I have a sneaking suspicion that the views of Timothy Geithner don’t carry much weight in the Nevada judicial system.
Why the anxious tone? A couple of factors may be at work. First, recall how hard the banks fought the idea of a broad-based foreclosure freeze when the robo-signing scandal first came to light. And there are reasons why a blanket freeze is problematic, particularly if it extends to non-securitized loans (there are borrowers who want to get out from under a house they recognize they can no longer afford; a freeze can leave them on the hook). But at the same time, the banks have generally overstated the downside because the implications for them are unfavorable. And perhaps most important, an action like a wide-ranging halt is a reminder that banks are, or at least can be, subject to judicial orders, something they appear to have forgotten in recent years.
The second issue, is that Mr. Market has woken up to the fact that the Charlotte bank is particularly exposed to litigation risk. We were very critical of BofA’s purchase of Countrywide. As we said in January 2008:
Even with the reduction in the effective cost of buying Countrywide, Bank of America will come to regret this deal. Countrywide is an organization that has made an art form of just barely staying on the right side of the law, and even then screws up. There is certain to be more dirt, and therefore legal liabilty, that hasn’t yet risen to the surface. Furthermore, it is well nigh impossible to impose procedures and standards on rogue cultures. Look what happened to Bank of America when it purchased US Trust, a company that had a great franchise but one in which the account managers had more autonomy (and incurred more customer-related expenses) than Bank of America’s officers did. BofA succeeded in driving away the many of the best account officers, who took customers with them.
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