A Cost of Doing Dirty Business

February 9th, 2012 by Phil Mattera

The Justice Department’s announcement of a $26 billion federal-state legal settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers is filled with words like “unprecedented,” “landmark” and “historic.” It claims that the deal “provides substantial financial relief to homeowners and establishes significant new homeowner protections for the future.”

All of this hyperbolic language cannot disguise the fact that the settlement is just the latest in a series of efforts by the Obama Administration to give the appearance of being tough on corporate misconduct while actually letting the malefactors off easily. It is disappointing that so many state attorneys general gave into pressure to go along with the deal.

The $17 billion of the total that the servicers will be required to spend on direct relief (mortgage balance reductions and cash payments) will aid only a fraction of the homeowners victimized by abusive mortgage and foreclosure practices. Like earlier efforts by the Administration to deal with the housing debacle, it will do nothing for most of those who have been dispossessed in one of the most egregious cases of corporate lawlessness this country has ever seen.

The size of the settlement pool is meager in connection with the $200 billion multi-state tobacco settlement of 1998, for instance, and it will not present much of a financial burden for the five big servicers. Those companies—Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC)—have combined assets of about $8 trillion. In other words, they are being asked to give up only about one-third of one percent of their total resources to resolve a crisis that has left so many with no resources at all.

Actually, the impact on the banks is even smaller than the absolute numbers would suggest. Many of the home loans that will be adjusted have already been written down in value by the financial institutions, so they are not really conceding anything. Meanwhile, those who have lost their homes to foreclosure will receive pitiful payments of about $2,000 each. There may be other pitfalls in the fine print of the settlement, which as of this writing has not yet been posted on the website created to publicize the deal.

The one good thing that can be said about the settlement is that, thanks to the insistence of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, it does not release the banks from culpability for all mortgage-related offenses, and it allows the state AGs to continue pursuing any criminal charges. This leaves the door open for cases such as the one taking place in Missouri, in which a foreclosure servicing company called DocX is being charged with forgery. Yet it remains to be seen how aggressive federal and state agencies will be in pursuing such cases if the settlement gives the impression that the book has been closed on foreclosure abuses.

That impression was reinforced by the announcements of bank regulators such as the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency that they have reached their own settlements with mortgage servicers.

Foreclosure abuses did not simply force people out of their homes in an unjust way. They exposed the imbalance of power between individuals and giant corporations when it comes to the application of the law. Capitalism is supposed to be based on the sanctity of contracts and the clear identification of ownership rights. Revelations that financial institutions were able to carry out foreclosures based on shoddy documentation, robo-signing and the like showed that, when it comes to the rule of law, not everyone is playing by the same rules.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan would have us believe that the settlement “forces the banks to clean up their acts and fix the problems uncovered during our investigations.” It can just as easily be said that the deal signals to large financial institutions that they can go on mistreating their customers and that the worst consequence would be modest financial penalties that can be written off as a cost of doing dirty business.

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