For months, a massive federal settlement with big Wall Street banks over their role in the mortgage crisis has been in the offing. The rumored details have always given progressives heartburn: civil immunity, no investigations, inadequate help for homeowners and a small penalty for the banks. Now, on the eve President Obama’s State of the Union address—in which he plans to further advance a populist message against big money and income inequality—the deal may be here, and it’s every bit as ugly as progressives feared.
The Associated Press reports that a proposed deal could be announced within weeks. Five banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC)—would pay the federal government $25 billion. About $17 billion would be used to reduce the principal that some struggling homeowners owe, $5 billion more would be used for future federal and state programs and $3 billion would be used to help homeowners refinance at 5.25 percent. Civil immunity would be granted to the banks for any role in foreclosure fraud, and there would be no investigations.
There are several reasons why this is could be a terrible deal. For one, the dollar amount is inadequate in relation to both the tremendous loss of wealth via mortgage fraud and the hefty balance sheets of these massive companies. Furthermore, the banks might be allowed to use investor money instead of their own funds—this makes the penalty even lower. Beyond all that: it’s extremely hard to justify the absence of investigations and punishment for mortgage fraud that was so widespread and so damaging to people’s lives.
There are also many other, more serious problems besides a lack of punitive action. The small amount of money—and the federal government’s recent inability to truly help underwater mortgage holders, of which there are currently 11 million—means that the victims of mortgage fraud might not see enough relief. And perhaps most importantly, with no real punishment for widespread damaging fraud, what are the incentives on Wall Street not to engage in similarly destructive practices once again?
On a major conference call this morning, many leading progressive voices inside Washington and out blasted the deal.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio characterized the rumored deal as “not much more than a slap on the wrist,” and added that while banks were always know to be too big to fail, they were now apparently “too big to jail.”
“When laws are broken there need to be full investigations,” Brown said. “Wall Street should not get another bailout.”
Brown urged Obama to reject the deal and order investigations into the banks’ practices immediately. Simon Johnson, an economist at MIT and well-known progressive voice, also called for no deal and immediate investigations.
“This is not just the right thing do, and not just good politics, it’s good economics,” Johnson said. “What’s at stake here is the rule of law.”
Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, blasted the rumored deal as well and urged the administration to consider the political optics.
“No one who robbed a bank would be offered immunity, a modest fine, and no admission of guilt before there was an investigation,” Borosage said. “Americans are increasingly cynical with the ability of democracy to deal with special interests.
“The president’s campaign will sensibly highlight his commitment to fairer rules,” he continued. “Needless to say, a sweetheart deal with the banks will contrast with that.”
As we noted last week, many progressive groups have begun a massive petition drive to push back against the settlement and demand fair investigations. Moreover, attorneys general in California, New York, Delaware, Nevada and Massachusetts have previously said they won’t be a part of any deal that offers civil immunity.
So the deal is far from done—but it’s certainly moving towards an undesirable conclusion. We’ll have plenty more in this space all week.