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.


Bully Bonus: $11.7 Billion JPM

“Each year they will launder more money back into the system and back onto the books so it becomes “on balance sheet” but the explanation of where the profits came from will be double-talk. But as long as we let them do it, they will be using the proceeds of purse snatching from the little people and wholesale robbery from the the taxpayers to pretend that they have higher and higher earnings, make their stock more and more valuable.

QUESTION FOR THE INVESTORS HOLDING CERTIFICATES OF MORTGAGE BACKED SECURITIES: HOW MUCH OF THIS DECLARED PROFIT AND THE BONUSES ACTUALLY SHOULD HAVE GONE TO YOU AS THE CREDITOR WHOSE INVESTMENT WENT SOUR? IS THERE A CONSTRUCTIVE TRUST HERE CREATED BY LAW? COULD IT BE THAT THE BENEFICIARIES INCLUDE YOURSELF, THE HOMEOWNERS AND THE TAXPAYERS THROUGH THEIR GOVERNMENT. ISN’T IT POSSIBLE THAT THESE ALLEGED PROFITS AND BONUSES WOULD COVER MUCH OF YOUR LOSSES?

  1. ISN’T IT POSSIBLE THAT THE INVESTORS CONTINUE TO BE PLAYED AS FOOLS AS THESE BANKS AND OTHER INTERMEDIARIES SPLIT UP THE MONEY YOU INVESTED?
  2. ISN’T IT POSSIBLE THAT THE SERVICERS AND OTHER INTERMEDIARIES ARE ACTING IN THEIR OWN INTERESTS AND NOT THE INTERESTS OF THE INVESTORS.?
  3. ISN’T IT POSSIBLE THAT YOU HAVE THE RIGHTS OF A MINORITY SHAREHOLDER OR MINORITY PARTNER FOR ACCESS TO THE REAL INFORMATION ON WHAT IS BEING COLLECTED AND WHERE THE MONEY IS GOING?

This is the start of the REST of the scheme. Gradually repatriating income that was previously undeclared. $23.7 trillion was skimmed largely by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. All that taxpayer money, in cash, obligations and guarantees went out because these banks were “too big to fail” and we accepted the proposition that they were failing when in fact they were sitting on more money than the government had. The “loss” was an accounting loss allowable by changes to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), deregulation and failure of the SEC to enforce the most basic elements of disclosure. They called it “off-balance sheet” transactions.

Now they they are laundering the money back in and giving themselves bonuses out of the taxpayer money they obtained through misrepresentation of their REAL financial status.

Each year they will launder more money back into the system and back on the books so it becomes “on balance sheet” but the explanation of where the profits came from will be double-talk. But as long as we let them do it, they will be using the proceeds of purse snatching from the little people and wholesale robbery from the the taxpayers to pretend that they have higher and higher earnings, make their stock more and more valuable.

They have no trouble taking their bonuses in stock. They know the stock will be ever higher and higher and the price earnings ratios will go up, multiplying the effect of the higher earnings. They know it just as surely as they knew the loans would fail, that their influence in Washington was strong enough with the Bush administration to get free money for fake losses, and that their tacit agreement to let non-creditors sue on defective loans as hush money would keep the cycle going.

President Obama told the big four that the only thing between them and pitchforks from the populace was him and he was doing his best to maintain order. But they don’t get it and they won’t get it because they think, perhaps correctly, that they will get away with the multiple phase scheme to drain America dry. Get out the pitchforks or watch your country dry up into a memory.

What does this mean for litigation and discovery. Plenty. The offshore SIV’s are the vehicle through which this money was sequestered and they are the vehicles through which the money is being laundered back in. That is why you must emphasize that you want the WHOLE accounting and not just the part about the records of the servicer, master servicer or some other intermediary in the securitization chain. They will try to keep the court’s attention on the non-payment of the borrower while you are trying to get a full accounting of the money from the start of the transaction all the way from debtor through creditor.

To use a simple analogy, suppose you had a five year loan and you prepaid the principal at the rate of $1,000 per month for the first three years.

Now they come in and want the court only to look at the total obligation and the fact that you missed the last three payments but they refuse to allow you access to an accounting that would prove the total principal has been reduced by your previous prepayments of $36,00 in addition to the regular amortization contained in your regular monthly payments.

Now add the fact that after the closing they realized that they had overcharged you on points for the loan and other charges, and they sent you a letter to that effect but the credit doesn’t show up in the demand, their notice of default of their foreclosure.

You have a right to demand discovery based upon your allegation that there were was money paid and that there are adjustments due in the accounting and that they have only offered a partial accounting, their demand letter was incorrect and so was their notice of default. What I am suggesting is that all of the above may be true PLUS there may have been debits and credits arising from third party transactions with participants in the securitization chain that you are only just learning about and you have a  right to discovery about that too.

REMEMBER: At this stage you are RAISING the question of fact, not proving it. You don’t have to be right to be entitled to discovery. You only have to make an allegation and it helps to have an expert declaration to go with it. Your goal is not to get the Judge to agree that these people can’t foreclose. Your goal is to get to the truth about your loan, the parties and all the money that exchanged hands. At the conclusion of discovery, properly conducted, and with the help of an expert, the case could very well be over.

New York Times

January 16, 2010

JPMorgan Chase Earns $11.7 Billion

JPMorgan Chase kicked off what is expected to be a robust — and controversial — reporting season for the nation’s banks on Friday with news that its profit and pay for 2009 soared.

In a remarkable rebound from the depths of the financial crisis, JPMorgan earned $11.7 billion last year, more than double its profit in 2008, and generated record revenue. The bank earned $3.3 billion in the fourth quarter alone.

Those cheery figures were accompanied by news that JPMorgan had earmarked $26.9 billion to compensate its workers, much of which will be paid out as bonuses. That is up about 18 percent, with employees, on average, earning about $129,000.

Workers in JPMorgan’s investment bank, on average, earned roughly $380,000 each. Top producers, however, expect to collect multimillion-dollar paychecks.

The strong results — coming a day after the Obama administration, to howls from Wall Street, announced plans to tax big banks to recoup some of the money the government expects to lose from bailing out the financial system — underscored the gaping divide between the financial industry and the many ordinary Americans who are still waiting for an economic recovery.

Over the next week or so, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are expected to report similar surges in pay when they release their year-end numbers.

But not all the news from JPMorgan Chase was good. Signs of lingering weakness in its consumer banking business unnerved Wall Street and drove down its share price along with those of other banks.

Chase’s consumer businesses are still hemorrhaging money. Chase Card Services, its big credit card unit, lost $2.23 billion in 2009 and is unlikely to turn a profit this year. Chase retail services eked out a $97 million profit for 2009, though it posted a $399 million loss in the fourth quarter. To try to stop the bleeding, the bank agreed to temporarily modify about 600,000 mortgages. Only about 89,000 of those adjustments have been made permanent. In a statementon Friday, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan, said that bank “fell short” of its earnings potential and remained cautious about 2010 considering that the job and housing markets continued to be weak.

“We don’t have visibility much beyond the middle of this year and much will depend on how the economy behaves,” Michael J. Cavanagh, the bank’s finance chief, said in a conference call with journalists. Across the industry, analysts expect investment banking revenue to moderate this year and tighter regulations to dampen profit. As consumers and businesses continue to hunker down, lending has also fallen.

Just as it did throughout 2009, JPMorgan Chase pulled off a quarterly profit after the strong performance of its investment bank helped offset large losses on mortgages and credit cards. The bank set aside another $1.9 billion for its consumer loan loss reserves — a hefty sum, but less than in previous periods.

That could be a sign that bank executives are more comfortable that the economy may be turning a corner. The bank has now stockpiled more than $32.5 billion to cover future losses. Still, Mr. Dimon warned that the economy was still too fragile to declare that the worst was over, though he hinted that things might stabilize toward the middle of the year. “We want to see a real recovery, just in case you have another dip down,” he said in a conference call with investors. Earlier, Mr. Cavanagh said that the bank hoped to restore the dividend to 75 cents or $1 by the middle of 2010, from 20 cents at present.

Over all, JPMorgan said 2009 net income rose to $11.7 billion, or $2.26 a share. That compares with a profit of $5.6 billion, or $1.35 a share, during 2008, when panic gripped the industry. Revenue grew to a record $108.6 billion, up 49 percent.

JPMorgan has emerged from the financial crisis with renewed swagger. Unlike several other banking chiefs, Mr. Dimon has entered 2010 with his reputation relatively unscathed. Indeed, he is regarded on Wall Street and in Washington as a pillar of the industry. On Wednesday on Capitol Hill, during a hearing of the government panel charged with examining the causes of the financial crisis, Mr. Dimon avoided the grilling given to Lloyd C. Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs. Mr. Dimon was also the only banker to publicly oppose the administration’s proposed tax on the largest financial companies.

Moreover, JPMorgan appears have taken advantage of the financial crisis to expand its consumer lending business and vault to the top of the investment banking charts, including a top-flight ranking as a fee-earner. Over all, the investment bank posted a $6.9 billion profit for 2009 after a $1.2 billion loss in 2008 when the bank took huge charges on soured mortgage investments and buyout loans.

The division posted strong trading revenue, though well short of the blow-out profits during the first half of the year when the markets were in constant flux. The business of arranging financing for corporations and advising on deals fell off in the last part of the year, though Mr. Cavanagh said there were signs of a rebound in the first two weeks of January.

As the investment bank’s income surged, the amount of money set aside for compensation in that division rose by almost one-third, to about $9.3 billion for 2009. But JPMorgan officials cut the portion of revenue they put in the bonus pool by almost half from last year.

The division, which employs about 25,000 people, reduced the share of revenue going to the compensation pool, to 37 percent by midyear, from 40 percent in the first quarter. The share fell to 11 percent in the fourth quarter because of the impact of the British bonus tax and the greater use of stock awards.

Bank officials have said that they needed to reward the firm’s standout performance, but to show restraint before a public outraged over banker pay. Other Wall Street firms may make similarly large adjustments.

Chase’s corporate bank, meanwhile, booked a $1.3 billion profit this year, even as it recorded losses on commercial real estate loans. Still, that represents a smaller portion of the bank’s overall balance sheet compared with many regional and community lenders. JPMorgan’s asset management business and treasury services units each booked similar profits for 2009.

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