State Treasurer Richard Moore will push mortgage companies to eliminate business practices that have hurt consumers and led to record defaults on home loans. , Staff Writer
Moore said he was speaking as a shareholder, not a regulator, at a news conference in Raleigh on Tuesday. The treasurer oversees North Carolina's $75 billion pension fund, which is invested in corporations and governments worldwide, including some of the world's largest mortgage lenders and brokers, such as Countrywide Financial and Citigroup. Returns from those investments help deliver benefits to about 750,000 teachers, state and local government employees and retirees.
Moore released guidelines for the mortgage industry that he said would protect homeowners from expensive and inappropriate loans and prevent financial meltdowns such as those stemming from this year's pervasive defaults on mortgage repayments.
Moore wants companies to:
* Verify borrowers' ability to repay subprime loans and match them with loans they can afford.
* Eliminate prepayment fees and penalties on subprime loans.
* Offer fixed-rate options when presenting adjustable-rate products.
* Change compensation schemes so brokers and lenders do not have an incentive to steer borrowers to higher-cost loans.
"These mortgage protection principles should become the new standard for responsible and respectable mortgage lending, and they should protect families from being stuck in loans they can't afford," said Moore, who is running for governor.
Though he is advocating tighter standards, Moore said the pension fund will not divest from companies if they don't comply. He did, however, promise to publish a list of the companies that do.
That approach lacks teeth in terms of swaying corporate policy. But it might be necessary to protect the state's pension investments, said Peter Skillern, who attended the conference and heads the Community Reinvestment Association, a Durham watchdog group that focuses on national lending.
The mortgage business is a big part of the world economy, so trying to hastily pry state funds from all offending companies and stock indexes on which they are listed is not only unrealistic but could depress returns, analysts say.
Moore said he is sending a letter to publicly traded mortgage companies, asking them to voluntarily raise standards for their lenders and brokers. Co-signers include Florida's chief financial officer, Alex Sink, and Kentucky Treasurer Jonathan Miller.
"Too many Americans have been lured to mortgages they could not afford by low teaser rates and other products," Moore said.
Rates, foreclosures up
He was referring to a flood of home loans nearing the end of their low-introductory-rate periods. When that window closes, the loans reset at much higher market rates and overwhelm many borrowers. Moore said there were nearly 250,000 foreclosure filings nationwide in August, more than double the amount a year earlier.
Bank regulators are asking lenders to mitigate damage by cutting or postponing home payments for strapped borrowers, rather than foreclosing on them, suggesting that experts think the worst isn't over.
In a speech Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said "the ongoing housing correction is not ending as quickly as it might have appeared." On Monday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned that housing will be a "significant drag" on growth.
Moore's attack on the mortgage system is the latest shareholder advocacy effort he has led since taking office in 2001. The next year, he crafted a list of rules for all investment firms that do business with the state pension fund. The rules won approval from then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, now that state's governor.
In 2005, Moore helped force a shareholder vote at Wells Fargo, attempting to stop it from financing payday lenders, which peddle high-interest loans. Last year, he chastised Exxon Mobil for awarding nearly $100 million to a retired CEO and pressured H&R Block to stop selling high-interest loans.
Moore's latest push builds on a more recent battle with subprime mortgage seller Countrywide Financial. Moore sent the company a letter that accused it of unethical and unsustainable business practices.
Moore said Tuesday that Countrywide and other mortgage sellers helped fuel the spike in foreclosures that hurt their businesses. He said more than 80 mortgage lenders have closed or suspended new lending since last year.
The state retirement system, which Moore oversees, owns about $10 million in Countrywide shares, down from about $100 million, Moore said Tuesday. Countrywide has lost 60 percent of its value since the start of the subprime mortgage crisis.