Nation Topics - Banking Predatory Lending
News and Features
Sounds like an episode of The Simpsons, but this
is for real: The retail giant wants even more of your money.
Where is the public's outrage over corruption in US
finance and banking?
This clutch of books offers
an excellent retrospective on the recent stock-market crash, which
wiped out $8.5 trillion in market value.
Like mushrooms after a spring rain, signs pop up at this time of year in hardscrabble urban neighborhoods across the country, promising quick and easy money.
See also Tim Shorrock's March 2002 story for The Nation
on the Carlyle Group.
The capital unscrupulously pumped from poor neighborhoods by way of
predatory loans whizzes along a high-speed financial pipeline to Wall
Street to be used for investment. "It's about creating debt that can be
turned into bonds that can be sold to customers on Wall Street,"
explains Irv Ackelsberg, an attorney with Community Legal Services in
Philadelphia who has been defending clients against foreclosure and
working to restructure onerous loans for twenty-five years.
Household-name companies like Lehman Brothers, Prudential and First
Union are involved in managing the process of bundling loans--including
subprime and predatory--into mortgage-backed securities. They often
provide the initial cash to make the loans, find banks to act as
trustees, pull together the layers of financial and insurance
institutions, and create the "special vehicles"--shades of Enron--that
shield investors from risk.
Four securities-rating agencies--Moody's, Standard & Poor's, Duff
& Phelps and Fitch--provide bond ratings for all of Wall Street;
before assigning the acceptable rating that will draw investors, they
assess the risk firewalls constructed by the securitizing company. It
becomes a complex matrix of financial operations designed to generate
capital and minimize risk for Wall Street with the unwitting help of
borrowers. "This whole business is about providing triple-A bonds to
funds that you or I would invest in," says Ackelsberg. "The poor are
being used to produce this debt--what you have is a glorified
Ackelsberg and his colleagues frequently find themselves struggling
through a tangle of companies to find a party legally liable for remedy
when a client is in foreclosure due to a bad loan. Often the company
that originated the loan doesn't actually own it but, rather, is acting
as a servicing agent--assuring the cash flow to a securitization trust.
Frequently shifting ownership also complicates attempts to create
accountability: In one case, United Companies Lending, once hired as a
trust by Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt; EMC Mortgage Corporation, a
wholly owned subsidiary of Bear Stearns, placed the highest bid for the
right to service the outstanding loans and collect the servicing fees.
Sheila Canavan, a Berkeley-based attorney who recently won a settlement
that will pay out some $60 million to the plaintiffs in a fraud lawsuit
against First Alliance Mortgage, says, "The industry and lawyers make it
as complicated and arcane as they can so people don't understand." They
also, she adds, want to distance themselves from the frontline predators
who hawk the loans.
Government-sponsored mortgage lenders Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Ginnie Mae
(GNMA) have long bundled conventional loans--in the 8-percent range--to
create mortgage-backed securities. During the mergers and acquisitions
boom in the mid-1990s, when banks began absorbing subprime lenders, Wall
Street caught on to the potential of bunching subprime mortgages,
including predatory loans. "The banks realized that this was a
moneymaker," says Shirley Peoples, a social research analyst for the
Calvert Group, an investment fund specializing in socially responsible
lending. "They put a legitimacy on it, but it still is what it is."
"Wall Street, since it got into securitization, needs product, needs
mortgage loans to pull together," says Canavan. The securities are then
aggressively marketed, she says. "The Wall Streeters go around the
country, pools of loans are sold to institutional investors, pension
And while it looks as if the lenders themselves set up the difficult
loan terms, Canavan says that Wall Street encourages the gouging
practices. The big financial institutions fronting cash for predatory
loans have information on the loans' interest rates and know very well
what it takes to trap borrowers into those rates. They also build in
incentives for dubious practices: "The loan originators are compensated
with late fees," Canavan says, by way of example. "They're going to make
sure payments don't get there on time, that they get lost or, as the
industry says, 'drawered.'"
It's tough for a mutual fund investor to know whether investment dollars
are going toward supporting a predatory loan scheme. The investor who
knows the names of the biggest offenders may be able to detect them in a
prospectus, but many times the information is not included or the names
of the companies change. Socially responsible funds such as Calvert and
organizations like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
have been meeting face to face with banking interests to probe their
policies and positions on bundling the predatory loans. And many in the
industry argue that a rash of bankruptcies and financial failures has
pressured the industry to reform.
But not all consumer advocates buy that.
"These companies come and go," says Ackelsberg, "but the residue of
their abusive activity remains because the mortgage loans are still out
Outraged at lenders who prey on the poor, activists are striking back.
The IMF deserves to be blamed. But so does the country's willing political class.
"Debacle in Kwangju." Were Washington's cables read as a green light for
the 1980 Korean massacre? (1996)
"Stiglitz Roars Back" (2001)
On February 21 the California Public Employees Retirement System stunned financial markets in Asia when it said it would withdraw its $450 million investments in publicly traded companies in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia to comply with new investment guidelines on human rights, labor standards and other political factors.
But the new guidelines don't apply to the fund's substantial investments in private equity markets, including its $475 million stake in the Carlyle Group--nor does CalPERS, the nation's largest public pension fund, see any reason why it should. "I don't have any moral reservations at all" about Carlyle, said Michael Flaherman, chairman of the investment committee of CalPERS.
The $151 billion CalPERS retirement fund, the largest such fund in the world, is invested on behalf of California's 1.2 million state workers and includes $35 billion invested overseas. The fund's relationship with Carlyle began in 1996; over the next four years it invested $330 million in two Carlyle funds, including $75 million in Carlyle Asia Partners. The relationship deepened last spring when CalPERS invested $175 million to buy a 5.5 percent stake in Carlyle. The relationship--so close that CalPERS owns the elegant office building in Washington, DC, where Carlyle's headquarters are located--is far more important to Carlyle than it is to CalPERS, industry analysts said. "CalPERS is called an anchor investor," explained David Snow, editor of PrivateEquityCentral.net, an industry newsletter. "When Carlyle goes to other investors, they can say CalPERS is in."
Carlyle's experience with CalPERS has apparently whetted its appetite for labor pension money. According to an official close to Carlyle, the bank is raising money for a $750 million fund to invest in "worker-friendly companies." Of that total, Carlyle hopes to attract at least $250 million in labor pension money, the official said. Questions about pension fund investments in private equity have become more relevant since the collapse of Enron, with which CalPERS had extensive private business partnerships. Several unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), strongly opposed the partnerships as well as CalPERS investments in Enron stocks and bonds. Those concerns included Enron's support for energy privatization, its employment of former government officials to lobby for privatization and its sordid human rights record in India. (CalPERS made $133 million from one Enron partnership and may see a gain on another; it lost $105 million on its stock and bond holdings.)
Within the labor movement, CalPERS is highly respected for its cooperation in challenging managers and corporations suspected of violating human rights or abusing workers. In 1999 CalPERS supported two union-backed candidates for the board of Maxxam during a bitter strike by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). Two years ago CalPERS joined the AFL-CIO in an investors' boycott when the Chinese government and Goldman Sachs took Petrochina, a state-owned oil company, public. The fund's new standards for public investments in emerging markets are the culmination of more than two years of sometimes fierce internal debate. CalPERS investment managers must now consider a wide range of non-economic factors, including a country's political stability, financial transparency and record on labor standards, workers' rights and building democracy. Based on a review by Wilshire Associates, the CalPERS pension consultant, thirteen emerging markets, including Turkey, South Korea and South Africa, passed the test, compared with four that failed. The fund had already banned its managers from investing in publicly traded companies in China and India. "CalPERS is taking more steps in this direction than any pension fund we know about," said Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO's associate general counsel who focuses on investment strategy.
In December Carlyle sent its three founding partners to Sacramento to brief the CalPERS investment board. One, David Rubenstein, made passing reference to the budding media interest in Carlyle, noting that Carlyle's activities are "visible and under increasing scrutiny." To protect the Carlyle and CalPERS names, he assured the board that Carlyle is "following the highest ethical standards" by "avoiding investments in industries including tobacco, gambling and firearms."
But Carlyle's deep involvement with the military-industrial complex and its ties to the Bush Administration continue to raise questions. Both the SEIU and the Communications Workers of America are collecting information on Carlyle to provide to their pension trustees.
Down the road, Carlyle's investments in Asian companies facing downsizing, manufacturers in China and military conglomerates in Turkey could present serious dilemmas. It's not hard to find contradictions: Carlyle already has investments in China, which is on the CalPERS blacklist for public stock markets, and it is gearing up for more. Liu Hong-Ru, a former official with China's central bank who sits on Carlyle's Asian Advisory Board, is a senior adviser to Petrochina, the company whose public offering CalPERS boycotted in 2000. Until last year, Carlyle was the official adviser to Saudi Arabia's offset program, which allows buyers of US military hardware to use their purchasing power to pressure companies to transfer technology and jobs to their economies. "In effect, Carlyle was telling another country how to leverage their purchases of military equipment in ways that create the most jobs in that country, not this country," said Randy Barber, an expert on offsets at the Center for Economic Organizing in Washington.
Some trade unionists also know from experience that private equity funds aren't the best judge of what constitutes a worker-friendly environment. In 1998 several unions involved with CalPERS were shocked to learn that CalPERS was a partner with a private restructuring fund for Asia run by New York financier Wilbur Ross that played a key role in the suppression of a strike in South Korea. The strike led to the imprisonment of forty Korean trade unionists.
Investors in Carlyle's equity funds include state pension plans in Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, New York and Texas, as well as in Los Angeles County. Others are the Ohio Workers Compensation Bureau and Union Labor Life Insurance, a union-run insurance company. According to industry newsletters, union pension funds with significant holdings in private equity markets include SEIU, the USWA, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.