115 posts categorized "Pending and New Legislation"

A Class on Bailouts

posted by Bob Lawless

In early 2008, I had to figure out what courses I would teach in the next academic year, and it was decided that I would offer a seminar of some sort in the 2009 spring semester. "Just call it a seminar on consumer credit as a placeholder in the course listing," I said. It seemed likely that such a seminar would be timely. Who knew? By the fall, of course, we were in a full-blown financial crisis, and the seminar became the Bailouts class.

Students looking for me to lecture from the front of the room with answers will be disappointed. I have more questions than answers. Although the seminar became more of a class as enrollment grew, I still intend to conduct the class principally as I would in a seminar with emphasis on reading and discussion.

Continue reading "A Class on Bailouts" »

Cramdown Controversy #2--Will I "Succeed?"

posted by Katie Porter

Our active readers at Credit Slips already started debating the second controversy about the pending cramdown legislation: is the failure rate of chapter 13 too high to make mortgage modification in bankruptcy a very useful tool? To briefly reprise that discussion and add my own gloss, there are longstanding lamentations that chapter 13 is a poor system because a minority of debtors completes the repayment plan and receives a discharge. The academic studies suggest the number is about 33%; I believe the National Association of Chapter Thirteen Trustees thinks it is about 40% (one wonders why the US Trustee Program doesn't carefully track this and publish it?)

So lots of chapter 13s fail. But what conclusion should we draw from that fact? This is a broad question and one that I'm exploring in a new empirical research project. I do not believe that chapter 13s "fail" just because they do not reach discharge. For now, let me narrow that concern to whether cramdown legislation is sound policy.  A  couple of observations:

  1. The failure rate for chapter 13 may be, at least to some unknown degree, a result of housing affordability problems. Tara Twomey, John Eggum, and I have a forthcoming paper showing that over 70% of chapter 13 homeowners in our 2006 sample spent more than 1/3 of their incomes on mortgage payments, the HUD benchmark for unaffordable housing. If cramdown lets debtors reduce their mortgage payments, it may permit more debtors to confirm plans and give debtors needed flexibility in adjusting their budgets to the normal ups and downs of life. Put another way, the low chapter 13 completion rate may be an effect of the inability under current law to modify mortgages, which is all the more reason to permit such modification.
  2.  Lots of people are going to have upheavals in their lives just because that is life. As one of our Credit Slips commentators said: "Chapter 13 cases fail primarily because '_____  happens' in the 3-5 year term of the plan. Debtors live and die; they change jobs; they lose jobs; they move; they buy and sell homes; they get married; they get divorced; they have kids; they lose kids; they get sick; etc. -- all of which impact their financial circumstances." These circumstances would occur and be problematic regardless of how we structured the mortgage relief--that is, they would hamper non-bk court modifications too.
  3. One benefit of modifying mortgages in bankruptcy is the potential to actually monitor what happens. IF the Administrative Office of the US Courts and the US Trustee Program release the needed data, scholars and advocates can track these cases. How many debtors are seeking modifications? What kinds of terms are courts granting? How are these debtors faring? Such data has been scarce of non-existent for the voluntary modification programs. What data do exist, such as those that Alan White examines, seem to me to indicate that a very high fraction of modifications are doomed to failure.

Cramdown Controversy #1--Who Do I Pay?

posted by Katie Porter

The pending legislation to permit courts to modify home mortgages is stirring up some controversies--even among its advocates. The key issues are operational and very important, I think, to the success of this legislation. Here's the first brewing controversy: How will consumers make the payments on these modified mortgages (directly to the mortgage servicers or through the chapter 13 trustee?) 

The pending legislation contains language that would require the payments on mortgages modified in bankruptcy to be made "directly to the holder of the claim." In more than 2/3 of jurisdictions, chapter 13 trustees serve as conduits for at least many mortgage claims, meaning that the debtor pays the trustee the mortgage payment, along with their payment on their unsecured claims, and the trustee transmits the payment to the mortgage company. The legislation, apparently at the urging of some consumer advocates, would bar this practice. I think this is a bad approach for several reasons: Why change existing practices that are working well and add confusion? Some courts have local rules that require debtors to pay all claims through the trustee; the legislation would override such rules, which are growing in popularity becuase of problems with letting debtors make mortgage payments. Many debtors like the convenience of making only one payment--to the trustee--and letting the trustee disburse. It helps keep them on track financially and may improve completion of chapter 13 plans. Further, given the numerous and well-documented problems with mortgage servicers' ability to correctly apply payments in chapter 13 cases, why put the burden of sorting all those problems out on the debtor or debtor's counsel? If the trustee is the conduit for the payment, then the trustee can take steps to ensure the payments are applied properly and the debtor is being charged correctly. I suspect this stems from some concern that consumers shouldn't have to bear the added costs of paying a trustee. Many trustees, however, take only 5% commission instead of the usual 10% for the disbursement on mortgages, and if Congress is concerned about this, they could amend section 586 to provide for a lower trustee fee for mortgages. Also, consumers who pay the trustee are getting services; the trustee is the one who must wait on hold with the mortgage servicer, try to reconcile the accounting, deal with RESPA and escrow issues, etc. I think it is fair to pay trustees for that work. I think debtors should have the option of making payments on a modified mortgage either directly to the mortgage company or through the trustee, as is currently the practice.

Cramdown Commentary

posted by Katie Porter

Bob scooped me on an initial post about the deal between Citigroup and Senate Democrats on pending legislation to permit bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages in bankruptcy. But I have details. And commentary. And questions.

First, the letters from Citibank to the House and Senate outlining the changes that they request be made to the legislation are available in the middle of this WSJ article. They requested three changes to S.66 or H.R. 200 (both denominated the Helping Families Save Their Homes in Bankruptcy Act of 2009). First, that the legislation be limited to loans in existence when the legislation is enacted. This gives the bill a sunset, of sorts, but it could be a long one, given some people have 30 or 40 years left on their loans. Second, only when a violation would give rise to a right of recission under the Truth in Lending Act can the claim be disallowed. Given the relative difficulty and cost of litigating such claims, this is not, in my opinion, a large concession. Consumers retain their rights under the Truth in Lending Act to bring a claim under its provisions and recovery (puny) statutory damages. Third, a reduction in a loan's principal balance is only available if the homeowner certifies they contacted the lender to modify the loan before bankruptcy. Note that the "reduction in principal" is only ONE of the options available to bankruptcy courts. Apparently, the court could freeze or adjust interest rates or extend the term of a loan even if a borrower had not contacted the lender. The only problem I see here is if lenders begin litigating whether the borrower has indeed contacted the lender. Borrowers who did so by phone won't have great records of having done so. I would advise borrowers who call to also send a written letter and keep a copy asking for a modification.

Apparently, the news of the Citi's support for the legislation traveled fast and yesterday at chapter 13 confirmation hearings around the country, debtors asked to have their hearings continued to see if the legislation passed. I also wonder what are the options for homeowners who filed chapter 13 a few years or months ago and were not able to modify their home mortgages. Can they ask the court to modify their plan if the legislation passes?

Chapter 13 Cramdown Bill

posted by Bob Lawless

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Citigroup is negotiating over the terms of a bill to give bankruptcy judges the power to adjust home mortgages in chapter 13. The article further reports that the National Association of Home Builders has dropped its opposition to the bill, although Citigroup says it still has not made a decision on what its final position will be. Credit industry opposition is the primary obstacle to passage of this legislation. If this opposition evaporates, the bill almost certainly will become law given its support among congressional leaders and the incoming Obama Administration. For background on how the law would work, see here.

UPDATE: Just as soon as I posted this, the news broke that a deal had been reached. This is a welcome development. Of course, the devil is in the details. If anyone has a link to the text of the legislation that would result from the deal, please post in the comments.

Bankruptcy in the Senate, December 4

posted by Bob Lawless

I'm in Providence, Rhode Island, for a field hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearing is "Credit Cards and Bankruptcy: Opportunities for Reform." The other witness are former Credit Slips guest blogger and attorney for the National Consumer Law Center John Rao, Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Small of the Eastern District for North Carolina, and Professor John Chung of the Roger WIlliams University School of Law. The cab driver from the airport was among the most friendliest I've encountered and was pointing out the many fine features of Providence as we drove in. It's always nice to have your first contact with a place be with someone who is proud of their town.

One of the topics will be S. 3259, the Consumer Credit Fairness Act introduced by Senators Whitehouse and Durbin. This bill defines a "high cost consumer credit transaction" as one in which the interest and fees create an interest more than 15% higher than the rate on 30-year U.S. Treasury obligations (up to a maximum of 36%). Right now, that would be a credit transaction with an interest rate a little over 18% 19%. The bill then would subordinate to all other claims in a consumer bankruptcy any "high cost consumer credit transaction" and would excuse from the means test any bankruptcy caused by a "high cost consumer credit transaction."

The Bailout -- another perspective (part 1)

posted by Stephen Lubben

First, I want to thank Bob Lawless and the rest of the Credit Slips folks for having me back yet again -- I'm getting to be like the guest who would not leave.

Second, while it might make me part of the "establishment," I'm going to say right from that start that I join those who favor the bailout.

I also think we need to avoid a whole lot of knee jerk reactions that are floating around out there -- like the SEC's ban on short selling, which is quickly becoming the Bad Management Protection Act of 2008.  Of course, the notion that the administration can open the door on this issue "just a little" is also equally suspect.

I view the economy and the larger financial system as being at a Titanic like moment:  post iceberg, per submersion.  It is certainly reasonable to disdain those who got us into this situation, but I'm not going to let my feelings for them get in the way of saving as many people as possible.

That said, I understand why there is a good deal of skepticism about the bailout.  In part chapter 11 is to blame -- there has been almost no effort to explain why AIG is different from Enron, United Airlines, or any other really big corporation that has recently failed.  And the financial industry needs to fess up that it blew its chance to self-regulate the credit default swap market -- too many people, even myself to some degree, bought the "trust us, we're experts" line from ISDA and other market players.

No wonder people aren't buying that line in connection with the bailout -- especially when the administration has its own credibility problems in this regard in connection with other big, complex projects in the non-financial area.

More on the chapter 11 issue, and why I think the administration has done a terrible job of selling this but still generally support the bailout, after the jump.  I'll save my thoughts on the CDS market for another post.

Continue reading "The Bailout -- another perspective (part 1)" »

Hearings on Squeezing the American Family

posted by Bob Lawless

Yesterday, the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress (JEC) held a hearing on the economic state of the American family. We've got falling real incomes, a mortgage crisis and a housing market in turmoil, record gas prices, and other increases in the costs of living. It's not going well.

Among the witness was Credit Slips's own Elizabeth Warren who started off with this:

From 2000 to 2007, measured in real dollars, incomes declined while basic expenses increased sharply. By the time today’s family makes a few basic purchases—housing, health insurance, food, gas, phone—it has about $5800 less than it had back in 2000.

Warren backs up that statement with numerous charts and statistics that demonstrate how incomes have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living. Her full testimony is here.

Consumer Credit Fairness Proposed for the Bankruptcy Code

posted by Bob Lawless

On Monday, Senators Whitehouse and Durbin introduced S. 3259, the Consumer Credit Fairness Act. The bill would cut back on some of the worst consumer credit abuses by trimming back on collection rights in bankruptcy.

The bill begins by defining a "high cost consumer credit transaction" as any extension of credit, including costs and fees, that exceeds the lesser of (a) 15% plus the 30-year Treasury bond rate (a calculation that currently stands at 22.4%) or (b) 36%. There are two consequences that would flow from a transaction that met this definition. First, the creditor in a "high cost consumer credit transaction" would have their claim subordinated to all other claims in the bankruptcy case. Second, any debtor who filed bankruptcy as a result of a "high cost consumer credit transaction" would be exempt from the means test that determines eligibility for chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Fewer Frisbees on Tennessee Campuses This Fall

posted by Katie Porter

Every fall as the Credit Slips bloggers prepare to begin teaching, we are treated to the sight of tables, tents, and marketing literature aimed at marketing credit cards to college students. This year, those familiar signs won't be appearing on the campuses of the University of Tennessee system. On May 21, 2008, Tennessee enacted a law prohibiting credit card issuers from recruiting students on campus or through university facilities or student organizations. (There is an exception for "days when there are athletic events" so presumably home football games retain their usefulness for credit card issuers). The bill also requires the University of Tennessee institutions that receives funds from student credit cards or from the use of the school name or logo on credit cards to disclose the amount of money received and how the money was used.

Calls for restricting credit card marketing to students are nothing new (see here and here and here) but I think this is the first law to be enacted that absolutely bans campus marketing. I'm confident the credit industry will challenge the bill, probably on preemption grounds, arguing that as the state of Tennessee lacks authority to regulate national banks. I think that argument should fail. The state isn't banning credit cards as a matter of general commerce; the legislature is acting in its role as overseer of the state's educational institutions.  If an institution itself (Rochester Institute of Technology, University of New Mexico) can ban or sharply limit the solicitation of students for credit cards, I think a state legislature can enact the same prohibition for the campuses that it controls.

Should We Not Disclose Credit Card Information?

posted by Mechele Dickerson

The paper Professor Richard Wiener (Univ. of Nebraska), a psychology professor, discussed presents findings that are completely contrary to economic predictions. Standard economic theory would predict that if consumers are given complete information, they will act rationally and not overspend where the costs of spending outweigh the benefits of consuming. However, the preliminary conclusions he and his co-authors reach in Limits of Enhanced Disclosure suggest that giving consumers additional credit card disclosures does not reduce consumer spending and, in some instances, may make consumers spend even more.

Continue reading "Should We Not Disclose Credit Card Information?" »

The Future of Mortgage Servicing

posted by Katie Porter

In my prior post on mortgage servicing, I talked about the potential of mortgage servicers to be harmful barriers between homeowners and investors, both of whom may want to negotiate a loan modification. Recognizing such a problem raises the question of a solution. U.S. Representative Maxine Waters recently introduced legislation that would profoundly alter the duties of mortgage servicers. The bill, HR 5679, The Foreclosure Prevention and Sound Mortgage Servicing Act of 2008, would prohibit the initiation of a foreclosure if the mortagee or servicer has failed to engage in "reasonable loss mitigation activities." The bill lays out exactly what counts as loss mitigation and offers up non-binding guidance on standards of affordability for loss mitigation. Servicers would have to report data on their loss mitigation activities, disaggregated by the type of mitigation activity (separately accounting for things like modifications, deeds in lieu of foreclosure, or repayment plans).

The bill also takes aim at the communication problems between servicers and homeowners. The bill requires services to provide a toll-free number that provides borrowers with direct access to a person with the information and authority to fully resolve issues related to loss mitigation and specifies that such a person must be physically located in the United States. Servicers are also required to forward borrower's information to HUD-certified housing counselors whenever a borrower is 60 days or more overdue.

In the hearing last week on the bill (which you can watch as an archived webcast), Chairwoman Waters kept returning to a fundamental point--mortgage servicing is an unregulated industry. The witness testimony was essentially unanimous that mortgage servicing has a tremendous impact on American families and on the resolution of the current crisis. Of course, the debate was over whether this regulation was the right approach. The bill hasn't gotten much publicity yet, but I encourage readers who are interested in the foreclosure crisis to take a look and post their feedback.

IRS Should Have Gone for a Baker's Dozen with RAL

posted by Katie Porter

Each year the IRS releases a Dirty Dozen of tax scams. I wish the 2008 list had labeled another practice a scam--refund anticipation loans or RALs. A RAL is a short-term cash advance against an anticipated tax return. Essentially, the taxpayer is paying to access their own money immediately rather than waiting for the IRS to process their refund. There are about 9 million RALs made each year, with APRs ranging from 50% to 500%. Perhaps their high fees are justified by the fact that they are short-term loans. On the other hand, the tax preparers have a lock on this market, which could reduce competition. It seems hard to believe that the risks of nonpayment are very significant when the amount of the refund is being determined during the tax preparation process and the preparer captures the refund directly, rather than relying on voluntary remittance from the debtor.

The IRS does warn against "dishonest" tax return preparers who "make their money by skimming a portion of their clients’ refunds." Although most leading preparers offer RALs, I think RALs are "making money by skimming clients' refunds."

Continue reading "IRS Should Have Gone for a Baker's Dozen with RAL" »

Illinois Statute Gives Debtors Less Protection After Bankruptcy?

posted by Bob Lawless

A crazy Illinois law demonstrates how bad drafting is not just for the U.S. Congress. State legislatures can do it too! It is my understanding that some Illinois automobile lenders are citing this law (625 ILCS 5/3‑114) as a reason to give some debtors less protection after they filed bankruptcy. Under this reasoning, these debtors are in  worse legal position because of the bankruptcy filing. That can't be right.

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Discussions of the Kind That I Stimulated By My First Post

posted by James White

Discussions of the kind that I stimulated by my suggestions on Monday (about what Congress might do) reveal widely different assumptions about the number and type of debtors that will default. Shouldn't we look for the data? The data might keep conservatives from falling off the cliff to the right and the liberals from falling off on the other side- at last that is my hope. So who are the debtors and how many will default? Those are the questions for investors, legislators and lenders. But the answers are not easy to find, and, with incomplete data, each of us is the captive of his political bias. What about the defaulting debt and about the deserts of the debtors (Fools all? Every one defrauded?)

Continue reading " Discussions of the Kind That I Stimulated By My First Post" »

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  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

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