Saturday, November 19, 2011

Irish banks face mortgage strikes

The Guardian carried an interesting article on how distressed Irish borrowers are organizing to demand that banks modify their mortgages to levels that reflect their capacity to pay.

The final straw for the borrowers was the failure of the banks to pass on the ECB's recent adoption of lower interest rates.  The banks have resisted passing it on so as to increase their profit margins - this was not surprising given the Wilbur Ross is now a large investor in one of the two remaining banks.

Should this idea of a mortgage strike spread to say the US ...
It's been a tough time to be Irish. The boom years are a distant memory and now there's just austerity and a long haul back to recovery for a nation crippled by the reckless lending of its banks. 
But, a year after the country was forced to call in the International Monetary Fund(IMF), there is a sign that the people are fighting back and targeting the hated lenders with the "nuclear option" of a mortgage strike. 
Ross Maguire is the co-founder of New Beginning, a new de-facto trade union for Irish mortgage holders and those in debt distress with banks, which aims to recruit 10,000 members in a movement that has strong parallels with the Occupy protests that have swept through scores of countries. 
"The nuclear weapon is for borrowers acting in concert and to say that unless proper and sustainable solutions are put in place which are fair and reasonable, then we should not continue to pay under these current conditions," he says. So does this mean a "mortgage strike" ....
"It is radical but it is where we are going if things don't change. It's the last option but it is better that people like us have control over it because the danger is that if that kind of people power was misdirected it could wreck the financial system. New Beginning doesn't want to smash the financial system; we merely want to reform it and re-balance power between banks and borrowers." 
With more than €70bn (£60bn) of taxpayers' money already transferred into the banks to save them from collapse and public fury intensifying after the banks refused to pass on a cut in interest rates by the European Central Bank two weeks ago, Irish people are bracing to pay a further price for the bailout....
Many blame the fiscal crisis on the banks' reckless lending to property developers – the same banks that are refusing to cut interest rates and threatening to repossess thousands of people's homes. ... 
The quiet 42-year-old who launched this crusade against the banks from his office in a trendy building near Dublin's Smithfield Market area is a barrister. But Maguire is the antithesis of the public perception of well-heeled "silks" in wigs and gowns: he doesn't charge fees for families with distressed mortgages who are fighting to keep their homes. 
After working at the Dublin bar since returning from a successful legal practice in the City of London in the 1990s, Maguire noticed how skewed Irish law is towards banks as opposed to their borrowers. A person declaring bankruptcy in Ireland will be in financial and credit purdah for 12 years, Unlike Britain's 12 months. 
Now he and New Beginning are emerging as lightning rods for the anger of an entire nation towards the banks that they believe helped bust Ireland. ... Maguire and his group, however, offer a legal, non-violent but direct action alternative to challenge bankers' power. 
His own epiphany came last year when he and two colleagues heard of a client who had fallen foul of the banks. "A man came to us who had a loan with the Irish Nationwide building society, which subsequently was forced to merge with the Anglo Irish Bank. He got his file under the Data Protection Act and discovered that the Irish Nationwide had created a completely new version of him for their credit committee! 
"They had changed his occupation. They had given him a salary far higher than his actual one of €30,000 – in fact, they said he was now earning €60,000. They had changed the grade he worked at in his job to a higher one. They had even forged not only his signature but also his employer's. It was incredible in terms of sharp practice. This was all so they could lend him more and more money during the boom. 
"We thought to ourselves that if this happened once across the state it was happening all over.
In the US for example?
It was then that we realised something needed to be done to check the power of the banks and that it had to be done collectively." 
Before they opt for the "nuclear option", Maguire stresses that New Beginning has devised a practical plan to reform the mortgage payment system that will, he claims, help the banks as much as the people. They have proposed to the government an "income annuity mortgage". It would mean a homeowner in difficulty paying a €1,000 a month mortgage could cut that to €700. If things improved, the payments could be raised to, say, €1,500. 
But would the banks accept such a system, which would entail stretching out mortgage payments for longer? 
"The Irish banks don't think we are serious," Maguire says, "but just wait." 
New Beginning are about to go on a nationwide recruitment tour ....
"When we get over 10,000 members, each paying a levy of just €15, we will see who is serious. We are offering a fair solution for all concerned, including the banks, but if ultimately they reject it there is the nuclear option of a payment strike. Individually, people go in mortal terror to meet their banks but together in a national movement they won't be in such a weak position." 
Maguire says they are not firebrand radicals hellbent on destroying the system. "Why throw a brick through a bank window? They will just replace the glass the next day," he points out. 
However, the barrister says they could link up with others in Northern Ireland and Britain, such as the Occupy movement and UK Uncut, who are equally disgusted at the banks' behaviour during this long recession. 
"Two of the taxpayer-rescued banks in Ireland – the Bank of Ireland and First Trust [Allied Irish Banks' UK operation] – have a big presence in Northern Ireland. We would like to help out borrowers who are under pressure from these banks up there too. 
"And I don't see why we couldn't see the establishment of a New Beginning force on the other side of the Irish Sea. We would like to speak to groups like UK Uncut and Occupy over there to help each other and explain some of our ideas for re-balancing the power between bankers and borrowers." 
He suggests his organisation could provide a model on how to reform banks and reduce their power to threaten customers further across the globe. 
"There is widespread discontent across the 'Anglosphere' and elsewhere regarding the banks. We are offering practical solutions on the one hand and the right of borrowers to organise and deploy the ultimate, last weapon of resort on the other."...
"This is a 21st-century struggle to re-balance power in favour of people. Whether in Britain or Ireland, we can find the power to turn off the banks' oxygen if they won't change their ways."

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