified about 2.1 million loans under nonfederal loan modification programs resulting in a total of about 4 million modifications between 2009 and 2011. However, a large number of borrowers have sought assistance, but were unable to receive a modification. For example, approximately 2.8 million borrowers had their HAMP loan modification application denied or their trial loan modification canceled. Further, the volume of federal modifications has declined since 2010. Recent efforts have expanded refinancing programs. However, low participation rates in FHA’s program raise questions about the need for Treasury’s financial support, which could reach a maximum of $117 million.

In spite of these efforts, the number of loans in foreclosure remains elevated, and key indicators suggest that the U.S. housing market remains weak. GAO’s analysis of mortgage data showed that in June 2011 (most current data available for GAO’s use and analysis) between 1.9 and 3 million loans still had characteristics associated with an increased likelihood of foreclosure, such as serious delinquency and significant negative equity (a loan-to-value ratio of 125 percent or greater). These loans were concentrated in certain states, such as Nevada and Florida. Further, more recent indicators such as home prices and home equity remain near their postbubble lows. As of December 2011, total household mortgage debt was $3.7 trillion greater than households’ equity in their homes—representing a significant decline in household wealth nationwide.

Despite the scope of the problem, most stakeholders GAO interviewed said that enhancing current foreclosure mitigation efforts would be preferable to new ones. GAO found that agencies could take steps to make their programs more effective. Collectively, FHA and the enterprises had 1.8 million loans in their portfolios that were 90 days or more past due as of December 2011. GAO found that most of the agencies and enterprises, with the exception of USDA, had stepped up their efforts to monitor servicers’ outreach to struggling borrowers. However, not all the agencies were conducting analyses to determine the effectiveness of their foreclosure mitigation actions. Experiences of Treasury and the enterprises and GAO’s econometric analysis strongly suggest that such analyses can improve outcomes and cut program costs. For example, GAO’s analysis showed that the size of payment change, delinquency status, and current loan to value ratio, can significantly influence the success of the foreclosure mitigation action taken. In contrast, not all federal agencies consider redefault rates and long-term costs when deciding which loan modification action to take. Nor have they assessed the impact of loan and borrower characteristics. In some cases, agencies do not have the data needed to conduct these analyses. GAO found some evidence to suggest that principal forgiveness could help some homeowners—those with significant negative equity—stay in their homes, but federal agencies and the enterprises were not using it consistently and some were not convinced of its merits. In addition, there are other policy issues to consider in how widely this option should be used, such as moral hazard. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), for instance, has not allowed the enterprises to offer principal forgiveness. Treasury recently offered to pay incentives to the enterprises to forgive principal, and FHFA is reevaluating its position. Until agencies and the enterprises analyze data that will help them choose the most effective tools and fully utilize those that have proved effective, foreclosure mitigation programs cannot provide the optimal assistance to struggling homeowners or help curtail the costs of the foreclosure crisis to taxpayers.

Why GAO Did This Study

Historically high foreclosure rates remain a major barrier to the current economic recovery. To assist policymakers and housing market participants in evaluating foreclosure mitigation efforts, GAO examined (1) the federal and nonfederal response to the housing crisis, (2) the current condition of the U.S. housing market, and (3) opportunities to enhance federal efforts. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed government and mortgage industry data, including loan-level data purchased from a private vendor; reviewed academic and industry literature; examined federal policies and regulations; and interviewed housing industry participants and observers.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that: Treasury reevaluate the need for its financial support of FHA’s refinance program; USDA increase its efforts to monitor servicers’ outreach tostruggling borrowers; FHA, VA, and USDA collect and analyze

information needed to fully assess the effectiveness and costs of their foreclosure mitigation efforts; andFHFA expeditiously finalize analysis on whether to allow the enterprises to offer HAMP principal forgiveness modifications. Treasury, FHA, VA and FHFA agreed to consider or concurred with the report’s recommendations. USDA provided additional information in its comments. In response, we clarified the text and recommendation on USDA’s monitoring of servicers’ outreach efforts.

For more information, contact Mathew J. Scirè at (202) 512-8678 or sciremj@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: FHFA should expeditiously finalize its analysis as to whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be allowed to offer HAMP principal forgiveness modifications.

    Agency Affected: Federal Housing Finance Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure Treasury is making effective and efficient use of its resources, Treasury and FHA should update their estimates of participation in the FHA Short Refinance program given current participation rates and recent changes to the program. Treasury should then use these updated estimates to reassess the terms of the letter of credit facility and consider seeking modifications in order to help ensure that it meets Treasury’s needs cost-effectively.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure Treasury is making effective and efficient use of its resources, Treasury and FHA should update their estimates of participation in the FHA Short Refinance program given current participation rates and recent changes to the program. Treasury should then use these updated estimates to reassess the terms of the letter of credit facility and consider seeking modifications in order to help ensure that it meets Treasury’s needs cost-effectively.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development: Federal Housing Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to better ensure that servicers are effectively implementing the agency’s loss mitigation programs and that distressed borrowers are receiving the assistance they need as early as possible before they become seriously delinquent, the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should require servicers to report information about their efforts to reach distressed borrowers. For example, servicers could report on their efforts to reach borrowers and whether borrowers have responded to outreach from the servicer regarding early delinquency interventions and are receiving informal foreclosure mitigation actions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of USDA should determine the extent to which distressed borrowers have not been reached and assess whether changes are needed to help ensure servicers are complying with USDA’s loss mitigation requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To more fully understand the strengths and risks posed by foreclosure mitigation actions and protect taxpayers from absorbing avoidable losses to the maximum extent possible, the FHA, VA, and USDA should conduct periodic analyses of the effectiveness and the long-term costs and benefits of their loss mitigation strategies and actions. These analyses should consider (1) the redefault rates associated with each type of home retention action and (2) the impact that loan and borrower characteristics have on the performance of different home retention actions. The agencies should use the results from these analyses to reevaluate their loss mitigation approach and provide additional guidance to servicers to effectively target foreclosure mitigation actions. If FHA, VA, and USDA do not maintain data needed to consider this information, they should require services to provide them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development: Federal Housing Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To more fully understand the strengths and risks posed by foreclosure mitigation actions and protect taxpayers from absorbing avoidable losses to the maximum extent possible, the FHA, VA, and USDA should conduct periodic analyses of the effectiveness and the long-term costs and benefits of their loss mitigation strategies and actions. These analyses should consider (1) the redefault rates associated with each type of home retention action and (2) the impact that loan and borrower characteristics have on the performance of different home retention actions. The agencies should use the results from these analyses to reevaluate their loss mitigation approach and provide additional guidance to servicers to effectively target foreclosure mitigation actions. If FHA, VA, and USDA do not maintain data needed to consider this information, they should require services to provide them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To more fully understand the strengths and risks posed by foreclosure mitigation actions and protect taxpayers from absorbing avoidable losses to the maximum extent possible, the FHA, VA, and USDA should conduct periodic analyses of the effectiveness and the long-term costs and benefits of their loss mitigation strategies and actions. These analyses should consider (1) the redefault rates associated with each type of home retention action and (2) the impact that loan and borrower characteristics have on the performance of different home retention actions. The agencies should use the results from these analyses to reevaluate their loss mitigation approach and provide additional guidance to servicers to effectively target foreclosure mitigation actions. If FHA, VA, and USDA do not maintain data needed to consider this information, they should require services to provide them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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