Neil M. Barofsky served as the special inspector general in charge of oversight of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and is currently a senior fellow at New York University’s School of Law. This is an excerpt from his book, “Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street,” which will be published July 24 by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
July 23 (Bloomberg) — In the year since I stepped down as the special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the sadly predictable consequences of the government’s disparate treatment of Wall Street and Main Street have only become worse. As the banks amass size and power, Main Street continues to get pummeled.
Part of the current economic malaise can be traced directly to Treasury’s betrayal of its promise to use TARP to “preserve homeownership.” The Home Affordable Modification Program has brought little meaningful improvement, with fewer than 800,000 ongoing permanent modifications as of March 31, 2012, a number that is growing at the glacial pace of just 12,000 per month.
In June 2011, Treasury appeared to take a tentative step toward holding the mortgage servicers accountable for the widespread misconduct in the program by pledging to withhold the incentive payments to three of the largest banks — Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. — until they came into compliance with HAMP’s rules.
Treasury couldn’t even keep this modest commitment. Although Wells Fargo had improved its performance and was awarded all of its withheld incentive payments, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America continued to fail to meet the baseline standard. Nonetheless, in March 2012, as part of a broader settlement of the so-called robo-signing scandal, Treasury released all of the withheld payments, totaling more than $170 million. As a result, the government hasn’t held any servicer responsible for the widespread abuses of HAMP applicants, nor is it ever likely to do so.
In return for what was touted as a $25 billion payout, the banks received broad immunity from future civil cases arising out of their widespread use of forged, fraudulent or completely fabricated documents to foreclose on homeowners.
The headline number sounds impressive, yet the banks only had to cough up $1.5 billion to provide a paltry $2,000 to each borrower wrongfully foreclosed upon, a few billion dollars more in penalties to the states, and a few billion to provide for borrower refinancing. The remaining $17 billion, however, won’t involve payouts of money, but will be met in the form of the banks receiving “credits” for certain activities. This includes $7 billion that will be “earned” for routine tasks related to the housing crisis, such as bulldozing worthless houses, donating homes to charity, and agreeing not to pursue deficiency judgments against homeowners, whereby banks seek to force a homeowner to pay the difference between the balance of the loan at the time of foreclosure and what is recovered by the bank from a foreclosure sale. This sounds good, but it should be noted that these are all part of the normal course of business for the banks.
The remaining $10 billion in credits are supposed to be scraped together through principal reductions on “underwater” mortgages, but that doesn’t mean that the banks themselves will be taking $10 billion in losses. The settlement grants them partial credit for reducing the principal on loans that they service but don’t own, such as those contained in mortgage- backed securities. Worse still, they can earn additional “credits” toward the settlement through taxpayer-funded HAMP modifications. For example, if a servicer reduces $100,000 in principal for a mortgage through HAMP and receives a taxpayer incentive check for $40,000, it will still be able to claim $60,000 in credit toward meeting its obligations under the settlement.
As a result, the settlement will actually involve money flowing, once again, from taxpayers to the banks.