Are Victims of Mortgage Lender Fraud about to get their Justice?

The DOJ has filed a lawsuit against BOA on so-called “hustle mortgages” that accuses the lender of selling bad mortgages to Fannie and Freddie.  I’m going to follow this, believe me, because it represents a ‘big deal’ for any one that does research in banking, lending, or moral hazard.  I’m not a lawyer–nor do I play one on TV–so the finer parts of the law are not in my knowledge ballpark. I do have some knowledge of home value through the apprenticeship I did with a home appraisal service.  However, I expect this to influence both lending behavior and the willingness of larger banks to merge with banks in bad shape.  The latter is a trick used by regulators to deal with a problem bank.  Bank of America is basically being sued over mortgages originated through a Countrywide program called the “hustle mortgage”.  It supposedly continued the program after its merger to Countrywide.

This is the first civil fraud suit brought by the Department of Justice concerning mortgage loans sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “For the sixth time in less than 18 months, this Office has been compelled to sue a major U.S. bank for reckless mortgage practices in the lead-up to the financial crisis. The fraudulent conduct alleged in today’s complaint was spectacularly brazen in scope. As alleged, through a program aptly named ‘the Hustle,’ Countrywide and Bank of America made disastrously bad loans and stuck taxpayers with the bill. As described, Countrywide and Bank of America systematically removed every check in favor of its own balance – they cast aside underwriters, eliminated quality controls, incentivized unqualified personnel to cut corners, and concealed the resulting defects. These toxic products were then sold to the government sponsored enterprises as good loans. This lawsuit should send another clear message that reckless lending practices will not be tolerated.”

FHFA Inspector General Steve A. Linick said: “To prevent fraud, conducting quality reviews and complying with underwriting standards are critical. Countrywide and Bank of America allegedly engaged in fraudulent behavior that contributed to the financial crisis, which ultimately falls on the shoulders of taxpayers. This type of conduct is reprehensible and we are proud to work with our law enforcement partners to hold all parties accountable.”

SIGTARP Special Inspector General Christy Romero said: “The complaint filed today alleges serious and significant misrepresentations that Bank of America made before and during the time taxpayers invested $45 billion in TARP funds in the bank. SIGTARP and its law enforcement partners will investigate allegations of wrongdoing by TARP recipients, particularly conduct that results in substantial losses to the government and taxpayers.”

Are we beginning to see the DOJ move on the banksters?  Has this got anything to do with the stampeded to Romney by all things Wall Street?

The Bank of America lawsuit is the sixth brought against a major U.S. bank by the Justice Department in less than 18 months over what Bharara called “reckless mortgage practices in the lead-up to the financial crisis.”

This month, the government sued Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), one of the biggest mortgage lenders and service, over claims the San Francisco-based bank made reckless loans that caused losses for a federal insurance program when they defaulted. The complaint alleges misconduct over more than a decade related to the bank’s participation in a Federal Housing Administration program and follows similar cases against other lenders including Citigroup Inc. (C) and Deutsche Bank AG. (DB)

A state and federal task force is investigating misconduct in the bundling of mortgage loans into securities before the housing bust. The group’s first legal action was this month, when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), the biggest U.S. lender, over defective mortgage loans underlying securities, a suit he said would act as a template for other such cases. The bank has denied wrongdoing.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac losses totaled more than $1 billion, Bharara said. The Justice Department’s complaint was brought under the federal False Claims Act, which allows for triple damages.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have operated under U.S. conservatorship since 2008, when they were seized amid subprime mortgage losses that pushed them toward insolvency.

“Bank of America has stepped up and acted responsibly to resolve legacy mortgage matters,” Larry DiRita, a spokesman for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company, said in an e-mailed statement. “The claim that we have failed to repurchase loans from Fannie Mae is simply false. At some point, Bank of America can’t be expected to compensate every entity that claims losses that actually were caused by the economic downturn.”

The government said in the complaint that Bank of America “systematically removed every check” in the issuance of mortgages and then sold the “flawed” mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both relied on Bank of America’s assurances that the mortgages they purchased complied with their standards, the U.S. said.

According to the complaint, Countrywide initiated “the Hustle” in 2007 just as mortgage loan defaults were increasing nationally and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were tightening their loan purchasing standards to reduce risk. The Countrywide program did just the opposite, the U.S. said.

This suit is based on information from a whistle blower and has been in the works since February.

According to court records, Wednesday’s case was originally filed under seal in February by Edward O’Donnell, a Pennsylvania resident and former executive vice president at Countrywide Home Loans who had worked there between 2003 and 2009.

In that complaint, O’Donnell said Countrywide and later Bank of America dismissed his “numerous” objections to the Hustle, and that he became “one of the lone voices” in his division pointing to escalating loan quality issues and defaults.

O’Donnell could not immediately be reached for comment, and his lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Grab your bowl of popcorn.  This should be interesting.

Back to the Roots of the Problem (cross-posted at The Confluence)

I feel a strong need to remind people at this time of the roots of this financial crisis. They are not found beneath Wall Street, but in Washington, D.C. with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and the senators and congressman that empowered them.  

The beginning of this crisis was the subprime mortgage market and the loose underwriting standards encouraged by FNMA and FHMLC on mortgage loans.  Fannie (FNMA) and Freddie (FHLMC) are involved with about half of the mortgage loan originations in that market.  Loose standards were set up to expand home ownership to folks who couldn’t pay home loans back and to improve the odds of high compensation for its CEOs.  Before any bail-out, rescue, or whatever you want to call it,  regulation has to be put in place to STOP this from happening again.  It’s really a nice social goal to increase the level of minority ownership in the country and to move the poor into homes of their own, but you can’t force it by giving folks loans they are not prepared to handle.  The House and Senate Democrats, and specifically the Black Caucus, are squarely behind this problem.  It is folks like Chris Dodd and Barack Obama–folks expected to clean up this mess–that were the beneficiaries of Fannie and Freddie largess that created very poor public policy and lack of regulation that led to this problem.

Wall Street did buy up these loans up after they were “packaged” into securities by Freddie and Fannie.  Freddie and Fannie bonds have been assumed to be nearly as safe as Treasury bonds so no one figured there were these toxic loans stuck into the mix.  Banks are also allowed to invest in Fannie and Freddie bonds.  They can’t invest in really risky assets like equities.  Who would have thought that Fannie and Freddie would be so poorly run that what they were investing in, what they were originating and selling to Fannie and Freddie, and what was being put together by Fannie and Freddie, would be so risky as to send their capital into regulator  panicking levels?   Ask Jim Johnson.  Ask Franklin Reines.  Ask Barack Obama and the Black Caucus.  They felt prudent underwriting was basically discriminatory and worked hard to change banks into speculators.

Here’s some examples:

Credit History: Lack of credit history should not be seen as a negative factor…. In reviewing past credit problems, lenders should be willing to consider extenuating circumstances. For lower–income applicants in particular, unforeseen expenses can have a disproportionate effect on an otherwise positive credit record. In these instances, paying off past bad debts or establishing a regular repayment schedule with creditors may demonstrate a willingness and ability to resolve debts….

If you’d like to know more about the loosening of standards,  here’s a really good study to check out:

Recently, there were an entirely inexcusable number of underwriting lapses allowed and in fact, encouraged  by Fannie and Freddie (including spurious sources of income and no down payments) that increased the demand for housing by allowing people that should not have been in the housing market, into the housing market.  This drove up prices and led to the bubble and increasing speculation.  Once it became apparent, that there was increasing risk popping up in mortgages,  the financial innovations of derivatives (Wall Street enters now) popped up to help banks manage the risk and pass them on to folk supposedly more able handle the risk.  These things were supposed to act as insurance and were valued based on the idea that traditional Fannie and Freddie were very risk-free and there was implied government oversight, regulation, and back-up.

It is no wonder that the FBI is now looking at Fannie and Freddie.  It should also look at the democratic appointees and the senators and congressman that enabled them.  When credible economist like Greg Mankiw came to the senate and congressional committees to warn of this problem in 2003, folks like Barney Frank yelled at him for worrying more about safety and soundness rather than housing for the little guy.  The Wall Street Journal was all over this back then.

This is the same Barney Frank that is bloviating and stomping his foot about the inability of House Republicans to get with his program.  Well, Congressman, it was your program that put us in this position to begin with so why would we trust you now?

House and Senate Democrats also had a chance in 2005 to increase oversight and regulation of Fannie and Freddie.  John McCain was a co-sponsor of this bill called Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005.  At the time McMcain made this comment that seems almost psychic now.

“If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole.”

You know how Senator Obama is going around saying the Bush administration is the one that hates regulation and led to this?  As a professional economist and Puma, may I just say this: liar, liar pants on fire!

 WASHINGTON – Treasury Secretary John Snow urged Congress to restrain Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, giving the Bush administration’s blessing to efforts to create a new regulator with broad power over the huge mortgage companies.

If you read the article, you’ll see that Allan Greenspan was also in front of congress and the senate begging for more oversight.

More from that article:

“The statements by Greenspan and Snow lent support to a new effort by Republican lawmakers to tighten controls on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which hold or guarantee more than 45 percent of all mortgage loans in the country. Legislation recently proposed would set up a regulatory agency with the power to compel the companies to sell off any assets deemed not to be in line with their mission of making homeownership more widely available.

Notice the guarantee point.  Wall Street and Banks rely on these instruments to be low risk basically because of that guarantee.  This includes AIG and all the investment banks that just crashed.  They undervalued the risk on these instruments because of the implicit guarantee.

My point here?  Congressional republicans (who I usually find a source of great evil) are NOT the bad guys here for once.  They tried but were told they were racist and that they hated poor people if they didn’t go along with the plan of extending house loans to people that basically could not afford them.  Most of the blame for this financial crisis belongs squarely in Washington and the Democrats are relying on our extremely short memories.  Since all of this comes under my teaching and research responsibilities, I cannot have a short memory. The MSM should start asking Biden, Obama, Frank, and Dodd some very tough questions.  First Questions?  Why didn’t you support regulating Fannie and Freddie back before all of this snowballed into a financial crisis?  Why are you now saying that you always supported more oversight and regulation and Republicans and the Bush Administration did not when the record clearly shows it was the opposite?

I’d like to suggest one of the first CEOs to turn back his salary and face the FBI is Franklin Raines.

He turned Fannie Mae into a mortgage factory to get higher bonuses and was investigated for cooking the books.  He is undoubtedly one of the folks that has interested the FBI.  Another person is Jim Johnson. (You’ll recognize these names because they are both Obama friends and advisors).

In late 2004, Fannie Mae was under investigation for its accounting practices. The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight released a report  on September 20, 2004, alleging widespread accounting errors, including shifting of losses so Raines and others could earn bonuses.

In June 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that two former CEOs of Fannie Mae, James A. Johnson (1991-1998) and Franklin Raines (1999-2004) had received loans below market rate from Countrywide Financial. Fannie Mae was the biggest buyer of Countrywide’s mortgages.  Don’t forget the three biggest recipient of FNMA money are Dodd, Kerry, and Obama. Dodd also appears to have a sweetheart mortgage deal.  The Democrats are not the white knights in this mess.  They would probably like to get this deal through as quickly as possible so voters do not find out that the bailout is not just a Wall Street Mess.  It is a K Street and Washington-created mess.  There is plenty of blame and greed to go around.

The very same people that created this mess are the ones writing the terms of the bail-out.  Be afraid!  Be very afraid!  I never put a steak on the kitchen counter and leave the dog alone in the room with it.  I would not leave the U.S. economy in the hands of these folks who are deciding the fineprint in a room with closed doors either.