Tuesday, Oct 19, 2010, 7:22 am
Weekly Audit: Foreclosure Crisis Hits Home
by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger
Earlier this month, Bank of America (BOA), the country's largest bank, announced a moratorium on foreclosures in all 50 states.
The bank promised not to sell any foreclosed homes or take any more delinquent borrowers to court until it had reviewed its potentially defective foreclosure process. Other major lenders soon announced that they too were suspending foreclosures in dozens of states. Why are the biggest banks in the country voluntarily calling for a time-out? It's a hint that we're facing a huge problem: The banks aren't sure if they have the legal right to foreclose on millions of homes.
Here's what's new in foreclosuregate since the Audit took up the story last week. The Bank of America announced that it would resume some foreclosures on Oct. 25, having deemed its own methods sound. The stock market begged to differ. BOA's stock fell over 5% on Thursday and other bank stocks also took a beating, as did mortgage bonds. This pattern indicates that investors are very worried about the effect of the foreclosure crisis on the health of the banks.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) is calling for a foreclosure moratorium under the new Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), as Ellen Brown reports for Truthout. The FSOC has the power to preemptively break up any large financial institution that threatens U.S. economic security. Grayson wants a moratorium on all mortgages securitized between 2005 and 2008 until the FSOC can determine which foreclosures are valid and which are bogus.
The missing link
So, what kind of "defects" in the foreclosure process are we talking about? Fraud, basically.
Zach Carter of the Campaign for America's Future explains to Chris Hayes of the Nation why Bank of America and other major lenders are in so much trouble: They are just administering loans for other lenders. You make your check out to the Bank of America, but the bank is just babysitting after the loan for the bondholders.
The real creditors are the investors who own bonds made up of pieces of many different mortgages, including yours. The bond gives the bondholder a share of the money that you and other borrowers pay each month. If you don't pay, BOA initiates foreclosure. If you're late, BOA charges you fees.
However, the bank can't just hire a foreclosure company to take your home away on a whim. The bank must first show proof that it is entitled to foreclose because you've defaulted on your mortgage in the form of a mortgage note. If you hold one of those toxic asset mortgages, there's a good chance the bank doesn't have the note.
As Dean Baker explains in Truthout, in many, if not most, cases, "liar loans" (mortgages issued with no proof of income or assets) have become given way to "liar liens" (foreclosures with no proof of default).
According to Carter, all the big banks have been hiring foreclosure mills to rubber-stamp their claims without checking. Unscrupulous foreclosure companies are admitting to "robo-signing," i.e., foreclosing without even checking whether the bank's claims were legit.
According to Andy Kroll of Mother Jones, the Bank of America stands to lose up to $70 billion over what's come to be known as "foreclosuregate." A mortgage starts out with an originator, typically a bank or a mortgage broker. In the heyday of mortgage-backed securities, investment banks were buying up hundreds of thousands of mortgages, making them into mortgage-backed bonds, and selling them to investors.
Unfortunately, if the bank doesn't have the note, who does? The mortgage originator may have gone bankrupt, many were fly-by-night operators that folded when the housing bubble burst. Many mortgages were bought and resold more than once before they found their way into a mortgage-backed bond.
So, the question is whether the bank really owned the mortgages it made into mortgage backed-securities and sold to individuals, pension funds, and other institutions. If not, the banks stand could be on the hook for selling assets they didn't actually own to investors.
The scandal affects so many mortgages that some lawmakers are calling for a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures until investigators can sort out who owns what once and for all. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY) told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that Congress needs to stop banks from putting people out on the street until there is some way to differentiate between fraudulent foreclosures and justified ones:
And so, I just think that people who are saying that this is going to hurt—I think that it’s going to help, because once people gain confidence in the fact that they’re being treated fairly and that there’s no discrepancies in the records, then people will feel very comfortable in terms of trying to move forward. But until that happens, you’re always going to have these comments about the fact that that was not done right, it was done unfairly. And, of course, I think there’s enough here for us to stop and to pause and to say, let’s take a look here before we move forward. So a moratorium is definitely in order.
The Obama administration opposes the moratorium on the grounds that it would hurt the housing market and thereby slow the economy. Towns counters that what would really be bad for the economy is letting banks take people's homes away without any semblance of due process. If the government doesn't act to protect the innocent, foreclosuregate could shatter the confidence of potential home buyers. Would you want to invest in a house if you were afraid the bank could just take it away from you?
In AlterNet, Mike Lux argues that fraudulent foreclosures are one more assault on poor and middle class Americans. He argues that the banks are so used to being coddled by Washington that they're counting on legislators to retroactively change the rules to protect them from the consequences of their own devious behavior.
At this point we don't know what percentage of foreclosed-upon homes have simply been stolen by banks to pay bondholders, but we do know the problem is vast and systemic. The Obama administration is content to let the banks seize private property first and ask questions later. We need a moratorium to take stock and restore the rule of law.
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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.