The small city of New Haven, on the Atlantic coast and home to elite Yale University, is only two hours northeast of New York City. It is a particularly beautiful place in the fall, during the warm days of Indian summer.
But this idyllic image has turned cloudy of late, with a growing number of houses in New Haven looking like the one at 130 Peck Street: vacant for months, the doors nailed shut, the yard derelict and overgrown and the last residents ejected after having lost the house in a foreclosure auction. And like 130 Peck Street, many of these homes are owned by Germany's Deutsche Bank.
"In the last few years, Deutsche Bank has been responsible for far and away the most foreclosures here," says Eva Heintzelman. She is the director of the ROOF Project, which addresses the consequences of the foreclosure crisis in New Haven in collaboration with the city administration. According to Heintzelman, Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank plays such a significant role in New Haven that the city's mayor requested a meeting with bank officials last spring.
The bank complied with his request, to some degree, when, in April 2009, a Deutsche Bank executive flew to New Haven for a question-and-answer session with politicians and aid organizations. But the executive, David Co, came from California, not from Germany. Co manages the Frankfurt bank's US real estate business at a relatively unknown branch of a relatively unknown subsidiary in Santa Ana.
How many houses was he responsible for, Co was asked? "Two thousand," he replied. But then he corrected himself, saying that 2,000 wasn't the number of individual properties, but the number of securities packages being managed by Deutsche Bank. Each package contains hundreds of mortgages. So how many houses are there, all told, he was asked again? Co could only guess. "Millions," he said.
Deutsche Bank Is Considered 'America's Foreclosure King'
Deutsche Bank's tracks lead through the entire American real estate market. In Chicago, the bank foreclosed upon close to 600 large apartment buildings in 2009, more than any other bank in the city. In Cleveland, almost 5,000 houses foreclosed upon by Deutsche Bank were reported to authorities between 2002 and 2006. In many US cities, the complaints are beginning to pile up from homeowners who lost their properties as a result of a foreclosure action filed by Deutsche Bank. The German bank is berated on the Internet as "America's Foreclosure King."
American homeowners are among the main casualties of the financial crisis that began with the collapse of the US real estate market. For years, banks issued mortgages to homebuyers without paying much attention to whether they could even afford the loans. Then they packaged the mortgage loans into complicated financial products, earning billions in the process -- that is, until the bubble burst and the government had to bail out the banks.
Deutsche Bank has always acted as if it had had very little to do with the whole affair. It survived the crisis relatively unharmed and without government help. Its experts recognized early on that things could not continue as they had been going. This prompted the bank to get out of many deals in time, so that in the end it was not faced with nearly as much toxic debt as other lenders.
But it is now becoming clear just how deeply involved the institution is in the US real estate market and in the subprime mortgage business. It is quite possible that the bank will not suffer any significant financial losses, but the damage to its image is growing by the day.
'Deutsche Bank Is Now in the Process of Destroying Milwaukee'
According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Deutsche Bank now holds loans for American single-family and multi-family houses worth about $3.7 billion (€3.1 billion). The bank, however, claims that much of this debt consists of loans to wealthy private customers.
More damaging to its image are the roughly 1 million US properties that the bank says it is managing as trustee. "Some 85 to 90 percent of all outstanding mortgages in the USA are ultimately controlled by four banks, either as trustees or owners of a trust company," says real estate expert Steve Dibert, whose company conducts nationwide investigations into cases of mortgage fraud. "Deutsche Bank is one of the four."
In addition, the bank put together more than 25 highly complex real estate securities deals, known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, with a value of about $20 billion, most of which collapsed. These securities were partly responsible for triggering the crisis.
Last Thursday, Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann was publicly confronted with the turmoil in US cities. Speaking at the bank's shareholders' meeting, political science professor Susan Giaimo said that while Germans were mainly responsible for building the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, "Deutsche Bank is now in the process of destroying Milwaukee."
As Soon as the Houses Are Vacant, They Quickly Become Derelict
Then Giaimo, a petite woman with dark curls who has German forefathers, got to the point. Not a single bank, she said, owns more real estate affected by foreclosure in Milwaukee, a city the size of Frankfurt. Many of the houses, she added, have been taken over by drug dealers, while others were burned down by arsonists after it became clear that no one was taking care of them.
Besides, said Giaimo, who represents the Common Ground action group, homeowners living in the neighborhoods of these properties are forced to accept substantial declines in the value of their property. "In addition, foreclosed houses are sold to speculators for substantially less than the market value of houses in the same neighborhood," Giaimo said. The speculators, according to Giaimo, have no interest in the individual properties and are merely betting that prices will go up in the future.
Common Ground has posted photos of many foreclosed properties on the Internet, and some of the signs in front of these houses identify Deutsche Bank as the owner. As soon as the houses are vacant, they quickly become derelict.
A Victorian house on State Street, painted green with red trim, is now partially burned down. Because it can no longer be sold, Deutsche Bank has "donated" it to the City of Milwaukee, one of the Common Ground activists reports. As a result, the city incurs the costs of demolition, which amount to "at least $25,000."
'We Can't Give Away Money that Isn't Ours'
During a recent meeting with US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, representatives of the City of Milwaukee complained about the problems that the more than 15,000 foreclosures have caused for the city since the crisis began. In a letter to the US Treasury Department, they wrote that Deutsche Bank is the only bank that has refused to meet with the city's elected representatives.
Minneapolis-based US Bank and San Francisco-based Wells Fargo apparently took the complaints more seriously and met with the people from Common Ground. The activists' demands sound plausible enough. They want Deutsche Bank to at least tear down those houses that can no longer be repaired at a reasonable cost. Besides, Giaimo said at the shareholders' meeting, Deutsche Bank should contribute a portion of US government subsidies to a renovation fund. According to Giaimo, the bank collected $6 billion from the US government when it used taxpayer money to bail out credit insurer AIG.
"It's painful to look at these houses," Ackermann told the professor. Nevertheless, the CEO refused to accept any responsibility. Deutsche Bank, he said, is "merely a sort of depository for the mortgage documents, and our options to help out are limited." According to Ackermann, the bank, as a trustee for other investors, is not even the actual owner of the properties, and therefore can do nothing. Besides, Ackermann said, his bank didn't promote mortgage loans with terms that have now made the payments unaffordable for many families.
The activists from Wisconsin did, however, manage to take home a small victory. Ackermann instructed members of his staff to meet with Common Ground. He apparently envisions a relatively informal and noncommittal meeting. "We can't give away money that isn't ours," he added.
Deutsche Bank's Role in the High-Risk Loans Boom
Apparently Ackermann also has no intention to part with even a small portion of the profits the bank earned in the real estate business. Deutsche Bank didn't just act as a trustee that -- coincidentally, it seems -- manages countless pieces of real estate on behalf of other investors. In the wild years between 2005 and 2007, the bank also played a central role in the profitable boom in high-risk mortgages that were marketed to people in ways that were downright negligent.
Of course, its bankers didn't get their hands dirty by going door-to-door to convince people to apply for mortgages they couldn't afford. But they did provide the distribution organizations with the necessary capital.
The Countrywide Financial Corporation, which approved risky mortgages for $97.2 billion from 2005 to 2007, was the biggest provider of these mortgages in the United States. According to the study by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, Deutsche Bank was one of Countrywide's biggest financiers.
Ameriquest -- which, with $80.7 billion in high-risk loans on its books in the three boom years before the crash, was the second-largest subprime specialist -- also had strong ties to Deutsche Bank. The investment bankers placed the mortgages on the international capital market by bundling and structuring them into securities. This enabled them to distribute the risks around the entire globe, some of which ended up with Germany's state-owned banks.
'Deutsche Bank Has a Real PR Problem Here'
After the crisis erupted, there were so many mortgages in default in 25 CDOs that most of the investors could no longer be serviced. Some CDOs went bankrupt right away, while others were gradually liquidated, either in full or in part. The securities that had been placed on the market were underwritten by loans worth $20 billion.
At the end of 2006, for example, Deutsche Bank constructed a particularly complex security known as a hybrid CDO. It was named Barramundi, after the Indo-Pacific hermaphrodite fish that lives in muddy water. And the composition of the deal, which was worth $800 million, was muddy indeed. Many securities that were already arcane enough, like credit default swaps (CDSs) and CDOs, were packaged into an even more complex entity in Barramundi.
Deutsche Bank's partner for the Barramundi deal was the New York investment firm C-BASS, which referred to itself as "a leader in purchasing and servicing residential mortgage loans primarily in the Subprime and Alt-A categories." In plain language, C-BASS specialized in drumming up and marketing subprime mortgages for complex financial vehicles.
However, C-BASS didn't just manage abstract securities. It also had a subsidiary to bring in all the loans that were subsequently securitized. By the end of 2005 the subsidiary, Litton Loan, had processed 313,938 loans, most of them low-value mortgages, for a total value of $43 billion.
One of the First Victims of the Financial Crisis
Barramundi was already the 19th CDO C-BASS had issued. But the investment firm faltered only a few months after the deal with Deutsche Bank, in the summer of 2007. C-BASS was one of the first casualties of the financial crisis.
Deutsche Bank's CDO, Barramundi, suffered a similar fate. Originally given the highest possible rating by the rating agencies, the financial vehicle stuffed with subprime mortgages quickly fell apart. In the spring of 2008, Barramundi was first downgraded to "highly risky" and then, in December, to junk status. Finally, in March 2009, Barramundi failed and had to be liquidated.
While many investors lost their money and many Americans their houses, Deutsche Bank and Litton Loan remained largely unscathed. Apparently, the Frankfurt bank still has a healthy business relationship with the subprime mortgage manager, because Deutsche Bank does not play a direct role in any of the countless pieces of real estate it holds in trust. Other service providers, including Litton Loan, handle tasks like collecting mortgage payments and evicting delinquent borrowers.
The exotic financial vehicles are sometimes managed by an equally exotic firm: Deutsche Bank (Cayman) Limited, Boundary Hall, Cricket Square, Grand Cayman. In an e-mail dated Feb. 26, 2010, a Deutsche Bank employee from the Cayman Islands lists 84 CDOs and similar products, for which she identifies herself as the relevant contact person.
Trouble with US Regulatory Authorities and Many Property Owners
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is now investigating Deutsche Bank and a few other investment banks that constructed similar CDOs. The financial regulator is looking into whether investors in these obscure products were deceived. The SEC has been particularly critical of US investment bank Goldman Sachs, which is apparently willing to pay a record fine of $1 billion to avoid criminal prosecution.
Deutsche Bank has also run into problems with the many property owners. The bank did not issue the mortgages for the many properties it now manages, and yet it accepted, on behalf of investors, the fiduciary function for its own and third-party CDOs. In past years, says mortgage expert Steve Dibert, real estate loans were "traded like football cards" in the United States.
Amid all the deal-making, the deeds for the actual properties were often lost. In Cleveland and New Jersey, for example, judges invalidated foreclosures ordered by Deutsche Bank, because the bank was unable to come up with the relevant deeds.
Nevertheless, Deutsche Bank's service providers repeatedly try to have houses vacated, even when they are already occupied by new owners who are paying their mortgages. This practice has led to nationwide lawsuits against the Frankfurt-based bank. On the Internet, angry Americans fighting to keep their houses have taken to using foul language to berate the German bank.
"Deutsche Bank now has a real PR problem here in the United States," says Dibert. "They want to bury their head in the sand, but this is something they are going to have to deal with."