Mortgage settlement is great — for politicians and banks
I hate a parade. And the parade of rosy self-congratulation staged last week by the creators of the $25-billion mortgage fraud settlement with five big banks is the kind of parade I really hate.
There certainly are some big winners in the deal, which has the approval of 49 of the 50 state attorneys general. Start with its godfathers. President Obama took to the podium a couple of hours after the deal’s announcement to declare that it will “speed relief to the hardest-hit homeowners.”
California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris went before the cameras soon after that, taking credit for “a tremendous victory for California,” which has been perhaps the hardest-hit state in the foreclosure crisis.
Then there are the banks. The signatories to the deal are Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo & Co., JPMorgan Chase and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC), which handle payments on more than half the nation’s outstanding 27 million home loans and therefore have been at the center of the servicing and foreclosure abuses the settlement is supposed to end.
If you don’t listen too closely, it sounds as if they’re putting up the $25 billion. Not so. The only cold cash the banks are paying is a combined $5 billion, including $1.5 billion to compensate borrowers whose homes were foreclosed on from 2008 through the end of last year, with the rest going to the federal and state governments to pay for regulatory programs.
Most of the balance is in mortgage relief for stressed or underwater mortgage holders, including principal reductions, refinancings and other modifications.
How much of this will translate into an outlay of cash by the five banks? Not much, if any.
For one thing, even the government acknowledges that a lender typically benefits when ways are found to keep a home out of foreclosure — a lender loses an average $60,000 on every foreclosure, according to figures the federal government disclosed in connection with the settlement announcement. It’s been institutional resistance and legal entanglements, not economics, that have kept more modifications from going forward.
Many of the loans destined to be modified under the settlement aren’t even owned by the banks, but rather by investors — the banks just collect the checks.
Consequently, as mortgage expert Adam Levitin of Georgetown Law School observes, most of the settlement “is being financed on the dime of MBS [mortgage-backed securities] investors such as pension funds, 401(k) plans, insurance companies and the like — parties that did not themselves engage in any of the wrongdoing covered by the settlement.”
What about homeowners? They don’t get much, especially in relation to the scale of the housing crisis. More than 2 million owners have lost their homes to foreclosure during the last four years; this deal will provide 750,000 with a payment of $2,000 each.
Some 11 million homeowners are underwater by about $700 billion combined, or an average of nearly $65,000 each. In a transport of optimism, federal officials are projecting that this deal will help 2 million of them, to the tune of perhaps $20,000 each. By the way, loans owned by the government-sponsored firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac aren’t eligible for this relief. Since they own or control the majority of all outstanding mortgages, that’s a rather large black hole.
Supposedly a big part of the deal is the implementation of new foreclosure standards to end the abuses that made the deal necessary. These standards require banks seeking to foreclose henceforth to submit sworn affidavits that are accurate about the amounts owed and the legal right of the servicer to proceed, and require that the bank officers who sign them to actually examine the documents they swear to have examined.
In other words, no more “robo-signing.” Assertions the banks make in court will have to be “accurate.” Banks will have to give borrowers complete and accurate information about their loans, suspend foreclosure proceedings once they start working on a loan modification, apply mortgage payments promptly, keep accurate loan records and communicate effectively with borrowers.
I believe the technical term for all this is “big whoop.” The provisions mostly require mortgage lenders and servicers to comply with what I would have thought was already the law, which prohibits, you know, criminal fraud. The rest is pretty much out of the best-practices manual of customer service, which benefits both the customer and the institution.
What the standards do accomplish is to expose how sad our enforcement of the law has been up to now, and how hard it will be to enforce it in the future if this is the best we can do in the face of manifestly illegal behavior. The lesson is: Break the law, and the full weight of the state and federal governments will come down on your head to make you agree not to break the law — in the future.
It may not be long before the euphoria over the settlement evaporates in the realization that the banks that made a travesty of the mortgage market are still getting a pass — not only on their cupidity in making loans to unqualified buyers, but in magnifying their cupidity through forgery, lies and the other building blocks of foreclosure fraud.
In the words of business consultant Susan Webber, who blogs expertly on financial matters under the pen name Yves Smith, “We’ve now set a price for forgeries and fabricating documents. It’s $2,000 per loan.” She observes, quite properly, that the payoff is a minuscule fraction of the costs these practices have imposed on borrowers, the court system and the economy.
The settlement, meanwhile, provides cover for other stealth bailouts. On Thursday, the day of the big parade, the U.S. Office of the Controller of the Currency quietly settled claims against BofA, Wells Fargo, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase related to cease-and-desist orders the agency issued last year over the banks’ crooked mortgage servicing and foreclosure activities.
The agency says it settled those claims for $394 million. The actual figure is zero. That’s because the agency won’t ask for any of the money as long as the banks meet their obligations under the mortgage settlement. This is the kind of fun with math that helped get us into the housing crisis in the first place.
The settlement’s proponents have praised it for preserving the right of prosecutors to continue their investigations into the banks’ misbehavior; California’s Harris crowed that she retains the right to pursue the banks under state fraud laws. But it also narrows the breadth of a promising Massachusetts investigation and may entirely shut down cases brought against BofA by the Arizona and Nevada attorneys general.
Most troubling, compliance with the settlement terms will be overseen by an independent monitor who must rely on the banks’ own figures. If we know anything about these banks, it’s that they’ve moved heaven and earth to evade their past promises to help troubled homeowners. Time and again their loan relief programs have fallen short of their promises. Why should this time be different, when the consequence of their past misbehavior is, when you come down to it, a slap on the wrist?
Prosecutors coast to coast had the mortgage industry dead to rights this time around. That’s why the banks came to the table. The states and the feds were in a position to achieve real homeowner relief and a lasting change in the way Wall Street banks do business. But that fading sound you hear? That’s the parade passing by, leaving Main Street behind.
Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.