CORPORATE POWER (Part 1): THE MORTGAGE FORECLOSURE SETTLEMENT

Here’s issue #19 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 2/20/12. The last issue looked at Supreme Court decisions that favor corporations. Here’s an example of a legal settlement that favors corporations.

You’ve probably heard about the recent $26 billion settlement of the mortgage foreclosure fraud case against 5 large financial institutions: Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Ally Financial. This settlement, agreed to by 49 of the 50 states, is for foreclosures that occurred fraudulently, without proper documentation or where it was unclear that the institution foreclosing on the homeowner was the owner of the mortgage and had the legal right to foreclose. (This settlement has nothing to do with the creating of risky and fraudulent mortgages or the selling of them to investors as high quality investments, which are the two key elements of the financial fraud that crashed our financial system in 2008 and caused our current recession.)

Although $26 billion sounds like a lot, it isn’t very much when viewed from the perspective of these 5 companies’ $425 billion in revenue in 2010 and their $39 billion in profits (even though they hadn’t fully recovered from the financial collapse they and others created). Furthermore, they are only actually paying $5 billion. The other $21 billion comes from reducing the amount owed (principal) on mortgages where homeowners owe more than their house is worth. These costs will be borne largely by the investors who bought the mortgages or by the government’s Making Home Affordable Modification Plan that subsidizes principal reductions by banks. This latter piece means that we, the taxpayers, are again bailing out these banks! [1] [2]

If you were illegally foreclosed on by one of these 5 companies and have lost your home, you will get between $1,500 and $2,000. This doesn’t seem like much compensation for the trauma you’ve experienced! Looking at it another way, this settlement sets the penalty for forgeries and fabricating documents at a maximum of $2,000 per loan. [3]

Some other points that help put the $26 billion settlement in perspective: [4]

  • Financial institutions, including these 5, received a $700 billion bailout and $1.2 trillion in low cost loans from the Federal Reserve to keep them afloat when they crashed our financial system.
  • The federal government’s track record of enforcing consent decrees in settlements such as this one is poor. In consent decrees, companies, without admitting guilt, state that they won’t engage in specific illegal activities in the future. In the current settlement, there is essentially no penalty for Countrywide Mortgage (now owned by Bank of America) for failing to comply with a previous consent decree over some of the same practices.
  • This settlement has been reached before there has been a full investigation of what occurred. The President just announced a new federal task force to investigate the financial sector in his State of the Union speech. It may uncover more extensive or egregious fraud than is currently known.

In this settlement of “this remarkable fraud that the banks and the [mortgage] servicers have created … the only big losers are the taxpayers and, of course, the homeowners.” [5] This is a “raw demonstration of who wields power in America.” [6]  This is a great deal for the companies because no one is going to jail and the $5 billion cost may well be less than what it would have cost them to do things right in the first place. Hence, they can simply view this $5 billion as a cost of doing business.

This settlement is an example of corporations getting off easily, while people suffer. One piece of this is the not unusual practice of corporations, without admitting guilt, consenting not to engage in illegal activity in the future. As occurred here with Countrywide, there is typically little enforcement when they engage, again, in similar illegal activity. As is the case with this settlement, financial penalties are typically small and provide no significant disincentive for engaging in illegal activity.

Future newsletters will examine other examples of corporate interests trumping the greater good and ways corporations obtain and wield influence and power. One way, which has been documented in past newsletters, is through the substantial investments the business community makes in our public officials through campaign contributions.


[1]       Common Dreams staff, 2/17/12, “Mortgage settlement ‘whitewash’: US taxpayers will pay for big bank settlement, mortgage deal or not; abusive foreclosures continue,” http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/02/17-0

[2]       Levitin, A., retrieved 2/17/12, “The servicing settlement: Banks 1, public 0,” http://www.creditslips.org/creditslips/2012/02/the-servicing-settlement-banks-1-public-0.html

[3]       Smith, Y., 2/16/12, “The top twelve reasons why you should hate the mortgage settlement,” Naked Capitalism

[4]       Bond, B., 2/10/12, “A bad deal,” Credo Action

[5]       Common Dreams staff, see above

[6]       Smith, Y., see above

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