The LA Times obtained a bunch of documents from the FDIC pursuant to a FOIA request and uncovered some startling news: the FDIC is settling lawsuits against those it alleges caused banks to fail. Worse than that, the FDIC is agreeing not to issue press releases regarding many of the settlements. This earth-shattering news is labeled a "major policy shift" from the way the FDIC handled failed bank litigation that arose out of the last big bank meltdown, "when the FDIC trumpeted punitive actions against banks as a deterrent to others."
Before I address that last point, let's listen to some more suspicious minds support the Times theme that all of this "secret settlement" skulduggery smacks of some kind of plot to let evil-doers escape the lynch mobs that surely would have strung them up if only the FDIC had set public outrage en fuego by trumpeting these settlements from the top of the Rocky Mountains.
Critics fault the government for going easy on banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis. At a Feb. 14 hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, criticized FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg along with other bank regulators for their reluctance to make examples of Wall Street firms by taking them to trial.
Quoting "The Founder" is a go-to proposition for the Times, and one that lacks the punch that soundbites from other less usual suspects bring to the table. In addition, the Times' accusations range far beyond Wall Street banks. It's mostly (if not entirely) the little guys that are being pursued. God forbid they should get a break today from anyone other than MacDonalds.
Attorneys who have represented bank officials and the FDIC said regulators are now far likelier to settle cases before filing lawsuits than after the last spate of failures, when more than 2,300 institutions collapsed in the 1980s and early 1990s, bankrupting a fund that insured savings and loan deposits. That crisis grew out of Reagan-era deregulation, which allowed thrifts already hurting from 1970s inflation to make riskier investments, including commercial real estate deals that soured en masse during the second half of the 1980s.
Critics describe the FDIC's current practice of low-profile deal-making as a major departure from the S&L crisis.
"In the old days, the regulators made it a point to embarrass everyone, to call attention to their role in bank failures," said former bank examiner Richard Newsom, who specialized in insider-abuse cases for the FDIC in the aftermath of the S&L debacle. The goal was simple: "to make other bankers scared."
Newsom said he couldn't understand the shift, unless the agency doesn't "want people to know how little they are settling for."
The FDIC should disclose as much as it can, said Lauren Saunders, managing attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Washington. "Transparency is always better, and serves as a deterrent to future misconduct."
Yes, let's deter the future conduct of owning, managing, and directing a community bank that concentrates on loan products that the regulators find are being originated and managed within the parameters of safety and soundness guidelines until, within a few months, the world falls apart in the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression. Thereafter, although we feel compelled to go after many failed bank officials, directors, and third parties because we've got an obligation to recover whatever losses to the fund we are able whenever we can do so without being laughed out of court, we understand, in our heart-of-hearts, notwithstanding the posturing we might do for political or litigation purposes, that these times are different than late 1980s.
This is what neither the Times nor its talking heads understand (or, if they do understand, will admit): the facts are different this time. In the 1980s, there were a number of outright crooks involved in the banking and, especially, the thrift business in certain parts of the country, some wearing stetsons and cowboy boots, others clad in three-piece Armani suits. There were fraudulent appraisals, my-dead-cow-for-your-dead-horse swaps, 100 percent loan-to-value ADC loans on raw dirt, rapid multiple flips that would have taxed Shawn Johnson, and similar shenanigans. The damages were also limited to certain regions of the country where real estate bubbles were exploited (or partially created) by financial institutions who engaged in outright speculation until those bubbles burst. Also, many of the worst players were (relatively) smaller players.
In the latest debacle, the causes of losses are more complicated and the resulting economic consequences much more devastating and widespread. Many of the hundreds of banks that failed collapsed because they were steamrolled by the swiftness of the onset, and the depth, of the economic collapse triggered, in large part, by subprime residential mortgage loans, the complex web of securities they spawned, and the resulting residential real estate inflation. Commercial real estate wasn't the primary cause of the collapse this time, it was a casualty of the collapse. You can argue until you're blue in the face about the nuances of fiduciary duties and CRE concentrations, but in all but the low hanging fruit cases, the FDIC doesn't have smoking guns laying in plain sight to use to extract huge settlements or litigation awards out of either defendants or, more importantly, their insurance companies, who are fighting back.
As to the lack of a "deterrent" to future potential wrongdoers that allegedly results from not making settlements public, I wouldn't be concerned that "silent settlements" are encouraging prospective bank officers and directors to do anything. Those who haven't said "screw it" and opted to sip mai-tais in Cabo until they need their livers "Rolfed," or are seriously considering an alternative exit strategy, aren't chomping at the bit to jump feet-first back into subprime anything or to make CRE or any other product or service their concentration-of-choice, and their primary regulatory supervisors wouldn't let them go there even if they yearned to do so. "Other bankers" are plenty scared Mr. Newsome, without the need to read about FDIC settlements. At least, that's the story with the vast number of smaller banks in this country.
I suppose there might be some deterrent effect if the FDIC announced settlements against the officers and directors of the large Wall Street banks that helped create the mess we're in and which then failed, so that future Wall Street bankers would...oops...none of them failed. That's right: they were bailed out. My bad!
Buried in the story is the rationale for keeping mum (until FOIA forces disclosure) about settlements.
Defendants benefit by settling because they can avoid admitting guilt and limit the damages they might face in court. The FDIC benefits by collecting money without the hassle and expense of litigation. The no-press-release arrangements help close those deals.
Those are valid reasons, and they make sense for both parties.
Let's hope the Times drills a little deeper next time and strikes oil instead of gas.