This week, Bank of America agreed to pay nearly $17 billion to settle a case with the Justice Department over bad investments that directly led to the economic meltdown. Which, in turn, led to many Americans losing their jobs, their homes, falling into debt, and all sorts of other financial troubles that we’re still, years later, trying to recover from.
The settlement is the largest ever, and does, in a way, send a message that BofA is culpable for the global economic turmoil. But ultimately, experts say, it’s a small cost to the bank. And may be even smaller when you consider other factors.
First off, the $16.65 billion that BofA has been charged is the high-end of the settlement. Actually, there’s $7 billion in “soft dollars” that the bank is suppose to use for borrowers’ relief. But the bank wrote down those troubled mortgages years ago, says The New York Times. So the bank itself won’t see this turn up on its spreadsheets now.
Then there are the tax write-offs that are built into the settlement, which could further reduce the amount the bank pays by more than $1 billion.
The government is considering a lawsuit against some banking executives, namely Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial, which was purchased by Bank of America in 2008. Bank of America, during its negotiations with the Justice Department, maintained that they shouldn’t be held responsible for some of the wrongdoing because it happened before the purchase. But there are a ton of executives who are walking away without a scratch, US banks are back to making money hand over fist (more people have better credit and lending is up), and the unemployment rate is on the rise for a lot of groups. (Minorities still struggle.)
Some politicians are trying to jump in to make sure that the ordinary folk also benefit from these bank settlements. So far, there are have been $37 billion levied against banks, including JP Morgan. BofA has agreed to chip in for affordable housing in New York. Banks are agreeing to renegotiate mortgages to help homeowners. But ultimately, The Huffington Post says the majority of homeowners who are in trouble won’t see the principal of their loans reduced or mortgage debt forgiveness. About nine million homeowners in the US currently have mortgages that are more than their homes are worth.
“…[T]he nation’s top housing regulator continues to refuse to allow write-downs on loans controlled by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the vast majority of outstanding mortgage debt. In the past, Bank of America has chosen to offer big write-offs to relatively few homeowners with expensive mortgages, rather than give principal reductions to a larger number of homeowners with smaller loans,” writes HuffPo. This is because the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (the previous one and the current one) thinks people will purposely default to get the help. Housing advocates have railed against the agency because of their stance.
To withhold help to homeowners because they might cheat when banking executives did far worse with no repercussions is galling. Meanwhile, these settlements are being held up as the banks and the government doing what they need to do to show accountability. There’s more to be done for these bankers to truly pay their debt to society. And help those that have suffered mightily because of their recklessness.