State attorneys general are not happy with a $5 billion offer by major banks to settle lawsuits regarding robo-foreclosures and other alleged grievances. Some officials want as much as $20 billion. The compromise threat is on the high end.

Please consider Banks Face $17 Billion in Suits Over Foreclosures

State attorneys general told five of the nation’s largest banks on Tuesday they face a potential liability of at least $17 billion in civil lawsuits if a settlement isn’t reached to address improper foreclosure practices, according to people familiar with the matter.

The figure doesn’t cover additional billions of dollars in potential claims from federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department. State and federal officials haven’t proposed a specific comprehensive settlement figure, but Tuesday’s discussions represented the first effort to formally quantify potential liability.

Banks have proposed a $5 billion settlement that would be used to compensate any borrowers previously wronged in the foreclosure process and provide transition assistance for borrowers who are ousted from their homes. Federal and state officials have dismissed that as insufficient. Some officials have pushed for a total price tag of more than $20 billion to resolve foreclosure-handling abuses that surfaced last fall.

The U.S. Trustee Program, a part of the Justice Department that oversees bankruptcy cases, has asked for an additional $500 million to $1 billion in penalties, according to people familiar with the matter. Officials of the unit have raised questions in several cases over the authenticity of foreclosure documents.

Banks have argued that their problems are largely technical and that few if any borrowers have faced wrongful foreclosures. State and federal officials have faulted mortgage companies for not hiring enough staff to provide assistance to millions of borrowers that have fallen behind on their mortgages.

The latest development comes as state and federal officials are intensifying their scrutiny of other parts of the mortgage machine. Attorneys general in California and New York have announced wide-ranging mortgage investigations.

What are the Damages?

This is what I want to know:

  1. How many people lost their home to foreclosure out of an error? By error I mean the wrong person, a home with no mortgage, or a major procedural error.
  2. How many people think they deserve a free house and clear or a principal reduction over “show me the note” nonsense or other problems including unemployment?
  3. How many people did banks string along for many months with promises of work-outs, where the person paid their mortgage for months, then lost their home.

Throw Category #2 in the Ash Can

I am sure category #2 is the largest. Throw those cases in the ash can where they belong.

No one want to admit they were stupid. Yet people paid stupid prices for homes. Others were unlucky. Some lost their jobs. Even then, one can ask “did you have a year’s worth of living expenses saved up in the bank, in case you lost your job?” Regardless of the answer, banks should not be on the hook for people losing their jobs or having medical problems.

Here’s the cold simple truth: If you do not pay your mortgage, it is reasonable to expect to lose your home. There is no other realistic way of looking at it. Robo-signing may not be right, but it is irrelevant.

Category #1 the Real Problem

I have deep sympathy for those in cases where banks foreclosed on the wrong home, the wrong address, or on homes with no mortgage at all. Those people deserve their home paid free and clear and some huge penalty on top of it.

I suspect the number of such cases is minuscule. They receive enormous publicity but is the number 10,000? 5,000? 500? or 50? I suspect the number is far closer to the lower end than the higher end. 50 might easily be on the high side.

Whatever the number is, banks should pay mightily and punitively for it. The money should go to those wronged, not to the states. Even with massive penalties I doubt the total would come close to $200 million.

Category 3 is Where the Uncertainty Is

I do not know how big the “strung along” category is, but the only ones in this category who were genuinely harmed to any significant degree are those who continued to make mortgage payments, strung along on a promise, when instead they could have and should have walked away.

How many is that? You tell me. However, the harm is easy to quantify. The harm is extra payments people made (if any), while the banks engaged in deceptive practices or were simply understaffed.

Assume banks engaged in deceptive practices and people made extra payments instead of walking away. Would those extra payments amount to as much as $1 billion? I rather doubt it.

$5 Billion is Very Generous

What is a valid penalty? $4 billion seems like a lot of money to me. That would be a 400% penalty if the total wrong-doing amounted to $1 billion which I doubt.

The sad truth of the matter is we have a full scale witch-hunt over robo-signing and other alleged grievances even though there was little actual damage caused by banks.

If you disagree then total up the damages. However, I insist you start from two essential points.

  1. If you do not pay your mortgage, it is reasonable to expect to lose your home.
  2. Robo-signing may not be right, but it is irrelevant as per point #1.

So total up the damages, add a huge penalty, and let me know what you come up with.

No doubt, many will accuse me of siding with banks. The reality is I am siding with common sense. No one fought against bank bailouts harder than I did. Banks should have been allowed to go under.

Unfortunately they were bailed out. However, two wrongs do not make a right.

I am all for punishing banks provided the punishment is based on damages rather than the widespread belief “we need to stick it to the banks”.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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