Matt Taibbi has yet another must-read piece on the ongoing economic collapse. This time he focuses on foreclosures taking place in Florida’s rocket docket, which processes dozens of foreclosure cases an hour. As is always the case with Taibbi, the whole article needs to be read to be appreciated. But this passage stands out:
You’ve heard of Too Big to Fail — the foreclosure crisis is Too Big for Fraud. Think of the Bernie Madoff scam, only replicated tens of thousands of times over, infecting every corner of the financial universe. The underlying crime is so pervasive, we simply can’t admit to it — and so we are working feverishly to rubber-stamp the problem away, in sordid little backrooms in cities like Jacksonville, behind doors that shouldn’t be, but often are, closed.
And that’s just the economic side of the story. The moral angle to the foreclosure crisis — and, of course, in capitalism we’re not supposed to be concerned with the moral stuff, but let’s mention it anyway — shows a culture that is slowly giving in to a futuristic nightmare ideology of computerized greed and unchecked financial violence. The monster in the foreclosure crisis has no face and no brain. The mortgages that are being foreclosed upon have no real owners. The lawyers bringing the cases to evict the humans have no real clients. It is complete and absolute legal and economic chaos. No single limb of this vast man- eating thing knows what the other is doing, which makes it nearly impossible to combat — and scary as hell to watch.
What’s sad is that most Americans who have an opinion about the foreclosure crisis don’t give a shit about all the fraud involved. They don’t care that these mortgages wouldn’t have been available in the first place if the banks hadn’t found a way to sell oregano as weed to pension funds and insurance companies. They don’t care that the Countrywides of the world pushed borrowers who qualified for safer fixed- income loans into far more dangerous adjustable-rate loans, because their brokers got bigger commissions for doing so. They don’t care that in the rush to produce loans, people were sold houses that turned out to have flood damage or worse, and they certainly don’t care that people were sold houses with inflated appraisals, which left them almost immediately underwater once housing prices started falling.
The way the banks tell it, it doesn’t matter if they defrauded homeowners and investors and taxpayers alike to get these loans. All that matters is that a bunch of deadbeats aren’t paying their fucking bills. “If you didn’t pay your mortgage, you shouldn’t be in your house — period,” is how Walter Todd, portfolio manager at Greenwood Capital Associates, puts it. “People are getting upset about something that’s just procedural.”
Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, is even more succinct in dismissing the struggling homeowners that he and the other megabanks scammed before tossing out into the street. “We’re not evicting people who deserve to stay in their house,” Dimon says.
There are two things wrong with this argument. (Well, more than two, actually, but let’s just stick to the two big ones.)
The first reason is: It simply isn’t true. Many people who are being foreclosed on have actually paid their bills and followed all the instructions laid down by their banks. In some cases, a homeowner contacts the bank to say that he’s having trouble paying his bill, and the bank offers him loan modification. But the bank tells him that in order to qualify for modification, he must first be delinquent on his mortgage. “They actually tell people to stop paying their bills for three months,” says Parker.
The authorization gets recorded in what’s known as the bank’s “contact data base,” which records every phone call or other communication with a home owner. But no mention of it is entered into the bank’s “number history,” which records only the payment record. When the number history notes that the home owner has missed three payments in a row, it has no way of knowing that the homeowner was given permission to stop making payments. “One computer generates a default letter,” says Kowalski. “Another computer contacts the credit bureaus.” At no time is there a human being looking at the entire picture.
Which means that homeowners can be foreclosed on for all sorts of faulty reasons: misplaced checks, address errors, you name it. This inability of one limb of the foreclosure beast to know what the other limb is doing is responsible for many of the horrific stories befalling homeowners across the country. Patti Parker, a local attorney in Jacksonville, tells of a woman whose home was seized by Deutsche Bank two days before Christmas. Months later, Deutsche came back and admitted that they had made a mistake: They had repossessed the wrong property. In another case that made headlines in Orlando, an agent for JP Morgan mistakenly broke into a woman’s house that wasn’t even in foreclosure and tried to change the locks. Terrified, the woman locked herself in her bathroom and called 911. But in a profound expression of the state’s reflexive willingness to side with the bad guys, the police made no arrest in the case. Breaking and entering is not a crime, apparently, when it’s authorized by a bank.
The second reason the whole they still owe the fucking money thing is bogus has to do with the changed incentives in the mortgage game. In many cases, banks like JP Morgan are merely the servicers of all these home loans, charged with collecting your money every month and paying every penny of it into the trust, which is the real owner of your mortgage. If you pay less than the whole amount, JP Morgan is now obligated to pay the trust the remainder out of its own pocket. When you fall behind, your bank falls behind, too. The only way it gets off the hook is if the house is foreclosed on and sold.
That’s what this foreclosure crisis is all about: fleeing the scene of the crime. Add into the equation the fact that some of these big banks were simultaneously betting big money against these mortgages — Goldman Sachs being the prime example — and you can see that there were heavy incentives across the board to push anyone in trouble over the cliff.
There’s still so much to come in the story of the housing bubble bursting. There will be millions of foreclosures, sending families onto the streets. There is rampant fraud. There is the lack of documentation by banks of who owns which note and for how long. When all is said and done, there’s a very high likelihood that we’re not all said and done with the impacts of the housing and financial bubbles bursting in 2008. The real consequences of turning the US residential mortgage market into the prime craps table for Wall Street bankers have not yet been fully felt. Unfortunately we’re now reaching the stage in the process where pain will be felt not by the size of the Dow, but by the numbers of families living on the streets, in foreclosure, or with underwater homes. It will extend to pensions and local governments who moved their money from safe investment onto the craps table at the urging of Wall Street brokers and then the pain will be felt doubly by working Americans. And as of yet, there is no accountability for the banksters. No criminal charges. No cram down. No stricter regulations than were in place two years ago. It’s as if we’re just waiting for long enough to pass for those of us who know to forget what actually happened and for those who are still in denial to successfully avoid any news coverage of the fraud.
The level of fraud, theft, and