How a Bad-ass California Mayor is Taking on Big Banks
The Citigroup logo on a a bank branch on June 23, 2008 in New York
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In a nearly $13 billion settlement with the US Justice Department in November 2013, JPMorgan Chase admitted that it, along with every other large US bank, had engaged in mortgage fraud as a routine business practice, sowing the seeds of the mortgage meltdown. JPMorgan and other megabanks have now been caught in over a dozen major frauds, including LIBOR-rigging and bid-rigging; yet no prominent banker has gone to jail. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of all mortgages nationally remain underwater (meaning the balance owed exceeds the current value of the home), sapping homeowners’ budgets, the housing market and the economy. Since the banks, the courts and the federal government have failed to give adequate relief to homeowners, some cities are taking matters into their own hands.
Gayle McLaughlin, the bold mayor of Richmond, California, has gone where no woman dared go before, threatening to take underwater mortgages by eminent domain from Wall Street banks and renegotiate them on behalf of beleaguered homeowners. A member of the Green Party, which takes no corporate campaign money, she proved her mettle standing up to Chevron, which dominates the Richmond landscape. But the banks have signaled that if Richmond or another city tries the eminent domain gambit, they will rush to court seeking an injunction. Their grounds: an unconstitutional taking of private property and breach of contract.
How to refute those charges? There is a way; but to understand it, you first need to grasp the massive fraud perpetrated on homeowners. It is how you were duped into paying more than your house was worth; why you should not just turn in your keys or short-sell your underwater property away; why you should urge Congress not to legalize the MERS scheme; and why you should insist that your local government help you acquire title to your home at a fair price if the banks won’t. That is exactly what Richmond and other city councils are attempting to do through the tool of eminent domain.
The Securitization Fraud that Collapsed the Housing Market
One settlement after another has now been reached with investors and government agencies for the sale of “faulty mortgage bonds,” including a suit brought by Fannie and Freddie that settled in October 2013 for $5.1 billion. “Faulty” is a euphemism for “fraudulent.” It means that mortgages subject to securitization have “clouded” or “defective” titles. And that means the banks and real estate trusts claiming title as owners or nominees don’t actually have title – or have standing to enjoin the city from proceeding with eminent domain. They can’t claim an unconstitutional taking of property because they can’t prove they own the property, and they can’t claim breach of contract because they weren’t the real parties in interest to the mortgages (the parties putting up the money).
“Securitization” involves bundling mortgages into a pool, selling them to a non-bank vehicle called a “real estate trust,” and then selling “securities” (bonds) to investors (called “mortgage-backed securities” or “collateralized debt obligations”). By 2007, 75% of all mortgage originations were securitized. According to investment banker and financial analyst Christopher Whalen, the purpose of securitization was to allow banks to avoid capitalization requirements, enabling them to borrow at unregulated levels.
Since the real estate trusts were “off-balance sheet,” they did not count in the banks’ capital requirements. But under applicable accounting rules, that was true only if they were “true sales.” According to Whalen, “most of the securitizations done by banks over the past two decades were in fact secured borrowings, not true sales, and thus potential frauds on insured depositories.” He concludes, “bank abuses of non-bank vehicles to pretend to sell assets and thereby lower required capital levels was a major cause of the subprime financial crisis.”