Some of the most publicly reviled banks are currently industry leaders when it comes to good service, according to a report by Fannie Mae released Thursday.
Fannie Mae gave three-star ratings to CitiMortgage, JPMorgan Chase, Ally Bank and Wells Fargo -- four of the five largest U.S. mortgage servicers, which were involved in the $25 billion "robo-signing" settlement -- for their service performance in the first half of 2012.
The evaluation, part of Fannie Mae's Servicer Total Achievement and Rewards Program, assigns anywhere from a one- to five-star rating to banks based on "overall performance, customer service and foreclosure prevention efforts."
A three-star rating was the highest earned of all banks assessed by Fannie Mae which, along with Freddie Mac, guarantees more than half of U.S. mortgages.
The results of the evaluation come at a time when mortgage-servicing standards are under public scrutiny, with the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau having proposed industry-wide rules to protect borrowers earlier this month.
And, of course, the results may be a surprise to many who see the four big banks as synonymous with poor service. After all, they were prominent players in the $25 billion payout to most states to settle an investigation into illegal foreclosure practices.
When asked about the discrepancy between the banks' public image and their positive Fannie Mae evaluation, David Berenbaum, chief program officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, pointed out that top-ranked service performance in the mortgage industry does not necessarily mean good performance.
"They're commending anyone who is at the median level compared to their peers," he said of Fannie Mae. "Frankly, all of the servicers should be at a five-star rating."
Still, lenders have shown marked improvement in customer service and foreclosure prevention in recent years.
The Treasury's most recent report
on performance in implementing the government's flagship housing relief program, the Home Affordable Modification Program, sheds light on such progress, showing that banks dramatically improved their ability to accurately calculate a borrower's income when assessing an application in the last two years.
For example, the Treasury found that 1 in 4 calculations of a borrower's income made by Wells Fargo was at least 5 percent off the mark in the first quarter of 2011. Now, just 1 in 50 are off by that much. Other banks have shown similar improvement.
Regardless, Berenbaum said, banks have not adequately conformed to rules established by the robo-signing settlement so far. But if the settlement's government-appointed monitor, Joseph Smith, improves enforcement, that could change, Berenbaum added.
"From a consumer perspective, there's a lot of room for improvement," he said. "We fully expect these servicers to comply with the monitor."
The Consumer Protection Financial Bureau may also soon be able to hold banks' feet to the fire for foreclosure improprieties once it formalizes the mortgage-servicing rules (which seem to dovetail with those established by the robo-signing settlement) that it's currently drafting.
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