Obama’s “Get Out of Jail for Helping 1.36% Card” for Banksters

Yesterday, I described how the Obama Administration was going to charge the banks just $8 billion for immunity from a whole new swath of crimes. Shahien Nasiripour has more details which make the deal look even shittier. First, the proposed deal does appear to provide states immunity not just from robo-signing and the lies banksters made at origination, but also for their securitization errors.

In return for getting the banks to agree to the refinancing scheme and give up higher interest income, the states would release the banks from civil claims related to loan originations, the stage at which many homeowners say they were duped by unscrupulous lenders.

Last month, state prosecutors proposed to effectively release the five big lenders from legal liability for allegedly wrongful securitisation practices related to the banks’ treatment of loan documents. Taken together, the release from liability over poor origination, securitisation, servicing and foreclosure practices could amount to an effective grant of immunity for the banks from civil claims, people familiar with the matter said.

And in exchange, the banks would pay 80% of their $25 billion penalty into a fund that the same people who botched HAMP would use to help just 1.36% of homeowners who are underwater on their homes.

About 150,000 borrowers could benefit from the refinancings, as the vast majority of US home loans are owned by investors and government-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. By comparison, nearly 11m US borrowers are underwater, according to CoreLogic, a data provider. The average underwater homeowner owes $258,000 on his mortgage.

In other words, all the settlement would do is help those who crashed our economy stay in business. The vast majority of their victims–and the US economy–would continue to pay the price for their crimes.

Obama Administration’s Price Tag for Bank Lying, Predation, and (Probably) Securitization Fail: $8 Billion

Back when the foreclosure fraud settlement was purportedly only going to cover robo-signing abuses, the price tag was going to be $17 billion.

Now that the Obama Administration is desperately trying to craft a settlement deal to include origination problems, the price tag has grown to $25 billion.

Under the proposed terms of the settlement — which could total $25 billion — banks would get broad legal immunity from state lawsuits in exchange for refinancing underwater loans, those mortgages where borrowers owe more than their homes are worth, the sources said.

The deal could provide some relief to the battered U.S. housing market and clear up some uncertainty about banks’ legal exposure that has been a drag on their shares.

Banks have been holding out on a multi-billion-dollar settlement because they wanted broader legal immunity than state attorneys general were prepared to offer.

Originally, the states were only considering immunity for shortcuts taken during mortgage servicing and foreclosures, including the so-called “robo-signing” of documents to evict people behind on their mortgages.

In recent days, the state attorneys general agreed to release major banks from claims that they made legal errors when first originating the loans, such as approving loans for borrowers without verifying any income, according to two people familiar with the talks.

That means for all the additional things the banks would get immunity for–at the very least, the liars loans and the predatory lending, all the things they’re getting hammered for in reps and warrants suits, though the language might well immunize securitization failures–banks would pay just an additional $8 billion.

That, in spite of the fact that FHFA filed lawsuits against the banks that might be worth $40 billion, with $11.5 billion from Bank of America alone.

So basically Obama wants to fund HAMP 2.0 by letting banks out of at least 80% of what they stand to lose in court.

HAMP II: The $20 Billion Get Out of Jail Free Card

A day after the Case-Shiller Index confirmed that the housing market is in a double dip, the Powers that Be (a subsidiary of the Masters of the Universe, currently CEOed by one Barack Obama) have floated their proposal for a mortgage fraud settlement.

The settlement terms remain fluid, people familiar with the matter cautioned, and haven’t been presented to banks. Exact dollar amounts haven’t been agreed on by U.S. regulators and state attorneys general.

For the low, low price of $20 billion, the Administration proposes, banks could be excused for the abundant mortgage fraud they’ve committed.

Terms of the administration’s proposal include a commitment from mortgage servicers to reduce the loan balances of troubled borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth, people familiar with the matter said. The cost of those writedowns won’t be borne by investors who purchased mortgage-backed securities, these people said.

But basically, it sounds like HAMP II–a “plan” that still lets banks decide how to implement that “plan”–with the sole improvement on HAMP I that it requires 2nd Liens to be “reduced” (but not eliminated) in the process of modifying the first liens.

The deal wouldn’t create any new government programs to reduce principal. Instead, it would allow banks to devise their own modifications or use existing government programs, people familiar with the matter said. Banks would also have to reduce second-lien mortgages when first mortgages are modified.

In short, it includes bailout within bailout (since 2nd liens should be eliminated).

Over a quarter of mortgage holders are underwater on their homes. A big chunk of these people were sold houses at artificially inflated prices, courtesy of the bank and captured appraisers. Every single one of them is owed compensation for being cheated at the hands of the banks.

But $20 billion won’t even begin to compensate those victims of fraudulent appraisals for the fraud committed on them.

Timmeh Geithner, Campaigner against Injustice

What a load of crap:

Charlie Rose: You’re encouraging banks to declare a moratorium on foreclosures?

Tim Geithner: No, I wouldn’t say it that way. I think that you know what you’re seeing in housing still now is a national tragedy, still very, very difficult. You know, again, this was a crisis caused by a lot of people were taken advantage of, a lot of people were too optimistic about what they could afford in terms of a house, lot of people were speculating in real estate, and a lot of innocent victims got caught up in the consequences of those basic mistakes. You saw, you know, the nation’s largest banks that ran these servicing businesses, not invest anything like what they needed to, to run that business effectively in a downturn like that. And you’re seeing the consequences of all those mistakes play out still across the American economy. Now, you’ve seen some banks suspend temporarily the foreclosure process so they can just make sure that they’re not causing any injustice to the borrowers and that’s very important for that to happen. And we’re going to –

Charlie Rose: So you’re pleased to see that happen.

Tim Geithner: I think where that’s happening again the suspension is to make sure they’re not causing any injustice is very important, but I think it’s important to recognize, Charlie, that if you — a national moratorium would be very damaging to exactly the kind of people we’re trying to protect, because the consequence of that would be in neighborhoods that have been most affected by the foreclosure crisis, where you see lots of houses on the block empty, unoccupied, what it means is those communities will be living longer with houses unoccupied, with more pressure on their house price with the people still in their houses. That would be very damaging, and so again we want to make sure we’re holding these services accountable, that they’re not causing any injustice to people who can afford to stay in their home, and we’re going to make sure we’re careful in doing that. But we also want to make sure that we’re not going to make the problem worse. [my emphasis]

You see, Timmeh and the banks are entirely motivated by an interest in justice. It has nothing to do with protecting the banks (even though Timmeh conveniently leaves out the fraud of the people between the mortgage originators and the servicers, all of whom share the blame in this process, or the liability of the banks selling properties with titles they have to know are flawed). It has nothing to do with protecting the government’s own position with Fannie and Freddie. It’s all about preventing injustice.

Of course, Timmeh seemed fine with letting HAMP continue for a year causing significant injustice to those who could afford to stay in their home.

And Timmeh, tremendous economist that he is, seems not to have thought about what’s going to happen to foreclosures with dubious titles in the market place (and with those foreclosures, the value of property in the neighborhood).

But he sure is pitching this desperate scramble by the banks in the best light!

Remember the Stress Tests?

The other day, I noted that Administration claims that they were helpless to affect what they now depict as loan servicers’ “sloppiness” but what really amounts to fraud ignores their decision to stop pushing for cramdown–and with it, leverage over the loan servicers.

I think (though I’m less sure of this) they’re ignoring one other source of leverage they once had over the servicers: the stress tests.

First, remember that the top servicers also happen to be the biggest banks. Here is Reuters’ list of the top loan servicers.

  • Bank of America (19.9%)
  • Wells Fargo (16.9%)
  • JPMorgan Chase (12.6%)
  • Citi (6.3%)
  • GMAC (3.2%)
  • US Bancorp (1.8%)
  • SunTrust (1.6%)
  • PHH Mortgage (1.4%)
  • OneWest (IndyMac) (1.4%)
  • PNC Financial Services (1.4%)

And here is the list the nineteen banks that had to undergo stress tests in 2009.

  • American Express
  • Bank of America
  • BB&T
  • Bank of New York Mellon
  • Capital One
  • Citigroup
  • Fifth Third
  • GMAC
  • Goldman Sachs
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • Key Corp
  • MetLife
  • Morgan Stanley
  • PNC Financial
  • Regions
  • State Street
  • SunTrust
  • U.S. Bancorp
  • Wells Fargo

So all of the top mortgage servicers–Bank of America, Wells, JP Morgan Chase, Citi, and even GMAC–had to undergo a stress test last year to prove their viability before the government would allow them to repay TARP funds and therefore operate without that government leverage–which was threatened to include limits on executive pay, lobbying, and government oversight of major actions–over their business. Significantly, all but JPMC were found to require additional capital.

Now, I’m not sure what I make of this. The stress tests were no great analytical tool in the first place. Moreover, the stress tests focused on whether the banks could withstand loan defaults given worsening economic conditions, not whether they could withstand financial obligations incurred because their servicing business amounted to sloppiness fraud.

But in letters between Liz Warren (as head of the TARP oversight board) and Tim Geithner in January and February 2009 discussed foreclosure modification, stress tests, and accountability for the use of TARP funds (Geithner made very specific promises about foreclosure modifications and refinancing which Treasury has failed to meet). And those discussions–and the stress tests–took place as COP reported on the problems with servicer incentives, servicer staffing and oversight, and the lack of regulation of servicers more generally (the COP report came out March 6, 2009; the stress test results were announced May 7, 2009). So at the same time as the Administration was officially learning of problems with servicers, it was also giving those servicers’ bank holding companies a dubious clean bill of health. And with it, beginning to let go of one of the biggest pieces of leverage the government had over those servicers.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to think of any relationship between the stress tests and the servicer part of these banks’ business. Rortybomb has an important post examining how this foreclosure crisis may go systemic. If it does, these same banks that eighteen months ago promised the government they could withstand whatever the market would bring will be claiming no one could have foreseen that they’d be held liable for their fraudulent servicing practices. Ideally, we would have identified this as a systemic risk eighteen months ago, and based on that refused to let the big servicers out of their obligations (which would have provided the needed incentive for the servicers not only to treat homeowners well, but to modify loans). Had the stress tests included a real look at these banks’ servicing business, these banks might not have been declared healthy.

Remember Cramdown?

Remember cramdown? It was a proposed change to bankruptcy law that would have allowed judges to modify the mortgages on primary homes for people entering bankruptcy. Supporters of the change argued that cramdown would provide an important stick to force lenders into modifying loans–and in so doing help millions of people stay in their homes. Here’s how DDay described the thinking behind the House cramdown legislation that passed in March 2009.

Under the proposal, the banks would be allowed to work out their terms with borrowers first, before resorting to a bankruptcy judge. This is how it worked in the House version of cramdown, which passed in March 2009; the homeowner had to negotiate a voluntary loan mod with the lender before going to the bankruptcy judge. And this may have worked, but only because, for the servicers, cramdown would have loomed in the background as a big stick, forcing a negotiation with a level playing field for the borrower.

In other words, cramdown was meant to give homeowners and the government leverage over servicers and lenders to voluntarily modify mortgages.

I ask whether you remember cramdown, because it doesn’t show up in this WaPo story at all. The WaPo allows some anonymous administration officials to claim they couldn’t do anything about the abuses now being exposed in the foreclosure process because they wanted servicers’ voluntary help on modification programs (basically, the famously unsuccessful HAMP).

In an interview this week, a senior administration official confirmed that the White House and Treasury Department had received warnings that the mortgage industry employed inexperienced staffers to oversee foreclosures, had problems handling documents and communicating with borrowers, and often failed to comply with regulations.

But the government had struggled to address shortcomings in the industry, the official said, because the administration was also seeking the servicers’ help with modifying the home loans of millions of borrowers to help them avoid foreclosure.

In addition, a Treasury official said the federal government’s power to tackle problems in the servicer industry is limited because foreclosure law is largely the domain of states.

Both officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record but were providing the administration’s views on the matter, said problems in the foreclosure process were largely the result of mortgage servicers being overwhelmed.

The massive foreclosure fraud that is about to seize up the economy again wasn’t the Administration’s fault, these anonymous sources want you to know, because they couldn’t do anything about it when they first got warning of it. Oh, and the servicers aren’t engaged in fraud, these anonymous sources want you to know, they’re just overwhelmed (never mind that if they’re overwhelmed, it’s partly because they refuse to hire enough people to do foreclosures right, presumably because that would hurt profitability).

Key to this story of the Administration’s helplessness is the claim that the only tool they had to get servicers to modify loans was the servicers’ good will. Basically, they’re saying that they had to let the servicers (who are also some of the biggest banks) engage in what amounts to fraud, because it was the only way they had to get servicers to participate in HAMP.

Setting aside the fact that a relative handful of people have actually gotten modifications under HAMP (which suggests the Administration was willing to overlook the problems they knew existed in the foreclosure process in exchange for helping just a few people), the claim that allowing those problems to remain was the only way to get banks to participate in HAMP is simply not true.

Or it didn’t have to be.

Back in July 2009, when the Administration was sitting on its hands as cramdown failed in the Senate and as Dick Durbin was observing that the banks own the Senate, the Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability, Herb Allison, testified to Congress that the Administration had all the tools it needed to slow the flood of foreclosures.

As housing foreclosures top the 1.5-million mark this year, the Obama administration has openly abandoned cramdown as a strategy for tackling the crisis.

That approach — which would empower homeowners to avoid foreclosure through bankruptcy — was once a central element of the administration’s plans to stabilize the volatile housing market. Some financial analysts say the strategy would prevent 20 percent of all foreclosures. But, appearing before a Senate panel Thursday, two White House officials said that current policies are enough to address the problem.

“We have enough tools,” Herbert Allison, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for financial stability, told members of the Senate Banking Committee. “The challenge is to roll them out.” The tools Allison invoked are several federal programs that offer financial incentives to mortgage lenders and servicers — the companies that buy the rights to manage loans — to modify the terms of mortgages in efforts to help homeowners escape foreclosure.

Fifteen months ago, according to the Assistant Treasury Secretary, the Administration had all the tools it needed. Now, as the problem of foreclosure fraud is about to explode, a Treasury official and a senior Administration official claim they didn’t have the right tools, they were helpless.

Now, you can argue whether the Administration would have ever been able to get Bad Nelson and Mary Landrieu to vote for cramdown (me, I sort of think comments like Allison’s and Obama’s silence gave the Senators cover to screw homeowners).

But you can’t argue one point: after fifteen months of trusting banksters to do the right thing for homeowners hasn’t worked out so well, the Administration is changing its story about whether it needed more tools to motivate those banksters.

Obama Has Made Civil Liberties AND Foreclosures Worse

Greg Sargent and Steve Benen have interesting taxonomies of the Democrats who should buck up and clap louder. I think both bring some needed nuance to the discussion. As part of that, both include some kind of category of lefties who oppose Obama to defend important principles. Sargent doesn’t limit that category to any one policy issue.

The second group on the left constitutes high-profile commentators, such as Rachel Maddow and Glenn Greenwald, who are mounting a detailed, substantive policy critique of the Obama administration on issues that are important to them. These folks see their role as advocates for a particular policy agenda, and they don’t hesitate to whack the White House when it commits what they see as grave policy missteps. For them to hold their fire because the White House wants them to would be an unthinkable betrayal of the role they’ve carved out for themselves. This is the “professional left” Robert Gibbs sneeringly alluded to — even though Obama himself has said he craves such criticism.

But Benen does (and he cites a Kevin Drum post in the same vein):

Kevin Drum notes, “If you’re, say, Glenn Greenwald, I wouldn’t expect you to buy Obama’s defense at all. All of us have multiple interests, but if your primary concern is with civil liberties and the national security state, then the problem isn’t that Obama hasn’t done enough, it’s that his policies have been actively damaging. There’s just no reason why you should be especially excited about either his administration or the continuation of the Democratic Party in power.”

Right. Glenn not only has a legitimate beef, I honestly can’t think of anyone who’s offered a persuasive argument to counter Glenn’s criticism. I don’t know, however, how large a group of voters we’re talking about that disapproves of the president based primarily (but not exclusively) on concerns over the national security state.

I’d argue that if Glenn’s contingent represents one group of the disaffected, the other two general groups of center-left critics are (2) those who believe the president’s accomplishments have been inadequate; and (3) those who are struggling badly in this economy, and expected conditions to be better than they are under Obama.

And note that both Benen and Drum make a clear distinction between those (like Glenn, and I assume they’d include me in that camp) have a legitimate gripe, and those who are unhappy with the state of the economy.

I disagree with their argument–that Obama could not really have done much more with the economy–but I think they present it in good faith.

But on one area, their claim that Obama couldn’t do more is absolutely false: on foreclosures.

The Administration has had no requirement to get Congress’ approval for their HAMP program. They have the money sitting, unused, at Treasury. Yet long after it became clear that HAMP was not only not helping, but was actually making things worse, after it became clear that other restructuring programs were much more successful, the Administration made little more than tweaks to the program. And then, as the number of people actually harmed by HAMP piled up, they claimed that the program had succeeded because it helped them get away (thus far) with the Extend and Pretend strategy.

But that introduces another problem with the taxonomies that make a distinction between those with a real gripe and those unfairly holding Obama responsible because the economy has not gotten better.

The failure to do something effective to prevent foreclosures–that is, being satisfied that HAMP helped Extend and Pretend rather than making a sustained effort to help actual homeowners stay in their homes–has made the economy worse. That’s by no means the biggest cause of the ongoing crappiness of the economy. But it is one cause.

So even if you buy the argument that Obama couldn’t have gotten more stimulus passed, even if you forgive Larry Summers for his “insurance policy,” and even if you ignore Obama’s decision to renominate Helicopter Ben in spite of his unwillingness to do anything about the full employment part of his job description, you still have to give Obama some of the blame for the economy. Middle class homeowners all over the country are seeing their home values continue to fall, and that’s something that the Administration could have at least tried to alleviate.

But they didn’t.

Extend and Pretend about to Bite the Banksters in the Butt

I would be laughing my ass off at this if I weren’t about to put my home on the market for what the house next door sold as a foreclosure several years ago. (h/t CR)

By postponing the date at which they lock in losses, banks and other investors positioned themselves to benefit from the slow mending of the real estate market. But now industry executives are questioning whether delaying foreclosures — a strategy contrary to the industry adage that “the first loss is the best loss” — is about to backfire. With home prices expected to fall as much as 10% further, the refusal to foreclose quickly on and sell distressed homes at inventory-clearing prices may be contributing to the stall of the overall market seen in July sales data. It also may increase the likelihood of more strategic defaults.


Some servicing executives acknowledged that stalling on foreclosures will cause worse pain in the future — and that the reckoning may be almost here.

“The industry as a whole got into a panic mode and was worried about all these loans going into foreclosure and driving prices down, so they got all these programs, started Hamp and internal mods and short sales,” said John Marecki, vice president of East Coast foreclosure operations for Prommis Solutions, an Atlanta company that provides foreclosure processing services. Until recently, he was senior vice president of default administration at Flagstar Bank in Troy, Mich. “Now they’re looking at this, how they held off and they’re getting to the point where maybe they made a mistake in that realm.”

Extend and pretend always assumed that at some point things would start turning around. But since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, this is like death by a thousand cuts.

To both the banksters and homeowners.

What no one seems to be honestly accounting for is the degree to which this process contributes to weighing the economy down.

Take a look at this graphic. It’s a version of a graphic that has gotten a lot of play over the last year showing the growth in unemployment rates over time across the country. But this one adds foreclosures and bankruptcy. While it still doesn’t show what I think needs to be shown, it does at least show how foreclosures preceded unemployment in the housing bubble states (as opposed to the Mid-West, where unemployment led to foreclosures). Some of the foreclosure-driven unemployment came through the collapse of the building industry. But as more and more people get stuck in houses, particularly as foreclosures drive down the price of real estate and therefore strand even those who have kept up with their mortgages, it leads to a whole lot less mobility which in turn leads to extended unemployment.

It sucks to sell a house for foreclosure level prices. But I’m very, very grateful we can do even that, because it means we’re able to move to a new job. But I’m acutely aware we’re paying this price because of a failed policy, one which tried to make homeowners bear all the cost for the shared mistakes of the banksters and the creditors.

So, yeah, in the not too distant future banksters are going to have to unload their shadow inventory and they’ll end up taking even bigger hits on their balance sheets than if they had not been pretending to be solvent all this time. But unfortunately, all homeowners are going to feel the pain as well.

I suspect this looming problem might finally convince the MOTUs at Treasury that they have to implement a policy that works this time–for both banksters and the homeowners.

“We the Parasites” Benefiting from HAMP

You’ve probably already read DDay’s and Atrios’s pieces on what some Treasury officials admitted about HAMP the other day. But partly because I want to link to this really comprehensive account of the entire meeting and partly because I want to elaborate on a point made in it, I thought I’d join in.

Basically, at some blogger chats last week, some folks at Treasury judged that, in spite of the catastrophic failure of HAMP to achieve its stated purpose–to help homeowners stay in homes either bought during a bubble or refinanced at a time when lending standards had been all but eliminated–it was still a good thing because it gave the banksters some time to recover from their catastrophic investment in the shitpile.

On HAMP, officials were surprisingly candid. The program has gotten a lot of bad press in terms of its Kafka-esque qualification process and its limited success in generating mortgage modifications under which families become able and willing to pay their debt. Officials pointed out that what may have been an agonizing process for individuals was a useful palliative for the system as a whole. Even if most HAMP applicants ultimately default, the program prevented an outbreak of foreclosures exactly when the system could have handled it least. There were murmurs among the bloggers of “extend and pretend”, but I don’t think that’s quite right. This was extend-and-don’t-even-bother-to-pretend. The program was successful in the sense that it kept the patient alive until it had begun to heal. And the patient of this metaphor was not a struggling homeowner, but the financial system, a.k.a. the banks. Policymakers openly judged HAMP to be a qualified success because it helped banks muddle through what might have been a fatal shock. I believe these policymakers conflate, in full sincerity, incumbent financial institutions with “the system”, “the economy”, and “ordinary Americans”. Treasury officials are not cruel people. I’m sure they would have preferred if the program had worked out better for homeowners as well. But they have larger concerns, and from their perspective, HAMP has helped to address those.

As these revelations about Treasury’s self-congratulation on HAMP have come out, I keep thinking of the word “parasite.” The folks we pay to keep our financial system running for the good of the citizens of the United States are unabashedly celebrating that they’ve made individual families’ lives more miserable because the banks–who while SCOTUS may treat them as people are not actually part of the “We the people” originally envisioned by the Constitution–will have time to recover from their own damn mistakes.

Our government is happy–not from the pain of the families, per se–but because a bunch of artificial entities that seem to have replaced “we the people” as those who will receive  “general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” from our government will be better off.

The guys in charge of our economy actually seem incapable of understanding who they work for–not to mention the additional problems their “qualified success” will cause. (What happens in a decade when large numbers of middle class kids can’t go to college because the government decided it was okay to subject their families to more misery during a foreclosure?)

Or, they don’t give a shit that this program asks homeowners to pay over and over for their mistakes, all to make sure the banksters never have to pay for their own.

Which is the other problem with this attitude. The alternative to HAMP, of course, is cram-down, in which the banksters have to cut the principle owed to them to what was probably more realistic value in the first place. Every time cram-down gets dismissed, the person dismissing it as an option mobilizes the language of morality, the need to make homeowners pay for buying more home than they could afford (assuming, always, they haven’t been laid off because the banksters ruined the economy or run into medical debt). But there seems to be no language of morality to describe the price banksters should have to pay by failing to do any real due diligence on loans or for accepting transparently bogus assessments of value. Heck, even the banksters get the equivalent of cram-down without a big morality play.

Treasury’s attitude about HAMP is not just evidence they’ve lost all track of who they work for and where the benefits of the economy are supposed to be delivered, but it also suggests that these Treasury folks have lost the most basic notion of capitalism, that if businessmen never pay for bad decisions, they’ll continue to make bad decisions.

And meanwhile, a whole bunch of “we the people” will be worse off because of the really twisted sense of purpose held by the folks working for “we the people.”