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How Hillary Helped Banks Foreclose on 5 Million Families

Let me be clear at the outset: I think what follows is a bullshit argument. But I think it is less unfair of an argument than Hillary’s claim that, by voting to withhold the second tranche of TARP funding on January 15, 2009, Bernie Sanders voted against the auto bailout.

As you’ll recall, in October 2008, the Bush Administration threw some vaguely laid out plans on some cocktail napkins over the wall to Congress and got it to release $700 billion dollars to bail out the banks. Between the time the new Congress got sworn in but before Obama became President, Republicans in the Senate wrote a bill to withhold the second tranche, or $350 billion, of those funds. In the days before the vote, Larry Summers threw two more cocktail napkins of promises to Congress. Bernie was one of seven Democrats who voted not to release the funds based on a series of what were effectively ideas on cocktail napkins.

One of the things on those cocktail napkins, though, was a promise from the Obama Administration that actual human persons facing a crisis, rather than just banks, would get some of the second tranche of money.

The Obama Administration will commit substantial resources of $50-100B to a sweeping effort to address the foreclosure crisis.  We will implement smart, aggressive policies to reduce the number of preventable foreclosures by helping to reduce mortgage payments for economically stressed but responsible homeowners, while also reforming our bankruptcy laws and strengthening existing housing initiatives like Hope for Homeowners. Banks receiving support under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act will be required to implement mortgage foreclosure mitigation programs.

Of course, it was just a cocktail napkin, and by voting to release the funds without tying them to actual legislation requiring the Administration actually use the funds in a such a way as to help homeowners, Hillary — and all the other Democrats who voted to give their new President funds without real limits on how they could spend it — gave away any leverage they had to actually force the Administration to implement such a plan.

Last year David Dayen described how the Administration not only never spent $50 billion — they only ever spent $12.8 billion — but the number of people helped was far lower than promised, and most people “helped” actually weren’t helped at all.

On January 15, 2009, Obama’s chief economic policy adviser, Larry Summers, wrote to convince Congress to release the second tranche of TARP funds, promising that the incoming administration would “commit $50-$100 billion to a sweeping effort to address the foreclosure crisis … while also reforming our bankruptcy laws.” But the February 2009 stimulus package, another opportunity to legislate mortgage relief, did not include the bankruptcy remedy either; at the time, the new administration wanted a strong bipartisan vote for a fiscal rescue, and decided to neglect potentially divisive issues. Having squandered the must-pass bills to which it could have been attached, a cramdown amendment to a housing bill failed in April 2009, receiving only 45 Senate votes.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who had offered the amendment, condemned Congress, declaring that the banks “frankly own the place.” In fact, the administration had actively lobbied Congress against the best chances for cramdown’s passage, and was not particularly supportive when it came up for a vote, worrying about the impacts on bank balance sheets. Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner admitted in his recent book, “I didn’t think cramdown was a particularly wise or effective strategy.” In other words, to get the bailout money, the economic team effectively lied to Congress when it promised to support cramdown.

[snip]

According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, 64 percent of all applications for loan modifications were denied. Employees at Bank of America’s mortgage servicing unit offered perhaps the most damning revelations into servicer conduct. In a class-action lawsuit, these employees testified that they were told to lie to homeowners, deliberately misplace their documents, and deny loan modifications without explaining why. For their efforts, managers rewarded them with bonuses—in the form of Target gift cards—for pushing borrowers into foreclosure.

Because of all this, HAMP never came close to the 3–4 million modifications President Obama promised at its inception. As of August 2014, 1.4 million borrowers have obtained permanent loan modifications, but about 400,000 of them have already re-defaulted, a rate of about 30 percent. The oldest HAMP modifications have re-default rates as high as 46 percent.

Effectively, because Congress didn’t force the Administration to adopt cramdown (which would have resulted in real modifications which would have mean more people kept their homes and didn’t lose their wealth), Treasury could instead use the promise to “foam the runways” to help the banks string out losses and therefore avoid accountability for their recklessness.

This was a direct result of voting to give the Executive continued free rein on what to do with massive amounts of bailout money. So was bailing out the car industry, but the vote in January was primarily about whether to continue letting the Executive spend billions without clear guidelines.

So Hillary, according to her own logic, voted to help banks foreclose on 5 million people, which resulted in a tragic loss of wealth for American families.

Again, I think this is a bullshit argument. I assume Hillary intended to get real foreclosure relief (indeed, one domestic policy on which she was better than Obama in 2008 did just that). Though for someone who claims to know how to “get things done,” she showed no awareness of how to do that here. Nevertheless, it is the kind of bullshit argument she is making.

And having gone there — having permitted herself to engage in this kind of bullshit argument — she makes such arguments fair game for Donald Trump to make about her in June.

Ultimately, I think this vote was about whether the Executive should be able to operate without real limits. Bernie voted against that, Hillary voted for it (which makes it similar, in many ways, to the Iraq War vote in 2003, and had equally foreseeably bad results). Hillary will never make such votes for freeing the Executive of meaningful restraints again. But it’s pretty clear she’s a fan of letting the Executive operate without them.

That, to me, is the meaningful, non-bullshit, takeaway from that vote.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

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.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.