US task force probes nine banks on mortgage-backed securities

Kara Scannell, Tom Braithwaite and Camilla Hall
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

At least nine banks face investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice into their sales of mortgage-backed securities as part of an effort by the task force that reached the $13 billion pact with JPMorgan Chase, people familiar with the matter say.

The investigations, which span U.S. attorney's offices from California to Massachusetts, include the largest banks that underwrote and sold residential mortgage-backed securities. They include Bank of America, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS and Wells Fargo.

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Most of the probes are looking for civil violations for allegedly misleading buyers of RMBS, not criminal sanctions. It is not clear how many, if any, will result in lawsuits or settlements.

JPM's ballooning mortgage payouts

The threat of potential action could spell more trouble for banks as they try to put the 2008 financial crisis and mounting legal bills behind them.

People familiar with the investigations say document requests and discussions between the banks and government have picked up in recent months after Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney-general, indicated publicly that more MBS lawsuits were coming by the end of the year.

The investigations stem from the state and federal RMBS task force formed in January 2012 by the Obama administration. This was set up at the urging of New York attorney-general Eric Schneiderman to finalize a national settlement with five major banks over their foreclosure practices.

It was widely criticized at the time as a political measure because it came nearly five years after these securities were sold, was featured in the State of the Union address, and followed criticism of the DoJ for not holding banks or executives accountable for the financial crisis.

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But the task force's efforts are gaining ground. State prosecutors in areas hard hit by the housing crisis including the California attorney-general and New York attorney-general, who is part of the $13 billion JPMorgan Chase settlement, are also investigating banks.

Bank of America, which owns Countrywide Financial, is under investigation by at least three U.S. attorneys' offices – California, New Jersey and Atlanta – and the DoJ for various MBS securities.

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BofA was previously sued by the U.S. attorney's office in North Carolina and has denied any wrongdoing.

Morgan Stanley faces a civil investigation by the Northern District of California and state attorneys, people familiar with the matter say.

Royal Bank of Scotland is under investigation by the U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts, these people say. Credit Suisse faces separate probes by Colorado and New Jersey, people familiar with the matter say.

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Prosecutors in Brooklyn and Colorado are investigating Citigroup, people close to the investigation say, and UBS, Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo are under investigation by other U.S. attorneys' offices.

Representatives for the DoJ and the U.S. attorneys' offices declined to comment, as did the banks.