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.

Want to Buy Your Loan?: Toxic Asset Plan Foresees Big Subsidies for Investors

To start the program, Treasury will ask banks, like Citigroup or JPMorgan Chase, to identify pools of residential and commercial real estate loans that they will be willing to sell through an auction. Private investors will bid against each other, setting a market price. No bank will be required to participate.
Editor’s Note: it’s starting. Principal reductions are coming. The original plan I proposed in which everyone shares the loss is falling into place. Make sure you get a judgment quieting title as part of your mortgage modification or settlement.
March 21, 2009

Toxic Asset Plan Foresees Big Subsidies for Investors

This article is by Edmund L. Andrews, Eric Dash and Graham Bowley.

WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department is expected to unveil early next week its long-delayed plan to buy as much as $1 trillion in troubled mortgages and related assets from financial institutions, according to people close to the talks.

The plan is likely to offer generous subsidies, in the form of low-interest loans, to coax investors to form partnerships with the government to buy toxic assets from banks.

To help protect taxpayers, who would pay for the bulk of the purchases, the plan calls for auctioning assets to the highest bidders.

The uproar over the American International Group’s bonuses has not stopped the Obama administration from plowing ahead. The plan is not expected to impose restrictions on the executive pay of private investors or fund managers who participate.

The three-pronged approach is perhaps the most central component of President Obama’s plan to rescue the nation’s banking system from the money-losing assets weighing down bank balance sheets, crippling their ability to make new loans and deepening the recession.

Industry analysts estimate that the nation’s banks are holding at least $2 trillion in troubled assets, mostly residential and commercial mortgages.

The plan to be announced next week involves three separate approaches. In one, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will set up special-purpose investment partnerships and lend about 85 percent of the money that those partnerships will need to buy up troubled assets that banks want to sell.

In the second, the Treasury will hire four or five investment management firms, matching the private money that each of the firms puts up on a dollar-for-dollar basis with government money.

In the third piece, the Treasury plans to expand lending through the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, a joint venture with the Federal Reserve.

The goal of the plan is to leverage the dwindling resources of the Treasury Department’s bailout program with money from private investors to buy up as many of those toxic assets as possible and free the banks to resume more normal lending.

But the details have been treacherously difficult, politically and financially, and some of the big decisions are the same as those that bedeviled the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush last year.

Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, provoked scathing criticism from investors in February by announcing the broad outlines of the plan without addressing the tough questions, like how the government planned to share the risk with investors or arrive at a fair price for the assets that would neither cheat taxpayers nor harm the banks.

Although the details of the F.D.I.C. part were still being completed on Friday, it is expected that the government will provide the overwhelming bulk of the money — possibly more than 95 percent — through loans or direct investments of taxpayer money.

The hope is that such a generous taxpayer subsidy will attract private investors into the market and accelerate the recovery of the country’s banks.

The key protection for taxpayers, according to people briefed on the plan, is that the private investors will bid in auctions against each other for the assets. As a result, administration officials contend, the government will be buying the troubled loans of the banks at a deep discount to their original face value.

Because the government can hold those mortgages as long as it wants, officials are betting the government will be repaid and that taxpayers may even earn a profit if the market value of the loans climbs in the years to come.

To entice private investors like hedge funds and private equity firms to take part, the F.D.I.C. will provide nonrecourse loans — that is, loans that are secured only by the value of the mortgage assets being bought — worth up to 85 percent of the value of a portfolio of troubled assets.

The remaining 15 percent will come from the government and the private investors. The Treasury would put up as much as 80 percent of that, while private investors would put up as little as 20 percent of the money, according to industry officials. Private investors, then, would be contributing as little as 3 percent of the equity, and the government as much as 97 percent.

The government would receive interest payments on the money it lent to a partnership and it would share profits and losses on the equity portion of the investment with the private investors.

Ever since last fall, industry analysts and policy makers in Washington have argued that the banking system’s biggest problem was the huge pile of troubled mortgages and other loans on bank balance sheets.

Risk-taking institutional investors, like hedge funds and private equity funds, have refused to pay more than about 30 cents on the dollar for many bundles of mortgages, even if most of the borrowers are still current. But banks holding those mortgages, not wanting to book huge losses on their holdings, have often refused to sell for less than 60 cents on the dollar.

The result has been a paralyzing impasse. Banks, unwilling to sell their loans at fire-sale prices, have had less capital available to make new loans. Mortgage investors, unable to leverage their investments with borrowed money, have been unwilling to pay more than fire-sale prices.

To break that impasse, the government’s crucial subsidy is meant to provide investors with the kind of low-cost financing that has been utterly unavailable in today’s credit markets.

Administration officials refused to comment on the details of the plan, and refused to say what kind of interest rates the government would be charging investors. But government officials have long maintained that they could charge slightly more than the Treasury’s own cost of money and still offer rates far less than the private markets would demand.

To start the program, Treasury will ask banks, like Citigroup or JPMorgan Chase, to identify pools of residential and commercial real estate loans that they will be willing to sell through an auction. Private investors will bid against each other, setting a market price. No bank will be required to participate.

Analysts worry whether the prices investors offer will be high enough to induce the banks to sell assets. The hope is that high valuations at the auctions will increase the price of assets that remain on the books of banks, bolstering confidence in the sector.

Still, the Treasury Department’s biggest obstacle may be the current political environment in Washington, where Democratic lawmakers are furious about the pay packages and bonuses received by executives at companies being rescued by taxpayers.

Many investment executives said they were worried that participating in any bailout program would expose them to political wrath and potentially steep new restrictions on their own pay.

Treasury and Fed officials have remained firmly against imposing any restrictions on pay for companies investing money in the rescue effort rather than receiving money from it.

The plan comes as financial institutions continue to fail. Federal regulators Friday seized control of the two largest wholesale credit unions — U.S. Central Federal Credit Union and Western Corporate Federal Credit Union — which together had $57 billion in assets. They provide financing, check-clearing and other tasks for retail credit unions.

Michael J. de la Merced contributed reporting from New York.

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