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Just when you thought Wall Street couldn’t defraud the economy any further, it went ahead and did it. After pushing millions of borrowers into foreclosure with fraudulent loans, big banks are now being implicated in a massive new fraud scandal involving the foreclosure process itself. All over the country, banks and their lawyers are resorting to outright fraud in order to kick people out of their homes and slap them with huge, illegal fees. It may be the biggest scandal of the entire financial crisis, one that could result in epic losses for the nation’s largest banks.

We’ve been hearing for years about the horrific mortgages bankers pushed borrowers into, the outrageous scams they deployed in dumping these mortgages on investors, and the lies they told to their own shareholders about those mortgages in order to boost bonuses. Fraud was a major part of this machine at every stage of production, but the foreclosure fraud being uncovered by lawyers today appears to be the broadest scandal to emerge from the mortgage mess thus far.

Yves Smith has done an outstanding job covering this scandal, so be sure to check out her posts for all the details, but here’s the basic story: Banks intentionally skimped on their mortgage paperwork during the housing bubble—it cut their costs and made the sale of mortgage-backed securities more profitable. A basic, standardized part of the mortgage process at many banks included forging or destroying key documents, or never bothering to write them up in the first place. Those reckless procedures have been applied to millions of mortgages issued over the past decade, and allowed inflated bonus checks to be written for years. But things are about to get very ugly for the banks.

Mortgage documentation has been so shoddy that banks can’t actually prove that they own the mortgages they want to foreclose on. This isn’t a small scandal, it isn’t a minor clerical issue, and it isn’t a problem that banks deserve help from taxpayers to solve. Wall Street has simply not performed the basic tasks necessary to track ownership of its assets. Imagine a car manufacturer being unable to document the sale of automobiles. The basic business has broken.

If banks can’t prove that they have the right to foreclose, they’re not allowed to foreclose. The borrower gets to keep the house—even if he or she has stopped making payments on the mortgage. So banks—and the scummy law firms they hire—are resorting to all kinds of new tricks in order to foreclose (see Andy Kroll’s excellent article detailing the sharks who operate these law firms). They’re creating new documents, forging signatures and lying to judges. This is all fraud.

And this fraud doesn’t only help banks cut costs—it also enables lawyers to slap troubled borrowers with huge, illegal fees, squeezing them for money even after they’ve been tapped out on mortgage payments. If you can’t pay the foreclosure fees in court, debt collectors will chase you down and garnish your wages for years to come. These are massive fees—tens of thousands of dollars assessed on individual families for the luxury of being booted out of their home, all made possible by fraudulent documents, forged paperwork, and straightforward lies.

The ownership chain for mortgages is so complex—one bank issues a loan, which is sliced and diced into multiple mortgage-backed securities and sold to multiple investors—that the right to foreclose is not clear without precise and meticulous paperwork. If banks don’t keep these records, there is no way for them to prove the losses or profits they make from a given loan.

Banks can’t even keep track of what houses they actually have the right to foreclose on. In addition to slipping illegal fees into the mix, the financial establishment is slamming incorrect foreclosures through the legal pipeline. Banks are actually kicking people out of homes who have been paying their mortgages on time. In some cases, they’re even evicting borrowers who have already paid off their loan.

When banks can’t get the documents they want, they resort to still more drastic measures. Banks are violating the law by physically breaking into peoples’ homes, stealing their belongings and changing the locks. Add breaking and entering and larceny to the list of crimes committed by banks in the foreclosure process.

This scandal ought to put people behind bars. When somebody breaks into your home and steals your stuff, he goes to jail. But it also creates very serious problems for the entire financial system—if banks can’t prove they own mortgages, how can we trust their quarterly earnings statements? How can the bonuses based on those earnings be justified?

In other words, the inhumane and illegal way banks have treated their borrowers is only part of the fraud scandal Wall Street now faces. There is also the makings of a massive corporate accounting scandal—one that easily rivals Enron and WorldComm in its scope.

GMAC, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase—three of the largest mortgage servicers in the nation—have already frozen foreclosures in 23 states. These are the states in which banks must obtain a court order to proceed with a foreclosure, but there is every reason to suspect that the same illegal practices are occurring in other states. Shoddy documentation has been a standardized element of the mortgage process for years—it has just been easier to prove this malfeasance in states that require courts to sign-off on foreclosures.

When housing prices are in decline, banks lose money on foreclosures. Today, the average loss on a foreclosed subprime or Alt-A mortgage is about 63 percent, according to data analyzed by Valparaiso University Law Professor Alan White. But if banks can’t actually take over the home, a foreclosure is far worse for the bank—it can’t cut its losses on an unpaid loan by seizing the house and selling it. If borrowers assert their rights, and courts uphold the law, some of the nation’s largest banks are about to take massive, unexpected losses.

That fact—combined with the prospect of shareholder lawsuits over improper accounting—should radically change the landscape for foreclosure relief and broader financial reform. Most banks cannot afford to go to zero on every mortgage they own from the housing bubble. If troubled borrowers stand up to their banks, the resulting losses could easily jeopardize the solvency of some major firms. This gives reformers and policymakers a critical tool to demand stronger medicine for Wall Street: Give us real reform, or we’ll let you go under.

Lock ’em up, then break ’em up.

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