According to international economist Hernando De Soto, one of the key differences between an undeveloped economy and a developed one is clarity of ownership of real estate. The recently emerging foreclosure crisis in the United States indicates a movement toward the third world model.
There is still a large overhang of U.S. properties with severe mortgage delinquencies and this problem is likely to continue for several more years. As early as three years ago however, problems with implementing the foreclosure process became evident. During the housing bubble, banks became sloppy and didn't properly transfer ownership papers when loans were securitized into bonds. The current owners of those bonds frequently can't produce the appropriate documents in foreclosures cases in the 23 states that require court action for a foreclosure. This led to the 'show me the note' movement after a federal judge ruled in 2007 that Deutsche Bank lacked standing in 14 foreclosure cases because it could not produce the relevant documents. A number of similar judicial rulings followed.
The banks have gotten around this problem by producing notarized affidavits from 'expert' witnesses who claim they have thoroughly reviewed a packet of documents related to an individual foreclosure and that they are valid and complete. One such 'expert' was Jeffrey Stephan, who has admitted under oath to having signed off on the documents for 10,000 foreclosure cases per month for the last five years. Mr. Stephan not only did this for GMAC (its parent Ally Financial is 56% owned by the U.S. government), but also for J.P. Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and numerous other banks. This process is now being called robo-signing. It should be referred to as robo-perjury. While I am not a lawyer, it would seem to me that a number of other possible crimes might also be involved here as well, such as racketeering and criminal conspiracy. Whatever criminal activity took place, a majority government owned enterprise participated in it.
Readers should ask themselves if there is any reason to think that the big banks are acting any differently in their other consumer credit cases, such as defaults on credit cards.
The revelations from GMAC loan officer Stephan have caused a foreclosure moratorium to be put into effect by a number of lenders. The lenders were apparently shocked to find out that one person couldn't actually read and thoroughly review 10,000 legally dense document packets per month. Apparently none of the 'brilliant' members of the U.S. judiciary caught on either. Yes, it would certainly have taken a legal genius of Clarence Darrow's caliber to figure out that something that was impossible just couldn't happen. GMAC was the first to stop foreclosures in the 23 judicial states (those that require court cases for foreclosure). J.P. Morgan Chase followed. On October 8th, Bank of America suspended foreclosure activity in all 50 states.
Interestingly, the current administration is opposed to a foreclosure freeze. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, employees of J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup (NYSE:C) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) were three of the largest sources of funds for Obama's 2008 presidential bid. Only a cynic would think that this would have something to do with his administration's pro-bank view in the foreclosure crisis. Some might even claim that it looks like everything is being done to further the interests of an economic and political elite, just as happens in a corrupt Third World country. If this were true, the banks won't be punished for flagrantly disregarding the rule of law, since it is only the little people that need to worry about such niceties.
Disclosure: No positions.