by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire blogger
While the economy sinks into the abyss, some of the financial industry’s most egregious scam artists are already back on the prowl looking to take advantage of troubled borrowers.
In a sickening turn of events, financial professionals who profited from the predatory Wall Street mortgage regime are now remodeling themselves as specialists to help consumers avoid foreclosure. The Nation Institute helped fund a devastating expose written by Alyssa Katz on the mortgage broker makeover published in Salon.com. Katz details how an industry that once pushed people into unaffordable loans with deceptive marketing and misleading documentation is now raking it in by helping people who are behind on their mortgages obtain modified loan contracts.
"The problem is that the majority of loan mods are lousy deals for homeowners," Katz writes. "Federal banking regulators recently determined that more than half of all mortgages that were modified by lenders in early 2008 ended up heading into foreclosure again in less than six months. Most loan modifications, in fact, dig borrowers deeper into debt."
These predators cash in on setting borrowers up for a fall, and instead of being barred from the banking world or prosecuted, end up raking in again to help them renegotiate their mortgages. Loan modifications almost never reduce how much borrowers actually owe on their mortgages. Often, whatever amount a borrower is behind by is added to the overall debt burden, giving banks a bigger pool to collect interest on. Nearly half of all loans modified in the fall of 2008 did not even result in a lower monthly payment for borrowers.
Over at Colorlines, Dom Apollon highlights the rise of a new mortgage company called PennyMac run by former Countrywide executives—the same Countrywide that is being sued by local governments for destroying communities with abusive subprime loans. PennyMac plans to buy delinquent mortgages on the cheap, alter the terms of the loans to keep borrowers in their homes, and pocket the difference between the new mortgage payments and what it paid for the loans as profit. If you think that is going to end well for the homeowners, then I’ve got a few condos in south Florida to sell you.
People who cause massive problems are not usually the best people to solve them. That’s why when the U.S. government agreed to bail out the world’s largest insurance company, AIG, policymakers kicked out CEO Martin Sullivan. But even after being nationalized, AIG has continued to drain taxpayer coffers, coming back to the bailout trough twice for a total of over $160 billion. To put that number in context, it’s about what the entire savings and loan crisis cost taxpayers back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Josh Marshall has a series of excellent posts on the AIG drama for Talking Points Memo. When the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department refused to let AIG fail back in September, it was supposedly because letting AIG default on its enormous credit default swap business would be a disaster for the financial system. Credit default swaps were originally designed as insurance for loans. If a Goldman Sachs made a loan to Bank of America, Goldman could get AIG to insure the loan against default. Goldman would pay AIG a few dollars a month in insurance premiums, but if Bank of America failed to pay up, AIG would reimburse Goldman for the entire value of the loan. Eventually, however, the process got crazy. Companies started taking out "insurance" on transactions they had no involvement with. JPMorgan could go to AIG and agree to pay a few dollars a month in case Bank of America defaulted on its loan from Goldman Sachs– essentially betting with AIG on whether Bank of America would pay Goldman back. The same contracts could be used to insure mortgage-backed securities against default. Wall Street eventually put more money in credit default swaps than an entire year’s worth of global economic output.
By keeping AIG running on taxpayer support, Marshall notes, the government is essentially using the company as a conduit to funnel tax dollars to other major financial firms who made credit default swap bets with AIG. Who is getting the AIG bailout money? Neither the Treasury or the Fed will say, and Marshall points out, the government refuses to even explain why it will not tell us who is getting money. Maybe the government is worried that investors will pull their funds out of companies who are scoring big paydays from the AIG bailout, deeming them nonviable without government support.
That may very well happen. But indefinitely pouring federal money into Wall Street companies through AIG is not a solution, and taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent.
But at least one system for fleecing taxpayers seems to be on its last legs if President Barack Obama has his way. About four-fifths of student loans are made by private lenders who are subsidized by the government, while the remaining 20% are made directly to students by the Department of Education. The problem with the private-sector partnership plan is its inefficiency: a lot of that subsidy money goes to paying student loan company executives, while some of it simply ends up as profits for the bank. How much? According to Aaron Tang of Wiretap Magazine, Obama’s budget proposal would kill the subsidy program and instead invest that money in the direct loan program, freeing up $4 billion a year, enough to help millions of students pay for a college education.
The Obama administration’s willingness to end irrational financial policies should not end with the student loan program. Predatory lenders who created the mortgage meltdown should be barred from the banking industry, and the Treasury needs to be honest with taxpayers about who it is paying off.
One Last Note The unemployment numbers keep getting worse: after losing almost 600,000 jobs in January, the U.S. economy shed another 651,000 in February, sending the unemployment rate all the way to 8.1%. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the accelerating job losses may not be surprising at this point, but they are painful nevertheless. The only good news for the labor market over the last week was the roll-out of CanMyBossDoThat.com, a site dedicated to informing workers on their legal rights on everything from COBRA health insurance benefits to getting employers to actually deliver final paychecks workers have already earned. The site, which is funded and managed by Interfaith Worker Justice, comes at an important moment, according to Wendy Norris of The Colorado Independent, who highlights that the unemployment rate would be a massive 14.8% if it included people who have been looking for a job for more than a year and people who want full-time work but are can only get a part-time position.
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