The prospect of a second legal assault is more recent. Shortly before the earnings call, Bank of America (nyse: BAC) received a letter from a lawyer representing eight powerful institutional investors, including BlackRock, Pimco and — most amazing of all — the New York Federal Reserve. The letter was a not-so-veiled threat to sue the bank unless it agrees to buy back billions of dollars worth of loans that are in securitized mortgage bonds the investors own.
Mainly, they are saying that Bank of America was servicing loans in these bonds that the bank knew violated the underwriting standards that the investors had been led to believe the bank was conforming to. What’s more, they said, the bank had never come clean about all the bad loans, as it was required to do. Therefore, say the investors, the bank has a contractual obligation to buy back the bad loans.
During the conference call, Mr. Moynihan and Mr. Noski made it clear that Bank of America was going to use hand-to-hand combat to fight back these claims. “We’re protecting the shareholders’ money,” Mr. Moynihan said. Mr. Noski questioned whether the investors even had the right to bring the case. “We continue to review and assess the letter and have a number of questions about its content including whether these investors actually have standing to bring these claims,” he said.
So there you have it. Having convinced millions of Americans to buy homes they couldn’t afford, Bank of America is now revving up its foreclosure efforts on these same homeowners. At the same time, having sold tens of thousands of these same terrible loans to investors, it is going to spend tens of millions of dollars on lawyers to keep from having to buy back their junky loans.
Apparently, being the biggest bank in the country means never having to say you’re sorry.
In truth, it’s not really Bank of America itself that persuaded so many people to borrow beyond their means and then sold those terrible loans to investors. It was Countrywide, which Bank of America purchased in July 2008, by which time the company was on the verge of collapse because of all the corrosive subprime loans it had made.
A loan for $360,000 went to a Chicago woman who supposedly earned $6,833 a month at an auto body shop. In truth she was a part-time housekeeper who was posing as the buyer to help her sister. The Countrywide loan officer not only knew these facts, she came up with the idea of having the borrower pretend to work at the auto body shop.
The lawsuit uncovered a raft of similar examples — case after case where the loan officers not only knew that fraud was being committed, but were actively engaged in committing it. “By about 2006,” says the lawsuit, “Countrywide’s internal risk assessors knew that in a substantial number of its stated-income loans — fully a third — borrowers overstated income by more than 50 percent.” And that is just one small subset of what went on at Countrywide. The truth is, any rock you turn over in the Countrywide subprime portfolio, something slimy is going to emerge.
That’s why most people, myself included, have no sympathy for Bank of America’s legal predicament — and no patience for its “we’re not the bad guys here” arguments. It is absolutely true that the homeowners that Bank of America wants to foreclose on are in default on loans they should never have gotten in the first place. (Gee, whose fault was that?) But it simply does not follow that the bank therefore has an absolute right to take back the home. Under the law, it has to prove it has that right — by filing documents that show that the owner of the mortgage has conveyed that right to it. That’s why this affidavit scandal isn’t some legal nicety. It’s about the single most important value of American jurisprudence: due process.
“Just because the homeowner hasn’t paid his mortgage doesn’t mean anybody in the world can kick him out,” said Katherine Porter, a visiting law professor at Harvard. “The bank has to have the standing to do that.”
She added that the bank’s argument was a little like saying that someone who committed a crime shouldn’t receive a trial because he’s so obviously guilty.
America just isn’t supposed to work that way.
That’s also why the bank’s contention that the foreclosure scandal will soon be behind it is unlikely to hold true. Peter Ticktin, a Florida lawyer who represents some 3,000 homeowners, told me that he did not believe it was possible for Bank of America to have properly vetted those 102,000 affidavits in a matter of weeks.
“My hat is off to them for doing the impossible,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “They figured out how to take a massive amount of perjured affidavits and turn them into real ones without robo-signers.” Mr. Ticktin said he had every intention of continuing to challenge Bank of America foreclosures. Most other lawyers specializing in these cases plan to do likewise. The affidavit scandal isn’t over yet, no matter how much Mr. Moynihan might wish it to be so.
As for the potential lawsuit with BlackRock and the New York Fed, the week before the investors sent the letter to Bank of America, three Countrywide executives, including former C.E.O. Angelo Mozilo, settled charges brought by the S.E.C. that they had engaged in fraudulent conduct. Internal Countrywide e-mail clearly show that they knew how dangerous their lending had become. Once the loans were sold to Wall Street — which, I should note, aggressively pushed the subprime companies to lower their standards — they went through a due diligence process that investors never knew about. Banks took advantage of investors every bit as much as they took advantage of home buyers.
And it would be nice, if just once, they would admit it. Instead, we get Mr. Noski, the chief financial officer, promising that the bank will fight these cases to the death because they’re looking out for shareholders. It’s appalling, really.