Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Steven Mnuchin, the president-elect’s nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, facilitated tens of thousands of foreclosures as chairman of OneWest. Where does he stand on homeowner protections?
During his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Steven Mnuchin, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Treasury secretary, answered questions on everything from Glass-Steagall to the debt ceiling. He spoke so long that more than one senator asked him to kindly stop filibustering. But on one of the most troubling aspects of his nomination, the former Goldman Sachs executive managed to say little.
One senator after another probed his record as chairman of OneWest Bank, which he and investors founded in 2009. One California housing advocacy group colorfully described the bank as a “foreclosure machine,” an appellation that has stuck. Mnuchin hotly denied this characterization in his opening remarks, telling the Senate Finance Committee that he had been “maligned as taking advantage of others’ hardships in order to earn a buck.”
Yet his efforts to exonerate his record as a profiteer of pain only muddied the question of where, exactly, the incoming administration will stand on mortgage regulations and consumer protections. President-elect Donald Trump, you may recall, once said that he was hoping for a housing collapse before the Great Recession. Mnuchin was in the right place at the right time to make the moves that the president-elect seems to have had in mind.
Senators peppered Mnuchin with questions about the 60,000 foreclosures that coincided with his tenure at OneWest, which he sold in 2015. That figure includes 36,000 foreclosures in California—an aggressive practice that earned Mnuchin the nickname of the “foreclosure king.”
“Can you honestly say that your bank made every effort to keep families and seniors in their homes when they were robo-signing one foreclosure document every three minutes?” asked Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey).
Mnuchin said the practice started with IndyMac, the California bank that he and other investors acquired in 2009 and turned into OneWest. His answer meandered from there.
Asked specifically about the policies that he would support to prevent another foreclosure crisis from happening, Mnuchin gave few specifics. He declined to say, for example, whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should remain in government receivership or be recapitalized and returned to the private market. Mnuchin gave one specific answer on regulations. He said that he believes that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should not be funded by profits from the Federal Reserve but rather through an appropriations process—which would leave the agency, despised by conservatives, vulnerable to budget elimination.
Housing was only a narrow issue raised by senators during the confirmation hearing. Bank bailouts, the debt ceiling, emoluments, and terrorism all competed for time. Yet, as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) observed, only the subject of foreclosures made Mnuchin defensive. Several interlocutors grilled him on the subject, namely Brown and Menendez.
Mnuchin contradicted his own record when he spoke about foreclosures. Answering a question from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania), Mnuchin confirmed that banks make more money by modifying failing mortgages than by foreclosing on homeowners. Yet OneWest’s record on mortgage modifications was abysmal: The bank denied three-quarters of mortgage modification applications.
“We should not be in the business of bailing out big banks,” Mnuchin said during the hearing. Yet IndyMac received $900 million in federal bailout funds, and OneWest has been deemed “too big to fail.” Reports of racial discrimination in OneWest’s banking policies, including redlining, didn’t surface during Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing, but the nominee opposes the kind of strict regulatory oversight that has helped bring similar injustices to light.
Mnuchin also testified several times that OneBank was ultimately forced to foreclose by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He may have been referring to the bank’s division that specialized in reverse mortgages, a product heavily marketed to older Americans that enables homeowners to borrow against the equity in their homes. In 2011, the seniors’ advocacy organization AARP filed lawsuits against HUD alleging that the department, which regulates reverse mortgages, pressured them into foreclosure. One suit was dismissed, but AARP won partial judgment in another case.
However, OneWest’s reverse-mortgage division—which is now the subject of investigations by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman—resulted in just 8 percent of all OneWest foreclosure starts, according to The Wall Street Journal. That is an aggressive foreclosure rate for a small bank division. But even if the fault for all of OneWest’s reverse mortgage foreclosures could be laid at the feet of HUD, it would hardly explain robo-signing and OneWest’s other grievous foreclosure practices. (And for its part, HUD is also investigating OneWest over its reverse mortgages.)
Like some earlier confirmation hearings, Mnuchin’s Senatorial grilling raised some fundamental questions about whether this Cabinet nominee was prepared to take public office. Senators asked specifically whether he has been vetted appropriately. On Thursday morning, The New York Times revealed that Mnuchin failed to disclose nearly $100 million in assets to the Senate Finance Committee. The explosive story further detailed Mnuchin’s involvement in eight different shell companies operating in offshore tax havens such as Aguilla and the Cayman Islands—entanglements that Mnuchin also neglected to mention in disclosure documents.
After the five-and-a-half hour session, his record at OneWest was not much clearer. How he will proceed with America’s most vulnerable homeowners and residents, now that he is soon to be entrusted with their well-being, remains an open question. “What prepares you to do public service, in addition to the duties of being secretary?” asked Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). Mnuchin said in response, “I do think I’ve gone through an incredible amount of scrutiny in my investments and in my private life to be here.”
“This is public service,” Sen. Casey returned. “It’s not just being able to fulfill the duties of the job. You’re a servant of the people.”