Obama promised justice to abused American homeowners. Have they gotten it?
By Yves Smith
Editor’s Note: In his 2012 State of The Union address, President Obama spoke of American homeowners abused by unscrupulous banks and financial institutions. Have they gotten justice? What follows is the first in a new series examining foreclosure settlements and the disturbing patterns of incomptency, malfeasance, and conflicts of interest which have marked their execution. Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism takes a deep dive into the mire of America’s mortage industry and investigates the continued suffering of the public at the hands of greedy predators.
On January 7, 2013, ten servicers entered into an $8.5 billion settlement with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve, terminating a foreclosure review process which was set forth in consent orders issued in April 2010. Borrowers who had had foreclosures that were pending or had completed foreclosure sales in 2009 and 2010 could request an investigation by independent reviewers, selected and paid for by the servicers but subject to approval by the OCC.
Some experts argued that the 2009 and 2010 time range was too narrow and excluded many borrowers who had been treated improperly. These professionals also questioned whether the investigators would operate independently and fairly. Nevertheless, the reviews were touted as delivering a measure of justice to abused homeowners, since any found to be have suffered wrongful foreclosures were to receive sizable monetary awards, and smaller payments would be made to those who experienced other forms of abuse. As HUD Secretary Shuan Donovan proclaimed:
For families who suffered much deeper harm — who may have been improperly foreclosed on and lost their homes and could therefore be owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages — the settlement preserves their ability to get justice in two key ways.
First, it recognizes that the federal banking regulators have established a process through which these families can receive help by requesting a review of their file. If a borrower can document that they were improperly foreclosed on, they can receive every cent of the compensation they are entitled to through that process.
Second, the agreement preserves the right of homeowners to take their servicer to court. Indeed, if banks or other financial institutions broke the law or treated the families they served unfairly, they should pay the price — and with this settlement they will.
Yet the foreclosure investigation was halted abruptly, with the OCC and the Fed failing to identify any methodology for how the portion of the settlement allotted to cash awards, $3.3 billion, would be distributed to homeowners who might have been harmed in 2009 to 2010, an astonishing lapse that will almost certainly result in small payments being made to large numbers of borrowers, irrespective of whether they deserved vasty more or nothing at all.*
But except from its hamhandedness, this outcome was no surprise to astute observers. The OCC consent orders had been launched in an unsuccessful effort to render the ongoing 50 state attorney general/Federal negotiations moot. Critics described how these orders were regulatory theater, with Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin comparing them to promising in public to spank a child, then taking him indoors and giving him a snuggle. Leaks during the course of the reviews confirmed these concerns, revealing deep-seated conflicts, limited competence among the review firms, half-hearted efforts to reach eligible homeowners, and aggressive efforts by the banks to suppress any findings of harm.
As grim as this sounds, the conduct was worse than the leaks suggested. After extensive debriefing of Bank of America whistleblowers, we found overwhelming evidence that the bank engaged in certain abuses frequently, in some cases pervasively, in its servicing of delinquent mortgages. This is particularly important because Bank of America has been identified in previous settlements as far and away the biggest mortgage miscreant, paying over 40% of last year’s state/federal mortgage settlement among the five biggest servicers. …