Category Archives: consumers

Amodei, Your Banker’s Best Friend

House Roll Call Vote 412 wasn’t one of those votes likely to draw much general media attention, even its title seemed designed to induce yawns: “Providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5, United States Code, of the rule submitted by Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection relating to “Arbitration Agreements.”  Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) voted in favor of this measure on July 25th, and few noticed, much less commented.  It’s a small thing, but indicative of a mindset that favors the Big Banks over the interests of American consumers.

Background

 “In May 2016, the CFPB issued a proposed rule prohibiting predispute arbitration agreements in providing consumer financial services products. This rule would prohibit mandatory predispute arbitration agreements in consumer agreements for items such as checking or savings accounts, credit cards, student loans, payday loans, automobile leases, debt management services, some payment processing services, other types of consumer loans, prepaid cards, and consumer debt collection. The rule would also prohibit predispute arbitration agreements in connection with providing a consumer report or credit score to a consumer or referring applicants to creditors to whom requests for credit may be made.” [ABA]

Translation:  For “predispute” read Day in Court, as in the rule prevents a financial corporation from requiring arbitration before a person can take his or her case to court as a member of a group of consumers who have been hurt by the financial institution’s action or actions.   The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau explained:

“Many consumer financial products like credit cards and bank accounts have contract gotchas that generally prevent consumers from joining together to sue their bank or financial company for wrongdoing. These widely used clauses leave consumers with no choice but to seek relief on their own – usually over small amounts. With this contract gotcha, companies can sidestep the legal system, avoid accountability, and continue to pursue profitable practices that may violate the law and harm countless consumers.”  (emphasis added)

And, Representative Amodei supported the legislation to disapprove of this rule which was an attempt to protect consumers from actions like the following:

The poster child of bank malfeasance, Wells Fargo’s  —  “admitted its employees systematically created millions of sham bank accounts in its customers’ names, and then in many cases fraudulently billed those same customers for fees and services they never agreed to. Executives of the megabank knew this was happening but did nothing. Then, they decided to blame 5,300 “rogue” employees, who were summarily fired. Now, to ward off thousands of lawsuits, the company is hiding behind binding arbitration clauses in its victims’ contracts.” [USNWR]

And, there’s this —

“Military readiness has been negatively affected by unscrupulous payday lenders who prey on military servicemembers and veterans. The victims become overly indebted thanks to exorbitant interest rates and hidden fees they don’t understand, and then find themselves unable to obtain relief thanks to forced-arbitration clauses. Because of this, the Military Coalition, which represents nearly 6 million uniformed service members, veterans and their families, has formally petitioned Congress to ban the clauses.”  [USNWR]

It’s hard to imagine siding with unscrupulous bankers against the interests of enlisted personnel who are in the E6 to E9 ranks  in which pay runs from $2,486.99 to $4,186.09 for a person with more than eight years service, however Representative Amodei found a way to do it.  The problem became such a persistent issue for the military that in 2007 the Department of Defense started enforcing the Military Lending Act to protect its service personnel. However, pay day lenders found loopholes such that they could re-introduce their ‘products’ to members of the military. [MrktPlc] Who would support legislation designed to force members of the Armed Services to accept arbitration before they could have their day in court?  Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) and his Republican cohorts in the 115th Congress.

What makes this vote particularly noticeable regarding the protection of bankers is that there are ways — at least two — to ‘prevent’ that bete noir of all Republicans, the consumer lawsuit, without pitching the baby out with the bath water.

The first way would be to make all arbitration voluntary.  Companies could save time and money, and avoid publicity IF the consumer agrees.  If there is no agreement then the case goes to court.

The second possible solution would be to put the arbitration on a “business pays” status.  The American Bar Association offers this common sense proposal:

“The CFPB should require any consumer arbitration to be fully business-funded at no cost to the consumer. When a business faces transaction costs of nearly $2,000 per arbitration filed, repeat consumer filings will attract its attention. In addition, the CFPB could consider requiring that any consumer arbitration which results in a favorable consumer award on the merits should be awarded treble damages and attorneys’ fees. This provision would include a sort of “built in” incentivizing provision. The goal of this provision is to encourage organically what we already see occurring, increased settlement of consumer disputes. Still further, the CFPB should require that any consumer arbitration award must result in a written statement of decision, which permits other consumers to know how the arbitrator applied the law to the facts of that case. This will facilitate consumer knowledge of potential corporate overreach (and encourage more recovery), and will also help aid the consumer in arbitrator selection.”

In short, it is not necessary to go full-bore all-out in support of the banksters among us in order to prevent the unscrupulous from skinning the unwary or uninformed, but that’s what Representative Mark Amodei did on July 25, 2017.

Perhaps this may be explained by the fact that as of May 2017 Representative Amodei received $8,000 in donations from commercial banks for this election cycle, another $7,000 from credit unions, and $1,000 from finance and credit companies.  Or maybe it relates to the $25,000 he’s collected from the American Bankers Association over his political career?  Whatever the motivation, it’s clear that Representative Mark Amodei is placing the interests of the bankers above those of American consumers.   This situation could be rectified in 2018.

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Filed under Amodei, consumers, Economy, financial regulation, Nevada economy, Nevada politics, Politics

The Not-So-Stealthy Attack on Americans

During this something less than merry Month of May the United States Senate is scheduled to take up the Regulatory Accountability Act which will make it all but impossible for our own government to protect citizens (and citizen consumers) from corporate depredation.  We have a warning:

“Among its most egregious provisions, the RAA sets an impossibly high burden of proof that agencies would have to meet before finalizing and implementing a new rule, such as a new air quality or food safety standard. The bill also requires agencies to conduct several rounds of cost-benefit analyses that give more weight to the compliance costs to industry than the benefits to Americans. Taken together, these provisions and others in the bill could lead to total gridlock in the agencies charged with protecting the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe; ensuring that products are safe before they enter the market; and reining in the worst financial market abuses.”

Interestingly enough the Big Corporate Interests don’t even bother to mention “small businesses” in their push — read shove — for this anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-Main Street bit of legislation.

A better label would be the Unaccountability Act of 2017 — in that corporations would be protected from citizens who like drinking clean water and breathing clean air, eating healthy and uncontaminated food, driving safe cars, and being reasonably assured that Wall Street investment interests aren’t pulling a “de-regulation” extravaganza that could make the debacle of 2007-2008 seem mild by comparison.

If you enjoyed the scandals of Enron, the predatory behavior of Wells Fargo, the Great Recession brought on by Wall Street Casino operations — then you’ll love this draft to deregulate the major corporations.

On the other hand if one is appalled by the “Screw Grandma Milly” antics of the Enron crowd, if one isn’t concerned that the bank isn’t surreptitiously opening accounts (and charging fees) like Wells Fargo, or if one isn’t concerned that mortgages might be oversold, and fed into another giant bubble of derivative trading — then a phone call to the Solons of the Senate is required.

As the machinations of the Russians, the squirming of the administration, and the daily deluge of tweets from Dear Leader, suck the air out of the room, beware that major corporate interests are working through the halls of Congress.

This is the time to contact our Senators, Senator Dean Heller (who has made no secret of his affinity for deregulation) and Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto who is more likely to be amenable to the concerns of ordinary citizens.  The so-called “Regulatory Accountability” is nothing more than a not-so-stealthy attack on ordinary Americans by extraordinarily powerful corporate interests.

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Filed under conservatism, consumers, Economy, Enron, financial regulation, Heller, Nevada politics, Politics, public safety, secondary mortgage market, subprime mortgages

Please stop clapping long enough to check your wallet?

The followers of the Orange Agent of Change applaud his “actions” which they take to mean validating their world view informed by Faux News.  If they have a moment, they might want to stop for a moment and check their wallets.

At the next town hall meeting, if in fact your Republican Representative deigns to have one,  there are some pertinent questions you might want to ask because they relate directly to your very own money.

(1)  Why did the Republican House pass HJ Res 67 on February 15, 2017 which rescinded the Labor Department rule requiring financial advisers for retirement accounts to give YOU advice in YOUR best interest, and instead allowing those advisers to revert to giving you advice that could be based on what was profitable for their own firm?

*Nevada note: Representatives Rosen, Titus, and Kihuen voted against this, Representative Amodei voted in favor of it.

The babble you may get from those Representatives in support of this will almost certainly center on the banksters’ argument that the rule impinges on their profitability, and may thereby reduce their ability to provide service to you. Service like this you could do without.  If your financial adviser won’t agree to provide you with retirement investment suggestions based on YOUR best interests, then it’s time for you to reconsider your relationship with that company. You should expect your adviser to act in YOUR best interests and not use you (and your money) to generate fees and revenue for their own company.

(2) Why do House Republicans want to strip the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of its power to protect average Americans from predatory lenders and other financial scams?

“Legislation in the works would limit the bureau’s enforcement authority, reduce its ability to make rules and repeal its consumer complaint system.

It would also greatly shrink the enforcement tools at the consumer watchdog’s disposal, blocking it from being able to go after businesses engaged in deceptive practices and restricting its oversight of big publicly traded companies that are already regulated by agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.” [NYT] [The Hill]

This is precisely what H.R. 1031, introduced by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX4) would do.  Please pay special attention to the part wherein the GOP wants to strip out the consumer complaint system.  Without consumer complaints Wells Fargo could have gleefully, and profitably, carried on opening fraudulent accounts and charging fees. Instead, they’ll be paying a $185 million dollar fine. [NYT]  In fact, the CFPB has caused the restitution of some $11 billion for defrauded Americans. [The Hill] The bill looks to be approved by the House Financial Services Committee.  Remember how Republicans are fond of telling you that you deserve to keep your money?  Well, the CFPB is one good way of helping you to keep your very own money out of the mitts of unscrupulous banksters.

Here’s guessing that removing the relative independence of the CFPB is a way to reward the banksters, the predatory lenders, and others who don’t want any restrictions on their actions – no matter the cost to US consumers – and this should not pass unnoticed.  This isn’t exactly helping you keep your money in your wallet or bank account.

Then perhaps the Congressional representative will be willing to hear what you have to say about stripping 320,000 of their health care insurance coverage in the state of Nevada? [previously on DB]

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Filed under consumers, Economy, House of Representatives, Politics, Republicans

Quick Bucks and Long Term Losses: The Benzer Debacle and Nevada HOAs and COAs

Chicken Roosting Leon Benzer is worried about his family’s future, perhaps he might have given some thought to those prospects before launching his “sprawling conspiracy” in Nevada?  Another bunch of chickens comes home to roost:

“His sprawling conspiracy left a trail of ruin in its wake, including HOAs with substandard repair work, defrauded mortgage companies, defeated HOA homeowners with diminished property values and dozens of Benzer’s family members, friends and employees ensnared in his web of criminality,” prosecutors wrote. “Indeed Benzer by himself caused a (more than) 40-person crime wave in the Las Vegas Valley between 2005 and 2009, perpetrating crimes including mortgage fraud, election fraud, threats of violence and intimidation, abuse of the judicial process, tax fraud and obstruction of justice.” [LVRJ]

The conspiracy was a tangle with a simple objective: “The goal was to gain control of HOA boards through election rigging, obtain construction-defect litigation contracts for Quon and, ultimately, construction repair work to Benzer’s company, Silver Lining Construction.” [LVRJ

The result for Benzer was a 15 1/2 year sentence from a Federal District judge, plus 5 years supervised release, and $13.4 million in restitution. [LVRJ]   Mr. Benzer also played fast and loose with NRS 116.31105-7.  In Nevada, HOAs must have executive boards of at least three members, and the board members must be owners of units within the HOA.  So, from August 2003 until February 2009 Benzer and his associates:

  • Identified HOAs which could bring construction defect cases
  • Engaged real estate agents who would identify units available for purchase in the targeted HOAs
  • Enlisted straw purchasers for the identified units who would carry out Benzer’s scheme to get construction defect litigation contracts
  • Secured financing for the straw purchasers
  • Insured the straw purchase members were elected to executive boards of the HOAs (fraudulently)
  • Worked with the fraudulently elected straw purchase executive board members to manipulate property management, claims of construction defects, and to secure contracts for Mr. Benzer’s company. [DOJ Benzer]

Civic Duty

What would make HOAs such an inviting target for this kind of felonious manipulation?  First and perhaps foremost, the HOAs have an advantage in that multiple buildings or units can be conveniently lumped together, unlike having to deal with multiple individual owners.  The very nature of community interests can be twisted into an advantage for the unscrupulous.  So, if the sidewalks are 4.5 ft wide instead of the required 5 ft. then it’s obviously easier to get a large contract to improve pedestrian walkway easements on private property, or to encroach on landscaping, or whatever needs to be done to meet the local building codes and standards.

Secondly, we might want to consider the owners’ interests.  One of the HOA/COA advantages is that one can have some lawn or exterior landscaping without having to do the maintenance.  Just the thing for older residents who don’t have an interest in shoving the lawn mower around every weekend.  Or, perhaps, just the thing for younger residents who aren’t ready to invest in the lawn mower, week whacker, and other appliances of landscape management.  Or, can’t afford to hire landscapers themselves? The same applies to maintaining communal items – roofing (in connected buildings/units) or parking areas, walkways and other communal areas.  The advantage is that the individual owner isn’t responsible for the roof, or the parking, or the sidewalks – the disadvantage is that the HOA, being responsible is also a prime target for the likes of Mr. Benzer and his merry gang.

Third, and nearly always the case in relatively small operations, is the problem of finding people to participate in the management of an HOA/COA. This would seem a small issue if only three people are required for Board membership, but this doesn’t mean the problem goes away.  There are those who own HOA/COA properties who are not residents – they may be those who once resided in the community but have moved on, while still maintaining ownership of the unit.  They may have never resided in the community, but maintain the property as a rental.  It would seem that an HOA or COA with a high percentage of absentee owners could be an inviting prospect for the Benzer style take-over scam.

From the psychological speculation side of the issue, those people who moved into an area managed by an Executive Board and the property management firm because they didn’t want to bother with ‘community issues,’ may not be the type to get actively involved in the management and executive decisions related to the property or properties. The “Let George Do It” perspective is a powerful force in modern life.

Therefore, we might be left holding the banner for the old saw: 10% of the people will do 100% of the work.  How often the executive board work gets done is specified in the by-laws – by law the Board must meet “least once every quarter, and not less than once every 100 days and must be held at a time other than during standard business hours at least twice annually.” [NRS]  Let’s speculate that the more often a board meets the more oversight it does of property management, and that the board which meets only four times per year (two of which must be in the evening) has pretty much let the managers take over the subject.   Here, too, is an opening for the unscrupulous.

Legislative Duty

Given the extensive nature of Mr. Benzer’s highly questionable operations, it would seem the Board Scam would have drawn some legislative attention. It didn’t in the early days, the 2003 session of the State Legislature didn’t pass any legislation regarding Chapter 116.  In the 2005 session, the legislature enacted SB 325 which address management and fiscal issues.  In 2007, AB 396 required: “a member of an executive board who stands to profit personally from a matter before the board to disclose and abstain from voting on the matter.” Governor Jim Gibbons vetoed the measure.  His objections were, (1) the act might increase assessments; (2) there could be “dramatic changes to common areas,” and (3) it was a late bill and the legislature should have given it more consideration.  [DB 5/2009]  It would be November 2007 before Scott Canepa, a construction defect lawyer, brought information to the federal investigation into Benzer’s scheme. [LVRJ]

The next session in 2009 , did give the entire Chapter (116) much more consideration: SB 68; SB 182; SB 183; SB 253; SB 261; SB 351; AB 129; AB 350; and AB 361 were enacted. [NVleg] The provisions in AB 350 helped fill a void in management ethics, boards were admonished as follows:  “and shall act on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that their actions are in the best interest of the association.”   To its credit, when the details of the Benzer Scam-A-Rama unfolded the Nevada Legislature did act to curtail this kind of behavior.  And, perhaps had former Governor Jim Gibbons not been so allergic to the expression “solar energy,” AB 396 might have helped alleviate some of the damage back in 2007. 

Oversight and Information

The Nevada Legislature did what legislatures generally do best – enact legislation to criminalize crimes already committed. The prevention of any replication of Mr. Benzer’s operations is laudable.  However, before castigating the Legislature it should be noted that it’s impossible to legislate away problems before the information is available.

Members of HOAs and COAs, and member of the general public, might want to know  the status of an HOA or COA with particular attention to those factors which might render it a potential target for disreputable and downright criminal elements.  What oversight is in place for examining the activities of Executive Boards?  For examples, are there HOAs or COAs which have a relatively high percentage of absentee owners?  Let’s speculate that the higher the number of absentee owners the greater the chance for illicit behavior such as those straw buyers.  What kinds and to what extent is financial and management information available to owners and prospective buyers, and can we make improvements in the amount of information and access to it?

Caveat Emptor

There are some things owners and potential buyers can do to protect themselves.  The first might be to read the provisions on NRS 116.  It’s long; it’s wonky, and it’s in legal-ese, but it does define terms and set forth the fundamentals of HOA/COA operations.  If there’s no appetite to read the entire thing, then a person would be well advised to read  sections NRS 116.3075 through NRS 116.31107 on “meetings and voting.”

The second would be to ask questions such as: How many owners are absentee? What’s the percentage of proxy ballots? Again, the assumption is that the further removed the direct oversight, the greater the potential for problems.  Or, when and where are ballots counted in Executive Board elections?  What are the provisions for “spoiled” ballots or other ballots which might be rejected? And, what are the grounds for rejections?

What are the terms and term limits of executive board members?  Too long and there may be problems with “old boy” connections; too short and there’s the loss of “institutional memory.”  What percentage of the board members are residents?  What is the process by which property management firms are hired?  What is the process by which contracts are let for maintenance, construction, and rehabilitation?

NRS 116.31175 requires the availability of “books, records, and other papers of the association” for review “at the business office of the association or a designated business location not to exceed 60 miles from the physical location of the common interest community…”

las vegas 60 mile radius As the map indicates, that’s a fair portion of Clark County, and an owner or potential buyer might well want to know where, and how accessible, is that location with those “books, records, and other papers.”

Mr. Benzer will be a guest of the Federal government for the next 15 and one half years, with supervision for an additional five, however that doesn’t mean that there won’t be others who will apply their intelligence to those endeavors which will enhance their wealth without worrying about pesky ethics issues.  In the mean time it seems advisable to have some Legislative attention paid to:

  • How well protected are current HOA and COA owners in Nevada from potential scam artists similar to the Benzer group?
  • How well informed are potential HOA and COA buyers in Nevada, and are there steps we can take to better protect their interests as consumers?
  • Are there further steps which might be taken to insure that banks and other mortgage lenders don’t become involved in straw buyer, and similar schemes?

In order to prevent future Scam-A-Ramas of this ilk may require a combination of Caveat Emptor and Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

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Filed under consumers, Economy, housing, Nevada legislature, Nevada politics

SLABS: How to make money off someone else’s private student loan

SLABS

SLABs, and no we aren’t talking about the stuff of which patios are made, or the tiles that can be laid on kitchen floors. Nor, are we talking about some Silicon Valley laboratory firm.  Let’s focus on Student Loan Asset Based securities.  Yep, “securitized” assets – like mortgages, auto loans, credit card receivables, etc.  We do remember the mortgage thing? Right?

SLABs were hot in 2013. [WSJ]  In fact, see if you can make sense of the following description:

“Student loans are souring at a growing rate—and investors can’t seem to get enough. SLM Corp., the largest U.S. student lender, last week sold $1.1 billion of securities backed by private student loans. Demand for the riskiest bunch—those that will lose money first if the loans go bad—was 15 times greater than the supply, people familiar with the deal said.” [WSJ]

Why would investors be banging on the doors for those loans which are the most likely to go into default?  I think we’ve seen this movie before, and the ending (2007 – 2008) wasn’t pleasant for anyone.

The Basic Materials

Once upon a time Sallie Mae or SLM, was a government sponsored lending firm specializing in student or educational loans.  That was the case until 2004 when Sallie Mae went private and it’s now a publicly traded private sector corporation. SLM securitizes private education loan by selling them to the SMB Private Education Loan Trusts. The Loan Trusts (2014 and 2015) show “issuance details” online (here’s 2014-A)  There was $382 million in the August 7, 2014 records; divided into five categories with varying rates of return. Scrolling down we find the ‘master servicer’ as Sallie Mae Bank, the sub-servicer as Navient Solutions, Inc., the indentured trustee being Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, and the underwriters Credit Suisse and the Royal Bank of Scotland. [SLM]   Navient Solutions, Inc. is simply the name adopted in 2014 for Sallie Mae’s loan management, servicing, and asset recovery operation. [Bloomberg]  An ‘indentured trustee’ is:

“A financial institution with trust powers, such as a commercial bank or trust company, that is given fiduciary powers by a bond issuer to enforce the terms of a bond indenture. An indenture is a contract between a bond issuer and a bond holder. A trustee sees that bond interest payments are made as scheduled, and protects the interests of the bondholders if the issuer defaults.” [Investopedia]

The underwriters, in this instance Credit Suisse and RBS, are the firms which act as sales personnel for the bonds bases on securitized private student loans.  So, we have SLM issuing the bonds, Deutsche Bank National Trust acting as the agency responsible for bond registration, transfer, and payment of bonds, while Credit Suisse and RBS are the ones selling the bonds.   Sounds impressive, however those private loans comprise only about 8% of the total student loan market – the remaining 92% are Federal Stafford and PLUS program loans.  But – the numbers are still sufficiently high to interest SLM, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and RBS, because there’s about $92 billion involved in the private student loan market. [PSL]

Slabs without much mortar

Recall for the moment what got Wall Street in major trouble during the Housing Bubble.  Investment firms issued bonds, and then played with derivatives based on those mortgage based bonds, without being all that sure the loans were going to be paid off.  Thus, it was extremely difficult, and in some instances impossible, to calculate what the bonds were actually worth. Enter the credit rating agencies who (for a nice fee) stamped AAA+++ on what should have been recognized as piles of garbage; the investors couldn’t get enough of these, so even more garbage piled up as the investment houses bet on whether or not the assets were worth anything.  Enough garbage was included in the piles of paper that the whole pillar of paper crashed.

What’s saving us from the prospect of another bubble of epic proportions is that the market in private student loans is very small – that $92 million is a drop in a very large bucket of corporate and commercial debt. [Atlantic]  Another bit of good news is that because of the Dodd-Frank Act there is more transparency required in dealings in asset based securities.  [SEC]  [WSJ] The bad news is that Republicans in Congress have been wailing for the repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act as “burdensome regulation” of the banking industry.  Or, “make the SEC back off and let us get back to trading asset based securities like we used to in the Good Old Days.”

Who’s holding up the scaffolding?

Another bit of bad news is that while lenders are looking for new customers (students willing to take on private loans) we’re not tracking some important information about those loans.  For example, the default rate for Harvard is less than 2%, while the default rate for the Arizona Automotive Institute is nearly 42%.  [Bloomberg] Interestingly enough, there’s a long list of for-profit educational institutions with default rates higher than 28%. What we don’t need to see are more for-profit training schools encouraging more private student loan debt, debt which someone somewhere hopes will be hedged with private loans more likely to be paid off – because at bottom the funds to pay investors have to come from students paying off the loans.

Don’t panic yet, yes – there’s a hungry market for student loan asset based securities (perhaps in part because some old Federally backed loans were in the pipeline originally) and the market is relatively small albeit subject to some of the valuation mistakes of the Old Investment Houses – the ones who went bust in 2007-2008.   There’s another reason for hope: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – the agency the Republicans can’t seem to wait to dismantle. [DB 7/30/14]

One of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act was the creation of an ombudsman for student loans which is part of the CFPB.  In the 2014 annual report (pdf)  it’s of interest to note that the biggest problem area was NOT repaying student loans but in getting financial institutions to cooperate with repayment programs and dealing with servicers and lenders (57%). If this sounds like a reprise from the Mortgage Meltdown Days it might be because some of the same actors are involved, at least in terms of complaint volume: JPMorganChase up 56% from 2013; Sallie Mae Navient up 48%; Wells Fargo up 8%.  The annual report indicates problems in the following areas: (1) There is no clear path to avoid default. (2) Proactive outreach from borrowers was too often unsuccessful. (3) When repayment options are made available they are too often too little too late. (4) In some cases repayment options were allowed only after the loan went into default. (5) Short term forbearance options were often associated with processing delays, unclear requirements, and unaffordable fees. (6) Many lenders force a choice between staying in school and repaying the loans.   There is a reason for the Ombudsman’s concern. The Sallie Mae Settlement.

The FDIC announced a settlement with Sallie Mae on May 13, 2014 in which Sallie Mae was charged with (1) inadequately disclosing its payment allocation methodologies to borrowers while allocating borrower payments across multiple loans in a manner that maximizes late fees; (2) misrepresenting and inadequately disclosing in its billing statements how borrowers could avoid late fees; (3) unfairly conditioning receipt of benefits under the SCRA upon requirements not found in the act; (4) improperly advising servicemembers that they must be deployed to receive benefits under the SCRA; and (5) failing to provide complete SCRA relief to servicemembers after having been put on notice of the borrowers’ active duty status.

The Structure

As long as the private student loan market remains a small part of the total structure we can breathe a bit easier about its effect on capital markets. Secondly, the private student loan market has relatively low yields and thus doesn’t get included in most structured derivatives.  Third, the old ‘recourse loans’ (for those with really low credit scores) are a thing of the past, most private loans now take higher scores into consideration. [QuoraWhat will continue to keep investors whole?

  • Continued monitoring of the private student loan market by the CFPB so that loans taken out will continue to be loans paid off, even if this means some reduction in the revenue streams for the bankers.
  • Continued oversight by the SEC and FDIC under the terms of the Dodd-Frank Act so that we don’t return to the Wall Street Casino of old should there be changes in the private student loan market.
  • Improvement in the servicing of private student loans such that there are clear pathways to avoid default; effective and efficient communication between borrower and lender regarding repayment options; and, that this communication happens in a timely manner.
  • Requiring lenders to make all the term of the private student loan clear at the outset including forbearance conditions, and any and all fees associated with deference, late payments or defaults.

The Foundation

From a Wall Street perspective private student loan asset based securities are a niche market, with some revenue potential – enough to keep the big banks interested – however, not with enough total clout to cause major financial displacement should the Quake happen.  And yes, there are some institutions making nice fees for making student loans, selling student loans, securitizing student loans, servicing student loans, and collecting payments on student loans.  Capitalism works, the trick is to keep free market capitalism from becoming casino capitalism and/or financialism.

A more existential question is how to maintain a system in which students are burdened with so much debt (Federal program/Private loan program) that they are deferring consumer purchases which would contribute to the growth of the overall economy.  Deferred student loans can impact mortgage qualifications. [credit.com]  We know this because the  rate of homeownership among those with student debt is 36% below that of unencumbered home buyers, and we’re losing about $6 billion annually in new car buying capacity.  [Forbes]  And, this is not an inconsequential problem:

“Student loan debt is the only form of consumer debt that has grown since the peak of consumer debt in 2008. Balances of student loans have eclipsed both auto loans and credit cards, making student loan debt the largest form of consumer debt outside of mortgages.” [NYFed]

Given some of the trends reported by the NY Federal Reserve’s study of educational loans, how do we make sense of an economic system in which wages and salaries are stagnant while it is taking those from lower and middle income backgrounds longer to repay student loans?  How do we sustain an economy when 29% of borrowers are paying off their loans, while 34% are making regular payments but the balance is increasing, and 20% have reported credit related problems, with another 6% delinquent and 11% in default?

These are not simply economic issues, they are also political as well. Is there the political will to make post secondary education more affordable for more people?  Are we headed toward the privatization of our public institutions of higher education and post secondary training, and is this trend combined with the rising level of student indebtedness creating cracks in our economic foundations?

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Filed under consumers, Economy, education, financial regulation, privatization

Corporate Interests, Consumer Safety?

banker 2 Columnist Steve Sebelius has an article posted which is high on DB’s Must Read List: “Heck opposes ‘junk lawsuits’ ? Since When?”  It’s hoped that after reading this you’ll come back for more information on the Republican assault on your rights in the Courthouse.  Medical malpractice litigation is only one of several categories in which the Republican Party is ready and ever-so-willing to restrict the rights of ordinary citizens to have their day in court.  Failing that, there’s always the option to force litigation on those least able to afford it.

Your Body vs. Health Insurance Corporations

It’s time to remember that one of the very few specific proposals incorporated into the GOP version of health care insurance reform was “litigation reform.”  One of the more recent comes from a Louisiana Congressman:

“Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, is one of several Republicans pushing for the proposed legislation, which would repeal the Affordable Care Act, place new restrictions on medical malpractice suits and provide more access to health savings accounts.”  [LFC]

The standard line from Republicans is that malpractice litigation creates “runaway health care spending increases” because medical professionals order unnecessary tests, and if damages are limited fewer people will have any incentive to file law suits.  However, we’ve known since 2009 that some physicians have ordered extra testing merely to increase their billings, [TNY] and after Texas legislature capped damages costs still hadn’t dropped in the area highlighted as the poster child for escalating health care costs (McAllen, TX). [Wire]  A Florida law restricting medical malpractice suits was declared unconstitutional – after the Florida Supreme Court found that only the health insurance corporations benefited from the restraints. [Wire] And what was achieved by restraining the ability of ordinary citizens damaged by medical malpractice?

Not much:

“Defensive medicine includes tests and procedures ordered by physicians principally to reduce perceived threats of medical malpractice liability. The practice is commonly assumed to increase health care costs. The results of studies of the costs of defensive medicine have been inconsistent. We found that estimated savings resulting from a 10 percent decline in medical malpractice premiums would be less than 1 percent of total medical care costs in every specialty. These savings are lower than most previous estimates, and they suggest that the presumed impact of tort reform on health care costs may be overstated.” [HA.org, National Cancer Inst] (emphasis added)

May be overstated?” They are being overstated. And, they are being overstated in the pursuit of policies which are blatantly aligned with the interests of the health insurance corporations.   Might any Nevadan oppose litigation seeking to hold accountable those responsible for the Hepatitis C outbreak from the Shadow Lane Clinic? [LVRJ/Sebelius]  Would Floridians oppose the efforts of the family of Michelle McCall to hold a medical facility accountable for her death – the result of a case of preeclampsia being handled about as poorly as might be imagined in a nightmare. [FSC 2014 pdf]

Who in Missouri would castigate the efforts of the Schneider family in the wake of a stroke suffered by Jeffrey Schneider, an IT specialists with the Federal Reserve, which caused damage to his speech, the right side of his body, and loss of short term memory – and which was preventable had the physician paid attention to his own notes going back to 1996. [STLpd] Also left un-noted in the hyperbole about Runaway Costs from Irresponsible Juries – the fact that medical malpractice suits are extremely difficult to win.

The physicians and medical facilities usually win in most cases. In one study of 10,000 malpractice cases between 2002 and 2005, just a bit over half (55%) ended up in an actual lawsuit. Of that 55% more than half were dismissed by the court. When all the winnowing was final, less than 5% of the cases ended up being decided by a trial verdict – and 80% of the verdicts were in favor of the physicians. [reuters]  For this, we are being asked by Representatives Heck, Scalise, and others, to voluntarily abrogate our rights as citizens to have our day in court.

Your Body vs. Gun Manufacturers and the NRA

On October 20, 2005 Congress passed a law protecting gun manufacturers and dealers from any liability.  The NRA was positively elated. [NYT]  The vote on S. 397 was 283-144 [roll call 534] The law is a gun manufacturer’s delight, it:

Prohibits a qualified civil liability action from being brought in any state or federal court against a manufacturer or seller of a firearm, ammunition, or a component of a firearm that has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce, or against a trade association of such manufacturers or sellers, for damages, punitive damages, injunctive or declaratory relief, abatement, restitution, fines, penalties, or other relief resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm. Requires pending actions to be dismissed. [Thomas]

Did we notice the damage might have resulted from “the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm?”  P.L.109-92 protects gun manufacturers and dealers like no other sector of our economy.  Did the safety fail? You have no case. Did the gun malfunction because of a preventable engineering flaw causing an injury or loss of life? You have no case. Did the Saturday Night Special shatter when fired? You have no case.  If your complaint is with a firearms manufacturing corporation – you will not have your day in court.

There are also moves afoot to make being a consumer in this consumer economy a matter of a perverted form of survival of the fittest – or the wealthiest at least.  In this regard the advocates of corporate interests want to remove the very agencies which provide administrative options to litigation.  Instead of eliminating your day in court, the massive corporations would like very much to make you challenge them in court – if you dare.

Your Wallet vs. The Financial Institutions and Big Banks

Nothing so alarmed the bankers and other participants in the Great Mortgage Disaster of 2007-2008 as the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  In fact, a small community bank in (where else?) Texas along with two conservative groups,  were moved in 2012 to file a lawsuit saying the appointment of CFPB director Richard Cordray was unconstitutional and the agency was without “checks and balances.” The bankers also didn’t like the Financial Stability Oversight Council – the one that studies risk in the financial sector. [Reuters]  In September 2012 some Republican state attorneys general were planning “non-cooperation” with the CFPB, following along the talking points made in the litigation. [Bloomberg]  Nothing would please these folks more than the repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act, so that the wheels of the Wall Street Casino could be free to spin again.

And what subjects does the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau review? Student Loans, Manufactured Home financing,  Bank Overdraft and other fees… As of June 2014 the CFPB reviewed (pdf) complaints in a variety of financial transaction categories – 34% concerned mortgages, 20% concerned debt collection activities, 14% were about credit cards, 12% about banking accounts and services, 3% were about consumer loans, 3% about student loans, and payday loans 1%.  In other words, disputes about loans and other services common, ordinary, everyday, citizens of the U.S. might be involved in.  

The legal system usually demands that all administrative options be finished before litigation is initiated.  If there is no CFPB then there is one less way for disputes to be resolved at the administrative level – and the individual citizen (the one in the mobile home, in the student apartment, in the apartment house complex…) is left with no option except the expense of litigation.  If the big banks had their way – you’d get your day in court – at your expense, and there would be no agency tasked with protecting you before you faced the battalion of legal forces arrayed against you.

Your Life vs. Manufacturing Interests

Calls for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission are nothing new, they’ve been around since at least 1980. [Sanders]  The Libertarian Party is pleased to offer the following vision:

We oppose all so-called “consumer protection” legislation which infringes upon voluntary trade, and call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. We advocate the repeal of all laws banning or restricting the advertising of prices, products, or services. We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called “self-protection” equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.

Does someone “voluntarily” purchase a crib for an infant which has features potentially lethal for a baby?  Who “voluntarily” buys a four wheeler where the components of the front gear case can fail causing a loss of control and crash hazard?  Or a lawn mower in which the welding on the drive axle can fail, again causing a loss of control and crash hazard?  Would you “voluntarily” purchase a bicycle helmet which fails in cold temperatures?  Would you “voluntarily” buy a scarf which doesn’t meet federal flammability standards? Or a infant’s “hoodie” the drawstring of which creates a strangulation hazard? Or a riding lawn mower wherein the ignition fails to ground and tends to overheat and melt? [CPSC]

What is the response when the four-wheeler’s front gear case fails, the vehicle goes out of control, and the resulting crash causes injury or death? You should have had a degree in Mechanical Engineering before you purchased the rig?  Or, is it if enough people are injured or die in crashes consumers won’t purchase the vehicle? How many have to die?

Again, without the Consumer Products Safety Commission not only is the likelihood of death or injury made more commonplace, but there is no administrative remedy intermediate to litigation.  Worse still, the “pro-business” Republicans don’t even want the public to know which products have been the subjects of complaints.   When the CPSC allowed the publication of its consumer database, the Republicans went off the deep end.

They said: “…that the database “wastes taxpayer money, confuses and misleads consumers, raises prices, kills jobs, and damages the reputations of safe and responsible manufacturers.” Testifying last month before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, Wayne Morris, a vice president for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, complained, “It is wrong for the federal government to allow companies and their brands to be unfairly characterized, even slandered.” The National Association of Manufacturers said the database’s “credibility” and “usefulness to consumers” is “severely damaged.” In response to such criticism (and possibly also in response to Koch Industries, which showered an improbable $79,500 on his campaign), Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, a Tea Party freshman, sponsored an amendment zeroing out funding for the database that cleared the House, 234-187. The CPSC database, Pompeo said, “will drive jobs overseas.” [Slate]

There’s “voluntarism” for us – not only should manufacturers be able to slap together unsafe products and sell them to American consumers, but those potential consumers should be prevented from finding out that other consumers have had problems with the products.  We should remember that then Representative Dean Heller (R-NV) was one of the 234 House Republicans who voted in favor of Pompeo’s amendment cutting the funding for the CPSC database. [roll call 137]

The Ties That Bind

There is a common thread to all of this.  In the instances of medical malpractice and gun manufacturing and sales, it is assumed by the Republicans that the consumer – the average American – must be prevented from challenging the major corporations who provide the goods and services; or at least their dismal chances of successful litigation must be further curtailed.

In the examples of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Consumer Product Safety Commission the notion that some administrative option prior to expensive litigation must be removed for the sake of the manufacturers and dealers. Only those with the financial wherewithal to take on interminable legal battles should be able to challenge the desire of manufacturers to cut corners (“increase shareholder value”) and thereby produce and distribute potentially lethal products.

Nowhere in any portion of these Republican challenges to consumer safety and security will we find any true concern for the average American consumer, patient, or victim. Unfortunately, for the GOP it’s  all about the corporate Benjamins.

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Filed under civil liberties, conservatism, consumers, Gun Issues, Health Care, health insurance, Heck, Heller

Bankers Bank On Economic Amnesia

Occupy Wall Street bankers Zillow reports that the current median home value in Nevada is $189,700, up some 16.4% over the past year, and another increase of 6.2% is predicted. The median listed price of a home in Nevada is now $215,000, and the median selling price is now $198,475.  [Zillow] This is good news for Nevadans in Clark County because the median list price as of July 2011 was $118,500. [Movoto]  Bankrate posts mortgage interest rates ranging from 4.1% to $.4% in the Reno area, and a range of 4.05% to 4.4% in the Las Vegas metropolitan region.  [Bankrate]  There’s another factor to consider, especially in southern Nevada, home resale inventories have stabilized, and there’s been no major increases in distress sales (foreclosures and short sales) as a percentage of the total housing market in September. [Movoto]

Mortgage interest rate trends are also interesting because there’s been a decline since January 2005.  The interest rate for a 30 year fixed rate mortgage was about 5.71% in January 2005, 6.15% in January 2006, and 6.22% in January 2007 as the Housing Bubble was about to burst all over everyone.  As the Bubble started to splatter in January 2008 the interest rate was 5.76%, dropping to 5.05% in January 2009. Fast forward to January 2012 and the interest rate had dropped to 3.92%, going down to 3.41% in 2013, and then increasing again in January 2014 back up to 4.43%. [FredMac]

Why are these numbers of any interest?

(1) When homebuyers can get credit they are able to pay prices closer to the original asking price. (2) It’s no longer a buyers’ market when sellers are getting better prices. (3) Someone must be doing a bit better because there seems to be more competition for mortgage money, given that in a free market commodities (in this instance mortgage money) are slightly more costly the higher the demand.  (4) These numbers also highlight the Big Lie that the Wall Street casino operators are trying to sell across the country.

David Dayen, writing for Salon caught the Big Fib and described it as follows:

This is part of a larger myth, blaming government’s efforts to clean up the mortgage market for the slow housing recovery and sluggish economy. This idea that banks are so petrified about burdensome regulations that they’ve decided to scale back their business model of lending to people seems far-fetched.

That’s because it is far fetched.  We can see the whole picture simply by sitting here in one of the states most hard hit by the collapse of Wall Street’s Housing Bubble, and looking at our own numbers.

First, if bankers were so insecure about lending then why have interest rates rebounded since the Bubble burst?  When no one is buying homes rates go down because there simply aren’t enough customers clamoring for loans.  However, in this ‘sand state’ the interest rates have gone up by about 1%.

Secondly, it’s obvious someone is buying something because  the Las Vegas housing market, almost obliterated when the Bubble Burst, has seen an increase in the median price of homes, up by an impressive 16.4%.

It’s a bit difficult to make the case that bankers aren’t lending (because of the icky government financial regulation reform) when median list prices and median selling prices have both increased.  If banks weren’t lending then we’d expect housing prices to flatten out because there weren’t enough bidders for the homes.  Again, Dayen sums up the bankers’ game: “The real motivation here is to roll back regulations and return to the go-go era where anyone who can fog a mirror can get a loan. We know how that turned out the last time.”

Just in case anyone catches the overt fibbing, spinning, and general mendacity of the bankers’ latest pronouncements, they’ve left themselves a bit of wiggle room.  The economic revival is “sluggish.” Translation: If you’d just let us get back to deregulated free for all casino operations we’d be richer. And, “the housing recovery has been slow.”  Translation: Want to get more, and more, and more, mortgages from ‘anyone who can fog a mirror’ to slice, dice, and tranche, into mortgage based securities – upon which we will get richer.

There’s a better reason to explain a sluggish economy and a slowly reviving housing market.  Ordinary people have to have incomes which support major purchases – like homes – and what has happened to the median income in Nevada since the Bubble Burst in 2007-2008 isn’t pretty.

The median HI for Nevadans in 2013 was $51,230, down 9.1% since the Housing Bubble burst in 2008.  The Mean HHI for the top 5% of Nevada income earners was $294,939, which dropped by 2% after the washout of 2007-2008. [Pew]

Given the precipitous drop in median earnings, the question might not be about how “sluggish” the recovery has been, but how we’d experienced any recovery at all.  We might dare to ask the same question about home sales.  Again, given the decrease in median household income it’s a wonder home sales have rebounded – especially if we consider that home values are now up 16.4% with more increases projected.

Once more, Wall Street has demonstrated very clearly it’s profound dependence on debt and volatility, while Main Street remains dependent on consumer spending and stability.   In this instance, as in so many others, it’s important not to conflate what’s good for Wall Street with what’s good for business in general.

It’s great for Wall Street to have bundles and bundles of unregulated mortgages, car loans, and lines of consumer credit to shovel into its deregulated  casino operations and Bubble Factories – it’s not so great for Main Street to have abandoned homes, foreclosures on every street, and too many unemployed construction workers in the community.

Caveat Emptor – the latest Big Lie would have us believe the investment bankers want the very best for all of us – after their last debacle the only way they’ll sell this notion is if the American public gets a bad case of economic amnesia.

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Filed under consumers, Economy, financial regulation, Nevada economy, Nevada politics