I follow mortgage-backed securities litigation closely enough to be disgusted at the greed that fueled the securitization of insufficiently underwritten mortgages issued to homeowners who had no hope of paying them off. Sure, MBS investors and the bond insurers that backed MBS trusts were sophisticated and, to some extent, forewarned about the timebombs lurking in those mortgage pools. But you can’t read the voluminous MBS filings by monolines and investors — including the federal agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — without wishing that someone be held accountable for sending the housing market on a slide, and dragging down the rest of the economy with it.
To date, accountability has been an elusive goal. I’m not talking about private suits or breach-of-contract put-back claims, in which MBS issuers are beginning to acknowledge billions of dollars of exposure to investors and insurers. But state and federal regulators and prosecutors have lagged behind the private plaintiffs bar (and the Federal Housing Finance Agency). As best I can tell, there have been no criminal prosecutions of people or institutions involved in mortgage-backed securitizations. On the civil side, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, brought an MBS-based suit against Deutsche Bank last May. This summer, the New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, filed Martin Act claims against Bank of New York Mellon for its conduct as Countrywide MBS securitization trustee. In October, the Delaware AG, Joseph Biden III, filed a civil suit against the Mortgage Electronic Registry System that accuses the banks that established MERS of using it as a vehicle to bundle mortgages they didn’t actually own. And last week, the Illinois AG, Lisa Madigan, sued Standard & Poor‘s for giving undeserved AAA ratings to overly risky mortgage-backed notes.
Those, however, are the only major government cases stemming from mortgage-backed securitizations that I’m aware of. For well over a year, the MBS industry has been under intense scrutiny by government investigators, from (among others) Congress, the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the N.Y., Delaware, and Massachusetts AGs’ offices. So far, we haven’t seen a lot of tangible results from those investigations.
That’s why I’m skeptical that the new MBS fraud task force, introduced Friday at a press conference headlined by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami, and N.Y. AG Eric Schneiderman, is going to wreak vengeance on MBS wrongdoers.
Both Khuzami and Holder, in fact, emphasized what their lawyers have already done in probing financial fraud. “To be clear, investigations into RMBS offerings have been ongoing at the SEC. Along with experts across the agency, we have a specialized unit dedicated to the effort,” Khuzami’s press release said. “We already have issued scores of subpoenas, analyzed more than approximately 25 million pages of documents, dozens and dozens of witnesses, and worked with our industry experts to analyze the terms of these deals and the accuracy of the disclosures made to investors.” (Under Khuzami, the SEC has brought several actions against companies and banks that allegedly under-reported their exposure to subprime mortgages; and several more against banks and individuals that allegedly deceived investors in MBS derivatives.) Holder’s press release pointed to the securities, bank, and investment fraud cases the Justice Department has recently prosecuted, along with DOJ’s Fair Lending settlement with Countrywide parent Bank of America.