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Obama Did It For the Money May 7, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
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Roger’s note: Obama strikes again: rewarding another one the architects of the economic disaster that ruined thousands of lives.  But she got him elected and the banksters and the corporate blood-sucking congress-owning community will be pleased; and that is what is important to the president.

The love fest between Barack Obama and his top fundraiser Penny Pritzker that has led to her being nominated as Commerce secretary would not be so unseemly if they both just confessed that they did it for the money. Her money, not his, financed his rise to the White House from less promising days back in Chicago.

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President Barack Obama looks to longtime fundraiser Penny Pritzker, right, as she laughs in the Rose Garden of the White House, where he announced he would nominate Pritzker to run the Commerce Department and economic adviser Michael Froman, left, as the next U.S. Trade Representative. (Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

“Without Penny Pritzker, it is unlikely that Barack Obama ever would have been elected to the United States Senate or the presidency,” according to a gushing New York Times report last year that read like the soaring jacket copy of a steamy romance novel. “When she first backed him during his 2004 Senate run, she was No. 152 on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. He was a long-shot candidate who needed her support and imprimatur. Mr. Obama and Ms. Pritzker grew close, sometimes spending weekends with their families at her summer home.”

But don’t sell the lady short; she wasn’t swept along on some kind of celebrity joyride. Pritzker, the billionaire heir to part of the Hyatt Hotels fortune, has long been first off an avaricious capitalist, and if she backed Obama, it wasn’t for his looks. Never one to rest on the laurels of her immense inherited wealth, Pritzker has always wanted more. That’s what drove her to run Superior Bank into the subprime housing swamp that drowned the institution’s homeowners and depositors alike before she emerged richer than before.

Pritzker and her family had acquired the savings and loan with the help of $600 million in tax credits. She became the new bank’s chairwoman and ended up as a director of the holding company that owned it. Under her leadership, Superior specialized in subprime lending, hustling folks with meager means and poor credit into high interest loans that were bundled into the toxic securities that wrecked the U.S. economy.

As federal regulators began to move in on her bank after it had dangerously inflated the value of its toxic assets, Pritzker assured its employees: “Our commitment to subprime has never been stronger.” Two months later, the bank was pronounced insolvent. At the time, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.‘s inspector general report concluded, “The failure of Superior Bank was directly attributable to the board of directors and executive management ignoring sound risk diversification principles, as evidenced by excessive concentration in residual assets related to subprime lending. …”

No biggie. In announcing her appointment, Obama joked, “For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation. It’s going to be great.” It’s the same sort of joke he could have cracked in appointing Citigroup alum Jack Lew to be Treasury secretary.

It is deeply revealing that in the midst of the continuing cycle of misery brought on by the chicanery of the financial community two key Cabinet positions dealing with business practices will likely be occupied by people who specialized in those financial rip-offs.

For Pritzker, as with the confirmation of Lew, the fix is in. The Republicans don’t dare push back too hard on shady business practices that their deregulation legislation endorsed, and Democrats will go along with anything the president wants.

The same restraint will be exhibited in exploring the offshore tax havens that have protected the Pritzker family’s immense wealth. Back in 2008, when she had been rumored for this same Cabinet post, Pritzker was queried about avoiding the sort of taxes most ordinary folks are obligated to pay, and she replied in writing: “I am a beneficiary of some non-U.S. situs trusts which were established about 50 years ago (when I was a child) and are administered by a non-U.S.–based financial institution as trustee. I do not control how those assets are administered.” If the Republicans challenge that canard, the Democrats will smugly remind them of Mitt Romney’s tax havens, as if that excuses tax avoidance within their own ranks.

Certainly the Republicans will not raise questions about the anti-union practices that helped create the Hyatt fortune in the first place and continue to this day. Nor will the Democrats, who embrace unions only at national convention time.

“There is a huge unresolved set of issues in the Democratic Party between people of wealth and people who work,” noted Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, which attempts to organize the miserably paid workers that produced Pritzker’s wealth. “Penny is a living example of that issue.”

But it’s payback time, and even normally progressive Democrats like Pritzker’s home state Sen. Dick Durbin are prepared to roll over. Treating the appointment of billionaire Pritzker as a victory for women everywhere, the senator said she’d “broken through the glass ceiling with her extraordinary intelligence and business acumen.”

Right, Pritzker will be a fine role model for those women working at the Asian factories that she’ll be touring as Commerce secretary extolling the virtues of the American business model.

Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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Obama to Use Pension Funds of Ordinary Americans to Pay for Bank Mortgage “Settlement” January 23, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
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Roger’s note: more Obama “plus ca change” you can believe in.
Published on Monday, January 23, 2012 by Naked Capalitism

Obama’s latest housing market chicanery should come as no surprise. As we discuss below, he will use the State of the Union address to announce a mortgage “settlement” by Federal regulators, and at least some state attorneys general. It’s yet another gambit designed to generate a campaign talking point while making the underlying problem worse.

The president seems to labor under the misapprehension that crimes by members of the elite must be swept under the rug because prosecuting them would destabilize the system. What he misses is that we are well past the point where coverups will work, and they may even blow up before the November elections. If nothing else, his settlement pact has a non-trivial Constitutional problem which the Republicans, if they are smart, will use to undermine the deal and discredit the Administration.

To add insult to injury, Obama is apparently going to present his belated Christmas present to the banking industry as a boon to ordinary citizens. He refused to appoint a real middle class advocate, Elizabeth Warren, to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but he’s not above stealing her talking points.

We and other commentators have discussed how the mortgage settlement negotiations nominally led by Iowa attorney general Tom Miller had descended into farce. Almost nothing the Miller camp said was believable. They were presented as “attorney general” discussions when the Administration was pulling the strings. They’ve described a deal as weeks away for over a year. They kept claiming that they had undertaken investigations when not a single subpoena was issued by the AGs still involved in the negotiations. They’ve argued from the get go that a pact will be good for homeowners when the deal reached by under-resourced Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto with a single servicer, Saxon, resulted in a payout that is 10 to 20 times what the Administration is calling a victory. And that assumes that the banks will live up to their side of the deal when past settlements of servicing abuses have shown that they don’t.

The administration has finally woken up to the fact that the housing mess is almost certain to get worse before it gets better, and Obama must therefore be armed with better propaganda. The Miller-led talks have become a bit of an embarrassment and needed to be put out of their misery. So Team Obama and Federal banking regulators have agreed on terms and as we discussed last Friday, are upping the pressure on state attorneys general to fall into line. As reported by Shahien Nasiripour of the Financial Times:

Banks and government negotiators have cleared a big hurdle in efforts to resolve allegations of widespread mortgage-related misdeeds, agreeing on terms for a settlement that are being circulated to the 50 US states for approval, state officials and a bank representative say.

The proposed pact would potentially reduce mortgage balances and monthly payments by more than $25bn for distressed US homeowners…

State prosecutors have already received a set of documents detailing new mortgage servicing standards that the banks and the government negotiators have agreed to. The states were also being sent documents detailing other main components of the deal, such as the liability release for the banks, the so-called “menu” of options describing the various forms of aid to be given to borrowers, as well as the precise language of the so-called “most favoured nation” clause, which spells out how participating states in the deal would be eligible to receive more advantageous terms should a holdout state strike a more favourable deal on its own with the five targeted banks.

The story did not outline terms, but previous leaks have indicated that the bulk of the supposed settlement would come not in actual monies paid by the banks (the cash portion has been rumored at under $5 billion) but in credits given for mortgage modifications for principal modifications. There are numerous reasons why that stinks. The biggest is that servicers will be able to count modifying first mortgages that were securitized toward the total. Since one of the cardinal rules of finance is to use other people’s money rather than your own, this provision virtually guarantees that investor-owned mortgages will be the ones to be restructured. Why is this a bad idea? The banks are NOT required to write down the second mortgages that they have on their books. This reverses the contractual hierarchy that junior lien-holders take losses before senior lenders. So this deal amounts to a transfer from pension funds and other fixed income investors to the banks, at the Administration’s instigation.

Another reason the modification provision is poorly structured is that the banks are given a dollar target to hit. That means they will focus on modifying the biggest mortgages. So help will go to a comparatively small number of grossly overhoused borrowers, no doubt reinforcing the “profligate borrower” meme.

But those criticisms assume two other things: that the program is actually implemented. The experience with past consent decrees in the mortgage space is that the servicers get a legal get out of jail free card, a release, and do not hold up their end of the deal. Similarly, we’ve seen bank executives swear in front of Congress in late 2010 that they had stopped robosigning, which turned out to be a brazen lie. So here, odds favor that servicers will pretty much do nothing except perhaps be given credit for mortgage modifications they would have made anyhow.

There are two clever features of the deal, but neither look intended to benefit ordinary citizens. One is that the deal throws some funding at chronically cash stressed mortgage counselors. They are thus certain to voice approval of the pact. The other is (per the FT story) the deal’s “most favored nations clause” is designed to reduce the bargaining leverage of any AGs that go their own way. It means that any servicer will have the incentive to fight hard against giving any state a better deal because it will automagically trigger improved terms across the states that signed on to the Federal deal. But this may have interesting perverse effects, since banks that refuse to settle with breakaway AGs will ultimately have damages awarded by a court. That means longer and most costly fights by the states, but in most cases, ultimately bigger awards (frankly, the fact set is so bad that all the state AGs need to do is focus on fairly conservative legal theories to have good odds of scoring big wins).

Dave Dayen seemed to think that the AG rebellion was likely to stay firm, given how few of the Democrats were going to Chicago on Monday for an arm-twisting meeting with HUD head Shaun Donovan and an unnamed emissary from the Department of Justice. I would not be so certain. With states so budget starved, I don’t see how anyone can justify sending a live body to Chicago when a phone briefing would work just as well. More important, the most favored nation clause is nasty, and may nudge some fence-sitters over the line.

And I have also been told that Donovan was on the Hill late last week pressuring Congressmen to support the deal. Since this is a regulatory measure that does not require Congressional approval, this move is meant to deprive dissenting state AGs from any support in local media from sympathetic Congressmen. For instance, 31 California representatives wrote the Justice Department, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency calling on them to “investigate possible violations of law or regulations by financial institutions in their handling of delinquent mortgages, mortgage modifications and foreclosures.” Clearly they could be expected to support California attorney general Kamala Harris’ withdrawal of the deal. Donovon is trying to get them and like minded solons speaking from the Obama script.

But the Administration’s scheme may not be playing out according to script. Senator Sherrod Brown sent a letter last week to associate attorney general Thomas Perelli, Donovan, the CFPB’s Richard Cordray and Tom Miller criticizing the settlement pact. It could have been written by Naked Capitalism readers. Key section:

Now while Republicans may relish the specter of Democrats infighting, the fact is no one is going to want to be seen to be undermining the leader of the party in an election year. So that will put a damper on how aggressive the opponents will be. And media outlets have been amplifying Obama’s efforts to take credit for gravity. For instance, the Administration is touting the fall in foreclosures as an indicator of success when their policies have ranged from do nothing to disasters like HAMP. The fall in foreclosures is actually a sign of failure, as banks are attenuating the process more and more, in some cases due to their inability to come up with necessary documentation, in others out of a desire to wring even more fees out of investors (when a borrower can’t pay, the bank’s fees come first out of the eventual sale of the house).

Either a Gingrich nomination or Romney getting too dented during Republican primary fights increase the odds of what heretofore seemed impossible: an Obama win in November. So if the Republicans were smart, they’d take advantage of a serious weakness in this deal: that it violates the 5th Amendment takings clause. I am told by Bill Frey of Greenwich Financial that a servicer safe harbor provision in HAMP, which was supposed to shield servicers from investor lawsuits over mortgage modifications, was passed by both the House and Senate but was removed in reconciliation because that provision would have run afoul of the 5th Amendment. This settlement is intended to have servicers engage in even more aggressive mortgage modifications and would thus seem to have precisely the same Constitutional problem.

As I urged last week, please call your state attorney general and tell them you think taking from your pension to enrich banks for abusing homeowners is a lousy idea and they should therefore refuse to sign on to the settlement. You can find their phone numbers here. Please call today if you haven’t already. Thanks!

© 2012 Yves Smith

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Yves Smith

Yves Smith is the pen name of Susan Webber, a Principal of Aurora Advisors, Inc. and publisher of the Naked Capitalism blog.

Everything You Need to Know About Wall Street, in One Brief Tale January 14, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
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Published on Saturday, January 14, 2012 by Rolling Stone
Matt Taibbi

If there was ever a news story that crystallized the moral dementia of modern Wall Street in one little vignette, this is it.

Newspapers in Colorado today are reporting that the elegant Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado,  will be closed to the public from today through Monday at noon.

The Hotel Jerome in Aspen. (Walter Bibikow/AWL Images)

Why? Because a local squire has apparently decided to rent out all 94 rooms of the hotel for three-plus days for his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

The hotel’s general manager, Tony DiLucia, would say only that the party was being thrown by a “nice family,” but newspapers are now reporting that the Daddy of the lucky little gal is one Jeffrey Verschleiser, currently an executive with Goldman, Sachs.

At first,  I couldn’t remember how I knew that name. But then I looked it up and saw an explosive Atlantic magazine story, published last year, called, “E-mails Suggest Bear Stearns Cheated Clients Out Of Millions.” And then I remembered that piece, and it hit me: Jeffrey Verschleiser is one of the biggest assholes in the entire world!

The story begins at Bear Stearns, where Verschleiser used to work, up until the company exploded, in large part because of him personally.

Back in the day, you see, Verschleiser headed Bear’s mortgage-backed securities operations. Toward the end of his tenure, his particular specialty began with what at the time was the usual industry-wide practice, putting together gigantic packages of crappy subprime mortgages and dumping them on unsuspecting clients.

But Verschleiser reportedly went beyond that. According to a lawsuit later filed by a bond insurer called Ambac, Verschleiser also masterminded a kind of double-dipping scheme. What he would do is sell a bunch of toxic mortgages into a trust, which like all mortgage trusts had provisions written into their pooling and servicing agreements (PSAs) that required the original lenders to buy the loans back if they went into default.

So Verschleiser would sell bad mortgages back to the banks at a discount, but instead of passing the money back to the trust, he and other Bear execs allegedly pocketed the funds.

From the Atlantic story by reporter Teri Buhl:

The traders were essentially double-dipping — getting paid twice on the deal. How was this possible? Once the security was sold, they didn’t have a legal claim to get cash back from the bad loans — that claim belonged to bond investors — but they did so anyway and kept the money. Thus, Bear was cheating the investors they promised to have sold a safe product out of their cash. According to former Bear Stearns and EMC traders and analysts who spoke with The Atlantic, Nierenberg and Verschleiser were the decision-makers for the double dipping scheme.

Imagine giving someone a hundred bucks to buy a bushel of apples, but making a deal with him that he has to buy back any apples that turn out to have worms in them. That’s what happened here: Bear sold the wormy apples back to the farmer, but instead of taking the money from those sales and passing it on to you, they simply kept the money, according to the suit.

How wormy were those apples? In one infamous email cited in the suit, a Bear exec colorfully described the content of the bonds they were selling:

Bear deal manager Nicolas Smith wrote an e-mail on August 11th, 2006 to Keith Lind, a Managing Director on the trading desk, referring to a particular bond, SACO 2006-8, as “SACK OF SHIT [2006-]8” and said, “I hope your [sic] making a lot of money off this trade.”

So did Verschleiser himself know the mortgages were bad? Not only did he know it, he went so far as to tell his colleagues in writing that it was a waste of money to even bother performing due diligence on the bad bonds:

Jeffrey Verschleiser even said in an e-mail that he knew this was an issue. He wrote to his peer Mike Nierenberg in March 2006, “[we] are wasting way too much money on Bad Due Diligence.” Yet a year later nothing had changed. In March 2007, Verschleiser wrote to Nierenberg again about the same due diligence firm, “[w]e are just burning money hiring them.”

One of the ways that banks like Bear managed to convince investors to buy these bonds was by wrapping them in bond insurance through companies like Ambac, commonly known as “monoline” insurers. Investors who knew the bonds were insured were less worried about default.

Verschleiser, seeing that Bear had gotten firms like Ambac to insure its “sack of shit” bonds, saw here a new opportunity to make money. He first induced the monolines to insure the worthless bonds, then bet against the insurers! (Is it any wonder this guy ended up hired by Goldman, Sachs?) From the Atlantic story again:

Then in November 2007, Verschleiser wrote to his risk committee that he knew insurers for mortgage securities were going to have big financial problems. He suggested they multiply by ten times the short bet he’d just made against stocks like Ambac. These e-mails show Verschleiser’s trading desk bragging to firm leadership that he made $55 million off shorting insurers’ stock in just three weeks.

So in essence, Verschleiser was triple-dipping. First he was selling worthless “sacks of shit” to investors, representing them as good investments. Then, he kept the money from the return sales of the wormy apples. And then, on top of that, he made money by betting against the insurers he was sticking with these toxic assets.

We all know what happened from there. Bear, Stearns went under, thanks in large part to insane schemes like Verschleiser’s, and all of us were forced to pick up at least part of the tab as the Fed spent billions subsidizing Bear’s emergency takeover by JP Morgan Chase. In subsequent litigation, Chase has steadfastly refused to buy back the bad mortgages dumped on investors by the likes of Verschleiser, and has even fought tooth and nail to prevent the information in the Ambac suit from being made public.

Ambac went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010 for a variety of reasons, some of which had nothing to do with its losses in deals like these. But certainly Ambac and other monoline insurers like MBIA suffered for having insured worthless mortgage bonds sold onto the market by the Verschleisers of the world. Ambac in its suit asserted that it paid out over $641 million in claims related to the bonds from the Bear deals.

With all of this, though, Verschleiser landed happily on his feet. He reportedly heads Goldman’s mortgage division now. And after cutting a mile-wide swath of losses through the American economy, helping destroy two venerable firms in Bear and Ambac, bilking the taxpayer for untold millions more (he is also named in a lawsuit filed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency for allegedly speeding bad loans onto securitization before they defaulted), Verschleiser is now living the contented life of a proud family man, renting out a 94-room hotel for three days for his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

It’s certainly heartening that Verschleiser is spending this money on his daughter instead of, say, hiring a busload of Jamaican hookers to spend the weekend lounging with him in a hot tub full of Beluga caviar. People ought to give their children the best, I guess. But there’s this, too: at a time when one in four Americans has zero or negative net worth, renting a 94-room hotel for three days for a tweenager party might already be pushing the edge of the good taste/tact envelope. Even for the most honest millionaire in Aspen, it would seem a little gauche.

But for this burglarizing dickhead to do it? It’s breathtaking. I hope he at least invited his bankrupted investors to the pool party.

p.s. Since this blog was posted, I’ve received a number of letters all asking the same question — how could it be possible that what Verschleiser did is not illegal? How is he not in jail?

The answer is that if the allegations in the Ambac suit are true, it certainly would seem to be illegal. Most notably, the pocketing of putback money almost has to be a form of theft or embezzlement.

The rest of Bear/Verschleiser’s scheme, however, is also illegal, but in a more complicated way. If you read the complaint in the Ambac suit, what you see is a sort of extreme blueprint for how mortgage securitization worked in general during that period.

There is a veritable sea of fraudulent and corrupt practices one may gaze upon here, if the SEC were looking for something to target — everything from withholding material facts from customers and ratings agencies, to threatening ratings agencies with lost business if they didn’t overrate bonds, to lying in offering documents, to the manipulation of accounting procedures (this went on after the loans had moved onto Chase’s books), etc. — but the most flagrant violation in the suit involves the issue of due diligence, and here we do know a lot about Verschleiser’s role.

It seems that when Bear did do due diligence in these deals, it very frequently overrode the firms they’d hired to do that due diligence, and put the loans in the deals anyway. In the third quarter of 2006, Bear overrode its due diligence firm an incredible 65% of the time, putting loans into their securitizations despite an outside firm finding red flags in the notes.

Even worse, Bear went out of its way to hide the evidence that it was knowingly ignoring due diligence. This is from the complaint:

Bear Stearns ignored the proposals made by the heads of its due diligence department in May 2005 to track the override decisions, and instead took the opposite tack, adopting an internal policy that directed its due diligence managers to delete the communications with its due diligence firms leading to its final loan purchase decisions, thereby eliminating the audit trail.

This is fraud because in its agreements with investors, Bear promised to conduct “due diligence,” it promised to conduct “quality control” testing of the loan pools, it promised to “repurchase” defective loans, and it also promised to implement “seller monitoring,” i.e. to prevent the securitization of loans from bad suppliers.

But it not only didn’t do these things, it engaged the opposite behavior and knowingly covered up its fraud by deleting its communications.

Verschleiser was personally named in the evidence offered in the Ambac suit. In a letter to Ambac, Bear’s RMBS Investor Relations managing director Cheryl Glory wrote that “Jeff will… provide you with the due diligence results of all three deals once complete.”

But this is the same Jeff who we now have in writing  saying this about those promised due diligence results: “We are wasting way too much money on Bad Due Diligence,” and “We’re just burning money hiring them.”

It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that Bear was not upholding its contractual obligations by delivering what it itself considered “bad due diligence” to Ambac. At the very least, this is actionable.

Verschleiser undermined due diligence in other ways. One good one was to demand that his due diligence people operate at speeds that made genuine due diligence impossible.

At one point during these deals, Verschleiser reamed out his immediate subordinate, co-head of mortgage finance Baron Silverstein, over the “problem” of the due diligence department taking too much time to do its work. Silverstein responded by issuing the following tirade to John Mongelluzzo, Bear’s VP for Due Diligence, demanding that he not get in the way of Bear’s insane goal of funding 500 mortgages a day:

I refuse to receive more emails from [Verchleiser] (or anyone else) questioning why we’re not funding loans every day. I’m holding each of you responsible for making sure we fund at least 500 each and every day… I was not happy when I saw the funding numbers and I knew NY would NOT BE HAPPY… I expect to see 500+ every day. I will do whatever is necessary to make sure you’re successful in meeting this objective.

Whenever any right-wing loon, or Bloombergite, tries to tell you the mortgage crisis was caused by the government forcing the poor banks to lend to broke black people, please direct them to this passage. The banks not only wanted to give out these loans, they wanted to give them out at the speed of light. They wanted to crank them out so fast that their own auditors literally couldn’t read the writing on the loan applications. This was greed, not policy. Anybody who says anything else is high on something.

Anyway, given that much of Verschleiser’s questionable behavior is in writing, his case sure seems court-ready. But for whatever reason, he has not been indicted.

One can almost understand a regulator not wanting to take on the whole circular securitization scheme — Bear lends money to corrupt mortgage firm, mortgage firm makes bad loans, Bear packages bad loans and sells to investors, then takes the proceeds and creates more bad loans — because it is so complex and difficult to prove.

But in this case there are simple issues of fraud and theft that could be taken on without having to prosecute broader crimes related to securitization. But prosecutors, apparently, just blew those off. In the current environment, regulators even miss the layups.

Bill Moyers Journal: William K. Black Interview April 16, 2009

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Bill Moyers Journal, April 3, 2009
The financial industry brought the economy to its knees, but how did they get away with it? With the nation wondering how to hold the bankers accountable, Bill Moyers sits down with William K. Black, the former senior regulator who cracked down on banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. Black offers his analysis of what went wrong and his critique of the bailout

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.

For months now, revelations of the wholesale greed and blatant transgressions of Wall Street have reminded us that “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One.” In fact, the man you’re about to meet wrote a book with just that title. It was based upon his experience as a tough regulator during one of the darkest chapters in our financial history: the savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: These numbers as large as they are, vastly understate the problem of fraud.

BILL MOYERS: Bill Black was in New York this week for a conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where scholars and journalists gathered to ask the question, “How do they get away with it?” Well, no one has asked that question more often than Bill Black.

The former Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention now teaches Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. During the savings and loan crisis, it was Black who accused then-house speaker Jim Wright and five US Senators, including John Glenn and John McCain, of doing favors for the S&L’s in exchange for contributions and other perks. The senators got off with a slap on the wrist, but so enraged was one of those bankers, Charles Keating — after whom the senate’s so-called “Keating Five” were named — he sent a memo that read, in part, “get Black — kill him dead.” Metaphorically, of course. Of course.

Now Black is focused on an even greater scandal, and he spares no one — not even the President he worked hard to elect, Barack Obama. But his main targets are the Wall Street barons, heirs of an earlier generation whose scandalous rip-offs of wealth back in the 1930s earned them comparison to Al Capone and the mob, and the nickname “banksters.”

Bill Black, welcome to the Journal.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: I was taken with your candor at the conference here in New York to hear you say that this crisis we’re going through, this economic and financial meltdown is driven by fraud. What’s your definition of fraud?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Fraud is deceit. And the essence of fraud is, “I create trust in you, and then I betray that trust, and get you to give me something of value.” And as a result, there’s no more effective acid against trust than fraud, especially fraud by top elites, and that’s what we have.

BILL MOYERS: In your book, you make it clear that calculated dishonesty by people in charge is at the heart of most large corporate failures and scandals, including, of course, the S&L, but is that true? Is that what you’re saying here, that it was in the boardrooms and the CEO offices where this fraud began?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: How did they do it? What do you mean?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, the way that you do it is to make really bad loans, because they pay better. Then you grow extremely rapidly, in other words, you’re a Ponzi-like scheme. And the third thing you do is we call it leverage. That just means borrowing a lot of money, and the combination creates a situation where you have guaranteed record profits in the early years. That makes you rich, through the bonuses that modern executive compensation has produced. It also makes it inevitable that there’s going to be a disaster down the road.

BILL MOYERS: So you’re suggesting, saying that CEOs of some of these banks and mortgage firms in order to increase their own personal income, deliberately set out to make bad loans?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: How do they get away with it? I mean, what about their own checks and balances in the company? What about their accounting divisions?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: All of those checks and balances report to the CEO, so if the CEO goes bad, all of the checks and balances are easily overcome. And the art form is not simply to defeat those internal controls, but to suborn them, to turn them into your greatest allies. And the bonus programs are exactly how you do that.

BILL MOYERS: If I wanted to go looking for the parties to this, with a good bird dog, where would you send me?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, that’s exactly what hasn’t happened. We haven’t looked, all right? The Bush Administration essentially got rid of regulation, so if nobody was looking, you were able to do this with impunity and that’s exactly what happened. Where would you look? You’d look at the specialty lenders. The lenders that did almost all of their work in the sub-prime and what’s called Alt-A, liars’ loans.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Liars’ loans–

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Liars’ loans.

BILL MOYERS: Why did they call them liars’ loans?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they were liars’ loans.

BILL MOYERS: And they knew it?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: They knew it. They knew that they were frauds.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Liars’ loans mean that we don’t check. You tell us what your income is. You tell us what your job is. You tell us what your assets are, and we agree to believe you. We won’t check on any of those things. And by the way, you get a better deal if you inflate your income and your job history and your assets.

BILL MOYERS: You think they really said that to borrowers?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: We know that they said that to borrowers. In fact, they were also called, in the trade, ninja loans.

BILL MOYERS: Ninja?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yeah, because no income verification, no job verification, no asset verification.

BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about significant American companies.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Huge! One company produced as many losses as the entire Savings and Loan debacle.

BILL MOYERS: Which company?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: IndyMac specialized in making liars’ loans. In 2006 alone, it sold $80 billion dollars of liars’ loans to other companies. $80 billion.

BILL MOYERS: And was this happening exclusively in this sub-prime mortgage business?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: No, and that’s a big part of the story as well. Even prime loans began to have non-verification. Even Ronald Reagan, you know, said, “Trust, but verify.” They just gutted the verification process. We know that will produce enormous fraud, under economic theory, criminology theory, and two thousand years of life experience.

BILL MOYERS: Is it possible that these complex instruments were deliberately created so swindlers could exploit them?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Oh, absolutely. This stuff, the exotic stuff that you’re talking about was created out of things like liars’ loans, that were known to be extraordinarily bad. And now it was getting triple-A ratings. Now a triple-A rating is supposed to mean there is zero credit risk. So you take something that not only has significant, it has crushing risk. That’s why it’s toxic. And you create this fiction that it has zero risk. That itself, of course, is a fraudulent exercise. And again, there was nobody looking, during the Bush years. So finally, only a year ago, we started to have a Congressional investigation of some of these rating agencies, and it’s scandalous what came out. What we know now is that the rating agencies never looked at a single loan file. When they finally did look, after the markets had completely collapsed, they found, and I’m quoting Fitch, the smallest of the rating agencies, “the results were disconcerting, in that there was the appearance of fraud in nearly every file we examined.”

BILL MOYERS: So if your assumption is correct, your evidence is sound, the bank, the lending company, created a fraud. And the ratings agency that is supposed to test the value of these assets knowingly entered into the fraud. Both parties are committing fraud by intention.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Right, and the investment banker that — we call it pooling — puts together these bad mortgages, these liars’ loans, and creates the toxic waste of these derivatives. All of them do that. And then they sell it to the world and the world just thinks because it has a triple-A rating it must actually be safe. Well, instead, there are 60 and 80 percent losses on these things, because of course they, in reality, are toxic waste.

BILL MOYERS: You’re describing what Bernie Madoff did to a limited number of people. But you’re saying it’s systemic, a systemic Ponzi scheme.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Oh, Bernie was a piker. He doesn’t even get into the front ranks of a Ponzi scheme…

BILL MOYERS: But you’re saying our system became a Ponzi scheme.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Our system…

BILL MOYERS: Our financial system…

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Became a Ponzi scheme. Everybody was buying a pig in the poke. But they were buying a pig in the poke with a pretty pink ribbon, and the pink ribbon said, “Triple-A.”

BILL MOYERS: Is there a law against liars’ loans?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Not directly, but there, of course, many laws against fraud, and liars’ loans are fraudulent.

BILL MOYERS: Because…

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they’re not going to be repaid and because they had false representations. They involve deceit, which is the essence of fraud.

BILL MOYERS: Why is it so hard to prosecute? Why hasn’t anyone been brought to justice over this?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they didn’t even begin to investigate the major lenders until the market had actually collapsed, which is completely contrary to what we did successfully in the Savings and Loan crisis, right? Even while the institutions were reporting they were the most profitable savings and loan in America, we knew they were frauds. And we were moving to close them down. Here, the Justice Department, even though it very appropriately warned, in 2004, that there was an epidemic…

BILL MOYERS: Who did?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: The FBI publicly warned, in September 2004 that there was an epidemic of mortgage fraud, that if it was allowed to continue it would produce a crisis at least as large as the Savings and Loan debacle. And that they were going to make sure that they didn’t let that happen. So what goes wrong? After 9/11, the attacks, the Justice Department transfers 500 white-collar specialists in the FBI to national terrorism. Well, we can all understand that. But then, the Bush administration refused to replace the missing 500 agents. So even today, again, as you say, this crisis is 1000 times worse, perhaps, certainly 100 times worse, than the Savings and Loan crisis. There are one-fifth as many FBI agents as worked the Savings and Loan crisis.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about the Bush administration. Of course, there’s that famous photograph of some of the regulators in 2003, who come to a press conference with a chainsaw suggesting that they’re going to slash, cut business loose from regulation, right?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, they succeeded. And in that picture, by the way, the other — three of the other guys with pruning shears are the…

BILL MOYERS: That’s right.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: They’re the trade representatives. They’re the lobbyists for the bankers. And everybody’s grinning. The government’s working together with the industry to destroy regulation. Well, we now know what happens when you destroy regulation. You get the biggest financial calamity of anybody under the age of 80.

BILL MOYERS: But I can point you to statements by Larry Summers, who was then Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, or the other Clinton Secretary of the Treasury, Rubin. I can point you to suspects in both parties, right?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: There were two really big things, under the Clinton administration. One, they got rid of the law that came out of the real-world disasters of the Great Depression. We learned a lot of things in the Great Depression. And one is we had to separate what’s called commercial banking from investment banking. That’s the Glass-Steagall law. But we thought we were much smarter, supposedly. So we got rid of that law, and that was bipartisan. And the other thing is we passed a law, because there was a very good regulator, Brooksley Born, that everybody should know about and probably doesn’t. She tried to do the right thing to regulate one of these exotic derivatives that you’re talking about. We call them C.D.F.S. And Summers, Rubin, and Phil Gramm came together to say not only will we block this particular regulation. We will pass a law that says you can’t regulate. And it’s this type of derivative that is most involved in the AIG scandal. AIG all by itself, cost the same as the entire Savings and Loan debacle.

BILL MOYERS: What did AIG contribute? What did they do wrong?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: They made bad loans. Their type of loan was to sell a guarantee, right? And they charged a lot of fees up front. So, they booked a lot of income. Paid enormous bonuses. The bonuses we’re thinking about now, they’re much smaller than these bonuses that were also the product of accounting fraud. And they got very, very rich. But, of course, then they had guaranteed this toxic waste. These liars’ loans. Well, we’ve just gone through why those toxic waste, those liars’ loans, are going to have enormous losses. And so, you have to pay the guarantee on those enormous losses. And you go bankrupt. Except that you don’t in the modern world, because you’ve come to the United States, and the taxpayers play the fool. Under Secretary Geithner and under Secretary Paulson before him… we took $5 billion dollars, for example, in U.S. taxpayer money. And sent it to a huge Swiss Bank called UBS. At the same time that that bank was defrauding the taxpayers of America. And we were bringing a criminal case against them. We eventually get them to pay a $780 million fine, but wait, we gave them $5 billion. So, the taxpayers of America paid the fine of a Swiss Bank. And why are we bailing out somebody who that is defrauding us?

BILL MOYERS: And why…

WILLIAM K. BLACK: How mad is this?

BILL MOYERS: What is your explanation for why the bankers who created this mess are still calling the shots?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, that, especially after what’s just happened at G.M., that’s… it’s scandalous.

BILL MOYERS: Why are they firing the president of G.M. and not firing the head of all these banks that are involved?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: There are two reasons. One, they’re much closer to the bankers. These are people from the banking industry. And they have a lot more sympathy. In fact, they’re outright hostile to autoworkers, as you can see. They want to bash all of their contracts. But when they get to banking, they say, ‘contracts, sacred.’ But the other element of your question is we don’t want to change the bankers, because if we do, if we put honest people in, who didn’t cause the problem, their first job would be to find the scope of the problem. And that would destroy the cover up.

BILL MOYERS: The cover up?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Sure. The cover up.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a serious charge.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Of course.

BILL MOYERS: Who’s covering up?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Geithner is charging, is covering up. Just like Paulson did before him. Geithner is publicly saying that it’s going to take $2 trillion — a trillion is a thousand billion — $2 trillion taxpayer dollars to deal with this problem. But they’re allowing all the banks to report that they’re not only solvent, but fully capitalized. Both statements can’t be true. It can’t be that they need $2 trillion, because they have masses losses, and that they’re fine.

These are all people who have failed. Paulson failed, Geithner failed. They were all promoted because they failed, not because…

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, Geithner has, was one of our nation’s top regulators, during the entire subprime scandal, that I just described. He took absolutely no effective action. He gave no warning. He did nothing in response to the FBI warning that there was an epidemic of fraud. All this pig in the poke stuff happened under him. So, in his phrase about legacy assets. Well he’s a failed legacy regulator.

BILL MOYERS: But he denies that he was a regulator. Let me show you some of his testimony before Congress. Take a look at this.

TIMOTHY GEITHNER:I’ve never been a regulator, for better or worse. And I think you’re right to say that we have to be very skeptical that regulation can solve all of these problems. We have parts of our system that are overwhelmed by regulation.

Overwhelmed by regulation! It wasn’t the absence of regulation that was the problem, it was despite the presence of regulation you’ve got huge risks that build up.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, he may be right that he never regulated, but his job was to regulate. That was his mission statement.

BILL MOYERS: As?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: As president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which is responsible for regulating most of the largest bank holding companies in America. And he’s completely wrong that we had too much regulation in some of these areas. I mean, he gives no details, obviously. But that’s just plain wrong.

BILL MOYERS: How is this happening? I mean why is it happening?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Until you get the facts, it’s harder to blow all this up. And, of course, the entire strategy is to keep people from getting the facts.

BILL MOYERS: What facts?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: The facts about how bad the condition of the banks is. So, as long as I keep the old CEO who caused the problems, is he going to go vigorously around finding the problems? Finding the frauds?

BILL MOYERS: You–

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Taking away people’s bonuses?

BILL MOYERS: To hear you say this is unusual because you supported Barack Obama, during the campaign. But you’re seeming disillusioned now.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, certainly in the financial sphere, I am. I think, first, the policies are substantively bad. Second, I think they completely lack integrity. Third, they violate the rule of law. This is being done just like Secretary Paulson did it. In violation of the law. We adopted a law after the Savings and Loan crisis, called the Prompt Corrective Action Law. And it requires them to close these institutions. And they’re refusing to obey the law.

BILL MOYERS: In other words, they could have closed these banks without nationalizing them?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, you do a receivership. No one — Ronald Reagan did receiverships. Nobody called it nationalization.

BILL MOYERS: And that’s a law?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: That’s the law.

BILL MOYERS: So, Paulson could have done this? Geithner could do this?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Not could. Was mandated–

BILL MOYERS: By the law.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: By the law.

BILL MOYERS: This law, you’re talking about.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: What the reason they give for not doing it?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: They ignore it. And nobody calls them on it.

BILL MOYERS: Well, where’s Congress? Where’s the press? Where–

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, where’s the Pecora investigation?

BILL MOYERS: The what?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: The Pecora investigation. The Great Depression, we said, “Hey, we have to learn the facts. What caused this disaster, so that we can take steps, like pass the Glass-Steagall law, that will prevent future disasters?” Where’s our investigation?

What would happen if after a plane crashes, we said, “Oh, we don’t want to look in the past. We want to be forward looking. Many people might have been, you know, we don’t want to pass blame. No. We have a nonpartisan, skilled inquiry. We spend lots of money on, get really bright people. And we find out, to the best of our ability, what caused every single major plane crash in America. And because of that, aviation has an extraordinarily good safety record. We ought to follow the same policies in the financial sphere. We have to find out what caused the disasters, or we will keep reliving them. And here, we’ve got a double tragedy. It isn’t just that we are failing to learn from the mistakes of the past. We’re failing to learn from the successes of the past.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: In the Savings and Loan debacle, we developed excellent ways for dealing with the frauds, and for dealing with the failed institutions. And for 15 years after the Savings and Loan crisis, didn’t matter which party was in power, the U.S. Treasury Secretary would fly over to Tokyo and tell the Japanese, “You ought to do things the way we did in the Savings and Loan crisis, because it worked really well. Instead you’re covering up the bank losses, because you know, you say you need confidence. And so, we have to lie to the people to create confidence. And it doesn’t work. You will cause your recession to continue and continue.” And the Japanese call it the lost decade. That was the result. So, now we get in trouble, and what do we do? We adopt the Japanese approach of lying about the assets. And you know what? It’s working just as well as it did in Japan.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Are you saying that Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others in the administration, with the banks, are engaged in a cover up to keep us from knowing what went wrong?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: You are.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely, because they are scared to death. All right? They’re scared to death of a collapse. They’re afraid that if they admit the truth, that many of the large banks are insolvent. They think Americans are a bunch of cowards, and that we’ll run screaming to the exits. And we won’t rely on deposit insurance. And, by the way, you can rely on deposit insurance. And it’s foolishness. All right? Now, it may be worse than that. You can impute more cynical motives. But I think they are sincerely just panicked about, “We just can’t let the big banks fail.” That’s wrong.

BILL MOYERS: But what might happen, at this point, if in fact they keep from us the true health of the banks?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, then the banks will, as they did in Japan, either stay enormously weak, or Treasury will be forced to increasingly absurd giveaways of taxpayer money. We’ve seen how horrific AIG — and remember, they kept secrets from everyone.

BILL MOYERS: A.I.G. did?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: What we’re doing with — no, Treasury and both administrations. The Bush administration and now the Obama administration kept secret from us what was being done with AIG. AIG was being used secretly to bail out favored banks like UBS and like Goldman Sachs. Secretary Paulson’s firm, that he had come from being CEO. It got the largest amount of money. $12.9 billion. And they didn’t want us to know that. And it was only Congressional pressure, and not Congressional pressure, by the way, on Geithner, but Congressional pressure on AIG.

Where Congress said, “We will not give you a single penny more unless we know who received the money.” And, you know, when he was Treasury Secretary, Paulson created a recommendation group to tell Treasury what they ought to do with AIG. And he put Goldman Sachs on it.

BILL MOYERS: Even though Goldman Sachs had a big vested stake.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Massive stake. And even though he had just been CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming Treasury Secretary. Now, in most stages in American history, that would be a scandal of such proportions that he wouldn’t be allowed in civilized society.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, like a conflict of interest, it seems.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Massive conflict of interests.

BILL MOYERS: So, how did he get away with it?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: I don’t know whether we’ve lost our capability of outrage. Or whether the cover up has been so successful that people just don’t have the facts to react to it.

BILL MOYERS: Who’s going to get the facts?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: We need some chairmen or chairwomen–

BILL MOYERS: In Congress.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: –in Congress, to hold the necessary hearings. And we can blast this out. But if you leave the failed CEOs in place, it isn’t just that they’re terrible business people, though they are. It isn’t just that they lack integrity, though they do. Because they were engaged in these frauds. But they’re not going to disclose the truth about the assets.

BILL MOYERS: And we have to know that, in order to know what?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: To know everything. To know who committed the frauds. Whose bonuses we should recover. How much the assets are worth. How much they should be sold for. Is the bank insolvent, such that we should resolve it in this way? It’s the predicate, right? You need to know the facts to make intelligent decisions. And they’re deliberately leaving in place the people that caused the problem, because they don’t want the facts. And this is not new. The Reagan Administration’s central priority, at all times, during the Savings and Loan crisis, was covering up the losses.

BILL MOYERS: So, you’re saying that people in power, political power, and financial power, act in concert when their own behinds are in the ringer, right?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: That’s right. And it’s particularly a crisis that brings this out, because then the class of the banker says, “You’ve got to keep the information away from the public or everything will collapse. If they understand how bad it is, they’ll run for the exits.”

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, and this week in New York, at this conference, you described this as more than a financial crisis. You called it a moral crisis.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because it is a fundamental lack of integrity. But also because, if you look back at crises, an economist who is also a presidential appointee, as a regulator in the Savings and Loan industry, right here in New York, Larry White, wrote a book about the Savings and Loan crisis. And he said, you know, one of the most interesting questions is why so few people engaged in fraud? Because objectively, you could have gotten away with it. But only about ten percent of the CEOs, engaged in fraud. So, 90 percent of them were restrained by ethics and integrity. So, far more than law or by F.B.I. agents, it’s our integrity that often prevents the greatest abuses. And what we had in this crisis, instead of the Savings and Loan, is the most elite institutions in America engaging or facilitating fraud.

BILL MOYERS: This wound that you say has been inflicted on American life. The loss of worker’s income. And security and pensions and future happened, because of the misconduct of a relatively few, very well-heeled people, in very well-decorated corporate suites, right?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Right.

BILL MOYERS: It was relatively a handful of people.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: And their ideologies, which swept away regulation. So, in the example, regulation means that cheaters don’t prosper. So, instead of being bad for capitalism, it’s what saves capitalism. “Honest purveyors prosper” is what we want. And you need regulation and law enforcement to be able to do this. The tragedy of this crisis is it didn’t need to happen at all.

BILL MOYERS: When you wake in the middle of the night, thinking about your work, what do you make of that? What do you tell yourself?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: There’s a saying that we took great comfort in. It’s actually by the Dutch, who were fighting this impossible war for independence against what was then the most powerful nation in the world, Spain. And their motto was, “It is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.”

Now, going forward, get rid of the people that have caused the problems. That’s a pretty straightforward thing, as well. Why would we keep CEOs and CFOs and other senior officers, that caused the problems? That’s facially nuts. That’s our current system.

So stop that current system. We’re hiding the losses, instead of trying to find out the real losses. Stop that, because you need good information to make good decisions, right? Follow what works instead of what’s failed. Start appointing people who have records of success, instead of records of failure. That would be another nice place to start. There are lots of things we can do. Even today, as late as it is. Even though they’ve had a terrible start to the administration. They could change, and they could change within weeks. And by the way, the folks who are the better regulators, they paid their taxes. So, you can get them through the vetting process a lot quicker.

BILL MOYERS: William Black, thank you very much for being with me on the Journal.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Thank you so much.

William K. Black suspects that it was more than greed and incompetence that brought down the U.S. financial sector and plunged the economy in recession — it was fraud. And he would know. When it comes to financial shenanigans, William K. Black, the former senior regulator who cracked down on banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, has seen pretty much everything.

Now an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, William K. Black tells Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL that the tool at the very center of mortgage collapse, creating triple-A rated bonds out of “liars’ loans” — loans issued without verifying income, assets or employment — was a fraud, and the banks knew it.

And while there is no law against liars’ loans, Black points out that there are, “many laws against fraud, and liars’ loans are fraudulent. […] They involve deceit, which is the essence of fraud.”

Only the scale of the scandal is new. A single bank, IndyMac, lost more money than the entire Savings and Loan Crisis. The difference between now and then, explains Black, is a drastic reduction in regulation and oversight, “We now know what happens when you destroy regulation. You get the biggest financial calamity of anybody under the age of 80.”

>>More about the Savings and Loan Crisis

Biography

William K. Black, author of THE BEST WAY TO ROB A BANK IS TO OWN ONE, teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri — Kansas City (UMKC). He was the Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005-2007. He has taught previously at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and at Santa Clara University, where he was also the distinguished scholar in residence for insurance law and a visiting scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Black was litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, deputy director of the FSLIC, SVP and general counsel of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and senior deputy chief counsel, Office of Thrift Supervision. He was deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement.

Black developed the concept of “control fraud” — frauds in which the CEO or head of state uses the entity as a “weapon.” Control frauds cause greater financial losses than all other forms of property crime combined. He recently helped the World Bank develop anti-corruption initiatives and served as an expert for OFHEO in its enforcement action against Fannie Mae’s former senior management.

Published April 3, 2009. Guest photos by Robin Holland

Make America a Foreclosure-free Zone March 9, 2009

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Resistance to Housing Foreclosures Spread Across the Land January 24, 2009

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www.truthout.org

23 January 2009

by: Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation

 

  Community-based movements to halt the flood of foreclosures have been building across the country. And they’re not the usual suspects.

    “This is a crowd that won’t scatter,” James Steele wrote in the pages of The Nation some seventy-five years ago. Early one morning in July 1933, the police had evicted John Sparanga and his family from a home on Cleveland’s east side. Sparanga had lost his job and fallen behind on mortgage payments. The bank had foreclosed. A grassroots “home defense” organization, which had managed to forestall the eviction on three occasions, put out the call, and 10,000 people — mainly working-class immigrants from Southern and Central Europe — soon gathered, withstanding wave after wave of police tear gas, clubbings and bullets, “vowing not to leave until John Sparanga [was] back in his home.”

    “The small home-owners of the United States are organizing,” Steele concluded, “tardily perhaps, but none the less surely.” It wasn’t just homeowners — three months earlier the governor of Iowa had called out the National Guard after farmers stormed a courthouse and threatened to hang the judge if he didn’t stop issuing foreclosures. They left him in a ditch, bruised but alive. By the end of the 1930s, farmers’ and home-owners’ struggles had pushed the legislatures of no fewer than twenty-seven states to pass moratoriums on foreclosures.

    The crowds appear to be gathering again — far more quietly this time but hardly tentatively. Community-based movements to halt the flood of foreclosures have been building across the country. They turned out in Cleveland once again in October, when a coalition of grassroots housing groups rallied outside the Cuyahoga County courthouse, calling for a foreclosure freeze and constructing a mock graveyard of Styrofoam headstones bearing the names of local communities decimated by the housing crisis. (They did not, unfortunately, stop the more than 1,000 foreclosure filings in the county the following month.) In Boston the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America began protesting in front of Countrywide Financial offices in October 2007. Within weeks, Countrywide had agreed to work with the group to renegotiate loans. In Philadelphia ACORN and other community organizations helped to pressure the city council to order the county sheriff to halt foreclosure auctions this past March. Philadelphia has since implemented a program mandating “conciliation conferences” between defaulting homeowners and lenders. ACORN organizers say the program has a 78 percent success rate at keeping people in their homes. One activist group in Miami has taken a more direct approach to the crisis, housing homeless families in abandoned bank-owned homes without waiting for government permission.

    It’s unlikely, though, that any of these activists will be able to relax soon. Other than calling for a ninety-day freeze on foreclosures — which, given that loan negotiations can take many months to work out, would almost certainly be inadequate — President Obama has been consistently vague about his plans to address the foreclosure crisis. He has indicated his support for a $24 billion program proposed in November by FDIC chair Sheila Bair, which would offer banks incentives to renegotiate loans, aiming to reduce mortgage payments to 31 percent of homeowners’ monthly income. Obama’s economic team has since worked with House Financial Services Committee chair Barney Frank on a bill that would require that between $40 billion and $100 billion of what’s left in the bailout package be spent on an unspecified foreclosure mitigation program. It would be left to Obama’s Treasury Department to design that program. But Frank’s and Bair’s proposed plans are voluntary. Banks that choose not to accept federal assistance won’t have to renegotiate a single loan.

    Community organizers, however, aren’t sitting around waiting for banks to come to the table. Nowhere have they had more cause to keep busy than in California, home to a quarter of the 3.2 million foreclosures filed in the country last year. The collapse of the state’s hyperinflated real estate market has left as many as 27 percent of mortgage holders owing more on their homes than the properties are worth; California’s foreclosure rate is more than twice the national average. From San Diego to Stockton, in churches, union halls and community centers, angry homeowners have been organizing to freeze foreclosures and impose a systematic modification of home loans.

    The crisis has produced some unlikely activists. Faith Bautista didn’t start out as a rabble-rouser. A small, energetic and stubbornly cheerful woman, she has run a tiny nonprofit called the Mabuhay Alliance since 2004. Until recently, it functioned as an all-purpose minority small-business association. With a staff of six working out of a mini-mall office behind an auto parts store in an industrial section of San Diego, the Mabuhay Alliance served a largely Filipino community (mabuhay translates roughly from Tagalog as viva!) offering, among other services, free income-tax preparation, microloans and counseling for first-time homeowners.

    It was through the latter program that Bautista heard the first rumblings of the mortgage meltdown, which would ultimately bring down Wall Street’s most powerful financial firms. Southern California’s development boom hadn’t yet begun to ebb in late 2006, but, Bautista says, “people were already calling us and asking what was going to happen. They were clearly going to default.”

    The community Mabuhay serves — about 40 percent Filipino, the remainder Latino, African-American and other Asians — was hit particularly hard. Throughout the housing boom, immigrant and minority borrowers were disproportionately issued high-priced subprime loans, even when they qualified for less expensive, fixed-rate mortgages. One study by the California Reinvestment Coalition found that African-American and Latino borrowers were nearly four times as likely as whites to receive high-cost mortgages. Bautista had an adjustable-rate mortgage on the home she bought in 2004. Her monthly payments soon leapt to $6,000. It took her nine months, she says, and a personal meeting with the CEO of the bank that held her mortgage, to renegotiate the loan. It quickly became obvious to her that fighting the banks on an individual basis would be inadequate to the scale of the crisis — only an organized battle for systematic changes would help keep people in their homes.

    In the early months of 2007, as the first of the subprime lenders began to declare bankruptcy, Bautista started contacting major lenders, asking them to stop foreclosures and take part in a “massive loan-modification program” — dropping interest rates, writing down principals and donating executive bonuses to a fund for borrowers at risk of default. If lenders shared responsibility for the crisis, she calculated, homeowners shouldn’t bear the full brunt of the suffering. Not surprisingly, she laughs, “they didn’t want to talk to us.”

    That summer, with the help of the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley-based research and advocacy group that works on racial equality issues, she was able to arrange a meeting with Countrywide co-founder and CEO Angelo Mozilo. At the time, almost one-fourth of Countrywide’s subprime loans were delinquent. The meeting, Bautista says, was fruitless: “Eyes are closed, ears are closed.” Over the next few months, she met three more times with Countrywide management, getting nowhere. “They didn’t want to admit they were doing anything wrong.”

    Elected officials appeared equally blind to the extent of the problem. Countrywide’s stock had plummeted, but the influence of the nation’s largest mortgage lender still ran deep. Mozilo’s so-called Friends of Angelo program had cut favorable deals on loans to his highly placed acquaintances, including Christopher Dodd and Kent Conrad, chairs of the Senate banking and budget committees, respectively. And Countrywide, along with other top mortgage lenders and industry associations, spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and gave millions more in campaign contributions. By mid-October 2007, the government’s only response to the foreclosure crisis had been the creation of the Hope Now alliance, a voluntary mortgage-industry coalition that established a telephone hot line to aid homeowners in altering the terms of their mortgages. But, critics say, the program has done little more than design repayment plans that in many cases actually increased borrowers’ monthly payments. “I call it Hope Not,” quips Bautista.

    At the state level, things weren’t much better. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brokered a nonbinding agreement in which Countrywide and other lenders volunteered to extend the introductory low interest rates on some adjustable-rate mortgages. It only deferred disaster and did nothing for those who were already in default. Meanwhile, new foreclosure records were being broken every month.

    The day before Thanksgiving, the Mabuhay Alliance, joined by the Mexican-American Political Alliance, staged a protest in front of Countrywide’s San Diego office. They attempted to hand-deliver a turkey to Mozilo, who, not counting stock options, would be paid $22 million in 2007, down from $42 million in 2006. Once again, the doors were locked. Only about fifty people showed up that day, but the protest got enough press to have a powerful symbolic effect. “No one was willing to take on Mozilo in California,” says Greenlining’s Robert Gnaizda. “He held enormous power. And [Bautista] took him on. She forced the financial industry to pay attention.”

    The next week, Bautista and Gnaizda went to Washington and met with Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and FDIC chair Sheila Bair, asking for a freeze on foreclosures and wholesale relief for mortgage holders. Bair was receptive, Bautista says. Bernanke was not. Eight months later, when the FDIC took over IndyMac, Bair immediately suspended foreclosures. “Now they’re willing to do it,” Bautista shrugs. If they’d acted earlier, she says, “all those people who were foreclosed wouldn’t have been foreclosed.”

    In December, a few weeks after the Countrywide protest, she and Gnaizda wangled a meeting with California Attorney General Jerry Brown, asking him to sue Countrywide for defrauding borrowers. He wasn’t interested, Bautista says. The following June, a few days before Bank of America bought out the crippled lender, Brown finally filed suit against Mozilo and Countrywide. Gnaizda explains the delay: “Countrywide was not weak in December.”

    In the meantime, all the major loan providers in the country have agreed to work with Mabuhay to modify individual loans. This means, Bautista says, that Mabuhay can help about twenty people a week. She is far from satisfied. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars given to the financial industry, no federal or state government has provided any substantive relief to the people hit the hardest by the mortgage crisis — the ones who are losing their homes. “You gotta start from the bottom and go up,” Bautista says. “If you start at the top, then at the bottom you get crumbs. You get nothing.”

    In December Mabuhay sponsored a “foreclosure clinic” at a community college in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Vallejo, which despite its small size — its population is about 112,000 — boasted the tenth-highest foreclosure rate in the country at the time. About 150 anxious homeowners showed up, clutching thick folders of financial documents, waiting to speak with mortgage counselors. Their stories were painfully similar: one couple was struggling to pay an interest rate of 16 percent; another was unable to make $4,300 monthly payments and owed $630,000 on a home worth $370,000; another, in their mid-60s, had resigned themselves to losing the home in which they’d lived for twenty-three years and spending their retirement in a motor home.

    Standing beside Bautista at the front of the auditorium, Gnaizda did his best to channel the crowd’s frustration into action. “Ten million families are facing foreclosure right now,” he said. “Change is not going to come about because President Obama wants it to. He is not going to act unless you hold his feet to the fire.”

    Gnaizda was not alone in that conclusion: other grassroots efforts to stop foreclosures have been sprouting up all over California. In metropolitan Los Angeles and Oakland, groups like ACORN had already established an effective infrastructure to organize low-income homeowners. A list of community demands that came out of a December 2007 ACORN-sponsored meeting at an Oakland senior center became the basis for a July state law requiring banks to warn homeowners thirty days before filing a notice of default. The law is credited with dramatically lowering foreclosure rates in California for two months after it took effect. (Predictably, foreclosure rates resumed their northward climb after that.)

    More recently, ACORN has been pushing the adoption of the program the group helped pioneer in Philadelphia, a mandatory mediation process that forces lenders to negotiate with homeowners before filing a judgment of default. “If they can’t figure this out in Sacramento,” says ACORN’s Austin King, “they’re not trying.”

    Much of the local organizing on the issue, though, has not come from the usual activist suspects. Circumstances have forced groups that usually practice more staid forms of engagement into the fray, particularly in the former industrial towns just beyond the urban fringe, which have been among those hit hardest by the economic collapse. The antiforeclosure movement in Antioch, about thirty-five miles east of Vallejo, began with ten people forming an organizing committee at a local Catholic church. “We just heard dozens and dozens of stories of people struggling to keep their homes, of people losing their homes. They couldn’t get any of the banks to respond or even speak to them,” says Adam Kruggel, executive director of Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO). Two hundred and fifty people showed up at the group’s first meeting on the issue. “We sort of deputized ourselves,” Kruggel says. “The government wasn’t regulating the banks, so we were going to embarrass them in public.”

    The strategy worked. CCISCO protested in front of several Antioch bank branches in May. Lenders soon began returning the group’s phone calls and agreeing to renegotiate their members’ loans. But the Bush administration’s bailout plan generated enough anger that, Kruggel says, “we realized we needed to work on a local and national level. For less than what [the Treasury] gave Wells Fargo, they could create a loan-modification program that could save a million and a half families their homes.” CCISCO began coordinating with similar efforts one county over in Stockton and halfway across the country in Kansas City, and the group sent a lobbying delegation to Washington. It’s asking for a six-month freeze on foreclosures and a cap on mortgage payments at 34 percent of family income. “Any bank that got any bailout money needs to do systematic loan modifications,” Kruggel says. “We’re not going to wait for the Obama administration.”

    Craig Robbins, who directs ACORN’s foreclosure campaign, echoes Kruggel’s sentiment: “We’re excited about some of the things Obama has been saying, but there’s got to be tremendous pressure for a real, comprehensive federal solution.” Taking cues from Depression-era antiforeclosure movements, ACORN activists began disrupting foreclosure sales at courthouses across the country in Januaary. “We’re looking to throw a wrench in the foreclosure machinery,” says Robbins, adding that ACORN is planning to organize “rapid defense teams” ready to turn out crowds on short notice to prevent evictions. Until that happens, it might help to remember that the crowd of thousands that came to the Sparanga family’s defense in Cleveland didn’t gather until four years into the Depression. This one has just begun.

    ———

    Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles, is the author of The Suitors.

Question for Economic Experts: Can You Say “Housing Bubble”? December 8, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
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(Photo: The Financial Help Center)

by: Dean Baker, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

  The answer for many economists is apparently “no.” Many of the most important figures in economic policy over the last decade, including luminaries like Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson, could not see the $8 trillion housing bubble growing right in front of their eyes. As the bubble grew larger, and the financial system became ever more highly leveraged, these folks saw nothing but blue skies ahead.

    Not only did these folks miss the bubble, even now, they still can’t seem to understand the housing bubble as its collapse throws the economy into the worst downturn since the Great Depression. That is the only possible explanation for Henry Paulson’s 4.5 percent mortgage rate policy.

    The bubble has largely deflated in many parts of the country, however, prices in many of the former bubble markets still must decline another 20 percent to 30 percent to return to trend levels. It does not make sense to apply the same policy to both bubble and non-bubble markets.

    In non-bubble markets, it might be appropriate to use aggressive measures, like extraordinarily low mortgage rates, as a tool to stabilize house prices. We want to avoid the scenario in which falling house prices create an expectation of further declines in house prices. This expectation can become self-fulfilling, as potential buyers defer purchases, causing house prices to fall further.

    By contrast, in the bubble markets, supply hugely exceeds demand at current prices. The only way to restore stability to these markets is to have prices return to levels that are consistent with the underlying supply and demand conditions. The effort to sustain prices at their current bubble-inflated level will be no more successful than an effort in 2000 to keep the NASDAQ at its 5,000 peak.

    Even worse, to the extent that we can artificially prop up house prices in these bubble markets, we would just be passing along the pain to a new contingent of homebuyers. We are not going to have 4.5 percent mortgage interest rates forever. Suppose the economy recovers in a few years and mortgage rates rise back to a more normal 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent level.

    Whatever effect low mortgage rates had in sustaining house prices will be reversed. House prices will complete their correction and today’s homebuyers may well be seeing losses of 15 percent to 20 percent when they sell their homes in five years. For a house selling at $250,000, this price decline translates into a loss of $38,000 to $50,000.

    Losing $38,000 to $50,000 would destroy the bulk of most homeowners’ wealth. That does not seem like very good policy.

    Unfortunately, most of the promoters of the housing bubble still have not owned up to the harm caused by their policy. Millions of people are facing the prospect of losing their home, and tens of millions of people are losing their life’s savings, because the people who are supposed to know better didn’t. They encouraged people to buy homes and/or borrow against them in what was quite obviously a bubble-inflated market.

    Before Paulson is allowed to carry through with his scheme to use public money in an attempt to reinflate the housing bubble, he should be forced to publicly explain how he thinks this policy will work. There are clearly people who will be badly harmed by temporarily reinflating the bubble. Unless Paulson can explain how the benefits will outweigh this harm, he should not be allowed to pursue his blanket policy of providing 4.5 percent mortgages everywhere.

    As it is, Paulson and other people in policy positions have not even acknowledged that we have a housing bubble that is in the process of deflating. Paulson could not possibly be so incompetent that he still doesn’t see the housing bubble, but for some reason he can’t bring himself to talk about it.

    If Paulson cannot bring himself to talk about the housing bubble in a serious way, then he does not deserve to be taken seriously in discussions of economic policy. The same is true of any other person in either the Bush or Obama administration. In this period of crisis, we can’t afford to waste any more time with policymakers so clueless that they can’t see an $8 trillion housing bubble.