It was late 2022 and Mike was feeling the pressure. Mortgage rates had climbed close to the 7% range and he was determined to remain competitive on pricing with rival loan officers in North Carolina.
But there was a problem: pricing exceptions, in which the lender takes the hit, were becoming scarce at his company. So he did what a lot of retail loan officers in the industry were doing — Mike would reclassify a self-generated lead as a corporate-generated lead, thus slashing his compensation from 125 basis points down to as low as 50 bps, giving him a low enough rate to win the client and eventually close the deal. His manager and company bosses knew that he and other LOs were lying about where the lead source came from, he said.
The lower comp rate stung. After Mike paid his loan officer assistant, he was clearing just 40 bps. Still, it was better than nothing. After all, tens of thousands of loan officers had already exited the industry because they couldn’t generate enough business.
“At this time, I didn’t really think of it as an ethical issue,” Mike, whose last name is being withheld for fear of retaliation, told HousingWire in an interview in late November. “But it started to wear on me to where it was like, okay, I’m getting price-shopped left and right. I’m feeling the pressure to cut my pay, because when I do it, and my agent partners, they see that I do that, and then they’ll tell people they refer to me. ‘Hey, he can dig deeper if he really has to.’”
Mike continued: “Well, doesn’t that smack of bad faith if I’m not offering them my best price from jump? I would get people saying to me, ‘I’m not going to go in with you. I don’t feel comfortable with you, because you tried to get me to go for a higher pricing first, and then only offered a better deal once I told you I had another offer.”
Mike said he left that lender in early 2023 as a result of the ‘bucket game’ and refuses to manipulate where lead sources are coming from at his current shop.
“It’s a race to the bottom,” he said of the practice.
Over the past two months, HousingWire has interviewed more than a dozen loan officers, mortgage executives, attorneys and also reviewed several companies’ loan officer contracts and text messages between recruiters and prospects to shed light on the growing issue of pricing bucket manipulation, which critics say distorts market pricing and could represent a violation of fair lending laws.
It’s unknown how many retail lenders are engaged in the practice of falsifying lead sources to lower loan officer pay, but industry practitioners say it’s widespread, and in most cases, reclassifying leads into different pricing buckets before they lock is not permitted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rules under Regulation Z.
It’s also unclear whether the CFPB is policing the practice; HousingWire could find no record of enforcement actions taken, and the agency’s audits are not public record.
Evolution of the LO Comp rule
In the wake of the housing crash in 2008, the CFPB created new rules that reshaped how loan officers were compensated. The architects of the new rules wanted to prevent loan officers from taking advantage of borrowers, which was a common occurrence in the days leading up to the Great Recession.
Under an updated Regulation Z, lenders could no longer pay loan officers differently based on terms of loans other than the amount of credit extended. In theory, this means loan officers provide the same service and pricing on loans, reducing the risk of steering.
“LOs also can’t get paid on proxies, and they define proxies to be pretty straightforward: some factor that correlates to terms over a significant number of transactions, and the LOs have the ability to change that factor,” said Troy Garris, co-managing partner at Garris Horn LLP.
But the CFPB did allow loan officers to be compensated differently based on lead sources, which do not fall under the category of terms or proxies and are neither a right or an obligation.
For example, when an existing customer calls the lender’s call center for a new mortgage or refinance, and the lender redirects the loan to the LO, “the LO gets paid less because it was sourced from the company, and it is less work for the LO,” said Colgate Selden, a founding member of the CFPB and an attorney at SeldenLindeke LLP. When it’s an outside lead, “the LOs generated the lead themselves; they are spending time marketing to new borrowers, so they get paid more.”
Attorneys told HousingWire that in the current marketplace, violations of LO Comp rules can arise when lenders and LOs alter compensation by changing the lead source after the initial contact with the borrower to lower their rate and secure the deals. Regulation Z generally does not allow LOs to change which lead source was used.
But, in today’s competitive market, “I do think there’s an incentive, especially on the LO side, to find ways to do something different – and probably also for companies to decide to take more risk,” said Garris. “We believe this is happening because people are frequently asking if there’s a rule change.”
How the ‘bucket game’ works
LOs who spoke to HousingWire said managers often told them they wouldn’t get pricing exceptions on deals, so if they wanted to gain an edge it would have to come out of their pay. Three loan officers at three different retail lenders described it as a feature of their lender’s business model.
“You feel out a prospective client during the initial conversation, get a sense of whether they know how everything works, if they’ve spoken to another lender, if they’re going to shop you, right? And you quote them the best possible rate you could give them that day, knowing that you’ll put them in a bucket just before lock,” said one Wisconsin-based LO. “It doesn’t really matter what you quote them in the initial conversation as long as you can get it below competitors around lock time…either through a pricing exception or the bucket [manipulation].”
One top-producing California-based loan officer said she was excited when a top 35 mortgage lender tried to recruit her with the promise of multiple pricing buckets. Having the buckets would provide her flexibility that her current lender didn’t offer, she thought at the time.
“What the [recruiting] company told me explicitly was the loan originator, when they go to lock the loan, they check a box – is it self, branch or corp gen? And you only get to check one box, but it’s the loan officer’s choosing, not the branch,” she said. “So the loan originator is choosing, not the branch that says I’m going to give you a lead and this is the comp for it. Not the corporate advertisement or online group that says you’re getting this lead from us and here’s documentation that it occurred and now you’re going to get less comp. It’s the ultimate in legalized fraud. Because it’s not true.”
These days, many lenders have pricing buckets for corporate-generated leads, branch leads, builder leads, marketing service agreement (MSAs) leads, internet leads from aggregators and more. In and of itself, it’s legal, provided the lead really did come from the source and it’s diligently tracked by the lender.
Loan officers and mortgage executives interviewed by HousingWire said some lenders justify the practice of manipulating the buckets by telling LOs it’s legal and they’ve been audited by the CFPB, which has not found any wrongdoing. Several executives accused of the practice declined to comment on the record about pricing bucket manipulation, though they all said they track leads as required and are in full compliance with the law.
Selden, the former CFPB attorney, said that LOs are telling borrowers who complain about high mortgage rates that companies are “running a special offer.” Borrowers are directed to the company’s website, where, by indicating the LO name, they supposedly qualify for a special deal with a lower rate. In reality, at lenders without adequate controls to prevent lead source manipulation, this shifts the source from self-generated to an in-house lead.
LOs interviewed by HousingWire said that in some cases they would be able to change the lead referral source themselves, and in other cases they’d need a manager to alter the lead source in the loan origination system.
While many instances of price bucket manipulation were directed by managers, LOs would also self-select, said Mike.
“Most of the time you don’t have a loan estimate from a competitor, you’re just afraid that you’re going to lose it because you’re so embarrassed about the rate. And that’s why a lot of my comrades… were going to the corporate-generated lead bucket before they even confirmed that they had to. Partly because you wanted to lead with your best price.”
Steve vonBerg, an attorney at law firm Orrick in Washington, D.C., worked as a loan officer and underwriter for seven years. He emphasized the potential trouble for lenders and LOs inaccurately classifying the lead source.
“Often, a [CFPB] examiner would see if the lead channel changed later in the process. That could be legitimate: the borrower starts working with an LO, and it’s a self-sourced lead for that LO, but then decides to buy a home in a different state in the middle of the process; the second LO that it has to be transferred to has now an internal-company referral, and so the lead source would legitimately change,” vonBerg said. “But, if there isn’t a legitimate reason for the lead source changing midstream, that would be fairly easy for an examiner to identify.”
Victor Ciardelli is frustrated by the bucket game. Deeply frustrated. The Guaranteed Rate founder and CEO says he is losing money and loan officers to rivals because of a business practice that he says is flagrantly illegal, pervasive, and does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Some rival retail lenders, he says, are creating up to a dozen pricing buckets for their loan officers. The tiered nature of the bucket comp structure in many cases — self generated being the highest at up to 150 bps, 100 bps for another ‘bucket,’ 80 bps for another, down to 60 bps, 40 bps and sometimes all the way to zero — proves that it is a deliberate business strategy, he said.
“It wasn’t intended that the loan officer at the time that they’re talking to the consumer and quoting them a rate, that the loan officer can put the consumer in any bucket they want,” he said in an interview with HousingWire. “But that is exactly what’s happening. What’s exactly happening is the fact that there’s all these different pricing buckets for a lot of these different companies out there. And that the loan officer is allowed to go in and offer the consumer whatever rate based on what the loan officer wants.”
He argued that LOs are maximizing their personal income per borrower.
“It’s no different than what happened prior to Dodd-Frank, where it was the wild, wild West and people were playing games with customers on rates and fees,” said Ciardelli. “It’s the same thing today. There’s no difference except the fact that there’s a law in place that tells the mortgage company and the individual loan officer. And the loan officers know that they’re violating the law. It’s greed.”
Ciardelli says the rival CEOs — he declined to name individuals and said it’s an industry-wide problem — are establishing these buckets and know “full well that the bucket is put in place in order to lie about where the lead source is coming from.”
They have an obligation to know where the leads are coming from, that the loan officers are putting them in the appropriate bucket and that they are being tracked, he said.
“The loan officer may take a hit on that loan, and may make less on that loan, but the company themselves doesn’t take the hit, their margin stays the same. So the company CEO is happy, because they’re like, ‘I’m giving my loan officers all this flexibility to go out and be competitive and win deals. And they’re going to win more deals than anybody else out there, because they’re going to be able to slot the individual borrower into these different lead channels. So the individual CEO is making all the money. They’re the ones killing it.”
Ciardelli says he asked about the bucket pricing game and attorneys all told him no, it’s not legal, he said.
“I’ll play by whatever the law is…But when the rules are set up to be a certain way and people are not following the rules, then that’s a problem.”
Two other executives at large retail lenders also said they’ve lost loan officers to competitors who are sanctioning, if not directing, the manipulation of pricing buckets.
“The LOs get told this is legal, it’s just pricing flexibility so they can compete, and they have a compliance team that monitors it,” said one executive at a regional lender in the South. “Obviously that’s not true… What’s happening is they [the lenders] are pricing high and basically forcing the LOs to cut from say 150 [basis points down to 50 [basis points] on some loans because otherwise they just won’t do enough business. It’s a feature, not a bug, as they say. We asked our attorneys if we could do this and they told us absolutely not.”
The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) is aware of the issue. The organization asked an outside attorney from Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP to study the permissibility of the practice. In a letter sent to members in February 2023, Orrick advised MBA members that changing the lead source of a loan after beginning work on the application in order to make a competitive pricing concession “is not permissible.”
The letter has had little meaningful impact, sources told HousingWire. If anything, the practice has increased over the last year.
Fair lending concerns
Another repercussion in the market is that savvy borrowers gain access to lower rates when lead sources are manipulated. Less educated applicants could be quoted higher rates for the same loan, raising concerns about fair lending practices.
But this argument prompts a broader discussion on the efficacy of the LO comp rule, with divergent opinions on the matter.
“I used to be an MLO for seven years. I was in the industry in the 2000s until it melted down, and then I ended up going to law school because I had lost my job. I originated hundreds of loans myself, and personally, I think overall the rule is a good rule,” vonBerg said.
vonBerg elaborated: “Under the old regime, LOs were not incentivized to offer their consumers the best loan and best pricing for them. They were incentivized to give them the loans and pricing where they would make more money. Although it has some issues that should be corrected, I think the LO comp rule makes a lot of sense, in that it removes a gigantic conflict of interest.”
Not everyone shares this viewpoint.
“The LO comp rule was designed to prevent steering to high-cost loans. And really, those things don’t exist anymore. We can’t put borrowers in homes that they can’t afford,” said Brian Levy, Of Counsel at Katten and Temple, LLP.
According to Levy, the rule creates “a tremendous amount of anxiety for the mortgage lending industry that doesn’t benefit consumers in any meaningful way.”
“The industry is frustrated. They’re unable to easily reduce prices. For example, in the past, before the rule was around, LOs were able to take less as a commission, just like any other salesperson – a car salesperson – to make the deal work. That’s illegal now for loan officers. The mortgage company can make that decision [of lowering their margins and reducing rate], but the loan officer cannot.”
Levy noted that some consider the LO comp rule to be a de facto fair lending rule.
“But we already have fair lending rules. The idea that if the loan officer is discounting their fees, they would end up discounting on a discriminatory basis would already be problematic under existing law, so you don’t need the LO comp rule to make that illegal. It’s already illegal to discriminate in pricing. That said, it’s not illegal for people to negotiate just like you can negotiate a car price.”
The CFPB has also taken issue with other forms of pricing concessions over the last year. In the summer of 2022, the agency reported that pricing exceptions, in which the lender offers a discount, had harmed protected classes, who were less likely to be offered discounts.
Where’s the CFPB?
Multiple sources said the CFPB audits about 20% of mortgage lenders per year, and because of the prevalence of this practice, would undoubtedly have come across lead bucket pricing manipulation by now.
Why there hasn’t been any enforcement to date or whether there’s a future enforcement action is just on the horizon is hard to know.
The CFPB, which is undertaking a broad review of the LO Comp rule, declined to make anyone available to speak on the issue.
“We cannot comment on any ongoing enforcement or supervision matters,” said Raul Cisneros, a Bureau spokesperson. “Those who witness potential industry misconduct should consider reporting it by going here. Additionally, we always welcome stakeholder feedback on any of our rules, including the loan officer compensation rules.”
In early 2023, the CFPB initiated a review of Regulation Z‘s mortgage loan originator rules, which include certain provisions regarding compensation. However, industry experts do not foresee substantial changes or anticipate the CFPB addressing the issue of lead source manipulation.
“In fact, there haven’t been a lot of public enforcement actions by the CFPB in several years [on the LO comp rule]. But having said that, we used to complain that the CFPB was participating in regulation by enforcement, and now they seem to be regulating by supervisory highlights,” Kris Kully, a law firm Mayer Brown partner, said.
The CFPB’s latest move regarding the LO Comp Rule was to issue a supervisory highlight in the summer stating that compensating an LO differently based on whether a loan product was originated in-house or brokered to an outside lender is prohibited.
Industry practitioners said the lack of enforcement from regulators has allowed the pricing bucket manipulation practice to flourish, creating an uneven playing field.
“You have all these companies that all of a sudden are starting to get a free pass,” Ciardelli said. “They’re like, ‘I’m not having any audits. I’m not having anybody come and say anything to me. I mean, nothing’s really happening. I’m pretty much unscathed here.’ And year after year goes by, there’s no auditors, there’s no issues. And then they start to move the needle on how they’re running their business and decisions they’re making. And they have less fear of the government, less fear of the existing rules that are in place, because the rules that were set up are not being enforced.”
Another mortgage executive speculated that the pricing bucket games will come to an end not because of CFPB enforcement, but because loan officers and executives will battle it out in court.
“I’ve got calls from loan officers who feel like they’ve been pushed into a lower commission scale than they thought they were going to get to start with,” he said. “I hired somebody from a well-known lender. When they hired her, they told her, ‘Hey, these are what the rates are and this is what the commission is.’ When she got over there, the rates they were quoting were the lead-based rates, not the hundred-based points they were promising her… I don’t think the enforcement will come from the CFPB. I think it’ll come from some type of lawsuit like that.”
The lasting impact of LOs cutting their comp to win clients and close deals won’t be clear until mortgage rates meaningfully fall for a sustained period.
But many fear that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.
“We’ve done this so much that they’ve built it into their pricing,” said Mike, the loan officer in North Carolina. “They are pricing things higher, assuming that we’re going to cut our pay, and protect their margins. So to me that’s the bigger issue for us selfishly, is we start doing that, and it’s going to become the norm. The pricing system and everything is going to assume that we’ll do that.”
He mused that RESPA guidelines prohibit an LO from buying a Realtor partner a Big Mac after a closing but lying about a lead source is not policed.
“Personally being an LO, the biggest issue to me is, they’re screwing with us and just… That’s how all these shops are finding a lifeline to keep their doors open. ‘We don’t have to pay them 100 bps, we can just pay them 50, and they’ll take it on the chin.’ And it’s like, yeah, we’ll take it on the chin. Many of us are using the heck out of our credit cards right now to survive. It’s not cool.”