Banks have been widely castigated for causing the housing bust by lending too much to borrowers who couldn’t repay, but now Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has taken its antidiscrimination campaign to new lengths by whacking a bank for having been too prudent.
In a complaint filed Wednesday and settled the same day, Justice claimed that California-based Luther Burbank Savings violated the 1968 Fair Housing Act and 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act by setting a policy that had a “disparate impact” on minorities. Between 2006 and mid-2011, 5.2% of Luther’s single-family residential mortgage loans went to African-Americans and Hispanics, compared to an average of 41.7% for other lenders in the area. The complaint doesn’t cite evidence of intentional discrimination because there wasn’t any.
Luther Burbank might not have been in this business were it not for government. The bank was largely focused on multi-family mortgages until its regulator, the former Office of Thrift Supervision, asked the lender to diversify its portfolio in the mid-2000s. Luther Burbank then hired a team to do “nontraditional” loans such as interest-only or option adjustable-rate mortgages that the bank would keep on its own books. Yes, this is the same stuff that eventually blew up the housing market.
Luther Burbank wasn’t a fly-by-night operator that marketed those loans to any and all. The bank insisted on a minimum $400,000 loan amount and made loans with an average 680 FICO score and 67% loan-to-value. Over the period that Justice examined, Luther Burbank foreclosed on a mere 11 borrowers out of 629 loans outstanding—a loss ratio of 1.75%. In a normal world, Luther Burbank would get a medal from regulators for its risk management, having chosen borrowers even at the height of the housing mania who could meet their monthly payments.
But Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez has a different priority: He wants banks to meet lending quotas to minorities—regardless of whether those borrowers can afford the loans. Many minority borrowers have low incomes that make them riskier lending bets. Is that a bank’s fault?
Luther Burbank admitted no guilt and said it settled to avoid costly litigation, which makes sense for a small, local lender that has to worry about its reputational risk. The bank has agreed to ratchet down its minimum loan to $20,000 and will now commit $2.2 million to a “special financing program” for “qualified borrowers,” payouts for local community groups, and “consumer education programs.” Justice has the final say on who gets that money.