New York state lawmakers have scheduled a public hearing next month to gather information on whether certain banks intentionally defrauded bond insurers about the creditworthiness of subprime-mortgagebacked securities, according to a Wall Street Journal Report.
Joseph Morelle, member of the New York State Assembly and chairman of its standing committee on insurance, is leading the charge. He held a hearing in mid-December on the demise of those so-called monoline insurers at the hands of mortgage-related deals.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," Mr. Morelle said in an interview Thursday. "But if there was an effort to mislead people underwriting these insurance policies, that is obviously problematic."
So far, the insurance committee is calling on bankers, insurance executives and other expert witnesses to testify voluntarily at the Feb. 16 hearing in New York City. It does have the power to subpoena firms, however—something it has used infrequently in the past. The list of invitees hasn't been finalized, according to Mr. Morelle's office.
The monoline, or financial guaranty, industry came under pressure when the value of mortgage-related structured finance assets plummeted with the housing crisis, causing the insurers to pay out billions of dollars in claims. Their new business is now at a virtual standstill in most cases, and they are pursuing litigation to recover as much money as they can.
The hearing puts a new spin on the dispute between banks and bond insurers. Until now, banks have agreed to repurchase certain securities where they weren't represented properly in documentation, and in some cases have compensated investors.
Bank of America Corp. in particular has been faulted for the way it represented certain securities. Earlier this month, the firm paid $3 billion to settle claims from government-sponsored entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in connection with mortgages originated by Countrywide Financial Corp, which BofA purchased in 2008.
BofA is dealing with private investors and bond insurers separately. The firm increased its capital reserves at the end of the fourth quarter to $5.5 billion, partly to set aside an additional $1.1 billion for those claims. It added that future claims could leave it on the hook for an additional $7 billion to $10 billion.
New York lawmakers' decision to review the matter could discredit even that estimate. Mr. Morelle said that while the committee is part of the legislature and has no law-enforcement powers, it could take the matter up with the state attorney general and the New York State Insurance Department.
The Insurance Department is already considering a formal investigation into whether banks committed insurance fraud by misrepresenting material facts on structured-finance deals, as reported by The Wall Street Journal last month. It is acting on a series of referrals from different bond insurers.
"If someone did something akin to calling in insurance when their house was already on fire, and didn't acknowledge their house was already on fire, that's a problem," Mr. Morelle said.
A key part of the bond insurers' case is proving that the banks had intent to defraud them. Prosecutors would need to show that bankers who created the residential mortgage-backed securities knew they were violating their own underwriting guidelines, and then purposefully disguised the risks when passing the securities on to be insured.