Despite escalating outrage over rampant foreclosure fraud, the Federal Reserve now appears ready to eviscerate a key mortgage regulation in an effort to spare banks the losses from their own wrongdoing. Even as bank executives preposterously claim to have wronged nobody in the foreclosure process, they're pushing hard to unwind the only serious federal rule that protects borrowers from predatory loans and improper foreclosures. As if the last decade of abuse wasn't bad enough, banks are once again mobilizing to screw borrowers in the pursuit of epic bonuses. And once again, it appears that the Federal Reserve has become an accomplice to this nationwide mortgage scam.
Today, top mortgage officers from the nation's largest banks are telling the Senate Banking Committee that they aren't kicking the wrong people out of their homes. This is simply false. Problems at mortgage servicers have been going on for years, long before banks got into trouble for illegally robo-signing foreclosure documents. People are kicked out of their homes without cause in the United States every day. If the top executives at America's largest banks don't know this fact, they lack the competence needed to run their organizations.
Law firms that work with troubled borrowers are jam-packed with horror stories about foreclosures caused entirely by banks, not borrowers. Families who never miss a payment come home to an eviction notice, or a thug breaking down their door.
But it's even more common for borrowers to find themselves in trouble because their bank engaged in blatantly predatory lending. There is only one serious federal remedy for predatory lending, and the Fed is now knowingly trying to gut that remedy in order to help banks avoid losses from their own fraud. The remedy is called rescission, and it works like this:
If a bank failed to make key consumer protection disclosures about a mortgage, the borrower can demand that all of the interest and closing costs on the loan be refunded. Equally important, the bank must also stop all foreclosure proceedings and give up its right to foreclose. Once the bank gives up its right to foreclose, the full amount of the mortgage, minus interest and closing costs, becomes due. This isn't a free lunch for the borrower, especially when the value of her home has declined dramatically, but it's better than nothing, and it does impose real costs on banks.
For this process to function at all, it is absolutely critical that the bank be barred from foreclosing before the borrower has to pay off the remainder of the loan. A borrower can easily owe hundreds of thousands of dollars after winning a rescission. Few victims of predatory lending actually have that kind of money on hand.
This is the whole point of rescission, and it's been on the books since the Truth in Lending Act was passed in 1968. Without it, the consumer protections detailed by that law have no teeth. A bank is barred from engaging in predatory lending, but if it does it anyway, it faces no serious punishment.
Rescission, in other words, is the only federal legal device keeping banks in check on predatory lending (as the last decade proves, it's nowhere near enough). Predatory lending is really bad. If banks engage in it, they should face dramatic consequences. They don't get to foreclose and they give up all of the profit they expected to score from the predatory loan. If the borrower doesn't have all of the money on hand to pay off what's left, the bank has to deal with this money coming in over time.
The bank lobby and the Fed are now trying to completely gut the substance of this regulation. The Fed has just proposed a new rule that would reverse the order of payments and the right to foreclose under rescission. Under the new rule, a bank that has engaged in predatory lending does not have to give up its right to foreclose until after the borrower has paid off the full remaining balance of the loan.
Under the Fed's proposal, if you're the victim of illegal predatory lending, the bank will still get to foreclose on you unless you pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars all at once. And you'll have to pony up what the bank says you owe, which may be very different from what you actually owe. That eliminates the usefulness of rescission, making the new rule a bailout for predators.
The Fed knows full well that it's gutting the law here. The Board of Governors and their staff have met with key consumer lawyers no less than three times about this exact rule proposal, and the Fed is going ahead with it anyway.
Here's what's really going on. The largest banks don't have enough capital to weather a bad housing market. And any process that sheds light on the documentation procedures at mortgage servicers will expose the big banks to investor lawsuits. But investors can't sue without those documents. Rescission judgments create a paper trail for illegal loans. In addition to creating immediate losses for banks, rescission documents that banks sold illegal loans, giving investors who bought mortgage-backed securities ammunition for well-founded lawsuits. Those lawsuits, in turn, could sink some of the biggest names on Wall Street, something the Fed has been trying to prevent at all costs since 2008.
How close to the edge are the banks? Many mortgages that they account for as profitable assets are actually huge losses. The most obvious example of this insanity involves second lien mortgages. There are lots of kinds of second liens loans, but the important thing to remember is that they're the first asset to be wiped out when housing prices decline. Right now, they're in big trouble.
The second-lien holdings of Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase are about equal to their total capital. If you wipeout second liens alone, these banks are done. Right now the banks are accounting for these second liens as if they were worth nearly 100 percent of their original value -- even though these loans only trade at only about one-quarter of that value. If banks take the market's value of just one class of assets, they're gone.
This class of assets goes completely under if banks have to own up to the current foreclosure fraud mess. The only real way to fix the documentation fraud problems is a nationwide program reducing the amounts that borrowers owe on their mortgages to current home values. Doing that forces the banks to acknowledge that their second-lien mortgages are, in fact, worthless.
So the big banks and their protectors at the Fed are launching a two-pronged strategy. First, they're trying to prevent investors from obtaining the loan documents that will fuel well-justified lawsuits. Second, they're trying to give banks even greater control over the foreclosure process, in order to allow banks to continue to game accounting rules. This is a premeditated strategy to save banks from losses created by their own fraudulent, predatory behavior. It has no place on the books of the Fed, particularly after the central bank's total failure to prevent the mortgage abuses of the past decade.
It's not too late for the Fed to turn back. It can, in fact, abandon this bailout, and leave consumer-protection issues to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is designed to handle exactly this sort of issue, for exactly this reason.