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Invasion of the Home Snatchers

Page 5 of 8

Now all of this — the obviously cooked-up documents, the magically appearing stamp and the rest of it — may just seem like nothing more than sloppy paperwork. After all, what does it matter if the bank has lost a few forms or mixed up the dates? The homeowners still owe what they owe, and the deadbeats have no right to keep living in a house they haven't paid for.

But what's going on at the Jacksonville rocket docket, and in foreclosure courts all across the country, has nothing to do with sloppiness. All this phony paperwork was actually an essential part of the mortgage bubble, an integral element of what has enabled the nation's biggest lenders to pass off all that subprime lead as AAA gold.

In the old days, when you took out a mortgage, it was probably through a local bank or a credit union, and whoever gave you your loan held on to it for life. If you lost your job or got too sick to work and suddenly had trouble making your payments, you could call a human being and work things out. It was in the banker's interest, as well as yours, to make a modified payment schedule. From his point of view, it was better that you pay something than nothing at all.

But that all changed about a decade ago, thanks to the invention of new financial instruments that magically turned all these mortgages into high-grade investments. Now when you took out a mortgage, your original lender — which might well have been a big mortgage mill like Countrywide or New Century — immediately sold off your loan to big banks like Deutsche and Goldman and JP Morgan. The banks then dumped hundreds or thousands of home loans at a time into tax-exempt real estate trusts, where the loans were diced up into securities, examined and graded by the ratings agencies, and sold off to big pension funds and other institutional suckers.

Even at this stage of the game, the banks generally knew that the loans they were buying and reselling to investors were shady. A company called Clayton Holdings, which analyzed nearly 1 million loans being prepared for sale in 2006 and 2007 by 23 banks, found that nearly half of the mortgages failed to meet the underwriting standards being promised to investors. Citi­group, for instance, had 29 percent of its loans come up short, but it still sold a third of those mortgages to investors. Goldman Sachs had 19 percent of its mortgages flunk the test, yet it knowingly hawked 34 percent of the risky deals to investors.

D. Keith Johnson, the head of Clayton Holdings, was so alarmed by the findings that he went to officials at three of the main ratings agencies — Moody's, Standard and Poor's, and Fitch's — and tried to get them to properly evaluate the loans. "Wouldn't this information be great for you to have as you assign risk levels?" he asked them. (Translation: Don't you ratings agencies want to know that half these loans are crap before you give them a thumbs-up?) But all three agencies rejected his advice, fearing they would lose business if they adopted tougher standards. In the end, the agencies gave large chunks of these mortgage-backed securities AAA ratings — which means "credit risk almost zero."

Since these mortgage-backed securities paid much higher returns than other AAA investments like treasury notes or corporate bonds, the banks had no trouble attracting investors, foreign and domestic, from pension funds to insurance companies to trade unions. The demand was so great, in fact, that they often sold mortgages they didn't even have yet, prompting big warehouse lenders like Countrywide and New Century to rush out into the world to find more warm bodies to lend to.

In their extreme haste to get thousands and thousands of mortgages they could resell to the banks, the lenders committed an astonishing variety of fraud, from falsifying income statements to making grossly inflated appraisals to misrepresenting properties to home buyers. Most crucially, they gave tons and tons of credit to people who probably didn't deserve it, and why not? These fly-by-night mortgage companies weren't going to hold on to these loans, not even for 10 minutes. They were issuing this credit specifically to sell the loans off to the big banks right away, in furtherance of the larger scheme to dump fraudulent AAA-rated mortgage-backed securities on investors. If you had a pulse, they had a house to sell you.

As bad as Countrywide and all those lenders were, the banks that had sent them out to collect these crap loans were a hundred times worse. To sell the loans, the banks often dumped them into big tax-exempt buckets called REMICs, or Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits. Each one of these Enron-ish, offshore-like real estate trusts spelled out exactly what kinds of loans were supposed to be in the pool, when they were to be collected, and how they were to be managed. In order to both preserve their tax-exempt status and deserve their AAA ratings, each of the loans in the pool had to have certain characteristics. The loans couldn't already be in default or foreclosure at the time they were sold to investors. If they were advertised as nice, safe, fixed-rate mortgages, they couldn't turn out to be high-interest junk loans. And, on the most basic level, the loans had to actually exist. In other words, if the trust stipulated that all the loans had to be collected by August 2005, the bank couldn't still be sticking in mortgages months later.

Yet that's exactly what the banks did. In one case handled by Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, a homeowner refinanced her house in 2005 but almost immediately got into trouble, going into default in December of that year. Yet somehow, this woman's loan was placed into a trust called Home Equity Loan Trust Series AE 2005-HE5 in January 2006 — five months after the deadline for that particular trust. The loan was not only late, it was already in foreclosure — which means that, by definition, whoever the investors were in AE 2005-HE5 were getting shafted.

Why does stuff like this matter? Because when the banks put these pools together, they were telling their investors that they were putting their money into tidy collections of real, performing home loans. But frequently, the loans in the trust were complete shit. Or sometimes, the banks didn't even have all the loans they said they had. But the banks sold the securities based on these pools of mortgages as AAA-rated gold anyway.

In short, all of this was a scam — and that's why so many of these mortgages lack a true paper trail. Had these transfers been done legally, the actual mortgage note and detailed information about all of these transactions would have been passed from entity to entity each time the mortgage was sold. But in actual practice, the banks were often committing securities fraud (because many of the mortgages did not match the information in the prospectuses given to investors) and tax fraud (because the way the mortgages were collected and serviced often violated the strict procedures governing such investments). Having unloaded this diseased cargo onto their unsuspecting customers, the banks had no incentive to waste money keeping "proper" documentation of all these dubious transactions.

"You've already committed fraud once," says April Charney, an attorney with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. "What do you have to lose?"

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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