The States Take On Foreclosures
By JOE NOCERA
Published: October 29, 2010
Have you noticed that the lead dogs investigating the mortgage foreclosure mess are not any federal prosecutors or national bank regulators, but rather the state attorneys general? I sure have. I can’t think of a more encouraging development.
Yeah, yeah, a handful of federal investigations have also been announced, but we all know that they’re not going to amount to a hill of beans. Ever since the financial crisis began two years ago, the federal overseers of the banking industry have been consistently unwilling to take the rod to the institutions they regulate. The robo-signing scandal — and it is, unquestionably, a scandal — hasn’t changed that attitude one iota.
The Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve have made it clear that they are more concerned about keeping the foreclosure mill going full speed than they are about determining whether the banks broke the law. Somehow throwing people out of their homes quickly is supposed to help the economy. Or so they keep telling us.
Ah, but the states. They’re a different story. Soon after tales of robo-signing began making headlines, the state attorneys general, led by Tom Miller of Iowa, mobilized their forces. Practically overnight, all 50 of them agreed to conduct a joint investigation into the bank practices that led to the scandal.
Unlike the feds’ tepid efforts, this will be a serious investigation, led by a handful of assistant attorneys general who’ve worked together for years, and who see this as their chance to finally do something for beleaguered homeowners. They’ve got resources, subpoena power and a justifiable suspicion that the robo-signing shenanigans are just the tip of a very ugly iceberg.
And best of all, they have a very clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish. They don’t want to merely reform the foreclosure system (though that would be nice, wouldn’t it?). Nor do they particularly want a big financial settlement, which would be meaningless for a giant like Bank of America.
Rather, they hope to use their investigation as a cudgel to force the big banks and servicers to do something they’ve long resisted: institute widespread, systematic loan modifications. “Instead of paying a huge fine,” Mr. Miller posited to me the other day, on his way to an election rally, “maybe have the servicers adequately fund a serious modification process.” Getting the banks and servicers to take loan modification seriously is another in a series of areas where the Obama Treasury Department has failed miserably.