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The Stone That Brings Down Goliath? Richmond and Eminent Domain

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Posted on Mar 3, 2014

Photo by Averain (CC BY 2.0)

By Ellen Brown, Web of Debt

This piece first appeared at Web of Debt.

In a nearly $13 billion settlement with the US Justice Department in November 2013, JPMorganChase admitted that it, along with every other large US bank, had engaged in mortgage fraud as a routine business practice, sowing the seeds of the mortgage meltdown. JPMorgan and other megabanks have now been caught in over a dozen major frauds, including LIBOR-rigging and bid-rigging; yet no prominent banker has gone to jail. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of all mortgages nationally remain underwater (meaning the balance owed exceeds the current value of the home), sapping homeowners’ budgets, the housing market and the economy. Since the banks, the courts and the federal government have failed to give adequate relief to homeowners, some cities are taking matters into their own hands.

Gayle McLaughlin, the bold mayor of Richmond, California, has gone where no woman dared go before, threatening to take underwater mortgages by eminent domain from Wall Street banks and renegotiate them on behalf of beleaguered homeowners. A member of the Green Party, which takes no corporate campaign money, she proved her mettle standing up to Chevron, which dominates the Richmond landscape. But the banks have signaled that if Richmond or another city tries the eminent domain gambit, they will rush to court seeking an injunction. Their grounds: an unconstitutional taking of private property and breach of contract.

How to refute those charges? There is a way; but to understand it, you first need to grasp the massive fraud perpetrated on homeowners. It is how you were duped into paying more than your house was worth; why you should not just turn in your keys or short-sell your underwater property away; why you should urge Congress not to legalize the MERS scheme; and why you should insist that your local government help you acquire title to your home at a fair price if the banks won’t. That is exactly what Richmond and other city councils are attempting to do through the tool of eminent domain.

The Securitization Fraud That Collapsed the Housing Market

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One settlement after another has now been reached with investors and government agencies for the sale of “faulty mortgage bonds,” including a suit brought by Fannie and Freddie that settled in October 2013 for $5.1 billion. “Faulty” is a euphemism for “fraudulent.” It means that mortgages subject to securitization have “clouded” or “defective” titles. And that means the banks and real estate trusts claiming title as owners or nominees don’t actually have title – or have standing to enjoin the city from proceeding with eminent domain. They can’t claim an unconstitutional taking of property because they can’t prove they own the property, and they can’t claim breach of contract because they weren’t the real parties in interest to the mortgages (the parties putting up the money).

“Securitization” involves bundling mortgages into a pool, selling them to a non-bank vehicle called a “real estate trust,” and then selling “securities” (bonds) to investors (called “mortgage-backed securities” or “collateralized debt obligations”). By 2007, 75% of all mortgage originations were securitized. According to investment banker and financial analyst Christopher Whalen, the purpose of securitization was to allow banks to avoid capitalization requirements, enabling them to borrow at unregulated levels.

Since the real estate trusts were “off-balance sheet,” they did not count in the banks’ capital requirements. But under applicable accounting rules, that was true only if they were “true sales.” According to Whalen, “most of the securitizations done by banks over the past two decades were in fact secured borrowings, not true sales, and thus potential frauds on insured depositories.” He concludes, “bank abuses of non-bank vehicles to pretend to sell assets and thereby lower required capital levels was a major cause of the subprime financial crisis.” 

In 1997, the FDIC gave the banks a pass on these disguised borrowings by granting them “safe harbor” status. This proved to be a colossal mistake, which led to the implosion of the housing market and the economy at large. Safe harbor status was finally withdrawn in 2011; but in the meantime, “financings” were disguised as “true sales,” permitting banks to grossly over-borrow and over-leverage. Over-leveraging allowed credit to be pumped up to bubble levels, driving up home prices. When the bubble collapsed, homeowners had to pick up the tab by paying on mortgages that far exceeded the market value of their homes. According to Whalen:

[T]he largest commercial banks became “too big to fail” in large part because they used non-bank vehicles to increase leverage without disclosure or capital backing. . . .

The failure of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and most notably Citigroup all were largely attributable to deliberate acts of securities fraud whereby assets were “sold” to investors via non-bank financial vehicles.  These transactions were styled as “sales” in an effort to meet applicable accounting rules, but were in fact bank frauds that must, by GAAP and law applicable to non-banks since 1997, be reported as secured borrowings.  Under legal tests stretching from 16th Century UK law to the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act of the 1980s, virtually none of the mortgage backed securities deals of the 2000s met the test of a true sale. 

. . . When the crisis hit, it suddenly became clear that the banks’ capital was insufficient.

Today . . . hundreds of billions in claims against banks arising from these purported “sales” of assets remain pending before the courts.


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