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PD Editorial: Striking at the root cause of the collapse

  • This artwork by Paul Tong relates to Wall Street banks still gambling with clients' money.

A tentative agreement by Bank of America to pay nearly $17 billion to settle fraud claims surrounding the sale of toxic mortgage securities could mark the end of a long battle. But the war — to recover from the Great Recession and to learn from the lessons that got us there so as not to repeat them — continues.

The agreement reportedly involves $9 billion in cash. The rest is to come in the form of mortgage modifications and other relief measures for struggling homeowners.

Some consumer advocates are already criticizing the penalty as a drop in the bucket compared to the massive losses created by toxic mortgages. It also means it’s unlikely that any individual from Bank of America or its subsidiaries will serve prison time for the fraud that the Justice Department alleged had occurred prior to the economic collapse.

Nonetheless, it would be the largest penalty assessed to date, more than the $7 billion settlement reached with Citigroup Inc. and more than the JPMorgan Chase & Co. penalty of $13 billion. And it would come just two years after the White House, criticized for having done little to hold lending institutions accountable for actions that contributed to the housing crisis, went on the offensive. President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to look into mortgage fraud through a designated task force.

The settlement secured by the Justice Department centers around $245 billion in toxic mortgages from Bank of America and three firms acquired by the bank from 2006 to 2008: Countrywide Financial Corp., Merrill Lynch & Co. and First Franklin Financial Corp.

Bank of America had resisted government pressure to pay a heavy fine, claiming it directly was responsible for $10 billion of the loans and should not be held accountable for the actions of companies it didn’t control prior to the collapse. But the courts would have none of it. The latest settlement — Bank of America previously had agreed to far lesser amounts — followed a ruling by a U.S. District Judge in Manhattan on Wednesday ordering Bank of America to pay a $1.27 billion penalty in another federal mortgage case. In so doing, the judge made clear that the bank was responsible for the “brazen fraud” over shoddy mortgages sold by Countrywide, which the bank acquired in July 2008. Bank of America could see the writing on the wall.

It is enough? No, not in terms of the damages done by companies such as Countrywide to American families. Many homeowners accepted these loans fully understanding the risks involved. Others, however, were lured into them or had investments tied up with these shoddy securities.

But as the New York Times has reported, it would be the largest single federal settlement in the history of corporate America. The hope of full reparation against institutions once considered too big to fail may have been a goal too big to succeed. But this penalty, if and when it is fully assessed, would still be significant.


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