One of the big reasons there have been so few fraud charges leveled against what looks like clear and widespread banking industry is that under the law, “fraud” is pretty difficult to prove. Needless to say, that puts commentators in a bit of a bind, because they can be depicted as being hysterical if they use the “f” words, since behavior that is often fraud by any common sense standard may be hard or impossible to prove in court.
The hurdle in litigation and prosecution is proving intent. Basically, the party who is being accused has to not only have done something bad, he has to have been demonstrably aware that he was up to no good. Thus po-faced claims of “I had no idea this was improper, my accountants/lawyers knew about it and didn’t say anything” or “everyone in the industry was doing it, so I had not reason to think this was irregular” is a “get out of jail free” card. Similarly, even if lower level employees knew that their company was up to stuff that stank, if the decision-makers can plausibly claim ignorance, again they can probably get away with it.
So it is gratifying in a perverse way to see a case in which the perp not only looks to have engaged in chicanery, but the facts make it pretty hard for him to say he didn’t know he was pulling a fast one. And even more fun, it involves JP Morgan, which has somehow managed to create the impression that it was better than all the other TARP banks, when on the mortgage front, there is plenty evidence to suggest that all the major banks have been up to their eyeballs in bad practices.
The case involves the bond insurer Ambac and the mortgage company EMC, which was the Bear Stearns conduit for buying mortgages to securitize and now thus part of JP Morgan. In 2010, reports surfaced that EMC had been falsifying mortgage data to keep its pipeline moving as fast as Bear wanted and contain costs.
But a suit by bond insurer Ambac alleges far more serious misbehavior. The discovery process in outstanding putback litigation has unearthed a scheme to defraud investors and Ambac and led the bond insurer to add fraud charges to its complaint. The Atlantic, which broke the 2010 story, gives a good overview:
According to the lawsuit, the Bear traders would sell toxic mortgage securities to investors and then sell back the bad loans with early payment defaults to the banks that originated them at a discount. The traders would pocket the refund, and would not pass it on to the mortgage trust, which was where it should have gone to be distributed to the investors who owned the bonds. The [Tom] Marano-led traders [Marano was Senior Managing Director and Global Head of Mortgages for Bear and is now CEO of Ally's mortgage operations] also cut the time allowed for early payment defaults, without telling the bond investors. That way, Bear could quickly securitize defective loans, without leaving enough time for investors to do their own due diligence after the bonds were sold and put-back any bad loans to Bear.
The traders were essentially double-dipping — getting paid twice on the deal. How was this possible? Once the security was sold, they didn’t have a legal claim to get cash back from the bad loans — that claim belonged to bond investors — but they did so anyway and kept the money. Thus, Bear was cheating the investors they promised to have sold a safe product out of their cash. According to former Bear Stearns and EMC traders and analysts who spoke with The Atlantic, [Mike] Nierenberg [head of the adjustable-rate mortgage trading desk] and [Jeff] Verschleiser [another senior managing director on the same desk] were the decision-makers for the double dipping scheme, and thus, are named as individual defendants in the suit.
The complaint is duly indignant:
This evidence – obtained for the first time through discovery – demonstrates that at the same time that JP Morgan and EMC were touting to Ambac the quality of the Mortgage Loans and the rigorous procedures for verifying their quality, JP Morgan personnel understood that the loans underlying the transactions were in fact – to use one JP Morgan employee’s unequivocal if impolite words – a “sack of shit.”
And there is another layer of this ugly picture. A much smaller monoline, Sycora, had also insured some Bear mortgages. Bear was pushing the originator to take back some dud mortgages insured by Syncora while simultaneously refusing to let Syncora put them back.
FTAlphaville recounts how JP Morgan continued to rebuff putback claims, even when EMC found them to be legitimate:
Ambac says JPM barred Bear from fulfilling repurchase requests right after it snapped up in 2008. In doing so, a JPM executive director also went against a review by EMC, it is claimed, that said more than half of a set of loans were in breach of reps and warranties. That, Ambac says, enabled the exec to eliminate up to $14m in JPM liabilities and reduce accounting reserves for the loans by almost 50 per cent.
So it will be rather difficult for JP Morgan to claim it has clean hands on this one and merely picked up an outstanding mess when it bought Bear.
This suit is at a minimum a black eye for JP Morgan, which fought tooth and nail to keep it sealed, and may embolden other litigants, like the investors in Bear’s deals. But sadly, it also demonstrates that crime does pay. The executives named in this case as being at the heart of this scheme now run the mortgage businesses at Ally, JP Morgan, and Goldman.