While the US government touted its “record” settlement reached this week with Bank of America for mortgage fraud that helped fuel the 2008 recession, the details of the agreement indicate yet another light punishment for an offending Wall Street titan.
Bank of America agreed to a $16.65 billion settlement with federal authorities for selling toxic mortgages and misleading investors, the US Justice Department announced Thursday.
“This historic resolution – the largest such settlement on record – goes far beyond ‘the cost of doing business,’” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
“Under the terms of this settlement, the bank has agreed to pay $7 billion in relief to struggling homeowners, borrowers, and communities affected by the bank’s conduct. This is appropriate given the size and scope of the wrongdoing at issue,” Holder added.
Yet the $7 billion in “relief” is considered a “soft money” fine, in which the bank will reduce some homeowners’ mortgages. Very few homeowners are eligible for the refinancing pursuant to the settlement, AP reported. Those who are eligible may need to wait years to see any settlement aid, as payouts will be ongoing through 2018.
Those already in the hole following a lost home due to foreclosure or a short sale – when a lender takes less money for a home than what the borrower owes – are unlikely to benefit from the terms of the settlement.
Outside of the $7 billion for consumers, the Bank of America settlement includes a $5 billion cash penalty and $4.6 billion in remediation payments. Large portions of the deal will be eligible to claim as business expenses, allowing the mega bank to treat them as tax write-offs.
The Bank of America settlement includes the appointment of an independent monitor to review the consumer relief portion of the agreement. It is yet to be determined when the monitor will be named.
The deal echoes similar agreements the government reached with other Wall Street players, like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, for crimes committed surrounding the recent economic recession.
JPMorgan Chase came to a $13 billion settlement in November. The $4 billion supposedly offered to homeowner relief has yet to benefit many in need, according to the advocacy group Home Defenders League. Citigroup reached a $7 billion deal with the government.
Critics of these deals have blasted the US government for its ongoing, lax attitude regarding mass crimes committed by powerful banks that, they say, are not adequately punished for wrongdoing.
“[T]he latest round of settlements deals with misconduct that even though the banks are getting off on the cheap again, the underlying abuses don’t strike at the heart of the too big to fail mortgage securitization complex,” said Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.
“So the [Obama] Administration can feign being a little more bloody-minded. Even so, the greater and greater proportion in recent deals of funny money relative to real dough show that this is simply another variant of an exercise in optics.”
No major bank executive has faced criminal charges following the mortgage crisis. Without significant retribution for banks and executives that knowingly passed off fraudulent mortgages, Wall Street players will continue to act with impunity, argued Dean Baker, economist and director of the Center for Economic & Policy Research.
“Knowingly packaging and selling fraudulent mortgages is fraud. It is a serious crime that could be punished by years in jail,” Baker wrote. “The risk of jail time is likely to discourage bankers from engaging in this sort of behavior.”
William D. Cohan, a former senior mergers and acquisitions banker, wrote in the New York Times that, not only has the government barely punished those on the hook for Wall Street crimes, the Justice Department has also offered “sanitized” versions of events that led up to the crimes in its accounts given to the public following investigations.
“The American people are deprived of knowing precisely how bad things got inside these banks in the years leading up to the financial crisis, and the banks, knowing they will be saved the humiliation caused by the public airing of a trove of emails and documents, will no doubt soon be repeating their callous and indifferent behavior,” Cohan wrote.
Bank of America resisted the settlement at first, claiming nearly all bad mortgage securities under scrutiny came from Countrywide and Merrill Lynch. Both firms were purchased by Bank of America amid the 2008 financial crisis.
A federal judge in Manhattan ruled in a separate case that Bank of America was liable for the pre-merger mortgages, issuing a penalty of $1.3 billion. The ruling pushed the bank to agree to the settlement. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said Thursday that the deal is “in the best interests of our shareholders and allows us to continue to focus on the future.”
Meanwhile, consumers advocates said the faulty mortgages will continue to haunt homeowners and their own vision of the future.
“It is hard to see how these settlements provide relief commensurate with the harm caused,” said Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, according to AP. “Countless families and communities have been devastated by predatory loans that should not have been made.”
Following the Thursday announcement of the settlement, Bank of America’s stock rose more than 4 percent.
Jeff Olson, the 40-year-old man who is being prosecuted for scrawling anti-megabank messages on sidewalks in water-soluble chalk last year now faces a 13-year jail sentence. A judge has barred his attorney from mentioning freedom of speech during trial.
According to the San Diego Reader, which reported on Tuesday that a judge had opted to prevent Olson’s attorney from “mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial,” Olson must now stand trial for on 13 counts of vandalism.
In addition to possibly spending years in jail, Olson will also be held liable for fines of up to $13,000 over the anti-big-bank slogans that were left using washable children’s chalk on a sidewalk outside of three San Diego, California branches of Bank of America, the massive conglomerate that received $45 billion in interest-free loans from the US government in 2008-2009 in a bid to keep it solvent after bad bets went south.
The Reader reports that Olson’s hearing had gone as poorly as his attorney might have expected, with Judge Howard Shore, who is presiding over the case, granting Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard’s motion to prohibit attorney Tom Tosdal from mentioning the United States’ fundamental First Amendment rights.
“The State’s Vandalism Statute does not mention First Amendment rights,” ruled Judge Shore on Tuesday.
Upon exiting the courtroom Olson seemed to be in disbelief.
“Oh my gosh,” he said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Tosdal, who exited the courtroom shortly after his client, seemed equally bewildered.
“I’ve never heard that before, that a court can prohibit an argument of First Amendment rights,” said Tosdal.
Olson, who worked as a former staffer for a US Senator from Washington state, was said to involve himself in political activism in tandem with the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On October 3, 2011, Olson first appeared outside of a Bank of America branch in San Diego, along with a homemade sign. Eight days later Olson and his partner, Stephen Daniels, during preparations for National Bank Transfer Day, the two were confronted by Darell Freeman, the Vice President of Bank of America’s Global Corporate Security.
A former police officer, Freeman accused Olson and Daniels of “running a business outside of the bank,” evidently in reference to the National Bank Transfer Day activities, which was a consumer activism initiative that sought to promote Americans to switch from commercial banks, like Bank of America, to not-for-profit credit unions.
At the time, Bank of America’s debit card fees were among one of the triggers that led Occupy Wall Street members to promote the transfer day.
“It was just an empty threat,” says Olson of Freeman’s accusations. “He was trying to scare me away. To be honest, it did at first. I even called my bank and they said he couldn’t do anything like that.”
Olson continued to protest outside of Bank of America. In February 2012, he came across a box of chalk at a local pharmacy and decided to begin leaving his mark with written statements.
“I thought it was a perfect way to get my message out there. Much better than handing out leaflets or holding a sign,” says Olson.
Over the course of the next six months Olson visited the Bank of America branch a few days per week, leaving behind scribbled slogans such as “Stop big banks” and “Stop Bank Blight.com.”
According to Olson, who spoke with local broadcaster KGTV, one Bank of America branch claimed it had cost $6,000 to clean up the chalk writing.
Public records obtained by the Reader show that Freeman continued to pressure members of San Diego’s Gang Unit on behalf of Bank of America until the matter was forwarded to the City Attorney’s office.
On April 15, Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard contacted Freeman with a response on his persistent queries.
“I wanted to let you know that we will be filing 13 counts of vandalism as a result of the incidents you reported,” said Hazard.
Arguments for Olson’s case are set to be heard Wednesday morning, following jury selection.
Having bungled the so-called independent review of foreclosure mistakes, the Obama administration has now decided that the best way to help homeowners is to have the banks—which were responsible for the foreclosure errors—examine the case files and decide how best to fix the situation.
In January, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) shut down the foreclosure review by independent consultants—which had already cost about $2 billion— after it was revealed that the banks had selected said consultants. The process also proved to be taking too long to resolve homeowner grievances, so the administration decided to reach a $3.6 billion settlement with the banks.
But before the money can be distributed to individuals wronged during the foreclosure crisis, more than four million cases need to be reviewed. Instead of federal regulators doing the work, they are trusting the financial institutions, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, to do it properly this time.
Housing advocates, not surprisingly, are worried the banks will shortchange homeowners while they scrutinize their earlier mistakes. “The whole process has been a slap in the face to homeowners and a slap on the wrist to banks,” Isaac Simon Hodes, an organizer with Massachusetts-based Lynn United for Change, told The New York Times. “The latest development shows how there has been no accountability.”
The OCC has promised to check the bank’s work to ensure things go right this time.
- Big Banks Slither out of Mortgage Fraud Review with Minor Costs (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Big Banks Put In Charge of (Their Own) Foreclosure Settlement Payout (reason.com)
Why the Feds Won’t Prosecute the Big Wall Street Banks
Yesterday the Department of Justice and 49 state attorneys general announced the long anticipated $25 billion deal with 5 large Wall Street firms — Bank of America Corporation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Company, Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial Inc. — to settle foreclosure and mortgage servicing abuses. Unfortunately, the settlement is not yet 24 hours old and cracks are emerging.
Each major corruption settlement with Wall Street, and they are legion over the past 15 years, triggers a commemorative magazine cover. I keep some favorites handy.
The October 1996 cover of Registered Representative Magazine, the trade magazine for financial consultants and stock brokers, blared in 48 point bold red type: “How the NASD Was Corrupted.” That issue focused on the years of price fixing of stocks traded on the Nasdaq market by the biggest firms on Wall Street while the self regulatory body, the National Association of Securities Dealers, was dominated by the same firms and looked the other way. (Think SEC today.)
The Department of Justice, then under Janet Reno, had this to say about the settlement: “We have found substantial evidence of coercion and other misconduct in this industry. By providing for the random monitoring of traders’ telephone calls, we expect to deter future price fixing on Nasdaq.” At the time, Reno said the “law does not provide the Department with statutory authority to recover damages or monetary penalties in such cases.”
The next big corruption probe drew a giant green serpent wrapped around the street sign for Wall Street on the cover of BusinessWeek with the rhetorical question: “Wall Street: How Corrupt Is It?” That settlement collectively cost the big firms $1.4 billion for peddling fake stock research to the public to induce investors to buy bad companies while the same analysts called the firms “dogs” and “crap” in internal emails. The announcement of the deal came on April 28, 2003 from the SEC, the New York Attorney General of that day, Eliot Spitzer, the NASD, the New York Stock Exchange and state securities regulators — all gushing over how great this deal was for the public and how it was going to reform Wall Street.
New York Magazine has found an odd way of commemorating the crumbs available to illegally evicted and displaced children and families under the current settlement. The current magazine cover has a Wall Street guy clasping his… uh…private portfolio…with the headline: “The
Emasculation of Wall Street.” If Wall Street is being emasculated, you sure can’t tell it from yesterday’s settlement.
Not only did Wall Street settle its robo-signing, illegal foreclosures and servicing problems with the Department of Justice and 49 state attorneys general (Oklahoma settled independently) but lost in the headlines was that the two major regulators of national banks, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve, also settled with the biggest Wall Street banks in a decidedly cozy deal that effectively lets them off without a monetary fine as long as they pay under the federal-state settlement agreement.
The OCC settled with Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo for a combined $394 million but here’s the cozy part: “the OCC agrees to hold in abeyance imposition of such penalties provided the servicers make payments and take other actions under the federal-state settlement with a value equal to at least the penalty amounts that each servicer acknowledges that the OCC could impose…”
The Federal Reserve issued monetary sanctions of $766.5 million against the parent holding companies: Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Ally Financial, Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co. and two mortgage servicers GMAC Mortgage, LLC a subsidiary of Ally Financial, Inc., and EMC Mortgage Corporation, a subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase & Co. But again, the Wall Street firms can get off the hook for paying these sums by simply paying them under the $25 billion federal-state settlement.
The specifics of just what the state attorneys general agreed to is unknown, even to some of the attorneys general. According to the web site set up to inform the public about the settlement both the primary “Settlement Document” and the “Executive Summary” will be “coming soon.” Without those documents available for public perusal, there is the reasonable suspicion that the public has once again been feted to lipstick on a pig, as they like to say on Wall Street.
One striking problem is that California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris states on her web site and in this video that California is getting $18 billion. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi
says on her web site that Florida is receiving $8.4 billion. Those two amounts would leave a negative figure for the other 47 states that agreed to the $25 billion deal.
There’s also something peculiar about the Federal Department of Justice and 49 states setting up an informational web site that ends in .com instead of .gov. Register.com shows the web site has used a privacy shield to block the name of the owner of the site.
Corporate media is reporting that the deal settles only foreclosure and servicing abuses. But this web site states: “The agreement settles only some aspects of the banks conduct related to the financial crisis (foreclosure practices, loan servicing, and origination of loans) in return for the second largest state attorneys general recovery in history and direct relief to distressed borrowers while they can still use it.” The Florida Attorney General concedes on her web site that the deal with the state includes loan origination issues. That may not sit well with residents of a state where massive loan origination frauds occurred.
I called the AG’s office in Massachusetts – historically a tough regulator when it comes to Wall Street. The spokesperson could not answer why loan origination is included on the settlement web site.
Why is mortgage loan origination a big deal? Because tens of thousands of consumers were victimized in a bait and switch racket, believing they were getting a fixed rate mortgage only to find out a few years down the road that they had an adjustable rate mortgage that reset and doubled or even tripled their monthly payment – making it impossible to stay in their home; an effective wealth stripping enterprise by Wall Street against decent, hardworking families across America.
Other abuses in loan origination abounded. The Federal Trade Commission took this testimony from Michele V. Handzel, a former Branch Manager for CitiFinancial, a unit of Citigroup. Ms. Handzel is comparing the practices of CitiFinancial after it acquired another firm, The Associates.
“CitiFinancial put much more pressure on employees than the Associates did to include as many credit insurance and ancillary products as possible on every loan….In fact, I feel that the credit insurance sales practices at CitiFinancial were worse than at The Associates. From January to June 2001, the policy was that no personal loan at CitiFinancial would be approved if it did not include some type of credit insurance, nor would a real estate loan be approved without some type of ancillary product…There were several internal measures in place to effectuate this policy. For instance, District Managers would frequently refuse to send a loan to underwriting if it did not include some type of insurance product. Moreover, loans that were closed and did not include any insurance would be identified by CitiFinancial’s internal insurance auditors, and the employee who closed the loan would be written up…Closings at CitiFinancial resembled those at The Associates – they were brief. Personal loan closings took approximately 10 minutes. Real estate loan closings took a little longer but also did not provide a lot of details about the loan. At CitiFinancial, I was instructed to do a ‘closed folder’ closing, meaning that information would be discussed orally first. Only after the borrower indicated that he wanted to sign would the employee open the folder and have the borrower sign the papers.”
In the past, Wall Street knew it could steal billions and settle with its easily maneuvered regulators for millions. It did this time and time again, never having to admit to any crime. Wall Street translated this to mean that crime was a lucrative profit center. This latest settlement raises the potential of this profit center. Wall Street now understands that it can steal trillions and settle for billions.
And just why is it that the Feds can’t or won’t prosecute the biggest of the Wall Street firms? Because they are the Federal Government’s bond brokers, the primary dealers who contractually agree to buy Treasury bills or notes or bonds at every U.S. Treasury auction. They may be serially corrupt, but Uncle Sam needs those contractual guarantees of its primary dealers to be sure it can pull off its debt auctions. And the U.S. government cannot engage in contracts with convicted financial felons.
And it won’t break up these bloated behemoths because big balance sheets are just what a government with $15 trillion in debt is looking for in a bond broker.
Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years. She spent the last decade of her career advocating against Wall Street’s private justice system, which keeps its crimes shielded from public courtrooms. She maintains, along with Russ Martens, an ongoing archive dedicated to this financial era at www.WallStreetOnParade.com. She has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article. She is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. She can be reached at email@example.com
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