Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010
By JOE NOCERA
Earlier this week, Bank of America, the nation’s largest consumer bank, reported its third-quarter earnings. It was a very good quarter; putting aside an accounting charge — a very large, $10.4 billion accounting charge, admittedly — the bank reported $3.1 billion in profits. It was the third consecutive quarter that Bank of America had earned more than $3 billion.
During the ensuing conference call Tuesday morning, there was the requisite chest-thumping from Brian Moynihan, the chief executive, and Chuck Noski, the chief financial officer. But there was also something else: tough talk about two big legal problems the bank faces as a result of the subprime bubble. Not surprising, it was the latter that caught my attention.
Like everyone else, I’d been reading with amazement the stories about one of those legal problems: the robo-signing scandal that has ensnared all the banks with mortgage servicing subsidiaries, Bank of America included. That’s the scandal in which a tiny handful of employees had signed — or allowed others to forge their signatures — on thousands of affidavits confirming that the banks had the legal right to foreclose on properties they serviced. In truth, they had often never seen the documents proving the bank had that legal right. In some cases, the documents didn’t even exist. As a result of the mounting publicity, many big banks had halted all foreclosures while they reviewed the legality of their affidavits.
Mr. Moynihan said that, at Bank of America, at least, the foreclosure halt in 23 states that require judicial proceedings was over. It had reviewed some 102,000 affidavits and — guess what? — no big problem! “The teams reviewing data have not found information which was inaccurate” or that would change the plain facts of foreclosure — namely that the homeowners it wanted to foreclose on were in serious arrears.
Thus the bank’s central position is that, since it is so doggone obvious that the homeowners can’t pay their mortgages, the fact that the affidavits might not have complied with the law shouldn’t cause anyone to break into a sweat. At one point Mr. Noski actually said, “I think it’s a big issue because people are losing homes. It’s not a big issue” for the servicers. Glad he cleared that up.
The prospect of a second legal assault is more recent. Shortly before the earnings call, Bank of America 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.