On Wednesday, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Bank of America stripped safeguards designed to catch mortgage fraud and then peddled the loans to government-backed Fannie and Freddie in what officials called a “spectacularly brazen” scheme.
This case, as well as dozens of others brought within the past 12 months or so, represents the culmination of the government’s labors to punish banks for the housing crisis that sent the economy into a tailspin four years ago. This reckoning has generated tens of billions of dollars in fines — although no top executives in handcuffs — and has rarely forced the banks to admit any culpability.
“This is an act of tiny margins relative to the size of the organizations and relative to the fraud committed,” said William K. Black, a former bank regulator who teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri. “Prosecutors can’t argue that these cases will serve as a deterrence when there have been no criminal indictments of senior executives.”
But lenders argue that the mounting cases, plus a host of new mortgage regulations coming into effect next year, will make it harder to issue loans, leaving less credit available for the still wobbly housing market.
Addressing the latest charges, Bank of America spokesman Lawrence Grayson said, “At some point, Bank of America can’t be expected to compensate every entity that claims losses that actually were caused by the economic downturn.”
Bank of America “acted responsibly to resolve legacy mortgage matters,” Grayson said. “The claim that we failed to repurchase loans from Fannie Mae is simply false.”
Government officials contend that Bank of America was anything but responsible when it issued loans to home buyers and has resisted bearing the losses when those mortgages went bad — pressing Fannie and Freddie to cover the costs instead.
Much of Bank of America’s legal woes are tied to its $2.5 billion purchase of Countrywide Financial in 2008, once one of the nation’s largest home lenders. The bank has lost nearly $40 billion on mortgage litigation and repurchases of soured loans, according to a recent analysis by Credit Suisse.
According to the Justice Department’s complaint, filed in Manhattan federal court, Countrywide created a program in 2007 known as the “Hustle,” designed to ramp up the production of home loans for sale.
Officials alleged that the bank’s executives not only stripped safeguards but also awarded bonuses to employees based on the volume of mortgages they could issue. As a result, the “defect rates” were nine times higher than the industry norm. Yet Countrywide hid this from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.