Locking Up the Banksters: It's Not Hard!

Gretchen Morgenson had a column on a new report from the Inspector General of the Justice Department which found that prosecuting mortgage fraud was a low priority, contrary to claims by the Obama administration. Since there is so much confusion on the topic it is worth repeating again what the Justice Department would have done if law enforcement had been its concern.


It's not a question of simply locking up Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein and other top bankers, the point would be to build a case from the bottom up. This means going to mortgage agents at Countrywide, Ameriquest, and other major subprime issuers. Investigators would confront them with stacks of improperly documented mortgages and ask them why they put through mortgages with improper or even obviously false documentation.

Folks who took out a mortgage in years prior to bubble know the ordeal involved. You had to bring in your first grade teacher to vouch for your character. Everything had to be properly documented and was closely scrutinized. This was not the procedure that was followed in the bubble years. Justice Department investigators would ask the mortgage agents why they passed through mortgages without proper documentation.

Since this was a widespread practice and not the work of a few rogue agents, presumably office managers told these agents to get mortgages and that proper documentation did not matter. Faced with the risk of jail for committing fraud, it is likely that many agents would be prepared to testify that they were acting on instructions from their branch manager. The investigators would then confront their branch managers with the testimony from their employers and ask them what prompted them to tell employers to ignore standard procedures and pass through improperly documented mortgages. Again, faced the prospect of several years in jail, it is likely that many branch managers would be prepared to testify against their bosses at the corporate headquarters. (The Justice Department has pursued this sort of investigation in going after illegal campaign contributions to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray.)

The same practice would be followed at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the other investment banks that securitized the loans. The folks who were constructing the securities are all smart people who know what a good mortgage looks like. They surely knew that many of the mortgages they were throwing into the pools were not properly documented and almost certainly fraudulent. In these cases the Justice Department investigators would ask the Harvard MBAs whether they are really stupider than rocks.

At least some would admit to not being morons and acknowledge that they knowingly packaged fraudulent mortgages into securities. These bright young ambitious MBAs would then be offered the opportunity to stay out of jail if they told investigators why they thought it was a good idea to package fraudulent mortgages into mortgage backed securities.

Would this process have put Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, Robert Rubin and the rest behind bars? Who knows, but we know with certainty that the Justice Department never started on this path so there was no way that the honchos could ever be held accountable for any crimes they did commit. This speaks volumes about the nature of justice in the United States today.

There is one other issue that is worth addressing here. Many commentators have argued that the honchos were foolish, not crooked. They really did believe that the house prices would just keep rising. In this case all the mortgages would end up being good mortgages. (If a bank forecloses on a fraudulent loan where the house has appreciated 20-30 percent, it is not likely to suffer a loss.) 

It is entirely possible that the top people at the banks really did believe that the bubble would keep inflating indefinitely, but it is also irrelevant. (The Enron boys may have believed they really had a good business model. That doesn't change the fact that they broke the law.) The issue at hand is whether they knowingly issued and passed along mortgages that were not documented properly. That is fraud and a criminal act. It doesn't change anything if they were also stupid.

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