Weekly Audit: Will Obama Save Homeowners From Wall Street’s Latest Fraud Scheme?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

A massive foreclosure fraud scandal is rocking the U.S. mortgage market. Wall Street banks and their lawyers are fabricating documents, forging signatures and lying to judges—all to exploit troubled borrowers with enormous, illegal fees, and in some cases, improperly foreclose on borrowers who haven’t missed any payments.

The fraud is so widespread that it could put some big banks out of business and even spark another financial collapse. Fortunately, things haven’t fallen apart just yet. With strong leadership from President Barack Obama and Congress, the government can help keep troubled borrowers in their homes and prevent another meltdown.

One fraud begets another

As Danny Schecter emphasizes in an interview with GRITtv’s Laura Flanders, this mess is just one element of a broader, criminal fraud at the heart of the foreclosure fiasco and resulting financial crisis. Banks pushed fraudulent loans onto borrowers during the housing bubble because the loans could be packaged into mortgage-backed securitizations and pawned off on hedge funds and other banks. Banks made a lot of money from this process, until the mortgages went bad and the fraud-packed securities plummeted in value.

Document drama

At the heart of any mortgage is a document called “The Note”, which lays out the terms of the mortgage and the kinds of fees that banks can levy against borrowers if they fall behind on their payments. Owning the note also gives banks the right to foreclose when a borrower stops paying.

The trouble is, in an effort to cut costs and boost bonuses, banks haven’t kept actually kept track of the note—in fact, they’ve actively destroyed the document so they don’t have to deal with filing it. Now that mortgages are going bad, banks are taking advantage of the documentation vacuum they created to levy massive, illegal fees on borrowers both before and during the foreclosure process. They do this by manufacturing fake documents, forging signatures, and getting bogus signatures from notaries to approve sham documents.

This is all terribly unfair to borrowers. In some cases, illegal fees push borrowers over the edge into foreclosure, while in others, borrowers get saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in illegal fees after getting kicked out of their home. The situation is a national disgrace.

Failure to produce

But the situation also creates legal liabilities that can push banks into failure. If banks can’t pony up the note, they don’t have the right to foreclose—not without some serious, expensive legal maneuvering. And what’s more, if the banks who created these shoddy securities can’t supply notes, investors who bought the securities can force losses back on the banks that created them. Given that there are $2.6 trillion in mortgage-backed securities out there, banks are very worried that losses and lawsuits stemming from shoddy documentation could spark another round of major financial turmoil.

The sheer lack of documentation makes it very difficult for investors to decipher which banks are exposed to loads of red ink, and which banks are not. That’s a recipe for financial panic.

Silencing employees

The banks know they’re in serious trouble. That’s why, as Andy Kroll notes for Mother Jones, mortgage servicers like GMAC are trying to silence employees who can testify about the extent of these frauds. GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan confessed to robo-signing 10,000 foreclosure documents every month without actually examining them. His acknowledgment sparked the current public scrutiny of foreclosure fraud, which has expanded to banks including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Kroll was one of the first to report on these fraudulent foreclosure mills and their illegal fees, and his coverage of the issue is essential reading for anybody following the unfolding crisis. Kroll also highlights the wave of new investigations and inquiries being launched by attorneys general in eight states, a phenomenon that is likely to expand as the crisis widens.

As Annie Lowrey details for The Washington Independent, one of those states is Ohio, where Attorney General Richard Cordray is suing GMAC, seeking $25,000 in damages for every fraudulent document the company has filed. In Ohio alone, there have been 190,000 foreclosures over the past two years.  Cordray hasn’t won his suit, and not every foreclosure will include fraud, but that’s a potential loss of over $7 billion to GMAC from foreclosures in Ohio alone over the past two years. And that doesn’t include what would be much higher losses to banks who packaged the mortgage securities, who are forced to repurchase them by burned investors.

Banks are doing their best to minimize the appearance of scandal, but the scope of potential losses from outright fraud is quite clearly a threat to the viability of the financial system. It’s easy to imagine a disaster scenario in which the government has no choice but to take major action to prevent the economy from imploding (yes, it can actually get worse).

Obama needs to pick up the slack

So far, President Obama is sending mixed signals about his intentions. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama vetoed a bill that would have made it harder for borrowers to show that banks were engaging in fraud during the foreclosure process. That was on Friday—but by Sunday, top Obama adviser David Axelrod was telling the press that the administration was not ready to support a foreclosure moratorium, dismissing the fraud crisis as a set of “mistakes” with lender “paperwork.”

As I note for AlterNet, Axelrod’s comments are a complete mischaracterization of what’s going on in the foreclosure process, and of what can be done. The housing market is a mess because banks have been systematically committing fraud. We cannot rely on such fraudsters to fix the mess– some kind of government action is going to be necessary. Whatever the solution, the administration cannot stand with big Wall Street banks against the borrowers and investors that are being defrauded. Any solution must take the interest of troubled borrowers as paramount. We’ve already tried saving the banks without saving homeowners, and as the unfolding foreclosure fraud crisis illustrates, it didn’t work.

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The Blinder-Zandi Report

A paper by economists Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, finds that without the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that bailed out the nation's financial sector, the bank stress tests, the emergency lending and asset purchases by the Federal Reserve, and the Obama Administration’s fiscal stimulus program - the much maligned American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) - the nation’s gross domestic product would be about 6.5 percent lower this year.

Additionally, Dr. Blinder and Dr. Zandi find that the US economy would have lost an additional 8.5 million jobs, on top of the more than 8 million lost so far; and the economy would be in the midst of a deflationary asset spiral, instead of low inflation. Overall, they conclude that the aggregate effects of the TARP and the ARRA "probably averted what could have been called Great Depression 2.0." I am not quite sure why economists apart from Paul Krugman always seem to forget about the Panic of 1873, a five-year long financial downturn marked by deflation, price instability and the first sustained period of mass unemployment in world history.

More on the Blinder-Zandi report from the New York Times:

Mr. Blinder and Mr. Zandi emphasize the sheer size of the fallout from the financial crisis. They estimate the total direct cost of the recession at $1.6 trillion, and the total budgetary cost, after adding in nearly $750 billion in lost revenue from the weaker economy, at $2.35 trillion, or about 16 percent of G.D.P.

By comparison, the savings and loan crisis cost about $350 billion in today’s dollars: $275 billion in direct cost and an additional $75 billion from the recession of 1990-91 — or about 6 percent of G.D.P. at the time.

But the new analysis might not be of immediate solace to officials in the Obama administration, who have been trying to promote the “summer of recovery” at events across the nation in the face of polls indicating persistent doubts about the impact of the $787 billion stimulus program.

For one thing, Mr. Blinder and Mr. Zandi find that the financial stabilization measures — the Troubled Asset Relief Program, as the bailout is known, along with the bank stress tests and the Fed’s actions — have had a relatively greater impact than the stimulus program.

If the fiscal stimulus alone had been enacted, and not the financial measures, they concluded, real G.D.P. would have fallen 5 percent last year, with 12 million jobs lost. But if only the financial measures had been enacted, and not the stimulus, real G.D.P. would have fallen nearly 4 percent, with 10 million jobs lost.

The combined effects of both sets of policies cannot be directly compared with the sum of each in isolation, they found, “because the policies tend to reinforce each other.”

Oddly enough, the New York Times failed to link to the report but here it is: How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End (pdf). The title is perhaps a bit over optimistic given that we are not quite out of the economic doldrums as yet but I do think their conclusion is inescapable:

It is clear that laissez faire was not an option; policymakers had to act. Not responding would have left both the economy and the government’s fiscal situation in far graver condition.

Still no one has ever won an election with the argument that it could have been worse. 

Weekly Audit: Why Elizabeth Warren Should Head New Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Bumped from the diaries with timestamp updated and fold added.

This piece makes good arguments for putting Warren in charge of the CFPB, against Tim Geithner's wishes. I would encourage you to sign this petition from Bold Progressives after signing. Usually petitions don't amount to much (a handful of signatures on a well-known or popular issue? Please), but in this case, they've already got 160k names for an obscure topic. Now that's democracy in action. - Nathan

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

With the Wall Street reform bill finally cleared through Congress, activists and intellectuals are pushing hard to make sure that this bill isn’t the last word Congress utters about Big Finance. We need deeper and more robust reforms, but it’s also critical to ensure that the new bill is implemented as effectively as possible. Part of that means appointing officials with a proven record as robust reformers—people like Elizabeth Warren.

Too-big-to-fail lives on

What more do we need to keep Big Finance from ravaging the middle class? As Stacy Mitchell notes for Yes! Magazine, the bill Congress just signed off on doesn’t really address the core problems posed by our out-of-control banking system. Too-big-to-fail is alive and well, and lawmakers must push to break up the megabanks during the next legislative cycle or risk another economic calamity. Mitchell writes:

“Since the collapse, giant banks have only grown bigger and more powerful, and less responsive to the needs of the real economy. While the financial reform bill includes several worthwhile measures, it will not set the industry right or entail a fundamental alteration of its scale and structure.”

There are still some great reforms in the current round of legislation, among them the creation of a strong new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to write and enforce rules on mortgages, credit cards, overdraft fees and more. The first person to head this new regulatory body will be tremendously important to its future. They will set the tone for the bureau’s operations and establish a culture that will define it for years to come.

There's more...

Weekly Audit: Why Elizabeth Warren Should Head New Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Bumped from the diaries with timestamp updated and fold added.

This piece makes good arguments for putting Warren in charge of the CFPB, against Tim Geithner's wishes. I would encourage you to sign this petition from Bold Progressives after signing. Usually petitions don't amount to much (a handful of signatures on a well-known or popular issue? Please), but in this case, they've already got 160k names for an obscure topic. Now that's democracy in action. - Nathan

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

With the Wall Street reform bill finally cleared through Congress, activists and intellectuals are pushing hard to make sure that this bill isn’t the last word Congress utters about Big Finance. We need deeper and more robust reforms, but it’s also critical to ensure that the new bill is implemented as effectively as possible. Part of that means appointing officials with a proven record as robust reformers—people like Elizabeth Warren.

Too-big-to-fail lives on

What more do we need to keep Big Finance from ravaging the middle class? As Stacy Mitchell notes for Yes! Magazine, the bill Congress just signed off on doesn’t really address the core problems posed by our out-of-control banking system. Too-big-to-fail is alive and well, and lawmakers must push to break up the megabanks during the next legislative cycle or risk another economic calamity. Mitchell writes:

“Since the collapse, giant banks have only grown bigger and more powerful, and less responsive to the needs of the real economy. While the financial reform bill includes several worthwhile measures, it will not set the industry right or entail a fundamental alteration of its scale and structure.”

There are still some great reforms in the current round of legislation, among them the creation of a strong new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to write and enforce rules on mortgages, credit cards, overdraft fees and more. The first person to head this new regulatory body will be tremendously important to its future. They will set the tone for the bureau’s operations and establish a culture that will define it for years to come.

There's more...

Weekly Audit: Why Elizabeth Warren Should Head New Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Bumped from the diaries with timestamp updated and fold added.

This piece makes good arguments for putting Warren in charge of the CFPB, against Tim Geithner's wishes. I would encourage you to sign this petition from Bold Progressives after signing. Usually petitions don't amount to much (a handful of signatures on a well-known or popular issue? Please), but in this case, they've already got 160k names for an obscure topic. Now that's democracy in action. - Nathan

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

With the Wall Street reform bill finally cleared through Congress, activists and intellectuals are pushing hard to make sure that this bill isn’t the last word Congress utters about Big Finance. We need deeper and more robust reforms, but it’s also critical to ensure that the new bill is implemented as effectively as possible. Part of that means appointing officials with a proven record as robust reformers—people like Elizabeth Warren.

Too-big-to-fail lives on

What more do we need to keep Big Finance from ravaging the middle class? As Stacy Mitchell notes for Yes! Magazine, the bill Congress just signed off on doesn’t really address the core problems posed by our out-of-control banking system. Too-big-to-fail is alive and well, and lawmakers must push to break up the megabanks during the next legislative cycle or risk another economic calamity. Mitchell writes:

“Since the collapse, giant banks have only grown bigger and more powerful, and less responsive to the needs of the real economy. While the financial reform bill includes several worthwhile measures, it will not set the industry right or entail a fundamental alteration of its scale and structure.”

There are still some great reforms in the current round of legislation, among them the creation of a strong new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to write and enforce rules on mortgages, credit cards, overdraft fees and more. The first person to head this new regulatory body will be tremendously important to its future. They will set the tone for the bureau’s operations and establish a culture that will define it for years to come.

There's more...

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