Yesterday New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed suit against JP Morgan Chase for the actions of Bear Stearns (which it acquired in 2008) surrounding the issuance of $87 billion in residential mortgage backed securities. Though Schneiderman is a co-chair of the RMBS task force working group, which includes the Department of Justice and the Securities Exchange Commission, the suit was filed under New York law and no federal lawsuits have accompanied it.
David Dayen and Yves Smith both have strong analyses of the lawsuit and what it means in the grand scheme of things.
Dayen has the most detailed look at the lawsuit’s substance and context:
This is a pretty straight securities fraud case. Bear Stearns (bought by JPMorgan Chase in 2008) stands accused of creating and selling mortgage backed securities to investors that contained multiple defects, mostly from faulty underwriting that did not follow the prescribed procedures, and deliberately so. Bear forced the underwriters to cut corners by speeding up the volume of loans churning through the system; one underwriter reported being asked to finish 1,594 loans in five days.
Bear made commitments to its investors that they studiously evaluated all the loans they packaged into the pools that made up the mortgage backed securities. However, they did not evaluate the loans sufficiently, and when they did subject them to limited reviews from third-party due diligence specialists, the reviewers turned up multiple problems. Bear did not inform investors of these defects, which were massive: in one study by the FHFA, 523 out of 535 loans studies did not meet the underwriting standards. This all violates the representations and warranties that they made to investors about their responsibility to deliver loans into the MBS that went through rigorous underwriting.
The kicker is that Bear instituted a post-purchase quality control process, which also turned up defects, including loans that very quickly went into early payment defaults (EPDs) within the first 30-90 days. Bear was responsible for taking these EPDs out of the securitization pools, but they didn’t. They actually entered into secret settlements with the originators of the loans, where the originators would pay to repurchase the loans, at a fraction of the price. And Bear kept the money, $1.9 billion in all, despite being contractually obligated to turn that money over to the investors.
David notes that this is a pretty familiar story for the fraud that was perpetrated by banks on investors during the inflation of the housing bubble and many lawsuits have been brought by investors against banks on these types of issues. In fact, Dayen writes, “One, from the mortgage bond insurer Ambac, covers the exact same territory as it relates to JPMorgan Chase, Bear Stearns and EMC.”
Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times reports that the investigation in the lawsuit was done by Schneiderman’s office beginning in spring 2011, prior to his joining the federal RMBS working group. It looks like the extent of the federal contribution to the case was interviews of Bear’s outside due diligence firm, Clayton Holdings — though Dayen points out that even this is a stretch, given the information from Clayton Holdings was covered in both the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and an agreement between the Clayton and Schneiderman’s predecessor, Andrew Cuomo.
It’s also not clear how much Schneiderman’s office will seek in damages from JP Morgan Chase. The deals in question cost investors $22.5 billion, but we don’t know how much money the New York AG will try to get as punishment, let alone what sort of settlement would be accepted. It’s common for the initial figure to be orders of magnitude higher than what is accepted as a cash penalty to make the lawsuit go away.
Reports from the AG’s office and statements from Schneiderman allies suggest that this is hoped to be the first suit of this type to be brought against banks by the NY AG’s office. However Yves Smith notes that if this is what we’re going to get, it’s not necessarily a reason to celebrate:
More cookie cutter suits of this order are nuisance-level for the banks and will be settled after the election, when voters hopefully won’t notice if the results fall short of the grandstanding. In many ways, filing suits that generate settlements vastly lower than the actual harm they did are worse than not acting at all. They will serve to reinforce the false Obama narrative that it’s just too hard to go after the banks, while the timing and the half-heartedness of the effort will correctly stoke criticisms by bank allies that this is just a politically motivated shakedown operation.
I’m not worried about what bank allies have to say in response to any and all efforts to sanction banks, regardless of the issue. Their line never changes. But Smith is right to note that in an environment where only civil suits are brought and small settlements are sought or accepted, it reinforces President Obama’s story that the banks didn’t do anything illegal and it’s too hard to go after them. Add in the fact that no individual bankers are charged in this suit and it’s easy to come away with the same core assumption as I’ve held for the last four years: namely that if you’re a banker and you break the law, you have no reason to fear being held criminally accountable for your actions.
There may well exist a parallel universe where a series of large civil suits by state attorneys general, the federal government, and private investors were able to extract enough of a cash penalty from the banks which fraudulently inflated the housing bubble and subsequently stole millions of families homes to ensure that these banks would never, ever consider doing these things again. But that’s not the universe we exist in. The lawsuits we have seen are small and sporadic, the settlement figures amounting to little more than the cost of doing business, while robosigning and foreclosure fraud occur to this day. As someone who believes the Wall Street banks should face criminal and civil charges for every instance of illegality and fraud they committed, I’m glad that this lawsuit has been brought. But it’s no panacea and it speaks to the fundamental unlikelihood of these banks ever being held to account for the full scope of their lawlessness.