May 6 12

Let’s Risk Destroying The Housing Market and Any Economic Recovery!

by Bruce Judson
The extraordinary risk to the housing market and the economy no one seems to be discussing.

The economic crisis began with the housing crisis, and it will only end when the housing crisis also ends. Unfortunately, the evidence of the past five years suggests that the Obama administration and Congress have never actually understood this connection. Despite massive numbers of foreclosures, the loss of almost $7 trillion in housing wealth (over one-half the nation’s home equity), and even unprecedented pleas from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, there has been a shocking paucity of innovation or even policy activity in the housing arena.

Now there is a a very real chance that Congress will destroy the limited policies the Obama administration does have in place, prevent additional efforts, and further widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in America. Moreover, the net effect of this congressional failure could be to further undermine the weak housing market and risk sending the nation into another economic tailspin.

The administration’s signature housing policy effort is now aimed at mortgage principal reductions. This effort is at the core of the multi-state robo-mortgage settlement and central to the administration’s criticism of Edward DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. From the perspective of many analysts, myself included, the administration is finally on the right track, but its efforts are far too minimal to make a meaningful difference. Indeed, the nation’s total negative equity (the amount of mortgage debt owed which exceeds the value of the underlying properties) is presently in the range of $700 billion, and it’s likely to increase.

Nonetheless, the administration’s principal reduction efforts are a step in the right direction. These efforts open the door for the far larger, far more creative efforts that will ultimately be needed to prevent millions of upcoming foreclosures and possibly massive walk-aways from the estimated 23 percent (and increasing) of all mortgage holders — 11 million families — who are underwater.

Here’s the issue: As a general rule, any debt forgiveness is income. This means that if a home buyer borrows to buy a house and the bank forgives a portion of the loan, whether in a short sale, through debt reduction (i.e. the settlement), or even foreclosure in states that allow banks to officially choose not to seek recourse, a taxable event has occurred. The income earned is the difference between the original mortgage borrowed and the amount ultimately repaid to the bank.

For example: A family borrows $300,000 for a mortgage. The home declines in value and the bank agrees to a short sale (where the sale price is for less than the amount of the homeowner’s mortgage debt) and receives a total pay-off of $200,000. The $100,000 difference between the amount borrowed and the amount ultimately paid back is the amount of the loan the bank has forgiven. This $100,000 is a type of principal reduction and generally subject to ordinary income taxes.

However, at the start of the housing crisis in 2007, Congress enacted the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007, which exempts precisely this phantom income from federal taxation. The term of the law was extended in 2008. But the current law expires at the end of 2012, and it is by no means clear that it will be extended. Moreover, the seeming lack of public discussion about the need to extend it is shocking.

(There are a complex array of qualifying circumstances and exemptions surrounding this tax issue, including the laws of the individual state involved, the solvency of the homeowner, whether the homeowner is in bankruptcy, whether the sale involves a primary residence, refinancing associated with the property, and a variety of other factors related to qualifying for the federal exemption. In particular, short sales in nonrecourse states (which include California) are not considered debt forgiven and therefore, if no other income-generating activities apply, do not trigger federal taxes. But this post does not address the many nuances involved in these issues.)

It’s virtually impossible to imagine that struggling families who are selling underwater homes at a large loss (and have already lost a large chunk of their life savings as the value of their home equity, including their down-payment, was vaporized in the housing crisis) will go forward with short sales. The vast majority of homeowners will not be able to afford the resulting tax debt. So one consequence of a failure to extend this law is likely to be an immediate end to the vast majority of short sales, which have been increasing rapidly. Short sales constituted an estimated 24 percent of all January 2012 home sales and surpassed the estimated 20 percent of all January sales comprised of foreclosed homes.

For the same reasons, all efforts at principal reduction will be stopped cold at the end of this year. Homeowners who are struggling to meet their monthly obligations are unlikely to be able to accept sizeable principle reductions that will create large income tax obligations that they can’t afford. This means Obama’s debt principal reduction initiative will never get off the ground.

Congressional opponents of renewing this legislation estimate that the cost of extending the exemption at $2.7 Billion, a large enough cost to lead them to oppose the measure. Members of Congress may also oppose extending the exemption as an unfair benefit to individuals whom they deem irresponsible, which is subsidized by taxpayers who did the right thing and paid off their mortgages. Finally, in this election year, it’s easy to imagine that legislation of all kinds could grow hostage to partisan gridlock.

The source of this cost Congressional cost estimate is unknown. But, it is almost certainly wrong.  It appears to assume that without this exemption short sales will continue to dominate the fragile housing market, thereby generating new income tax revenues. In fact, the best conclusion is that, if the exemption disappears, so will short sales and any accompanying tax revenues. The real cost of failing to extend this exemption is the unacceptable risks it poses to any housing recovery and the economy at large. The idea that tax revenues will be lost is a fiction.

Moreover, arguments related to individual responsibility are disingenuous. Over the past several years financial executives have avoided accountability for their actions. Indeed, there have been no substantive congressional hearings on massive law-breaking by financial executives, such as the congressionally sponsored Pecora Hearings in the era of the New Deal.

I would suggest that these disingenuous arguments by some members of congress are a further indicator of the consequences of extreme inequality afflicting the nation. They demonstrate an unacceptable double-standard: One set of laws and permissive irresponsibility for those at the top of the society, and one set of rules for everyone else. They also vividly demonstrate a natural consequence of extreme inequality: Societies grow harsher. As inequality increases, those at the top lose empathy for the less fortunate, including the formerly middle class. As a result, the elites lose their view of the nation as one community, and rationalize actions of all types that they would find abhorrent if the shoe were on the other foot.

Congressional opponents of renewing this legislation are assuming a lack of potentially severe consequences. It’s impossible to predict what might happen, but the downside risks are unquestionably high. It raises the real risk of directly leading housing prices to decline further or even plummet for a variety of reasons. Efforts at principal reduction could come to a stop as the public loses confidence in a housing recovery, the end of short sales could have a strong negative impact on the housing market, or underwater homeowners fearing tax consequences could decide to walk away from their homes, leading to a massive increase in the inventory of newly empty homes that banks must ultimately resell.

None of this may happen, but the risks are real and unacceptable. A substantial drop in housing prices will almost certainly harm or destroy the already tepid pace of our economic recovery. Congress and the Obama administration are playing with fire. Sometimes those who do so remain unscathed, but sometimes they get burned.

Congressional inaction also fails the pro-capitalism test. As an economic system, capitalism is intended to build the overall wealth of a society. To properly function, capitalism requires an equal playing field, absolute accountability for business decisions, and rules ensuring that markets function fairly. As I have repeatedly argued, the many failures of lawmakers and administration officials to hold the financial services sector to a capitalist model has created a financial sector that is anti-capitalist and wealth-destroying. The current predicament of homeowners who might rely on this lifeline is a direct result of this failure. To now penalize the weakest link in the chain is a further demonstration that we have created an economic system that is not fair capitalism, where everyone lives up to their responsibilities and is accountable for their actions.

Capitalism only works when the citizenry believes it leads to fair outcomes. Our nation has already reached dangerous levels of anger. The lack of trust in our institutions is pervasive, and Americans who have always been regarded as optimists have turned cynical and lost hope. By taxing struggling families on phantom income, Congress will reinforce the belief that our economy is blatantly unfair and further wear away the remaining thread of our painfully frayed social fabric.

Mar 19 12

A Seven Day Plan to Finally Hold Wall Street Accountable

by Bruce Judson

New evidence points to illegal behavior. Prosecution is the only way to keep that behavior from continuing.

It’s now a near certainty that Wall Street executives committed felonies.

The recently released audits of robo-mortgage activities by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) details shocking behavior at the five banks constituting the Federal Housing Administration’s largest mortgage servicers. At Wells Fargo, management quashed a midlevel manager’s study of the foreclosure process as negative results began to emerge, and it gave an individual whose last job had been in a pizza restaurant the title of “vice-president of loan documentation” to facilitate robo-mortgage signing. Bank of America evaluated employees on the volume of foreclosure affidavits produced. JP Morgan Chase gave individuals titles such as “vice-president of Chase Home” where “the titles were given by Chase for the sole purpose of allowing individuals to sign documents and came with no other duties or authority.” Citigroup and Ally similarly engaged in seemingly illegal practices.

Under federal law, the knowing filing of a false affidavit with the court is a felony offense of perjury, punishable by a prison term of up to five years. An individualviolates laws against perjury whether he or she personally appears in court and swears to a false statement or provides the court with a false affidavit. Individual states have their own perjury laws, which were undoubtedly violated as well. The HUD report also suggests that individual banks may be guilty of obstruction of justiceand the criminal violation of the False Claims Act for filing insurance claims without following HUD requirements.

Since the start of the financial crisis, federal and state officials have been struggling to change Wall Street behavior. To date, every effort has failed miserably, and theweak enforcement provisions of the robo-mortgage settlement are unlikely to meaningfully change this dynamic. Government officials have also relied, with a very few exceptions, entirely on civil enforcement when criminal laws appear to have been egregiously violated.

The greatest moral hazard now confronting the nation is what appears to be increasingly brazen criminal activity by financial industry executives. With each decision not to prosecute, Wall Street executives justifiably conclude that they are immune to the rules. As a result, it appears that Wall Street criminal activity is increasing in frequency and severity, as opposed to the reverse. The activities surrounding the collapse of MF Global are one example.

So what can be done about it? We can change the behavior in the financial service industry for a full generation in just seven days. This plan may seem to be tongue and cheek, but it hearkens back to a similar action in the era of the Great Depression. In the final months of Herbert Hoover’s presidency, the Senate Banking Committee began an investigation into the causes of the Great Crash of 1929, and a young prosecutor named Ferdinand Pecora was appointed as Chief Counsel. Subsequently, the Roosevelt administration conveyed to Pecora that “the prosecution of an outstanding violator of the banking law would be the most salutary action that could be taken at this time. The feeling is that if the people become convinced that the big violators are to be punished, it will be helpful in restoring confidence.” Ultimately, this investigation, which came to be known as the Pecora Commission, led to the indictment of one of America’s most prominent financiers; demonstrated widespread self-dealing in the financial sector; and, as noted by historian Alan Brinkley, generated “broad popular support” for Roosevelt’s reform agenda, including the creation of the SEC and the Glass-Steagall Act.

Buy a copy of The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, featuring a chapter by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler.

My seven day plan is based on a simple premise: When criminal laws are egregiously violated, the guilty parties should face appropriate punishment. Here’s the plan:

Day One: Read the HUD Inspector General’s reports and the public records of past mortgage foreclosure cases from across the nation.

Day Two: Meet with the team at the Office of the Inspector General at HUD that prepared the audits. Obtain the names of all the bank officials, lawyers, and notaries whose behavior, as cited in the audit reports or otherwise known to the investigators, represent clear and unquestionable criminal violations. Add to this list other individuals who have similarly demonstrated or testified to behavior unquestionably constituting criminal acts, as indicated by the public records of the mortgage foreclosure cases reviewed in day one.

Day Three: Indict all of the individuals on the list compiled on day two.

Day Four: Indict banks and financial institutions on criminal charges where criminal behavior by employees (as demonstrated by day three indictments) appears to be endemic. The Justice Department guidelines for prosecuting firms include: (1) the pervasiveness of such activity, (2) the compliance procedures in place, (3) attempts by the corporation to end bad behavior, and (4) cooperation with federal investigators. In 2008, the Justice Department adopted a policy of accepting “deferred prosecutions,” involving agreements to change corporate behavior without damaging innocent third parties through prosecution.

Corporations receive the benefits of “legal persons,” as demonstrated by Citizens United. But they must also bear the responsibilities of these privileges. A reading of the HUD reports, and other public records, suggests several banks should clearly be prosecuted.

Day 5: Discuss plea bargains with indicted lower-level officials in return for cooperating in investigations of higher-level officials.

Day 6: Consider plea bargains with indicted banks, which require the removal of all remaining officers and directors who were serving when egregious criminal activity occurred, as well as senior officials who were in a position to exercise appropriate supervisory responsibility but chose to look the other way.

Day 7: Indict any senior Wall Street officials implicated by new cooperative testimony resulting from activities on day five. Adopt and announce a policy that future criminal violations will be prosecuted in a similar fashion.

What is particularly disturbing is that a look at the evidence already in the public domain (much less what investigators already know) shows that none of the actions discussed above are entirely absurd. The purpose of prosecution not simply punishment. It acts to deter further illegal activity and to restore public confidence in our system of governance. The nation desperately needs both of these benefits today.

Moreover, these ongoing, almost certainly criminal activities are ultimately dangerous threats to our economy, the success of capitalism, and our democracy. In his column New York Times column on the collapse of MF Global, Joe Nocera noted that “customers need to be able to trust” the laws protecting their money. “Otherwise, the markets can’t function.”

Today, as in the era of FDR, we must send a message to the financial community that illegal behavior will not be tolerated. By prosecuting blatant felonies now, we will deter future misbehavior and begin the process of recreating a fair society where equal justice prevails.

Feb 20 12

Why Inequality Matters: The Housing Crisis, The Justice System & Capitalism

by Bruce Judson

Extreme economic inequality is among the most destructive forces in a society. As inequality grows, it undermines the effective functioning of the economy, the basic tenets of capitalism, and the foundations of democracy.

Unfortunately, the housing crisis and now the housing settlement increasingly look like an example of how this mechanism works.

One of the central characteristics of highly unequal societies is that two sets of laws develop: One set for the rich and powerful and one set for everyone else. The more unequal societies become, the more easily they accept the unacceptable, and with each unrebuked violation, the powerful actors at the top of the society gain an ever greater sense of entitlement and an ever greater sense that the laws that govern everyone else don’t apply to them. As a result, their behavior becomes increasingly egregious.

In contrast, sustainable capitalism requires that all participants in a contract or bargain believe their interests will be enforced equally by the courts: Capitalism requires that Lady Justice wear a blindfold. When powerful players are permitted to alter established rules at will, capitalism ultimately collapses. Contracts and the idea of a fair bargain become meaningless as less powerful parties to an agreement know their rights will not be enforced. Over time, citizens lose faith in government and their own ability to thrive in what becomes a corrupt economy. This uncertainty leads the small businesses, which are so often cited as important to our economy, to shy away from new activities that might put them at the risk of unequal treatment.

I would suggest that the robo-mortgage scandal is a strong indicator that this type of unequal justice is now becoming ever more commonplace in America. Past bank abuses are typically discussed without a sense of outrage. They have, in effect, become a recognized practice of deception with no consequences. Here are three prominent examples from the past few years:

First, the robo-mortgage scandal was discovered. As powerful members of society, the banks effectively decided what laws they wanted to follow and disregarded others. The banks claimed that their violations were technical and harmed no one. Nonetheless, the activities of the banks constituted massive fraud, perjury, and conspiracy. Bank officials have testified in court that they filed as many as10,000 false affidavits a month. These are effectively undeniable admissions of law-breaking on a massive scale.

It’s a federal crime, punishable by up of five years of imprisonment, to knowingly file a false affidavit with the court. From the perspective of the law, you are guilty of the same perjury, when you falsely testify in court or when you submit a false affidavit. In most states, filing false affidavits with the court similarly constitutes a felony offense of perjury.

If an individual citizen perpetrated this kind of massive perjury, he or she would be prosecuted. For illegal activities to take place on this type of massive scale, other serious crimes, such as conspiracy, are almost certainly committed as well.

Last week an audit of San Francisco mortgage practices, the first systematic audit in the nation, revealed that an astounding 82 percent of the cases analyzed involved suspicious activity by the foreclosing institution and concluded that a large portion of these activities probably involved felony violations of California perjury laws.

Second, when Martha Coakley, the attorney general of Massachusetts filed a civil suit related to the robo-mortgage scandal against several financial institutions, she was demonized by the financial services industry and appropriately recognized for her bravery by housing advocates seeking to end abusive bank practices.

What is noteworthy, however, is that Coakley filed a civil suit. This was a lenient effort as she undoubtedly had the ability to build a compelling criminal case against the banks (as institutions) and the bank officers who knowingly created the robo-mortgage scheme.

Third, the national housing settlement, involving the federal and state governments, was announced almost two weeks ago. A central concern associated with the settlement is how it will be enforced. The banks have a long and well-documented history, of agreeing to settlements that will change their behavior and then failing to live up to these binding agreements. Moreover, penalties for failure to comply with these settlements are rarely, if ever, assessed.

In her New York Times feature story, The Deal is Done, but Hold the Applause, Gretchen Morgenson wrote about this behavior, and how it relates to the current settlement:

“But perhaps the largest question looming over this settlement is how it will be policed. Recent history is littered with agreements that required banks to take specific steps to make amends. All too often, the banks have skated away from their promises.”

Morgenson then recounts a series of instances where the banks failed to comply with past settlements, including this quote from a former judge involved in these processes and her conclusion:

“‘It’s astounding that in such a huge percentage of cases the lenders are not complying,’; said Philip A. Olsen, a former Nevada Supreme Court settlement conference judge.”The banks have learned that they can thumb their noses at the program and it won’t cost them anything.”

So you have to wonder whether banks will thumb their noses at last week’s settlement, too. That makes policing compliance crucial.”

The full details of the settlement have not been released, but unfortunately, the most recent disclosures suggest that this enforcement power and large penalties per violation are wishful thinking. An executive summary of the provisions of the settlement can be found here. It states, among other things: “If banks fail to remedy violations, they are subject to civil penalties of up to $5 million from the court.”(emphasis added)

While the full details may indicate otherwise, the process as described here seems to be a far cry from substantial penalties of $1 million to $5 million for each failure of compliance that some media reports appeared to suggest.

Why does the monitor need to provide the banks with a chance to remedy violations of the settlement? The banks certainly know what they are supposed to be doing. It’s one indication that the banks will be able to pursue the changes requires by the without a sense of urgency.

With no set penalty formula the same banks which have argued that over 10,000 knowing violations of the law harmed no one, will undoubtedly argue–perhaps for years–that any violations of the settlement are inevitable consequences of glitches in operating a new system, have no practical impact, don’t merit fines of any kind.

In addition, have the banks agreed that they will not contest the monitor’s request of penalties to the court? If not, then, as I have previously noted a court fight over each penalty can—and most probably will—ensue, with the possibility that the entire monitoring process is a charade.

I hope that I am wrong, but the above analysis certainly suggests that, in Morgenson’s words, banks will have the opportunity to “thumb their noses at [the] settlement” without incurring serious penalties.

If the enforcement provisions of the settlement prove to be meaningless, Americans will rightfully believe they have been misled by public officials to believe the settlement included stiff penalties to ensure violations did not occur.

The stakes here are enormous. They extend beyond the housing market to the nature of American society itself. The banks’ blatant malfeasance with regard to the robo-mortgage scandal and other foreclosure-related activities have been a clear example of unequal enforcement of the laws. Now, the settlement may serve as another example that equal justice through equal enforcement of the laws, which is necessary for sustainable capitalism, no longer prevails in America.

Yale’s Robert Dahl, one of the preeminent political scientists of our era, wrote in 2006 in On Political Equality (Yale University Press) of the risks of rising economic inequality, which is inevitably accompanied by political power which also concentrates at the top of the society:

“The unequal accumulation of political resources points to an ominous possibility: political inequalities may be ratcheted up, so to speak, to a level from which they cannot be ratcheted down. The cumulative advantages in power, influence, and authority of the more privileged strata may become so great that .. a majority of ordinary citizens…are simply unable…to overcome the forces of inequality arrayed against them.”

I fervently hope we are not living out the ominous possibility Professor Dahl raises.

President Obama has declared income inequality to be “the defining issue of our time.” I agree, but I am terrified that the most recent news related to the housing settlement is not the definition the president intends.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Restoring Capitalism series of the New Deal 2.0 blog, a project of the Roosevelt Institute.

Feb 10 12

The Mortgage Settlement’s Missing Piece: Will Banks Now Follow The Law?

by Bruce Judson

The country’s banks agreed to change their behavior as part of the robo-mortgage settlement announced earlier this week. The announcement, however, leaves open a central question: Does the settlement include new, pre-defined penalties for banks that fail to uphold their new promises? Since a change in bank behavior is a vital piece of the settlement, the absence of an answer is highly disconcerting.

When the deal was announced, the Associated Press reported reported:

“The conditions will be overseen by Joseph A Smith Jr., North Carolina’s banking commissioner. Lenders that violate the deal could face $1 million penalties per violation and up to $5 million for repeat violators.”

The initial impression on reading this report is that there are real teeth to it. It sounds like the banks are agreeing to pay $1 million dollars each time they fail to perform as promised.

However, the actual press release from the Department of Justice announcing the deal reads (emphasis added):

“Compliance with the agreement will be overseen by an independent monitor, Joseph A. Smith Jr. Smith has served as the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks since 2002… The monitor will oversee implementation of the servicing standards required by the agreement; impose penalties of up to $1 million per violation (or up to $5 million for certain repeat violations); and publish regular public reports that identify any quarter in which a servicer fell short of the standards imposed in the settlement.”

There are two open questions. First, what does “up to” mean? Does the independent monitor have discretion over the size of each penalty? This could effectively make the million dollar figures announced by the Justice Department meaningless. Banks have argued that the tens of thousands of robo-mortgage signatures and well-documented servicing errors were all technical violations that harmed no one. Undoubtedly, they will argue that any single violation was a meaningless error.

This provision would have real meaning if we applied the same standard our nation has applied in other areas: a zero tolerance rule. What would happen if each bank knew that any violation would result in a minimum fine of $1 million? I suspect bank behavior would change significantly.

Second, can banks contest these fines? Have the banks agreed that they will pay any fines assessed by the independent monitor? If not, then once again the provisions have the potential to be meaningless. The monitor will assess fines for violations and the banks will challenge the fines through whatever venues, the courts or otherwise, have been established by the settlement. The judgment and ability of the independent monitor to set fines will have been eviscerated.

Efforts to determine answers to these and related questions have seemingly been rebuffed. The Huffington Post reported on its efforts to understand the details of the enforcement provisions of the settlement:

“North Carolina banking commissioner Joseph Smith will serve as the national monitor of the deal, working from Raleigh…

The announcement on Thursday did not include any new information on bank penalties. A call to Smith’s office was not immediately returned. A HUD spokesman did not immediately return an e-mailed request for comment.”

There appears to be near universal agreement that this settlement will do little for homeowners who have been the victims of past bad bank behavior. But there may be real value in the deal if it successfully changes bank behavior going forward. The New York Times quoted Roy Cooper, the attorney general of North Carolina as saying, “This agreement is more important for the foreclosures we’re hoping to prevent” (emphasis added).

At the same time, The New York Times wrote, “Advocates for homeowners facing foreclosure expressed cautious optimism,” but indicated that these same advocates believe rigorous enforcement is essential for the program to work:

“We’re hopeful,” said Joseph Sant, a lawyer at Staten Island Legal Services’ homeowner defense project. “But we had a lot of programs that are good on paper. What will make the difference is that it’s vigorously enforced.”

The stakes here are enormous. They extend beyond the housing market to the nature of American society itself. The banks’ blatant malfeasance with regard to the robo-mortgage scandal and other foreclosure-related activities has been a clear example of unequal justice. The banks have knowingly and repeatedly violated laws (such as providing tens of thousands of false affidavits to the courts) that would have landed an ordinary citizen in jail.

At the same time, successful capitalism itself depends on the enforcement of rules and contracts in a fair bargain that all participants believe will be enforced by the courts. When powerful players are permitted to alter established rules at will, capitalism ultimately collapses. Contracts and the idea of a fair bargain become meaningless as less powerful parties to an agreement know their rights will not be enforced. Over time, citizens lose faith in government and their own ability to thrive in what becomes a corrupt economy.

If the settlement enforcement provisions turn out to lack substance, these forces will be reinforced rather than counteracted. We must wait for the details. Like homeowner defense advocates, I am cautiously optimistic — but terrified that ultimately I will be disappointed.

This article originally appeared on the New Deal 2.0 blog a project of The Rossevelt Institute.

Feb 5 12

Is the Robo-Mortgage Scandal the Back-End of Tax Evasion & Fraud?

by Bruce Judson

On Thursday (Feb. 2), I wrote an article titled The Proposed Robo-Mortgage Settlement Might Give Banks A Free Pass. At the time the deadline for states Attorney’s General to sign on to the settlement was February 3. It has now been pushed back to February 6.

In the article, I wrote that while the banks have insisted for the past several years that the robo-mortgage violations represented minor technical issues, which harmed no one. Recently, a far more grave explanation has emerged: The possibility that the scandal was the back-end of activities that appear to represent tax evasion, the failure to comply with basic rules in securitizing mortgages, and massive fraud on the purchasers of the securitized mortgage bonds.

Now, I have received numerous requests to clarify this extraordinary alternative explanation.

It’s complex, but here goes: First, as Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism explains, it appears the specific mortgages which were the assets comprising the securitized bonds were never actually transferred to the bonds, within the required time period (90 days under New York law).

By way of background: remember that the big concern about the release was that it would go beyond robosigning and waive other types of liability. The ones observers were most concerned about were what we called chain of title issues, namely that the parties that had put mortgage securitizations together had failed on a widespread basis to take the steps stipulated in their own contracts to transfer the notes (and in lien theory states, to assign the lien) properly.

The securitization agreements were rigid, requiring that the transfers through multiple parties be completed by a date certain, typically 90 days after the closing of the trust. Most deals elected New York law as the governing law for the trusts, and New York law allows them to operate only as stipulated. Since the notes were supposed to be transferred in by a particular date, trying to move them in later is a “void act” having no legal effect. That makes attempts to make transfers legally at this juncture a non-starter.

Having realized somewhat late in the game that their failure to do what they promised could interfere with trusts’ ability to foreclose and create tons of liability, servicers and their various agents have relied on not just robosiging, but widespread document fabrication and forgeries to fix their transfer problem when judges have taken notice. Anyone who has been on this beat knows of numerous cases where foreclosure documents are challenged, say for being too late, not having the right transfers, etc, that new versions of supposedly original documents that tell the right story miraculously show up in court.

Second, Ellen Brown, the President of The Public Banking Institute, explains the implications of this failure to abide by the 90 day deadline:

Since 1986, mortgage-backed securities have been issued to investors through SPVs [Special Purpose Vehicles] called REMICs (Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits). REMICs are designed as tax shelters; but to qualify for that status, they must be “static.” Mortgages can’t be transferred in and out once the closing date has occurred. The REMIC Pooling and Servicing Agreement typically states that any transfer significantly after the closing date is invalid. Yet the newly robo-signed documents, which are required to begin foreclosure proceedings, are almost always executed long after the trust’s closing date.

Third, as Brown also notes, the liabilities associated with a failure to transfer the documents on time came to head when:

Fannie Mae sent out a memo telling servicers that in order to be reimbursed under HAMP–a government loan modification program designed to help at-risk homeowners meet their mortgage payments–the servicers would have to produce the paperwork showing the loan had been assigned to the trust.

Brown believes that, as a result,

The hasty solution was a rash of assignments signed by an army of “robosigners,” to be filed in the public records…

This explains why, as noted by Brown above, “the newly filed robo-signed documents” are “almost always executed long after the trusts closing date.”

All of this is undoubtedly highly complex. And, I am not in a position to investigate whether it is true. However, the implications of these assertions are grave. If the mortgages were knowingly assigned to the REMICS after the closing date, then the tax benefits of the REMICS appear to be invalid. If so, these transfers (as I understand the law) represent tax evasion by the banks. As part of an ongoing scheme, they also constitute, in all likelihood, conspiracy and fraud on the bond purchasers.

With regard to the bond purchasers, as Yves Smith notes above, the failure to adequately establish the trusts created “tons of liability” for the banks to these purchasers; since the banks then effectively misrepresented the nature of the bonds they were selling.

At the moment, the important question here is not whether these allegations are true. What’s important is that their appears to be enough evidence to warrant at least a minimal investigation of these astounding assertions: The possibility that for years the banks have been knowingly misleading the public and the government on the extent to which robo-mortgage scandal activities were merely technical violations versus the back-end of potentially serious criminal activities and an attempt to evade enormous liabilities.

If we are a nation where justice is blind, should we not investigate this possibility before we give the offending financial institutions another free pass?

The essence of an effective capitalist system is rules and accountability. For markets, and our larger economy to work, important players cannot be permitted to make up their own rules. In all likelihood, a settlement next week means these serious questions will never be answered.