BANKS DEFRAUDING TAXPAYERS FACE FATE OF AL CAPONE

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  Somehow this particular article escaped me when it was published by Huffington Post. Like all the other allegations against the participants in the mortgage securitization hoax, the underlying theme is that the major banks simply lied about the ownership, value and nature of the mortgage assets. In this case the government paid them based upon their naked representation that the mortgage liens had been perfected and properly transferred.

 So far the banks have been successful, for the most part, in convincing the public and the courts that the mortgage liens have been perfected and properly transferred in all cases where claims of “ownership” were based upon securitization of debt. But in every case where professionals have been employed and have taken the time to carefully examine both the money trail and the document trail they have reached the conclusion that the documents and the handling of the money has been at best fatally defective and at worst fraudulent, forged,  and fabricated.

 The victims of this hoax include every taxpayer, consumer, homeowner and business in the entire country. As the lawsuits multiply and as the attorney general of each state comes to realize the political risk of siding with the banks, it will become obvious that we are all affected regardless of whether we are directly involved in the foreclosure process or merely suffering the results of collateral damage.

 The debates regarding the debt ceiling, spending and the tax code are mere distractions from the enforcement of existing tax liability of the participants in the massive securitization hoax. As taxpayers we have given the banks considerable resources to kick the can down the road. But the ultimate result cannot be disputed. Trillions of dollars are owed to the federal government, state governments and local governments on transactions that were either not reported at all or were reported with the intent to deceive those governments and deprive them of revenue.

The missing revenue together with the fraudulent receipt of payments from taxpayers for nonexistent or fraudulently represented mortgages and mortgage assets constitute all of the “deficit” that has been reported for all the governmental  entities that supposedly are in distress, bankrupt were subject to downgrade in their credit ratings.

 Simply stated, the deficit money is sitting on Wall Street or offshore under the control of those who control the Wall Street entities that perpetrated the grand securitization hoax. The same is true for individual consumers and homeowners. The scope of the securitization hoax included but was not limited to home loans, credit cards, student loans, auto loans and virtually every other kind of debt imaginable. Lately we have been receiving reports that the securitization hoax is expanding its scope to include life insurance. By inducing those who would otherwise not purchased life insurance (perhaps because they could not afford it) or who would purchase a contract from a life insurance carrier that was not involved in securitization, Wall Street is creating a vehicle which for the first time institutionalizes the motivation to deprive people of their lives.

 There are many permutations of the securitization hoax. The bottom line is that the vendor of the financial products sold to the consumer is not taking any risk, but is being paid, like an actor. In this way Wall Street is essentially the primary actor in the sale of financial products, like all mortgages or insurance, without being regulated or licensed by the appropriate federal or state agency.

The actors (pretender lenders) are either lending their licenses contrary to law or pretending to be licensed and getting away with it because of the apparent complexity of securitization. There is no need for complex analysis. Either they are a lender or they are not. Either they are a mortgage broker or they are not. Either they are an insurance broker or they are not. And if they acted as a lender when in fact their function was as a mortgage broker they have violated the law. And if they acted as a mortgage originator when in fact their function was a mortgage broker, they have violated the law. The administrative agencies regulating the various professions involved in real estate transactions have lots of work to do, lots of discipline to mete out, lots of fines to collect and lots of restitution to order.

 There are hundreds of millions of transactions in which worthless paper was involved which contained claims to obligations, notes and mortgages (which are interest in real property). The fact that these were fraudulent transactions does not take away from the fact that a profit was made, that documents should have been recorded, and that taxes and fees were due. The only question left is whether there are enough people left in government who are willing to use the tools available to them to correct the mess created by the securitization hoax.

Al Capone, the famed mobster, got away with almost everything including murder — until  he was taken down for tax fraud. It doesn’t matter how his reign of terror was ended. What matters is that it did end. And if government had followed through there would not have been anything to replace him. That is the challenge facing today’s government. And more importantly, it is the challenge to our Republic, where inch by inch, personal liberties have been taken away that are still guaranteed by our most basic law — the American Constitution.

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The audits conclude that the banks effectively cheated taxpayers by presenting the Federal Housing Administration with false claims: They filed for federal reimbursement on foreclosed homes that sold for less than the outstanding loan balance using defective and faulty documents.”

Those violations are likely only a small fraction of the number committed by home loan companies, experts say, citing the small sample examined by regulators.”

Shahien Nasiripour

Shahien Nasiripour shahien@huffingtonpost.com

Confidential Federal Audits Accuse Five Biggest Mortgage Firms Of Defrauding Taxpayers [EXCLUSIVE]

Foreclosure Fraud

WASHINGTON — A set of confidential federal audits accuse the nation’s five largest mortgage companies of defrauding taxpayers in their handling of foreclosures on homes purchased with government-backed loans, four officials briefed on the findings told The Huffington Post.

The five separate investigations were conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general and examined Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial, the sources said.

The audits accuse the five major lenders of violating the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era law crafted as a weapon against firms that swindle the government. The audits were completed between February and March, the sources said. The internal watchdog office at HUD referred its findings to the Department of Justice, which must now decide whether to file charges.

The federal audits mark the latest fallout from the national foreclosure crisis that followed the end of a long-running housing bubble. Amid reports last year that many large lenders improperly accelerated foreclosure proceedings by failing to amass required paperwork, the federal agencies launched their own probes.

The resulting reports read like veritable indictments of major lenders, the sources said. State officials are now wielding the documents as leverage in their ongoing talks with mortgage companies aimed at forcing the firms to agree to pay fines to resolve allegations of routine violations in their handling of foreclosures.

The audits conclude that the banks effectively cheated taxpayers by presenting the Federal Housing Administration with false claims: They filed for federal reimbursement on foreclosed homes that sold for less than the outstanding loan balance using defective and faulty documents.

Two of the firms, including Bank of America, refused to cooperate with the investigations, according to the sources. The audit on Bank of America finds that the company — the nation’s largest handler of home loans — failed to correct faulty foreclosure practices even after imposing a moratorium that lifted last October. Back then, the bank said it was resuming foreclosures, having satisfied itself that prior problems had been solved.

According to the sources, the Wells Fargo investigation concludes that senior managers at the firm, the fourth-largest American bank by assets, broke civil laws. HUD’s inspector general interviewed a pair of South Carolina public notaries who improperly signed off on foreclosure filings for Wells, the sources said.

The investigations dovetail with separate probes by state and federal agencies, who also have examined foreclosure filings and flawed mortgage practices amid widespread reports that major mortgage firms improperly initiated foreclosure proceedings on an unknown number of American homeowners.

The FHA, whose defaulted loans the inspector general probed, last May began scrutinizing whether mortgage firms properly treated troubled borrowers who fell behind on payments or whose homes were seized on loans insured by the agency.

A unit of the Justice Department is examining faulty court filings in bankruptcy proceedings. Several states, including Illinois, are combing through foreclosure filings to gauge the extent of so-called “robo-signing” and other defective practices, including illegal home repossessions.

Representatives of HUD and its inspector general declined to comment.

The internal audits have armed state officials with a powerful new weapon as they seek to extract what they describe as punitive fines from lawbreaking mortgage companies.

A coalition of attorneys general from all 50 states and state bank supervisors have joined HUD, the Treasury Department, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission in talks with the five largest mortgage servicers to settle allegations of illegal foreclosures and other shoddy practices.

Such processes “have potentially infected millions of foreclosures,” Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chairman Sheila Bair told a Senate panel on Thursday.

The five giant mortgage servicers, which collectively handle about three of every five home loans, offered during a contentious round of negotiations last Tuesday to pay $5 billion to set up a fund to help distressed borrowers and settle the allegations.

That offer — also floated by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in February — was deemed much too low by state and federal officials. Associate U.S. Attorney General Tom Perrelli, who has been leading the talks, last week threatened to show the banks the confidential audits so the firms knew the government side was not “playing around,” one official involved in the negotiations said. He ultimately did not follow through, persuaded that the reports ought to remain confidential, sources said. Through a spokeswoman, Perrelli declined to comment.

Most of the targeted banks have not seen the audits, a federal official said, though they are generally aware of the findings.

Some agencies involved in the talks are calling for the five banks to shell out as much as $30 billion, with even more costs to be incurred for improving their internal operations and modifying troubled borrowers’ home loans.

But even that number would fall short of legitimate compensation for the bank’s harmful practices, reckons the nascent federal Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. By taking shortcuts in processing troubled borrowers’ home loans, the nation’s five largest mortgage firms have directly saved themselves more than $20 billion since the housing crisis began in 2007, according to a confidential presentation prepared for state attorneys general by the agency and obtained by The Huffington Post in March. Those pushing for a larger package of fines argue that the foreclosure crisis has spawned broader — and more costly — social ills, from the dislocation of American families to the continued plunge in home prices, effectively wiping out household savings.

The Justice Department is now contemplating whether to use the HUD audits as a basis for civil and criminal enforcement actions, the sources said. The False Claims Act allows the government to recover damages worth three times the actual harm plus additional penalties.

Justice officials will soon meet with the largest servicers and walk them through the allegations and potential liability each of them face, the sources said.

Earlier this month, Justice cited findings from HUD investigations in a lawsuit it filed against Deutsche Bank AG, one of the world’s 10 biggest banks by assets, for at least $1 billion for defrauding taxpayers by “repeatedly” lying to FHA in securing taxpayer-backed insurance for thousands of shoddy mortgages.

In March, HUD’s inspector general found that more than 49 percent of loans underwritten by FHA-approved lenders in a sample did not conform to the agency’s requirements.

Last October, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said his investigators found that numerous mortgage firms broke the agency’s rules when dealing with delinquent borrowers. He declined to be specific.

The agency’s review later expanded to flawed foreclosure practices. FHA, a unit of HUD, could still take administrative action against those firms for breaking FHA rules based on its own probe.

The confidential findings appear to bolster state and federal officials in their talks with the targeted banks. The knowledge that they may face False Claims Act suits, in addition to state actions based on a multitude of claims like fraud on local courts and consumer violations, will likely compel the banks to offer the government more money to resolve everything.

But even that may not be enough.

Attorneys general in numerous states, armed with what they portray as incontrovertible evidence of mass robo-signings from preliminary investigations, are probing mortgage practices more closely.

The state of Illinois has begun examining potentially-fraudulent court filings, looking at the role played by a unit of Lender Processing Services. Nevada and Arizona already launched lawsuits against Bank of America. California is keen on launching its own suits, people familiar with the matter say. Delaware sent Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems Inc., which runs an electronic registry of mortgages, a subpoena demanding answers to 75 questions. And New York’s top law enforcer, Eric Schneiderman, wants to conduct a complete investigation into all facets of mortgage banking, from fraudulent lending to defective securitization practices to faulty foreclosure documents and illegal home seizures.

A review of about 2,800 loans that experienced foreclosure last year serviced by the nation’s 14 largest mortgage firms found that at least two of them illegally foreclosed on the homes of “almost 50” active-duty military service members, a violation of federal law, according to a report this month from the Government Accountability Office.

Those violations are likely only a small fraction of the number committed by home loan companies, experts say, citing the small sample examined by regulators.

In an April report on flawed mortgage servicing practices, federal bank supervisors said they “could not provide a reliable estimate of the number of foreclosures that should not have proceeded.”

The review of just 2,800 home loans in foreclosure compares with nearly 2.9 million homes that received a foreclosure filing last year, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based data provider.

“The extent of the loss cannot be determined until there is a comprehensive review of the loan files and documentation of the process dealing with problem loans,” Bair said last week, warning of damages that could take “years to materialize.”

Home prices have fallen over the past year, reversing gains made early in the economic recovery, according to data providers Zillow.com and CoreLogic. Sales of new homes remain depressed, according to the Commerce Department. More than a quarter of homeowners with a mortgage owe more on that debt than their home is worth, according to Zillow.com. And more than 2 million homes are in foreclosure, according to Lender Processing Services.

Rather than punishing banks for misdeeds, the administration is now focused on helping troubled borrowers in the hope that it will stanch the flood of foreclosures and increase consumer confidence, officials involved in the negotiations said.

Levying penalties can’t accomplish that goal, an official involved in the foreclosure probe talks argued last week.

For their part, however, state officials want to levy fines, according to a confidential term sheet reviewed last week by HuffPost. Each state would then use the money as it desires, be it for facilitating short sales, reducing mortgage principal, or using the funds to help defaulted borrowers move from their homes into rentals.

In a report last week, analysts at Moody’s Investors Service predicted that while the losses incurred by the banks will be “sizable,” the credit rating agency does “not expect them to meaningfully impact capital.”

*************************Shahien Nasiripour is a senior business reporter for The Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail; bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed; follow him on Twitter; friend him on Facebook; become a fan; and/or get e-mail alerts when he reports the latest news. He can be reached at 917-267-2335.

TBW Taylor Bean Chairman Arrested On Fraud Charges

“The fraud here is truly stunning in its scale and complexity,” said Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general in the criminal division of the Department of Justice. “These charges send a strong message to corporations and corporate executives alike that financial fraud will be found, and it will be prosecuted.”

Once they determined that that approach might be difficult to conceal, they started selling mortgage pools and other assets to Colonial Bank that they knew to be worthless, officials said. Mr. Farkas and his partners relied on this technique to sell more than $1 billion of fraudulent assets over the course of several years, even covering up the fraud by recycling old fake assets for new ones, according to the complaints.

Editor’s Note: TBW has been high on my list of incompetent fraudsters. I always thought it was a stupid risk to “sell” mortgages and “sell” the servicing rights (probably to their own entity), and then take the servicing back. Stupid maybe, but they had no choice. The entire Taylor Bean operation wreaks of fraud and inconsistencies.

Bottom Line: If you have a TBW as the originating “lender” this article indicates, as we have known all along, that they were using OPM (Other People’s Money) and they were NOT the lender even though they said they were. It is highly likely that few, if any, of the loans were actually “securitized” because the loans were either nonexistent as described, never accepted by any pool (even though there might be a pool out there that claims ownership) and that none of the assignments were ever completed.

Thus your claims against TBW (including appraisal fraud, predatory loan practices, deceptive loan practices, fraud etc.) are properly directed, to wit: TBW still owns the paper, although the obligation is subject to an equitable unsecured claim from investors who funded the loan.

June 16, 2010

Executive Charged in TARP Scheme

By ERIC DASH

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday accused the former chairman of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, once one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders, of masterminding a fraud scheme that cheated investors and the federal government out of billions of dollars and led to last year’s sudden failure of Colonial Bank.

The executive, Lee B. Farkas, was arrested late Tuesday in Ocala, Fla., after a federal grand jury in Virginia indicted him on 16 counts of conspiracy, bank fraud, wire fraud and securities fraud. Separately, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought civil fraud charges against Mr. Farkas in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday.

Prosecutors said the fraud would be one of the biggest and most complex to come out of the housing collapse and the government’s huge bailout of the banking industry. In essence, they described an elaborate shell game that involved covering up the lender’s losses by creating fake mortgages and passing them along to private investors and government agencies.

Federal officials became suspicious after Colonial BancGroup, the main source of financing for Mr. Farkas’s company, tried to obtain $553 million in bailout money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The TARP application, filed in early 2009, was contingent on the bank first raising $300 million from private investors.

According to the S.E.C. complaint, Mr. Farkas and his partners said they would contribute $150 million, two private equity firms would each contribute $50 million, and a “friends and family” investor group would contribute another $50 million. “In truth, neither of the $50 million investors were private equity investors and neither ever agreed to participate,” the complaint said.

Mr. Farkas pocketed at least $20 million from the fraud, which he used to finance a private jet and a lavish lifestyle that included five homes and a collection of vintage cars, prosecutors said.

But the case is likely to expand beyond Mr. Farkas. The complaints cite the involvement of an unnamed Colonial Bank executive and other co-conspirators in the suspected fraud, and prosecutors said they might hold others accountable down the road.

“The fraud here is truly stunning in its scale and complexity,” said Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general in the criminal division of the Department of Justice. “These charges send a strong message to corporations and corporate executives alike that financial fraud will be found, and it will be prosecuted.”

Officials said the many layers of the scheme resulted in more than $1.9 billion of losses to investors; a $3 billion loss to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which guaranteed many of the loans that Mr. Farkas’s company sold; and a $3.6 billion hit to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which had to take over Colonial Bank and pay its depositors after many of the bank’s assets were found to be worthless.

The complaints also list BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank, which provided financing to Mr. Farkas’s company, as victims of the suspected fraud. Together, they lost $1.5 billion.

According to the complaints, the fraud started as early as 2002 with an effort to conceal rising operating losses at Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, a mortgage lender founded by Mr. Farkas. The first stage involved an attempt to hide overdrafts on a credit line the company had with Colonial Bank. As those overdrafts grew, prosecutors contend, Mr. Farkas and his associates started selling fake mortgage assets to Colonial Bank in exchange for tens of millions of dollars.

Once they determined that that approach might be difficult to conceal, they started selling mortgage pools and other assets to Colonial Bank that they knew to be worthless, officials said. Mr. Farkas and his partners relied on this technique to sell more than $1 billion of fraudulent assets over the course of several years, even covering up the fraud by recycling old fake assets for new ones, according to the complaints.

The transactions were “designed to give the false appearance that the loans were being sold into the secondary mortgage market,” Mr. Breuer said. “In fact, they were not.”

By 2008, prosecutors contend, the scheme had entangled the federal government. Investigators in the Office of the Special Inspector General for TARP took notice of the size of Colonial Bank’s bailout application and became suspicious of the accuracy of the bank’s statements.

That led investigators to alert other federal officials and draw a connection between Colonial Bank and Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, whose offices were raided by federal agents in August 2009. Both companies would soon stop operating.

“We knew it was a longstanding and close relationship between Colonial and T.B.W., and we decided that we needed to take a much closer look,” Neil M. Barofsky, the TARP special inspector general, said at a news conference on Wednesday. Investigators also discussed the situation with Treasury officials to “make sure the money would not go out the door.”

Federal officials have conducted nearly 80 criminal and civil investigations into companies that accepted TARP money, but so far they have filed charges in only one other case. In March, the head of Park Avenue Bank in Manhattan was accused of trying to defraud the government bailout program.

Walking Away and Keeping Your House: Strategic Default Strategy

A provocative paper by Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona, makes the case that borrowers are actually suffering from a “norm asymmetry.” In other words, they think they are obligated to repay their loans even if it is not in their financial interest to do so, while their lenders are free to do whatever maximizes profits. It’s as if borrowers are playing in a poker game in which they are the only ones who think bluffing is unethical.

borrowers in nonrecourse states pay extra for the right to default without recourse. In a report prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Susan Woodward, an economist, estimated that home buyers in such states paid an extra $800 in closing costs for each $100,000 they borrowed. These fees are not made explicit to the borrower, but if they were, more people might be willing to default, figuring that they had paid for the right to do so.

Editor’s Note: Here is a strategy straight out of the tax shelter playbook that could result in widespread relief for homeowners underwater. It comes from a high-finance tax shelter expert who shall remain unnamed. He and a group of other people with real money are thinking of establishing a clearinghouse for these transactions.The author of this strategy ranks very high in finance and law but he cautions, as do I, that you should utilize the services of only the most sophisticated property lawyers licensed to do business in appropriate jurisdictions before initiating any action under this delightful reversal of fortune, restoring equity, possession and clearing title to the millions of properties that could fall under the rubric of his plan. He even invites others to compete with his group, starting their own clearing houses (like a dating service) since he obviously could not handle all the volume.

The bottom line is that it leaves you in your home paying low rent on a long-term lease, forces the pretender lender (non-creditor) to file a judicial foreclosure, and throws a monkey wrench into the current  foreclosure scheme. I am not endorsing it, just reporting it. This is not legal advice. It is for information and entertainment purposes.

  1. John Smith and Mary Jones each own homes that are underwater. Maybe they live near each other, maybe they don’t. To make it simple let’s assume they are in the same subdivision in the same model house and each owes $500,000 on a house that is now worth $250,000. Their payments for amortization and interest are currently $3500 per month. The likelihood that their homes will ever be worth more than the principal due on the mortgage is zero.
  2. John and Mary are both up to date on their payments but considering just walking away because they have no stake in the outcome. Rents for comparable homes in their neighborhoods are a fraction of what they are paying monthly now on a mortgage based upon a false appraisal value.
  3. In those states where mortgages are officially or unofficially “non-recourse” they can’t be sued for the loss that the bank takes on repossession, sale or foreclosure.
  4. John and Mary find out about each other and enter into the following deal:
  5. First, John and Mary enter into 15 year lease wherein Mary takes possession of John’s house and pays $1,000 per month in a net-net lease (Tenant pays all expenses — taxes, insurance, maintenance and utilities). There are some laws around (Federal and State) that state that even if the house is foreclosed, the “Buyer” must honor the terms of the lease. But even in those jurisdictions where the lease itself is subject to being foreclosed, John and Mary agree to RECORD the lease along with an option to purchase the house for $250,000 (fair market value) wherein the seller takes a note for the balance at a 3% interest rate amortized over 30 years.
  6. So now Mary can have possession of the John house under a lease like any tenant. And she has an option to purchase the house for $250,000. And it’s all recorded just like the state’s recording statutes say you should.
  7. Second, John and Mary enter into a 15 year lease wherein John takes possession of Mary’s house and pays $1,000 per month in a net-net lease (Tenant pays all expenses — taxes, insurance, maintenance and utilities). There are some laws around (Federal and State) that state that even if the house is foreclosed, the “Buyer” must honor the terms of the lease. But even in those jurisdictions where the lease itself is subject to being foreclosed, John and Mary agree to RECORD the lease along with an option to purchase the house for $250,000 (fair market value) wherein the seller takes a note for the balance at a 3% interest rate amortized over 30 years.
  8. So now John can have possession of the Mary house under a lease like any tenant. And he has an option to purchase the house for $250,000. And it’s all recorded just like the state’s recording statutes say you should.
  9. Third, John and Mary enter into a sublease (expressly permitted under the terms of the original lease) where in John (or his wife or other relative) sublet the John house from Mary for $1100 per month.
  10. So John now has rights to possession of the John house under a sublease. In other words, he doesn’t move.
  11. Fourth John and Mary enter into a sublease (expressly permitted under the terms of the original lease) where in Mary (or her husband or other relative) sublet the Mary house from John for$1100 per month.
  12. So Mary now has rights to possession of the Mary house under a sublease. In other words, she doesn’t move.
  13. Fifth, under terms expressly allowed in the lease and sublease, John and Mary SWAP options to purchase and record that instrument as well as an assignment.
  14. So now John has an option to purchase the home he started with for $250,000 and Mary has an option to purchase the home she started with for $250,000 and both of them are now tenants in their own homes.
  15. Presumably under this plan eviction or unlawful detainer is not an option for anyone claiming to be a creditor, wanting to foreclose. Obviously you would want to consult with a very knowledgeable property lawyer licensed in the appropriate jurisdiction before launching this strategy.
  16. In the event of foreclosure, even in a non-judicial state, would be subject to rules requiring a judicial foreclosure which means the pretender lender would be required to plead and prove their status as creditor and their right to collect on the note and foreclose on the mortgage.
  17. Meanwhile, after all their documents are duly recorded, John and Mary start paying rent pursuant to their sublease and stop paying anyone on the mortgages.
  18. Any would-be forecloser would probably have a claim to collect that rent, but other than that they are stuck with a house where they got title (under dubious color of authority) without any right to possession (unless they prove a case to the contrary — the burden is on them).
  19. If you want to slip in a poison pill, you could put a provision in the lease that in the event of foreclosure or any proceedings that threaten dispossession or derogation of the lease rights, the lease converts from a net-net lease to a gross lease so the party getting title still gets the rent payment but now is required to pay the taxes, insurance and maintenance. Hence the commencement of foreclosure proceedings would trigger a negative cash flow for the would-be forecloser.
  20. To further poison the well, you could provide expressly in the lease that the failure of the landlord or successor to the Landlord to properly maintain tax, insurance and maintenance payments on the property is a material breach, triggering the right of the Tenant to withhold rent payments, and triggering a reduction of the option price from $250,000 to $125,000 with the same terms — tender of a  note, unsecured, for the full purchase price payable in equal monthly installments of interest and principal.

Not much difference than the chain of securitization is it?

January 24, 2010
Economic View New York Times

Underwater, but Will They Leave the Pool?

By RICHARD H. THALER

MUCH has been said about the high rate of home foreclosures, but the most interesting question may be this: Why is the mortgage default rate so low?

After all, millions of American homeowners are “underwater,” meaning that they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. In Nevada, nearly two-thirds of homeowners are in this category. Yet most of them are dutifully continuing to pay their mortgages, despite substantial financial incentives for walking away from them.

A family that financed the entire purchase of a $600,000 home in 2006 could now find itself still owing most of that mortgage, even though the home is now worth only $300,000. The family could rent a similar home for much less than its monthly mortgage payment, saving thousands of dollars a year and hundreds of thousands over a decade.

Some homeowners may keep paying because they think it’s immoral to default. This view has been reinforced by government officials like former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who while in office said that anyone who walked away from a mortgage would be “simply a speculator — and one who is not honoring his obligation.” (The irony of a former investment banker denouncing speculation seems to have been lost on him.)

But does this really come down to a question of morality?

A provocative paper by Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona, makes the case that borrowers are actually suffering from a “norm asymmetry.” In other words, they think they are obligated to repay their loans even if it is not in their financial interest to do so, while their lenders are free to do whatever maximizes profits. It’s as if borrowers are playing in a poker game in which they are the only ones who think bluffing is unethical.

That norm might have been appropriate when the lender was the local banker. More commonly these days, however, the loan was initiated by an aggressive mortgage broker who maximized his fees at the expense of the borrower’s costs, while the debt was packaged and sold to investors who bought mortgage-backed securities in the hope of earning high returns, using models that predicted possible default rates.

The morality argument is especially weak in a state like California or Arizona, where mortgages are so-called nonrecourse loans. That means the mortgage is secured by the home itself; in a default, the lender has no claim on a borrower’s other possessions. Nonrecourse mortgages may be viewed as financial transactions in which the borrower has the explicit option of giving the lender the keys to the house and walking away. Under these circumstances, deciding whether to default might be no more controversial than deciding whether to claim insurance after your house burns down.

In fact, borrowers in nonrecourse states pay extra for the right to default without recourse. In a report prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Susan Woodward, an economist, estimated that home buyers in such states paid an extra $800 in closing costs for each $100,000 they borrowed. These fees are not made explicit to the borrower, but if they were, more people might be willing to default, figuring that they had paid for the right to do so.

Morality aside, there are other factors deterring “strategic defaults,” whether in recourse or nonrecourse states. These include the economic and emotional costs of giving up one’s home and moving, the perceived social stigma of defaulting, and a serious hit to a borrower’s credit rating. Still, if they added up these costs, many households might find them to be far less than the cost of paying off an underwater mortgage.

An important implication is that we could be facing another wave of foreclosures, spurred less by spells of unemployment and more by strategic thinking. Research shows that bankruptcies and foreclosures are “contagious.” People are less likely to think it’s immoral to walk away from their home if they know others who have done so. And if enough people do it, the stigma begins to erode.

A spurt of strategic defaults in a neighborhood might also reduce some other psychic costs. For example, defaulting is more attractive if I can rent a nearby house that is much like mine (whose owner has also defaulted) without taking my children away from their friends and their school.

So far, lenders have been reluctant to renegotiate mortgages, and government programs to stimulate renegotiation have not gained much traction.

Eric Posner, a law professor, and Luigi Zingales, an economist, both from the University of Chicago, have made an interesting suggestion: Any homeowner whose mortgage is underwater and who lives in a ZIP code where home prices have fallen at least 20 percent should be eligible for a loan modification. The bank would be required to reduce the mortgage by the average price reduction of homes in the neighborhood. In return, it would get 50 percent of the average gain in neighborhood prices — if there is one — when the house is eventually sold.

Because their homes would no longer be underwater, many people would no longer have a reason to default. And they would be motivated to maintain their homes because, if they later sold for more than the average price increase, they would keep all the extra profit.

Banks are unlikely to endorse this if they think people will keep paying off their mortgages. But if a new wave of foreclosures begins, the banks, too, would be better off under this plan. Rather than getting only the house’s foreclosure value, they would also get part of the eventual upside when the owner voluntarily sold the house.

This plan, which would require Congressional action, would not cost the government anything. It may not be perfect, but something like it may be necessary to head off a tsunami of strategic defaults.

Richard H. Thaler is a professor of economics and behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings enriched themselves by assigning high ratings to bonds backed by mortgages “that were designed to fail”

NATION’S HOUSING

Civil rights complaint targets Wall Street rating firms
Moody’s and Fitch’s high ratings of subprime mortgage bonds disproportionately harmed black and Latino home buyers, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition alleges.
By Kenneth R. Harney
November 30, 2008
In what is apparently the first legal action of its kind, an association of community-based organizations has filed a federal civil rights complaint against two of the three largest Wall Street rating firms, charging that their inflated ratings on subprime mortgage bonds disproportionately caused financial harm to African American and Latino home buyers across the country.

The complaint, filed by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, alleges that Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings enriched themselves by assigning high ratings to bonds backed by mortgages “that were designed to fail” because of “unfair payment terms and insufficient borrower income levels.”

The firms “knew or should have known” that subprime loans disproportionately were marketed to minority consumers — a process known as “reverse redlining” — and that those borrowers would ultimately default and go into foreclosure at high rates, according to the coalition’s complaint.

Fitch Managing Director David Weinfurter said the NCRC’s filing “is fully without merit, and Fitch intends to defend itself vigorously.” Moody’s had no immediate comment.

The filing cites multiple studies that found that African Americans and Latinos received a disproportionate share of subprime loans during the housing boom years. A Federal Reserve study in 2006 estimated that 45% of mortgages extended to Latinos and 55% of loans to African Americans were subprime — a utilization rate “three to four times that of non-Hispanic whites.”

Because the loans themselves often came with terms that increased borrowers’ probability of default — upfront teaser rates followed by unaffordable reset payment adjustments, no required documentation of applicants’ incomes or assets, plus hefty prepayment penalties — African Americans with subprime mortgages are projected to lose $71 billion to $92 billion through foreclosures, while Latinos are projected to lose $75 billion to $98 billion, according to one study cited in the complaint.

“Had subprime loans been distributed equitably,” the complaint estimates, “losses for whites would be 44.5% higher and losses for people of color would be about 24% lower.”

A third rating firm with heavy involvement in the subprime boom, Standard & Poor’s Corp., was not named in the complaint but has been “in discussions” with the NCRC, said David Berenbaum, the group’s executive vice president. If the discussions with S&P prove “unsatisfactory,” he said, the company could be the subject of a separate action.

The NCRC filed its complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair housing and equal opportunity unit. After a review, HUD could either dismiss the allegations or refer the case to the Justice Department of the incoming Obama administration for litigation next year. If HUD fails to respond adequately, the NCRC says it may file a federal civil lawsuit.

The civil rights complaint is the latest in a series of lawsuits, regulatory investigations and congressional criticism of the rating firms’ roles and conduct during the mortgage bond heyday years of 2003-05. In dollar terms, subprime and so-called Alt-A no-documentation loans accounted for 32% of all mortgage originations in 2005. Their share had been 10% two years before. Virtually all of those high-risk loans were sold to Wall Street firms for inclusion in complex bond structures that were resold, often in bits and pieces, to pension funds and financial institutions.

The traditional function of the rating firms has been that of Wall Street’s “gatekeepers,” evaluating the risks involved in the collateral backing bonds. Their assignment of investment-grade ratings to securities based on high-risk mortgages — and their subsequent mass lowering of those ratings as default losses piled up — has earned them scorching criticism from investors, regulators and Congress.

Much of the criticism focused on the fact that the firms are paid lucrative fees for their ratings by bond issuers themselves — not investors — thereby creating potential conflicts of interest. The firms also competed with one another to rate subprime loan securitizations, creating additional pressure to provide the most favorable possible ratings.

The Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the rating firms this year and found “serious shortcomings” at Moody’s, Fitch and S&P, including lack of oversight of conflicts of interest. Investigators also turned up evidence that employees apparently knew that some of the mortgage pools they were rating were potentially toxic.

In one instant-message exchange, an analyst reportedly called a deal “ridiculous. . . . We should not be rating it.” A colleague responded: “We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.”

Critics such as Berenbaum contend that without mass securitizations of high-risk mortgages — with stamps of approval from the rating firms — far fewer subprime loans would have been made, and far fewer minority home buyers would have ended up in foreclosure.

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