Archive for the ‘Mortgage industry’ Category

The 2013 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Monopoly_Go_Directly_To_Jail-T-linkThe ongoing corporate crime wave showed no signs of abating in 2013. Large companies continued to break the law, violate regulations and otherwise misbehave at a high rate. Whatever lip service the business world gives to corporate social responsibility tends to be overwhelmed by bad acts.

Continuing the trend of recent years, 2013 saw an escalation of the amounts that companies have to pay, especially in the United States, to get themselves out of their legal entanglements. In November JPMorgan Chase set a record with its $13 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and other state and local agencies on charges relating to the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. JPMorgan’s legal problems are not over. There have recently been reports that it may face criminal charges and pay $2 billion in penalties in connection with charges that it turned a blind eye to the Ponzi scheme being run by Bernard Madoff while it was serving as his primary bank.

Other banks have also been shelling out large sums to resolve disputes over the sale of toxic securities in the run-up to the financial crisis. Much of the money has gone to settlements with mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Bank of America alone agreed to pay out $10.3 billion ($3.6 billion in cash and $6.75 billion in mortgage repurchases) to Fannie.

Here are some of the year’s other highlights (or lowlights):

FORECLOSURE ABUSES. In January, ten mortgage servicing companies–including Bank of America, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase–agreed to an $8.5 billion settlement to resolve allegations by federal regulators relating to foreclosure abuses.

LIBOR MANIPULATION. In February, U.S. and UK regulators announced that the Royal Bank of Scotland would pay a total of $612 million to resolve allegations relating to rigging of the LIBOR interest rate index. In December, the European Union fined RBS and five other banks a total of $2.3 billion in connection with LIBOR manipulation.

ILLEGAL MARKETING. In November, the Justice Department announced that Johnson & Johnson would pay more than $2.2 billion to settle criminal and civil allegations that it improperly marketed the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for unapproved use by older adults, children and people with development disabilities.

SALE OF DEFECTIVE MEDICAL IMPLANTS. Also in November, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay more than $2 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits charging that the company sold defective hip implants, causing many individuals to suffer severe pain and injury from metallic debris generated by the faulty devices.

INSIDER TRADING. In March, the SEC announced that an affiliate of hedge fund giant SAC Capital Advisors had agreed to pay $602 million to settle SEC charges that it participated in an insider trading scheme involving a clinical trial for an Alzheimer’s drug being jointly developed by two pharmaceutical companies. At the same time, a second SAC affiliate agreed to pay $14 million to settle another insider trading case. Later, SAC agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle related criminal and civil insider trading charges.

PRICE-FIXING. In July, German officials fined steelmaker ThyssenKrupp the equivalent of about $115 million for its role in a price-fixing cartel. In September, the U.S. Justice Department announced that nine Japanese automotive suppliers had agreed to plead guilty to price-fixing conspiracy charges and pay more than $740 million in criminal fines, with the largest amount ($195 million) to be paid by Hitachi Automotive Systems.

MANIPULATION OF ENERGY PRICES. In July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered Barclays and four of its traders to pay $453 million in civil penalties for manipulating electricity prices in California and other western U.S. markets during a two-year period beginning in late 2006.

BRIBERY. In May, the Justice Department announced that the French oil company Total had agreed to pay $398 million to settle charges that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying bribes to officials in Iran.

VIOLATION OF DRUG SAFETY RULES. In May, DOJ announced that generic drug maker Ranbaxy USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Indian company Ranbaxy Laboratories, had pleaded guilty to felony charges relating to the manufacture and distribution of adulterated drugs and would pay $500 million in fines.

VIOLATION OF RULES ON THE SALE OF NARCOTICS. In June, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that the giant Walgreen pharmacy chain would pay a record $80 million in civil penalties to resolve charges that it failed to properly control the sales of narcotic painkillers at some of its stores.

DEALINGS WITH ENTITIES SUBJECT TO SANCTIONS. In June, New York officials announced that Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi-UFJ had agreed to pay $250 million to settle allegations that it violated state banking laws by engaging in transactions with entities from countries such as Iran subject to sanctions.

LABOR LAW VIOLATIONS. In November, the National Labor Relations Board found that Wal-Mart had illegally disciplined and fired workers involved in protests over the company’s labor practices. A Wal-Mart spokesperson was found to have unlawfully threatened employees who were considering taking part in the actions.

CLEAN WATER ACT VIOLATIONS. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Wal-Mart had pleaded guilty to charges that it illegally disposed of hazardous materials at its stores across the country. The company had to pay $81.6 million in civil and criminal fines.

HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE VIOLATIONS. In August, Chevron pleaded no contest and agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges that it violated state health and safety regulations in connection with a fire at its refinery in Richmond, California that sent thousands of people to hospital for treatment of respiratory problems.

DELAYS IN RECALLING UNSAFE VEHICLES. In August, Ford Motor was fined $17.4 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for taking too long to recall unsafe sport utility vehicles.

PRIVACY VIOLATIONS. In November, Google agreed to pay $17 million to 37 states and the District of Columbia to settle allegations that the company violated privacy laws by tracking online activity of individuals without their knowledge.

Note: For fuller dossiers on many of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets.

A Cost of Doing Dirty Business

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

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.