The Wall Street Journal reported on January 19th that the Obama Administration was pushing heavily to get the 50 state attorneys general to agree to a settlement with five major banks in the “robo-signing” scandal. The scandal involves employees signing names not their own, under titles they did not really have, attesting to the veracity of documents they had not really reviewed.
Investigation reveals that it did not just happen occasionally but was an industry-wide practice, dating back to the late 1990s; and that it may have clouded the titles of millions of homes. If the settlement is agreed to, it will let Wall Street bankers off the hook for crimes that would land the rest of us in jail – fraud, forgery, securities violations and tax evasion.
To the President’s credit, however, he seems to have shifted his position on the settlement in response to protests before his State of the Union address. In his speech on January 24th, President Obama did not mention the settlement but announced instead that he would be creating a mortgage crisis unit to investigate wrongdoing related to real estate lending.
“This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans,” he said.
The Evolution of the Shadow Banking System
There is a massive and growing demand for banking by large institutional investors – pension funds, mutual funds, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds – which have millions of dollars to park somewhere between investments. But FDIC insurance covers only up to $250,000. FDIC insurance was resisted in the 1930s by bankers and government officials and was pushed through as a populist movement: the people demanded it.
What they got was enough insurance to cover the deposits of individuals and no more. Today, the large institutional investors want similar coverage. They want an investment that is secure, that provides them with a little interest, and that is liquid like a traditional deposit account, allowing quick withdrawal.
The shadow banking system evolved in response to this need, operating largely through the repo market. “Repos” are sales and repurchases of highly liquid collateral, typically Treasury debt or mortgage-backed securities—the securitized units into which American real estate has been ground up and packaged, sausage-fashion. The collateral is bought by a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV), which acts as the shadow bank. The investors put their money in the SPV and keep the securities, which substitute for FDIC insurance in a traditional bank. (If the SPV fails to pay up, the investors can foreclose on the securities.)
To satisfy the demand for liquidity, the repos are one-day or short-term deals, continually rolled over until the money is withdrawn. This money is used by the banks for other lending, investing or speculating. Gorton writes:
This banking system (the “shadow” or “parallel” banking system)—repo based on securitization—is a genuine banking system, as large as the traditional, regulated banking system. It is of critical importance to the economy because it is the funding basis for the traditional banking system. Without it, traditional banks will not lend and credit, which is essential for job creation, will not be created.
From Lending Machines to Borrowing Machines
The bankers have engaged in what amounts to a massive fraud, not necessarily because they started out with criminal intent, but because they have been required to in order to come up with the collateral (in this case real estate) to back their loans.
It is the way our system is set up: the banks are not really creating credit and advancing it to us, counting on our future productivity to pay it off, the way they once did under the deceptive but functional façade of fractional reserve lending. Instead, they are vacuuming up our money and lending it back to us at higher rates.
“Instead of lending into the economy,” says British money reformer Ann Pettifor, “bankers are borrowing from the real economy.” She wrote in the Huffington Post in October 2010:
[T]he crazy facts are these: bankers now borrow from their customers and from taxpayers. They are effectively draining funds from household bank accounts, small businesses, corporations, government Treasuries and from e.g. the Federal Reserve. They do so by charging high rates of interest and fees; by demanding early repayment of loans; by illegally foreclosing on homeowners, and by appropriating, and then speculating with trillions of dollars of taxpayer-backed resources.
Not only has the system destroyed county title records, but it is highly vulnerable to bank runs and systemic collapse. In the shadow banking system, as in the old fractional reserve banking system, the collateral is being double-counted: it is owed to the borrowers and the depositors at the same time.
This allows for expansion of the money supply, but bank runs can occur when the borrowers and the depositors demand their money at the same time. And unlike the conventional banking system, the shadow banking system is largely unregulated. It doesn’t have the backup of FDIC insurance to prevent bank runs.
That is what happened in September 2008 following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank. Gary Gorton explains that it was a run on the shadow banking system that caused the credit collapse that followed.
Investors rushed to pull their money out overnight. LIBOR—the London interbank lending rate for short-term loans—shot up to around 5%. Since the cost of borrowing the money to cover loans was too high for banks to turn a profit, lending abruptly came to a halt.