It's been a constant refrain over the last four years: no bankers charged with a crime, no real consequences at all for the villains of the economic crisis. Profits and bonuses are back to pre-crash heights (or even higher) while the rest of the country still struggles, and there's been no accountability.
Well, yesterday New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase and subsidiaries Bear Stearns and EMC Mortgage Corporation in a New York court, claiming that the bank "committed multiple fraudulent and deceptive acts in promoting and selling its Residential Mortgage Backed Securities," the financial instruments that caused the crash in the first place. (In 2008, with the help of a $29 billion loan from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, JP Morgan purchased Bear Stearns as it teetered on the brink of collapse.) "At the heart of Defendants' fraud was their failure to abide by their representations that they took a variety of steps to ensure the quality of the loans underlying their RMBS," the suit reads, "including checking to confirm that those loans were originated in accordance with the applicable underwriting guidelines, i.e., the standards in place to ensure, among other things, that loans were extended to borrowers who demonstrated the willingness and ability to repay."
All well and good. But what took so long? As FireDogLake's David Dayen noted, this information has been around for years:
But most of the evidence and legal theories in the case come from investigations and suits going back several years, and there's no reason it couldn't have been filed at that time. As the relevant statute of limitations under New York's Martin Act (which has a lower burden of proof, as it does not require demonstrating intent to defraud, only that the fraud occurred) is six years, this will only encompass fraud from late 2006 and 2007, the last vestiges of the housing bubble.
Homeowners, of course, have been waiting years for someone to file charges. Jean Sassine, a homeowner and chair of the Queens chapter of New York Communities for Change, said, "As a homeowner who has been fighting for a permanent modification from Chase for almost five years, I am glad -- but unfortunately not surprised -- about the news that Attorney General Schneiderman has decided to punish my servicer. It is about time someone has pointed out Chase's unwillingness to stop the damage their policies have done, which has only been multiplied by their unwillingness to modify loans like mine."
Dayen notes as well that if Schneiderman's goal was to get "more relief for homeowners", a suit like this one, alleging that investors were defrauded, seems like the wrong way to go about it. Investors are probably not in danger of losing their homes. Sassine and some 17 million underwater homeowners across the country are—and most of them are underwater because their homes lost value when the housing bubble, inflated by investors' purchases of securitized mortgages on the secondary market, burst.
The federal task force, unveiled with much fanfare by President Obama in the State of the Union address, remains understaffed and underfunded, and though it'll get credit for Schneiderman's move here, there's no federal suit to go along with the litigation in New York. Dayen writes, "[M]ore than anything, the lack of federal participation in the suit shows that the federal agencies involved in the task force are simply disinterested in prosecution, forcing Schneiderman to cobble together an off-the-shelf suit from other sources to make it look like this move against the banks represents anything real."
Was this a declaration of independence by Schneiderman, formerly the best hope of many progressives in New York and around the country, then? The timing does seem a little too perfect—right before the presidential election—but the target is the world's largest bank (though no individual bankers have been named and no criminal charges filed, leaving dreams of perp-walking CEO Jamie Dimon down Wall Street unfulfilled). The confusion over whether the task force really had anything to do with this could also be political—setting them up to take credit if the suit is successful and popular, and to blame it all on Schneiderman if it fails.
Greg Basta, Deputy Director of New York Communities for Change, hopes that other politicians will learn from Schneiderman's move. "The suit against Chase is a major first step, and we commend AG Schneiderman for taking that step and recognizing the major role that Chase has played in destabilizing the economy and destroying the dreams of millions of families," he tells AlterNet. "We hope that Mayor Bloomberg recognizes Chase's wrong-doings and stops investing our tax dollars in an institution that is committing widespread fraud."
But Matt Browner Hamlin of Occupy Our Homes notes that this suit doesn't represent much of an escalation from the lawsuits the banks have already faced from investors and other banks:
There may well exist a parallel universe where a series of large civil suits by state attorneys general, the federal government, and private investors were able to extract enough of a cash penalty from the banks which fraudulently inflated the housing bubble and subsequently stole millions of families homes to ensure that these banks would never, ever consider doing these things again. But that's not the universe we exist in. The lawsuits we have seen are small and sporadic, the settlement figures amounting to little more than the cost of doing business, while robosigning and foreclosure fraud occur to this day.
The best hope for this lawsuit is that it is a first step, that there are more coming and perhaps criminal charges too, and that the damages sought (unclear at this moment) will actually be significant enough to help the homeowners who are the real victims of this mess.
Dan Cantor, Executive Director of the Working Families Party (which helped Schneiderman win his post as Attorney General), says, "For four years, working families have had to pay the price for a collapse brought on by Wall Street fraud, deception and greed. We're grateful that Attorney General Scheiderman is working to hold the big banks accountable and make sure bad behavior is punished, not repeated."
And homeowner Sassine says, "I am hopeful that any damages collected will go to helping the homeowners still hurting and fighting on Main Street, and not to once again bailing out Wall Street."