Broker Fee Rules Take Effect

The New York Times

THERE have been changes in federal rules covering how mortgage brokers are paid, and while legal challenges to them persist, the question now is how the new system will work in practice.

Regulators and consumer advocates say borrowers are bound to benefit. Broker trade groups say their industry will shrivel and consumer costs will go up.

Mortgage brokers are middlemen who work with multiple lenders to arrange home loans for customers. They say they add value by helping borrowers find the best deal; their detractors say they add costs that have been hidden in complex fees.

The business has contracted significantly in the last five years. In 2005, during the real estate boom, brokers accounted for 31 percent of mortgages originated, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication. Last year it was just 11 percent, and the market was only half as big.

Brokers used to be compensated by a mix of borrower-paid origination fees and lender-paid fees. The most controversial was a “yield spread premium,” paid by lenders when a broker placed a borrower in a loan that charged higher interest than other loans. The justification was that higher rates allowed lower upfront closing costs. The criticism was that the premiums were an incentive to push expensive loans and that the system contributed to a flood of risky loans and thus to the financial crisis.

In response, the Federal Reserve put out rules that prohibit loan originators from being paid by both the borrower and lender on the same deal, and also barring commissions based on anything other than loan size. The rules were set to take effect April 1; two trade groups sued, delaying enactment a few days before a federal appeals court allowed it. Both the National Association of Mortgage Brokers and the National Association of Independent Housing Professionals say they will keep pressing their lawsuits.

On the front line, the problem is that there has been “no clear guidance” on exactly how to arrange commission structures for employees who originate loans, said Melissa Cohn, the president of the Manhattan Mortgage Company, a loan brokerage firm.

“To be honest with you,” she said, “in some cases it’s going to create higher-priced mortgages.” Although the spirit of the law is to protect borrowers, she added, “the reality of it is it’s just going to cause more confusion.”

Mike Anderson, the director of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, speaking just two days after the rules went into effect, said: “It’s already happening. Rates have already gone up; fees have gone up.” Mr. Anderson, who is also a broker in New Orleans, cited situations in which brokers could no longer cut fees to make deals go through, and others in which banks were raising charges. “The rules basically pick the winners and losers,” he said, with the winners being the big banks. “The losers are the small businesses.”

The Facebook page of the National Association of Independent Housing Professionals is full of complaints from what appear to be mortgage brokers saying the rules will hurt their business, and recounting how unnamed lenders have raised prices.

Despite industry opposition, the change is a victory for borrowers, according to representatives of the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group long critical of the yield-spread premium system. Borrowers “should be getting more honest services from the originator they’re working with,” said Kathleen E. Keest, a senior policy counsel, “because that originator is no longer going to have a conflict of interest if they put a borrower in a loan with a higher interest rate or riskier terms.”

“If people were saying that the way things worked, worked well,” she added, “that’s one thing, but it’s very clear the way things worked before didn’t work for anybody. The notion we need to have the same rules is denying what happened. It’s denying that the way the market was working was disastrous for everybody.”

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