Why the secrecy? Why the haste? Rushing into an ill-advised settlement with the banks may undo one of our last chances to avert another economic catastrophe.
Tomorrow is the deadline for state attorneys general to sign on to a joint federal and multi-state $25 billion settlement of the robo-mortgage scandal. The settlement will involve Ally Financial Inc. (formerly GMAC), Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co. The details of the proposed settlement have not been released. However, one thing is clear: This settlement puts the nation at further risk of another systematic financial crisis and runs counter to any notion that the actions of the Obama administration will reflect the president’s newly energized populist rhetoric.
As a nation, we need to ask several questions. As a participatory democracy, we also have the right to the answers before any settlement is inked:
1. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a new financial crimes taskforce, yet the administration is rushing to finalize this settlement before the taskforce begins its work. Why?
2. What is the public interest in releasing banks that have openly admitted they broke the law in tens of thousands of separate instances from liability?
3. The bank narrative has been that the robo-mortgage scandal reflected procedural issues of no consequence (despite the fact that they constituted fraud, perjury, conspiracy, and a knowing effort to mislead the court). Recently, a new narrative has emerged that suggests these activities were actually the back-end of even greater malfeasance involving tax evasion and the banks’ failure to comply with basic rules in securitizing mortgages. If we are a nation where justice is blind, should we not investigate the full truth before we give the offending financial institutions another free pass?
4. Why are the terms of this settlement secret? Prosecutorial negotiations are normally secret in order to prevent the disclosure of evidence that might or might not be relevant to a later trial if the negotiations collapse. This concern does not apply here.
5. This settlement has far more of the characteristics of legislation than of prosecutorial activities. The offending banks have destroyed the wealth, livelihood, and dreams of millions of Americans. Shouldn’t the public at least have two weeks to view the proposed terms of the settlement and make their views known to their state’s attorney general? And at a time when trust in government is at historic lows, isn’t secrecy for this type of activity the wrong way to build the much-needed confidence of the American people?
6. The press also has a constitutionally guaranteed role in our system of governance. In these unusual circumstances, isn’t this precisely the type of situation where the nation would benefit from careful scrutiny of the intended settlement by the press?
7. Officials have indicated that the settlement will require banks to write down the principal on homeowner loans. Unfortunately, a portion of the $25 billion allocated for this purpose is far too little, spread across a large number of homeowners, for any write-downs to make an effective difference. So either these statements are effectively meaningless, or the settlement is based on promises of future activities by banks. To date, the nation has witnessed repeated and egregious failures by the banks to live up to promises of future behavior, with no subsequent penalties for such failures. For any release from liabilities to be effective, shouldn’t it be contingent on the banks actually delivering on these promises?
Since the start of the economic crisis, none of the administration’s housing policies have succeeded. Each policy initiative has been fatally flawed. As a consequence, there’s no reason to believe that the policy pursued in the current settlement will aid, rather than hurt, the housing market. Meanwhile, the secrecy surrounding this policy initiative makes its potential positive contribution to the crisis even more suspect.
A month ago, I wrote that we were a nation in denial with regard to housing prices and the impact of ongoing foreclosures. Despite a favorable rent to buy ratio, ultra-low interest rates and an “all time low cost of owning a home,” housing prices are continuing downward. There is a simple explanation. With foreclosures and the so-called shadow inventory of homes, our housing supply will overshadow demand for many years to come.
With 29 percent of homeowners already underwater, this creates a massive risk for the economy. Some analysts predict that home prices will drop another 10 to 20 percent, which will put many borrowers deeply underwater. With additional price declines, underwater homeowners may start to simply walk away in droves. This will create havoc for our economy, the mortgage securities markets, and it will destroy solvency of the banks as they are forced to write-down their portfolios. The nation will be plunged into another economic crisis.
Unfortunately, all indications over the past several weeks are that this risk is continuing to grow. Indeed, the most recent reports on housing prices showed larger than expected declines in November. This reflected the third month in a row of declines. “The trend is down and there are few, if any, signs in the numbers that a turning point is close at hand,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the S&P’s home price index committee.
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama stressed assistance for “responsible homeowners.” Yet the current definition of a responsible homeowner is someone with a job. (Although yesterday the president did say, “We’re working to make sure people don’t lose their homes just because they lost their job.” ) So, at least for the moment, continued unemployment woes will keep this vicious cycle going.
Here’s how this relates to the proposed settlement: All of the activities covered by the settlement took place after the crisis began. They were not unforeseen effects of once-in-a-lifetime systematic risk. They reflected willful, knowing, and egregious malfeasance and disrespect for the rule of law. There is no question that laws were broken on a massive scale with potentially enormous civil liabilities and with criminal offenses. The essence of capitalism is responsibility and accountability. The settlement ignores both.
I suspect that the existing testimony of bank officials in open court, which are effectively admissions of guilt, provides sufficient evidence to lead to state and federal suits that would make the banks insolvent. This means that, because of the banks’ malfeasance and greed, the nation has the leverage to bargain for a massive write-down of mortgages — thereby preventing an economic catastrophe. I am not advocating this option, nor am I saying it is good policy. But I do believe it would be a scandal to limit whatever leverage we have to save our economy by once again permitting gross malfeasance.
In late May, my eldest daughter will graduate from college and join the labor force. Will there be jobs for her and her classmates? Will she come of age in a decade of limited employment opportunities, the collapse of the middle class, and unequal justice while a privileged few live lives of abundance because they have corrupted our democracy? As someone who reveres our system of justice, what is the advice I should give her about working hard and playing by the rules? There is still a chance that we can turn all of this around. But rushing to settle with law-breaking banks is certainly not the way to solve the issue of inequality — which President Obama called the defining issue of our time. It is also the antithesis of capitalism, which is based on adherence to law, a fair bargain, and accountability.
Bruce Judson is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and a former Senior Faculty Fellow at the Yale School of Management.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.