How much damage to the financial system should we expect from what is now commonly called the foreclosure morass, the developing scandal involving document robo-signing (and robo-dockets), completely messed up mortgage paperwork and highly publicized inquiries into accusations of systematic and deliberate misbehavior by banks?
The damage to banks’ reputation is immeasurable. They have undermined property rights — the ability to establish clear title is a founding idea of the American republic. They have mistreated customers in a completely unacceptable manner. If people doubted the need for a new consumer protection agency dealing with financial products — and the importance of having a clear-thinking reformer like Elizabeth Warren at its head — they have presumably been silenced by recent events. (If you need to get up to speed on the basics of this issue, see this series of posts by Mike Konczal.)
But what is the cost in terms of additional likely losses to big banks? The likely size and nature of these are leading to exactly the kind of systemic risks that the Financial Stability Oversight Council was recently established to anticipate and deal with.
It is hard to know how the precise numbers for losses will end up; so much uncertainty remains about the basic parameters of the foreclosure problem. A lot of smart people are looking for ways to sue the big banks — in particular to force them to take back (at face value) securities that were issued based on some underlying degree of deception.
This is a fast-evolving situation in which every day brings potentially significant news, but our baseline view is that the losses are in the range of $50 billion to $100 billion — that is, these are “new” losses not yet recognized by banks. (Our downside possibility, with perhaps a 10 percent probability, is that the losses are much larger.)