How an Obscure Outfit Called MERS Is Subverting Our Entire System of Property Rights
"For the first time in the nation's history, there is no longer an authoritative, public record of who owns land in each county." -- University of Utah law professor Christopher Peterson
There is an unbelievable scandal in the making that threatens to subvert our four-century-old method for guaranteeing a fundamental building block of the American republic—property ownership. The biggest reason why you probably haven’t heard much about it is that it involves one of the most generic and boring company names imaginable: Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., or MERS. It is a story of deception engineered at the highest level of power for short-term gain, and another epic failure of the private sector to uphold the laws and traditions of American society, even something as fundamental as property rights.
Created in 1995 by the country's biggest banks, MERS quietly took control of and privatized mortgage record-keeping across the country and, in the span of a few years, scrambled America's private property ownership records to the point where no one could figure out who owns what. This was no accident, and was done by design: MERS was a tool used by America's top financial institutions to pump up the real estate market. Mortgage-backed securities, robo-signers, lightning quick foreclosures, subprime mortgages and just about everything else that went into feeding the biggest real estate bubble in U.S. history could not function without help from MERS. But unlike many of the Wall Street scandals, this one could blow up in the banks’ faces, with the little guy laughing all the way back to his free McMansion, and local governments seeing their empty coffers fill back up with the billions of dollars in unpaid fees that MERS circumvented.
The story begins in mid-'90s with the founding of MERS, Inc. by the nation's most powerful banks, ostensibly with the aim of streamlining and modernizing the process of registering and tracking mortgages. Traditionally, there has been no centralized registry of real estate ownership information, with counties maintaining their own records for properties within their borders—a system that has remained virtually unchanged since colonial times.
The MERS database went live in the middle of the dot-com bubble, and was supposed take inefficient government bureaucracies kicking and screaming into the future by providing a centralized, national registry of mortgage ownership information. "MERS addresses a problem that was costing the industry a significant amount of money," Rick Amatucci, a Fannie Mae vice president and the agency's liaison with MERS, told Mortgage Banking magazine, just as the new registry went online in 1997. The database would give lenders across the country instant access to real-time mortgage information, diminish potential for fraud, and lower costs for servicers and borrowers, according to Mortgage Banking Association, which was tasked with overseeing the project.
But that kind of talk was just for the press release. The banking industry wasn't concerned with efficiency or transparency or the greater good. It was all about making money, as quickly and cheaply as possible. And that is what MERS was for. It was created to help the industry push its latest money-maker: mortgage-backed securities, a Wall Street financial scam that dressed up the most toxic, guaranteed-to-fail loans as Grade A investment vehicles that could be sold to suckers looking for an easy gain.
But before mortgage-backed securities could be unleashed on the residential housing market on a massive scale, bankers needed to get rid of America's long-standing real estate recording laws, which required lenders to file all mortgage transactions—the origination of a new loan, for instance, or the transfer or sale of a mortgage between banks—with the county in which the property is located. While this recording requirement was not a problem in the sleepy pre-securitization days of the home loan business, when mortgage transactions were kept to a minimum, it was going to be much more difficult—if not impossible—with widespread use of securitization, which jacked up the industry like high-grade meth. Mortgages would be changing hands dozens of times, going from loan originators to banks to Wall Street investment houses, which would collect them by the thousands and package them into complex debt instruments that would be chopped up into shares and sold off to multiple investors all over the world.