As it closed the door on state oversight, the OCC chose itself not to scrutinize foreclosure operations of the largest national banks. Instead, the agency relied on the banks’ in-house assessments.
Why such low expectations for the feds? A piece in the Washington Post today may shed some light (emphasis added):
As foreclosures began to mount across the country three years ago, a group of state bank regulators suspected that some borrowers might be losing their homes unnecessarily. So the state officials asked the biggest national banks for details about their foreclosure operations.
When two banks—J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo—declined to cooperate, the state officials asked the banks’ federal regulator for help, according to a letter they sent. But the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which oversees national banks, denied the states’ request, saying the firms should answer only to inquiries from federal officials. In a response to state officials, John Dugan, comptroller at the time, wrote that his agency was already planning to collect foreclosure information and that any additional monitoring risked "confusing matters."
But even as it closed the door on state oversight, the OCC chose itself not to scrutinize the foreclosure operations of the largest national banks, forgoing any examination of their procedures and paperwork. Instead, the agency relied on the banks’ in-house assessments. These provided no hint of the problems to come until they had tripped the nation’s housing market, agency officials later acknowledged.
"We looked at the final stage of the process and thought of it as one that would be governed by standards and procedures in internal controls," said Julie Williams, the OCC’s top lawyer. "You would only be able to know for sure if there was a problem with the document-signing process if you were standing in the room watching someone sign documents. That is not traditionally part of the bank examination process."
More than five years ago, in April 2003, the attorneys general of two small states traveled to Washington with a stern warning for the nation’s top bank regulator. Sitting in the spacious Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, with its panoramic view of the capital, the AGs from North Carolina and Iowa said lenders were pushing increasingly risky mortgages. Their host, John D. Hawke Jr., expressed skepticism.Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Tom Miller of Iowa headed a committee of state officials concerned about new forms of "predatory" lending. They urged Hawke to give states more latitude to limit exorbitant interest rates and fine-print fees. "People out there are struggling with oppressive loans," Cooper recalls saying.Hawke, a veteran banking industry lawyer appointed to head the OCC by President Bill Clinton in 1998, wouldn’t budge. He said he would reinforce federal policies that hindered states from reining in lenders. The AGs left the tense hour-long meeting realizing that Washington had become a foe in the nascent fight against reckless real estate finance. The OCC "took 50 sheriffs off the job during the time the mortgage lending industry was becoming the Wild West," Cooper says.