I get on an airplane, and there are more dramatic developments by the time I land.
Even though the headline item is the fact that the attorneys general in all 50 states are joining the mortgage fraud investigation, the real indicator that the banks are stressed is that they have started abandoning MERS, the electronic database that passes itself off as a registry for mortgages. JP Morgan has quit using it as an agent on foreclosures; it clearly can’t withdraw from it fully, given that it has become a central information service.
Despite this being treated as a pretty routine event in the JP Morgan earnings call, trust me, it isn’t. The withdrawal of JP Morgan from the use of MERS as the face in foreclosures is a tacit admission that the past practice of using MERS as the stand -in for the trust is problematic. I’ve heard lawyers discuss the possibility of class action litigation to invalidate all MERS-initiated foreclosures in states with strong anti-MERS rulings; this idea no doubt will get more traction given JP Morgan’s move. (An attorney who is in the thick of this situation told me another major bank has made the same move as JPM, but I see no confirmation in the news as of this writing).
The triggers for the sudden escalation appear to have been the release of a research note by Citigroup which included a grim assessment (which we did not consider to be dire enough) by Professor Levitin to Citi clients on likely path of the mortgage crisis. This was no doubt compounded among the cogoscenti by the research note published by Josh Rosner, that most if not all notes (which are the borrower IOU in a mortgage) were endorsed in blank, which creates near insurmountable problems in foreclosure, worse even for the RMBS ownership of them as de facto mere unsecured paper.
But the stunner is the withdrawal of JP Morgan from the purported mortgage registry system, MERS. 60% the mortgages in the US are registered through MERS, and not at the local courthouse as was the long established, well settled custom in the US. Countries that have moved to central databases (such as Australia) have them operated by the government, and they are transparent and run with sound standards of data integrity. As noted, banks like JP Morgan can’t fully withdraw; MERS has become too integral, but its announcement is an admission that all is not well.
The fact that major MERS members are suddenly resigning from MERS is a sign that tectonic plates are moving. MERS has become central in mortgage securitization; Freddie and Fannie have required its use since early in this decade.
From the Associated Press:
JPMorgan Chase’s CEO says the bank has stopped using the electronic mortgage tracking system used by major financial institutions.
Lawyers have argued in court proceedings that the system is unable to accurately prove ownership of mortgages.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. and other banks have suspended some foreclosures following allegations of paperwork problems in thousands of cases.
The trigger may have been the publication of a simply devastating analysis at the end of September, “Two Faces: Demystifying the Mortgage Electronic Registration System’s Land Title Theory” by Christopher L. Peterson. Even though I have read the critical MERS unfavorable opinions, this is the first time I am aware of that someone has looked at the operation of MERS from a broader legal perspective. It finds fundamental flaws in virtually every aspect of its operation. To give a partial list: the language used by MERS in its registry at local courthouses is contradictory (it claims to be both the owner of the mortgage and as well as a nominee; legally, a single party can’t play two roles simultaneously), rendering it unenforcable; MERS has employees of servicers and law firms become “MERS vice presidents” or secretaries when fit none of the criteria that fit those roles, and also have clear conflicts of interest given that they are also full time employees of other organizations; MERS record keeping has the hallmarks of being poorly controlled (there have been cases of mortgages basically being stolen from other MERS members; some contacts have suggested that a single MERS member can assign a mortgage, meaning checks are weak; MERS members are not required to update records). And most important, every state supreme court that has looked at the role of MERS has ruled against it.
As much as I have heard the case against MERS in bits and pieces, and regarding it as very problematic, seeing it assembled in one place (with solid references to judicial decisions) makes for a overwhelming case. The best resolution the author can come up with is that lenders with MERS registered mortgages would be granted an equitable mortgage as a substitute for the flawed MERS registered mortgages:
While awarding equitable mortgages is surely a better approach for financiers and their investors than simply invalidating liens, it would not solve all their problems. Replacing legal mortgages with equitable mortgages would give borrowers significant leverage. Historically, state law has not uniformly treated equitable mortgagees vis-à-vis other competing creditors. Generally, the holder of an equitable mortgage had priority against judgment creditors. But, it is likely that an equitable mortgage could be avoided in bankruptcy. Moreover, it is likely that financiers would have less luck seeking deficiency judgments when foreclosing on equitable mortgages.
In Florida, the so-called rocket docket has apparently slowed to a crawl, between some banks suspending foreclosures and at least some judges starting to take borrower allegations of fraud seriously. From Bloomberg:
Home to more foreclosures than 47 U.S. states, Florida sought to clear out its backlog with a system of special court hearings that dispensed with cases quickly, sometimes in less than a minute.
Homeowners like Nicole West now threaten to slow that system, Florida’s so-called rocket docket, to a crawl. West, who has been fighting to save her Jensen Beach house from foreclosure, has leveled a new allegation in her three-year battle: the entire process is based on fraud.
West said her case is rife with the kind of flawed mortgage documents that have caused lenders including Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. to stop the process of foreclosures and evictions across the country. The banks said they are investigating homeowner charges like West’s that signatures were forged and documents were backdated…..
The bank moratoriums are already thwarting the initiative by Florida officials to clear jammed court dockets. Now, efforts by homeowners such as West to bring claims of fraud to the attention of judges are further prolonging evictions, and in turn slowing purchases of foreclosed properties.
The focus so far has been on what the foreclosure mess means for borrowers. Not enough media attention has been given to the implications for the major banks, particularly their trust businesses, and RMBS investors. Neither the facts nor the law are on the financiers’ side, but they are either in denial or doing a full bore job of obfuscation.