Joe Nocera’s story over the weekend about a man thrown in jail for signing his name on a liar loan is a textbook example of the two-tiered system of justice in this country. On the one hand you have the banks, who systematically committed fraud on millions of loans, and for their trouble received hundreds of billions in bailout money and access to cheap money. On the other hand you have a customer, who gets taken to jail for his one loan transgression. Never mind that for many millions of customers, they didn’t even know they were lying on their loans; shady mortgage brokers falsified their records, forged their signatures and altered the terms and conditions repeatedly during the run-up of the housing bubble. And that’s possibly true of Charlie Engle as well, as Nocera illustrates.
As for the loans themselves, on one of them Mr. Engle claimed an income of $15,000 a month. As it turns out, his total income in 2005, according to his accountant, was $180,000, which amounts to … hmmm …$15,000 a month, though of course Mr. Engle didn’t have the kind of job that generated monthly income. (In addition to real estate speculation, Mr. Engle gave motivational speeches and earned around $50,000 a year as a producer on the hit show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”)
The monthly income listed on the second loan was $32,500, an obviously absurd amount, especially since the loan itself was for only $300,000. It was a refinance of a property Mr. Engle already owned, allowing him to pull out $80,000 of the $215,000 in equity he had in the property.
Mr. Engle claims that he never saw that $32,500 claim and never signed the papers. Indeed, a handwriting analysis conducted by the government raised the distinct possibility that Mr. Engle’s signature and his initials in several places in the mortgage documents had been forged. As it happens, Mr. Engle’s broker for that loan, John J. Hellman, recently pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud for playing fast and loose with a number of mortgage applications. Mr. Hellman testified in court that Mr. Engle had signed the mortgage application. Early this week, Mr. Hellman received a reduced sentence of 10 months, less than half of Mr. Engle’s sentence, in no small part because of his willingness to testify against Mr. Engle.
The specifics of the case are quite disturbing – the IRS man with an axe to grind, the confused jury – but the general impression is perhaps worse. A loan is a contract between two people. When that loan is fraudulent, to the extent that the fraud is willingly entered into by both parties, they should in any reasonable world share the blame. But not only did Engle suffer disproportionately by losing all his equity when the bubble popped, he lost his personal freedom in a crime that his mortgage lender was all too happy to facilitate and may have even perpetrated.
William Black has a great piece today on the column and on liar’s loans in general. He makes the point that only fraudulent lenders make liar’s loans. Here’s the major point:
Indeed, accounting control fraud is finance’s “weapon of choice” in much of the developed world because it is the superior solution to the tradeoff between the risk of being sanctioned for looting and the rewards from looting. Even the most powerful bank CEO faces a grave risk of being imprisoned if he sticks his hand in the till and steals $10,000. If, instead, he uses accounting control fraud to loot the bank of $50 million he has an excellent chance of never even being prosecuted. All he has to do is limit his means of converting bank assets to his personal benefit to seemingly normal executive compensation received because the bank “earned record profits” in the short-term.
The failure of the US justice system to prosecute control fraud, not even at these obviously fraudulent entities like the subprime lenders, is an abdication of the conceit that this country believes in a functioning rule of law. And making up for it by finding individual borrowers and putting the screws to them does not help this image.
We know that if cheaters prosper markets become perverse. We try to make sure that cheaters don’t prosper. President Obama, please start to use the “f” word – call the frauds “frauds” and demand accountability. Did you read Nocera’s story? What did you order Attorney General Holder to do in response? I urge the next reporters who interview the President to ask both of these questions.