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Banks’ Self-Dealing Super-Charged Financial Crisis

Banks’ Self-Dealing Super-Charged Financial Crisis


ProPublica

Over the last two years of the housing bubble, Wall Street bankers perpetrated one of the greatest episodes of self-dealing in financial history.

Faced with increasing difficulty in selling the mortgage-backed securities that had been among their most lucrative products, the banks hit on a solution that preserved their quarterly earnings and huge bonuses:

They created fake demand.

A ProPublica analysis shows for the first time the extent to which banks — primarily Merrill Lynch, but also Citigroup, UBS and others — bought their own products and cranked up an assembly line that otherwise should have flagged.

The products they were buying and selling were at the heart of the 2008 meltdown — collections of mortgage bonds known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs.

As the housing boom began to slow in mid-2006, investors became skittish about the riskier parts of those investments. So the banks created — and ultimately provided most of the money for — new CDOs. Those new CDOs bought the hard-to-sell pieces of the original CDOs. The result was a daisy chain [1] that solved one problem but created another: Each new CDO had its own risky pieces. Banks created yet other CDOs to buy those.

Individual instances of these questionable trades have been reported before, but ProPublica’s investigation shows that by late 2006 they became a common industry practice.

Source: Thetica SystemsSource: Thetica Systems

An analysis by research firm Thetica Systems, commissioned by ProPublica, shows that in the last years of the boom, CDOs had become the dominant purchaser of key, risky parts of other CDOs, largely replacing real investors like pension funds. By 2007, 67 percent of those slices were bought by other CDOs, up from 36 percent just three years earlier. The banks often orchestrated these purchases. In the last two years of the boom, nearly half of all CDOs sponsored by market leader Merrill Lynch bought significant portions of other Merrill CDOs [2].ProPublica also found 85 instances during 2006 and 2007 in which two CDOs bought pieces of each other’s unsold inventory. These trades, which involved $107 billion worth of CDOs, underscore the extent to which the market lacked real buyers. Often the CDOs that swapped purchases closed within days of each other, the analysis shows.

There were supposed to be protections against this sort of abuse. While banks provided the blueprint for the CDOs and marketed them, they typically selected independent managers who chose the specific bonds to go inside them. The managers had a legal obligation to do what was best for the CDO. They were paid by the CDO, not the bank, and were supposed to serve as a bulwark against self-dealing by the banks, which had the fullest understanding of the complex and lightly regulated mortgage bonds.

It rarely worked out that way. The managers were beholden to the banks that sent them the business. On a billion-dollar deal, managers could earn a million dollars in fees, with little risk. Some small firms did several billion dollars of CDOs in a matter of months.

“All these banks for years were spawning trading partners,” says a former executive from Financial Guaranty Insurance Company, a major insurer of the CDO market. “You don’t have a trading partner? Create one.”

The executive, like most of the dozens of people ProPublica spoke with about the inner workings of the market at the time, asked not to be named out of fear of being sucked into ongoing investigations or because they are involved in civil litigation.

Keeping the assembly line going had a wealth of short-term advantages for the banks. Fees rolled in. A typical CDO could net the bank that created it between $5 million and $10 million — about half of which usually ended up as employee bonuses. Indeed, Wall Street awarded record bonuses in 2006, a hefty chunk of which came from the CDO business.

The self-dealing super-charged the market for CDOs, enticing some less-savvy investors to try their luck. Crucially, such deals maintained the value of mortgage bonds at a time when the lack of buyers should have driven their prices down.

But the strategy of speeding up the assembly line had devastating consequences for homeowners, the banks themselves and, ultimately, the global economy. Because of Wall Street’s machinations, more mortgages had been granted to ever-shakier borrowers. The results can now be seen in foreclosed houses across America.

The incestuous trading also made the CDOs more intertwined and thus fragile, accelerating their decline in value that began in the fall of 2007 and deepened over the next year. Most are now worth pennies on the dollar. Nearly half of the nearly trillion dollars in losses to the global banking system came from CDOs, losses ultimately absorbed by taxpayers and investors around the world. The banks’ troubles sent the world’s economies into a tailspin from which they have yet to recover.

It remains unclear whether any of this violated laws. The SEC has said [4] that it is actively looking at as many as 50 CDO managers as part of its broad examination of the CDO business’ role in the financial crisis. In particular, the agency is focusing on the relationship between the banks and the managers. The SEC is exploring how deals were structured, if any quid pro quo arrangements existed, and whether banks pressured managers to take bad assets.

The banks declined to directly address ProPublica’s questions. Asked about its relationship with managers and the cross-ownership among its CDOs, Citibank responded with a one-sentence statement:

“It has been widely reported that there are ongoing industry-wide investigations into CDO-related matters and we do not comment on pending investigations.”

None of ProPublica’s questions had mentioned the SEC or pending investigations.

Posed a similar list of questions, Bank of America, which now owns Merrill Lynch, said:

“These are very specific questions regarding individuals who left Merrill Lynch several years ago and a CDO origination business that, due to market conditions, was discontinued by Merrill before Bank of America acquired the company.”

This is the second installment of a ProPublica series about the largely hidden history of the CDO boom and bust. Our first story [5] looked at how one hedge fund helped create at least $40 billion in CDOs as part of a strategy to bet against the market. This story turns the focus on the banks.

Merrill Lynch Pioneers Pervert the Market
By 2004, the housing market was in full swing, and Wall Street bankers flocked to the CDO frenzy. It seemed to be the perfect money machine, and for a time everyone was happy.

Homeowners got easy mortgages. Banks and mortgage companies felt secure lending the money because they could sell the mortgages almost immediately to Wall Street and get back all their cash plus a little extra for their trouble. The investment banks charged massive fees for repackaging the mortgages into fancy financial products. Investors all around the world got to play in the then-phenomenal American housing market.

The mortgages were bundled into bonds, which were in turn combined into CDOs offering varying interest rates and levels of risk.

Investors holding the top tier of a CDO were first in line to get money coming from mortgages. By 2006, some banks often kept this layer, which credit agencies blessed with their highest rating of Triple A.

Buyers of the lower tiers took on more risk and got higher returns. They would be the first to take the hit if homeowners funding the CDO stopped paying their mortgages. (Here’s a video explaining how CDOs worked [6].)

Over time, these risky slices became increasingly hard to sell, posing a problem for the banks. If they remained unsold, the sketchy assets stayed on their books, like rotting inventory. That would require the banks to set aside money to cover any losses. Banks hate doing that because it means the money can’t be loaned out or put to other uses.

Being stuck with the risky portions of CDOs would ultimately lower profits and endanger the whole assembly line.

The banks, notably Merrill and Citibank, solved this problem by greatly expanding what had been a common and accepted practice: CDOs buying small pieces of other CDOs.

Architects of CDOs typically included what they called a “bucket” — which held bits of other CDOs paying higher rates of interest. The idea was to boost overall returns of deals primarily composed of safer assets. In the early days, the bucket was a small portion of an overall CDO.

One pioneer of pushing CDOs to buy CDOs was Merrill Lynch’s Chris Ricciardi, who had been brought to the firm in 2003 to take Merrill to the top of the CDO business. According to former colleagues, Ricciardi’s team cultivated managers, especially smaller firms.

Merrill exercised its leverage over the managers. A strong relationship with Merrill could be the difference between a business that thrived and one that didn’t. The more deals the banks gave a manager, the more money the manager got paid.

As the head of Merrill’s CDO business, Ricciardi also wooed managers with golf outings and dinners. One Merrill executive summed up the overall arrangement: “I’m going to make you rich. You just have to be my bitch.”

But not all managers went for it.

An executive from Trainer Wortham, a CDO manager, recalls a 2005 conversation with Ricciardi. “I wasn’t going to buy other CDOs. Chris said: ‘You don’t get it. You have got to buy other guys’ CDOs to get your deal done. That’s how it works.'” When the manager refused, Ricciardi told him, “‘That’s it. You are not going to get another deal done.'” Trainer Wortham largely withdrew from the market, concerned about the practice and the overheated prices for CDOs.

Ricciardi declined multiple requests to comment.

Merrill CDOs often bought slices of other Merrill deals. This seems to have happened more in the second half of any given year, according to ProPublica’s analysis, though the purchases were still a small portion compared to what would come later. Annual bonuses are based on the deals bankers completed by yearend.

Ricciardi left Merrill Lynch in February 2006. But the machine he put into place not only survived his departure, it became a model for competitors.

As Housing Market Wanes, Self-Dealing Takes Off
By mid-2006, the housing market was on the wane. This was particularly true for subprime mortgages, which were given to borrowers with spotty credit at higher interest rates. Subprime lenders began to fold, in what would become a mass extinction. In the first half of the year, the percentage of subprime borrowers who didn’t even make the first month’s mortgage payment tripled from the previous year.

That made CDO investors like pension funds and insurance companies increasingly nervous. If homeowners couldn’t make their mortgage payments, then the stream of cash to CDOs would dry up. Real “buyers began to shrivel and shrivel,” says Fiachra O’Driscoll, who co-ran Credit Suisse’s CDO business from 2003 to 2008.

Faced with disappearing investor demand, bankers could have wound down the lucrative business and moved on. That’s the way a market is supposed to work. Demand disappears; supply follows. But bankers were making lots of money. And they had amassed warehouses full of CDOs and other mortgage-based assets whose value was going down.

Rather than stop, bankers at Merrill, Citi, UBS and elsewhere kept making CDOs.

The question was: Who would buy them?

The top 80 percent, the less risky layers or so-called “super senior,” were held by the banks themselves. The beauty of owning that supposedly safe top portion was that it required hardly any money be held in reserve.

That left 20 percent, which the banks did not want to keep because it was riskier and required them to set aside reserves to cover any losses. Banks often sold the bottom, riskiest part to hedge funds [5]. That left the middle layer, known on Wall Street as the “mezzanine,” which was sold to new CDOs whose top 80 percent was ultimately owned by … the banks.

“As we got further into 2006, the mezzanine was going into other CDOs,” says Credit Suisse’s O’Driscoll.

This was the daisy chain [1]. On paper, the risky stuff was gone, held by new independent CDOs. In reality, however, the banks were buying their own otherwise unsellable assets.

How could something so seemingly short-sighted have happened?

It’s one of the great mysteries of the crash. Banks have fleets of risk managers to defend against just such reckless behavior. Top executives have maintained that while they suspected that the housing market was cooling, they never imagined the crash. For those doing the deals, the payoff was immediate. The dangers seemed abstract and remote.

The CDO managers played a crucial role. CDOs were so complex that even buyers had a hard time seeing exactly what was in them — making a neutral third party that much more essential.

“When you’re investing in a CDO you are very much putting your faith in the manager,” says Peter Nowell, a former London-based investor for the Royal Bank of Scotland. “The manager is choosing all the bonds that go into the CDO.” (RBS suffered mightily in the global financial meltdown, posting the largest loss in United Kingdom history, and was de facto nationalized by the British government.)

Source: Asset-Backed AlertSource: Asset-Backed Alert

By persuading managers to pick the unsold slices of CDOs, the banks helped keep the market going. “It guaranteed distribution when, quite frankly, there was not a huge market for them,” says Nowell.The counterintuitive result was that even as investors began to vanish, the mortgage CDO market more than doubled from 2005 to 2006, reaching $226 billion, according to the trade publication Asset-Backed Alert.

Citi and Merrill Hand Out Sweetheart Deals
As the CDO market grew, so did the number of CDO management firms, including many small shops that relied on a single bank for most of their business. According to Fitch, the number of CDO managers it rated rose from 89 in July 2006 to 140 in September 2007.

One CDO manager epitomized the devolution of the business, according to numerous industry insiders: a Wall Street veteran named Wing Chau.

Earlier in the decade, Chau had run the CDO department for Maxim Group, a boutique investment firm in New York. Chau had built a profitable business for Maxim based largely on his relationship with Merrill Lynch. In just a few years, Maxim had corralled more than $4 billion worth of assets under management just from Merrill CDOs.

In August 2006, Chau bolted from Maxim to start his own CDO management business, taking several colleagues with him. Chau’s departure gave Merrill, the biggest CDO producer, one more avenue for unsold inventory.

Chau named the firm Harding, after the town in New Jersey where he lived. The CDO market was starting its most profitable stretch ever, and Harding would play a big part. In an eleven-month period, ending in August 2007, Harding managed $13 billion of CDOs, including more than $5 billion from Merrill, and another nearly $5 billion from Citigroup. (Chau would later earn a measure of notoriety for a cameo appearance in Michael Lewis’ bestseller “The Big Short [7],” where he is depicted as a cheerfully feckless “go-to buyer” for Merrill Lynch’s CDO machine.)

Chau had a long-standing friendship with Ken Margolis, who was Merrill’s top CDO salesman under Ricciardi. When Ricciardi left Merrill in 2006, Margolis became a co-head of Merrill’s CDO group. He carried a genial, let’s-just-get-the-deal-done demeanor into his new position. An avid poker player, Margolis told a friend that in a previous job he had stood down a casino owner during a foreclosure negotiation after the owner had threatened to put a fork through his eye.

Chau’s close relationship with Merrill continued. In late 2006, Merrill sublet office space to Chau’s startup in the Merrill tower in Lower Manhattan’s financial district. A Merrill banker, David Moffitt, scheduled visits to Harding for prospective investors in the bank’s CDOs. “It was a nice office,” overlooking New York Harbor, recalls a CDO buyer. “But it did feel a little weird that it was Merrill’s building,” he said.

Moffitt did not respond to requests for comment.

Under Margolis, other small managers with meager track records were also suddenly handling CDOs valued at as much as $2 billion. Margolis declined to answer any questions about his own involvement in these matters.

A Wall Street Journal article [8] ($) from late 2007, one of the first of its kind, described how Margolis worked with one inexperienced CDO manager called NIR on a CDO named Norma, in the spring of that year. The Long Island-based NIR made about $1.5 million a year for managing Norma, a CDO that imploded.

“NIR’s collateral management business had arisen from efforts by Merrill Lynch to assemble a stable of captive small firms to manage its CDOs that would be beholden to Merrill Lynch on account of the business it funneled to them,” alleged a lawsuit filed in New York state court against Merrill over Norma that was settled quietly after the plaintiffs received internal Merrill documents.

NIR declined to comment.

Banks had a variety of ways to influence managers’ behavior.

Some of the few outside investors remaining in the market believed that the manager would do a better job if he owned a small slice of the CDO he was managing. That way, the manager would have more incentive to manage the investment well, since he, too, was an investor. But small management firms rarely had money to invest. Some banks solved this problem by advancing money to managers such as Harding.

Chau’s group managed two Citigroup CDOs — 888 Tactical Fund and Jupiter High-Grade VII — in which the bank loaned Harding money to buy risky pieces of the deal. The loans would be paid back out of the fees the managers took from the CDO and its investors. The loans were disclosed to investors in a few sentences among the hundreds of pages of legalese accompanying the deals.

In response to ProPublica’s questions, Chau’s lawyer said, “Harding Advisory’s dealings with investment banks were proper and fully disclosed.”

Citigroup made similar deals with other managers. The bank lent money to a manager called Vanderbilt Capital Advisors for its Armitage CDO, completed in March 2007.

Vanderbilt declined to comment. It couldn’t be learned how much money Citigroup loaned or whether it was ever repaid.

Yet again banks had masked their true stakes in CDO. Banks were lending money to CDO managers so they could buy the banks’ dodgy assets. If the managers couldn’t pay the loans back — and most were thinly capitalized — the banks were on the hook for even more losses when the CDO business collapsed.

Goldman, Merrill and Others Get Tough
When the housing market deteriorated, banks took advantage of a little-used power they had over managers.

The way CDOs are put together, there is a brief period when the bonds picked by managers sit on the banks’ balance sheets. Because the value of such assets can fall, banks reserved the right to overrule managers’ selections.

According to numerous bankers, managers and investors, banks rarely wielded that veto until late 2006, after which it became common. Merrill was in the lead.

“I would go to Merrill and tell them that I wanted to buy, say, a Citi bond,” recalls a CDO manager. “They would say ‘no.’ I would suggest a UBS bond, they would say ‘no.’ Eventually, you got the joke.” Managers could choose assets to put into their CDOs but they had to come from Merrill CDOs. One rival investment banker says Merrill treated CDO managers the way Henry Ford treated his Model T customers: You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.

Once, Merrill’s Ken Margolis pushed a manager to buy a CDO slice for a Merrill-produced CDO called Port Jackson that was completed in the beginning of 2007: “‘You don’t have to buy the deal but you are crazy if you don’t because of your business,'” an executive at the management firm recalls Margolis telling him. “‘We have a big pipeline and only so many more mandates to give you.’ You got the message.” In other words: Take our stuff and we’ll send you more business. If not, forget it.

Margolis declined to comment on the incident.

“All the managers complained about it,” recalls O’Driscoll, the former Credit Suisse banker who competed with other investment banks to put deals together and market them. But “they were indentured slaves.” O’Driscoll recalls managers grumbling that Merrill in particular told them “what to buy and when to buy it.”

Other big CDO-producing banks quickly adopted the practice.

A little-noticed document released this year during a congressional investigation into Goldman Sachs’ CDO business reveals that bank’s thinking. The firm wrote a November 2006 internal memorandum [9] about a CDO called Timberwolf, managed by Greywolf, a small manager headed by ex-Goldman bankers. In a section headed “Reasons To Pursue,” the authors touted that “Goldman is approving every asset” that will end up in the CDO. What the bank intended to do with that approval power is clear from the memo: “We expect that a significant portion of the portfolio by closing will come from Goldman’s offerings.”

When asked to comment whether Goldman’s memo demonstrates that it had effective control over the asset selection process and that Greywolf was not in fact an independent manager, the bank responded: “Greywolf was an experienced, independent manager and made its own decisions about what reference assets to include. The securities included in Timberwolf were fully disclosed to the professional investors who invested in the transaction.”

Greywolf declined to comment. One of the investors, Basis Capital of Australia, filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against Goldman over the deal. The bank maintains the lawsuit is without merit.

By March 2007, the housing market’s signals were flashing red. Existing home sales plunged at the fastest rate in almost 20 years. Foreclosures were on the rise. And yet, to CDO buyer Peter Nowell’s surprise, banks continued to churn out CDOs.

“We were pulling back. We couldn’t find anything safe enough,” says Nowell. “We were amazed that April through June they were still printing deals. We thought things were over.”

Instead, the CDO machine was in overdrive. Wall Street produced $70 billion in mortgage CDOs in the first quarter of the year.

Many shareholder lawsuits battling their way through the court system today focus on this period of the CDO market. They allege that the banks were using the sales of CDOs to other CDOs to prop up prices and hide their losses.

“Citi’s CDO operations during late 2006 and 2007 functioned largely to sell CDOs to yet newer CDOs created by Citi to house them,” charges a pending shareholder lawsuit against the bank that was filed in federal court in Manhattan in February 2009. “Citigroup concocted a scheme whereby it repackaged many of these investments into other freshly-baked vehicles to avoid incurring a loss.”

Citigroup described the allegations as “irrational,” saying the bank’s executives would never knowingly take actions that would lead to “catastrophic losses.”

In the Hall of Mirrors, Myopic Rating Agencies
The portion of CDOs owned by other CDOs grew right alongside the market. What had been 5 percent of CDOs (remember the “bucket”) now came to constitute as much as 30 or 40 percent of new CDOs. (Wall Street also rolled out CDOs that were almost entirely made up of CDOs, called CDO squareds [10].)

The ever-expanding bucket provided new opportunities for incestuous trades.

It worked like this: A CDO would buy a piece of another CDO, which then returned the favor. The transactions moved both CDOs closer to completion, when bankers and managers would receive their fees.

Source: Thetica SystemsSource: Thetica Systems

ProPublica’s analysis shows that in the final two years of the business, CDOs with cross-ownership amounted to about one-fifth of the market, about $107 billion.Here’s an example from early May 2007:

  • A CDO called Jupiter VI bought a piece of a CDO called Tazlina II.
  • Tazlina II bought a piece of Jupiter VI.

Both Jupiter VI and Tazlina II were created by Merrill and were completed within a week of each other. Both were managed by small firms that did significant business with Merrill: Jupiter by Wing Chau’s Harding, and Tazlina by Terwin Advisors. Chau did not respond to questions about this deal. Terwin Advisors could not reached.

Just a few weeks earlier, CDO managers completed a comparable swap between Jupiter VI and another Merrill CDO called Forge 1.

Forge has its own intriguing history. It was the only deal done by a tiny manager of the same name based in Tampa, Fla. The firm was started less than a year earlier by several former Wall Street executives with mortgage experience. It received seed money from Bryan Zwan, who in 2001 settled an SEC civil lawsuit over his company’s accounting problems in a federal court in Florida. Zwan and Forge executives didn’t respond to requests for comment.

After seemingly coming out of nowhere, Forge won the right to manage a $1.5 billion Merrill CDO. That earned Forge a visit from the rating agency Moody’s.

“We just wanted to make sure that they actually existed,” says a former Moody’s executive. The rating agency saw that the group had an office near the airport and expertise to do the job.

Rating agencies regularly did such research on managers, but failed to ask more fundamental questions. The credit ratings agencies “did heavy, heavy due diligence on managers but they were looking for the wrong things: how you processed a ticket or how your surveillance systems worked,” says an executive at a CDO manager. “They didn’t check whether you were buying good bonds.”

One Forge employee recalled in a recent interview that he was amazed Merrill had been able to find buyers so quickly. “They were able to sell all the tranches” — slices of the CDO — “in a fairly rapid period of time,” said Rod Jensen, a former research analyst for Forge.

Forge achieved this feat because Merrill sold the slices to other CDOs, many linked to Merrill.

The ProPublica analysis shows that two Merrill CDOs, Maxim II and West Trade III, each bought pieces of Forge. Small managers oversaw both deals.

Forge, in turn, was filled with detritus from Merrill. Eighty-two percent of the CDO bonds owned by Forge came from other Merrill deals.

Citigroup did its own version of the shuffle, as these three CDOs demonstrate:

  • A CDO called Octonion bought some of Adams Square Funding II.
  • • Adams Square II bought a piece of Octonion.
  • • A third CDO, Class V Funding III, also bought some of Octonion.
  • • Octonion, in turn, bought a piece of Class V Funding III.

All of these Citi deals were completed within days of each other. Wing Chau was once again a central player. His firm managed Octonion. The other two were managed by a unit of Credit Suisse. Credit Suisse declined to comment.

Not all cross-ownership deals were consummated.

In spring 2007, Deutsche Bank was creating a CDO and found a manager that wanted to take a piece of it. The manager was overseeing a CDO that Merrill was assembling. Merrill blocked the manager from putting the Deutsche bonds into the Merrill CDO. A former Deutsche Bank banker says that when Deutsche Bank complained to Andy Phelps, a Merrill CDO executive, Phelps offered a quid pro quo: If Deutsche was willing to have the manager of its CDO buy some Merrill bonds, Merrill would stop blocking the purchase. Phelps declined to comment.

The Deutsche banker, who says its managers were independent, recalls being shocked: “We said we don’t control what people buy in their deals.” The swap didn’t happen.

The Missing Regulators and the Aftermath
In September 2007, as the market finally started to catch up with Merrill Lynch, Ken Margolis left the firm to join Wing Chau at Harding.

Chau and Margolis circulated a marketing plan for a new hedge fund to prospective investors touting their expertise in how CDOs were made and what was in them. The fund proposed to buy failed CDOs — at bargain basement prices. In the end, Margolis and Chau couldn’t make the business work and dropped the idea.

Why didn’t regulators intervene during the boom to stop the self-dealing that had permeated the CDO market?

No one agency had authority over the whole business. Since the business came and went in just a few years, it may have been too much to expect even assertive regulators to comprehend what was happening in time to stop it.

While the financial regulatory bill passed by Congress in July creates more oversight powers, it’s unclear whether regulators have sufficient tools to prevent a replay of the debacle.

In just two years, the CDO market had cut a swath of destruction. Partly because CDOs had bought so many pieces of each other, they collapsed in unison. Merrill Lynch and Citigroup, the biggest perpetrators of the self-dealing, were among the biggest losers. Merrill lost about $26 billion on mortgage CDOs and Citigroup about $34 billion.

Additional reporting by Kitty Bennett, Krista Kjellman Schmidt, Lisa Schwartz and Karen Weise.


© 2010-15 FORECLOSURE FRAUD | by DinSFLA. All rights reserved.



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“AMERICA’S FORECLOSURE KING”: DEUTSCHE BANK

“AMERICA’S FORECLOSURE KING”: DEUTSCHE BANK


06/10/2010

‘America’s Foreclosure King’

How the United States Became a PR Disaster for Deutsche Bank

By Christoph Pauly and Thomas Schulz SPIEGEL ONLINE

Deutsche Bank is deeply involved in the American real estate crisis. After initially profiting from subprime mortgages, it is now arranging to have many of these homes sold at foreclosure auctions. The damage to the bank’s image in the United States is growing.

The small city of New Haven, on the Atlantic coast and home to elite Yale University, is only two hours northeast of New York City. It is a particularly beautiful place in the fall, during the warm days of Indian summer.

But this idyllic image has turned cloudy of late, with a growing number of houses in New Haven looking like the one at 130 Peck Street: vacant for months, the doors nailed shut, the yard derelict and overgrown and the last residents ejected after having lost the house in a foreclosure auction. And like 130 Peck Street, many of these homes are owned by Germany’s Deutsche Bank.

“In the last few years, Deutsche Bank has been responsible for far and away the most foreclosures here,” says Eva Heintzelman. She is the director of the ROOF Project, which addresses the consequences of the foreclosure crisis in New Haven in collaboration with the city administration. According to Heintzelman, Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank plays such a significant role in New Haven that the city’s mayor requested a meeting with bank officials last spring.

The bank complied with his request, to some degree, when, in April 2009, a Deutsche Bank executive flew to New Haven for a question-and-answer session with politicians and aid organizations. But the executive, David Co, came from California, not from Germany. Co manages the Frankfurt bank’s US real estate business at a relatively unknown branch of a relatively unknown subsidiary in Santa Ana.

How many houses was he responsible for, Co was asked? “Two thousand,” he replied. But then he corrected himself, saying that 2,000 wasn’t the number of individual properties, but the number of securities packages being managed by Deutsche Bank. Each package contains hundreds of mortgages. So how many houses are there, all told, he was asked again? Co could only guess. “Millions,” he said.

Deutsche Bank Is Considered ‘America’s Foreclosure King’

Deutsche Bank’s tracks lead through the entire American real estate market. In Chicago, the bank foreclosed upon close to 600 large apartment buildings in 2009, more than any other bank in the city. In Cleveland, almost 5,000 houses foreclosed upon by Deutsche Bank were reported to authorities between 2002 and 2006. In many US cities, the complaints are beginning to pile up from homeowners who lost their properties as a result of a foreclosure action filed by Deutsche Bank. The German bank is berated on the Internet as “America’s Foreclosure King.”

American homeowners are among the main casualties of the financial crisis that began with the collapse of the US real estate market. For years, banks issued mortgages to homebuyers without paying much attention to whether they could even afford the loans. Then they packaged the mortgage loans into complicated financial products, earning billions in the process — that is, until the bubble burst and the government had to bail out the banks.

Deutsche Bank has always acted as if it had had very little to do with the whole affair. It survived the crisis relatively unharmed and without government help. Its experts recognized early on that things could not continue as they had been going. This prompted the bank to get out of many deals in time, so that in the end it was not faced with nearly as much toxic debt as other lenders.

But it is now becoming clear just how deeply involved the institution is in the US real estate market and in the subprime mortgage business. It is quite possible that the bank will not suffer any significant financial losses, but the damage to its image is growing by the day.

‘Deutsche Bank Is Now in the Process of Destroying Milwaukee’

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Deutsche Bank now holds loans for American single-family and multi-family houses worth about $3.7 billion (€3.1 billion). The bank, however, claims that much of this debt consists of loans to wealthy private customers.

More damaging to its image are the roughly 1 million US properties that the bank says it is managing as trustee. “Some 85 to 90 percent of all outstanding mortgages in the USA are ultimately controlled by four banks, either as trustees or owners of a trust company,” says real estate expert Steve Dibert, whose company conducts nationwide investigations into cases of mortgage fraud. “Deutsche Bank is one of the four.”

In addition, the bank put together more than 25 highly complex real estate securities deals, known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, with a value of about $20 billion, most of which collapsed. These securities were partly responsible for triggering the crisis.

Last Thursday, Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann was publicly confronted with the turmoil in US cities. Speaking at the bank’s shareholders’ meeting, political science professor Susan Giaimo said that while Germans were mainly responsible for building the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “Deutsche Bank is now in the process of destroying Milwaukee.”

Part 2: As Soon as the Houses Are Vacant, They Quickly Become Derelict

Then Giaimo, a petite woman with dark curls who has German forefathers, got to the point. Not a single bank, she said, owns more real estate affected by foreclosure in Milwaukee, a city the size of Frankfurt. Many of the houses, she added, have been taken over by drug dealers, while others were burned down by arsonists after it became clear that no one was taking care of them.

Besides, said Giaimo, who represents the Common Ground action group, homeowners living in the neighborhoods of these properties are forced to accept substantial declines in the value of their property. “In addition, foreclosed houses are sold to speculators for substantially less than the market value of houses in the same neighborhood,” Giaimo said. The speculators, according to Giaimo, have no interest in the individual properties and are merely betting that prices will go up in the future.

Common Ground has posted photos of many foreclosed properties on the Internet, and some of the signs in front of these houses identify Deutsche Bank as the owner. As soon as the houses are vacant, they quickly become derelict.

A Victorian house on State Street, painted green with red trim, is now partially burned down. Because it can no longer be sold, Deutsche Bank has “donated” it to the City of Milwaukee, one of the Common Ground activists reports. As a result, the city incurs the costs of demolition, which amount to “at least $25,000.”

‘We Can’t Give Away Money that Isn’t Ours’

During a recent meeting with US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, representatives of the City of Milwaukee complained about the problems that the more than 15,000 foreclosures have caused for the city since the crisis began. In a letter to the US Treasury Department, they wrote that Deutsche Bank is the only bank that has refused to meet with the city’s elected representatives.

Minneapolis-based US Bank and San Francisco-based Wells Fargo apparently took the complaints more seriously and met with the people from Common Ground. The activists’ demands sound plausible enough. They want Deutsche Bank to at least tear down those houses that can no longer be repaired at a reasonable cost. Besides, Giaimo said at the shareholders’ meeting, Deutsche Bank should contribute a portion of US government subsidies to a renovation fund. According to Giaimo, the bank collected $6 billion from the US government when it used taxpayer money to bail out credit insurer AIG.

“It’s painful to look at these houses,” Ackermann told the professor. Nevertheless, the CEO refused to accept any responsibility. Deutsche Bank, he said, is “merely a sort of depository for the mortgage documents, and our options to help out are limited.” According to Ackermann, the bank, as a trustee for other investors, is not even the actual owner of the properties, and therefore can do nothing. Besides, Ackermann said, his bank didn’t promote mortgage loans with terms that have now made the payments unaffordable for many families.

The activists from Wisconsin did, however, manage to take home a small victory. Ackermann instructed members of his staff to meet with Common Ground. He apparently envisions a relatively informal and noncommittal meeting. “We can’t give away money that isn’t ours,” he added.

Deutsche Bank’s Role in the High-Risk Loans Boom

Apparently Ackermann also has no intention to part with even a small portion of the profits the bank earned in the real estate business. Deutsche Bank didn’t just act as a trustee that — coincidentally, it seems — manages countless pieces of real estate on behalf of other investors. In the wild years between 2005 and 2007, the bank also played a central role in the profitable boom in high-risk mortgages that were marketed to people in ways that were downright negligent.

Of course, its bankers didn’t get their hands dirty by going door-to-door to convince people to apply for mortgages they couldn’t afford. But they did provide the distribution organizations with the necessary capital.

The Countrywide Financial Corporation, which approved risky mortgages for $97.2 billion from 2005 to 2007, was the biggest provider of these mortgages in the United States. According to the study by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, Deutsche Bank was one of Countrywide’s biggest financiers.

Ameriquest — which, with $80.7 billion in high-risk loans on its books in the three boom years before the crash, was the second-largest subprime specialist — also had strong ties to Deutsche Bank. The investment bankers placed the mortgages on the international capital market by bundling and structuring them into securities. This enabled them to distribute the risks around the entire globe, some of which ended up with Germany’s state-owned banks.

Part 3: ‘Deutsche Bank Has a Real PR Problem Here’

After the crisis erupted, there were so many mortgages in default in 25 CDOs that most of the investors could no longer be serviced. Some CDOs went bankrupt right away, while others were gradually liquidated, either in full or in part. The securities that had been placed on the market were underwritten by loans worth $20 billion.

At the end of 2006, for example, Deutsche Bank constructed a particularly complex security known as a hybrid CDO. It was named Barramundi, after the Indo-Pacific hermaphrodite fish that lives in muddy water. And the composition of the deal, which was worth $800 million, was muddy indeed. Many securities that were already arcane enough, like credit default swaps (CDSs) and CDOs, were packaged into an even more complex entity in Barramundi.

Deutsche Bank’s partner for the Barramundi deal was the New York investment firm C-BASS, which referred to itself as “a leader in purchasing and servicing residential mortgage loans primarily in the Subprime and Alt-A categories.” In plain language, C-BASS specialized in drumming up and marketing subprime mortgages for complex financial vehicles.

However, C-BASS didn’t just manage abstract securities. It also had a subsidiary to bring in all the loans that were subsequently securitized. By the end of 2005 the subsidiary, Litton Loan, had processed 313,938 loans, most of them low-value mortgages, for a total value of $43 billion.

One of the First Victims of the Financial Crisis

Barramundi was already the 19th CDO C-BASS had issued. But the investment firm faltered only a few months after the deal with Deutsche Bank, in the summer of 2007. C-BASS was one of the first casualties of the financial crisis.

Deutsche Bank’s CDO, Barramundi, suffered a similar fate. Originally given the highest possible rating by the rating agencies, the financial vehicle stuffed with subprime mortgages quickly fell apart. In the spring of 2008, Barramundi was first downgraded to “highly risky” and then, in December, to junk status. Finally, in March 2009, Barramundi failed and had to be liquidated.

While many investors lost their money and many Americans their houses, Deutsche Bank and Litton Loan remained largely unscathed. Apparently, the Frankfurt bank still has a healthy business relationship with the subprime mortgage manager, because Deutsche Bank does not play a direct role in any of the countless pieces of real estate it holds in trust. Other service providers, including Litton Loan, handle tasks like collecting mortgage payments and evicting delinquent borrowers.

The exotic financial vehicles are sometimes managed by an equally exotic firm: Deutsche Bank (Cayman) Limited, Boundary Hall, Cricket Square, Grand Cayman. In an e-mail dated Feb. 26, 2010, a Deutsche Bank employee from the Cayman Islands lists 84 CDOs and similar products, for which she identifies herself as the relevant contact person.

Trouble with US Regulatory Authorities and Many Property Owners

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is now investigating Deutsche Bank and a few other investment banks that constructed similar CDOs. The financial regulator is looking into whether investors in these obscure products were deceived. The SEC has been particularly critical of US investment bank Goldman Sachs, which is apparently willing to pay a record fine of $1 billion to avoid criminal prosecution.

Deutsche Bank has also run into problems with the many property owners. The bank did not issue the mortgages for the many properties it now manages, and yet it accepted, on behalf of investors, the fiduciary function for its own and third-party CDOs. In past years, says mortgage expert Steve Dibert, real estate loans were “traded like football cards” in the United States.

Amid all the deal-making, the deeds for the actual properties were often lost. In Cleveland and New Jersey, for example, judges invalidated foreclosures ordered by Deutsche Bank, because the bank was unable to come up with the relevant deeds.

Nevertheless, Deutsche Bank’s service providers repeatedly try to have houses vacated, even when they are already occupied by new owners who are paying their mortgages. This practice has led to nationwide lawsuits against the Frankfurt-based bank. On the Internet, angry Americans fighting to keep their houses have taken to using foul language to berate the German bank.

“Deutsche Bank now has a real PR problem here in the United States,” says Dibert. “They want to bury their head in the sand, but this is something they are going to have to deal with.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

© 2010-15 FORECLOSURE FRAUD | by DinSFLA. All rights reserved.



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