Scoring the Lenders: a Risky Affair

Posted April 25, 2008 at 5:51pm

As the House Financial Services Committee prepares to vote this week on a mortgage rescue bill, Becky Walzak and her team of lobbyists are pushing an amendment that she says would hold lenders more accountable for the loans they make and ultimately save taxpayers’ money.

The amendment also could be a boon to her bottom line and that of other “risk assessment” firms.

Walzak, who owns a risk analysis firm in Boca Raton, Fla., has spent the past year and a half lobbying Congress and Treasury Department officials.

Even before the credit crisis became all the rage inside the Beltway, she was asking officials to take a new approach to looking at the risks associated with loans; instead of focusing almost entirely on the borrowers, Walzak wants a system that also scores banks and other lenders.

Not surprisingly, lenders aren’t too keen on the idea.

The amendment, which so far has not been included in the bill, would mandate a score for lenders so that the Federal Housing Administration could have another tool in evaluating whether to take on troubled loans.

A key part of the legislation, which is wending its way through Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) Financial Services panel, would give the FHA a greater ability to refinance billions of dollars’ worth of at-risk mortgages with the purpose of trying to keep a roof over strapped homeowners’ heads.

While there are routine scores of borrowers, Walzak and her allies argue that there isn’t enough done to evaluate the lenders, especially those who originate the loans and through either fraud or honest mistakes made loans that turned out to carry high risks.

It’s a crowded field: Lawmakers and industry alike are pushing for or considering dozens of potential amendments to the bill.

But Walzak says she has found an approach to help solve the mortgage crisis, and her effort has supporters in both the House and Senate, which already passed a housing bill but is expected to continue to look into the issue.

“I have really been focusing on the underlying way that we create loans, and understanding that there is a relationship between the mistakes you make when you’re creating the loans and how those loans perform,” said Walzak, whose seven-employee company is called Walzak Risk Analysis.

“I started working on a program that would identify what risk we created in the loans by making mistakes in the process,” she said. “Once I had the model developed, I’ve really been working up here trying to get the folks in Washington to understand what this risk is.”

“For all the good intentions of everyone in Washington to deal with this, they have not dealt with the underlying systemic problem,” she said.

To help get her message out, Walzak enlisted the help of Artemis Strategies. The firm’s Joe Davis called Walzak’s idea a “check and balance” on loans before the FHA decides to accept them at taxpayer expense.

“This idea puts accountability in the loan process, where it is really needed,” Davis said. “It would be another tool that the folks at FHA must consider that allows them to measure the quality of any specific loan and guard against throwing good money after bad [loans].”

Advocates in the lending industry are staying mostly quiet on the proposal.

Floyd Stoner, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association, said his group has not taken a position on the overall bill. “We are watching the amendment process,” he said. “What we want to ensure is that if there is a program that it is voluntary.”

The Mortgage Bankers Association also has not come out for or against Frank’s bill. As for the amendment Walzak supports, MBA Senior Vice President for Legislative and Political Affairs Erick Gustafson said he has concerns.

“We’re hesitant to see anything adopted by the committee that would make the program less useful for lenders to help borrowers stay in their homes,” Gustafson said.

House Financial Services Committee sources said the amendment does not yet have a sponsor. Aides to two committee members said they were aware of the amendment but weren’t sure whether their bosses or any other committee members planned to offer it this week.

A Senate housing bill would require an evaluation of the quality-control procedures used by lenders, but the amendment under consideration in the House would go a step further by mandating the score. One Senate aide said he would like to see the House adopt the tougher language.

“The amendment in the House has some real teeth to it and is significant in protecting taxpayers,” said a Senate Republican staffer familiar with the issue. “We would love to see it added over in the House, and then dealt with in conference.”

“This type of measure is a major step to restore confidence and reduce risk in the system,” the aide added. “Restoring confidence is key to getting these markets to function properly again.”