MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
BuzzFlash at Truthout has written many commentaries on how the Obama administration has been - and continues to be - quite lenient with Wall Street when it comes to financial malfeasance. In particular, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have assiduously avoided, for the most part, any serious institutional or personal criminal responsibility for massive fraud committed by banks too big to fail and other mega-financial institutions.
The settlement this week between the DOJ and Bank of America for its role in the financial fraud that busted the economy in 2008 (including its acquisition of the scam company it acquired, Countrywide Financial) is yet another example of a large fine that looks like punishment, but amounts to much, much less than meets the eye. Indeed, that is the assessment of an August 21 article in the "Dealmaker" section of The New York Times (NYT):
"The real financial cost to the bank could be considerably lower," said Laurie Goodman, a specialist in housing at the Urban Institute. "This is helping consumers, but it may not be costing the bank."
The actual pain to the bank could also be significantly reduced by tax deductions. Tax analysts, for instance, estimate that Bank of America could derive $1.6 billion of tax savings on the $4.63 billion of payments to the states and some federal agencies under the settlement. Shares of Bank of America jumped 4 percent on Thursday, suggesting investors believe that the bank could take the settlement in stride.
"The American public is expecting the Justice Department to hold the banks accountable for its misdeeds in the mortgage meltdown," said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization. "But these tax write-offs shift the burden back onto taxpayers and send the wrong message by treating parts of the settlement as an ordinary business expense."
Given that we are talking about a dominant Wall Street bank and financial behemoth, the takeaway sentence from The New York Times is: "Shares of Bank of America jumped 4 percent on Thursday, suggesting investors believe that the bank could take the settlement in stride." When a bank's stock goes up after what initially appears to be a huge fine, you know that it is nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
We have seen this pattern - creating the appearance of punishing wrongdoing while actually leaving the bank basically unscathed and unchanged in its practices - over and over again from the Obama administration in the last few years.
It is true that at least one part of the Bank of America settlement could benefit mortgage holders desperately in need of readjusting the terms of their home loans. That is good:
The consumer relief is expected to help tens of thousands of homeowners across the country. Most notably, the deal could result in Bank of America forgiving billions of dollars in mortgage principal. Unlike the other settlements, a person briefed on the matter said, the Bank of America plan could involve cutting the principal on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration, a move that will primarily help low- and moderate-income borrowers.
However, as The New York Times points out, this relief is coming much too late for the large number of people who lost their homes to foreclosure in the six years since 2008. It would have assisted tens of thousands more individuals and families if the DOJ had forced Bank of America years ago to be more flexible with underwater mortgage holders.
The Times notes that the restructuring of loans will have little impact on the finances of Bank of America:
At issue is how much of the cost of the $7 billion in "soft dollars," or help for borrowers, the bank will bear under the settlement. Some of the relief the bank will provide involves cutting the principal of a loan to make it easier for the borrower to pay. The dollar amount of that reduction gets credited toward what it needs to fulfill the settlement. But Bank of America wrote down many of its troubled mortgages years ago. And investment firms, not Bank of America, may now own some of the loans that get written down, potentially shielding the bank from a financial hit.
Taking a closer look at the Bank of America fine, The New York Times finds that at least half of the $16.8 billion dollars is in the form of soft money or tax breaks. There are also additional financial offsets.
In what has become a traditional part of any DOJ settlement with a bank too big to fail, unnamed DOJ sources are promising to pursue charges against individual executives. Of course, the indictments never appear, but the statements make for good politics with a citizenry that wants to see some personal accountability for fraudulent bank practices.
It is clear now, with a little over two years left in the Obama presidency, that one of his key legacies will be casting little more than a wink and a nod at Wall Street's violations of the law, including a failure to prosecute any high-ranking officials for the illegal and deceptive practices that led to the near-collapse of the United States economy.
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