Pecora Weeps

After J.P. Morgan was questioned by Congressional investigator Ferdinand Pecora during a 1930s investigation of the causes of the Great Crash, the legendary financier complained that Pecora (photo) had “the manners of a prosecuting attorney who is trying to convict a horse thief.” Morgan was also embarrassed when a Ringling Bros. publicity agent placed a diminutive circus performer on his lap in the middle of the proceedings.

At this week’s public hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the nation’s most powerful bankers were, unfortunately, treated with a lot more deference. Sure, there was one satisfying exchange between FCIC Chairman Phil Angelides and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein in which Angelides likened the firm’s practice of betting against the very securities it was peddling to clients to that of selling someone a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer.

But those moments were rare. For the most part, the bankers came away unscathed. Most of the ten commissioners treated them not as suspected criminals whose misdeeds needed to be probed, but rather as experts whose opinions on the causes of the crisis were being solicited. This gave the bankers abundant opportunities to pontificate about industry and regulatory practices while avoiding any incriminating admissions about their own firm’s behavior.

For example, Commissioner Heather Murren, CEO of the Nevada Cancer Institute, asked Blankfein whether there should be “more supervision of the kinds of activities that are undertaken by investment banks?” This allowed him to babble on about the “sociology…of our regulation before and after becoming a bank holding company.”

The bankers seemed to have expected tougher questioning. Their opening statements sought to soften the interrogation by conceding some general culpability, though it was done in a mostly generic way. Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase admitted that “new and poorly underwritten mortgage products helped fuel housing price appreciation, excessive speculation and core higher credit losses.” John Mack of Morgan Stanley acknowledged that “there is no doubt that we as an industry made mistakes.” And Brian Moynihan, the new CEO of Bank of America, noted: “Over the course of the crisis, we, as an industry, caused a lot of damage.”

But much too little time was spent by the commissioners exploring how the giant firms represented on the panel contributed to that damage. A search of the transcript of the hearing produced by CQ Transcriptions and posted on the database service Factiva indicates that the word “predatory” was not used once during the time the four top bankers were testifying.

The commissioners failed to challenge most of the self-serving statements made by the bankers to give the impression that, despite whatever vague transgressions were going on in the industry, their own firms were squeaky clean. Even Angelides failed to pin them down. When he asked Blankfein to state “the two most significant instances of negligent, improper and bad behavior in which your firm engaged and for which you would apologize” the Goldman CEO admitted only to contributing to “elements of froth in the market.” Angelides asked whether that included anything “negligent or improper.” Blankfein again evaded the question and the Chairman gave up.

The bankers also went unchallenged in making statements that were incomplete if not outright erroneous. When Blankfein, for example, claimed that Goldman deals only with institutional investors and “high-net-worth individuals,” no one pointed out the firm’s ties to Litton Loan Servicing, which has handled large numbers of subprime and often predatory home mortgages.

The Goldman chief also made much of the fact that he and other top executives of the firm took no bonuses in 2008. That’s true, but he failed to mention that, according to Goldman’s proxy statement, he alone became more than $25 million richer that year when previously granted stock awards vested.

The bankers were at their slipperiest when it came to the few questions about the issue of being too big to fail. They would not, of course, admit to being too big, but in spite of every indication that the federal government would never allow another Lehman Brothers-type collapse to occur, they labored mightily to argue that they could conceivably go under. This notwithstanding the fact that a couple of them had just thanked U.S. taxpayers for the financial assistance their firms had received.

I suppose it’s possible that the Commission is saving its best shots for later stages of the investigation and its final report, but its handling of the banker hearing deprived the public of a chance to see some of the prime villains of the current crisis get a much-deserved tongue-lashing.

CIT: R.I.P.?

cit1When CIT Group realized it was in really big trouble, the commercial finance company apparently thought it could count on Uncle Sam to come to the rescue. About a week ago, it leaked the news that it was considering bankruptcy and waited for the Treasury Department to respond to dire warnings about the consequences for the small and medium businesses that make up most of the company’s customer base.

After all, CIT had already received $2.3 billion in TARP money last year after converting itself to a bank holding company. Other struggling TARP recipients, like Citigroup, had been able to come back for additional infusions as Tim Geithner showed himself to be a soft touch for large financial institutions.

To the surprise of CIT, it got rebuffed by the Obama Administration and will now have to file for Chapter 11 unless some deep-pocketed investors step in. CIT, with assets of about $75 billion, is a large but not a giant institution. It thus does not seem to meet the Geithner standard: it is not too big to fail.

While it is possible to understand CIT’s frustration, the company does not deserve too much sympathy. Putting size aside, there are reasons why CIT was not exactly a worthy candidate for a taxpayer handout. This is a case in which perhaps the right question to ask was whether the company in need was  too flawed to save.

For decades, CIT played a useful function in the business system with services such as commercial lending, factoring and equipment leasing. But in 1980 it developed an identity crisis as it was acquired by RCA in the first of what would be a long series of ownership changes. Two decades later it came under the control of Tyco International, the shady conglomerate headed by Dennis Kozlowski, who would later be convicted of misappropriation of corporate funds and become infamous for the extravagant lifestyle–including a $6,000 shower curtain–he enjoyed with those funds.

CIT split from Tyco in 2002 and sought to make a new name for itself. Unfortunately, the way it did that was to get into two very sleazy businesses. In 2005 it entered the student loan market. Within two years, CIT’s Student Loan Xpress was being investigated by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for paying kickbacks to university officials who steered students into predatory loans. Faced with a scandal, CIT agreed in May 2007 to sign a code of ethical conduct drawn up by Cuomo. It then booted out the president of Student Loan Xpress and later exited the business.

The other new endeavor was subprime home mortgages. For a while this dubious business boosted CIT’s earnings, but when the subprime market turned sour, the company took a big hit. In 2007–shortly after telling Investment Dealers Digest that “our subprime profile is strong”–it started posting losses and was forced to write down the value of its subprime portfolio by $765 million. It ended up leaving this field as well. CIT lost some $633 million in 2008.

CIT’s reputation was also tarnished in 2005, when it and two other leasing companies agreed to a $24 million settlement of charges brought in two dozen states about their links to the crooked telecom services company NorVergence.

In recent years, CIT has promoted itself using an advertising campaign based on the tag line Capital Redefined. Apparently, the new definition of capital is to engage in unethical business practices and then expect the federal government to come to your assistance when market conditions turn against you. Large or small, that kind of company is not worth saving.

Adding New Floors to the Bailout House of Cards

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke have added a few more floors to their ever-expanding bailout house of cards. Their two agencies kicked in another $800 billion in the latest frantic effort to ward off financial collapse. The Fed is putting up $600 billion to buy mortgage-backed securities and mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This seems, at least initially, to have brought down mortgage rates—assuming anyone is in a position these days to buy a house.

The plan for the other $200 billion is more dubious. Treasury and the Fed are going to use those funds to make loans to consumer finance companies, which in turn would be in a position to provide more auto loans, student loans and credit cards. Yet, as with the bailout of the banks, there seems to be no actual requirement that the finance companies use their new liquidity to open the spigots to consumers. We are apparently supposed to take it on faith that these lenders will in fact lend, even though it’s now clear that many of the banks used their federal assistance for other purposes.

Another questionable assumption in the plan is that consumers are aching to borrow more money. With unemployment soaring and the value of retirement savings dwindling, most people are opting for austerity, not seeking to add to their already heavy debt load. Creating more jobs and boosting household income are more urgent than allowing people to go further into hock.

And finally, it is worth recalling that many of the consumer finance companies have been as predatory in their lending as the unscrupulous subprime mortgage lenders. Nowhere is this truer than in the credit card business. These are the companies that, thanks to deregulation in their industry, have been gouging consumers with usurious interest rates and punishing fees.

The idea that bailing out these firms is the way to help consumers is yet another indication of the warped thinking of Paulson and Bernanke. It does not occur to them that the solution might be to lessen the hold that the card companies have on consumers—through measures such as interest rate reductions—rather than intensifying it. But what can you expect from what has become a government of the financial institutions, by the financial institutions and for the financial institutions.

Consumers Beware: Henry Paulson is Coming to Your Rescue

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is once again trying to pull off a sleight of hand in his execution of the financial crisis, but he’s a lousy magician. His first trick—trying to depict the existing rescue plan as a success—fell flat. While Paulson tried to take credit yesterday for a “major accomplishment,” there is growing consensus that Treasury’s use of some $300 billion in federal funds to invest in a variety of banks has done little to achieve its intended purpose of stimulating home mortgage and business lending.

The ineffectiveness of the plan may be traced in part to a lack of oversight. As the Washington Post points out today, Treasury has so far taken no formal action to implement the safeguards that Congress included in the legislation authorizing the original bailout plan. Absent those provisions, Paulson found it easy to completely transform the plan that had been steamrolled through Congress—the federal purchase of toxic securities from banks. Yesterday, Paulson formally acknowledged what had become apparent in recent weeks: that he had abandoned the asset-purchase scheme in favor of a complete focus on capital infusions.

For his next trick, the Great Paulson is applying that same technique to the consumer finance sector. Using language similar to his scare talk in September about the housing and business finance sectors, Paulson yesterday warned that consumer finance “is currently in distress, costs of funding have skyrocketed and new issue activity has come to a halt. Today, the illiquidity in this sector is raising the cost and reducing the availability of car loans, student loans and credit cards.”

No doubt that is all true, but Paulson’s apparent plan to address the crisis is more of the same. Rather than helping consumers directly, he intends to provide capital infusions to the corporations that are supposed to provide those loans. In other words, he is applying the same dubious logic as with the bank investments: Prop up the balance sheets of the lenders and the loans will start flowing again.

Keep in mind that the consumer finance industry followed the same path as home lending in recent years. Shaky and often predatory loans were pushed on struggling borrowers and then repackaged as asset-backed securities that are now in precarious condition. Paulson’s infusions will go to the same companies that perpetuated that abusive system.

And even if we are willing to forgive the consumer finance companies for their transgressions, why should we expect that they will respond any differently to the Treasury investments than the commercial banks did? Given Paulson’s aversion to putting any significant strings on the federal investments, it’s likely that the consumer finance firms will follow banks in using the money to fund acquisitions and dividends rather than opening up the spigot for consumers.

What Paulson can’t seem to understand is that lenders of all kinds are spooked by the weakness of the economy. Credit is based on the faith that the borrower can repay the loan, and for now almost no one looks trustworthy. Until significant steps are taken to boost employment and household income, all the federal investments in the financial sector serve as nothing more than corporate handouts. Maybe that’s Paulson’s real sleight of hand.

Goldman Sachs’s Dirty Little Secret

Last week the American News Project put a human face on the economic crisis with a moving video report about a woman named Jocelyn Voltaire facing foreclosure on her home in Queens, New York after she fell victim to a predatory lending scheme. The report mentioned that the foreclosure was being pursued by Litton Loan Servicing, a company tied to Goldman Sachs. Given that much of the economic policy of the United States is being carried out these days by former Goldman executives, including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, I was curious to find out more about this firm.

It turns out that Houston-based Litton is a leading player in a field known as subprime servicing. These firms specialize in the handling of subprime (frequently predatory) mortgages in which the homeowner has fallen behind in payments and is at risk of foreclosure. In other words, they are a type of collection agency dealing with those in the most vulnerable and most desperate financial circumstances. Litton services some $54 billion in such loans.

Subprime servicers such as Litton claim their mission is to help homeowners put their mortgage back in good standing. Yet, Litton has frequently been accused of engaging in abusive practices. According to the Justia database, the company has been sued more than 100 times in federal court since the beginning of 2004. In 2007 a federal judge in California granted class-action status to a group of plaintiffs who charged that the company’s late-fee practices violated the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. The case is pending. Meanwhile, individual suits continue to be filed. For example, in June homeowner James J. Portley Sr. sued Litton in federal court in Philadelphia for using “false, deceptive, misleading and evasive practices” in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (case 08-CV-02799).

Litton has also been accused of being overly aggressive in pressing for foreclosure when a homeowner has difficulty catching up. Last year the Houston Press described the controversies surrounding the company by focusing on one of Litton’s own employees who alleged that the firm had unfairly forced her into foreclosure.

Litton was founded in 1988 by Larry B. Litton Sr., who still runs the firm despite several changes in ownership. In December 2007 Goldman Sachs bought the company for $428 million, plus repayment of $916 million of outstanding Litton debt obligations. The deal was covered in the mortgage trade press, though Goldman, which may not have wanted the wider world to know of its investment, never issued even a routine press release.

Goldman is not the only major bank with direct involvement in subprime servicing (Bank of America’s Countrywide Financial is at the top of the rankings), but the movement of its executives into top federal policymaking positions raises serious questions. Is Hank Paulson’s resistance to measures that would directly help struggling homeowners a conscious or unconscious effort to help Goldman’s Litton operation?

Sunday’s New York Times business section reported that the role of Goldman alumni in handling the current economic crisis has prompted a new nickname for the firm: Government Sachs. Its involvement in the dubious business of subprime servicing suggests that another sobriquet may be in order: Bloodsucker Sachs.

State Attorneys General to the Rescue

Jerry Brown, once derided as Governor Moonbeam because of his unorthodox ideas while serving as the chief executive of California, today showed that he is much more in touch with reality than the U.S. Congress and the Bush Administration. Brown, currently California’s attorney general, announced a settlement under which one of the worst predatory lenders will be compelled to spend more than $8 billion to assist borrowers who are confronting foreclosure.

Congress, at the behest of the Administration, approved a misguided bill that bails out major banks to the tune of $700 billion and provides little direct assistance for struggling homeowners—and still may not solve the credit crunch. Brown (photo)  and the attorneys general of ten other states went to the real heart of the problem. Earlier this year, they sued subprime lender Countrywide Financial (now owned by Bank of America) and have now gotten the company to disgorge some of its ill-gotten gains tied to the subprime mortgages it was peddling.

Today’s settlement with Countrywide – which Brown’s office played a central role in bringing about – is by far the largest recovery from a predatory lender. Bank of America, downplaying the disgrace of its subsidiary, put out a press release announcing “the creation of a proactive home retention program that will systematically modify troubled mortgages” for nearly 400,000 Countrywide customers. The release manages to avoid any use of the terms “predatory,” “lawsuit” or “litigation” – as if B of A just came up with the idea in informal discussions with the attorneys general.

What’s more important than the spin is the substance of the settlement, which includes options such as interest rate and principal reductions as well as complete Federal Housing Administration refinancing under the HOPE for Homeowners Program. There is also financial assistance for those whose homes have already been foreclosed.

This settlement by itself seems to do more to help homeowners than the whole ballyhooed federal bailout. Bravo to the AGs, who should continue using the power of crusading litigation to go after all the culprits in the crisis.

And what was it conservatives were saying about curbing “frivolous” lawsuits?

Lehman’s Bad Karma

The downfall of Lehman Brothers is bad news for its employees and shareholders, but it is difficult to avoid the feeling that, apart from the laws of the market, the law of karma may be at work as well.

After all, Lehman was a firm built on a slave economy. It was founded as a cotton brokerage by a German family that emigrated to Alabama in the 1840s. According to Robert Rosen’s book The Jewish Confederates, partner Mayer Lehman (image) was an active supporter of the Confederacy. In 1864, the governor of Alabama enlisted him in an effort to help Southern prisoners of war being held in the North, describing him in a letter to Jefferson Davis as “a foreigner” but “thoroughly identified with us.” The Lehmans helped rebuild the economy of Alabama after the Civil War.

Some 130 years later, Lehman Brothers got involved in financing what some have called a new form of slavery: private prisons. During the late 1990s Lehman was a key underwriter for securities issued by Corrections Corporation of America, by CCA’s real estate investment trust spinoff, and by some of CCA competitors.

More relevant to the current crisis is the fact that Lehman was a pioneer in the dubious business of packaging subprime loans as collateral for high-yield bonds. It provided major financial backing for First Alliance Corp., a leading practitioner of predatory lending. For this reason, Lehman was targeted by activist groups such as ACORN, and in 2000 the firm was sued by some of First Alliance’s victims. A federal jury in the case later found that Lehman had aided and abetted First Alliance in its scheme to cheat borrowers.

Despite these early signs that securitization of shaky mortgages might have drawbacks, Lehman charged ahead. Not only did it encourage investors to take the plunge, the firm filled its own balance sheet with some $300 billion in mortgage-backed securities. Lehman paved the way for the crisis that is roiling the financial world and became one of its prime victims.

According to a 2004 article in the Wall Street Journal, Lehman CEO Richard Fuld used to tape critiques of his son’s hockey performance while watching games from the bleachers. When the boy played better, he was rewarded with Lehman stock. Assuming he held onto those shares, one can only wonder how the younger Fuld feels now that the fruits of his efforts are virtually worthless. Perhaps a bit like all those people who lost their homes to the predatory lending backed by his father’s firm.