New York Karl Case, the co-creator of a widely watched housing market index, was upbeat three weeks ago. Mulling the economy while at a meeting at a resort near the Berkshires, Case thought the makings of a recovery were finally falling into place.
“I’m a 60-40 optimist,” he said at the time.
Today, Case’s mood is far more subdued. In scarcely two weeks, he and other housing analysts have watched as the once-staid world of back-office bank procedures has spawned a scandal that threatens to further unhinge the housing market.
Allegations of possible mortgage fraud against financial giants GMAC, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America read like a corporate thriller: forged documents, faked Social Security numbers, phantom titles, disappearing paper trails, “robo-signers” and mortgages sliced and diced so many times that nobody really knows who owns them.
On Friday, PNC and mortgage servicer Litton Loan Servicing joined those three financial institutions in suspending some foreclosures while they review how documents were handled. Bank of America, which had already announced a halt for 23 states, expanded the suspension to cover the whole nation. If other banks follow suit, it raises the specter of a national foreclosure moratorium.
In all, the banks will have to review the paperwork for hundreds of thousands of mortgages. On top of that, class action lawyers and state attorneys general have filed lawsuits and called for foreclosure moratoriums.
In the near term, the freezes could actually benefit both homeowners and the housing market. Homeowners would have time to live rent-free and chip away at their debt. Prices might stabilize because so many homes are penned up.
But the long-term implications are grave. Only a month ago, housing watcher Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, predicted that a housing recovery would be under way by the third quarter of next year. Now he believes the foreclosure scandal could prolong the housing depression for at least another few years.
The alleged document fraud could open up the entire chain of foreclosure proceedings to legal challenge. Some foreclosures could be overturned, others deemed outright fraudulent.
Before a housing recovery can occur, all those foreclosed properties have to be re-scrutinized by the banks and then sold. With any foreclosure-related deal open to legal challenge, that inventory could be taken off the market while the legal challenges make their way through the courts.
That’s not to mention the questions being raised about missing paper trails on mortgages owned by people who have never missed a payment. What started as simple paperwork bungling in a Pennsylvania office park now threatens to bring to a standstill the nation’s entire foreclosure machinery.
The development is especially troubling given how large the foreclosure market is. Before the scandal erupted, forecasters at John Burns Real Estate Consulting predicted that 41 percent of residential sales this year would be on distressed properties. Typically, distressed properties account for 7 percent.
Since housing is the engine that in the past seven recessions has pulled the economy out of recession, any further damage couldn’t come at a worse time.
“As far as I’m concerned, anything that slows the foreclosure process is a bad thing,” Case said this week.
The debacle injects yet more uncertainty into a frail recovery that is still trying to find its strength.