Will Bank of America's '$17bn settlement' finally draw a line under the financial crisis?

The US giant is about to announce the largest ever corporate-government settlement for selling dodgy mortages, but will it finally make the bank some friends?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 21 Aug 2014

Bank of America is set to announce a $17bn (£10.3bn) settlement with the US Justice Department over its role in selling toxic mortgage securities prior to the 2008 banking crisis, according to anonymous officials who spoke to the Associated Press.

The pay out by America’s second-biggest bank was reportedly agreed in principle at the end of July and would be the largest federal government settlement by a single corporation in US history. It's also gone up - earlier this month rumour had it it would be $16bn. Back in June figures of $12bn-$14bn were being bandied around.

The scale of the settlement reflects the central role of the bank and two firms it acquired in 2008 in causing the global financial crisis and recession. Between them, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Countrywide sold $965bn worth of complicated  containing residential mortgages from high-risk borrowers between 2004 and 2008 (most from Countrywide).

The US Federal and numerous state governments allege that these and other banks misrepresented the risk to investors, and have pursued and threatened numerous lawsuits. Not surprising really, given the scale of the financial crisis these dodgy loans precipitated.

Chief executive Brian Moynihan will surely hope the mega settlement will finally mark a return to business as usual, after years of litigation and criticism. After all, this fine represents three years’ worth of profits, and adds to the $50bn that the company has already paid out over the last six years.

Moynihan may find, however, that even the enormity of this fine won’t clear the banking sector’s reputation for self-interest. A recent report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, for instance, has asserted that the $7bn chunk of the settlement earmarked as ‘soft-dollar’ relief to homeowners struggling with mortgage repayments will in fact be tax deductible.

Meanwhile, another report last June by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Citizens for Tax Justice alleged that Bank of America could potentially avoid another tax bill on the supposedly non-deductible $10bn it’s set to pay the US government in the settlement, if it can pay the cash directly from accounts in off-shore tax havens.

However this settlement is paid, it will still clearly cost Bank of America dearly. But somehow that seems unlikely to gain the financial giant much sympathy.

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