I am really excited that the long overdue battle over immigration reform and a path to citizenship has finally begun in earnest. While I am heartsick at the reason, it is good news that common sense gun safety laws are once again being discussed in this country almost two decades after we finally passed the Brady Bill. And the on-going, never ending budget fights remain urgently important in terms of stopping more damage to middle class and poor people in America. I know I will be engaging daily in the vitally important battles over all these issues, and I expect my progressive allies all over the country will be as well.
But I remain troubled, profoundly troubled, by the fact that fundamental economic issues seem to be the last thing on anybody’s minds in DC. Our economy may be slowly getting better, but we still have a very serious jobs crisis in this country- nowhere near to full employment and not on a path to get there for many years to come. Our manufacturing sector is still only limping along and our trade deficit remains catastrophically high. Our infrastructure is still badly in need of repair. Wages for most workers are still stuck in neutral or slipping compared to inflation, and a third of those who found new jobs after losing them in the great recession are being paid less than in the old job. Our housing market is getting stronger in some metro areas, but is still very weak overall in terms of prices, homeowners under water, and numbers of foreclosures and empty homes.
And looming over these economic problems is quite literally the elephant in the room: these gargantuan Too Big To Fail, and apparently Too Big To Jail, Wall Street financial conglomerates.
Richard Cordray and the Consumer Financial Protection Agency are taking action that could help lessen the mortgage crisis facing American homeowners. The agency is considering a series of moves that would reform the mortgage servicing industry. Problems with mortgages contributed heavily to the global financial crisis that dominated the world economy in recent years.
The CFPB announced Monday that it was mulling rules to reform that industry, which has been hotly criticized because as foreclosures mounted, so did evidence of shoddy business practices.
“For too long, mortgage servicers have not been held accountable to their customers, and the result has been profoundly punishing to homeowners in distress," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "It’s time to put the ‘service’ back in mortgage servicing.”
Cordray is expected to tout the new initiative at a public event Tuesday.
The new effort represents one of the broadest projects taken on so far by the new bureau, which opened its doors in July after being created by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, targeting one of the more problematic areas under its jurisdiction.
Among the changes being considered:
Under the CFPB's proposal, if homeowners get behind on their mortgage and face foreclosure, the servicer would be required to make a "good faith" effort to contact the borrower and explain the foreclosure process, as well as provide counseling options.
The CFPB is also considering requiring servicers to have staff members dedicated to working with struggling borrowers either facing foreclosure or trying to avoid it. These employees would have easy access to the borrower's records, as well as the ability to determine whether a loan modification could be pursued to avoid foreclosure. A common complaint by struggling borrowers was their inability to discuss their plight with an employee with their servicer.
Homeowners and policymakers were also frustrated by error-ridden documents at many servicers. Under the CFPB's plan, servicers would have to address found errors within 30 days, or an even shorter timeframe if a foreclosure or payoff is at stake.
This week 60 Minutes gave viewers a good look at some of the widespread criminality that created the Wall Street mortgage boom and led to our ongoing financial crisis. They also saw some of the overwhelming evidence of illegal activity on the part of big banks, and were reminded that none of those banks' executives have been prosecuted.
As ugly as the situation is, there is some logic behind the government's actions - and its inactions. They're acting on a tragically incorrect (but internally coherent) set of assumptions that can be summed up in one sentence. It goes something like this:
"To preserve the health of the American economy, banks must be allowed to keep preying on their consumers."
That's it. That's the logic.
But there are two exciting "Occupy" developments this week that could change the equation - "Take Back the Capitol" in the District of Columbia, and Tuesday's "Occupy Our Homes" events around the country. Think of them as complementary actions: One is taking place at the site of our greatest government power. The other is bringing the action to homes where people have been victimized by bankers.
People may not realize it, but there's power in those homes, too.
The Logic of Injustice
Despite their destructive behavior, the people who bailed bankers out and are giving them a free pass for their crimes aren't necessarily evil or corrupt. Well, okay, people like this guy are. But others have merely been so infected by misguided economic thinking that they really believe that the only way to save the economy is to keep shafting consumers and pampering mega-bankers.
The thinking goes something like this: Our largest banks are too big to fail, and since we lack the will or the motivation to break them up or regulate them we must protect them at all costs. We've propped them up with TARP, quantitative easing, and $7.7 trillion in secret Federal Reserve loans, but they're still shaky as hell. If we prosecute any of their executives, their stock prices will fall and they'll collapse again. And they'll take the entire economic system with them.
That leads to some grotesque miscarriages of justice. Nobody at Wells Fargo has been indicted for money laundering, for example, despite the fact that the bank has paid millions to settle charges of laundering cash for the Mexican drug cartels that have murdered more than 35,000 people. As an experienced bank investigator working for the Senate observed, "There’s no capacity to regulate or punish them because they’re too big to be threatened with failure."
The Bailout Nobody Knows
And banks don't just need protection from their own criminality. They also need protection from their own lousy management. Their balance sheets are filled with toxic risks from their long run of incompetence, negligence, and greed. That's where you and I come in. Some powerful folks are afraid the banks will fail if they're forced to write off the bad loans on their books, or to stop profiting from loans sold deceptively or irresponsibly.
TARP may be over, but there's another massive bank rescue going on. Who's funding it? We are. Every time we pay a usurious interest fee on a credit card, we're propping up the banks. Every time we make another month's payment on an underwater mortgage, we're propping them up too. Every time we pay an overpriced consumer loan of any kind, we're making another payment into the consumer-funded bailout that's keeping the big banks afloat.
It would be great if politicians in Washington stopped using American consumers to subsidize banks that shouldn't even exist. But they haven't. That's where "Occupy Our Homes" comes in.
Occupy Our Homes
Tuesday, December 6, has been declared a National Day of Action to Occupy Our Homes. Its goal is to focus attention on the corrupt banking practices that led to the mortgage boom and today's ongoing economic misery for most of the 99 percent.
It's also a day for helping people in our communities who have been victimized by predatory lending, criminal bank forgery, unfair or illegal foreclosure practices, and other bank abuses that victimize the public. Occupy Minnesota has already occupied an illegally-foreclosed home, and plans to do the same thing with another home tomorrow. Here in Los Angeles, where an inspiring victory has already taken place, OccupyLA will help two brave families re-occupy their illegally foreclosed homes.
One of those homes belongs to a three-earner family that includes a gainfully employed woman with cerebral palsy named Ana Wison. Ana's household clearly seems capable of making its mortgage payments, but her bank's foreclosing anyway. And in one of ironies that have become all too common, the bank in quesion is none other than that Mexican drug cartel money-laundering outfit, Wells Fargo.
The Occupy movement hopes to focus the public's attention on people like Ana Wison. In the words of the Dylan song: "Things should start to get interesting right around now."
Demonizing the Victim
Resisting illegal foreclosures is a good first step. It brings attention to Wall Street's criminality, venality, and plain old inhumanity toward the people they call their"customers" - but treat like serfs.
It does something else important: It counteracts the brainwashing, driven by Wall Street and dutifully echoed by the media, which has demonized the victims of bank misbehavior. (We were trying to fight that brainwashing back in 2008, without much luck.) The Occupy movement has already won several battles in that war. If the public's attention can now be focused on people like Ana Wison, that can be a powerful blow against the Wall Street/corporate media "they deserve it" hype.
What about the millions of people who have suffered because of the banks' predatory mortgage lending but aren't behind in payments or in the foreclosure process? We need to re-open the debate about the fairness of forcing any underwater homeowners to pay underwater principal on homes that their banks knew, or should have known, were going to decrease in value. After all, the same conglomeration of banks and corporate media that demonize homeowners as "greedy" and "irresponsible" spent most of the last twenty years convincing people that real estate was a sure-fire investment.
Banks made an extraordinary amount of money off the bubble they created. The total mortgage amount outstanding in this country went from $6.2 trillion in 2002 to $11.9 trillion in 2009, a meteoric rise. And while banks feed off the Federal Reserve's unusually low rates, they've renegotiating very few home loans.
Consumers also owe nearly three quarter of a trillion dollars in credit card debt, much of it being paid at unconscionable rates of 12 percent to 29 percent - while their banks enjoy rates from 0 percent to 3 percent, thanks to the government institutions created by those same consumers.
What will happen if consumers stopped blaming themselves? What if they demanded that the banks take responsibility for their irresponsible and/or predatory lending? What if they refused to stop this country's perverse economic role reversal, where customers have become the ATMs while banks keep making the withdrawals?
If 10% of America's homeowners declared a mortgage strike it would rock the banking world. If everybody paying exorbitant credit card interest declared a moratorium on payments all at once, Wall Street would change forever.
Think about it: "Occupy ALL Our Homes." "Occupy Our Credit Cards ... Our Payday Loans ... Our Buy-and-Drive Loans ..." I'm not saying these are necessarily the right tactics, although they very well may be. But what's most important is that we understand that consumers have far more power than we usually realize - provided we act together.
Many of Washington's leaders will cringe at the thought, of course. "That could hurt our biggest banks," they say. It would be tempting to reply, You say that like it's a bad thing. Here's a better response: Then start planning to break them up in an orderly fashion. We're done living a life of indentured servitude just so we can subsidize their greed.
Those are the discussions that we should be having. If powerful people on Wall Street and in Washington aren't worried about Occupy Our Homes , they're not paying attention. But with any luck, they soon will.
(If you've been a victim of mortgage abuse you can tell your story here. If you want to find an Occupy Our Homes event near you, you can look for one here.)
Ah, the banksters just never quit giving us fuel for our fires, do they? In today's news, we have this gem, courtesy of the Huffington Post:
The bank withheld key documents and data, prevented investigators from interviewing bank employees or asking certain questions, and was slow to provide information, according to a June 1 declaration by William W. Nixon, a fraud examiner and assistant regional inspector general for audit for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general's office.
Due to Bank of America's "reluctance," Nixon resorted to asking the Justice Department to issue so-called civil investigative demands last December to compel testimony, a "less effective" means of carrying out its investigation, Nixon said. His office can't compel testimony on its own.
Bank of America, the largest handler of home loans in the U.S., threw up roadblocks to the investigation, Nixon said, like preventing his team from performing a "walkthrough" of the bank's documents unit.
The bank also failed to fully comply with subpoenas issued by Nixon's team. HUD's internal watchdog issued two subpoenas requesting documents and information, and what was returned was incomplete, had conflicting information, and in some cases, the bank provided excerpts of documents rather than the complete record.
Here's an example of what they were looking for:
Federal investigators found one bank employee who signed more than 75,000 foreclosure documents over the two-year period. If the employee worked every day during those two years, that amounts to about 103 documents signed per day, or one every five minutes.
The next time you hear someone blaming Fannie and Freddie for the mortgage meltdown, please supply this article to them and ask them what part they think Bank of America and its acquired puppet Countrywide played in the whole stinking mess.
This certainly cheered me up. Because no matter how much the politicians may try to cover up all the legal problems with MERS, this guy's right -- and he's going to get that money:
The gigantic mortgage database owned by the nations largest banks may have run afoul of Massachusetts strict property recordation filing laws, according to the elected Recorder of Deeds for the South Essex district of the state.
In an exclusive interview with CNBC, John O’Brien explained why he sent a letter to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley requesting an investigation into Mortgage Electronic Registrations Systems, Inc.
“It’s a basic issue of fairness. MERS says that if you are a member of their club, you can avoid fees on assignments of mortgages forever. Those are fees that everyone else pays,” O’Brien said. “I’ve never before heard of a private company that has attempted to unilaterally take over such a public function as property recordation. Imagine if someone tried to do this with drivers licenses.”
O’Brien has asked Coakley to investigate whether MERS may owe fees for recordation it has avoided. He is taking this very seriously.
“I intend to pursue this as vigorously as the banks pursue a consumer who doesn’t pay a fee. If you don’t pay them, they’ll pursue you to the gates of Hell,” he said.
O’Brien, who was named “Public Official of the Year in 2000 by the National Association of County Recorders Election Officials and Clerks, is unimpressed by MERS’s official response to his request for an investigation.
“Massachusetts has very clear cut rules. Recordation is not optional. It’s mandatory. It cannot be avoided,” he said.
MERS argues that it is saving recordation offices and homebuyers money by reducing paperwork and fees. It says that homeowners would be “directly or indirectly” responsible for paying the assignment fees if not for MERS.
You see why the bully boys of Wall Street dislike Sheila Bair - and Elizabeth Warren? Because they actually think of the people hurt by the financial industry's long, drunken binge and are trying to repair the damage. No wonder these women are unpopular with the in crowd:
FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair indicated Thursday that she is exploring the idea of reducing the principal on as much as $45 billion in mortgages her agency has acquired from failed banks.
That would be the first significant government attempt to employ a measure that some economists and consumer advocates have long argued is the only really effective way to stop foreclosures.
Although the $45 billion in mortgages only amounts to less than half of one percent of mortgages nationwide, the move would be significant because the idea of reducing principal has been all but dismissed for the last nine months by the Obama administration.
Economists like Yale University's John Geanakoplos, however, have argued that cutting the principal on delinquent loans should have been the administration's practice all along. For the nearly quarter of American homeowners who owe more on their mortgage than the house is worth, it's by far the best way to keep them in their homes and reduce foreclosures, Geanakoplos said in an interview last month.
Bair made her comments in an interview with Bloomberg News. She has not yet discussed her proposal with the Treasury Department, a senior administration official said Thursday in a brief interview. Though unfamiliar with the details of her proposal, the official said it was promising.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation no longer owns the mortgages directly; but when it sold them to solvent banks, it agreed to shoulder some of the future losses. Bair's move would effectively make sure that homeowners directly benefit from that guarantee, not just the lenders.
Go ahead. Break the chains. Stop paying on your mortgage if you owe more than the house is worth. And most important: Don't feel guilty about it. Don't think you're doing something morally wrong.
That's the incendiary core message of a new academic paper by Brent T. White, a University of Arizona law school professor, titled "Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis."
White argues that far more of the estimated 15 million American homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages should stiff their lenders and take a hike.
Doing so, he suggests, could save some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars that they "have no reasonable prospect of recouping" in the years ahead. Plus the penalties are nowhere near as painful or long-lasting as they might assume.
"Homeowners should be walking away in droves," according to White. "But they aren't. And it's not because the financial costs of foreclosure outweigh the benefits." Sure, credit scores get whacked when you walk away, he acknowledges. But as long as you stay current with other creditors, "one can have a good credit rating again - meaning above 660 - within two years after a foreclosure."
Better yet, you can default "strategically": buy all the major items you'll need for the next couple of years - a new car, even a new house - just before you pull the plug on your current mortgage lender.
"Most individuals should be able to plan in advance for a few years of limited credit," says White, with minimal disruptions to their lifestyles.
What kind of law school professorial advice is this? Aren't mortgages legal contracts? In an interview, White said that in so-called anti-deficiency states such as Arizona and California, mortgage lenders have limited or no legal rights to pursue defaulting homeowners' assets beyond the house itself. In other states, lenders may decide it is not worth the legal expense to pursue walkaways, or consumers may be able to find flaws in the mortgage documents, disclosures or underwriting to challenge the original contract.
The main point, he says, is that too often people's "emotions" get in the way of clear financial thinking about mortgages, turning them into what he calls "woodheads" - "individuals who choose not to act in their own self-interest." Most owners are too worried about feelings of shame and embarrassment following a foreclosure, and ignore the powerful financial reasons for doing so.
Buttressing these emotions is a system that White labels "the social control of the housing crisis" - pressures and messages continually sent to consumers by the "social control agents," namely banks, government and the media. The mantra these agents - all the way up to President Obama - pound into owners' heads, says White, is that "voluntarily defaulting on a mortgage is immoral."
Yet there is an inherent imbalance in the borrower-lender relationship which makes this morality message unfair to consumers: Banks set the rules during the housing boom, handing out home loans with no down payments, no income checks, and inflated appraisals. Now that property values have dropped 20 percent to 50 percent in many areas, banks have been slow to modify troubled mortgages and reluctant to reduce principal debts.
Only when homeowners cut through the emotional fog and default strategically in large numbers, White argues, will this inequitable situation be seriously addressed.
This is really sad. This is going to hit even harder in big cities, where so many of the poor live in multi-unit buildings:
NEW YORK -- A new wave of foreclosures stands to hurt people who may have never taken out a mortgage: renters. In cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where many investors are carrying upside-down mortgages on large rental buildings, some tenants are watching their homes fall apart along with the financing.
Janeia Sandiford, a 24-year-old GED student in New York, has two young children and a deteriorating apartment. When a leak over Sandiford's bathroom and kitchen caused the ceiling to flake off and then cave in, nobody came to fix it for a year, she said. She lacked heat most of last winter, and she has duct-taped her loose-fitting windows in place to cut down on drafts.
"I'm really worried about the kids," she said.
The real estate investment company Ocelot Capital Group bought the building where Sandiford lives and about two dozen others in the Bronx in 2006 and 2007. As the new owners struggled to keep up with payments, 10 of the buildings appeared on the city's list of most dilapidated rental properties in 2007 and 2008. Last winter, as Ocelot defaulted on its loans amid the deepening financial crisis, the buildings plummeted further into decline. Together, they racked up thousands of Code C violations --the most serious kind -- from housing inspectors.
Fannie Mae, which had bought much of the debt from the original lender, entered foreclosure proceedings for Sandiford's building early this spring. A state court appointed receivers.
In the meantime, the building on Manida Street has been beset by problems, according to tenants and their advocates, whose accounts were confirmed by the crumbling walls and damaged plumbing apparent on a tour of the property and its neighbor, also owned by Ocelot. Vandals stole the lock on the front door, giving squatters access to vacant apartments to sell drugs. Plumbing in the building was disrupted after the squatters broke through the walls and stole pipes to sell as scrap metal.
Similar conditions could crop up across the country this winter as foreclosures climb for large rental-unit buildings. In the first three quarters of 2009, 475 foreclosure proceedings were begun against multifamily rental or cooperative homes in the District, according to NeighborhoodInfo DC, a partnership between the Urban Institute and the D.C. Local Initiatives Support Corp. That figure already eclipses the 458 foreclosures for all of 2008.
(Hi, dday here from Hullabaloo and Calitics and my own site D-Day. Thanks to John for having me over for the week to fill in for Dave Neiwert.)
I don't think I'm being hyperbolic by saying that the average subprime mortgage broker should probably be in prison by now. They took loans that their customers had no possibility of paying back, often by forcing them into exotic arrangements where their payments would shoot up by double after a reset. They got bonuses for putting people into a higher interest rate than what the borrowers could qualify for. Now lots of those loans have gone sour, but the broker's company has already passed on that risk in the form of mortgage-backed securities. Indeed, these same lenders who preyed upon homeowners by getting them into residences they couldn't afford are now ripping them off again by setting up loan modification companies.
Yet the dangers assailing Mr. Soussana’s clients have yielded fresh business for him: Late last year, he and his team — ensconced in the same office where they used to broker mortgages — began working for a loan modification company. For fees reaching $3,495, with most of the money collected upfront, they promised to negotiate with lenders to lower payments on the now-delinquent mortgages they and their counterparts had sprinkled liberally across Southern California.
“We just changed the script and changed the product we were selling,” said Mr. Soussana, who ran the Los Angeles sales office of Federal Loan Modification Law Center. The new script: You got a raw deal, and “Now, we’re able to help you out because we understand your lender.” [...]
FedMod is but one example of how many of the same people who dispensed risky mortgages during the real estate bubble have reconstituted themselves into a new industry focused on selling loan modifications.
Despite making promises of relief to homeowners desperate to keep their homes, FedMod and other profit making loan modification firms often fail to deliver, according to a New York Times investigation based on interviews with scores of former employees and customers, more than 650 complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau, and documents filed by the Federal Trade Commission in a lawsuit against the company. The suit, filed in California federal court, asserts that FedMod frequently exaggerated its rates of success, advised clients to stop making their mortgage payments, did little or nothing to modify loans and failed to promptly refund fees. The suit seeks an end to FedMod’s practices, and compensation for customers.
“Our job was to get the money in and then we’re done,” said Paul Pejman, a former sales agent who worked out of FedMod’s two-story headquarters in Irvine, Calif. He recounted his experience, he said, because “I really feel bad.”
Before state regulators and the Feds figured out this was going on, hundreds of loan modification companies took probably billions from distressed homeowners and provided virtually nothing in return. They saw opportunity in crisis - and they also CREATED much of the crisis by selling the homes to people who couldn't afford them in the first place.
DownWithTyranny!: McCain's latest stunt backfires...badly. Some observers believe the real motive for the Psychogeezer's latest gimmick is to keep Sarah Palin from spending another moment of unscripted time in public. But count on McCain - if he shows up for the debate - to try and work his surge-centric attack on Obama's judgment into every answer, no matter what the question. Some of us remember a time when McCain always called for withdrawal of troops.
Bob Geiger:Bush asleep while Iraqi fraud funnels millions to al-Qaeda