Fiduciary Responsibility in the Mortgage Meltdown
I was discussing the mortgage meltdown with a colleague the other day, when we encountered an interesting question: Who do mortgage originators (brokers and loan officers) represent? Do they represent themselves, the lenders whose products they sell, or the borrowers?
As a REALTOR®, my relationship with my clients is clearly delineated. I have a fiduciary responsibility to the buyer or the seller I represent. The term “fiduciary” simply means that I must represent my client’s best interests. In a case of dual representation, REALTORS® are expected to treat both parties fairly and equitably.
A professional’s responsibility varies according to the profession and the specific role the person plays. A stock broker, for example, is supposed to sell investments to clients that are in the clients’ best interests. Someone who sells cars, however, is responsible for acting on behalf of the dealership, not the person who’s buying the car. Condemning a car salesperson for trying to sell the buyer additional optional features the buyer didn’t really need would be insane.
In real estate transactions, fiduciary responsibility is not always so clearly defined, and I believe this is at the root of many problems in the industry. For example, is an appraiser (paid by the buyer) responsible to the buyer or to the bank who uses the appraisal to deny or approve a loan? In the best of all possible worlds, the appraiser’s job is to provide an accurate appraisal of a home’s value, but in the real world, this doesn’t always happen. At the direction of a homeowner, loan officer, or real estate agent, the appraiser may inflate the appraisal, fooling the lender into approving a loan it would otherwise deny.
The fiduciary responsibility of mortgage brokers and loan officers is even fuzzier. Like a car dealer, a loan officer is merely selling a product supplied by the lender. Like an investment broker, however, the loan officer has some responsibility not to saddle the borrower with an overly risky loan. As you can see, the role that the broker or loan officer plays between the lender and borrower is clouded in ambiguity.
I believe that this ambiguity led to many of the problems leading up to the mortgage meltdown. In some cases, loan officers were overly ambitious in representing the borrower’s interests, which resulted in mortgage fraud. In other cases, loan officers who were overly eager to sell the lenders’ products pushed risky loan products (subprime mortgages) on unwary borrowers. Ironically, by acting solely on the behalf of either the borrower or the lender, these loan officers served neither party. Both lenders and borrowers got stuck with bad loans.
Some states have passed legislation that gives mortgage brokers and loan officers fiduciary responsibility to borrowers, but that addresses only one half of the equation. Brokers and loan officers also have to protect the interests of lenders.
I don’t intend to make mortgage brokers and loan officers the scapegoats in the mortgage meltdown. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Real estate agents, appraisers, title companies, Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, legislators, politicians, and homeowners all share the blame. Unfortunately, mortgage brokers and loan officers play the role of gatekeepers and are saddled with an inordinate amount of responsibility. They must serve two masters in a way that is in the best interest of both parties.
Perhaps mortgage brokers and loan officers need to stop thinking about their vendors and their clients and think in more abstract terms. Instead of selling products from lenders or representing borrowers as clients, maybe they need to be committed to making good loans. In many ways, the relationship needs to be governed by the same rules that apply to dual representation in the real estate industry — if it’s not a good deal for everyone involved, then it’s not a good deal. As an added incentive, perhaps brokers and loan officers should have their compensation tied to the success of the loan rather than receiving a commission on each sale.