Joe Nocera, the columnist currently challenging Tom Friedman for the title of hackiest militant centrist hack--it's a tough job that just about everyone on The New York Times op-ed page has to do--loves the robo-signing settlement announced last week between the Obama administration, 49 states and the five biggest mortgage banks. "Two cheers!" shouts Nocera.
Too busy to follow the news? Read Nocera. If he likes something, it's probably stupid, evil or both.
As penance for their sins--securitizing fraudulent mortgages, using forged deeds to foreclose on millions of Americans and oh, yeah, borking the entire world economy--Ally Financial, Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have agreed to fork over $5 billion in cash. Under the terms of the new agreement, they're supposed to reduce the principal of loans to homeowners who are "underwater" on their mortgages--i.e. they owe more than their house is worth--by $17 billion.
Some homeowners will qualify for $3 billion in interest refinancing, something the banks have resisted since the ongoing depression began in late 2008.
What about those who got kicked out of their homes illegally? They split a pool of $1.5 billion.
Sounds impressive. It's not. Mark Zuckerberg is worth $45 billion.
"That probably nets out to less than $2,000 a person," notes The Times. "There's no doubt that the banks are happy with this deal. You would be, too, if your bill for lying to courts and end-running the law came to less than $2,000 per loan file."
Readers will recall that I paid more than that for a speeding ticket for going 68 in a 55.
This is the latest sellout by a corrupt system that would rather line the pockets of felonious bankers than put them where they belong: prison.
Remember TARP, the initial bailout? Democrats and Republicans, George W. Bush and Barack Obama agreed to dole out $700 billion in public funds--plus $7.7 trillion funneled secretly through the Fed--to the big banks so they could "increase their lending in order to loosen credit markets," in the words of Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican.
Three years after TARP, "tight home loan credit is affecting everything from home sales to household finances," USA Today reported. "Many borrowers are struggling to qualify for loans to buy homes. ... Those who can get loans need higher credit scores and bigger down payments than they would have in recent years. They face more demands to prove their incomes, verify assets, show steady employment and explain things such as new credit cards and small bank account deposits. Even then, they may not qualify for the lowest interest rates."
Financial experts aren't surprised. TARP was a no-strings-attached deal devoid of any requirement that banks increase lending. You can hardly blame the bankers for taking advantage. They used the cash--money that might have been used to help distressed homeowners--to grow income on their overnight "float" and issue record raises to their CEOs.
Next came Obama's Home Affordable Modification Program farce. Another toothless "voluntary" program, HAMP asked banks to do the same things they've just agreed to under the robo-signing settlement: allow homeowners who are struggling to refinance and possibly reduce their principals to reflect the collapse of housing prices in most markets.
Voluntary = worthless.
CNN reported on Jan. 24: "The HAMP program, which was designed to lower troubled borrowers' mortgage rates to no more than 31 percent of their monthly income, ran into problems almost immediately. Many lenders lost documents, and many borrowers didn't qualify. Three years later, it has helped a scant 910,000 homeowners--a far cry from the promised 4 million."
Or the 15 million who needed help.
As usual, state-controlled media is too kind. Banks didn't "lose" documents. They threw them away.
I wrote about my experience with HAMP: Chase Home Mortgage repeatedly asked for, received, confirmed receiving, then requested the same documents. It elevated the runaround to an art. My favorite part was how Chase wouldn't respond to queries for a month, then request the bank statement for that month. The final result: losing half my income "did not represent income loss."
It's simple math: in 67 percent of cases, banks make more money through foreclosure than working to keep families in their homes.
This time is different, claims the White House. "No more lost paperwork, no more excuses, no more runaround," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said Feb. 9. The new standards will "force the banks to clean up their acts."
Don't bet on it. The administration promises "a robust enforcement mechanism"--i.e. an independent monitor. Such an agency, which would supervise the handling of millions of distressed homeowners, won't be able to handle the workload, according to mortgage experts. Anyway, it's not like there isn't already a law. Law professor Alan White of Valparaiso University notes: "Much of this [agreement] is restating obligations loan servicers already have."
Finally, there's the issue of fairness. "Underwater" is a scary, headline-grabbing word. But it doesn't tell the whole story.
Tens of millions of homeowners have seen the value of their homes plummet since the housing crash. (The average home price fell from $270,000 in 2006 to $165,000 in 2011.) Those who are underwater tended not to have had much equity in their homes in the first place, having put down low downpayments. Why single them out for special assistance? Shouldn't people who owned their homes free and clear and those who had significant equity at the beginning of crisis get as much help as those who lost less in the first place? What about renters? Why should people who were well-off enough to afford to buy a home get a payoff ahead of poor renters?
The biggest fairness issue of all, of course, is one of simple justice. If you steal someone's house, you should go to jail. If your crimes are company policy, that company should be nationalized or forced out of business.
Your victim should get his or her house back, plus interest and penalties.
You shouldn't pay less than a speeding ticket for stealing a house.