Eastern European Banking Model

A traditional banking model in a CEEC (Central and Eastern European Country) consisted of a central bank and several purpose banks, one dealing with individuals’ savings and other banking needs, and another focusing on foreign financial activities, etc. The central bank provided most of the commercial banking needs of enterprises in addition to other functions. During the late 1980s, the CEECs modified this earlier structure by taking all the commercial banking activities of the central bank and transferring them to new commercial banks. In most countries the new banks were set up along industry lines, although in Poland a regional approach has been adopted.

On the whole, these new stale-owned commercial banks controlled the bulk of financial transactions, although a few ‘de novo banks’ were allowed in Hungary and Poland. Simply transferring existing loans from the central bank to the new state-owned commercial banks had its problems, since it involved transferring both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ assets. Moreover, each bank’s portfolio was restricted to the enterprise and industry assigned to them and they were not allowed to deal with other enterprises outside their remit.

As the central banks would always ‘bale out’ troubled state enterprises, these commercial banks cannot play the same role as commercial banks in the West. CEEC commercial banks cannot foreclose on a debt. If a firm did not wish to pay, the state-owned enterprise would, historically, receive further finance to cover its difficulties, it was a very rare occurrence for a bank to bring about the bankruptcy of a firm. In other words, state-owned enterprises were not allowed to go bankrupt, primarily because it would have affected the commercial banks, balance sheets, but more importantly, the rise in unemployment that would follow might have had high political costs.

What was needed was for commercial banks to have their balance sheets ‘cleaned up’, perhaps by the government purchasing their bad loans with long-term bonds. Adopting Western accounting procedures might also benefit the new commercial banks.

This picture of state-controlled commercial banks has begun to change during the mid to late 1990s as the CEECs began to appreciate that the move towards market-based economies required a vibrant commercial banking sector. There are still a number of issues lo be addressed in this sector, however. For example, in the Czech Republic the government has promised to privatize the banking sector beginning in 1998. Currently the banking sector suffers from a number of weaknesses. A number of the smaller hanks appear to be facing difficulties as money market competition picks up, highlighting their tinder-capitalization and the greater amount of higher-risk business in which they are involved. There have also been issues concerning banking sector regulation and the control mechanisms that are available. This has resulted in the government’s proposal for an independent securities commission to regulate capital markets.

The privatization package for the Czech Republic’s four largest banks, which currently control about 60 percent of the sector’s assets, will also allow foreign banks into a highly developed market where their influence has been marginal until now. It is anticipated that each of the four banks will be sold to a single bidder in an attempt to create a regional hub of a foreign bank’s network. One problem with all four banks is that inspection of their balance sheets may throw up problems which could reduce the size of any bid. All four banks have at least 20 percent of their loans as classified, where no interest has been paid for 30 days or more. Banks could make provisions to reduce these loans by collateral held against them, but in some cases the loans exceed the collateral. Moreover, getting an accurate picture of the value of the collateral is difficult since bankruptcy legislation is ineffective. The ability to write off these bad debts was not permitted until 1996, but even if this route is taken then this will eat into the banks’ assets, leaving them very close to the lower limit of 8 percent capital adequacy ratio. In addition, the ‘commercial’ banks have been influenced by the action of the national bank, which in early 1997 caused bond prices to fall, leading to a fall in the commercial banks’ bond portfolios. Thus the banking sector in the Czech Republic still has a long way to go.

In Hungary the privatization of the banking sector is almost complete. However, a state rescue package had to be agreed at the beginning of 1997 for the second-largest state bank, Postabank, owned indirectly by the main social security bodies and the post office, and this indicates the fragility of this sector. Outside of the difficulties experienced with Postabank, the Hungarian banking system has been transformed. The rapid move towards privatization resulted from the problems experienced by the state-owned banks, which the government bad to bail out, costing it around 7 percent of GDP. At that stage it was possible that the banking system could collapse and government funding, although saving the banks, did not solve the problems of corporate governance or moral hazard. Thus the privatization process was started in earnest. Magyar Kulkereskedelmi Bank (MKB) was sold to Bayerische Landesbank and the EBDR in 1994, Budapest Bank was bought by GE Capital and Magyar Hitel Bank was bought by ABN-AMRO. In November 1997 the state completed the last stage of the sale of the state savings bank (OTP), Hungary’s largest bank. The state, which dominated the banking system three years ago, now only retains a majority stake in two specialist banks, the Hungarian Development Bank and Eximbank.

The move towards, and success of privatization can be seen in the balance sheets of the banks, which showed an increase in post-tax profits of 45 percent in 1996. These banks are also seeing higher savings and deposits and a strong rise in demand for corporate and retail lending. In addition, the growth in competition in the banking sector has led to a narrowing of the spreads between lending and deposit rates, and the further knock-on effect of mergers and small-hank closures. Over 50 percent of Hungarian bank assets are controlled by foreign-owned banks, and this has led to Hungarian banks offering services similar to those expected in many Western European countries. Most of the foreign-owned but mainly Hungarian-managed banks were recapitalized after their acquisition and they have spent heavily on staff training and new information technology systems. From 1998, foreign banks will be free to open branches in Hungary, thus opening up the domestic banking market to full competition.

As a whole, the CEECs have come a long way since the early 1990s in dealing with their banking problems. For some countries the process of privatization still has a long way to go but others such as Hungary have moved quickly along the process of transforming their banking systems in readiness for their entry into the EU.

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Let the Lawsuits Begin – Banks Brace For a Storm of Litigation

In an article in The San Francisco Chronicle in December 2007, attorney Sean Olender suggested that the real reason for the subprime bailout schemes being proposed by the U.S. Treasury Department was not to keep strapped borrowers in their homes so much as to stave off a spate of lawsuits against the banks. The plan then on the table was an interest rate freeze on a limited number of subprime loans. Olender wrote:

“The sole goal of the freeze is to prevent owners of mortgage-backed securities, many of them foreigners, from suing U.S. banks and forcing them to buy back worthless mortgage securities at face value – right now almost 10 times their market worth. The ticking time bomb in the U.S. banking system is not resetting subprime mortgage rates. The real problem is the contractual ability of investors in mortgage bonds to require banks to buy back the loans at face value if there was fraud in the origination process.

“. . . The catastrophic consequences of bond investors forcing originators to buy back loans at face value are beyond the current media discussion. The loans at issue dwarf the capital available at the largest U.S. banks combined, and investor lawsuits would raise stunning liability sufficient to cause even the largest U.S. banks to fail, resulting in massive taxpayer-funded bailouts of Fannie and Freddie, and even FDIC . . . .

“What would be prudent and logical is for the banks that sold this toxic waste to buy it back and for a lot of people to go to prison. If they knew about the fraud, they should have to buy the bonds back.”1

The thought could send a chill through even the most powerful of investment bankers, including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson himself, who was head of Goldman Sachs during the heyday of toxic subprime paper-writing from 2004 to 2006. Mortgage fraud has not been limited to the representations made to borrowers or on loan documents but is in the design of the banks’ “financial products” themselves. Among other design flaws is that securitized mortgage debt has become so complex that ownership of the underlying security has often been lost in the shuffle; and without a legal owner, there is no one with standing to foreclose. That was the procedural problem prompting Federal District Judge Christopher Boyko to rule in October 2007 that Deutsche Bank did not have standing to foreclose on 14 mortgage loans held in trust for a pool of mortgage-backed securities holders.2 If large numbers of defaulting homeowners were to contest their foreclosures on the ground that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue, trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) could be at risk. Irate securities holders might then respond with litigation that could indeed threaten the existence of the banking Goliaths.

STATES LEADING THE CHARGE

MBS investors with the power to bring major lawsuits include state and local governments, which hold substantial portions of their assets in MBS and similar investments. A harbinger of things to come was a complaint filed on February 1, 2008, by the State of Massachusetts against investment bank Merrill Lynch, for fraud and misrepresentation concerning about $14 million worth of subprime securities sold to the city of Springfield. The complaint focused on the sale of “certain esoteric financial instruments known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) . . . which were unsuitable for the city and which, within months after the sale, became illiquid and lost almost all of their market value.”3

The previous month, the city of Baltimore sued Wells Fargo Bank for damages from the subprime debacle, alleging that Wells Fargo had intentionally discriminated in selling high-interest mortgages more frequently to blacks than to whites, in violation of federal law.4

Another innovative suit filed in January 2008 was brought by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson against 21 major investment banks, for enabling the subprime lending and foreclosure crisis in his city. The suit targeted the investment banks that fed off the mortgage market by buying subprime mortgages from lenders and then “securitizing” them and selling them to investors. City officials said they hoped to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from the banks, including lost taxes from devalued property and money spent demolishing and boarding up thousands of abandoned houses. The defendants included banking giants Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup. They were charged with creating a “public nuisance” by irresponsibly buying and selling high-interest home loans, causing widespread defaults that depleted the city’s tax base and left neighborhoods in ruins.

“To me, this is no different than organized crime or drugs,” Jackson told the Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer. “It has the same effect as drug activity in neighborhoods. It’s a form of organized crime that happens to be legal in many respects.” He added in a videotaped interview, “This lawsuit said, ‘You’re not going to do this to us anymore.'”5

The Plain Dealer also interviewed Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, who was considering a state lawsuit against some of the same investment banks. “There’s clearly been a wrong done,” he said, “and the source is Wall Street. I’m glad to have some company on my hunt.”

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse. Like New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General Dann wound up resigning from his post in May 2008 after a sexual harassment investigation in his office.6 Before they were forced to resign, both prosecutors were hot on the tail of the banks, attempting to impose liability for the destructive wave of home foreclosures in their jurisdictions.

But the hits keep on coming. In June 2008, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued Countrywide Financial Corporation, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, for causing thousands of foreclosures by deceptively marketing risky loans to borrowers. Among other things, the 46-page complaint alleged that:

“‘Defendants viewed borrowers as nothing more than the means for producing more loans, originating loans with little or no regard to borrowers’ long-term ability to afford them and to sustain homeownership’ . . .

“The company routinely . . . ‘turned a blind eye’ to deceptive practices by brokers and its own loan agents despite ‘numerous complaints from borrowers claiming that they did not understand their loan terms.’

“. . . Underwriters who confirmed information on mortgage applications were ‘under intense pressure . . . to process 60 to 70 loans per day, making careful consideration of borrowers’ financial circumstances and the suitability of the loan product for them nearly impossible.’

“‘Countrywide’s high-pressure sales environment and compensation system encouraged serial refinancing of Countrywide loans.'”7

Similar suits against Countrywide and its CEO have been filed by the states of Illinois and Florida. These suits seek not only damages but rescission of the loans, creating a potential nightmare for the banks.

AN AVALANCHE OF CLASS ACTIONS?

Massive class action lawsuits by defrauded borrowers may also be in the works. In a 2007 ruling in Wisconsin that is now on appeal, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman held that Chevy Chase Bank had violated the Truth in Lending Act by hiding the terms of an adjustable rate loan, and that thousands of other Chevy Chase borrowers could join the plaintiffs in a class action on that ground. According to a June 30, 2008 report in Reuters:

“The judge transformed the case from a run-of-the-mill class action to a potential nightmare for the U.S. banking industry by also finding that the borrowers could force the bank to cancel, or rescind, their loans. That decision was stayed pending an appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule any day.

“The idea of canceling tainted loans to stem a tide of foreclosures has caught hold in other quarters; a lawsuit filed last week by the Illinois attorney general asks a court to rescind or reform Countrywide Financial mortgages originated under ‘unfair or deceptive practices.’

“. . . The mortgage banking industry already faces pressure from state and federal regulators, who have accused banks of lowering underwriting standards and forcing some borrowers, through fraud, into costly adjustable loans that the banks later bundled and sold as high-interest investment vehicles.”

The Truth in Lending Act (TILA) is a 1968 federal law designed to protect consumers against lending fraud by requiring clear disclosure of loan terms and costs. It lets consumers seek rescission or termination of a loan and the return of all interest and fees when a lender is found to be in violation. The beauty of the statute, says California bankruptcy attorney Cathy Moran, is that it provides for strict liability: the aggrieved borrowers don’t have to prove they were personally defrauded or misled, or that they had actual damages. Just the fact that the disclosures were defective gives them the right to rescind and deprives the lenders of interest. In Moran’s small sample, at least half of the loans reviewed contained TILA violations.8 If class actions are found to be available for rescission of loans based on fraud in the disclosure process, the result could be a flood of class suits against banks all over the country.9

SHIFTING THE LOSS BACK TO THE BANKS

Rescission may be a remedy available not only for borrowers but for MBS investors. Many loan sale contracts provide by their terms that lenders must take back loans that default unusually quickly or that contain mistakes or fraud. An avalanche of rescissions could be catastrophic for the banks. Banks were moving loans off their books and selling them to investors in order to allow many more loans to be made than would otherwise have been allowed under banking regulations. The banking rules are complex, but for every dollar of shareholder capital a bank has on its balance sheet, it is supposed to be limited to about $10 in loans. The problem for the banks is that when the process is reversed, the 10 to 1 rule can work the other way: taking a dollar of bad debt back on a bank’s books can reduce its lending ability by a factor of 10. As explained in a BBC News story citing Prof. Nouriel Roubini for authority:

“[S]ecuritisation was key to helping banks avoid the regulators’ 10:1 rule. To make their risky loans appear attractive to buyers, banks used complex financial engineering to repackage them so they looked super-safe and paid returns well above what equivalent super-safe investments offered. Banks even found ways to get loans off their balance sheets without selling them at all. They devised bizarre new financial entities – called Special Investment Vehicles or SIVs – in which loans could be held technically and legally off balance sheet, out of sight, and beyond the scope of regulators’ rules. So, once again, SIVs made room on balance sheets for banks to go on lending.

“Banks had got round regulators’ rules by selling off their risky loans, but because so many of the securitised loans were bought by other banks, the losses were still inside the banking system. Loans held in SIVs were technically off banks’ balance sheets, but when the value of the loans inside SIVs started to collapse, the banks which set them up found that they were still responsible for them. So losses from investments which might have appeared outside the scope of the regulators’ 10:1 rule, suddenly started turning up on bank balance sheets. . . . The problem now facing many of the biggest lenders is that when losses appear on banks’ balance sheets, the regulator’s 10:1 rule comes back into play because losses reduce a banks’ shareholder capital. ‘If you have a $200bn loss, that reduced your capital by $200bn, you have to reduce your lending by 10 times as much,’ [Prof. Roubini] explains. ‘So you could have a reduction of total credit to the economy of two trillion dollars.'”10

You could also have some very bankrupt banks. The total equity of the top 100 U.S. banks stood at $800 billion at the end of the third quarter of 2007. Banking losses are currently expected to rise by as much as $450 billion, enough to wipe out more than half of the banks’ capital bases and leave many of them insolvent.11 If debtors were to deluge the courts with viable defenses to their debts and mortgage-backed securities holders were to challenge their securities, the result could be even worse.

PUTTING THE GENIE BACK IN THE BOTTLE

So what would happen if the mega-banks engaging in these irresponsible practices actually went bankrupt? These banks are widely acknowledged to be at fault, but they expect to be bailed out by the Federal Reserve or the taxpayers because they are “too big to fail.” The argument is that if they were allowed to collapse, they would take the economy down with them. That is the fear, but it is not actually true. We do need a ready source of credit, so we need banks; but we don’t need private banks. It is a little-known, well-concealed fact that banks do not lend their own money or even their depositors’ money. They actually create the money they lend; and creating money is properly a public, not a private, function. The Constitution delegates the power to create money to Congress and only to Congress.12 In making loans, banks are merely extending credit; and the proper agency for extending “the full faith and credit of the United States” is the United States itself.

There is more at stake here than just the equitable treatment of injured homeowners and investors in mortgage-backed securities. Banks and investment houses are now squeezing the last drops of blood from the U.S. government’s credit rating, “borrowing” money and unloading worthless paper on the government and the taxpayers. When the dust settles, it will be the banks, investment brokerages and hedge funds for wealthy investors that will be saved. The repossessed will become the dispossessed; and unless your pension fund has invested in politically well-connected hedge funds, you can probably kiss it goodbye, as teachers in Florida already have.

But the banking genie is a creature of the law, and the law can put it back in the bottle. The imminent failure of some very big banks could provide the government with an opportunity to regain control of its finances. More than that, it could provide the funds for tackling otherwise unsolvable problems now threatening to destroy our standard of living and our standing in the world. The only solution that will be more than a temporary fix is to take the power to create money away from private bankers and return it to the people collectively. That is how it should have been all along, and how it was in our early history; but we are so used to banks being private corporations that we have forgotten the public banks of our forebears. The best of the colonial American banking models was developed in Benjamin Franklin’s province of Pennsylvania, where a government-owned bank issued money and lent it to farmers at 5 percent interest. The interest was returned to the government, replacing taxes. During the decades that that system was in operation, the province of Pennsylvania operated without taxes, inflation or debt.

Rather than bailing out bankrupt banks and sending them on their merry way, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) needs to take a close look at the banks’ books and put any banks found to be insolvent into receivership. The FDIC (unlike the Federal Reserve) is actually a federal agency, and it has the option of taking a bank’s stock in return for bailing it out, effectively nationalizing it. This is done in Europe with bankrupt banks, and it was done in the United States with Continental Illinois, the country’s fourth largest bank, when it went bankrupt in the 1990s.

A system of truly “national” banks could issue “the full faith and credit of the United States” for public purposes, including funding infrastructure, sustainable energy development and health care.13 Publicly-issued credit could also be used to relieve the subprime crisis. Local governments could use it to buy up mortgages in default, compensating the MBS investors and freeing the real estate for public disposal. The properties could then be rented back to their occupants at reasonable rates, leaving people in their homes without the windfall of acquiring a house without paying for it. A program of lease-purchase might also be instituted. The proceeds would be applied toward repaying the credit advanced to buy the mortgages, balancing the money supply and preventing inflation.

LOCAL AND PRIVATE SOLUTIONS

While we are waiting for the federal government to act, there are also private and local possibilities for relieving the subprime crisis. Chris Cook is a British strategic market consultant and the former Compliance Director for the International Petroleum Exchange. He recommends getting all the parties to settle by forming a pool constituted as an LLC (limited liability company), in a partnership framework that brings together occupiers and financiers as co-owners under a neutral custodian. The original owners would pay an affordable rental, and the resulting pool of rentals would be “unitized” (divided into unit interests, similar to a REIT or real estate investment trust). Among other advantages over the usual mortgage-backed security, there would be no loans at interest, since the property would be owned outright by the LLC. Eliminating interest substantially reduces costs. The former owners would be able to occupy the property at an affordable rental, with the option to buy an equity stake in it. For the banks, the advantage would be that they would be able to find investors again, since the risk would have been taken out of the investment by insuring full occupancy at affordable rates; and for the investors, the advantage would be a secure investment with a dependable return.14

Carolyn Betts is an Ohio attorney who served in Washington as issuer’s counsel for MBS trusts formed by various federal governmental entities, and represented Resolution Trust Corporation in its auction of defaulted commercial mortgage loans during the last real estate crisis. She proposes a squeeze play by the states, in the style of that brought against the tobacco companies by a consortium of state attorneys general in the 1990s. She notes that at the end of 2007, at least 20% of the funds held by the Ohio Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) were in mortgage backed securities and similar investments. That makes Ohio public money a major investor in these mortgage-related securities. Ohio governments have an interest in not having homes foreclosed upon, since foreclosures destroy local real estate markets, contribute to lower tax revenues and losses on PERS investments, and cause a strain on state and local affordable housing systems. A coordinated series of actions brought by state attorneys general could eliminate the culpable banker middlemen and return the properties to local ownership and control.

Andrew Jackson reportedly told Congress in 1829, “If the American people only understood the rank injustice of our money and banking system, there would be a revolution before morning.” A wave of private actions, class actions and government lawsuits aimed at redressing injurious banking practices could spark a revolution in banking, returning the power to advance “the full faith and credit of the United States” to the United States, and returning community assets to local ownership and control.

1 Sean Olender, “Mortgage Meltdown,” San Francisco Chronicle (December 9, 2007).

2 See Ellen Brown, “The Subprime Trump Card,” webofdebt.com/articles, June 26, 2008.

3 Greg Morcroft, “Massachusetts Charges Merrill with Fraud,” MarketWatch (February 1, 2008).

4 Henry Gomez, Tom Ott, “Cleveland Sues 21 Banks Over Subprime Mess,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, January 11, 2008).

5 Ibid.

6 Marc Dann Resigns as Attorney General,” NBC24 (May 14, 2008).

7 E. Scott Reckard, “California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown Sues Countrywide,” Los Angeles Times (June 26, 2008).

8 Cathy Moran, “And the Truth (in Lending) Shall Set You Free,” mortgagelawnetwork.com (June 11, 2008).

9 Gina Keating, “Mortgage Ruling Could Shock U.S. Banking Industry,” Reuters (June 30, 2008).

10 Michael Robinson, “City of Debt Shows US Housing Woe,” BBC News (December 30, 2007).

11 “Is the Latest Liquidity Crunch in Remission?”, NakedCapitalism(March 26, 2008).

12 See E. Brown, “Dollar Deception: How Banks Secretly Create Money,” webofdebt.com/articles (July 3, 2007).

13 For more on this funding solution and why it would not inflate prices, see E. Brown, “Waking Up on a Minnesota Bridge: How to Solve the Infrastructure Crisis Without Selling Off Our National Assets,” ibid. (August 4, 2007).

14 Chris Cook, “Peak Credit and a Flight to Simplicity,” Asia Times (April 3, 2008).

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