Banks Have Recognized 60% of Expected Loan Charge-Offs: Moody’s

Gee, and here I thought that the Federal Reserve bought $1.4-$2 *trillion* of them! Let alone Lehman and its 50 billion in subprime mortgages that it “hid” (and what about all the other TARP/Federal Reserve member banks??)

BY: CARRIE BAY 6/3/2010 DSNEWS

n its latest quarterly report on credit conditions of the U.S. banking system, Moody’s Investors Service says banks’ asset quality issues are “past the peak” butcharge-offs and non-performers continue to eat away at profitability and sheer fundamentals.

Based on Moody’s market data, banks’ non-performing loans stood at 5.0 percent of total loan assets at March 31, 2010.

Moody’s says U.S. rated banks have already charged off or written-down $436 billion of loans in 2008, 2009, and the first quarter of 2010. That leaves another $307 billion to reach the rating agency’s full estimate of $744 billion of loan charge-offs from 2008 through 2011.

In aggregate, the banks have recognized 60 percent of Moody’s estimated total charge-offs and 65 percent of estimated residential mortgage losses, but only 45 percent of projected commercial real estate losses.

In the first quarter of this year, the banking industry’s collective annualized net charge-offs came to 3.3 percent of loans, versus 3.6 percent of loans in the fourth quarter

of 2009, Moody’s said. Despite two consecutive quarters of improvement in charge-offs, the ratings agency notes that the figures still remain near historic highs, dating back to the Great Depression.

According to Moody’s analysts, the decline in aggregate charge-offs was driven by commercial real estate improvement, which “we believe is likely to reverse in coming quarters,” they said in the report. A similar commercial real estate decline was experienced in the first quarter of 2009 before charge-offs accelerated through the rest of the year.

“The return to ‘normal’ levels of asset quality will be slow and uneven over the next 12 to 18 months,” said Moody’sSVP Craig Emrick.

But Emrick added that “Although remaining losses are sizable, they are beginning to look manageable in relation to bank’s loan loss allowances and tangible common equity.”

U.S. banks’ allowances for loan losses stood at $221 billion as of March 31, 2010, which is equal to 4.1 percent of loans, Moody’s reported. Although this can be used to offset a sizable portion of remaining charge-offs, banks will still require substantial provisions in 2010, the agency said.

Moody’s says its negative outlook for the U.S. banking system is driven by asset quality concerns and effects on profitability and capital. The agency’s ratings outlook is also influenced by the potential for a worse-than-expected macroeconomic environment, Moody’s said.

“More severe macroeconomic developments, the probability of which we place at 10 percent to 20 percent, would significantly strain U.S. bank fundamental credit quality,” Moody’s analysts wrote in their report.

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DO YOU HAVE A FANNIE MAE LOAN?

Fannie Mae Announces its Own Foreclosure Prevention Plan Under HAFA

by AUSTIN KILGORE HousingWire

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010, 5:07 pm

[Update 1: Corrects current cash incentives for Treasury HAFA]

Fannie Mae (FNM: 0.94 -2.08%) announced its version of the Making Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA) program Tuesday, implementing the program for all conventional mortgages that are held in Fannie’s portfolio, that are part of an mortgage-backed security (MBS) pool with a special servicing option, or that are part of a shared-risk MBS pool for which Fannie Mae markets the acquired property.

The Fannie Mae program takes effect August 1, 2010 and is designed to mitigate the impact of foreclosures on borrowers who are eligible for a loan modification under the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) but were unsuccessful in obtaining one, Fannie said. Like the Treasury Department‘s HAFA program, servicers cannot consider a borrower for HAFA until the borrower is evaluated and eliminated from eligibility for a Making Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) workout plan.

Also like the Treasury program, Fannie Mae will offer servicers cash incentives for completed HAFA transactions, $2,200 for short sales and $1,200 for deed-in-lieu of foreclosure agreements. Borrowers are also eligible for $3,000 in incentives.

That’s more than in the Treasury’s HAFA program, where servicers are eligible for $1,500. Under the Treasury program, borrowers receive $3,000. In addition, the investor is also eligible for a maximum of $2,000 incentive.

Participating servicers will be required to report on their Fannie Mae HAFA activities to both Fannie and the Treasury and the program sunsets on December 31, 2012.

After announcing the program in October 2009, Treasury’s HAFA program began in April. The Fannie Mae HAFA program is the latest in a string of programs designed to help borrowers avoid foreclosure. In addition to HAFA and HAMP workouts, Fannie Mae is letting some distressed borrowers stay in their homes as renters, under the deed for lease (D4L) program.

Under D4L, the homeowner-turned-renter is required to pay fair market rent to stay in their home for up to 12 months. The renter must have enough income to sustain a 31% income-to-rent ratio and rental payments are not subsidized by Fannie Mae, but could include renters eligible for Section 8 payments.

Also, in March 2010, Fannie Mae instructed its servicers to consider an “alternative modifications” for all mortgages that did not qualify for a permanent conversion under HAMP. That “Alt Mod” program, which sunsets on August 31, 2010, is similar to HAFA.

Write to Austin Kilgore.

The author held no relevant investments.

Tracking Loans Through a Firm That Holds Millions: MERS

Kevin P. Casey for The New York Times: Darlene and Robert Blendheim of Seattle are struggling to keep their home after their subprime lender went out of business.

By MIKE McINTIRE NYTimes
Published: April 23, 2009

Judge Walt Logan had seen enough. As a county judge in Florida, he had 28 cases pending in which an entity called MERS wanted to foreclose on homeowners even though it had never lent them any money.

Into the Mortgage NetherworldGraphicInto the Mortgage Netherworld

MERS, a tiny data-management company, claimed the right to foreclose, but would not explain how it came to possess the mortgage notes originally issued by banks. Judge Logan summoned a MERS lawyer to the Pinellas County courthouse and insisted that that fundamental question be answered before he permitted the drastic step of seizing someone’s home.

Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times R. K. Arnold, MERS president, said the company helped reduce mortgage fraud and imposed order on the industry.

“You don’t think that’s reasonable?” the judge asked.

“I don’t,” the lawyer replied. “And in fact, not only do I think it’s not reasonable, often that’s going to be impossible.”

Judge Logan had entered the murky realm of MERS. Although the average person has never heard of it, MERS — short for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems — holds 60 million mortgages on American homes, through a legal maneuver that has saved banks more than $1 billion over the last decade but made life maddeningly difficult for some troubled homeowners.

Created by lenders seeking to save millions of dollars on paperwork and public recording fees every time a loan changes hands, MERS is a confidential computer registry for trading mortgage loans. From an office in the Washington suburbs, it played an integral, if unsung, role in the proliferation of mortgage-backed securities that fueled the housing boom. But with the collapse of the housing market, the name of MERS has been popping up on foreclosure notices and on court dockets across the country, raising many questions about the way this controversial but legal process obscures the tortuous paths of mortgage ownership.

If MERS began as a convenience, it has, in effect, become a corporate cloak: no matter how many times a mortgage is bundled, sliced up or resold, the public record often begins and ends with MERS. In the last few years, banks have initiated tens of thousands of foreclosures in the name of MERS — about 13,000 in the New York region alone since 2005 — confounding homeowners seeking relief directly from lenders and judges trying to help borrowers untangle loan ownership. What is more, the way MERS obscures loan ownership makes it difficult for communities to identify predatory lenders whose practices led to the high foreclosure rates that have blighted some neighborhoods.

In Brooklyn, an elderly homeowner pursuing fraud claims had to go to court to learn the identity of the bank holding his mortgage note, which was concealed in the MERS system. In distressed neighborhoods of Atlanta, where MERS appeared as the most frequent filer of foreclosures, advocates wanting to engage lenders “face a challenge even finding someone with whom to begin the conversation,” according to a report by NeighborWorks America, a community development group.

To a number of critics, MERS has served to cushion banks from the fallout of their reckless lending practices.

“I’m convinced that part of the scheme here is to exhaust the resources of consumers and their advocates,” said Marie McDonnell, a mortgage analyst in Orleans, Mass., who is a consultant for lawyers suing lenders. “This system removes transparency over what’s happening to these mortgage obligations and sows confusion, which can only benefit the banks.”

A recent visitor to the MERS offices in Reston, Va., found the receptionist answering a telephone call from a befuddled borrower: “I’m sorry, ma’am, we can’t help you with your loan.” MERS officials say they frequently get such calls, and they offer a phone line and Web page where homeowners can look up the actual servicer of their mortgage.

In an interview, the president of MERS, R. K. Arnold, said that his company had benefited not only banks, but also millions of borrowers who could not have obtained loans without the money-saving efficiencies it brought to the mortgage trade. He said that far from posing a hurdle for homeowners, MERS had helped reduce mortgage fraud and imposed order on a sprawling industry where, in the past, lenders might have gone out of business and left no contact information for borrowers seeking assistance.

“We’re not this big bad animal,” Mr. Arnold said. “This crisis that we’ve had in the mortgage business would have been a lot worse without MERS.”

About 3,000 financial services firms pay annual fees for access to MERS, which has 44 employees and is owned by two dozen of the nation’s largest lenders, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. It was the brainchild of the Mortgage Bankers Association, along with Fannie MaeFreddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, the mortgage finance giants, who produced a white paper in 1993 on the need to modernize the trading of mortgages.

At the time, the secondary market was gaining momentum, and Wall Street banks and institutional investors were making millions of dollars from the creative bundling and reselling of loans. But unlike common stocks, whose ownership has traditionally been hidden, mortgage-backed securities are based on loans whose details were long available in public land records kept by county clerks, who collect fees for each filing. The “tyranny of these forms,” the white paper said, was costing the industry $164 million a year.

“Before MERS,” said John A. Courson, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, “the problem was that every time those documents or a file changed hands, you had to file a paper assignment, and that becomes terribly debilitating.”

Although several courts have raised questions over the years about the secrecy afforded mortgage owners by MERS, the legality has ultimately been upheld. The issue has surfaced again because so many homeowners facing foreclosure are dealing with MERS.

Advocates for borrowers complain that the system’s secrecy makes it impossible to seek help from the unidentified investors who own their loans. Avi Shenkar, whose company, the GMA Modification Corporation in North Miami Beach, Fla., helps homeowners renegotiate mortgages, said loan servicers frequently argued that “investor guidelines” prevented them from modifying loan terms.

“But when you ask what those guidelines are, or who the investor is so you can talk to them directly, you can’t find out,” he said.

MERS has considered making information about secondary ownership of mortgages available to borrowers, Mr. Arnold said, but he expressed doubts that it would be useful. Banks appoint a servicer to manage individual mortgages so “investors are not in the business of dealing with borrowers,” he said. “It seems like anything that bypasses the servicer is counterproductive,” he added.

When foreclosures do occur, MERS becomes responsible for initiating them as the mortgage holder of record. But because MERS occupies that role in name only, the bank actually servicing the loan deputizes its employees to act for MERS and has its lawyers file foreclosures in the name of MERS.

The potential for confusion is multiplied when the high-tech MERS system collides with the paper-driven foreclosure process. Banks using MERS to consummate mortgage trades with “electronic handshakes” must later prove their legal standing to foreclose. But without the chain of title that MERS removed from the public record, banks sometimes recreate paper assignments long after the fact or try to replace mortgage notes lost in the securitization process.

This maneuvering has been attacked by judges, who say it reflects a cavalier attitude toward legal safeguards for property owners, and exploited by borrowers hoping to delay foreclosure. Judge Logan in Florida, among the first to raise questions about the role of MERS, stopped accepting MERS foreclosures in 2005 after his colloquy with the company lawyer. MERS appealed and won two years later, although it has asked banks not to foreclose in its name in Florida because of lingering concerns.

Last February, a State Supreme Court justice in Brooklyn, Arthur M. Schack, rejected a foreclosure based on a document in which a Bank of New York executive identified herself as a vice president of MERS. Calling her “a milliner’s delight by virtue of the number of hats she wears,” Judge Schack wondered if the banker was “engaged in a subterfuge.”

In Seattle, Ms. McDonnell has raised similar questions about bankers with dual identities and sloppily prepared documents, helping to delay foreclosure on the home of Darlene and Robert Blendheim, whose subprime lender went out of business and left a confusing paper trail.

“I had never heard of MERS until this happened,” Mrs. Blendheim said. “It became an issue with us, because the bank didn’t have the paperwork to prove they owned the mortgage and basically recreated what they needed.”

The avalanche of foreclosures — three million last year, up 81 percent from 2007 — has also caused unforeseen problems for the people who run MERS, who take obvious pride in their unheralded role as a fulcrum of the American mortgage industry.

In Delaware, MERS is facing a class-action lawsuit by homeowners who contend it should be held accountable for fraudulent fees charged by banks that foreclose in MERS’s name.

Sometimes, banks have held title to foreclosed homes in the name of MERS, rather than their own. When local officials call and complain about vacant properties falling into disrepair, MERS tries to track down the lender for them, and has also created a registry to locate property managers responsible for foreclosed homes.

“But at the end of the day,” said Mr. Arnold, president of MERS, “if that lawn is not getting mowed and we cannot find the party who’s responsible for that, I have to get out there and mow that lawn.”

Q & A: What’s Next for Fannie and Freddie? WSJ

MAY 24, 2010, 9:53 AM ET

By Nick Timiraos

It turns out that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, already becoming the most expensive legacy for taxpayers from the financial crisis, aren’t just too big too fail. As my column in Monday’s WSJ explains, they’re also proving too tough to reform.

Here’s a closer look at five common questions about what’s happening with—and what’s next for—Fannie and Freddie:

1. Why doesn’t the financial-overhaul bill address Fannie and Freddie?

The Obama administration says it’s too soon to take action to address the future of the housing-finance giants because markets are still fragile, and others have said the bill is already too complex without Fannie and Freddie in the mix.

Revamping the housing-finance giants, which own or guarantee around half of the nation’s $10.3 trillion in home mortgages, was never going to be easy. But the fact that, together with the Federal Housing Administration, the companies guaranteed 96.5% of all new mortgages last quarter has made the challenge only greater.

During the debate on financial-overhaul legislation, Republicans proposed measures that would have wound down the companies and limited the amount of further government aid. But the amendments didn’t specify what would take the place of Fannie and Freddie.

Both parties are “ignoring the issue,” says Lawrence White, an economics professor at New York University. Yes, markets may be too fragile for action now, but he says a plan now would give markets time to prepare for the future.

2. Why are Fannie and Freddie still losing money?

The companies have taken $145 billion in handouts, including $19 billion this quarter, from the U.S. Treasury so far, and that number could rise as foreclosures mount. Each quarter, as more mortgages go delinquent, Fannie and Freddie have to set aside more cash in reserve to cover losses if those loans end up defaulting and the homes they’re secured by go through foreclosure.

Nearly all of those defaults are coming from loans that the companies made during and immediately after the housing boom. Loans today have significantly tighter lending standards and should be profitable.

While losses could continue for several quarters, there are signs that delinquencies may have peaked during the first quarter. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac each said that the number of its loans that were seriously delinquent fell in March, from February.

3. Why is the government still putting money into the companies?

Each quarter, the government injects new money into Fannie and Freddie to keep the companies afloat. That allows the firms to meet their obligations to investors, which keeps the mortgage market moving. If the government decided to stop keeping the firms afloat, that could send borrowing costs up sharply for future homeowners and could create new shocks for the housing market.

In February 2009, the Obama administration said it would double to $200 billion the amount of aid it was willing to put into each of the two firms. Then in December, it said it would waive those limits, and allow for unlimited sums over the next three years. The companies are now akin to government housing banks, with an independent regulator, but one that ultimately must answer to the Treasury Department, which controls the purse strings.

The current arrangement has raised concerns that the companies could continue to make business decisions that might lead to higher losses and that they wouldn’t be making if they were still being run for private shareholders. “Unregulated pots of money—that was a cause of their demise, and now we’ve taken that monster and turned it into a super-monster” with little independent oversight, says David Felt, a former senior lawyer at the companies’ federal regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

What would the mortgage market look like today without government support?

Consider the market for “jumbo” loans, or those too large for government backing. Rates on jumbos are around 0.6 percentage points higher than conforming loans. That’s nearly double the historical spread, but an improvement over the peak 1.8 percentage point spread during the financial crisis.

Lending standards are also much tighter for loans without government backing, and 30-year fixed rate loans are much less common. Mike Farrell, chief executive of Annaly Capital Management, estimates that mortgage rates today would be two to three percentage points higher without government guarantees.

What will ultimately happen to Fannie and Freddie?

Congress has to decide what it wants the housing-finance system of the future to do. “Everyone acknowledges that the model is broken, that the model was flawed, yet we don’t know how to run a mortgage market without them and we have nothing with which to replace the broken system,” says Howard Glaser, a Clinton administration housing official and housing-industry consultant.

Still, a consensus is growing between some academics and policymakers that the government will continue to play some role at least in backstopping mortgages. Recent testimony from top administration officials over some general insight into what the administration wants the future system to do.

What will ultimately happen to Fannie and Freddie?

Congress has to decide what it wants the housing-finance system of the future to do. “Everyone acknowledges that the model is broken, that the model was flawed, yet we don’t know how to run a mortgage market without them and we have nothing with which to replace the broken system,” says Howard Glaser, a Clinton administration housing official and housing-industry consultant.

Still, a consensus is growing between some academics and policymakers that the government will continue to play some role at least in backstopping mortgages. Recent testimony from top administration officials over some general insight into what the administration wants the future system to do.

There have been other clues: The Obama administration has made clear its view that the failure of Fannie and Freddie shouldn’t be pinned on government affordable-housing mandates, which suggests that any future housing-finance entities would continue to serve a role supporting that function. And an administration report on the foreclosure crisis said that better regulation of the entire mortgage market, and not just any government-related entities, would be a “high priority” for the future.

Readers, what do you think the government should do with the firms?

Freddie and Fannie won’t pay down your mortgage: CNN

This is why you need a FORENSIC AUDIT…Find the missing pieces of possible violations! DEMAND IT!

By Tami Luhby, senior writer May 14, 2010: 3:58 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Pressure is mounting on loan servicers and investors to reduce troubled homeowners’ loan balances…but the two largest owners of mortgages aren’t getting the message.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are controlled by the federal government, do not lower the principal on the loans they back, instead opting for interest rate reductions and term extensions when modifying loans.

But their stance is out of synch with the Obama administration, which is seeking to expand the use of principal writedowns. In late March, it announced servicers will be required to consider lowering balances in loan modifications.

And just who would tell Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500) to start allowing principal reductions? The Obama administration.

Asked whether they will implement balance reductions, the companies and their regulator declined to comment. The Treasury Department also declined to comment.

What’s holding them back is the companies’ mandate to conserve their assets and limit their need for taxpayer-funded cash infusions, experts said. If Fannie and Freddie lower homeowners’ loan balances, they are locking in losses because they have to write down the value of those mortgages. Essentially, that means using tax dollars to pay people’s mortgages.

The housing crisis has already wreaked havoc on the pair’s balance sheets. Between them, they have received $127 billion — and recently requested another $19 billion — from the Treasury Department since they were placed into conservatorship in September 2008, at the height of the financial crisis.

Housing experts, however, say it’s time for Fannie and Freddie to start reducing principal. Treasury and the companies have already set aside $75 billion for foreclosure prevention, which can be spent on interest-rate reductions or principal write downs.

“Treasury has to bite the bullet and get Fannie and Freddie to participate,” said Alan White, a law professor at Valparaiso University. “It’s all Treasury money one way or the other.”

Though servicers are loathe to lower loan balances, a growing chorus of experts and advocates say it’s the best way to stem the foreclosure crisis. Homeowners are more likely to walk away if they owe far more than the home is worth, regardless of whether the monthly payment is affordable. Nearly one in four borrowers in the U.S. are currently underwater.

“Principal reduction in the long run will lower the risk of redefault,” said Vishwanath Tirupattur, a Morgan Stanley managing director and co-author of the firm’s monthly report on the U.S. housing market. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of loans backed by Fannie and Freddie are falling into default. Their delinquency rates are rising even faster than those of subprime mortgages as the weak economy takes its toll on more credit-worthy homeowners. Fannie’s default rate jumped to 5.47% at the end of March, up from 3.15% a year earlier, while Freddie’s rose to 4.13%, up from 2.41%.

On top of that, the redefault rates on their modified loans are far worse than on those held by banks, according to federal regulators.

Some 59.5% of Fannie’s loans and 57.3% of Freddie’s loans were in default a year after modification, compared to 40% of bank-portfolio mortgages, according to a joint report from the Office of Thrift Supervision and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. This is part because banks are reducing the principal on their own loans, experts said.

So, advocates argue, lowering loan balances now can actually save the companies — and taxpayers — money later.

“It can be a financial benefit to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the taxpayer,” said Edward Pinto, who was chief credit officer for Fannie in the late 1980s.

What might force the companies’ hand is another Obama administration foreclosure prevention plan called the Hardest Hit Fund, which has charged 10 states to come up with innovative ways to help the unemployed and underwater.

Four states have proposed using their share of the $2.1 billion fund to pay off up to $50,000 of underwater homeowners’ balances, but only if loan servicers and investors — including Fannie and Freddie — agree to match the writedowns. State officials are currently in negotiations with the pair.

“We remain optimistic that we can get a commitment from Fannie, Freddie and the banks to contribute to this strategy,” said David Westcott, director of homeownership programs for the Florida Housing Finance Corp., which is spearheading the state’s proposal.

 

Securities and Investments: Fraud Digest

Securities and Investments 

Morgan Stanley

Action Date: May 12, 2010 
Location: New York, NY 

EDITORIAL: On May 12, 2010, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Executive announced in response to a Wall Street Journal article that he was unaware of any criminal investigation by the Justice Department that his firm, like Goldman Sachs, misled investors about mortgage-backed derivative deals. The WSJ had reported that Morgan Stanley was the subject of such an investigation. In addition to determining whether the firm was betting against the very products it was promoting to investors, the Justice Department COULD investigate whether Morgan Stanley and other securities firms exercised secret control over the rating agencies, causing risky investments to get the highest ratings by these firms. The Justice Department COULD also investigate whether the mortgage-backed trusts put together by Morgan Stanley were comprised of much riskier mortgages than represented to investors. Another investigation COULD be conducted regarding the pay-outs from the insurance policies behind the CDOs and whether the servicing companies working for the trusts are collecting twice – from the insurance and from the foreclosures – and then turning around, acquiring the foreclosed properties for $10 – and profiting yet a third time. Investigators COULD even determine whether foreclosure mills working for trusts created by Morgan Stanley are now using forged proof of ownership to foreclose because Morgan Stanley never acquired the mortgages, notes and assignments they claimed to have in their vaults, backing the mortgage-backed securities. In the battle between the Justice Department and Wall Street, Goliath is in New York, not D.C. 

Was There a Plan to Blow Up the Economy? The Subprime Conspiracy: COUNTERPUNCH

May 3, 2010

Was There a Plan to Blow Up the Economy?

The Subprime Conspiracy

By MIKE WHITNEY

Many people now believe that the financial crisis was not an accident. They think that the Bush administration and the Fed knew what Wall Street was up to and provided their support. This isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. As we will show, it’s clear that Bush, Greenspan and many other high-ranking officials understood the problem with subprime mortgages and knew that a huge asset bubble was emerging that threatened the economy. But while the housing bubble was more than just an innocent mistake, it doesn’t rise to the level of “conspiracy” which Webster defines as  “a secret agreement between two or more people to perform an unlawful act.”  It’s actually worse than that, because bubblemaking is the dominant policy, and it’s used to overcome structural problems in capitalism itself, mainly stagnation.

The whole idea of a conspiracy diverts attention from what really happened. It conjures up a comical vision of  top-hat business tycoons gathered in a smoke-filled room stealthily mapping out the country’s future. It ignores the fact, that the main stakeholders don’t need to convene a meeting to know what they want. They already know what they want; they want a process that helps them to maintain profitability even while the “real” economy remains stuck in the mud.  Historian Robert Brenner has written extensively on this topic and dispels the mistaken view that the economy is “fundamentally strong”. (in the words of former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson)  Here’s Brenner :

“The current crisis is more serious than the worst previous recession of the postwar period, between 1979 and 1982, and could conceivably come to rival the Great Depression, though there is no way of really knowing. Economic forecasters have underestimated how bad it is because they have over-estimated the strength of the real economy and failed to take into account the extent of its dependence upon a buildup of debt that relied on asset price bubbles.

“In the U.S., during the recent business cycle of the years 2001-2007, GDP growth was by far the slowest of the postwar epoch. There was no increase in private sector employment. The increase in plants and equipment was about a third of the previous, a postwar low. Real wages were basically flat. There was no increase in median family income for the first time since World War II. Economic growth was driven entirely by personal consumption and residential investment, made possible by easy credit and rising house prices. Economic performance was weak, even despite the enormous stimulus from the housing bubble and the Bush administration’s huge federal deficits. Housing by itself accounted for almost one-third of the growth of GDP and close to half of the increase in employment in the years 2001-2005. It was, therefore, to be expected that when the housing bubble burst, consumption and residential investment would fall, and the economy would plunge. ” (“Overproduction not Financial Collapse is the Heart of the Crisis”, Robert P. Brenner speaks with Jeong Seong-jin, Asia Pacific Journal)

What Brenner describes is an economy \that–despite unfunded tax cuts, massive military spending and gigantic asset bubbles–can barely produce positive growth.  The pervasive lethargy of mature capitalist economies poses huge challenges for industry bosses who are judged solely on their ability to boost quarterly profits. Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein and JPM’s Jamie Dimon could care less about economic theory, what they’re interested in is making money; how to deploy their capital in a way that maximizes return on investment. “Profits”, that’s it.  And that’s much more difficult in a world that’s beset by overcapacity and flagging demand.  The world doesn’t need more widgets or widget-makers. The only way to ensure profitability is to invent an alternate system altogether, a new universe of financial exotica (CDOs, MBSs, CDSs) that operates independent of the sluggish real economy. Financialization provides that opportunity. It allows the main players to pump-up the leverage, minimize capital-outlay, inflate asset prices, and skim off record profits even while the real  economy endures severe stagnation.

Financialization provides a  path to wealth creation, which is why the sector’s portion of total corporate profits is now nearly 40 per cent. It’s a way to bypass the pervasive inertia of the production-oriented economy. The Fed’s role in this new paradigm is to create a hospitable environment (low interest rates) for bubble-making so the upward transfer of wealth can continue without interruption. Bubblemaking is policy.

As we’ve pointed out in earlier articles, scores of people knew what was going on during the subprime fiasco. But it’s worth a quick review, because Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Timothy Geithner, and others have been defending themselves saying, “Who could have known?”.

The FBI knew (“In September 2004, the FBI began publicly warning that there was an “epidemic” of mortgage fraud, and it predicted that it would produce an economic crisis, if it were not dealt with.”) The FDIC knew. ( In testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, FDIC chairman Sheila Bair confirmed that she not only warned the Fed of what was going on in 2001, but cited particular regulations (HOEPA) under which the Fed could stop the “unfair, abusive and deceptive practices” by the banks.) Also Fitch ratings knew, and even Alan Greenspan’s good friend and former Fed governor Ed Gramlich knew. (Gramlich personally warned Greenspan of the surge in predatory lending that was apparent as early as 2000. Here’s a bit of what Gramlich said in the Wall Street Journal:

“I would have liked the Fed to be a leader” in cracking down on predatory lending, Mr. Gramlich, now a scholar at the Urban Institute, said in an interview this past week. Knowing it would be controversial with Mr. Greenspan, whose deregulatory philosophy is well known, Mr. Gramlich broached it to him personally rather than take it to the full board. “He was opposed to it, so I didn’t really pursue it,” says Mr. Gramlich. (Wall Street Journal)

So, Greenspan knew, too. And, according to Elizabeth MacDonald  in an article titled “Housing Red flags Ignored”:

“One of the nation’s biggest mortgage industry players repeatedly warned the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other bank regulators during the housing bubble that the U.S. faced an imminent housing crash….But bank regulators not only ignored the group’s warnings, top Fed officials also went on the airwaves to say the economy was “building on a sturdy foundation” and a housing crash was “unlikely.”

So, the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America [MICA] also knew. And, here’s a clip from the Washington Post by former New York governor Eliot Spitzer who accused Bush of being a ‘partner in crime’ in the subprime fiasco. Spitzer says that the OCC launched “an unprecedented assault on state legislatures, as well as on state attorneys general just to make sure the looting would continue without interruption. Here’s an except from Spitzer’s article:

“In 2003, during the height of the predatory lending crisis….the OCC promulgated new rules that prevented states from enforcing any of their own consumer protection laws against national banks. The federal government’s actions were so egregious and so unprecedented that all 50 state attorneys general, and all 50 state banking superintendents, actively fought the new rules. (Washington Post)

So, the Fed knew, the Treasury knew, the FBI knew, the OCC knew, the FDIC knew, Bush knew, the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America knew, Fitch ratings knew, all the states Attorneys General knew, and thousands, of traders, lenders, ratings agency executives, bankers, hedge fund managers, private equity bosses, regulators knew. Everyone knew, except the unlucky people who were victimized in the biggest looting operation of all time.

Once again, looking for conspiracy, just diverts attention from the nature of the crime itself. Here’s a statement from former regulator and white collar criminologist William K. Black which helps to clarify the point:

“Fraudulent lenders produce exceptional short-term ‘profits’ through a four-part strategy: extreme growth (Ponzi), lending to uncreditworthy borrowers, extreme leverage, and minimal loss reserves. These exceptional ‘profits’ defeat regulatory restrictions and turn private market discipline perverse. The profits also allow the CEO to convert firm assets for personal benefit through seemingly normal compensation mechanisms. The short-term profits cause stock options to appreciate. Fraudulent CEOs following this strategy are guaranteed extraordinary income while minimizing risks of detection and prosecution.” (William K. Black,“Epidemics of’Control Fraud’ Lead to Recurrent, Intensifying Bubbles andCrises”, University of Missouri at Kansas City – School of Law)

Black’s definition of “control fraud” comes very close to describing what really took place during the subprime mortgage frenzy. The investment banks and other financial institutions bulked up on garbage loans and complex securities backed by dodgy mortgages so they could increase leverage and rake off large bonuses for themselves. Clearly, they knew the underlying collateral was junk, just as they knew that eventually the market would crash and millions of people would suffer.

But, while it’s true that Greenspan and Wall Street knew how the bubble-game was played; they had no intention of blowing up the whole system. They simply wanted to inflate the bubble, make their profits, and get out before the inevitable crash.  But, then something went wrong. When Lehman collapsed, the entire financial system suffered a major heart attack. All of the so-called “experts” models turned out to be wrong.

Here’s what happened: Before to the meltdown, the depository “regulated” banks got their funding through the repo market by exchanging collateral (mainly mortgage-backed securities) for short-term loans with the so-called “shadow banks” (investment banks, hedge funds, insurers) But after Lehman defaulted, the funding stream was severely impaired because the prices on mortgage-backed securities kept falling. When the bank-funding system went on the fritz,  stocks went into a nosedive sending panicky investors fleeing for the exits. As unbelievable as it sounds, no one saw this coming.

The reason that no one anticipated a run on the shadow banking system is because the basic architecture of the financial markets has changed dramatically in the last decade due to deregulation. The fundamental structure is different and the traditional stopgaps have been removed. That’s why no one knew what to do during the panic. The general assumption was that there would be a one-to-one relationship between defaulting subprime mortgages and defaulting mortgage-backed securities (MBS). That turned out to be a grave miscalculation. The subprimes were only failing at roughly 8 percent rate when the whole secondary market collapsed. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill explained it best using a clever analogy. He said, “It’s like you have 8 bottles of water and just one of them has arsenic in it. It becomes impossible to sell any of the other bottles because no one knows which one contains the poison.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The market for structured debt crashed, stocks began to plummet, and the Fed had to step in to save the system. Unfortunately, that same deeply-flawed system is being rebuilt brick by brick without any substantive changes.. The Fed and Treasury support this effort, because–as agents of the banks–they are willing to sacrifice their own credibility to defend the primary profit-generating instruments of the industry leaders. (Goldman, JPM, etc) That means that Bernanke and Geithner will go to the mat to oppose any additional regulation on derivatives, securitization and off-balance sheet operations, the same lethal devices that triggered the financial crisis.

So, there was no conspiracy to blow up the financial system, but there is an implicit understanding that the Fed will serve the interests of Wall Street by facilitating asset bubbles through “accommodative” monetary policy and by opposing regulation. It’s just “business as usual”, but it’s far more damaging than any conspiracy, because it ensures that the economy will continue to stagnate, that inequality will continue to grow, and that the gigantic upward transfer of wealth will continue without pause.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached atfergiewhitney@msn.com