Unethical mortgage origination practices precipitated a $25 billion settlement with banks over alleged foreclosure abuses, including the use of forged and shoddy paperwork, a practice known as “robo-signing.” The deal will provide financial relief to an estimated one million at-risk borrowers, as described in today’s Wall Street Journal. This is a step in the right direction: holding the financial institutions accountable for the dubious practices that they perpetuated. However, millions of mortgages owned by Fannie Mae and Feddie Mac are not covered under the deal, thereby excluding more than half of the nation’s mortgages. Moreover, the real culprits in causing the worst economic crisis since the depression are not just the banks. The government, non-bank lenders, and Wall Street are also responsible.
Paying money—rather than aggressively prosecuting wrongdoers—is never a good idea. Specifically, the settlement is poor compensation to the public for the unethical practices and crimes that were committed against it. In 2001 and 2002, members from senior management at Enron and WorldCom were prosecuted and convicted for performing various criminal acts against their stakeholders. Why have we not prosecuted the wrongdoers who precipitated the current financial crisis?
The immoral acts that I am referring to are well documented in the book Reckless Endangerment, written by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. Since today’s settlement pertains to mortgages, let’s look at some of the shenanigans that surrounded these products. In 2004, lenders came up with two new types of toxic loans:
1) interest only mortgages, where borrowers simply had to pay off interest, but not principle. As a result, borrowers didn’t build up any equity.
2) negative amortization loans where the borrower paid as much interest as he wanted—any amount not paid off was simply tacked on to principle.
These two products accounted for just 6% of loans in 2003, but by 2005 they represented 29 percent of the market. They were particularly profitable for the lenders: Countrywide made 5% profits on every interest only loan between $100,000 to $200,000. Wall Street’s investment banks made even more money, by subsequently packaging them into investments called CDOs (collateralized debt obligations). Ratings agencies—such as Moody’s and Standard & Poors—then rubber stamped the securities as being AAA rated; however, they didn’t look under the hood to see what was really there. Moody’s could earn as much as “$250,000 to rate a mortgage pool with $350 million in assets, versus $50,000 in fees generated when rating a municipal bond issue of a similar size.”
Morgenson & Rosner described the entire process as being akin to a drug deal where the mortgage originators were drug pushers hanging around the school yard. The ratings agencies were the narcotics cops looking the other way. And the brokerage firms were the overseers of the cartel providing the capital to the “anything goes” lenders.
A coke dealer—who cuts their product with impure substances—knows the harmful effect that the drug will have on clients. Similarly, wall street firms that packaged impure, sub-prime loans into mortgage pools knew, well before their customers did, that the loans inside the CDOs had begun to go bad. The authors describe how in the third quarter of 2006, the traders at Goldman Sachs made bets against the same securities that their brokers were selling to their clients!
It has almost been four years since Bear Stearns fell, only to be followed six months later by the denouement of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and the American International Group. The settlement announced today represents progress, but it is inadequate recompense to the taxpayers. The leadership of the institutions that engaged in unethical practices must be held accountable. After all, they were primarily responsible for creating the current, financial morass that we are struggling to work ourselves out of. Justice will be served only when the government redresses the larger wrongs that were committed against society.
How do you weigh in on this issue?