In early 2012 when five big banks settled with state and federal officials over widespread foreclosure abuses, flagrant violations — including the seizure of homes without due process — were supposed to end. But abuses keep coming to light. Despite happy talk about a housing rebound, nearly three million homeowners are in or near foreclosure, and many continue to be victimized by improper and possibly illegal practices.
A year ago, when the nation’s biggest banks settled with state and federal officials over claims of foreclosure abuses, the public was led to believe that the deal would allow millions of hard-pressed borrowers to escape the threat of foreclosure. It still hasn’t happened.
A third progress report was issued last Thursday by the monitor of the settlement, which, among its terms, required the banks to grant $25 billion worth of mortgage relief, much of it by reducing the principal balances on troubled loans. The report showed that through the end of 2012, 71,000 borrowers had their primary mortgages modified, versus 170,000 who received help on their second mortgages, including home equity loans.
Remember the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP? When we last heard from the Treasury Department, on Jan. 23, TARP was being wound down. It was, in the estimation of Timothy Geithner & Co., a success: 93% of the $418 billion disbursed had been collected including $70 billion last year. Read the latest Treasury Department progress report on TARP.
But hold the Champagne. It ain’t over till it’s over.
The idea that TARP is somehow a wash because a few banks repaid the bailouts with interest is misleading. The reality is that bailed-out firms essentially wrote off their losses on taxes. As of Dec. 30, TARP was still owed $67.3 billion, including $27 billion in realized losses — which is to say, that money is gone and is never coming back. See the inspector general’s Jan. 30 report on TARP.
On television, in interviews and in meetings with investors, executives of the biggest U.S. banks -- notably JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon -- make the case that size is a competitive advantage. It helps them lower costs and vie for customers on an international scale. Limiting it, they warn, would impair profitability and weaken the country’s position in global finance.
So what if we told you that, by our calculations, the largest U.S. banks aren’t really profitable at all? What if the billions of dollars they allegedly earn for their shareholders were almost entirely a gift from U.S. taxpayers?
Granted, it’s a hard concept to swallow. It’s also crucial to understanding why the big banks present such a threat to the global economy.
Let’s start with a bit of background. Banks have a powerful incentive to get big and unwieldy. The larger they are, the more disastrous their failure would be and the more certain they can be of a government bailout in an emergency.