Surprise! You Don’t Have To Pay As Much As You Thought On That Mortgage

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Last week, Bank of America agreed to a multi-billion dollar settlement with upset investors who had purchased securities comprised of subprime mortgages originated by Countrywide Financial (which Bank of America acquired in 2008) and serviced by Bank of America ("Bank Of America Settles Claims Stemming From Mortgage Crisis").  Among other things, the investors claim that that Countrywide "created securities from mortgages originated with little, if any, proof of assets or income," and that Bank of America then "failed to heed pleas for help from homeowners teetering on the brink of foreclosure."  While the settlement still needs to be approved by a judge, and has already run into some opposition ("Investors Challenge Bank Of America Settlement" and "Bank Of America's Proposed Mortgage Debt Settlement Criticized"), it was generally seen as the first major concession by a bank in connection with its role in the mortgage meltdown

On the heels of this settlement comes news that Bank of America (along with JPMorgan and a few other lenders) is also taking a more proactive approach with homeowners who are not even in default.  As the New York Times reports in its article, "Big Banks Easing Terms On Loans Deemed As Risks," the banks are "quietly modifying loans for tens of thousands of borrowers who have not asked for help but whom the banks deem to be at special risk."  The article tells the story of Rula Diosmas, a Florida (of course) woman who had $150,000 shaved off of the mortgage of her Miami condominium by JPMorgan even though she did not request a modification and was not in default.  The bank explained its reasoning as follows:

Banks are proactively overhauling loans for borrowers like Ms. Giosmas who have so-called pay option adjustable rate mortgages, which were popular in the wild late stages of the housing boom but which banks now view as potentially troublesome.

. . .

Option ARM loans like Ms. Giosmas’s gave borrowers the option of skipping the principal payment and some of the interest payment for an introductory period of several years. The unpaid balances would be added to the body of the loan.

. . .

“By proactively contacting pay option ARM customers and discussing other products with better options for long-term, affordable payments, we hope to prevent customers from reaching a point where they struggle to make their payments,” Mr. Frahm [a spokesman for Bank of America] said.

The banks' efforts have not come without some critism, however, including the claim that the banks are behaving in "contradictory and often maddening ways" — showing concern for those who might get in trouble while at the same time being punished by regulators for doing a poor job modifying mortgages that are already in default.

How Do You Say Scapegoat In French? “Fabulous Fab” Still The Only Target Of SEC Investigation Into Goldman Sach’s Mortgage Trading Operations

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Several years after the start of the financial crisis, and the mortgage meltdown that caused it, only one individual, Fabrice Toure – a/k/a “Fabulous Fab,” his self-imposed moniker — has been sued by the SEC for selling the mortgage backed securities that created, or at the very least exacerbated, the crisis.  According to a recent piece in the New York Times,"SEC Case Stands Out Because It Stands Alone," Toure was an obscure trader for Goldman Sachs who was thrust into the national spotlight in 2010 when the SEC sued him for his role in creating and marketing Abacus, one of the many mortgage backed securities created by Goldman during the irrational exuberance of the early to mid 2000s.  (Abacus is interesting in its own right because it is one of the securities that was devised with the help of John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who famously made billions shorting mortgage backed securities like Abacus.)  As the article notes, the question many have raised is why Toure and why only Toure?

According to at least one former co-worker, Toure was a “junior” and “insignificant” member of a larger team at Goldman responsible for developing mortgage backed securities.  In their response to the SEC, Toure’s lawyers emphasized this point, identifying all of the other members of the team, and arguing that “singling Mr. Toure out for criticism regarding the content of this clearly collaborative effort is unreasonable.” For its part, the SEC has not explained why it focused on just one member of one team at one bank, and further on just one deal created by that bank.  However, as the article notes, recent increased interest from other regulators, including New York’s attorney general, indicates that this may not be the case for long, and the banks may soon be called upon to answer for their role in the crisis. 

 Finally, as interesting as Toure’s story is, equally interesting is the story behind how many of the documents that tell the story – including Toure’s non-public response to the SEC lawsuit – came to light.  The Times received them from an artist and filmmaker named Nancy Cohen who found the materials on a laptop given to her by a friend in 2006.  The friend told her that he found the laptop in a garbage can downtown.  Apparently, emails to Tourre continued “streaming into the device.”  While Cohen ignored them for years, she began paying attention when she learned about the SEC’s lawsuit, and subsequently gave the documents to the Times. 

And Gordon Gekko Wept…New Book Blames Financial Crisis On “Reckless” Greed

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously claimed that "greed is good."  A new book out by Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson begs to differ.   In her book, "Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon," Morgenson lays the blame for the financial crisis squarely at the feet of Fannie Mae, and particularly its CEO James Johnson, who built the quasi-governmental entity into "the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world."  While government regulators sat idly by, Fannie Mae allegedly "fudged accounting rules, generated big salaries and bonuses for its executives, used lobby and campaign contributions to bully regulators, and encouraged the risky financial practices that led to the crisis."  To read more about the book, including an excerpt, check out "How 'Reckless" Greed Contributed To Financial Crisis" on NPR's website.

Chickens Continue Coming Home To Roost For Lenders And Mortgage Companies Involved In Foreclosure Crisis

by:  Peter J. Gallagher and Steven P. Gouin

Our regular followers know that many of our pieces focus on the foreclosure industry, and with good reason, as over 2 million American homes are currently in foreclosure.  Add to this troubling statistic the recent allegations of shoddy paperwork at many of the nation's largest mortgage companies and the law firms representing them, and you have the makings of a compelling story of a giant foreclosure-induced catastrophe.  While homeowners have been feeling the pain from this crisis for years now, the catastrophe struck close to home recently for many of the banks and mortgage companies at the heart of the foreclosure crisis. 

In an article entitled “Confidential Federal Audits Accuse Five Biggest Mortgage Firms Of Defrauding Taxpayers,” the Huffington Post is reporting that a recent federal audit conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revealed that five of the nation's largest foreclosure firms, including industry giants like CitiBank and Bank of America, are guilty of fraud under the Federal False Claims Act.  Specifically, the audit concluded that the banks “filed for federal reimbursement on foreclosed homes that sold for less than the outstanding loan balance using defective and faulty documents.”  According to the article, federal prosecutors are debating whether to use the audits as the basis for criminal and civil sanctions against the mortgage companies. 

At the same time, the New York Times is reporting that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has requested information and documents from three major banks – Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley – about their mortgage-backed securities operations (“NY State Investigates Banks’ Role In Financial Crisis”).  This suggests that Mr. Schneiderman may be launching an investigation into the banks' practices, which many believe led to billions in mortgage losses.  One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the suggestion that, by requesting this information from the banks, Mr. Schneiderman is “operating independently of peers from other states who are negotiating a broad settlement with large banks over foreclosure practices.”  The article notes that Mr. Schneiderman has been unwilling to join this proposed settlement because the banks are demanding that it include a clause whereby regulators agree not to conduct additional investigations into the banks’ activities during the mortgage crisis.