If you didn’t read about Lynn Szymoniak recently, you should familiarize yourself with her lawsuit against the corrupt mortgage banking industry. According to her research, some $1,400,000,000,000 of mortgage-backed securities are actually not mortgage-backed securities. That’s a lot of missing cheese!
If you know about foreclosure fraud, the mass fabrication of mortgage documents in state courts by banks attempting to foreclose on homeowners, you may have one nagging question: Why did banks have to resort to this illegal scheme? Was it just cheaper to mock up the documents than to provide the real ones? Did banks figure they simply had enough power over regulators, politicians and the courts to get away with it? (They were probably right about that one.)
A newly unsealed lawsuit, which banks settled in 2012 for $95 million, actually offers a different reason, providing a key answer to one of the persistent riddles of the financial crisis and its aftermath. The lawsuit states that banks resorted to fake documents because they could not legally establish true ownership of the loans when trying to foreclose.
This reality, which banks did not contest but instead settled out of court, means that tens of millions of mortgages in America still lack a legitimate chain of ownership, with implications far into the future. And if Congress, supported by the Obama administration, goes back to the same housing finance system, with the same corrupt private entities who broke the nation’s private property system back in business packaging mortgages, then shame on all of us.
and what her lawsuit revealed is systematic, intentional fraudulent activity:
A mortgage has two parts: the promissory note (the IOU from the borrower to the lender) and the mortgage, which creates the lien on the home in case of default. During the housing bubble, banks bought loans from originators, and then (in a process known as securitization) enacted a series of transactions that would eventually pool thousands of mortgages into bonds, sold all over the world to public pension funds, state and municipal governments and other investors. A trustee would pool the loans and sell the securities to investors, and the investors would get an annual percentage yield on their money.
In order for the securitization to work, banks purchasing the mortgages had to physically convey the promissory note and the mortgage into the trust. The note had to be endorsed (the way an individual would endorse a check), and handed over to a document custodian for the trust, with a “mortgage assignment” confirming the transfer of ownership. And this had to be done before a 90-day cutoff date, with no grace period beyond that.
Georgetown Law professor Adam Levitin spelled this out in testimony before Congress in 2010: “If mortgages were not properly transferred in the securitization process, then mortgage-backed securities would in fact not be backed by any mortgages whatsoever.”
The lawsuit alleges that these notes, as well as the mortgage assignments, were “never delivered to the mortgage-backed securities trusts,” and that the trustees lied to the SEC and investors about this. As a result, the trusts could not establish ownership of the loan when they went to foreclose, forcing the production of a stream of false documents, signed by “robo-signers,” employees using a bevy of corporate titles for companies that never employed them, to sign documents about which they had little or no knowledge.
Continuing the story of a country and its corrupt institutions…
[U.S. District Judge William Pauley] has revived a securities fraud lawsuit accusing Bank of America Corp Chief Executive Brian Moynihan, his predecessor Kenneth Lewis, and others of misleading shareholders about the risk the bank might have to buy back large amounts of soured mortgages.…
But Pauley said the new allegations in an amended lawsuit “plausibly establish fraudulent conduct and a culpable state of mind as to all executive defendants” for allegedly concealing the buyback potential when certifying the bank’s financials.
The shareholders alleged they had been misled into buying shares of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America in 2009 and 2010.
They claimed that Bank of America knew at the time it faced capital shortfalls and large mortgage buybacks, and that recordkeeping in Merscorp Inc’s private Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems registry was so poor that it would not be able to legally foreclose on thousands of delinquent mortgages.
Mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and several large banks had established MERS in 1995 to circumvent the often unwieldy process of transferring ownership of mortgages and recording changes with county clerks.
The idea behind MERS was to wipe away centuries of legal tradition that mandated the physical transfer of loan notes and ownership information. Whereas lenders once were required to physically register with county clerk offices every time a mortgage loan was extended or re-sold, MERS provided an “electronic registry” of mortgage notes where all such transfers were recorded in the wiry brain of a giant computer instead of on paper.
Instead of the individual banks or lenders registering with the counties each time a loan was sold or re-sold, MERS would handle the initial registration and then become the “nominal” note-holder. Then, each time the note was passed on, MERS would record the transaction in its computer — but no matter who the actual owner of the note was, MERS would remain the legally registered assignee of the note.
Imagine, say, a family of twelve, two elderly parents in Iowa and ten adult children scattered in different states all over the country. Mom and Dad on the farm own one Ford F-150 that they owe $300 a month on. Every month, the truck gets passed to a different family member, who in turn becomes responsible for the monthly payment. But no matter who has the car and whose turn it is to come up with the $300, the truck stays in Dad’s name and the money, in the end, comes to Ford Finance via Dad’s checking account.
Looking at this as an individual and unique case, you wouldn’t think there was much that was inherently wrong with this setup. Obviously the family arrangement violates the spirit of many laws and procedures — vehicle registration (from month to month, the true owner of the car is hidden from the state), credit application (Pops technically committed credit fraud if he got the car loan in his own name knowing the children would actually be paying), and taxes/fees (the state misses out on its registration fees every month, when the car is informally “sold” from child to child without the nominal paperwork fees being paid to the DMV of the state in question). But again, looking at this as an individual case, not many people would say any of these “violations” were major moral transgressions, if they were really moral transgressions at all. After all, this is family!
But once you take this setup and institutionalize it, and employ it everywhere on a vast scale, it becomes seriously problematic. This is particularly true if, say, Pop begins allowing his kids to “rent” the car out to non-family members, so long as they kick a small fee upstairs. Say it’s March and Pop gives the truck to son Jimmy in Toledo; in April Jimmy gives the truck to his buddy Rick in Akron, charging the $300 payment plus a $20 convenience fee. May: Jimmy gives the car to his girlfriend Trudy in Phoenix, telling her to wire $300 plus another $20 back to Pops in Iowa; she in turn lends the car to her occasional lesbian love interest Madison, who begins renting the car on a day-to-day basis in Tuba City as part of her family’s Painted Desert Resort and Tourism business, etc. etc. And she’s now kicking the fees back to Iowa.
Within a year Pop is buying fifty vehicles an hour and shuttling cars to new customers all over the country, collecting millions in fees every day; he becomes a billion-dollar corporate fixture, hiring the entire local Elks club to come with him to work as support staff.
So now, to take this already absurdly overwrought metaphor one final painful step further, there is a string of grisly homicides being committed on highways across America. Witnesses spot that original F-150 truck and the license plates at each of the murder scenes, but when cops come looking for the truck owner, they find old Pop in a wheelchair in Iowa, alibied on the night of every crime by forty-five fellow members of the Dubuque Elks. They drag Pop into the station to question him, but he won’t give up which of his boys did the crimes — hell, he doesn’t know, anyway.
This, roughly, is what MERS is. The functional effect of MERS is to create an obfuscatory wall between the homeowner and the actual owner of his mortgage loan. The problem with MERS is a paradox at the heart of the “ownership” question. On the one hand, MERS is the legal assignee of a lot of these mortgage notes. On the other hand, it’s not the “real” owner of the notes, in any way that could ever help you, or the state, or the investors in mortgage-backed securities.
Sounds pretty fucked up to me. But then I’m not an expert.
Never-Ending Condo Construction
and from Shah Gilani:
In order to easily buy and sell mortgages between themselves so that these loans might be repackaged, securitized and then sold to investors as mortgage-backed securities, banks and other lenders needed a quick way to “trade” individual mortgages. They created a company called Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS). This group includes Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC), GMAC LLC (NYSE: GMA), Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC), Washington Mutual (now owned by JPMorgan Chase), the United Guaranty Corp. unit of American International Group Inc. (NYSE: AIG), Fannie Mae (OTC: FNMA), Freddie Mac (OTC: FMCC), mortgage-servicing companies and other similarly interested members.
You may not realize it, but at your home-purchase “closing,” you sign a document that appoints MERS as the “nominee” for the lender that granted you a mortgage. That gives the nominee the right to flip your mortgage to any other bank or lender it chooses. That’s how banks move mortgages around to package them into different securities.
But that brings us to the crux of the controversy: Every time there’s change on the title (a change occurs when the nominee switches the lender on your title out for another), local governments require that a new title be recorded. Of course, those governments – the county or municipality that you live in – also charge a “recording fee.” MERS also charges a fee, but it’s a lot less than government recording fees.
Here’s the problem. In creating MERS, these institutions actually changed the land-title system that this country – for much of its history – has relied upon to determine legal ownership status of land titleholders.
Not only did the lenders sidestep (read that to mean avoid) paying billions of dollars in fees to local governments, they paid themselves from the fees that MERS collected.
MERS is facing class-action lawsuits and civil racketeering suits around the country and their members are being individually named in all these suits. One suit alleges that MERS owes California a potential $60 billion to $120 billion in unpaid land-recording fees.
If suits against MERS and all its members are successful, unpaid recording fees and fines (that can be as much as $10,000 per incident) would make every one of them insolvent.
And you wonder what the Federal Reserve meant when it warned of “potential negative shocks?”
The bottom line for investors is that until all these issues are cleaned up (which might take years, or even decades) – or until there’s perhaps some sort of legislative clarity that eases uncertainty – investors face the threat of a severe “correction” in any or all of the markets that have risen on the hope that the long-hoped-for U.S. recovery is finally taking hold.