MONEY Ask the Expert

How Can I Save More?

Financial planning experts share easy ways to trick yourself into setting more money aside for your future.

MONEY Careers

This Guy Emailed His Boss for a Raise — And Cc’d the Entire Company

Hand waiting for money
Image Source—Getty Images

A Wells Fargo worker asked his boss for a company-wide raise of $3 billion, and he CC'd about 200,000 people. But his manager says he won't be fired.

In what might be the ultimate power negotiating tactic, a Wells Fargo employee asked his boss for a raise over email and intentionally copied the entire company.

As the Charlotte Observer reports, Tyrel Oates, age 30, wrote Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf asking him to give each of the company’s approximate 263,500 workers a raise of $10,000. According to the Observer, roughly 200,000 of those employees were copied on the exchange.

Why did Oates demand such a hefty pay bump? He wants to reduce the nation’s income inequality.

In the full letter, which appears to have been posted on Reddit, Oates writes: “Wells Fargo has an opportunity to be at the forefront of helping to reduce [income inequality] by setting the bar, leading by example, and showing the other large corporations that it is very possible to maintain a profitable company that not only looks out for its consumers and shareholders, but its employees as well.”

After noting that Stumpf made $19 million dollars last year, Oates proposes his solution: “My estimate is that Wells Fargo has roughly around 300,000 employees. My proposal is take $3 billion dollars, just a small fraction of what Wells Fargo pulls in annually, and raise every employees annual salary by $10,000 dollars. This equates to an hourly raise about $4.71 per hour.”

“By doing this, Wells Fargo will not only help to make its people, its family, more happy, productive, and financially stable, it will also show the rest of the United States, if not the world that, yes big corporations can have a heart other than philanthropic endeavors.”

Oates told the Observer he currently makes $15 an hour processing requests from Well Fargo customers wanting advice on how to stop debt-collection calls. Despite working at the company for seven years, his hourly wage has increased by only $2 since the day he started.

The letter concludes with a plea for fellow employees to organize and stand up for themselves. “While the voice of one person in a world as large as ours may seem only like a whisper,” it reads, “the combined voices of each and all of us can move mountains!”

Luckily for Oates, while the CEO hasn’t (yet) responded to the letter, his employment doesn’t appear to be in danger. Oates’ manager has said he won’t be disciplined. “I’m not worried about losing my job over this,” Oates told the paper.

When contacted by the Huffington Post for comment, Wells Fargo would not address the letter’s text (which the Post confirms is authentic), but issued the following statement: “We provide market competitive compensation that combines base pay with a broad array of benefits and career-development opportunities for team members. Team members receive an annual performance and salary review. And all of our team members’ compensation levels significantly exceed federal minimums.”

TIME Economy

Could a 40-Year-Old Bank Collapse Have Saved the U.S. Economy?

Michele Sindona In His Office
Michele Sindona in his office in 1970, before Franklin National Bank collapsed Mondador / Getty Images

Forty years ago, the U.S. did a good job of overseeing a failed bank. Then came Lehman Brothers

When Franklin National Bank collapsed 40 years ago on Oct. 8, 1974, it was more of a beginning than an end. A lurid tale of the bank’s downfall emerged over the next decade, involving mafia connections, ambitious Wall Street wannabes à la Jordan Belfort and a principal investor with a suspicious bullet wound in his leg.

More importantly, the bank’s demise was the first notable instance in which federal regulators helped a major bank wind down its operations in order to prevent global economic damage.

Franklin began as a humble Long Island bank with big-league aspirations. In the 1960s, the bank made questionable financial decisions to expand its operations and bum-rush the Manhattan banking scene. Franklin’s overzealous bankers bought a luxurious, too-large office on Park Avenue and sold a controlling stake in the firm to a shady Milan-based international financier, Michele Sindona.

The Sindona story reads like an American Hustle-style, stranger-than-fiction tale. In 1974, high-risk loans, ill-advised foreign currency transactions, and swings in foreign exchange rates caused Franklin to hemorrhage cash. The company lost $63 million in the first five months of 1974, more than any other bank in American history until that point. Not long after, the U.S. charged Sindona with illegally transferring $40 million from banks he controlled in Italy to buy Franklin National, and then siphoning $15 million from it. In August of 1979, just before his trial was about to begin, Sindona — who had ties to the Vatican and likely the Mafia — disappeared under mysterious circumstances; his family and lawyers got letters that “supposedly proved that he had been abducted by Italian leftist radicals,” according to TIME’s coverage of the episode. When he finally emerged after nearly three months — in a payphone booth near Times Square — he had what he said was a bullet wound in his leg. (Sindona claimed he was kidnapped by Italian terrorists but his defense later admitted it was a hoax, and Italian magistrates said that a secret Masonic lodge helped Sindona fake his own kidnapping.) He was sentenced to serve a 25-year prison sentence and died in prison by cyanide poisoning in 1986.

But the bigger story about Franklin National was the boring one. The bank, which was the 20th-largest in the U.S., was the first major financial institution whose wind-down was orchestrated by federal regulators. In 1974, the biggest questions federal authorities faced were how much it would damage the global economy if Franklin collapsed, and whether regulators should get involved.

Sound familiar?

It should: A similar crisis occurred in 2008 when the collapse of the largest American financial institutions seriously damaged the global economy. Much like Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, Franklin National was deeply enmeshed in the global economy. In both 1974 and 2008, federal regulators were in a position to take decisive action, but they responded in very different ways.

In 1974, as Franklin began to collapse, the Federal Reserve’s strategy was to lend it money in order to buy time for a bigger strategy, according to Joan Spero, author of The Failure of the Franklin National Bank: Challenge to the International. The Fed loaned Franklin a total of $1.75 billion, the largest bailout ever offered to a member bank at the time. Later, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation stepped in to help arrange a bank takeover. The FDIC set up negotiations with 16 banks, and a firm called European-American ultimately purchased Franklin for $125 million. The bottom line is that regulators helped to avoid an economic hit by lending Franklin money, and then smoothly transitioning the bank into a subsidiary of a functional institution.

“The entire financial world,” Arthur Burns, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, told TIME shortly after, “can breathe more easily, not only in this country but abroad.”

A very different scenario emerged in September 2008. The United States was on the cusp of the worst recession since the 1930s, and Lehman Brothers, the nation’s fourth-biggest bank, was in trouble. Granted, the problem was much more serious in 2008 than in 1974, and the stakes were higher — as would have been the size of the required bailout. The Fed ultimately allowed Lehman brothers to go bankrupt, and the economy seized up. (A sale to Barclays did look possible at the last minute, but it didn’t work out.) A litany of critics have suggested that the Fed should have orchestrated a Franklin National Bank-like wind-down for Lehman, and thereby could have prevented an international catastrophe.

“For the equilibrium of the world financial system, this was a genuine error,” Christine Lagarde, France’s finance minister at the time, said in the days after Lehman’s bankruptcy, reports the New York Times. Indeed, what followed in the U.S. was the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Still, federal regulators tend to come under a lot of fire when things go wrong — no matter what they do, which is kind of the point. Even in 1974, TIME criticized federal authorities for not being proactive enough with Franklin National Bank, despite its orderly purchase by European-American. In its story published in October of that year, TIME said federal authorities should have scrutinized Franklin and others more closely:

Faced with the failure of more than 50 federally insured banks in the past decade, the FDIC and other regulatory agencies need to keep a much closer watch not only on the roughly 150 banks on the FDIC’S “problem” list but also on virtually every bank in the nation. That way ailing banks will stand a better chance of being helped long before they reach a Franklin finale.

In other words, TIME’s message to federal authorities was: Be vigilant and act quickly. It’s a mantra we could learn something from today.

MONEY

3 Stupidly Simple Ways to Make Sure You Never Ever Pay ATM Fees

Bankrate ATM fees
Image Source—Getty Images

A new Bankrate report shows that the cost of using an out-of-network ATM is growing. Here's how to avoid those charges completely.

Using an ATM that’s not run by your bank will now cost you about as much as a latte at Starbucks.

Consumers now fork over, on average, $4.35 per transaction on out-of-network ATMs, according to Bankrate.com’s just-released 17th annual checking survey. That’s a 5% jump over last year and a 23% increase over the past five years.

“ATM fees have been going up for a long time,” says Bankrate’s chief financial analyst Greg McBride. “It’s low hanging fruit for the banks.”

The fee you pay for these types of transactions comes from two sources: The ATM owner charges you a surcharge for using the machine, and your bank charges you for going out of network. The former fee advanced 7% to $2.77, while the latter climbed 3% to $1.58.

Together these costs add up to a decent chunk of change: One trip to a non-sanctioned ATM a month costs more than $50 a year.

For consumers, this is a completely unnecessary outlay, however.

“There are steps people can take to avoid ATM fees, regardless of how long they keep rising,” says McBride. “Plenty of people out there not paying fees at all.”

1. Have a Treasure Map in Hand

Download your bank’s mobile app, if you haven’t already. Chances are it contains a feature that lets you see nearby branch or ATMs that won’t charge a fee.

Make a habit of checking before you stick your card into somebody else’s ATM—there may be a cheaper option closer than you think.

2. Get Cash Where You Buy Your Groceries

Many stores—including pharmacies and supermarkets—allow you get cash back at the point of sale. If you’re getting something, why not also make a habit of getting cash on these trips, since this basically functions as a free ATM withdrawal.

3. Go with a Bank that Won’t Punish You

Not the type to remember to use your bank’s ATM? You might want to trade in your brick-and-mortar bank for an online one. Ally and Schwab do not charge you to use another bank’s ATM (since these institutions don’t have their own) and they will reimburse you for any ATM fees.

And since digital financial institutions don’t service branches, fees tend to be lower and you can even receive interest on your checking account. Ally currently offers 0.10% on balances under $15,000. In a way, you could say they’re paying you to use another bank’s ATM.

MONEY financial crisis

A Simple Plan to Stop the Next Financial Crisis

Six years ago, Lehman Brothers went down and nearly took the global financial system with it. Could this one bold proposal make banks safer—without holding back the economy?

Here’s one thing every homeowner knows: The less equity you have in your house, the more likely you are to get in financial trouble.

This was easy to forget for a time in the mid-2000s, when house prices were climbing. But when real estate prices reversed, many borrowers who had put little or no money down quickly found themselves “underwater,” owing more on their houses than they could sell them for. People who had stuck to the old-fashioned 20% down-payment rule of thumb, on the other hand, had a cushion. Their house had to lose at least 20% of its value before they were stuck in a mortgage they couldn’t get out of.

Anat Admati, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of business, and German economist Martin Hellwig think the exact same lesson ought to be applied to banks.

Monday marks the sixth anniversary of the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, the trigger event (if not necessarily the cause) of the worst of the global financial crisis. As part of an occasional series, I’ve been looking at different proposals to prevent the next panic. One obvious step is to regulate how banks lend out money, to crack down on predatory loans. Admati and Hellwig come at the problem from another direction — one that’s particularly apropos on the Lehman anniversary — by proposing tougher rules on how banks get their money in the first place.

They argue that banks should borrow less, relative to their assets. After all, what turned a bubble in real estate prices into a full-on financial panic was not just the toxic loans banks gambled on, but the fact that they too were playing with borrowed money.

In a nutshell, Admati and Hellwig say that 20% to 30% of the money a bank puts to work should be funded from shareholders’ pockets, instead of from debt. Currently, that number for big banks — their equity or “capital,” in bankers’ jargon — is more in the neighborhood of 5% to 6%. In other words, about 95% of banks’ assets (which includes the mortgages, business loans and other investments they hold) are matched on the other side of the balance sheet by money banks owe (to everyone from depositors to bondholders.) And that means, roughly, that if the value of a bank’s assets falls by more than 6%, it now owes more than it is worth.

Admati’s and Hellwig’s idea is getting attention. Admati has been the subject of a long profile by Binyamin Applebaum in the New York Times. Top Federal Reserve officials are citing her, and Applebaum says she’s lunched with Barack Obama at the White House. But the proposal has admirers on both sides of the ideological divide. Economist John Cochrane, no fan of Democratic banking reforms like Dodd-Frank, has praised Admati. And Republican Sen. David Vitter is co-sponsoring legislation requiring 15% capital with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

My Money colleague Kim Clark interviewed Admati at length back in 2013 about her book with Hellwig, The Bankers’ New Clothes. You can read the interview here.

I said in the headline that this plan is simple — and that’s true in the sense that it’s elegant. Instead of getting into the weeds of defining tricky concepts like “Too Big to Fail,” it puts a big, bright number on how much capital a bank has to hold to be considered safe. (Defining “capital” can in fact be contentious and complicated, but demanding a lot of it makes it harder to game.)

The tricky part is that it’s not so simple for people who don’t know banking to get why capital or equity is so important, or even what it is. As Admati frequently points out, banks have benefited from the misconception that higher capital requirements means banks would have to keep 20% or 30% of their money locked up in a vault, instead of lending it out to businesses or homeowners.

In fact, making banks “hold more capital” actually means they have to borrow less. In their book, Admati and Hellwig show that this is almost exactly like a homeowner making sure to build up equity in her house. This graphic published with Kim Clark’s Money interview with Admati shows how it works:

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 2.22.25 PM
SOURCES: Anat Admati, Money

To raise more capital, banks wouldn’t hold back lending. Rather, they’d tap their shareholders, either by issuing new stock or just by cutting the dividends they pay out of earnings, letting profits build up on the balance sheet. (They can still lend that money out if they choose — the point is, it wasn’t borrowed from someone else and won’t have to be paid back in a crisis.) This would be unwelcome news to many investors in banks, who often invest in large part to get those dividends.

Recently, I spoke with Brian Rogers, a fund manager at T. Rowe Price who invests a lot in banks, and he was satisfied that banks had already done enough to clean up their balance sheets and raise capital. Admati and Hellwig would doubtless say that investors’ confidence in banks now has a lot to do with the fact that the government bails the industry out when it gets in trouble.

Making banks less attractive to some stockholders, and limiting their ability to take advantage of debt when it’s attractive, could make them less eager to lend, raising interest rates.

In their book, Admati and Hellwig argue this isn’t necessarily the case — some investors might prefer to hold stock in less-risky banks. But even if there is a cost to safety, by now we have a pretty good idea of how expensive — for everyone — the alternative can be.

MONEY Banks

Bank of America Is Paying Up for the Mortgage Mess, But Who Will Get the Money?

Affordable housing construction
Kiet Thai—Getty Images

The banks has agreed to provide billions of dollars in "consumer relief." Here's what that actually means.

Last week, Bank of America agreed to pay almost $17 billion dollars in a settlement with the Justice Department. The settlement is about what Bank of America (and Merrill Lynch and Countrywide, which BoA later acquired) disclosed to investors about mortgage-backed securities, not about how it treated homeowners. Nonetheless, a large portion of the settlement—$7 billion—will be used for consumer relief.

So who will actually see some of that money? Bank of America can pay off its new obligation in four ways:

Reducing the principal or modifying payments on some mortgages. Mortgage modification isn’t anything new—the government has had programs to encourage banks to do this for years, though they’ve been criticized as too little or too late. However, compared to past settlements, the BoA deal does break some ground by targeting the relief. For the first time, 50% of principal reductions will go to borrowers in the areas hardest hit by the housing crisis. The Office of Housing and Urban Development has published an interactive map of these areas here. The settlement also gives the bank incentives to prioritize FHA and VA loans.

Bank of America’s agreement with the government also provides more substantial aid than previous settlements in certain cases. For example, BoA is required to provide $2.15 billion in principal forgiveness, which consists of lowering underwater mortgages to 75% of the property’s long term value, and reducing the mortgage’s interest rate to 2%.

“Those borrowers who do get assistance through the settlement are getting pretty substantial assistance,” says Paul Leonard, founder of the Center for Responsible Lending.

In addition to principal reduction, BoA will receive credit toward the settlement amount by forgiving mortgage payments, allowing for delayed payments, or extinguishing some second liens and other debts.

Who actually gets this help, though, is up to BoA. “Bank of America still gets to make all the final calls,” Leonard explains. “Even if I’m a borrower in default in a hardest hit area, who would seem like natural candidate for assistance, there is no entitlement to me.” As for the timetable, the bank has until 2018 to provide this aid, although the agreement includes incentive to finish early. BoA suggests anyone in serious hardship call 877-488-7814 to see if they qualify for an existing program.

More low and moderate income lending. For low-income Americans, first time homebuyers, or those who lost their home in a short sale or foreclosure, it can be extremely difficult to get a loan—even with a good credit. This settlement offers BoA credit for giving mortgages to these groups, or those in hardest hit areas, as long as they have respectable FICO score.

Building affordable rental housing. It’s also hard to find cheap rental housing, and financing for such development is scarce. As part of BoA’s agreement with the Justice Department, the bank will provide $100 million in financing for construction, rehabilitation or preservation of affordable rental multi-family housing. Half of these units must be built in Critical Family Need Housing developments.

Getting rid of blight and preventing future foreclosures. One side effect of the housing crisis was the large number of abandoned or foreclosed homes plaguing neighborhoods across the nation. BoA will earn credit for demolishing abandoned homes, donating properties to land banks, non-profits, or local governments, and providing funds for legal aid organizations and housing counseling agencies. The bank will also receive credit for forgiving the principal of loans where foreclosure isn’t being pursued.

Housing advocates say they’ll be keeping an eye on how quickly BoA and other banks that have agreed to consumer relief act on these programs. One worry is that by going slowly they could end up paying off the settlements with modifications and lending they would have done anyway. “If the promised relief arrives, as written, then it will bring a measure of relief that is badly needed by a lot of communities out there,” acknowledges Kevin Whelan, national campaign director of Home Defenders League. “But compared to the damage these institutions caused, it’s not really a large amount of money.”

Related:
What Bank of America Did to Warrant a $17 Billion Penalty
How to Get a Mortgage When Your Credit is Bad
Behind on Your Mortgage? You May Be Eligible for Some Help

MONEY alternative assets

How to Play Banker to Your Peers

IOU note
Getty Images

Lending Club's IPO filing puts peer-to-peer lending in the spotlight. If you're thinking about opening your wallet, here's what you need to know.

UPDATED—2:01 P.M.

Your bank makes money off borrowers. Now you have the opportunity to do the same. One of today’s hottest investments, peer-to-peer lending, involves making loans to strangers over the Internet and counting on them to pay you back with interest. The concept may be a bit wacky, but the returns reported by sites specializing in this transaction—from 7% to 14%—are nothing to scoff at.

Investors aren’t laughing either. Lending Club, one of the leading peer-to-peer lending companies, filed to go public on Wednesday. The New York Times reports the company is seeking $500 million as a preliminary fundraising target and may choose to increase that figure.

Such lofty ambitions should be no surprise, considering that the two biggest P2P sites are growing like gangbusters. With Wall Street firms and pension funds pouring in money as well, Lending Club issued more than $2 billion of loans in 2013, and nearly tripled its business over the prior year. In July, Prosper originated $153.8 million in loans, representing a year-over-year increase of over 400%. The company recently passed $1 billion in total lending. “A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea that these sites would revolutionize banking,” says Curtis Arnold, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Person to Person Lending. “They haven’t yet, but I’m not laughing anymore.”

Here’s what to know before opening your wallet.

How P2P Works

To start investing, you simply transfer money to an account on one of the sites, then pick loans to fund. When Prosper launched in 2006, borrowers were urged to write in personal stories. Nowadays the process is more formal: Lenders mainly use matching tools to select loans—either one by one or in a bundle—based on criteria like credit rating or desired return. (Most borrowers are looking to refi credit-card debt anyway.) Loans are in three- and five-year terms. And the sites both use a default investment of $25, though you can opt to fund more of any given loan. Pricing is based on risk, so loans to borrowers with the worst credit offer the best interest rates.

Once a loan is fully funded, you’ll get monthly payments in your account—principal plus interest, less a 1% fee. Keep in mind that interest is taxable at your income tax rate, though you can opt to direct the money to an IRA to defer taxes.

A few hurdles: First, not every state permits individuals to lend. Lending Club is open to lenders in 26 states; Prosper is in 30 states plus D.C. Even if you are able to participate, you might have trouble finding loans because of the recent influx of institutional investors. “Depending on how much you’re looking to invest and how specific you are about the characteristics, it can take up to a few weeks to deploy money in my experience,” says Marc Prosser, publisher of LearnBonds.com and a Lending Club investor.

What Risks You Face

For the average-risk loan on Lending Club, returns in late 2013 averaged 8% to 9%, with a default rate of 2% to 4% since 2009. By contrast, junk bonds, which have had similar default rates, are yielding 5.7%. But P2P default rates apply only to the past few years, when the economy has been on an upswing; should it falter, the percentage of defaults could rise dramatically. In 2009, for example, Prosper’s default rate hit almost 30% (though its rate is now similar to Lending Club’s). Moreover, adds Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth, “a peer loan is unsecured. If it defaults, your money is gone.”

How to Do It Right

Spread your bets. Lending Club and Prosper both urge investors to diversify as much as possible.

Stick to higher quality. Should the economy turn, the lowest-grade loans will likely see the largest spike in defaults, so it’s better to stay in the middle to upper range—lower A to C on the sites’ rating scales. (The highest A loans often don’t pay much more than safer options.)

Stay small. Until P2P lending is more time-tested, says Roth, it’s best to limit your investment to less than 5% of your total portfolio. “Don’t bank the future of your family on this,” he adds.

TIME Companies

Here’s How Much Banks Have Paid Out Since the Financial Crisis

Bank of America's new settlement with the Justice Department is among the largest

The Bank of America deal announced Thursday, the government’s largest-ever settlement with a single company, means the nation’s second-biggest bank will shell out $16.65 billion over allegations that it knowingly sold toxic mortgages to investors.

The landmark agreement is a win for the government—particularly the Department of Justice, which spearheaded the probe—after drawing criticism for its sometimes weak response to the financial crisis in 2008. The sum surpasses Bank of America’s entire profits last year and is significantly higher than the $13 billion it offered during negotiations in July.

But the deal also caps a string of settlements that the Justice Department and other regulators have imposed on banks in the wake of the recession. Since the crisis, the six largest banks by assets have paid more than $123.5 billion in settlements over faulty mortgages, according to previous data from SNL Financial and incorporating the latest settlement. Authorities have forced the banks to pay the majority of that amount, and more deals are likely: Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo are both reportedly on deck.

Here are seven of the largest government settlements:

$25 Billion
Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Ally Financial
February 2012

In what President Barack Obama called a “landmark” settlement, five of the nation’s largest banks agreed to a $25 billion settlement with 49 states and the feds to end an investigation into faulty foreclosure practices (Oklahoma reached a separate deal). Most funds were directed toward mortgage relief.

$16.65 Billion
Bank of America
August 2014

The settlement announced on Aug. 21 includes $7 billion for consumer relief, such as mortgage modification and forgiveness, and $9.65 billion in cash. But the deal doesn’t absolve the Charlotte-based bank of future criminal claims or claims by individuals.Bank of America has paid more than $60 billion in losses and legal settlements spawning from troubled mortgages—the most of any bank.

$13 Billion
J.P. Morgan Chase
November 2013

The largest U.S. lender agreed to what was then a record-setting settlement with the Justice Department over its role in the sale of the mortgages. “JPMorgan was not the only financial institution during this period to knowingly bundle toxic loans and sell them to unsuspecting investors, but that is no excuse for the firm’s behavior,” Holder said at the time.

$11.6 billion
Bank of America
January 2013

The bank, which acquired the mortgage lender Countrywide Financial in 2008, agreed to a $11.6 billion settlement over claims that it and Countrywide improperly sold mortgages to Fannie Mae.

$9.5 billion
Bank of America
March 2014

Ahead of the Justice Department settlement, Bank of America agreed to pay $9.3 billion to settle additional allegations that it sold faulty mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

$9.3 Billion
Thirteen Banks
February 2013

Federal regulators finalized a deal with thirteen lenders — including the three largest — for faulty processing of foreclosures. The sum allowed for borrowers who went through foreclosure to access up to $125,000.

$7 Billion
Citigroup
July 2014

Citigroup, the third-largest bank, and the Justice Department announced the deal in July amid allegations that the company misled investors about the mortgage-backed securities. The settlement, which included about $2.5 billion for consumer relief, surprised some analysts by its size, but was a harbinger of what was in store for Bank of America in the coming weeks.

MONEY financial crisis

What Bank of America Did to Warrant a $17 Billion Penalty

A protester holds up a sign in front of the Bank of America as a coalition of organizations march to urge customers of big banks to switch to local credit unions in San Diego California November 2, 2011.
Mike Blake—Reuters

It's the biggest settlement ever between a corporation and the U.S. government. Here's what it reveals about how bankers inflated the housing bubble.

Bank of America has agreed to pay $16.65 billion dollars in penalties—the largest settlement ever between the U.S. government and a private corporation—for its role in the financial crisis. As Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday morning, the payout will help “hold accountable those whose actions threatened the integrity of our financial markets and undermined the stability of our economy.”

So what did Bank of America actually do? As part of the settlement, the Justice Department has issued a 30-page “Statement of Facts,” signed by the bank, detailing the actions Bank of America is paying for today. The document includes events that took place at Merrill Lynch and Countrywide, which Bank of America later acquired. It’s full of e-mails and statements from employees and executives, which often make for infuriating, if sometimes grimly funny, reading.

Here’s what happened. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch sold various securities based on home loans. If the buyers paid their loan back, investors made money, but if too many defaulted, investors lost. To make sure investors knew what they were getting into, the two companies were required to report to investors on how safe these loans actually were.

The problem? Both BoA and Merrill, the statement says, knew with increasing certainty that many of their loans were troubled or at least likely to be risky, and didn’t fully disclose this.

At Merrill, one consultant in the company’s due diligence department complained in an email:

[h]ow much time do you want me to spend looking at these [loans] if [the co-head of Merrill Lynch’s RMBS business] is going to keep them regardless of issues? . . . Makes you wonder why we have due diligence performed other than making sure the loan closed.

The Merrill email pales next to the almost-cartoonish cynicism on display in some Countrywide emails. In addition to selling mortgage-backed securities, Countrywide was on the front lines giving mortgages to home buyers. Justice Department documents suggest that the company increasingly offered loans to almost anyone who walked in the door. What mattered was whether the loan could later be sold to someone else. Wrote one exec:

My impression since arriving here, is that the company’s standard for products and Guidelines has been: ‘If we can price it [for sale], then we will offer it.’

In an email from 2007, another executive reflected that:

[W]hen credit was easily salable… [the desk responsible for approving risky loans] was a way to take advantage of the ‘salability’ and do loans outside guidelines and not let our views of risk get in the way.

Because why should a mortgage company care about risk?

But what makes Countrywide special isn’t just that they gave out a lot of bad loans, it’s that they sold those bad loans to others while keeping the good ones for themselves. In a 2005 email, the Countrywide Financial Corporation (CFC)’s chairman—not named in the statement, but it was Angelo Mozilo—wrote that he was “increasingly concerned” about a certain adjustable rate loan. He feared that the average borrower was not “sufficiently sophisticated to truly understand the consequences” of their mortgage, making them increasingly likely to default. He wrote:

…the bank will be dealing with foreclosure in potentially a deflated real estate market. This would be both a financial and reputational catastrophe.

So what did Countrywide do about it? Sell the products on the secondary market, and keep only the mortgages given to more qualified buyers. According to the settlement document, Countrywide’s public releases “did not disclose that certain Pay-Option ARM loans included as collateral were loans that Countrywide Bank had elected not to hold for its own investment portfolio because they had risk characteristics that [Countrywide Financial Corporation] management had identified as inappropriate for [Countrywide Bank].”

In another email, this time from 2006, CFC chairman Mozilo explicitly spelled out this policy to the president of Countrywide Home Loans, writing:

important data that could portend serious problems with [Pay- Option ARMs]. Since over 70% have opted to make the lower payments it appears that it is just a matter of time that we will be faced with a substantial amount of resets and therefore much higher delinquencies. We must limit [CB’s retained investment in] this product to high ficos [credit scores] otherwise we could face both financial and regulatory consequences.

What do you know? Looks like those “financial and regulatory consequences” happened anyway.

TIME Money

Bank of America To Pay Record $16.65 Billion Fine

Bank Of America Reports Loss Due 6 Billion Dollar Legal Charge
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

$7 billion of it will go to consumers faced with financial hardship

Updated: 10:14 a.m.

The Justice Department announced Thursday that Bank of America will pay a record $16.65 billion fine to settle allegations that it knowingly sold toxic mortgages to investors.

The sum represents the largest settlement between the government and a private corporation in the United States’ history, coming at the end of a long controversy surrounding the bank’s role in the recent financial crisis. In issuing bad subprime loans, some observers say, the bank helped fuel a housing bubble that would ultimately burst in late 2007, devastating the national and global economy.

“We are here to announce a historic step forward in our ongoing effort to protect the American people from financial fraud – and to hold accountable those whose actions threatened the integrity of our financial markets and undermined the stability of our economy,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference announcing the settlement.

Since the end of the financial crisis, the bank has incurred more than $60 billion in losses and legal settlements. Of the latest settlement, $7 billion will go to consumers faced with financial hardship. In turn, the bank largely exonerates itself from further federal scrutiny.

However, not all is forgotten. The New York Times reports that federal prosecutors are preparing a new case against Angelo Mozilo, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Countrywide Financial, which Bank of America acquired in mid-2008. As the country’s largest lender of mortgages, Countrywide Financial purportedly played a large role in distributing toxic loans. Mozilo has already paid the Securities and Exchange Commission a record $67.5 million settlement.

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