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$26B Mortgage Settlement: Good for Banks, Not So Good for Homeowners

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After months of wrangling, the long-awaited foreclosure settlement between the government and the banks appears to be at hand.

A $26 billion settlement was announced Thursday morning between the federal government, state attorneys general and the five biggest banks in the mortgage market: Ally Financial (the old GMAC), Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan and Citigroup. (Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly identified Ally Financial as being the old GE Capital.)

The settlement is being hailed as the biggest multi-state settlement since the 1998 tobacco agreement. But as Henry and I note in the accompanying video, the settlement is too small to really help the housing market, or even do much for individual victims of fraud and abuse. The deal may, in fact, hurt housing by sending a message to people who've stayed current on their mortgages that irresponsible behavior is what gets rewarded in America. That, presumably, is not the intention of policymakers but the "moral hazard" fallout from the settlement. More Americans may "walk away" from uneconomic loans, which will put additional pressure on local housing markets.

Furthermore, several experts note that for all the rhetoric about punishing corporate crimes and helping victims of abuse, the banks have once again gotten away with a slap on the wrist and may end up benefiting most of all from the settlement.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the settlement will be broken down as follows:

$5 billion in cash payments, including $1.5 billion to borrowers who were wrongly or illegally foreclosed on between September 2008 and December 2011. Borrowers could receive up to $2,000, depending on the number filing claims.

$20 billion in "credits" the banks will receive for principal write-downs and other aid to homeowners at risk of default, up to $20,000 per. This tally includes $3 billion for refinancing of mortgages currently under water.

(Yes, I know 20 + 5 = 25, not 26. It's unclear what the "extra" $1 billion will be earmarked for as details are still emerging on the plan.)

A Drop in the Bucket

Now, $26 billion is a lot of money but it's a drop in the bucket compared with the trillions of dollars of household wealth that's been lost since the bursting of the credit bubble in 2008. Furthermore, $2,000 is a small price to pay to homeowners who lost their homes in illegal foreclosures. The $20,000 mortgage modification is great, except the average deficit for underwater mortgages in America is $50,000.

In addition, the $20 billion isn't coming out of the banks' pockets; it's coming from investors and, ultimately, taxpayers.

"The mortgage principal write-downs are guaranteed to come almost entirely from securitized loans, which means from investors, which in turn means taxpayers via Fannie and Freddie, pension funds, insurers, and 401 (k)s," writes Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism. "That $20 billion actually makes bank second liens sounder, so this deal is a stealth bailout that strengthens bank balance sheets at the expense of the broader public." (See: Obama's Refi Plan Is Another Bank Bailout, Stockman Says: "The Worst Kind of Crony Socialism")

Meanwhile, several Fed watchers believe the central bank is gearing up for another round of quantitative easing that will focus on (wait for it) mortgage-backed securities. If QE3 is focused on MBS, it will further ease pressure on bank balance sheets and make any hit from modifications easier to digest.

Every state AG, with the exception of Oklahoma, has reportedly agreed to the settlement. One housing expert speculates key holdouts such as New York Eric Schneiderman and California's Kamala Harris agreed to the settlement in return for promises that the banks aren't being completely left off the hook.

During the State of the Union address last month, President Obama called for a new financial crimes unit to pursue mortgage-related fraud.

Not coincidentally, the SEC is now reportedly stepping up its investigations of illegal marketing and selling of mortgage-backed securities during the boom. The Journal reports Ally, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank are among the firms being examined in the civil investigation.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com