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The Obama administration is taking the first steps to punish mortgage companies for poor performance in its loan assistance program, withholding incentive payments for three of the nation's largest banks.
An administration official said Thursday that Bank of America Corp. (BAC), Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM) need "substantial improvement" in how they process requests for mortgage modifications.
The three companies, which received $24 million in government incentive payments last month, won't get any more payments until their performance improves.
The U.S. Treasury Department found deficiencies in each company's process for assisting homeowners in danger of foreclosure as part of the government's Home Affordable Modification Program. The companies also had deficiencies in following the program rules--including how they evaluate homeowners for help and communicate with them.
A fourth company, Ocwen Financial Corp. (OCN), was also found to be in need of improvement, but Treasury officials decided not to penalize the company because its problems stemmed from an acquisition of loans serviced by another company, HomEq Servicing, which Ocwen purchased last year.
The action addresses a longstanding complaint from consumer advocates that the Treasury has failed to effectively police the more than 100 participating companies in the HAMP program. The Obama administration launched the HAMP initiative in early 2009 as an attempt to reverse the rising number of home foreclosures by reducing families' mortgage payments, typically by lowering the interest rate and extending the term of a loan.
Mortgage servicing companies receive incentive payments to enroll borrowers, but the program has fallen far short of initial expectations. As of May, it has helped about 587,000 U.S. homeowners avoid losing their homes through permanent loan modifications, with the goal being to help 3 million to 4 million borrowers.
The Treasury's decision to withhold payments was reported in Thursday's Washington Post.
-By Alan Zibel; 202-862-9262; firstname.lastname@example.org