Banks, regulators reach mortgage settlements

In two of the biggest civil settlements since the financial crisis, the nation's biggest banks agreed Monday to cough up nearly $19 billion to resolve federal allegations of mortgage misdeeds.

Bankers saw the settlements as a major step in providing more certainty for their balance sheets and possibly foreshadowing an end to the era of billion-dollar mea culpas and open-ended regulatory probes.

In one case, 10 banks settled with regulators for $8.5 billion. In the second, Bank of America Corp. agreed to pay almost $10.4 billion to Fannie Mae, the giant loan buyer that the U.S. seized and propped up with tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

The deals come three years after prosecutors dropped criminal investigations against such subprime-mortgage kingpins as Countrywide Financial Corp.'s Angelo Mozilo in favor of pursuing civil fines.

"I'd have to say we're at least 75% of the way through with this process," said SNL Financial analyst Nancy Bush, arguing that it's time to concentrate on rebuilding the dysfunctional U.S. mortgage system. "The bankers are going to have to stop complaining about the government, and we'll have to stop this endless calling for someone to go to jail."

Housing advocates welcomed payouts for homeowners but asserted that the banks and bankers have gotten off easy, given the enormity of the economic damage to Main Street.

"When you think about $8.5 billion, and you know trillions of dollars in wealth have been lost by communities, it's not enough at all," said Sasha Werblin of the Greenlining Institute. "But some money is better than nothing."

The Bank of America settlement ends a bitter standoff between BofA, once the largest seller of home loans, and Fannie Mae, the nation's largest mortgage buyer.

The deal ends Fannie's demands that BofA buy back a mountain of soured loans issued by Countrywide, the high-risk Calabasas lender BofA acquired in 2008. BofA Chief Executive Brian Moynihan characterized the deal as "a significant step in resolving our remaining legacy mortgage issues."

BofA agreed to buy back $6.75 billion in residential mortgage loans sold to Fannie Mae and pay it an additional $3.6 billion in cash.

Moynihan had agreed previously to tens of billions of dollars in Countrywide-related claims. Those include shouldering the lion's share of last year's $25-billion settlement that five banks reached with the Obama administration and state attorneys general over so-called robo-signing of foreclosure paperwork and other abuses.

BofA still faces billions of dollars in claims from plaintiffs, including major insurers, the U.S. attorney's office in New York and the federal regulator overseeing Fannie Mae and fellow mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac.

But the bank has reached a tentative $8.5-billion settlement with holders of certain Countrywide mortgage bonds and another pending settlement for $2.4 million over its acquisition of Merrill Lynch & Co., also in 2008.

Because Countrywide left Bank of America with so many mortgage-related headaches, many view BofA's tangles with regulators as a barometer for the whole mortgage industry, SNL's Bush said. And as bank stock prices recovered over the last year, BofA led the way with a 109% gain for 2012.

The $8.5-million settlement with 10 banks Monday represented an acknowledgment by bank regulators that a previous attempt to review millions of foreclosures for bank wrongdoing had failed. Instead, they took a streamlined approach — the lump sum — in getting relief for troubled borrowers. Four other banks opted out of the settlement.

The settlement replaces a failed process that started in April 2011. In that arrangement, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve required the 14 big providers of mortgage customer service to hire consultants to review foreclosures from 2009 or 2010, potentially affecting 4.4 million borrowers. Nearly half a million borrowers signed up for the free reviews, which were supposed to lead to compensation in cases of bank misconduct.

But the consultants' tab totaled $1.5 billion as last year ended — without a single penny of relief going to borrowers. So the regulators and 10 of the banks, including mortgage giants Bank of America, Wells Fargo & Co. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., agreed to a plan for more direct aid.

The 10 banks will pay $3.3 billion to 3.8 million borrowers, who could receive amounts ranging from a few hundred dollars to $125,000 depending on evidence of wrongdoing. Reviews continue at the four banks that opted out of the new approach.

In addition, the 10 banks agreed to provide $5.2 billion in foreclosure prevention assistance to borrowers at risk of losing homes, including mortgage modifications or forgiveness of judgments against them.

Comptroller Tom Curry, the nation's top bank regulator, said the switch was a "significant change in direction." But he said it met the original objectives "by ensuring that consumers are the ones who will benefit and that they will benefit more quickly and in a more direct manner."

Some consumer advocates and legislators complained the new deal provided meager payouts to wronged borrowers while preventing further investigation and prosecution of the lenders.

"The independent consultants were identifying significant violations and abuse," said Bruce Marks, founder of the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, which had submitted thousands of requests for foreclosure reviews.

He called the reviews "the last best chance to definitively determine the cause of the mortgage crisis, in order to hold those responsible accountable and not to repeat it in the future."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), also criticized the regulators' decision to reach a settlement with the mortgage servicers.

Cummings said the settlement "effectively terminated the Independent Foreclosure Review process before providing Congress answers to serious questions about how this settlement amount was determined."

The banks that settled said they were eager to put the matter behind them.

"We are pleased that the regulators and servicers came together to reach this settlement, which will bring resolution to more borrowers in an expedited manner," said Mike Heid, president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

"This agreement allows us to move forward and continue our focus on doing all we can do to provide relief to our customers and restore stability to housing markets across the country."

Reckard reported from Orange County and Puzzanghera from Washington

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