F-Bomb on Display on PBS Piece on Fraud by the Banks

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/untouchables/

“To hear some on Wall Street tell it, no one saw the financial crisis coming. As Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, explained to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, “In mortgage underwriting, somehow we just missed … that home prices don’t go up forever.”

Others were less confident. In fact, well before the housing bubble burst, alarm bells were starting  to sound among key players in the mortgage industry: due diligence underwriters.

Due diligence underwriters are paid by banks to assess the risk of buying mortgage portfolios. In the run-up to the crisis, they were among the first to suspect that loosening loan standards could pose a potentially catastrophic threat to the economy.

Several due diligence underwriters — most speaking publicly for the first time — told FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith that it wasn’t uncommon to see school teachers claiming salaries of $12,000 a month on their mortgage applications, or electricians moving from $500 a month in rent to homes worth $650,000. The only problem — their supervisors didn’t seem to want to hear about it.

“Fraud in the due diligence world, fraud was the F-word or the F-bomb,” said Tom Leonard. “You didn’t use that word,” — Jason Breslow, PBS

VIDEO: Fraud Was the F-Word as Contract Hourly Workers Toiled into the Night

Editor’s Comment: Most of the questions and answers are over and they lead straight to the top of the mega banks. If there was any actual risk of loss as opposed to the illusion of a risk of loss, most of the loans would not have been approved.

Since the banks were playing with investor money and essentially stealing it they had created a labyrinth of paperwork that was vague enough to enable them to claim plausible deniability and even the outright lie that Jamie Dimon told when he said that they never saw the meltdown coming because they too thought the market would always go up.

They stacked and compounded the risk elements such that the banks would be paid, the investors would lose their entire investment and the homeowners would be lured into deals that could not possibly work — especially when you factor in the known fact that the prices were spiked higher than anytime in the history of record keeping relative to actual value and the median income required to pay the mortgages. At the heart was fraud: fraud in the appraisal, fraud in the “underwriting,” fraud in the ratings, and fraud in the way the money chain and document chains were handled.

What has escaped most media analysts is that the higher the risk, the more money the banks made. By increasing the risk elements as high as they could go, the nominal interest rate on the loan was as high as it could go. By increasing the interest rate, less money was funded for loans than what was expected by the investors.

In order to achieve the expected return of $50,000 per year, the loan could have been a 5% loan, which is what the investors expected, and the Principal funded would be $1 million. If the interest rate was 10%, meaning the probability of repayment was low at best, then the funding goes down to $500,000 creating the illusion of satisfying the goal of $50,000 per year. If the interest rate was 15%, meaning there was no likelihood at all that the loan would survive, then the funding would have been $333,000.

But in both the 10% loan and the 15% loan, the investor advanced $1 million expecting the loan to be a safe loan to a credit worthy person on a piece of property that was truly worth more than the loan.  Thus a yield spread was created and the premium on that yield spread would have been $500,000 for the 10% loan, and $667,000 for the 15% loan. Where did the money go? Into the profits of the banks as proprietary trading activity that were all fictitious transactions.

The banks were supposed to provide triple-A rated bonds backed by good performing loans in which the viability of the deal had been underwritten, verified and confirmed as to income, value of the property etc. — and not just on the first day of the loan where the borrower paid a teaser rate.

Ask any banker doing conventional loans whether he or she would have approved any of the loans taken at random from the piles at Countrywide or WAMU. The answer is NO. I know because I did ask. Real loans have real risk. These were neither real loans nor did they carry any risk of loss to the purported players who were mere intermediaries violating the blueprint set forth in the prospectus and pooling and servicing agreement.

The mega banks, knowing that the loans were completely void for a variety of reasons, and knowing that the banks would some day need to create the illusion of an accounting, needed a state document (deed on foreclosure) to close the book or else the investors and borrowers would end up owning the bank.

But they went further. Having tasted the red meat of astonishing profit  margins they sought to increase their gains to astrophysical levels. They bought insurance and credit default swaps betting against the the very same loans they had underwritten and the very same bogus mortgage bonds they had underwritten and sold.

The results are well known. Banks collected 100% on the dollar repeatedly on the same loans and bonds even though none of the loans or bonds confirmed to the requirements of the disclosures to both the investors and the borrowers.

From http://www.pbs.org—–by Jason M. Breslow

One of Leonard’s peers, Eileen Loiacono, saw much of the same.

“You couldn’t say the word ‘fraud’ because we couldn’t prove that it was fraud. … Even if we suspected, we had to say, ‘This appears to be incorrect.’ You would never say, ‘This looks fraudulent.’”

In The Untouchables, premiering tonight, FRONTLINE examines why not one Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for fraud tied to the sale of bad mortgages. Through interviews with prosecutors, government officials and industry whistleblowers, the film raises new questions over whether senior bankers either ignored or contributed to fraud while inflating the bubble through the purchase and securitization of shoddy loans.

The Untouchables airs tonight on most PBS stations, (check your local listings here) or you can watch it online, starting at 10 pm EST.

Wrong Bailout

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Editor’s Comment:

It isn’t in our own mainstream media but the fact is that Europe is verging on  collapse. They are bailing out banks and taking them apart (something which our regulators refuse to do). The very same banks that caused the crisis are the ones that are going to claim they too need another bailout because of international defaults. The article below seems extreme but it might be right on target.

From the start the treatment of the banks had been wrong-headed and controlled by of course the banks themselves. With Jamie Dimon sitting on the Board of Directors of the NY FED, which is the dominatrix in the Federal Reserve system, what else would you expect?

The fact is that, as Iceland and other countries have proven beyond any reasonable doubt, the bailout of the banks is dead wrong and it is equally wrong-headed to give them the continued blank check to pursue business strategies that drain rather than infuse liquidity in economies that are ailing because of intentional acts of the banks to enrich themselves rather than the countries that give them license to exist.

The bailout we proposed every year and every month and practically every day on this blog is the only one that will work: reduce household debt, return things to normalcy (before the fake securitization of mortgages and other consumer and government debt) and without spending a dime of taxpayer money.  The right people will pay for this and the victims will get some measure of relief — enough to jump start economies that are in a death spiral.

Just look at home mortgages. They were based upon layers of lies that are almost endless and that continue through the present. But the principal lie, the one that made all the difference, was that the mortgage bonds were worth something and the real property was worth more than the supposed loans. With only a few exceptions those were blatant lies that are not legal or permissible under any exemption claimed by Wall Street. Our system of laws says that if you steal from someone you pay for it with your liberty and whatever it is you stole is returned to the victim if it still exists. And what exists, is millions of falsely created invalid illegal instruments recorded in title registries all over the country affecting the title of more than 20 million households.

All we need to do is admit it. The loans are unsecured and the only fair way of handling things is to bring all the parties to the table, work out a deal and stop the foreclosures. This isn’t going to happen unless the chief law enforcement officers of each state and the clerks of the title registry offices wake up to the fact that they are part of the problem. It takes guts to audit the title registry like they did in San Francisco and other states, cities and counties. But the reward is that the truth is known and only by knowing the truth will we correct the problem.

The housing market is continuing to suffer because we are living a series of lies. The government, realtors and the banks and servicers all need us to believe these lies because they say that if we admit them, the entire financial system will dissolve. Ask any Joe or Josephine on the street — the financial system has already failed for them. Income inequality has never been worse and history shows that (1) the more the inequality the more power those with wealth possess to keep things going their way and (2) this eventually leads to chaos and violence. As Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, people will endure almost anything until they just cannot endure it any longer. That time is coming closer than anyone realizes.

Only weeks before France erupted into a bloody revolution with gruesome dispatch of aristocrats, the upper class thought that the masses could be kept in line as long as they were thrown a few crumbs now and then. That behavior of the masses grew from small measures exacted from a resisting government infrastructure to simply taking what they wanted. Out of sheer numbers the aristocracy was unable to fight back against an entire country that was literally up in arms about the unfairness of the system. But even the leaders of the French Revolution and the Merican revolution understood that someone must be in charge and that an infrastructure of laws and enfrocement, confidence in the marketplace and fair dealing must be the status quo. Disturb that and you end up with overthrow of existing authority replaced by nothing of any power or consequence.

Both human nature and history are clear. We can all agree that the those who possess the right stuff should be rich and the rest of us should have a fair shot at getting rich. There is no punishment of the rich or even wealth redistribution. The problem is not wealth inequality. And “class warfare” is not the right word for what is going on — but it might well be the right words if the upper class continue to step on the rest of the people. The problem is that there is no solution to wealth inequality unless the upper class cooperates in bringing order and a fair playing field to the marketplace —- or face the consequences of what people do when they can’t feed, house, educate or protect their children.

LaRouche: The Glass-Steagall Moment Is Upon Us

Spanish collapse can bring down the Trans-Atlantic system this weekend

Abruptly, but lawfully, the Spanish debt crisis has erupted over the past 48 hours into a systemic rupture in the entire trans-Atlantic financial and monetary facade, posing the immediate question: Will the European Monetary Union and the entire trans-Atlantic financial system survive to the end of this holiday weekend?



Late on Friday afternoon, the Spanish government revealed that the cost of bailing out the Bankia bank, which was nationalized on May 9, will now cost Spanish taxpayers nearly 24 billion euro—and rising. Many other Spanish banks are facing imminent collapse or bailout; the autonomous Spanish regions, with gigantic debts of their own, are all now bankrupt and desperate for their own bailout. Over the last week, Spanish and foreign depositors have been pulling their money out of the weakest Spanish banks in a panic, in a repeat of the capital flight out of the Greek banks months ago. 



The situations in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland are equally on the edge of total disintegration—and the exposure of the big Wall Street banks to this European disintegration is so enormous that there is no portion of the trans-Atlantic system that is exempt from the sudden, crushing reality of this collapse.



Whether or not the system holds together for a few days or weeks more, or whether it literally goes into total meltdown in the coming hours, the moment of truth has arrived, when all options to hold the current system together have run out.

Today, in response to this immediate crisis, American political economist Lyndon LaRouche issued a clarion call to action. Referring to the overall trans-Atlantic financial bubble, in light of the Spanish debt explosion of the past 48 hours, LaRouche pinpointed its significance as follows:

“The rate of collapse now exceeds the rate of the attempts to overtake the collapse. That means that, essentially, the entire European system, in its present form, is in the process of a hopeless degeneration. Now, this is something comparable to what happened in Germany in 1923, and they’ve caught themselves in a trap, where a rate of collapse exceeds the rate of their attempt to overtake yesterday.

“So therefore, we’re in a new situation, and the only solution in Europe, in particular, is Glass-Steagall, or the Glass-Steagall equivalent, with no fooling around. Straight Glass-Steagall — no bailouts! None! In other words, you have to collapse the entire euro system. The entirety of the euro system has to collapse. But it has to collapse in the right way; it has to be a voluntary collapse, which is like a Glass-Steagall process. This means the end of the euro, really. The euro system is about to end, because you can’t sustain it.

“Everything is disintegrating now in Europe. It can be rescued very simply, by a Glass-Steagall type of operation, and then going back to the currencies which existed before. In other words, you need a stable system of currencies, or you can’t have a recovery at all! In other words, if the rate of inflation is higher than the rate of your bailout, then what happens when you try to increase the bailout, you increase the hysteria. You increase the rate of collapse. In other words, the rate of collapse exceeds the rate of bailout.

“And now, you have Spain, and Portugal implicitly, and the situation in Greece. Italy’s going to go in the same direction. So the present system, which Obama’s trying to sustain, in his own peculiar way, is not going to work. There’s no hope for the system. Nor is there any hope for the U.S. system in its present form. The remedies, the problems, are somewhat different between Europe and the United States, but the nature of the disease is the same. They both have the same disease: It’s called the British disease. It’s hyperinflation.

“So, now you’re in a situation where the only way you can avoid a rate of hyperinflation beyond the rate of hyper-collapse is Glass-Steagall, or the equivalent. You have to save something, you have to save the essentials. Well, the essentials are: You take all the things that go into the bailout category, and you cancel them. How do you cancel them? Very simple: Glass-Steagall. Anything that is not fungible in terms of Glass-Steagall categories doesn’t get paid! It doesn’t get unpaid either; it just doesn’t get paid. Because you remove these things from the categories of things that you’re responsible to pay. You’re not responsible to bail out gambling, you’re not responsible to pay out gambling debts.

“Now, the gambling debts are the hyperinflation. So now, we might as well say it: The United States, among other nations, is hopelessly bankrupt.

“But this is the situation! This is what reality is! And what happens, is the entire U.S. government operation is beyond reckoning. It is collapsing! And there’s only one thing you can do: The equivalent of Glass-Steagall: You take those accounts, which are accounts which are worthy, which are essential to society, you freeze the currencies, their prices, and no bailout. And you don’t pay anything that does not correspond to a real credit. It’s the only solution. The point has been reached—it’s here! You’re in a bottomless pit, very much like Germany 1923, Weimar.

“And in any kind of hyperinflation, this is something you come to. And there’s only one way to do it: Get rid of the bad debt! It’s going to have to happen.

“The entire world system is in a crisis. It’s a general breakdown crisis which is centered in the trans-Atlantic community. That’s where the center of the crisis is. So, in the United States, we’re on the verge of a breakdown, a blowout; it can happen at any time. When will it happen, we don’t know, because we’ve seen this kind of thing before, as in 1923 Germany, November-December 1923, this was the situation. And it went on after that, but it’s a breakdown crisis. And that’s it.

“Those who thought there could be a bailout, or they had some recipe that things were going to be fine, that things would be manageable, that’s all gone! You’re now relieved of that great burden. You need have no anxiety about the U.S. dollar. Why worry about it? Either it’s dead or it’s not! And the only way it’s not going to be dead, is by an end of bailout. That’s the situation.

“We don’t know exactly where the breakdown point comes. But it’s coming, because we’re already in a system in which the rate of breakdown is greater than the rate of any bailout possible! And there’s only one way you can do that: Cancel a whole category of obligations! Those that don’t fit the Glass-Steagall standard, or the equivalent of Glass-Steagall standard: Cancel it, immediately! We don’t pay anything on gambling debts. Present us something that’s not a gambling debt, and we may be able to deal with that.”

LaRouche concluded with a stark warning:

“If you think that this system is going to continue, and you can find some way to get out of this problem, you can not get out of this problem, because you are the problem! Your failure to do Glass-Steagall, is the problem. And it’s your failure! Don’t blame somebody else: If you didn’t force through Glass-Steagall, it’s your fault, and it continues to be your fault! It’s your mistake, which is continuing!

“And that’s the situation we have in Europe, and that, really, is also the situation in the United States.

“But that’s where we are! It’s exactly the situation we face now, and there’s no other discussion that really means much, until we can decide to end the bailout, and to absolutely cancel all illegitimate debt—that is, bailout debt!

“There’s only one solution: The solution is, get rid of the illegitimate disease, the hyperinflation! Get rid of the hyperinflationary factor. Cancel the hyperinflation! Don’t pay those debts! Don’t cancel them, just don’t pay them! You declare them outside the economy, outside the responsibility of government: We can no longer afford to sustain you, therefore, you’ll have to find other remedies of your own. That’s where you are. It had to come, it has been coming.”


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Turning the Tide Toward Borrowers

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Editor’s Comment:

Nocera and several other responsible journalists have finally reached the point of taking a larger perspective than the narrow myths perpetuated by Wall Street. Wall Street would have us believe that they took bad risks and “made mistakes” causing the financial collapse. His point is the Justice Department has taken after “the smallest of smallest” and he believes that those prosecutions are in lieu of the prosecutions that ought to occur against those who are responsible for setting up a criminal enterprise with the appearance of a conventional business structure.

The problem is easy to describe and difficult to solve.  It is simply true that prosecutions of “small fry” are easier because they don’t have the resources or knowledge necessary to properly defend themselves.  It is equally true that the successful prosecution can be used for public relations purposes to show that a regulating agency or law enforcement is doing its job.

On the other hand prosecution of Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein would provoke a vigorous defense conducted by dozens of lawyers whose purpose would be to merely poke holes in the prosecutions case rather than proving their clients innocence.  In order to prosecute such people and those close to them, it would be necessary for the regulating agencies and law enforcement to acquire specialized knowledge so that they would know what to investigate and arrive at conclusions as to which violations to prosecute based upon their likelihood of success. 

The solution is obvious.  Since there is no likelihood that most regulatory agencies and most law enforcement agencies would ever be able to mount such a challenge to the Titans of Wall Street, and the political risk of losing such a case would be devastating, they simply must maintain the status quo, which is to say that they should continue the policy of going after “small fry”.  On the other hand if they really want to represent the citizens of their country or their state (or their county), they could appoint a special prosecutor whose payment would be relatively minimal in terms of getting the case started and largely dependent upon the actual payment of fines, penalties, interests, and restitution.  There are at present at least a dozen law firms in the country (including our very own GarfieldFirm.com) who could perform this service under the direction of the Attorney General or county attorney or both.

The only thing that the state would need to provide is space and facilities and perhaps some minimal capital.  To put this in perspective, I made an approach to the appropriate people in government in the state of Arizona in 2008 in that proposal it was my naïvely idealistic presumption that the state would be more than happy to collect taxes, fees, fines, penalties interest etc that were due from out of state residence residing on Wall Street in the state of New York.  Based upon existing AZ law I projected a 10 billion dollar recovery.  Their finance department looked over my analysis and decided I was wrong.  They projected a recovery of 3 billion dollars which as it turns out is exactly the amount of the budget deficit of the state. 

At this point it is fair to say that the risk reward ratio of prosecuting the Titans of Wall Street has reached a point where it is irresistible if it is performed by a special prosecutor who has no ambitions for public office.  In the process, the state would recover not only the taxes, fees, fines, penalties and interest, but the homeowners would be virtually guaranteed some form of restitution based upon the wrongful foreclosures and the trading of their loans and securities whose value was derived from their loans. 

It is well understood and known that we are only halfway through a contest of enormous consequence.  Without appropriate restraints on banking and financial service companies most of the liberties and rights set forth in the founding documents of our country will become meaningless.   Until now the investment banks have been able to control the narrative.  But the facts about their misdeeds and malfeasance are starting to drown out the gigantic Wall Street machine.  I’m not saying that the tide has already turned.  But with the help of readers like you who become proactive and write letters to their attorney generals, county attorneys, and the regulatory agencies demanding such action, the tide will turn earlier rather than later. 

The Mortgage Fraud Fraud

By JOE NOCERA

I got an e-mail the other day from Richard Engle telling me that his son Charlie would be getting out of prison this month. I was happy to hear it.

Charlie’s ordeal isn’t over yet, of course. When he leaves prison on June 20, Charlie, 49, will move temporarily to a halfway house, after which he will be on probation for another five years. And unless he can get the verdict overturned, he will have to spend the rest of his life with a felony on his record.

Perhaps you remember Charlie Engle. I wrote about him not long after he entered a minimum-security facility in Beaver, W.Va., 16 months ago. He’s the poor guy who went to jail for lying on a liar loan during the housing bubble.

There were two things about Charlie’s prosecution that really bothered me. First, he’d clearly been targeted by an agent of the Internal Revenue Service who seemed offended that Charlie was an ultramarathoner without a steady day job. The I.R.S. conducted “Dumpster dives” into his garbage and put a wire on a female undercover agent hoping to find some dirt on him. Unable to unearth any wrongdoing on his tax returns, the I.R.S. discovered he had taken out several subprime mortgages that didn’t require income verification. His income on one of them was wildly inflated. They don’t call them liar loans for nothing.

Charlie has always insisted that he never filled out the loan document — his mortgage broker did it, and he was actually a victim of mortgage fraud. (The broker later pleaded guilty to another mortgage fraud.) Indeed, according to a recent court filing by Charlie’s lawyer, the government failed to turn over exculpatory evidence that could have helped Charlie prove his innocence. For whatever inexplicable reason, prosecutors really wanted to nail Charlie Engle. And they did.

Second, though, it seemed incredible to me that with all the fraud that took place during the housing bubble, the Justice Department was focusing not on the banks that had issued the fraudulent loans, but rather on those who had taken out the loans, which invariably went sour when housing prices fell.

As I would later learn, Charlie Engle was no aberration. The current meme — argued most recently by Charles Ferguson, in his new book “Predator Nation” — is that not a single top executive at any of the firms that nearly brought down the financial system has spent so much as a day in jail. And that is true enough.

But what is also true, and which is every bit as corrosive to our belief in the rule of law, is that the Justice Department has instead taken after the smallest of small fry — and then trumpeted those prosecutions as proof of how tough it is on mortgage fraud. It is a shameful way for the government to act.

“These people thought they were pursuing the American dream,” says Mark Pennington, a lawyer in Des Moines who regularly defends home buyers being prosecuted by the local United States attorney. “Right here in Des Moines,” he said, “there was a big subprime outfit, Wells Fargo Financial. No one there has been prosecuted. They are only going after people who lost their homes after the bubble burst. It’s a scandal.”

The Justice Department has had a tough run recently. Last week, Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general — who was recently given a role by President Obama to investigate the mortgage-backed securities issued during the bubble — complained publicly that he wasn’t getting the resources he needed from the Justice Department. And, of course, on Thursday, a federal judge declared a mistrial on five charges of campaign finance fraud and conspiracy in the trial of the former presidential candidate John Edwards.

In the Edwards case, the Justice Department spent tens of millions of dollars, and trotted out novel legal theories, to prosecute a man who was essentially trying to keep people from discovering that he had had a mistress and an out-of-wedlock child. Salacious though it was, the case has zero public import. Yet this same Justice Department isn’t willing to use similar resources — and perhaps even trot out some novel legal theories — to go after the pervasive corporate wrongdoing that gave us the financial crisis and the Great Recession. (I should note that the Justice Department claims that it “will not hesitate” to prosecute any “institution where there is evidence of a crime.”)

Think back to the last time the federal government went after corporate crooks. It was after the Internet bubble. Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay of Enron were prosecuted and found guilty. Bernard Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, went to jail. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco was prosecuted and given a lengthy prison sentence. Now recall which Justice Department prosecuted those men.

Amazing, isn’t it? George W. Bush has turned out to be tougher on corporate crooks than Barack Obama.

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Bribery or Business as Usual?

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Editor’s Comment and Analysis:

There is only one way this isn’t an outright bribe that should land the senator in jail — and that is proving that he received nothing of value. Stories abound in the media about haircut rates given to members of government particularly by Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America. Now we see it on the way down where others go through hoops and ladders to get a modification of short-sale but members of Congress get special treatment.

The only way this could be considered nothing of value is if the banks that gave this favor knew that they didn’t lend the money, didn’t purchase the loan and didn’t have a dime in the deal. They can prove it but they won’t because the fallout would be that there are no loans in print and that there are no perfected mortgage loans. The consequence is that there can be no foreclosures. And it would mean that the values carried on the books of these banks are eihter overstated or entirely fictiouos. The general consensus is that capital requirments for the banks should be higher. But what if the capital they are reporting doesn’t exist?

We are seeing practically everyday how Congress is bought off by the Banks and yet we do nothing. How can you expect to be taken seriously by the executive branch and the judicial branch of goveornment charged with enforcing the laws? If you are doing nothing and complaining, it’s time to get off the couch and do something with the Occupy Movement or your own private war with the banks. If you are not complaining, you should be — because this tsunami is about to hit the front door of your house too whether you are making the payments or not.

The power of the new aristocracy in American and European politics is felt around the globe. People are suffering in the U.S., Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and other places because the smaller banks in all those countries got taken to the cleaners by huge conglomerate Wall Street Banks. Ireland is reporting foreclosures and defaults at record rates. It was fraud with an effect far greater than any other act of domestic or international terrorism. And it isn’t just about money either. Suicides, domestic violence ending in death and mental illness are pandemic. And nobody cares about the little guy because the little guy is just fuel for the endless appetite of Wall Street. 

If Obama rreally wants to galvanize the electorate, he must be proactive on the fierce urgency of NOW! Those were his words when he was a candidate and he owes us action because that urgency was felt in 2008 and is a vice around everyone’s neck now.

JPMorgan Chase & the Senator’s Short Sale:

It’s Hypocritical -But Is It Corrupt?

By Richard (RJ) Eskow

There’s a lot we have yet to learn about the story of Sen. Mike Lee, Tea Party Republican of Utah, and America’s largest bank. But we already know something’s very, very wrong:

Why is it that most Americans can’t get a principal reduction from Chase or any other bank, but JPMorgan Chase was so very flexible with a sitting member of the United States Senate?

The hypocrisy from Sen. Lee and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon overfloweth. But does the Case of the Senator’s Short Sale rise to the level of full-blown corruption? We won’t know until we get some answers.

People should be demanding those answers now.

When Jamie Met Mike

It’s not a pretty picture: In one corner is the Senator who wants to strike down Federal child labor laws and offer American residency to any non-citizen who buys a home with cash. In the other is the bank whose CEO said that the best way to relieve the crushing burden of debt on homeowners is by seizing their homes.

“Giving debt relief to people that really need it,” said Dimon, “that’s what foreclosure is.” That comment is Dickensian in its insensitivity – and Dimon’s bank offered real relief to the Senator from Utah.

The story of the short sale on Sen. Mike Lee’s home broke broke shortly not long after the world learned that JPM lost billions of dollars through trading that might have been illegal, and about which it certainly misled investors.

A Senator who doesn’t believe in child labor laws, and a crime-plagued bank that was just plunged into a trading scandal after losing billions in the London markets.

Why, they were practically made for one another.

Here in the Real World

This was also the week we learned from Zillow, one of the nation’s leading real estate data companies, that there are far more underwater homeowners than previously thought. Zillow collated all the information on home loans, including second mortgages, in order to develop this larger and more accurate number.

The new estimated amount of negative equity – money owed to the banks for non-existent home value – is $1.2 trillion.

Zillow found that nearly 16 million homeowners, representing roughly a third of all homes with a mortgage, were “underwater” (meaning they owe more than the home is now worth). That’s about 50 percent more than had been previously believed. Many of these homeowners are desperate for principal reduction, which would allow them to get back on their feet.

Banks can reduce the amount owed to reflect the current value of the house, which would lower monthly payments for many struggling homeowners. Another option is the “short sale,” in which the bank lets them sell the house for its current value and walk away. That would allow many of them to relocate in search of work.

But the banks, along with their allies in Washington DC, have been fighting principal reduction and resisting any attempts to increase the number of short sales. They remain out of reach for most struggling homeowners.

Mike’s Deal

But Mike Lee didn’t have that problem. Lee was elected to the Senate after buying his luxury home in Alpine, Utah at the height of the real estate boom. JPMorgan Chase agreed to a short sale, and it sold for nearly $400,000 less than the price Lee paid for it four years ago.

Sen. Lee says that he made a down payment on the home, although he hasn’t said how much was involved. But if he paid 15 percent down and put it $150,000, for example, then the Senator from Utah was just allowed to walk away from a quarter of a million dollars in debt obligations to JPMorgan Chase.

Let’s see: A troubled bank gives a sitting member of the United States Senate an advantageous deal worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? You’d think a story like that would get a little more attention than it has so far.

The Right’s Outrageous Hypocrisy

We haven’t seen this much hypocrisy in the real estate world since the Mortgage Bankers Association walked away from loans on its own headquarters even as its CEO, John Courson, was lecturing Americans their “legal obligation” and the terrible “message they would send” by walking away from their mortgages.

Then he did a short sale on the MBA’s headquarters. It sold for a reported $41 million, just three years after the MBA – those captains of real estate – paid $74 million for it.

The MBA calls itself “the voice of the mortgage banking industry.”

The hypocrisy may be even greater in this case. Sen. Mike Lee is a member in good standing of the Tea Party, a movement which began on the floor of Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a protest against the idea that the government might help underwater homeowners, even though many of the angry traders had enriched themselves thanks to government bailouts.

When their ringleader mentioned households struggling with negative equity, these first members of the Tea Party broke into a chant: “Losers! Losers! Losers!”

Mike Lee’s Outrageous Hypocrisy

Which gets us to Mike Lee. Lee accepted a handout of JPMorgan Chase after voting to end unemployment for jobless Americans. Lee also argued against Federal child labor laws, although he did acknowledge that child labor is “reprehensible.”

How big a hypocrite is Mike Lee? His website (which, curiously enough, went down as we wrote these words) says he believes “the federal government’s out-of-control spending has evolved into a major threat to our economic prosperity and job creation” and that he came to Washington to, among other things, “properly manage our finances”. Lee’s website also scolds Congress because, he says, it “cannot live within its means.”

As Ed McMahon used to say, “Write your own joke.”

Needless to say, Lee also advocates drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare while pushing lower taxes for the wealthy – and plumping for exactly the same kind of deregulation which let bankers to run amok and wreck the economy in 2008 by doing things like … well, like what JPMorgan Chase just did in London.

“Give Me Your Wired, Your Wealthy, Your Upper Classes Yearning to Buy Cheap”

Lee has also co-sponsored a bill with Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senator from Wall Street New York, that would grant US residency to foreigners who purchase a home worth at least $500,000 – as long as they paid cash.

The Lee/Schumer bill would be a big boon to US banks – banks, in fact, like JPMorgan Chase. If it passes, the Statue of Liberty may need to be reshaped so that Lady Liberty is holding a book of real estate listings in her right hand while wearing a hat that reads “Million Dollar Sellers’ Club.”

Mike Lee’s bill would also have propped up the luxury home market, offering a big financial boost to people who are struggling to hold to the equity they’ve put into high-end homes, people like … well, like Mike Lee.

Jamie Dimon’s Outrageous Hypocrisy

Then there’s Jamie Dimon, who spoke for his fellow bankers during negotiations that led up to the very cushy $25 billion settlement that let banks like his off the hook for widespread lawbreaking in their foreclosure fraud crime wave.

“Yeah,” Dimon said of principal reductions for homeowners like Sen. Lee, “that’s off the table.”

Dimon’s been resisting global solutions to the negative equity problems for years. He said in 2010 that he preferred to make decisions about homeowners on a “loan by loan” basis.

The Rich Are Different – They Have More Mortgage Relief

“The rich are different,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and (in a quote often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway) literary critic Mary Colum observed that ” the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.”

And they apparently find it a lot easier to walk away from their underwater homes.There’s been a dramatic increase in short sales lately, and the evidence suggests that most of the deals have been going to luxury homeowners. Among other things, this trend toward high-end short sales the lie to the popular idea that bankers and their allies don’t want to “reward the underserving,” since hedge fund traders who overestimated next year’s bonus are clearly less deserving than working families who purchased a modest home for themselves.

Nevertheless, that’s where most of the debt relief seems to be going: to the wealthy, and not to the middle class.

Guess that’s what happens when loan officers working for Dimon and other Wall Street CEOs handle these matters on a “loan by loan” basis.

Immoral Logic

While this “loan by loan” approach lacks morality, there’s some financial logic to it. Banks typically have a lot more money at risk in an underwater luxury home than they do in more modest houses. A short sale provides them with a way to clear things up, recoup what they can, and get their books in a little more order than before. That’s why JPMorgan Chase has been offering selected borrowers up to $35,000 to accept short sales. You can bet they’re not offering that deal to middle class families.

There are other reasons to offer short sales to the wealthy: JPM, like all big banks, is pursuing very-high-end banking clients more aggressively than ever. That’s where the profits are. So why alienate a high-value client when they may offer you the opportunity to recoup losses elsewhere?

(“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Dimon, but it’s London calling.”)

Corruption Or Not: The Questions

Both the bank and the Senator need to answer some questions about this deal. Here’s what the public deserves to know:

Could the writedown on the home’s value be considered an in-kind gift to a sitting Senator?

If so, then we have a very real scandal on our hands. But we don’t know enough to answer that question yet.

What are JPMorgan Chase’s procedures for deciding who receives mortgage relief and who doesn’t?

Dimon may prefer to handle these matters on a “loan by loan” basis, but there must be guidelines that bank officers can follow. And presumably they’ve been written down somewhere. Were they followed in Mike Lee’s case?

Who was involved in the decision to offer this deal to Mike Lee?

Offering mortgage relief to a sitting Senator is, to borrow a phrase, “a big elfin’ deal.” A mid-level bank officer isn’t likely to handle a case like this without taking it up the chain of command. So who made the final decision on Mike Lee’s mortgage?

It wouldn’t be unheard of if a a sensitive matter like this one was escalated to all the way to the company’s most senior executive – especially if that executive has eliminated any checks on his power, much less any independent input from shareholders, by serving as both the Chair(man) of the Board and the CEO.

In this, as in so many of JPM’s scandals, the question must be asked: What did Jamie know, and when did he know it?

Is Mike Lee a “Friend of Jamie”?

Which raises a related question: Is there is a formal or informal list of people for whom JPM employees are directed to give preferential treatment?

Everybody remembers the scandal that surrounded Sen. Chris Dodd when it was learned that his mortgage was given favorable treatment by Countrywide – even though the Senator apparently knew nothing about it at the time. The world soon learned then that Countrywide had a VIP program called “Friends of Angelo,” named for CEO Angelo Mozilo, and those who were on the list got special treatment.

Is there a “Friends of Jamie” list at JPMorgan Chase – and is Mike Lee’s name on it?

Were there any discussions between the bank’s executives and the Senator regarding the foreign home buyer’s bill or any other legislation that affected Wall Street?

Until this question is answered the issue of a possible quid pro quo will hang over both the Senator and JPMorgan Chase.

Seriously, guys – this doesn’t look good.

Was MERS used to evade state taxes and recording requirements on Sen. Lee’s home? 

JPMorgan Chase funded, and was an active participant, in the “MERS” program which was used, among other things, to bypass local taxes and legal requirements for recording titles.

As we wrote when we reviewed hundreds of internal MERS documents, MERS was instrumental in allowing banks to bundle and sell mortgage-backed securities in a way that led directly to the financial crisis of 2008. It also helped bankers artificially inflate real estate prices, encourage homeowners to take out loans at bubble prices, and then leave them holding the note (as underwater homeowners) after the collapse of national real estate values that they had artificially pumped up.

“Today’s Wall Street Corruption Fun Fact”: MERS was operated by the Mortgage Bankers Association – the same group of real estate geniuses who lost $30 million on a single building in three years, then gave a little lecture on morality to the homeowners they’d been so instrumental in shafting.

Q&A

I was also asked some very reasonable questions by a policy advocacy group. Here they are, with my answers:

If this happened to the average American, would they be able to walk away from the mortgage as well?

If by “average American” you mean “most homeowners,” then the answer is: No. Although short sales are on the rise, most underwater homeowners have not been given the option of going through a short sale. Mike Lee was. The question is, why?

Will Mike Lee’s credit rating be adversely affected?

This is a very important question. The credit rating industry serves banks, not consumers, and it operates at their beck and call.

The answer to this question depends on how JPM handled the paperwork. Many (and probably most) homeowners involved in a short sale take a hit to their credit rating. If Lee did not, it smacks of special treatment.

Given the fact that it was JPMorgan who financed the loss, does that mean, indirectly through the bailout, that the taxpayers paid for Lee’s mortgage write-off?

That gets tricky – but in a moral sense, you could certainly say that.

Short Selling Democracy

There’s no question that this deal is hypocritical and ugly, and that it reflects much of what’s still broken about both our politics and Wall Street. Is it a scandal? Without these answers we can’t know. This was either a case of the special treatment that is so often reserved for the wealthy, or it’s something even worse: influence peddling and political corruption.

it’s time for JPMorgan Chase and Sen. Mike Lee to come clean about this deal. If they did nothing wrong, they have nothing to hide. Either way the public’s entitled to some answers.


Everything Built on Myth Eventually Fails

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Editor’s Comment:

The good news is that the myth of Jamie Dimon’s infallaibility is at least called into question. Perhaps better news is that, as pointed out by Simon Johnson’s article below, the mega banks are not only Too Big to Fail, they are Too Big to Manage, which leads to the question, of why it has taken this long for Congress and the Obama administration to conclude that these Banks are Too Big to Regulate. So the answer, now introduced by Senator Brown, is to make the banks smaller and  put caps on them as to what they can and cannot do with their risk management.

But the real question that will come to fore is whether lawmakers in Dimon’s pocket will start feeling a bit squeamish about doing whatever Dimon asks. He is now becoming a political and financial liability. The $2.3 billion loss (and still counting) that has been reported seems to be traced to the improper trading in credit default swaps, an old enemy of ours from the mortgage battle that continues to rage throughout the land.  The problem is that the JPM people came to believe in their own myth which is sometimes referred to as sucking on your own exhaust. They obviously felt that their “risk management” was impregnable because in the end Jamie would save the day.

This time, Jamie can’t turn to investors to dump the loss on, thus drying up liquidity all over the world. This time he can’t go to government for a bailout, and this time the traction to bring the mega banks under control is getting larger. The last vote received only 33 votes from the Senate floor, indicating that Dimon and the wall Street lobby had control of 2/3 of the senate. So let ius bask in the possibility that this is the the beginning of the end for the mega banks, whose balance sheets, business practices and public announcements have all been based upon lies and half truths.

This time the regulators are being forced by public opinion to actually peak under the hood and see what is going on there. And what they will find is that the assets booked on the balance sheet of Dimon’s monolith are largely fictitious. This time the regulators must look at what assets were presented to the Federal Reserve window in exchange for interest free loans. The narrative is shifting from the “free house” myth to the reality of free money. And that will lead to the question of who is the creditor in each of the transactions in which a mortgage loan is said to exist.

Those mortgage loans are thought to exist because of a number of incorrect presumptions. One of them is that the obligation remains unpaid and is secured. Neither is true. Some loans might still have a balance due but even they have had their balances reduced by the receipt of insurance proceeds and the payoff from credit default swaps and other credit enhancements, not to speak of the taxpayer bailout.

This money was diverted from investor lenders who were entitled to that money because their contracts and the representations inducing them to purchase bogus mortgage bonds, stated that the investment was investment grade (Triple A) and because they thought they were insured several times over. It is true that the insurance was several layers thick and it is equally true that the insurance payoff covered most if not all the balances of all the mortgages that were funded between 1996 and the present. The investor lenders should have received at least enough of that money to make them whole — i.e., all principal and interest as promissed.

Instead the Banks did the unthinkable and that is what is about to come to light. They kept the money for themselves and then claimed the loss of investors on the toxic loans and tranches that were created in pools of money and mortgages — pools that in fact never came into existence, leaving the investors with a loose partnership with other investors, no manager, and no accounting. Every creditor is entitled to payment in full — ONCE, not multiple times unless they have separate contracts (bets) with parties other than the borrower. In this case, with the money received by the investment banks diverted from the investors, the creditors thought they had a loss when in fact they had a claim against deep pocket mega banks to receive their share of the proceeds of insurance, CDS payoffs and taxpayer bailouts.

What the banks were banking on was the stupidity of government regulators and the stupidity of the American public. But it wasn’t stupidity. it was ignorance of the intentional flipping of mortgage lending onto its head, resulting in loan portfolios whose main characteristic was that they would fail. And fail they did because the investment banks “declared” through the Master servicer that they had failed regardless of whether people were making payments on their mortgage loans or not. But the only parties with an actual receivable wherein they were expecting to be paid in real money were the investor lenders.

Had the investor lenders received the money that was taken by their agents, they would have been required to reduce the balances due from borrowers. Any other position would negate their claim to status as a REMIC. But the banks and servicers take the position that there exists an entitlement to get paid in full on the loan AND to take the house because the payment didn’t come from the borrower.

This reduction in the balance owed from borrowers would in and of itself have resulted in the equivalent of “principal reduction” which in many cases was to zero and quite possibly resulting in a claim against the participants in the securitization chain for all of the ill-gotten gains. remember that the Truth In Lending Law states unequivocally that the undisclosed profits and compensation of ANYONE involved in the origination of the loan must be paid, with interest to the borrower. Crazy you say? Is it any crazier than the banks getting $15 million for a $300,000 loan. Somebody needs to win here and I see no reason why it should be the megabanks who created, incited, encouraged and covered up outright fraud on investor lenders and homeowner borrowers.

Making Banks Small Enough And Simple Enough To Fail

By Simon Johnson

Almost exactly two years ago, at the height of the Senate debate on financial reform, a serious attempt was made to impose a binding size constraint on our largest banks. That effort – sometimes referred to as the Brown-Kaufman amendment – received the support of 33 senators and failed on the floor of the Senate. (Here is some of my Economix coverage from the time.)

On Wednesday, Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Efficient Banking Act, or SAFE, which would force the largest four banks in the country to shrink. (Details of this proposal, similar in name to the original Brown-Kaufman plan, are in this briefing memo for a Senate banking subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, available through Politico; see also these press release materials).

His proposal, while not likely to immediately become law, is garnering support from across the political spectrum – and more support than essentially the same ideas received two years ago.  This week’s debacle at JP Morgan only strengthens the case for this kind of legislative action in the near future.

The proposition is simple: Too-big-to-fail banks should be made smaller, and preferably small enough to fail without causing global panic. This idea had been gathering momentum since the fall of 2008 and, while the Brown-Kaufman amendment originated on the Democratic side, support was beginning to appear across the aisle. But big banks and the Treasury Department both opposed it, parliamentary maneuvers ensured there was little real debate. (For a compelling account of how the financial lobby works, both in general and in this instance, look for an upcoming book by Jeff Connaughton, former chief of staff to former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware.)

The issue has not gone away. And while the financial sector has pushed back with some success against various components of the Dodd-Frank reform legislation, the idea of breaking up very large banks has gained momentum.

In particular, informed sentiment has shifted against continuing to allow very large banks to operate in their current highly leveraged form, with a great deal of debt and very little equity.  There is increasing recognition of the massive and unfair costs that these structures impose on the rest of the economy.  The implicit subsidies provided to “too big to fail” companies allow them to boost compensation over the cycle by hundreds of millions of dollars.  But the costs imposed on the rest of us are in the trillions of dollars.  This is a monstrously unfair and inefficient system – and sensible public figures are increasingly pointing this out (including Jamie Dimon, however inadvertently).

American Banker, a leading trade publication, recently posted a slide show, “Who Wants to Break Up the Big Banks?” Its gallery included people from across the political spectrum, with a great deal of financial sector and public policy experience, along with quotations that appear to support either Senator Brown’s approach or a similar shift in philosophy with regard to big banks in the United States. (The slide show is available only to subscribers.)

According to American Banker, we now have in the “break up the banks” corner (in order of appearance in that feature): Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; Sheila Bair, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; Tom Hoenig, a board member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City; Jon Huntsman, former Republican presidential candidate and former governor of Utah; Senator Brown; Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England; Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont; and Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. (I am also on the American Banker list).

Anat Admati of Stanford and her colleagues have led the push for much higher capital requirements – emphasizing the particular dangers around allowing our largest banks to operate in their current highly leveraged fashion. This position has also been gaining support in the policy and media mainstream, most recently in the form of a powerful Bloomberg View editorial.

(You can follow her work and related discussion on this Web site; on twitter she is @anatadmati.)

Senator Brown’s legislation reflects also the idea that banks should fund themselves more with equity and less with debt. Professor Admati and I submitted a letter of support, together with 11 colleagues whose expertise spans almost all dimensions of how the financial sector really operates.

We particularly stress the appeal of having a binding “leverage ratio” for the largest banks. This would require them to have at least 10 percent equity relative to their total assets, using a simple measure of assets not adjusted for any of the complicated “risk weights” that banks can game.

We also agree with the SAFE Banking Act that to limit the risk and potential cost to taxpayers, caps on the size of an individual bank’s liabilities relative to the economy can also serve a useful role (and the same kind of rule should apply to non-bank financial institutions).

Under the proposed law, no bank-holding company could have more than $1.3 trillion in total liabilities (i.e., that would be the maximum size). This would affect our largest banks, which are $2 trillion or more in total size, but in no way undermine their global competitiveness. This is a moderate and entirely reasonable proposal.

No one is suggesting that making JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo smaller would be sufficient to ensure financial stability.

But this idea continues to gain traction, as a measure complementary to further strengthening and simplifying capital requirements and generally in support of other efforts to make it easier to handle the failure of financial institutions.

Watch for the SAFE Banking Act to gain further support over time.

Greek Banker Gets 8 Years

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Editor’s Comment: 

This former chief of Aspis was convicted of having the unmitigated temerity to forge and fabricate documents. Of course this guy only forged a handful of documents and only created a few documents out of whole cloth. He apparently had not read the Wall Street playbook all the way through — where they have each act committed by a person or company that doesn’t know anything or at least can claim “plausible deniability.” Wall Street causes hundreds of thousands of documents to be forged, fabricated, robosigned and misrepresented in court every day. But here we leave them (Jamie Dimon) on the Board of the NY Federal Reserve which essentially sets all standards in the Federal Reserve system.

8 years. If we multiply the size of the crime, Dimon and others should collectively get around 8 million years of jail, which could, if we changed the law, include his progeny after additional human evolution had taken place. Where is your outrage?

Former Greek Bank Chief Jailed in Anti-Fraud Drive

(Reuters) – A former bank chief was sentenced to eight years jail on Monday for fraud and forgery, court officials said, the first major conviction resulting from an anti-corruption drive ahead of a parliamentary election on Sunday. An Athens court convicted Pavlos Psomiadis, former chief of small banking and insurance group Aspis, on charges of forging documents to keep his business afloat.

Corruption and cronyism are endemic in Greece. But no politician or senior businessman had been convicted in recent years, fuelling popular frustration with mainstream parties that pledge to uphold the debt-laden country’s international bailout and remain in the euro zone.

“He was found guilty of fraud and forgery,” a court official said. The conviction stemmed from a forged letter of credit for over 550 million euros ($729 million) that Psomiadis submitted to regulators in 2009.

Aspis was one of the first business groups to fall prey to the country’s economic crisis. T-bank (AMBr.AT), a small lender that emerged from the wreckage of the group, was nationalized late last year under the terms of the country’s EU/IMF bailout.

Monday’s decision was the latest in a string of judicial moves as angry voters turn to smaller parties to punish the main conservatives and socialists whom they blame for the economic crisis and chronic corruption.

Earlier in April, a former defense minister was jailed pending trial on money laundering and bribery charges.

Last month, a Greek prosecutor filed felony charges against a prominent banker over a financial scandal that led to the EU/IMF-funded nationalization of small lender Proton Bank (PRBr.AT).

TBTF Banks Bigger than Ever — How is that possible in a recession?

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Editor’s Comment: 

The pernicious effect of the banks and the difficulty of regulating them across transnational and state borders has led to a growing nightmare that history will repeat itself sooner than later.

This is to rocket science — it is recognition. We have median income still declining in what is still by most measures a recession that is about to get worse. Yet the largest banks are reporting record profits. What that means is that Wall Street is making more money “trading paper” than the rest of the country is making doing actual commerce — i.,e. the making and selling of goods of services.

This is another inversion of common sense. But it is explainable. 4 years ago I predicted that as the recession depressed the earnings of most companies the banks would nonetheless show increased profits. The reason was simply that using Bermuda, Bahamas, Cayman Islands the banks siphoned off most of the credit market liquidity through the tier 2 yield spread premium. The tier 2 YSP was really the money the banks made by selling crappy loans as good loans from aggregators to the investors — and then failed to document any part of the real transactions where money exchanged hands. In some case the YSP “trading profit” exceed the amount of the loan.

So now they are able to feed those “trading profits” back into their system a little at a time reporting ever increasing profits while the the real world goes to hell. So tell, me, what is it going to take to get you to to go to the streets, write the letters and demand that justice be done and allow, for the first time, investors and borrowers to get together and reach settlements in lieu of foreclosures? Don’t you see that whether you are rich or poor, renting or owning, that all of this is going to bring down your wealth and buying power. The Federal Reserve has already tripled the U.S. Currency money supply giving all the benefit to the TBTF banks. It seems to me that as group the American citizens are far more too big to fail than any industry or company.

Evil prospers when good people do nothing. 

Big Five Banks larger than before crisis, bailout

WASHINGTON –

Two years after President Barack Obama vowed to eliminate the danger of financial institutions becoming “too big to fail,” the nation’s largest banks are bigger than they were before the credit crisis.

Five banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs — held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011, equal to 56 percent of the U.S. economy, according to the Federal Reserve.

Five years earlier, before the financial crisis, the largest banks’ assets amounted to 43 percent of U.S. output. The Big Five today are about twice as large as they were a decade ago relative to the economy, sparking concern that trouble at a major bank would rock the financial system and force the government to step in as it did during the 2008 crunch.

“Market participants believe that nothing has changed, that too-big-to-fail is fully intact,” said Gary Stern, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

That specter is eroding faith in Obama’s pledge that taxpayer-funded bailouts are a thing of the past. It also is exposing him to criticism from Federal Reserve officials, Republicans and Occupy Wall Street supporters, who see the concentration of bank power as a threat to economic stability.

As weaker firms collapsed or were acquired, a handful of financial giants emerged from the crisis and have thrived. Since then, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo have continued to swell, if less dramatically, thanks to internal growth and acquisitions from European banks shedding assets amid the euro crisis.

The industry’s evolution defies the president’s January 2010 call to “prevent the further consolidation of our financial system.” Embracing new limits on banks’ trading operations, Obama said then that taxpayers wouldn’t be well “served by a financial system that comprises just a few massive firms.”

Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, blames a “lack of leadership at Treasury and the White House” for the failure to fulfill that promise. “It’d be safer to break them up,” he said.

The Obama administration rejects the criticism, citing new safeguards to head off further turmoil in the banking system. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says the U.S. “financial system is significantly stronger than it was before the crisis.” He credits a flurry of new regulations, including tougher capital and liquidity requirements that limit risk-taking by the biggest banks, authority to take over failing big institutions, and prohibitions on the largest banks acquiring competitors.

The government’s financial system rescue, beginning with the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, angered millions of taxpayers and helped give rise to the tea-party movement. Banks and bailouts remain unpopular: By a margin of 52 to 39 percent, respondents in a February Pew Research Center poll called the bailouts “wrong” and 68 percent said banks have a mostly negative effect on the country.

The banks say they have increased their capital backstops in response to regulators’ demands, making them better able to ride out unexpected turbulence. JPMorgan, whose chief executive officer, Jamie Dimon, this month acknowledged public “hostility” toward bankers, boasts of a “fortress balance sheet.” Bank of America, which was about 50 percent larger at the end of 2011 than five years earlier, says it has boosted capital and liquidity while increasing to 29 months the amount of time the bank could operate without external funding.

“We’re a much stronger company than we were heading into the crisis,” said Jerry Dubrowski, a Bank of America spokesman. The bank, based in Charlotte, says it plans to shrink by year-end to $1.75 trillion in risk-weighted assets, a measure regulators use to calculate how much capital individual banks must hold.

Still, the banking industry has become increasingly concentrated since the 1980s. Today’s 6,291 commercial banks are less than half the number that existed in 1984, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The trend intensified during the crisis as JPMorgan acquired Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual; Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch; and Wells Fargo took over Wachovia in deals encouraged by the government.

“One of the bad outcomes, the adverse outcomes of the crisis, was the mergers that were of necessity undertaken when large banks were at-risk,” said Donald Kohn, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve from 2006-2010. “Some of the biggest banks got a lot bigger, and the market got more concentrated.”

In recent weeks, at least four current Fed presidents — Esther George of Kansas City, Charles Plosser of Philadelphia, Jeffrey Lacker of Richmond and Richard Fisher of Dallas — have voiced similar worries about the risk of a renewed crisis.

The annual report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas was devoted to an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, head of the bank’s research department, “Why We Must End Too Big to Fail — Now.”

A 40-year Fed veteran, Rosenblum wrote in the report released last month: “TBTF institutions were at the center of the financial crisis and the sluggish recovery that followed. If allowed to remain unchecked, these entities will continue posing a clear and present danger to the U.S. economy.”

The alarms come almost two years after Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation act. The law required the largest banks to draft contingency plans or “living wills” detailing how they would be unwound in a crisis. It also created a financial-stability council headed by the Treasury secretary, charged with monitoring the system for excessive risk-taking.

The new protections represent an effort to avoid a repeat of the crisis and subsequent recession in which almost 9 million workers lost their jobs and the U.S. government committed $245 billion to save the financial system from collapse.

The goal of policy makers is to ensure that if one of the largest financial institutions fails in the next crisis, shareholders and creditors will pay the tab, not taxpayers.

“Two or three years from now, Goldman Sachs should be like MF Global,” said Dennis Kelleher, president of the nonprofit group Better Markets, who doubts the government would allow a company such as Goldman to repeat MF Global’s Oct. 31 collapse.

Dodd-Frank, the most comprehensive rewriting of financial regulation since the 1930s, subjected the largest banks to higher capital requirements and closer scrutiny. The law also barred federal officials from providing specific types of assistance that were used to prevent such firms from failing in 2008. Instead, the Fed will work with the FDIC to put major banks and other large institutions through the equivalent of bankruptcy.

“If a large financial institution should ever fail, this reform gives us the ability to wind it down without endangering the broader economy,” Obama said before signing the act on July 21, 2010. “And there will be new rules to make clear that no firm is somehow protected because it is too big to fail.”

Officials at the Treasury Department, the Fed and other agencies have spent the past two years drafting detailed regulations to make that vision a reality.

Yet the big banks stayed big or, in some cases, grew larger. JPMorgan, which held $2 trillion in total assets when Dodd-Frank was signed, reached $2.3 trillion by the end of 2011, according to Federal Reserve data.

For Lacker, the banks’ living wills are the key to placing the financial system on sounder footing. Done right, they may require institutions to restructure to make their orderly resolution during a crisis easier to accomplish, he said.

Neil Barofsky, Treasury’s former special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, calls the idea of winding down institutions with more than $2 trillion in assets “completely unrealistic.”

It’s likely that more than one bank would face potential failure during any crisis, he said, which would further complicate efforts to gracefully collapse a giant bank. “We’ve made almost no progress on ending too big to fail,” he said.

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