The lawsuit is the first to be filed under the auspices of the RMBS Working Group, which was set up by President Barack Obama to investigate and prosecute alleged misconduct that contributed to the financial crisis.
Subprime mortgages were sold to people with less-than-ideal credit. Many of them began defaulting on their loans when the housing bubble burst and their introductory "teaser" interest rates shot up, making their payments unaffordable. Because many of those mortgages were sliced and repackaged as securities that could be bought and sold - known as RMBS - the mass defaults led to huge losses at large U.S. banks and other financial firms, helping fuel the global economic meltdown.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is alleging that Bear Stearns led its investors to believe that the loans in its RMBS portfolio had been carefully evaluated and would be continuously monitored. Schneiderman alleges that Bear Stearns failed to do either, resulting in investors buying securities backed by mortgages that borrowers couldn't repay and defaulted on in huge numbers.
The complaint further alleges that even when Bear Stearns executives were made aware of these problems, the firm failed to correct its practices or disclose material information to investors. The executives routinely overlooked negative findings and continued to package the loans into securities for sale to investors, it says.
Investors have so far lost $22.5 billion on more than 100 subprime securities that Bear Stearns issued in 2006 and 2007, according to the complaint. That's over one-quarter of the original principal balance of $87 billion. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief, damages and payment of restitution to investors for "fraudulent and deceptive acts."
"We're disappointed that the NYAG decided to pursue its civil action without ever offering us an opportunity to rebut the claims and without developing a full record - instead relying on recycled claims already made by private plaintiffs," JPMorgan Chase & Co. spokesman Joseph Evangelisti said in a statement. He said the bank intends to contest the charges, noting that they relate solely to alleged actions by Bear Stearns prior to its takeover by JPMorgan in May 2008.
"We will nonetheless continue to work with members of the President's RMBS Working Group and are fully cooperating with their inquiries," Evangelisti said in a statement.
Bear Stearns teetered on the verge of bankruptcy in early 2008 after its two hedge funds imploded, costing investors $1.8 billion and kicking off the domino effect that led to the 85-year-old bank's demise. With the backing of the New York Federal Reserve, JPMorgan bought the ailing investment bank for about $2.3 billion.