THE WAGES OF VIRTUAL SIN: Financial predators

FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed–
BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.
– from “The Jew of Malta,” Christopher Marlowe, 1589/1590

Wars and calamities breed predators. Morality is almost always a casualty of the disorder following upon conflict and social upheaval. So we should not be surprised, however disgusted, that a new breed of predator has crawled out of the current financial wreckage. Desperate people facing the loss of their homes through foreclosure are an easy target. Some of the same unscrupulous operators who peddled subprime mortgages to people who could not afford them are now selling fraudulent remedies that purport to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission:

Fraudulent foreclosure “rescue” professionals [aim] to make a quick profit through fees or mortgage payments they collect from you, but do not pass on to the lender. Sometimes, they assume ownership of your property by deceiving you, the homeowner. Then, when it’s too late to save your home, they take the property or siphon off the equity.

The scammers extract money from distressed homeowners in several different ways: by obtaining a fee in advance for promise of service; finagling a transfer of the property title to the ‘rescue’ firm by allowing the owner to remain as renter; claiming special relationship with or pretending to be the lender and having mortgage payments sent to the scammer’s address; and (illegally) charging a fee for modifying a mortgage under the new federal relief plan.



THE WAGES OF VIRTUAL SIN: Diminished trust in borrowing and lending

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
– from “Hamlet,” William Shakespeare, 1599/1601

Few of us have been following Lord Polonius’ advice. Credit is the lubricant of the modern economy. In the throes of a major financial collapse triggered by excessive credit formation we are being urged to spend and assume yet more debt to stimulate economic activity and job creation. If it is impossible to operate on a strict pay-as-you-go basis, the next best thing is to make sure you borrow from people or organizations you know and trust.

The relationship between borrower and lender has become so attenuated that even legal authorities have a hard time determining the identity of the lender. A lender of record on a mortgage may not be the property owner since the mortgage might have been bundled together with other such loans to form an asset base for a mortgage backed security that was sold to investors. “We don’t own the property,” [said] a spokesman [for a bank]. “We’re the owner of record, but the investors who bought the mortgage-backed securities own it” (NYT, March 8, 2009).



Virtuality and the Financial Crisis: Part 2

Corrective measures envisioned by lawmakers in the heat of the financial crisis are directed toward strengthening oversight of financial markets. The regulatory system including the Federal Reserve, the Securities Exchange Commission, and other Federal agencies collectively may have been unable to detect the formation of a speculative bubble in the housing market; or perhaps the system detected problems but failed to act on a timely basis. Interest rates could have been raised to reduce the amount of credit available for house purchases, and abusive lending practices could have been curtailed giving potential buyers more accurate information about their ability to carry a mortgage, and thus reducing the chances of defaults and foreclosures later on.

Overhauling and strengthening regulatory oversight of financial markets is a sensible step, but not enough to prevent a recurrence of the frenzied pursuit of profit that precipitated the crisis. Not all mortgage lenders succumbed to the lure of higher profits through securitization of loan portfolios.



Virtuality and the Financial Crisis: Part 1

The financial crisis that began in 2007 and reached fever pitch in the past few months is generally believed to be a consequence of the securitization of subprime mortgages and more generally of the over extension of credit. Participants in this tragic drama include actors in the real estate and financial services industries as well as home buyers.

The process of purchasing a house consists of a long chain of transactions starting with a ‘meeting of the minds’ of buyer and seller, usually mediated by a real estate agent representing the seller. Once an agreement has been reached, the buyer must arrange financing. Here is where the trouble starts.

Let’s say the buyer uses the services of a mortgage broker to find a bank or other lender willing to issue a mortgage on the house. Having no responsibility for the future behavior of the buyer, and receiving a fee for its services, the mortgage broker’s interest is to place as many mortgages as possible. Real estate agents and property appraisers have a similar interest. Both work on fees or commissions based on sales, so their aim is to generate as many sales as possible.


1 Comment