Recently the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a set of proposed rules on mortgage loan originations that include restrictions on compensation that will make it difficult for banks to structure bonus plans for their mortgage loan originators.
I wrote about this issue back in May, after the bureau had issued guidance stating that banks are permitted to make contributions to a mortgage loan originator’s 401(k) or some other type of qualified plan out of a profit pool derived from mortgage loan originations. However, the CFPB declined to indicate at the time whether banks could pay bonuses to originators based on the profitability of a pool of mortgage loans as part of a non-qualified incentive compensation plan. The distinction is important because in the case of a qualified plan like a 401(k) we’re talking about an individual’s future retirement income, while with a non-qualified bonus plan we’re talking about cash in their pocket today.
First a little bit of important background. Underlying this issue of mortgage originator bonuses is the focus of federal regulatory agencies—including the CFPB—on so-called compensation risk. During the subprime mortgage boom, originators often received extra compensation if they steered borrowers to higher cost loans, which often meant low-income borrowers paid more for their loans than they should have. The Federal Reserve Board proposed stricter rules on mortgage origination compensation in September 2010 under the Truth in Lending Act. Rulemaking authority for the Act was transferred to the bureau under the Dodd-Frank Act, and now the bureau is finishing what the Fed started.
Mortgage originators aren’t the only bankers impacted by all this attention on compensation risk. Banks are also being forced to change their incentive compensation practices for other kinds of lending activity, including commercial real estate and C&I lending. Generally speaking, the regulators don’t want lenders to be rewarded purely on volume; they want to see bonus payments spread out over a longer period of time than, say, just one quarter; and they want the size of the payout tied to the performance of the underlying loan portfolio over some reasonable period of time so lenders don’t get paid upfront for loans that later go bad. And in the case of mortgage originators, regulators don’t want them to be incentivized to screw their customers by pushing them unwittingly into high cost loans when they would qualify for a cheaper loan.
It was not clear last May whether the CFPB would allow banks to pay its mortgage originators any kind of bonus that wasn’t tied to a qualified plan. “Every bank is trying to do a better job of tying compensation to the profitability of the underlying business,” says Kristine Oliver, vice president at Pearl Meyer & Partners. But the bureau has now issued a proposed rule for non-qualified bonus plans that will make that goal much more difficult. Under the latest proposal, banks may pay employees a bonus derived from a pool of mortgage loans only if three conditions are met:
- Compensation may not be based on the terms of the loans that were originated, so an employee can’t be rewarded for producing more of one kind of loan versus another.
- The employee can’t have originated more than five mortgage transactions during the last 12 months.
- However, if the individual’s transactions exceed five, the bonus pool can based on mortgage revenue limited to 25 or 50 percent of the overall revenue in the pool. The bureau has proposed two percentage cap alternatives, 25 percent and 50 percent.
The proposal does address the concern some people had that branch managers who originate an occasional mortgage might not be allowed to receive a bonus based on the profitability of their branches if the branch’s revenue included, say, points or mortgage origination fees. Now those individuals can receive a bonus even if the branch’s revenue includes some mortgage related revenue.
“The bureau has proposed a diminutive exemption,” says Richard Andreano, Jr., a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Ballard Spahr LLP. “That would work for [occasional originators] but doesn’t work for someone who does more than five but still doesn’t do a whole lot of originations.” An example might be someone manages a mortgage production office and originates more than five loans a year, but is still a low volume producer compared to their rest of their team, so they don’t qualify for a bonus based on mortgage revenue.
More importantly, the proposed cap on the percentage of mortgage-derived revenue that can be included in a bonus or profit-sharing plan will make it impossible for banks to structure incentive compensation plans that will reward their originators solely on the profitability of their business. To get around the cap, banks will have to enlarge the categories of revenue that bonus payments are based on to include other kinds of loans in the mix. That would make it more of a company-wide incentive plan—especially if the cap is as low as 25 percent—which might be what the regulators prefer, but could be a less powerful incentive than a plan where mortgage originators were the only participants.
“That’s where the bureau wasn’t willing to go,” says Andreano.
Banks and other financial services companies that are impacted by the proposed rules have until Oct. 16 to submit their comments to the CFPB. Dodd-Frank requires the bureau to adopt final mortgage originator rules by Jan. 21, 2013, so banks should expect a final rule by then. Unfortunately, as Oliver points out, “People are starting to pull together their incentive plans for 2013,” so any assumptions they make now—like, for example, will the allowable cap be 25 percent or 50 percent—could be subject to change.