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Getting foreclosures wrong may cost banks billions

David Brancaccio Feb 6, 2012

David Brancaccio: The deadline is now upon us today for what is expected to be a massive settlement for five banks that allegedly treated foreclosure like it was a shoddy assembly-line operation. If all the states sign off, the settlement could be worth tens of billions of dollars. It would mean some home loans would get smaller, some would get cheaper financing and there could be other benefits for hard-hit homeowners. But in California, with the most people with houses worth less than the mortgage, officials have been skeptical of a settlement. James Tierney is the former attorney general for the state of Maine who now runs the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia University.

James Tierney: Great to be here.

Brancaccio: So this deal involving foreclosures and the banks — how common are big deals like this for state attorneys general?

Tierney: AGs work together all the time, but this is a real, real big one. What’s remarkable, at a time when no one seems to get along with anybody else anywhere in government, we have — the attorneys general — half Republican, half Democrat, getting along with the administration actually doing something for the consumers. It’s pretty amazing.

Brancaccio: Now we’ve been hearing for a long time — just about a year now — that a settlement is on the way. What’s the holdup? It’s more than just herding cats, I know you have all these states involved, but some big states aren’t really aboard.

Tierney: We’ll see who’s aboard and who isn’t. But let’s just say this. This is a settlement and settlement means everybody has to give. This isn’t the whole way anybody would reform the whole banking industry. This isn’t the way we get justice for consumers. This is a settlement. You take a look at the law you have, the resources you have, and you do the best you can for the people living in the state. And you do it right now. Here’s the litigation, this is going to help somebody who’s out on the street.

Brancaccio: Now we don’t know the final number — that of course will be the big news when it comes — but do you think it’s of a magnitude that actually it would help hurting homeowners across the country?

Tierney: Oh, this is definitely going to going to help some homeowners. It’s not going to help them all. Banks acted outrageously around a number of foreclosure and servicing issues, and that’s what this settlement’s about. But just because your mortgage rate comes down, if you’re unemployed, you still may end up losing your house. But people are going to get a better shot, they’re going to a fair shot out of this. And that’s progress that nobody else has seemed to be able to make.

Brancaccio: All right, James Tierney, thank you very much.

Tierney: Happy to do it.

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