The lead story in a recent Wall Street Journal says that borrower fraud “goes a long way toward explaining why mortgage defaults and foreclosures are rocking financial institutions, Wall Street and the economy.”
In other words, some significant share for the blame mortgage crisis rests not just on borrowers, but on dishonest, even criminal borrowers.
If the premise of this story is true, we need to seriously rethink the mortgage dilemma and tighten safeguards to protect lenders, Wall Street securities dealers and institutional investors against hordes of unscrupulous borrowers. And yet, the Federal Reserve has neglected to do anything of the kind in proposing new lending rules. Instead, these deal entirely with unscrupulous lending practices.
But, of course, the premise of the story is not true. I don’t know anyone who thinks that. Even Bear Stearns, an alleged victim in the story, if you can believe it, isn’t saying that.
And even if you think it is true, there is a journalistic problem here: The assertion is unsupported. The evidence cited in the story does not make, or come close to making, the case for the idea that borrower fraud is an important driver of the mortgage crisis. To see that, frankly, does not even require a particularly close reading.
For its main evidence—potential dollar losses from criminal fraud—the story relies solely on the word of a consultant who has a direct interest inflating the extent of the problem.
In 2006, losses from fraud could total a record $4.5 billion, a 100% increase from the previous year, says Arthur Prieston, chairman of the Prieston Group, which provides lenders with mortgage-fraud insurance and training.
How Prieston came up with that figure is not disclosed. That’s another journalistic problem.
But even if this conflicted, previously unknown, and soon-to-be-forgotten source is to be believed and his maximum estimate is taken at face value—“losses on fraud could total a record $4.5 billion in 2006”—that still is a tiny fraction of total losses that will result from the mortgage crisis. The total is not known but is believed to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. A commonly cited figure is $400 billion.
Multiplying Prieston’s worst case by all six and a half years of the housing bubble gets you to $30 billion. Now, you’re officially in fantasyland, and still under 8 percent.
The full support for the premise is here:
Fraud goes a long way toward explaining why mortgage defaults and foreclosures are rocking financial institutions, Wall Street and the economy. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the share of its white-collar agents and analysts devoted to prosecuting mortgage fraud has risen to 28%, up from 7% in 2003. Suspicious Activity Reports, which many lenders are required to file with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network when they suspect fraud, shot up nearly 700% between 2000 and 2006.
In 2006, losses from fraud could total a record $4.5 billion, a 100% increase from the previous year, says Arthur Prieston, chairman of the Prieston Group, which provides lenders with mortgage-fraud insurance and training. The surge ranges from one-off cases of fudging and fibbing to organized criminal rings. The FBI says its active mortgage-fraud cases have increased to 1,210 this year from 436 in 2003. In some regions, fraud may account for half of all foreclosures. ‘We’ve created a culture where a great many people know how to take advantage of the system,’ says Mr. Prieston.
Yes, it is useful to know that banks are reporting suspicious incidents at a rate that is 700 percent greater than before, and that the FBI has stepped up fraud investigations. But those facts support only the unsurprising proposition that criminal fraud increased rapidly as mortgage volume grew. Neither fact demonstrates that the mortgage crisis can be explained to any significant degree by borrower fraud.
As for the assertion that half of foreclosures come from fraud in “some regions,” the sole source is a verbal estimate from an Atlanta real estate agent judging from sixty cases he’s seen.
That’s not “some regions.” That’s not even a single region.
These are issues of basic journalism standards. Readers have a right to feel tricked here.
Constance Mitchell Ford, the editor of the Journal’s real estate group, says the story was extensively reported and that sources across the board support the story’s premise. She also says the story takes into account not just criminally prosecuted fraud, but all forms of behavior that could be described as fraud—lying about income, about whether the owner will occupy a house, etc.—and that by doing so, the story shows fraud is a significant driver of the mortgage crisis.