The New York attorney general has declared war on JPMorgan Chase, suing the nation's largest bank to recover funds that investors lost on mortgage-backed securities created by Bear Stearns during the real estate bubble. Here's hoping the lawsuit finally exacts some accountability.
That lack of a judgment day lies at the heart of public anger over the Great Recession. Americans see that greedy mortgage lenders and Wall Street financiers created a money machine that made them filthy rich. But when the bubble burst, the banking system froze and the economy came crashing down, no one was forced to take a perp walk to the courts. The banks got federal bailouts but the culpable bankers got off scot free. Meanwhile, millions of other Americans got foreclosure notices, pink slips and decimated retirement accounts.
Anger at the injustice of it all underlies the vast, misplaced public resentment over the bailouts. It's the foundation of both the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. That resentment has created collateral damage by poisoning and distorting the nation's politics with simple-minded finger-pointing.
The lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman alleges that Bear Stearns committed fraud. It claims that the Wall Street investment bank deceived investors about the quality of mortgage loans that were the basis of securities it sold to them. Those investors subsequently suffered "monumental losses," according to the complaint. JPMorgan Chase acquired Bear Stearns at the desperate urging of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and New York Federal Reserve chief Timothy Geithner in 2008. It was part of the Bush administration's frantic effort to prevent the entire financial system from collapsing.
The complaint says that the Bear Stearns mortgage shop created $212 billion in mortgage bonds from 2003 through 2006. Losses on $87 billion of those bonds that were packaged in just two years have totaled $22.5 billion so far, according to the suit. The A.G., backed by the U.S. Justice Department, wants the bank to give back the money it realized from the alleged fraud.
Schneiderman said in a statement that the lawsuit could become a template for future actions against other issuers of securities backed by residential mortgages that "defrauded investors and cost millions of Americans their homes."
"We need real accountability for the illegal and deceptive conduct in the creation of the housing bubble in order to bring justice for New York's homeowners and investors."
Most Americans would agree.