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Behind JPMorgan's Potentially Massive Settlement With Feds


If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

JPMorgan is one of the world's largest financial institutions. And now there are reports that JP may face the largest bank fine in American history. Bank regulators are in negotiations with JPMorgan over allegations involving bad mortgages. It's just the latest in a string of legal troubles for JPMorgan.

Heidi Moore is the finance and economics editor for The Guardian U.S. I asked her how a bank which didn't need a bailout during the height of the subprime crisis, is now accused of mortgage abuses.

HEIDI MOORE: JPMorgan itself did not get very involved in mortgages during the subprime crisis and afterwards. But what it did do was, it bought two banks that were heavily involved in the mortgage market. One of them was Washington Mutual, which - of course - wrote mortgages for regular people. And the other one was Bear Stearns, which packaged mortgages and resold them to Wall Street. And so it's the legacy of those two banks that have saddled JPMorgan with a lot of investigations - because as we know, during the subprime crisis and the housing crisis, there were a lot of mortgage abuses. These are the chickens coming home to roost.

RATH: So it sounds weird to use the word "victim" here, but is JPMorgan on the hook for behavior by Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual?

MOORE: Yes, but don't shed a tear for them.


MOORE: They'll do just fine in this life. But - you know, the thing is, they knew when they were buying Bear Stearns, and when they were buying Washington Mutual, what they were getting into. And they were still extremely eager to do so. They got incredibly good deals on buying both of those banks. The government helped them, and made it cheaper for them. And the government also helped lessen the burden of the losses on those mortgages.

So if JPMorgan is paying now, they are not completely a victim. They walked into it wide-eyed, if with very little preparation. And they've had plenty of time to clean up afterwards.

RATH: So why might this be the largest bank fine in history? What makes this special?

MOORE: Well, there are two things going on that would explain why it's the largest bank fine. The first one - and perhaps the most important - is that JPMorgan can pay the fine. You know, there were a lot of abuses at other banks. But as it stands right now, it's dubious that Bank of America or Citigroup could absorb an $11 billion fine in the way that JPMorgan can. JPMorgan is just an incredibly strong and powerful bank. And I think regulators in the government want to send a strong message that even if you are at the top of your game, even if your shareholders are doing well, even if you're the strongest bank in America, you're going to face a fine that is truly going to hurt.

And the second reason is that there are just an enormous amount of abuses alleged here. And you have a number of people who want their money back. That includes the Federal Housing Finance Administration, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It includes the Department of Justice. It includes investors who bought mortgage bundles that they wish they hadn't. So there are a lot of amends to be made. And that's the other reason that the fine is so large.

RATH: Is there any chance any of the money extracted by these fines could go to providing relief to mortgage holders?

MOORE: If there were any justice in this world, yes, there would be.

RATH: So the answer's no.


MOORE: Exactly. Exactly. It would be very hard to get that to homeowners. As you know, there was a mortgage foreclosure relief settlement that was negotiated last year. Very little of that money has gone to homeowners. So theoretically, yes, some of the money is supposed to go there. We don't know how much because we don't know the final amount of the settlement.

And we also know that if you are someone who has your house in foreclosure, if you had a mortgage that came through Washington Mutual or if you were an investor who bought a bundle of mortgage bonds from Bear Stearns, very unlikely you're going to see actual money in your pocket.

RATH: That's Heidi Moore. She is finance and economics editor for The Guardian U.S. Heidi, thank you so much.

MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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