As established readers know, we’ve been writing since mid 2010 about the widespread, possibly pervasive, failure of mortgage securitization originators to convey the notes (the borrower IOU) to securitization trusts as stipulated in the deal documents, well before the robo signing scandal broke. This abuse matters because the transaction procedures were designed carefully to satisfy certain legal requirements, among them rules contained in the 1986 Tax Reform Act regarding REMICs, or real estate mortgage investment conduits, which required that the securitization trust receive all its assets by 90 days after closing and that all assets conveyed to the trust have to be “performing”, as in not in default. Failure to comply with the rules is a prohibited act and subject to taxation at a rate of 100%, and additional penalties may apply.
Now, with the Federal government under enormous budget pressure, shouldn’t the authorities be keen to go after tax cheats? The headline of a Reuters article, “IRS weighs tax penalties on mortgage securities,” would suggest so. But don’t get your hopes up. The lesson is don’t jump to conclusions when big finance is involved.
An overview from the article:
Should the IRS find reason to take tough action, the financial impact could be enormous. REMIC investments are held by pension funds, in individual retirement plans such as 401(k)s and by state and local government entities.
As of the end of 2010, investments in REMICs totaled more than $3 trillion, according to data supplied by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
In a brief statement in response to questions from Reuters, the agency said: “The IRS is aware of questions in the market regarding REMICs and proper ownership of the underlying mortgages as set out in federal tax law, and is actively reviewing certain aspects of this issue.”
This matter was raised early last year by an attorney I know with IRS, to a senior officer, not in enforcement but familiar with REMIC rules. She immediately understood the importance and nature of the violations being alleged and was keen to proceed. Having had no follow up, the attorney rang again, and the IRS officer took the call, this time reluctantly. She indicated she was not supposed to be taking to him. She said the issue had gone to the White House, where word came back that the IRS was not going to be used as a tool of policy.
So demanding that tax law violators pay what they owe is somehow seen as an misuse of government authority? That appears to be the message.
Knowing of this background, in the blogger meeting with Treasury last August, when someone we will euphemistically call as senior official argued that the Treasury had little power over servicers, I objected, and said it depended on whether they construed of their power narrowly or broadly. I pointed out that a Pacer scrape on foreclosure filings would find thousands of violations of REMIC rules that were subject to punitive charges, and that that was an important leverage point to bring the industry to heel. (Yes, this is an example of using tax as a tool of policy, as opposed to merely enforcing the rules……that was by design). He sidestepped the reference to REMIC both in my initial question and follow up.
Steve Waldman, who was also at the session, was as skeptical of the exchange as I was. From a message last August:
Re REMICs: The reaction to your probing was very suspicious.
It’d have been one thing if he’d said they hadn’t looked into the issue. But that wasn’t how he responded. He started talking about how he’d had his staff “look for leverage”, against servicers I think, but found there was nothing there. In other words, he didn’t want to leave the issue open. He wanted to neutralize it.
One possibility is that the truth is face value, but I doubt it. After all, we’d just had staffers describe using the government’s leverage in creative ways to protect taxpayers or serve other public purposes as “extra legal”. Yet here was [the senior official] apparently on a fishing expedition for leverage, no doubt desperate to persuade servicers to facililitate mods to help homeowners. Yeah. Right.
If I’m not misunderstanding you, your core point is that the paperwork on many boomtown mortgages is invalid, and therefore various sorts of transactions, from foreclosures to bundling into REMICs, cannot be legally done, at least not without a lot of expensive research and recertification. In other words, your line of thinking would put a question mark beneath the value of a whole lot of bank assets. That would obviously not be in the national interest according to Treasury. So of course they’ve already looked onto the story and there’s nothing to it.
As Waldman indicates, there is a blindingly obvious reason why the IRS inquiry is a coverup. If the IRS were to find any of the questionable practices to be violations, they’d lead to widespread and large assessments against mortgage investors. That in turn would spawn the mother of all litigations by investors against the originators and trustees. That would blow up the mortgage industrial complex and put us back in a financial crisis. That is the last thing the officialdom wants to happen.
Now in fact there are ways the IRS can make this problem go away. The article quotes Jim Peaslee, who is one of the top experts on REMICS and was i one of the major influences on the original REMIC regulation. Note how he avoids discussing whether there might be violations; his point is the IRS will take a “see no evil” stance:
James Peaslee, a partner at law firm Cleary Gottlieb who is an expert on taxation of securitized investments, said that even if the IRS finds wrongdoing, it might be loath to act because of the wide financial damage the penalties would cause. He notes that the REMIC investors, who he called “innocent parties,” would have to pay rather than the banks that were responsible for any wrongdoing in transferring mortgage ownership.
I had a few above-my-pay grade e-mail discussions with one of Peaslee’s colleagues, another REMIC expert, last year, and the issues are vastly more complex than mere mortals would appreciate. For instance (and this is one of the simple examples), arguably, if the securitization vehicle wasn’t really created with the assets it claimed, so arguably, at least technically speaking, it was disqualified from the outset. However, legal structures and issues don’t map cleanly on to tax issues. We’ve argued that if the notes were not properly conveyed to the trusts (assuming they are New York trusts, which is the governing law in the vast majority of cases) then the trusts will have a big problem with foreclosing, since New York trusts don’t have any discretion and there is no mechanism for getting the notes into the trust other than shortly after it was formed.
But that particular concern isn’t germane from a tax perspective. State law doesn’t determine characterization of an entity for federal tax purposes. So, for example, even if a taxpayer said he a partnership and planned to set up a state law LLC as the partnership vehicle but failed to take all the legal steps, but did have a contract with a partner, and both has acted according to the partnership tax rules and reported income them on their tax returns accordingly, it would most likely still be treated as a partnership in spite of the lack of a state law legal vehicle.
The net result, as the expert indicated, is “that the rules about REMIC (or other securitization) qualification become very bendable” which in turn gives the IRS a great deal of latitude in what it can deem to be acceptable. He felt that was a bad posture to take, since that would give the servicers considerable leeway to manipulate tax liabilities directly.
The Reuters article points out the more obvious concern: foregone revenues by letting tax violations go unpunished:
Adam Levitin, a Georgetown University Law School professor and expert on taxation, said that if the IRS fails to act, “it would be a backdoor bailout of the financial system.”
If the IRS did impose penalties, the REMICs could turn around and sue the banks for causing the problems and not living up to the terms of the agreements establishing each REMIC, thus transferring the costs to the banks. If the IRS finds wrongdoing but fails to act, the IRS would forego “potentially enormous tax revenue that would be passed on to the federal government,” Levitin said. “Given the federal budget deficit that’s not something to sniff at,” he added.
So why is the IRS looking into this issue at all? Wouldn’t one expect them to let sleeping dogs lie? I can think of reasons. First, the issue has gotten enough profile that the IRS (really Treasury) may feel it’s better to go into “put the matter behind us” mode. Second is that it isn’t just the Federal government who would be able to charge taxes against RMBS if they found they had violated the rules, but also states. It’s not hard to imagine that some states have realized that going after the RMBS could be a significant source of badly-needed income. The IRS may thus feel it needs to get in front of this potential source of that investor bugaboo “uncertainty” as well as discourage state action. Mind you, state rules necessarily track the Federal REMIC rules precisely, nor are they required to interpret them the same way, but an IRS “nothing to see here” finding would deter action by all but the most bloodyminded state treasuries).
So we have yet again another example of two tier justice in America. Do you think the IRS would cut you any slack if you had engaged in as many violations of the tax rules as mortgage originators and trusts have? But the point of having a kleptocracy is to avoid inconveniencing the people with money at all costs.