Mortgage bankers, brokers trade barbs

Published May 23, 2007

WASHINGTON - The heads of trade groups representing mortgage bankers and brokers traded barbs Tuesday over who's to blame for the housing market's woes.

The head of the mortgage banking industry's trade group claimed brokers profited from a home loan boom but didn't do enough to examine whether borrowers could repay.

Amid increasing evidence of financial distress for homeowners with weak, or subprime, credit histories, John Robbins, chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association, says he is "mad as hell" at "a few unethical actors" that have sullied his profession's reputation.

"Unethical people, they're responsible for this mess, " Robbins said. "The short-term folks. People who get a commission when the deal happens. For them, it's the number of loans that counts. Good loan? Bad loan? Who cares? For them it's all about their commission."

In reaction, the president of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, e-mailed a statement that said: "It is truly unfortunate (Robbins) has attempted to shift blame away from Wall street, federally chartered banks, state-chartered lenders and underwriters for the subprime situation we find ourselves in today."

Harry Dinham, president of the brokers' group, added that congressional hearings have shown that "most residential mortgage loans are quickly sold into the secondary market - in fact most lenders are really just brokering the transaction but afraid or ashamed to admit it, " he added.

In a lunchtime speech at the National Press Club, Robbins called for a national licensing system for mortgage brokers, which would help weed out "scam artists."

The industry's woes are confined to a small segment of the market, he said.

About 5 percent of homeowners have subprime adjustable-rate loans that feature low "teaser" rates which can move sharply higher later. He estimates about half of those homeowners will be able to avoid default or foreclosure. If so, foreclosures among subprime borrowers will amount to 0.25 percent of U.S. homeowners, Robbins said.

"No seismic financial occurrence is about to overwhelm the U.S. economy, " he said.

Yet RealtyTrac Inc., an industry research firm, said last week that mortgage lenders foreclosed on 62 percent more U.S. homes in April than a year ago.

Home prices are falling too. The national median existing single-family home price in the first quarter was $212, 300, down 1.8 percent from a year ago when the median price was $216, 100, according to the National Association of Realtors. The median is a typical market price where half the homes sold for more and half the homes sold for less.