The BAMTOR Principle

There’s a story I first heard told some years ago by Cokie Roberts. Perhaps you weren’t aware that both her parents were in the United States House of Representatives. Not at the same time, of course: her father was elected; upon his death her mother was nominated to take his vacated seat, and she was later re-elected several times in her own right. After she had been in the House for a while, she decided that she would like to have a condo in Washington where she could stay while Congress was in session. So she went down to the local bank to apply for a mortgage. She began to question some of the documents that were required of her, and the mortgage officer said they were required by federal law because she was a single woman applying for a mortgage. Rep. Boggs calmly replied something to the effect of “No dear, it’s against a federal law that I helped write!”

The BAMTOR Principle isn’t something that happens when language-challenged super-heroes get mad: it stands for Banks Always Make Their Own Rules. It was true in the mid-70s when Rep. Boggs tried to get a mortgage — how many women simply sighed and handed over the illegally-requested materials? Nothing has changed for the better.

This week GMAC, under it’s new identity as Ally Mortgage, announced that they were halting foreclosures in 23 states. A quick search revealed to me that those 23 states included every state where a foreclosure has to actually go in front of a judge, and many states where they must pass under the Sheriff’s eyes, but no states where it’s a simple matter of a Trustee’s Sale. The obvious conclusion is that their documents will not pass legal muster — but who cares if all you have to do is file papers with the County Recorder and have a sale?? It’s obvious to many observers that they failed to follow the law, in spite of “company policy” that they follow the law, and that this pattern of not giving a **** about the law has persisted for some number of years. Nor are they the only mortgage company with this problem.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Wells Fargo is trying to avoid the responsibility of selling homes they may or may not have the actual right to sell? Most people buy a home assuming that it is theirs and they can sell it to somebody else someday, but that might not be true here; regardless of how many places buyers initial the “bank addendum,” I smell a future lawsuit, particularly when the buyer’s mortgage company gets involved. No wonder banks prefer cash offers.

This brings up another interesting point of law that the banks don’t care to follow:

Now this little problem can be solved by title insurance, right? Well, guess what, some title insurers have exited the business, some others are starting to write policies with meaningful exceptions when they can’t go to the courthouse and find a clear chain of title. Oh, and Wells is trying to steer you towards their title insurer. What do you think the odds are that their title insurance policy doesn’t have exceptions?

A Federal law called RESPA says they can’t actually make you use their title company, but in practice good luck using any other title company. This particular fear is a little overblown because title companies use three standard policies, but the point is taken.

Nor is real estate the only realm where banks ignore the law. Earlier this month, remember that Goldman Scahs decided to graciously close down the proprietary trading unit that the financial services reform bill prohibited. And let’s not forget that back in the 90’s, the Citibank/Traveller’s merger was allowed go ahead most of a year before the actual law allowing such a merger was passed. There was barely a peep from regulators, who assumed that Congress would bend to the bankers’ wills.

When they can’t just outright break federal law without repercussions, they bend it. New rules on bank fees? Let’s just make some new fees!

Nor is it just Federal law that banks choose to ignore; they are perfectly willing to bypass state law as well. Bank of America (and Countrywide before them) has a nasty habit of foreclosing on the wrong house, mostly in Florida. As someone who lives in a neighborhood with a bunch of similar street names and its fair share of foreclosures, I can’t help but wonder if I need a better alarm system. Here in Nevada, we have a number of laws that banks choose to ignore, but since they are “federally regulated” I am told I have to take my complaints directly to the Comptroller of the Currency in Houston. Senator Ensign’s office was particularly condescending about it; if the lady I talked to could have patted me on the head through the phone, she likely would have.

The worst thing about the BAMTOR Principle is that Joe and Jane Average don’t really have a way to enforce good behavior with their wallets. Go ahead and try to open a checking account with a small, local or regional bank; perhaps you haven’t noticed that those smaller banks are disproportionally being shut down by the FDIC and sold to other banks that range from “huge” to “too big to fail.” Assuming you aren’t one of the millions of people who are “underwater” on their mortgage, sure you can get a new mortgage, but you can’t stop that mortgage company from selling your mortgage right back to the company you were trying to avoid!

Go ahead, feds. “Mull new rules.” The Bad Boys of Banking will just find new ways around the ones they don’t like until such time as the feds are willing to take a “tough love” approach, holding bankers responsible — putting people like department managers in jail or fining bankrupting sums of money where appropriate — and breaking up any institution so big that its failure would harm the economy.

In Closing: how abortion protests kill babies; add Michelle Obama and most of the White House Staff to the list of P90X people; where can I get one of these?; Good Samaritan; A question like “How to Lose a Million Jobs” will certainly get your attention; “Super-Rich Get Richer“? Oh good, I know everybody was worried about them; a fascinating read; “luck is not a business model“; more evidence that the insurance companies are doing all they can to subvert “reform“; fewer people working in 36 states, unemployment rises in 27 states, Nevada is still leading the pack; maybe they ought to read what Jesus really said someday; an interesting way of looking at things (h/t Calvin’s Mom); Sharron Angle is only a symptom of the craziness of American Politics; why fiscal stimulus isn’t working; and the Fed is trying to decide if — if! — they need to do more to fix the economy. Well, guys, look at today’s political cartoons and you tell me.

Oh yeah, and happy Autumnal Equinox.