American officials used to lecture other countries about their economic failings and tell them that they needed to emulate the United States model. The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, in particular, led to a lot of self-satisfied moralizing. Thus, in 2000, Lawrence Summers, then the Treasury secretary, declared that the keys to avoiding financial crisis were “well-capitalized and supervised banks, effective corporate governance and bankruptcy codes, and credible means of contract enforcement.” By implication, these were things the Asians lacked but we had.
The accounting scandals at Enron and WorldCom dispelled the myth of effective corporate governance. These days, the idea that our banks were well capitalized and supervised sounds like a sick joke. And now the mortgage mess is making nonsense of claims that we have effective contract enforcement — in fact, the question is whether our economy is governed by any kind of rule of law.
The story so far: An epic housing bust and sustained high unemployment have led to an epidemic of default, with millions of homeowners falling behind on mortgage payments. So servicers — the companies that collect payments on behalf of mortgage owners — have been foreclosing on many mortgages, seizing many homes.
But do they actually have the right to seize these homes? Horror stories have been proliferating, like the case of the Florida man whose home was taken even though he had no mortgage. More significantly, certain players have been ignoring the law. Courts have been approving foreclosures without requiring that mortgage servicers produce appropriate documentation; instead, they have relied on affidavits asserting that the papers are in order. And these affidavits were often produced by “robo-signers,” or low-level employees who had no idea whether their assertions were true.
Now an awful truth is becoming apparent: In many cases, the documentation doesn’t exist. In the frenzy of the bubble, much home lending was undertaken by fly-by-night companies trying to generate as much volume as possible. These loans were sold off to mortgage “trusts,” which, in turn, sliced and diced them into mortgage-backed securities. The trusts were legally required to obtain and hold the mortgage notes that specified the borrowers’ obligations. But it’s now apparent that such niceties were frequently neglected. And this means that many of the foreclosures now taking place are, in fact, illegal.