“In the run-up to the financial crisis, Merrill Lynch bought more and more mortgage loans, packaged them together, and sold them off in securities – even when the bank knew a substantial number of those loans were defective,” said U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman for the District of New Jersey. “The failure to disclose known risks undermines investor confidence in our financial institutions. Today’s record-breaking settlement, which includes the resolution of our office’s imminent multibillion-dollar suit for FIRREA penalties, reflects the seriousness of the lapses that caused staggering losses and wider economic damage.”
This settlement also resolves the complaint filed against Bank of America in August 2013 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina concerning an $850 million securitization. Bank of America acknowledges that it marketed this securitization as being backed by bank-originated “prime” mortgages that were underwritten in accordance with its underwriting guidelines. Yet, Bank of America knew that a significant number of loans in the security were “wholesale” mortgages originated through mortgage brokers and that based on its internal reporting, such loans were experiencing a marked increase in underwriting defects and a noticeable decrease in performance. Notwithstanding these red flags, the bank sold these RMBS to federally backed financial institutions without conducting any third party due diligence on the securitized loans and without disclosing key facts to investors in the offering documents filed with the SEC. A related case concerning the same securitization was filed by the SEC against Bank of America and is also being resolved as part of this settlement.
“Today’s settlement attests to the fact that fraud pervaded every level of the RMBS industry, including purportedly prime securities, which formed the basis of our filed complaint,” said U.S. Attorney Anne M. Tompkins for the Western District of North Carolina. “Even reputable institutions like Bank of America caved to the pernicious forces of greed and cut corners, putting profits ahead of their customers. As we deal with the aftermath of the financial meltdown and rebuild our economy, we will hold accountable firms that contributed to the economic crisis. Today’s settlement makes clear that my office will not sit idly while fraud occurs in our backyard.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California has been investigating the origination and securitization practices of Countrywide as part of the RMBS Working Group effort. The statement of facts describes how Countrywide typically represented to investors that it originated loans based on underwriting standards that were designed to ensure that borrowers could repay their loans, although Countrywide had information that certain borrowers had a high probability of defaulting on their loans. Countrywide also concealed from RMBS investors its use of “shadow guidelines” that permitted loans to riskier borrowers than Countrywide’s underwriting guidelines would otherwise permit. Countrywide’s origination arm was motivated by the “saleability” of loans and Countrywide was willing to originate “exception loans” (i.e., loans that fell outside of its underwriting guidelines) so long as the loans, and the attendant risk, could be sold. This led Countrywide to expand its loan offerings to include, for example, “Extreme Alt-A” loans, which one Countrywide executive described as a “hazardous product,” although Countrywide failed to tell RMBS investors that these loans were being originated outside of Countrywide’s underwriting guidelines. Countrywide knew that these exception loans were performing far worse than loans originated without exceptions, although it never disclosed this fact to investors.
“The Central District of California has taken the lead in the department’s investigation of Countrywide Financial Corporation,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Yonekura for the Central District of California. “Countrywide’s improper securitization practices resulted in billions of dollars of losses to federally-insured financial institutions. We are pleased that this investigation has resulted in a multibillion-dollar recovery to compensate the United States for the losses caused by Countrywide’s misconduct.”
In addition to the matters relating to the securitization of toxic mortgages, today’s settlement also resolves claims arising out of misrepresentations made to government entities concerning the origination of residential mortgages.
“For years, Countrywide and Bank of America unloaded toxic mortgage loans on the government sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with false representations that the loans were quality investments,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara for the Southern District of New York.