by Marshall Auerback
It’s time to put the perps of this scandal in jail.
Yves Smith, Bill Black, and Mike Konczal have already done yeoman’s work in seeking to explain the lender fraud scandal in the securitized mortgage market and its possible legal ramifications. Here, I’d like to restrict my discussion to the optimal government response.
President Obama recently used a pocket veto on a bill that would allow foreclosure and other documents to be accepted among multiple states (and therefore make it difficult for homeowners to challenge foreclosure documents prepared in other states). But I worried that this action was not sincere. My concern was that, following the midterm elections, the Administration would eventually come up with some grand “compromise” solution, which would in effect give the banks everything they wanted.
In retrospect, it appears that even that was too favorable an assessment. Per the Washington Post:
The Obama administration does not support a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures at this time, Federal Housing Administration Commissioner David Stevens said Sunday in an e-mail response to questions.
“We believe freezing foreclosures for all banks in all states, whether we have reason to believe them to be in error or not, is simply not the prudent step to take in this fragile housing market,” he said. (Our emphasis)
Banks 1, rule of law 0. In effect, the President is making the argument, “If we penalize people for not following the laws as they existed at the time, it will have really bad repercussions. So everybody gets a mulligan.”
Additionally, the Administration seems to be buying the prevailing spin that the foreclosure problems are merely the product of “sloppy paperwork”, rather than recognizing this disaster as a case of rampant, systemic fraud. That deserves punishment: fines and jail time, not additional government support.
Most of the current administration proposals are misguided because they continue to be based on the twin presumptions that big banks only face a liquidity problem, and that if this problem can somehow be resolved, the economy will recover. This is a fundamentally flawed view. Using any honest measure of accounting, the big banks are insolvent. The latest debacle illustrates that big banks cannot and should not be saved. They do not hold the key to recovery; if anything, their rampant criminality demonstrates that they are a barrier to a sustainable recovery. Since they were given their handouts, they have been working assiduously to resurrect the bubble conditions that led to this crisis. (Not to mention paying out huge bonuses in the process — this year $144 billion, a record high for a second consecutive year, according to a study conducted by The Wall Street Journal.) Your tax dollars at work!
As Randy Wray and Eric Tymoigne presciently wrote over a year ago:
The best approach is something like a banking holiday for the largest 19 banks and shadow banks in which institutions are closed for a relatively brief period. Supervisors move in to assess problems. It is essential that all big banks be examined during the “holiday” to uncover claims on one another. It is highly likely that supervisors will find that several trillions of dollars of bad assets will turn out to be claims big financial institutions have on one another (that is exactly what was found when AIG was examined — which is why the government bail-out of AIG led to side payments to the big banks and shadow banks). There probably are not ‘seven degrees of separation’ — by taking over and resolving the biggest 19 banks and netting claims, the collateral damage in the form of losses for other banks and shadow banks will be relatively small. Government lending, guarantees, and purchases of bad assets will be much smaller if we first consolidate the balance sheets of the biggest players, net the assets, and shut down the institutions. This will help to downsize the financial sector and reduce monopoly power. Moving forward, policy should favor small, independent, financial institutions.
In addition, it will be necessary to increase supervision and regulation of the financial sector. This can start with 3 simple measures, which were suggested to me by Bill Black (who was a long-time S&L investigator):
A.Replace every top banking regulator other than Sheila Bair and the head of the SEC. The regulators have to serve as the “sherpas” for any successful effort to prosecute and prevent frauds — they do the heavy lifting and serve as the essential guides for the FBI. Two of the major banking agencies did zero criminal referrals. None has made putting the crooks in prison even a weak priority. Put new leaders in place who believe in regulating and jailing. End the instructions to regulators to view bankers as their “customers.” The only client is the American people.
B. End the FBI’s “partnership” with the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), the perps’ trade association. The MBA has convinced the FBI that the lender was always the victim, never the perpetrator. That’s why, along with regulatory failure, we have no top executives convicted, as opposed to over 1000 in the S&L debacle.
C. The Department of Justice needs new leadership. Do what we did in the S&L crisis. Create a “Top 100″ priority list to ensure that we go after the elite criminals who caused the greatest wave of white-collar crime in world history — and the Great Recession.
And we must get back to a fiscal policy that genuinely helps to sustain job growth and rising incomes — this, in turn, will stabilize the economy. The costs of increased fiscal stimulus are dwarfed by the costs associated with an irrational reliance on monetary policy gimmicks such as “QE2“.
Fiscal austerity drains aggregate demand and induces reliance on PRIVATE debt. Today, a large number of Americans still suffer from high private debt levels and correspondingly sluggish income growth. Their ongoing reliance on the banks is becoming the 21st century equivalent of indentured servitude. With higher levels of debt comes higher levels of financial fragility and instability and then economic busts. With recessions we don’t just experience extended losses of income. The accompanying costs manifest in the criminal justice system (rising crime), the health system (rising mental and physical illness), the family court systems (rising marriage and family breakdown), etc. The sum of these costs dwarf all other economic costs. And we should not forget that human lives are destroyed by prolonged recessions — dignity is lost, self-esteem disappears and the children who grow up in jobless households inherit their parents’ disadvantage.
If borrowers can meet their payments, lenders will receive their funds and will return to profitability; there will be less need for future bailouts. A full employment policy is also a financial stability policy. With a fully-employed population, you have consumers able to purchase goods with rising income. If they decide to expand those purchases or increase investment in a business via debt, they are better able to service it because a fully-employed person or a businessman with booming sales is far more able to service his debts, which means less write-offs for the banks and therefore less need for bailouts.
Amazingly, this is not only sensible economics, but also good politics. Yes, there is no question that some borrowers were overextended and probably took on mortgages they couldn’t afford. But to use this as a reason to avoid the issue of fraudulent foreclosures strikes me as a colossal red herring. To be sure, one should not generally support the principle of abrogating loan agreements via strategic defaults, for example. But when the other contracting party is exposed as a rampant predator/fraudster, it changes the moral calculus considerably. If one ignores fraud, or downplays its significance here, it undermines the rule of law, the very basis for modern democracies. What’s the “cost” associated with that? The fiscal austerians and defenders of bailout packages such as TARP (yes, I’m talking to you, Tim Geithner) ought to factor this into their calculations the next time they drone on about what a great “success” these programs have been, based on a bogus measure on how “little” it ended up costing the US taxpayer.
Wall Street bankers turned homeownership into an “investment”, so owners ought to treat it like one — walk away from bad investments. Business people do it every day and no one admonishes them about morality. But if we are going to sanction borrowers for strategic defaults, then it seems wildly inconsistent to avoid the issue of fraud, as well as recognizing that eliminating it (or significantly mitigating it) is the only basis on which we can construct a sound financial system going forward.