James Charles Smith
University of Georgia Law School
Syracuse Law Review, Vol. 60
UGA Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-14
Mortgage fraud, often a violation of federal and state criminal statutes, covers a number of different types of behavior, all of which have the common denominator of conduct that has the intent or effect of impairing the value of residential mortgage loans. Mortgage fraud has become prevalent over the past decade and shows no signs of diminishing despite the collapse of domestic housing markets during the past two years. This paper analyzes the complex relationships between prime mortgage loan markets, subprime markets, and various types of mortgage fraud. This paper concludes that the root causes of mortgage fraud are associated with the core institutional and structural components of mortgage markets, which cut across all types of residential mortgage products. The organizing principle is the historical evolution from proximity to distance within the mortgage market, which is explored along three axes. First, geographical distance between lenders and borrowers has replaced geographical proximity. The mortgage market is national, with local lending institutions no longer making a significant proportion of the loans that are originated. Second, transactional distance has replaced transactional proximity. Lenders and borrowers have little direct contact; instead intermediaries such as mortgage brokers, appraisers, insurers, and closing officers, separate the principals. Third, financial distance has replaced financial proximity. Previously both borrowers and lenders had significant financial interests in the mortgage loan transaction. The borrower had equity in the property, and the lender held the loan in its portfolio. Presently many borrowers have no equity (or negative equity) (due to fraud) in their homes, and due to the securitization of loans through the secondary mortgage market, few originating lenders retain a stake in the loans they create. Reforms that could serve to reduce borrower-lender distance or to ameliorate its effects include the fashioning of better closing procedures for verifying borrower identity, providing a premium for community-bank loans to local borrowers, making originating lenders liable for all misconduct by appraisers, requiring significant down payments for borrowers, and allowing secondary market purchasers full recourse against originating lenders for losses caused by borrower defaults.
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