Tag Archives: Bear Stearns

FBI Hits Mortgage Fraud with “Operation Malicious Mortgage” — 400+ Indictments and the Arrests of Two Bear Stearns Execs

The FBI announced today that the Justice Department’s crackdown on mortgage fraud has resulted in more than 400 indictments since March — including dozens over the last two days.

Those arrested run the gamut of players in the mortgage industry, including lenders, real estate developers, brokers, agents, lawyers, appraisers, and so-called straw buyers.

The Department of Justice’s name for the crackdown is “Operation Malicious Mortgage,” which it describes as “a massive multiagency takedown of mortgage fraud schemes.”

According to the FBI, the on-going “Operation Malicious Mortgage” focuses primarily on three types of mortgage fraud — lending fraud, foreclosure rescue schemes, and mortgage-related bankruptcy schemes.

“To persons who are involved in such schemes, we will find you, you will be investigated, and you will be prosecuted,” said Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller. “To those who would contemplate misleading, engaging in such schemes, you will spend time in jail.”

In its statement, the FBI said that “Among the 400-plus subjects of Operation Malicious Mortgage, there have been 173 convictions and 81 sentencings so far for crimes that have accounted for more than $1 billion in estimated losses. Forty-six of our 56 field offices around the country took part in the operation, which has secured more than $60 million in assets.”

While most of those indicted so far are relatively small players in the industry-wide fraud crisis, Mueller today repeated his earlier promise that federal authorities are not ignoring the major players in the mortgage industry, but are investigating some “relatively large corporations” as part of its sweeping mortgage-fraud probe, including some 19 large companies, including mortgage lenders, investment banks, hedge funds, credit-rating agencies and accounting firms.

Most of these corporate fraud investigations, said Mueller, deal with accounting fraud, insider trading, and the intentional failure to disclose the proper valuations of securitized loans and derivatives.

The FBI’s announcement of Operation Malicious Mortgage coincided with the indictment and arrest in New York on Thursday of two former Bear Stearns managers, Ralph R. Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, who are charged with nine counts of securities, mail and wire fraud resulting in $1.4 billion in losses on mortgage-related assets.

According to the New York Times,  Cioffi and Tannin “are the first senior executives from Wall Street investment banks to face criminal charges, and the investigation by federal prosecutors based in Brooklyn is likely to become a test case of the government’s ability to make successful prosecutions of arcane financial transactions.”

“This is not about mismanagement of a hedge fund investment strategy,” said Mark J. Mershon, the head of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “It’s about premeditated lies to investors and lenders. Its about the defendants prostituting their client’s trust in order to salvage their personal wealth.”

 

Who is Still Against Federal Foreclosure Legislation?

As the Congress comes closer to passing legislation to help homeowners facing foreclosure, it is worth taking a look at the opposition to federal foreclosure aid.

Of course, there are those who strictly oppose nearly all forms of government intervention in the economy.  Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul and his free market libertarian supporters would be among this group.

Then are those who are opposed to market interventions in general, but will support some government interventions when the stability of the market is at stake.  Most Republicans fit into this group — including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

That’s why it was significant that it was Bernanke who last week made the most convincing argument from a free market perspective for federal aid to homeowners facing foreclosure.

As we noted in an earlier post, Bernanke told an audience at the Columbia Business School that the foreclosure crisis posed the clear and present danger of wreaking economic havoc far beyond the housing market. “High rates of delinquency and foreclosure,” Bernanke said, “can have substantial spillover effects on the housing market, the financial markets, and the broader economy.”

What is at stake, according to Bernanke, is not merely the homes and financial well-being of hundreds of thousands of borrowers, but “the stability of the financial system.”  In this extreme circumstance, even staunch free market advocates, such as Bernanke himself, recognize the need for the government to intervene in the market.

We think, then, that the overwhelming vote in the House of Representives in favor of government intervention to stop the rising tide of foreclosures — legislation that now has the support of many free market Republicans — was rooted at least as much in the economic reality of averting catastrophe as the political expediency of government largess in an election year.

Who then is still opposed to foreclosure aid?

The answer is the apartment owners.

Behind any legislative process is a power struggle of conflicting interests, and very often these interests are economic.  In the case of foreclosure aid, there this now a growing consensus that the foreclosure crisis threatens not merely the borrowers and the lenders, but the economy as a whole and hence the economic interests of almost every sector of the economy.

Except apartment owners.

The National Multi-Housing Council (NMHC) and the National Apartment Association (NAA) have consistently argued that the blame for the foreclosure crisis is what they have called the “misguided” national policy of “home ownership at any cost” and that “People were enticed into houses they could not afford and the rarely spoken truth that there is such a thing as too much homeownership was forgotten.”

The fact is that in sharp contrast to other sectors of the real estate market, the apartment industry has not suffered as a result of the current housing crisis.  Rather, as we’ve noted before, the real estate crisis is forcing the lower end of the single-family housing market back into multi-family rental apartments.  People have to live somewhere — if they can’t afford to live in a house that they own, they will be forced to live in a house that someone else owns, such as multi-family apartment units. As homeowners suffer, apartment owners benefit.

The apartment industry has some very powerful supporters in Congress, including Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.   Senator Shelby,  who has opposed federal intervention to stop foreclosures, has made millions as a landlord and is the owner of a 124-unit apartment complex in Tuscaloosa called the Yorktown Commons. 

“I want the market to work if it can, and most of the time it will, but not without some pain,”  Senator Shelby has said.

This time, the pain appears to be too great, too wide-spread, and too dangerous, for most other members of Congress, as well as most important players in the economy, to allow it to continue unabated.

Indeed, Shelby has already signaled that he would support a version of the legislation — and that the White House would sign the bill into law.

“I think if we reach a compromise,” Shelby said, “it would be acceptable to the White House because, as a Republican and former chairman of the committee, I’m going to do everything I can, work with the administration, to make sure that the program works for those it’s intended to do and make sure we can afford it as a nation.”

In this crisis, even Senator Shelby has other, larger, and more important economic interests at stake than helping the apartment industry.

 

 

Fed Chair Bernanke Warns Foreclosures Could Sink US Economy — Is He Threatening Lenders?

In a speech today at the Columbia Business School, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke issued his strongest warning to date about the danger of the rising tide of home foreclosures sinking the US economy.

“High rates of delinquency and foreclosure,” Bernanke said, “can have substantial spillover effects on the housing market, the financial markets, and the broader economy.”

Bernanke began by detailing some of the nasty numbers of the foreclosure crisis:

  • About one quarter of subprime adjustable-rate mortgages are currently 90 days or more delinquent or in foreclosure.
  • Foreclosure proceedings were initiated on some 1.5 million U.S. homes during 2007, up 53 percent from 2006.
  • The rate of foreclosure starts is likely to be even higher in 2008.
  • Delinquency rates have increased in the prime and near-prime segments of the mortgage market.

He then warned that the catastrophic effects of these millions of foreclosure proceedings will extend far beyond the parties to the mortgage:

“It is important to recognize,” Bernanke said, “that the costs of foreclosure may extend well beyond those borne directly by the borrower and the lender.  Clusters of foreclosures can destabilize communities, reduce the property values of nearby homes, and lower municipal tax revenues.  At both the local and national levels, foreclosures add to the stock of homes for sale, increasing downward pressure on home prices in general.” 

“In the current environment, more-rapid declines in house prices may have an adverse impact on the broader economy and, through their effects on the valuation of mortgage-related assets, on the stability of the financial system.”

The real threat that the foreclosure crisis posed to the overall economy, Bernanke said, was “the declines in home values, which reduce homeowners’ equity and may consequently affect their ability or incentive to make the financial sacrifices necessary to stay in their homes.”

The responses to the foreclosure crisis specifically endorsed by Bernanke were nothing new —  working with community groups trying to acquire and restore vacant properties; encouraging lenders and mortgage servicers to work with at-risk borrowers; developing new lending standards to prevent abusive lending practices; working with the Bush administration’s Hope Now Alliance; expanding the use of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to address problems in mortgage markets.

But we think that the tone and perspective of his speech signaled that he was far more ready than the current administration to endorse a wide-ranging federal program to aid homeowners who are in default.

Bernanke came close to saying as much:  “Realistic public and private-sector policies must take into account the fact that traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies may not always work well in the current environment.”

We think by “traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies” Bernanke meant voluntary procedures undertaken by the financial market itself; the “non-traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies” that Bernanke suggested might be necessary would then be mandatory procedures imposed on the market.

We therefore think that Bernanke’s speech contained a threat to the very financial institutions that the Fed has been so generous toward for the past six months.

So far, lenders have been asked to voluntarily help stem the foreclosure crisis by working with homeowners.  Now it appears that Bernanke may be close to supporting mandatory restraints on foreclosures.

We think Bernanke may have been saying this to the lenders and the leaders of the financial market: “We’ve made billions of cheap dollars available to you, so that you could stay afloat and so that you could make this money available for new borrowing and refinancing to prevent foreclosures.  You have not kept your end of the bargain.  If you don’t move much further along this path soon,  it is in the interest of the US economy overall to force you to do so.”

The lenders and financial institutions haven’t listened to threats from Congressional Democrats like Barney Frank or taken the voluntary actions requested by the Bush administration.

Maybe they’ll listen to today’s warning by Ben Bernanke.

We think they’d better.

 

 

FBI Expands and Intensifies Criminal Investigation of Mortgage Industry

The New York Times reported today that the federal taskforce established in January to investigate the mortgage industry is intensifying its efforts. 

The initial purpose of the taskforce, comprised of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service, as well as federal prosecutors in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and Atlanta, was to examine mortgages that were made with little or no documentation of the earnings or assets of the borrowers. 

The investigation is now also focusing on how these loans were bundled into securities.

The taskforce began with an investigation of 14 unnamed mortgage companies; in March, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that the FBI’s probe into potential mortgage fraud had grown to include investigations into 19 separate mortgage companies and involved an estimated 1,300 home mortgage fraud cases.

It is now believed that the investigation has expanded even further.

According to an unnamed official, the expansion of the probe was triggered by the financial industry’s disclosure last week of additional billions of dollars in write-downs from bad mortgage investments.

“This is a look at the mortgage industry across the board,” the official said, “and it has gotten a lot more momentum in recent weeks because of the banks’ earnings shortfalls.”

 

 

 

The Fed Nears the End of the Rate-Cutting Line — Now its the Banks’ Move

After the Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates on Wednesday for the seventh time since September 2007 — lowering the federal funds rate to 2 percent, from 2.25 percent, the lowest level since November 2004 — most analysts observed that the Fed’s move showed that it was more concerned with preventing recession than halting inflation.

We’re not so sure that it is a question of recession verses inflation that’s driving the Fed.

We think that the Fed’s real concern right now is neither inflation nor recession, at least not directly, but the lack of liquidity in the financial markets and the lack of funds that financial institutions are making available to borrowers.

So far, the Fed has pumped more than $400 billion into major U.S. financial institutions in the hope that these institutions would make this money available to borrowers. 

And, so far, they haven’t done so, and liquidity conditions in the credit markets have continued to deteriorate. 

Despite the Fed’s inceasing generosity for the past six months, it has been harder, not easier, for businesses (and individuals) to borrow money.

The Fed is nearing the end of its rate-cutting line.  If the financial spigot does not loosen for borrowers based on the latest cuts, there may be no more that the Fed can do, especially since, with rising fuel and food prices, fears of inflation are already starting to overtake fears of recession, in America’s living rooms as well as its Board rooms.

Two members of the Fed’s Open Market Commitee  — Richard W. Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, and Charles I. Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed — which is charged under federal law with overseeing national monetary policy — voted against lowering the rates this time.  And the criticism of the Fed’s policy of lowering interest rates and providing cheap money for the banks is getting broader, louder and more influential.

The banks and major lending institutions have been waiting for the Fed to cut interest rates as far as it possibly would before they start lending.

That moment has probably arrived.

Now it’s the financial market’s turn to make a move.

 

 

FBI Expands Probe of Mortgage Fraud — Now Involving 19 Mortgage Companies and 1,300 Cases. Reverse Mortgages Also Under Scrutiny.

The FBI is expanding its wide-ranging probe of the mortgage industry.

At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency is currently investigating an estimated 1,300 home mortgage fraud cases, and that the FBI’s probe into potential mortgage fraud now includes investigations into 19 separate mortgage companies.

The FBI, he said, has already “identified 19 corporate fraud matters related to the sub-prime lending crisis … targeting accounting fraud, insider trading, and deceptive sales practices.” 

Mueller also said that the FBI expected to expand its investigation even further. 

There was, he said, “no end in sight” to the growing number of fraud cases. 

“We’ve had a tremendous surge in cases related to the sub-prime mortgage debacle,” Mueller told a Senate Appropriations panel. “We expect them to grow even further.”

“I’m not sure at this point we can see the extent of the surge,” he added.

Mueller declined to go into the specifics of the investigation, but in previous announcements the FBI said it was looking into possible accounting fraud, insider trading or other violations in connection with loans made to borrowers with weak, or subprime, credit.

Mueller said he believes part of the problem is “rampant conflicts of interest in the corporate suites.” He said that FBI investigations “further emphasize the need for independent board members, auditors, and outside counsel. Shareholders rely on the board of directors to serve as the corporate watchdog. … [But] board members are often beholden to the executives they are expected to oversee.”

With one exception, the agency declined to identify the companies under investigation but has said that the inquiry, which began last spring, involves companies across the financial industry, including mortgage lenders, loan brokers and Wall Street banks that packaged home loans into securities.

The FBI has also said that the “hotspots” for its mortgage fraud investigations include California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Utah.

The one company that Mueller did acknowlege as being involved in the probe, Doral Financial Corp., had its former treasurer indicted last month for investment fraud. 

The FBI has also acknowledged in the past that the largest U.S. mortgage lender, Countrywide, is under investigation for misrepresenting its financial position and the quality of its mortgage loans.

It is also known that several major investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Bear Stearns, have been asked to provide information to the government, and Beazer Homes has said that it had received a federal grand jury subpoena related to its mortgage business.

In addition to announcing an expansion of the number of cases and companies being investigated, Mueller also indicated a new direction for the FBI’s inquiry: reverse mortgages. 

Reverse mortgages release the equity in a property to the homeowner in one lump sum or multiple payments. The homeowner’s obligation to repay the loan is deferred until the owner dies, the home is sold, or the owner leaves the home.  In the U.S., reverse mortgages are available for people 62 years old or older.

Reverse mortgages are typically used to finance retirement or pay unexpected medical bills.  While reverse mortgages can make sense for seniors, the FBI is concerned about possible abusive sales practices that prey on seniors, such as aggressive and untruthful marketing and excessive fees.

Mueller said that the increasing number of mortgage cases has forced the FBI to shift agents from other areas, such as health care fraud and other financial crimes, to focus on mortgage lending practices.

The FBI has also previously indicated that it is cooperating with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is conducting more than three dozen civil investigations into how subprime loans were made and packaged, and how securities backed by them were valued. 

UPDATE:

For the latest news of the FBI’s expanding probe of the mortgage industry, click here.

 

New Regulation of Credit Industry is Now Inevitable. The Only Question is How Much Regulation, and with How Much Bite?

There can no longer be any question whether there will be new regulation of the credit industry in the wake of the housing meltdown and the mortgage crisis.

The only question now is the extent of the regulation and how much teeth it will have.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson eliminated any doubt regarding new regulation when he conceded that the Federal Reserve should bolster its supervision of investment banks while they are taking cheap money from the Fed’s new emergency program.

Paulson said that the Bush administration will soon put forth a blueprint for federal oversight in an effort to promote smoother functioning of financial markets.

”This latest episode has highlighted that the world has changed as has the role of other nonbank financial institutions and the interconnectedness among all financial institutions,” Paulson said.  ”These changes require us all to think more broadly about the regulatory and supervisory framework that is consistent with the promotion and maintenance of financial stability.” 

Greater oversight is necessary, according to Paulson, to “enable the Federal Reserve to protect its balance sheet, and ultimately protect U.S. taxpayers.”

Wall Street’s major investment banking firms, including Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley, averaged $32.9 billion in daily borrowing over the past week from the new Fed program, compared with $13.4 billion the previous week. On Wednesday alone, their borrowing from the Fed reached $37 billion.

To add to the growing conservative consensus that greater federal regulation of the credit market is necessary, Wall Street Journal columnist Jon Hilsenrath wrote on the front page of the newspaper’s Money and Investing section that “if the government is going to intervene aggressively when bubbles burst, as it’s doing now, then maybe policy makers should do some new thinking about how to prevent bubbles in the first place.”

Democrats, both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, have called for more extensive and permanent regulation of both the credit market and the mortgage industry than that proposed by the Bush administration.

The final outcome will depend on who wins in November and what happens in the economy between now and the next Inauguration Day. 

But it is now clear that one consequence of the Bear Stearns bailout and the Fed’s cheap money policy for the major investment banks is to have made some form of new regulation of the credit market and the mortgage industry inevitable.

In the meantime, we’re still waiting for the enormous sums of cheap money that the Fed has pumped into the credit industry to make its way down the pipeline to the rest of us in the economy.