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N.Y.’s new attorney general stands up to big banks

Sept. 4, 2011 - 19:16 By
So here’s Eric Schneiderman, of whom you’ve probably never heard, who last year was elected attorney general of the state of New York, a job that arguably makes him the third most-influential state officeholder in the nation, behind only the governors of New York and California.

This is because the attorney general of the state of New York enforces the laws of the state with most of the nation’s top financial institutions, not to mention stock exchanges and corporate headquarters, not to mention that New York, with 19 million people, is the third most-populous state.

So why is Eric Schneiderman being treated like a bum who crashed the dance? Not by Republicans so much, though they clearly dislike him, but by his fellow Democrats. And by the White House. And by the 49 other state attorneys general.

It is because Eric Schneiderman won’t play ball with efforts to make the mortgage foreclosure mess go away. In the spring, federal regulators thought they had a deal with Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, the five biggest mortgage servicers, to settle claims that they had taken shortcuts by foreclosing on homes before the paperwork was properly processed. The banks would have paid about $20 billion, most of it for loan modifications and counseling.

But the banks wanted the 50 state attorneys general to sign off on the deal, too. The AGs have been meeting for months and were said to be close to an agreement. But Schneiderman is an outlier.

Good for him. The banks want this so-called “global agreement” to indemnify them against any mortgage-related claims, not just processing complaints. Schneiderman has been investigating the way that the banks securitized mortgages in the years leading up to the 2007-2008 housing collapse, cutting them into pieces and bundling them as mortgage-backed bonds.

Recently, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who has been leading the coalition of state officials, removed Schneiderman from the executive committee that was steering negotiations with the banks. Big deal; if New York doesn’t go along, the banks aren’t likely to go along, either. New York State has a lot of homes in foreclosure, and there’s that whole world-financial-headquarters thing.

Plus, attorneys general of several other states, including Illinois’ Lisa Madigan, have expressed reservations about giving the big banks a get-out-of-jail-free card on all mortgage-related complaints.

It’s easy to understand why the White House wants to get the mortgage mess behind it. Its mortgage modification program largely has been a dud, although a new national refinancing proposal appears to be forthcoming. Banks weren’t eager to participate voluntarily and, given their hold on Congress, the thought of making it mandatory was a non-starter.

A bigger problem is that the mortgage mess is holding down home prices, thus stalling economic recovery. More than a fourth of all homes sold last year were foreclosures that sold at 26 percent below non-distressed home prices. Banks have more than 900,000 residential properties on their books right now, with another 1.2 million in the early stages of foreclosure. Mortgage holders are delinquent on another 4 million loans.

But the financial industry shouldn’t be able to buy a $20 billion pass on all the problems it created. Some multiple of $20 billion might get Schneiderman’s attention.

He doesn’t look like an outlier from here. He looks like a leader.

(Editorial, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch )