HOW should banks atone for those foreclosure abuses — all the robo-signing and shoddy recordkeeping that jettisoned so many people from their homes?
It has been four months since a deal to remedy this mess was floated. Not much has happened since — at least not publicly.
Last week, banking executives and state attorneys general met in Washington to try to settle their differences. At issue was how much banks should pay, and how and to whom, to make this all go away. The initial terms, which emerged in March, were said to carry a $20 billion price tag.
But here is a crucial question: to what extent would such a settlement protect banks from future liability? Will the attorneys general strike a deal that effectively prevents them from bringing new, unrelated lawsuits against the banks?
If the releases in any settlement are broad, there will be joy in Bankville. If they are narrow, the banks will probably face more litigation, something they would rather avoid.
A looming issue relates to the potential liability stemming from the Mortgage Electronic Registry Systems, or MERS. This company, owned by the major banks, was set up in the mid-1990s by the Mortgage Bankers Association, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Its goal was to expedite the home loan process.
By eliminating the need to record changes in property ownership in local land records, MERS ramped up profits for lenders. In 2007, MERS calculated that it had saved the industry $1 billion over 10 years. An estimated 60 percent of all home loans were registered to MERS.
But the MERS machine started to sputter during the foreclosure crisis. Lawyers challenged MERS’s ability to bring foreclosure proceedings because the system does not technically own the security or note underlying properties, as required. While some courts have not objected to MERS’s foreclosing in place of banks, others have.
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