Banks face new wave of lawsuits

New York Times News Service /

Published Dec 9, 2012 at 04:00AM

The nation’s largest banks are facing a fresh torrent of lawsuits asserting that they sold shoddy mortgage securities that imploded during the financial crisis, potentially adding significantly to the tens of billions of dollars the banks have already paid to settle other cases.

Regulators, prosecutors, investors and insurers have filed dozens of new claims against Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and others, related to more than $1 trillion worth of securities backed by residential mortgages.

Estimates of potential costs from these cases vary widely, but some in the banking industry fear they could reach $300 billion if the institutions lose all of the litigation. Depending on the final price tag, the costs could depress profits and hamper the economic recovery by weakening the banks’ ability to lend just as the housing market is showing signs of life.

The banks are battling on three fronts: with prosecutors who accuse them of fraud, with regulators who claim that they duped investors into buying bad mortgage securities and with investors seeking to force them to buy back the soured loans.

“We are at an all-time high for this mortgage litigation,” said Christopher Willis, a lawyer with Ballard Spahr.

Efforts by the banks to limit their losses could depend on the outcome of one of the highest-stakes lawsuits to date — the $200 billion case that the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the housing twins Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, filed against 17 banks last year, claiming that they duped the mortgage finance giants into buying shaky securities. Last month, lawyers for some of the nation’s largest banks descended on a federal appeals court in Manhattan to make their case that the agency had waited too long to sue.

A favorable ruling could overturn a decision by Judge Denise Cote, who is presiding over the litigation and has so far rejected virtually every defense raised by the banks, and would be cheered in bank boardrooms. It could also allow the banks to avoid federal housing regulators’ claims.