By Yves Smith
It is high time to describe the Obama Administration by its proper name: corrupt. The latest example is its heavy-handed campaign to convert New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman to a card carrying member of the “be nice to our lords and masters the banksters” club.
[Image: Kathryn S. Wylde, New York Federal Reserve Board Member]
(Also see today’s TRNN interview of Yves Smith, “Should banks be a public utility?“)
Admittedly, corruption among our elites generally and in Washington in particular has become so widespread and blatant as to fall into the “dog bites man” category. But the nauseating gap between the Administration’s propaganda and the many and varied ways it sells out average Americans on behalf of its favored backers, in this case the too big to fail banks, has become so noisome that it has become impossible to ignore the fetid smell.
The Administration has now taken to pressuring parties that are not part of the machinery reporting to the President to fall in and do his bidding. We’ve gotten so used to the US attorney general being conveniently missing in action that we have forgotten that regulators and the AG are supposed to be independent. As one correspondent noted by e-mail, “When officials allegiances are to El Supremo rather than the Constitution, you walk the path to fascism.”
Revealingly, one of the Administration’s allies said: “Wall Street is our Main Street.” And the worst is that this remark may not be a cynical Ministry of Truth pronouncement. Team Obama bears all the hallmarks of being so close to banks and big corporations that it has lost all contact with and understanding of mainstream America.
The latest example is its heavy-handed campaign to convert New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman to a card carrying member of the “be nice to our lords and masters the banksters” club. Schneiderman was the first to take issue with the sham of the so-called 50 state attorney general mortgage settlement. As far as the Administration is concerned, its goal is to give banks a talking point and prove to them that Team Obama is protecting their backs in a way that the chump public hopefully won’t notice.
The Administration joined this effort to hurry it forward and assure it resulted in a suitably financier-friendly outcome. And it has done so despite recent HUD inspector general’s audit finding that the five biggest servicers were defrauding taxpayers. We’ve heard not a peep of follow up on that front; instead, the Administration keeps leaking its tired “A settlement is just around the corner” story.
Schneiderman is far from the only person to see what a sellout this “settlement” is. The basic premise of a settlement is to obtain some sort of restitution to induce a prosecutor/plaintiff to drop a current or likely lawsuit. For the aggrieved party to get a good settlement, it needs to have a credible case, as in facts (a smoking gun or two) and a legal theory as to why those facts mean the perp is in hot water.
Aside from robosigning, which was all over the funny papers last year, the Administration and the AGs have made sure they have no facts. A member of the Administration who was involved in the settlement talks confirmed what we have long said on this blog: there was no investigation of any kind, despite Iowa attorney general Tom MIller’s lies claims to the contrary. They didn’t even bother getting to first base, namely making document requests.
And that is why at least some of the AGs are so uncomfortable with what is going on. Even though Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times focuses tonight on the Administration’s efforts to leash and collar Schneiderman, he isn’t alone in having significant reservations. Beau Biden of Delaware is also making a broad-ranging investigation, which is inconsistent with entering into a settlement. Martha Coakley of Massachusetts and Catherine Masto of Nevada also have initiatives underway that are at odds with a settlement, and neither one looks interested in reversing course. We’ve also been told the Colorado AG may opt out of the deal.
And a story in the Wall Street Journal tonight suggests that this horse has already left the barn and is in the next county. Tellingly, Lisa Madigan, the Illinois AG, who is a political weathervane and was working closely with Tom Miller, has come forward and indicated she’ll at most support only a qualified release from liability, when the banks want a broad release. The article indicates that her view is shared by a fair number of the AGs. Per the Journal (hat tip reader Deontos):
“They wanted to be released from everything, including original sin,” said a U.S. official involved in the discussions. The legal protection sought by the banks included loan origination; securitization and servicing practices; fair-lending procedures; and their use of the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, an industry-owned loan registry that often acts as an agent for owners of mortgage loans…
“Those of us at the table…have maintained this investigation is about robo-signing and loss-mitigation problems,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in an interview. “The release should be narrowly drafted to cover those issues.”
If the AGs stick to this stance, there is no deal. The article maintains the AGs still want damages of $20 to $25 billion. The banks aren’t going to pay much if anything to settle on robosigning, and the AGs haven’t done the legwork to make a case on loss mitigation.
So the bullying of Schneiderman looks to be misguided, since the settlement is likely to fall apart. But it is nevertheless germane because it reveals the Administration’s warped thinking and sense of priorities. As we’ve said, the Administration’s decision to cast its lot with the banks in early 2009 dictated its course of action:
Obama’s incentives are to come up with “solutions” that paper over problems, avoid meaningful conflict with the industry, minimize complaints, and restore the old practice of using leverage and investment gains to cover up stagnation in worker incomes. Potemkin reforms dovetail with the financial service industry’s goal of forestalling any measures that would interfere with its looting. So the only problem with this picture was how to fool the now-impoverished public into thinking a program of Mussolini-style corporatism represented progress.
Morgenson shows how this plays out:
In recent weeks, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and high-level Justice Department officials have been waging an intensifying campaign to try to persuade the attorney general to support the settlement…
But Mr. Donovan and others in the administration have been contacting not only Mr. Schneiderman but his allies, including consumer groups and advocates for borrowers, seeking help to secure the attorney general’s participation in the deal, these people said. One recipient described the calls from Mr. Donovan, but asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
So get this: we have unemployment at roughly 16% if you include discouraged workers, and many “employed” workers are underemployed. The housing market hasn’t bottomed; experts have pushed their hopes estimates from 2011 to 2012. And continued concerns about unaddressed chain of title issues may well impede any housing recovery.
Yet rather than address real, serious problems, senior administration officials are instead devoting time and effort to orchestrating a faux grass roots campaign to con a state AG into thinking his supporters are deserting him because he has dared challenge the supremacy of the banks.
So how does the Administration rationalize its failure to do anything effective? It goes deeper into its propaganda hall of mirrors:
Mr. Donovan said…“our view is we have the immediate opportunity to help a huge number of borrowers to stay in their homes, to help their neighborhoods and the housing market.”
This doesn’t even qualify as competent three card monte. “No, don’t look at what we are trying to do for the banks. Really, all we care about is homeowners!”
Marcy Wheeler, who has more patience for this vomititious tripe than I do, explains why Donovan’s assertion does not pass the credibility test:
You see, the Administration has an “immediate opportunity to help a huge number of borrowers stay in their homes,” without any action from Eric Schneiderman. They have a way to do so more swiftly, in such a way the servicers actually would be held accountable It would involve offering refis with principal reductions to all the underwater homeowners whose loans are owned by Fannie and Freddie. That would not only help a huge number of borrowers stay in their home, but it would be massive stimulus.
But instead they’re sending Donovan to pressure Schneiderman to pursue a measure that would benefit far fewer homeowners and probably take more time, while putting the last nail in the coffin of the rule of law in this country.
Finally, to the toad-hopping-out-of-mouth utterance, “Wall Street is our Main Street.” That came from finance’s favorite camp follower, Kathryn S. Wylde. As we described in an earlier post, she’s wiling to throw the rule of law under the bus to serve the interests of the banks who happen to be major funders of the business-promoting not for profit she heads. And she is also a director of the New York Fed. So it should not be surprising that she got in a “contentious conversation” with Schneiderman when they crossed paths in public.
Her argument, as she recounted it to the Times, is intellectually and morally bankrupt:
[I]it is of concern to the industry that instead of trying to facilitate resolving these issues, you seem to be throwing a wrench into it. Wall Street is our Main Street — love ’em or hate ’em. They are important and we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them unless they are doing something indefensible.
In this state, banks count for a lot, and therefore your job it to make their problems go away. You don’t seem to understand that you are supposed to act like a proper bought and paid for public official. Your role is to support big companies. You are to go after them only when the things they do make the public so angry that you have to help us make a credible show that the elites care about the little people.
If you think that is an unfair rendition of Wylde’s remark, consider the damage the major banks have done.
They have failed so badly at being competent lenders and record keepers that when judges in New York demand that bank attorneys certify that they have taken reasonable steps to verify documents submitted to the courts, foreclosures grind to a near halt.
Two separate investigations, one by Fortune, the other by the New York Post, ascertained that an overwhelming majority of foreclosures took place when the banks failed to demonstrate that they had the right to do so.
Banks have foreclosed illegally on servicemen, and have also foreclosed on people who didn’t have mortgages. Their is ample evidence that they have systematically violated their own contracts, the agreements that govern mortgage securitizations, and have on a widespread basis charged impermissible fees to borrowers.
And when these junk and pyramiding fees precipitate foreclosures, the servicers have effectively ripped off investors too. They have tooth and nail fought every effort that would help borrowers if it in any way impinged on their profits, even though their very survival is the result of taxpayer munificence. Finally, they’ve made a mess of property records in this country.
But apparently none of this, in the eyes of Ms. Wylde, rises to the level of being worth remedying, much the less “indefensible”.
Given the ample of evidence of malfeasance, we must reach one of two conclusions. One is that she has no idea what is going on and therefore can be ignored as being not competent to opine. The other is that no amount of economic harm to individuals rates as being worth pursuing in her eyes. It appears that the only thing that might rise to the level of being “indefensible” is damage to life and limb, so all white collar crimes are exempt. This is a classic totalitarian, “might makes right,” argument.
And mind you, Wylde allegedly represents “the public” on the New York Fed’s board. With friends like this, who needs enemies?
Felix Salmon wrote today of a global crisis of institutional legitimacy, and although his tour started with Libya, it focused mainly on Europe and the US. If you want to know why the governed are withdrawing their consent in advanced economies, you need look no further than toadies like Donovan and Wylde who defend institutionalized profiteering and seek to undermine the few like Schneiderman who’ve managed, despite the odds, to get in a position where they might be able to do something to reverse it.
If you are a New York resident, I hope you’ll call (800 771-7755 or 212 416-8000) or e-mail Schneiderman and thank him for standing up to the corruption of the banks and their enablers in the Administration. I think he will appreciate the show of support.