From the Archive: President Obama has nominated Hyatt Hotels heiress Penny Pritzker to be the next Commerce Secretary. Pritzker, also a major fundraiser for Obama’s two presidential campaigns, faced controversy because of her role in the sub-prime mortgage disaster, as Dennis J. Bernstein reported in 2008.
By Dennis J. Bernstein (Originally published Feb. 28, 2008)
I remember my first piggy bank: a little pink piggy made of plastic with a little slot at the top. The slot was big enough, perhaps, to fit a half dollar, a great deal of money to me at the time. “A penny earned is a penny saved,” my father told me, as we dropped the first few coins into the opening, and I heard them hit bottom and bounce.
And I can’t tell you how excited I was when we broke it open, after a year or so, and I couldn’t fit another penny into the slot. I tallied up my stash — close to five dollars, I recall — and decided what I would do with my small fortune. I bought a kite, and my imagination soared even higher than my beautiful Chinese box-kite as to what I would save up for next.
My pop gave me a powerful push in the right direction, when it came to savings: A penny saved really was a penny earned. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for the 1,406 people who lost much of their life savings when Superior Bank of Chicago went belly up in 2001 with over $1 billion in insured and uninsured deposits.
This collapse came amid harsh criticism of how Superior’s owners promoted sub-prime home mortgages. As part of a settlement, the owners paid $100 million and agreed to pay another $335 million over 15 years at no interest. The uninsured depositors were dealt another blow when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court decision to put any recovered money toward the debt that the bank owners owe the federal government before the depositors get anything.
But this bank failure had relevance in another way [in 2008] because the chair of Superior’s board for five years was Penny Pritzker, a member of one of America’s richest families and the Finance Chair for the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the same candidate who has lashed out against predatory lending.
During a campaign stop in south Texas, Obama met with San Antonio-area residents who had been particularly hard hit by the sub-prime meltdown. He expressed dismay over how lobbyists for the sub-prime lending industry had spent more than $185 million in the last several years for their cause.
“To give you a sense of what that kind of lobbying gets you,” Obama said, a “CEO of the largest sub-prime lender was promised a $100-million severance package at a time when more than two million Americans were facing foreclosure, including nearly 14,000 right here in San Antonio.”
Though Superior Bank collapsed years before the 2008 sub-prime turmoil that rocked the world’s financial markets – and pushed millions of homeowners toward foreclosure – some banking experts say the Pritzkers and Superior hold a special place in the history of the sub-prime fiasco.
“The [sub-prime] financial engineering that created the Wall Street meltdown was developed by the Pritzkers and Ernst and Young, working with Merrill Lynch to sell bonds securitized by sub-prime mortgages,” Timothy J. Anderson, a whistleblower on financial and bank fraud, told me in an interview.
“The sub-prime mortgages,” Anderson said, “were provided to Merrill Lynch, by a nationwide Pritzker origination system, using Superior as the cash cow, with many millions in FDIC insured deposits. Superior’s owners were to sub-prime lending, what Michael Milken was to junk bonds.”
In other words, if you traced the sub-prime crisis of 2008 back to its origins, you would come upon the role of the Pritzkers and Superior Bank of Chicago.
One Failure to the Next
Superior was founded at the tail end of 1988 in the wake of the failed Lyons Savings Bank. The Feds were trying to keep a lid on the magnitude of the S&L post-deregulation crisis and were selling failed or failing thrifts for a song, along with a lucrative package of special benefits.
Chicago’s billionaire Pritzker family and their partners bought Lyons Savings for a quite reasonable $42.5 million, but were also given $645 million in tax credits. The kicker was that the buyers only had to come up with $1 million in cash, and got access to the $645 million, and all the bank’s deposits insured by the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).
The Pritzker family’s Superior Bank “started life with enormous tax benefits and a substantial amount of FSLIC-guaranteed assets under a FSLIC assistance agreement,” said financial consultant Bert Ely in an Oct. 16, 2001, statement before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
Ely stated, “Superior’s trick, or business plan” under Penny Pritzker’s leadership was apparently “to concentrate on sub-prime lending, principally on home mortgages, but for a while in sub-prime auto lending, too.” In December 1992, the Pritzkers acquired Alliance Funding, a wholesale mortgage organization.
In a 2002 article in In These Times about Superior Bank’s collapse, business writer David Moberg reported that the bank’s operations were “tainted with the hallmarks of a mini-Enron scandal. … And yet the bank’s owners, members of one of America’s wealthiest families, ultimately could end up profiting from the bank’s collapse, while many of Superior’s borrowers and depositors suffer financial losses.”
Moberg wrote that “the Superior story has a familiar ring. … Using a variety of shell companies and complex financial gimmicks, Superior’s managers and owners exaggerated the profits and financial soundness of the bank. While the company actually lost money throughout most of the ’90s, publicly it appeared to be growing remarkably fast and making unusually large profits.
“Under that cover, the floundering enterprise paid its owners huge dividends and provided them favorable loans and other financial deals deemed illegal by federal investigators. Superior’s outside auditor, which doubled as a financial consultant, engaged in dubious accounting practices that kept feckless regulators at bay.
“Many individuals — disproportionately low-income and minority borrowers with spotty credit records — had apparently been exploited through predatory-lending techniques, including exorbitant fees, inadequate disclosure and high interest rates.”
When it collapsed in 2001, Superior Bank represented the largest failure of a U.S.-insured depository institution for a decade. “The failure of Superior Bank was directly attributable to the Bank’s Board of Directors and executives ignoring sound risk management principles,” said FDIC Inspector General Gaston Gianni Jr. in a Feb. 7, 2002, report.
Banking whistleblower Anderson noted that “Superior failed at a time of historically low interest rates, high employment, a strong economy, and a growing housing market. … There was no reason for it to fail unless you consider gross negligence, a flawed business plan, and a conspiracy to deceive the regulators who were clearly asleep and were negligent themselves in their duties of protecting the class of underinsured depositors.”
Anderson said the bank owners and board members used Superior for their pioneering work in sub-prime lending, developing the financial instruments that helped set the stage for the current sub-prime meltdown.
“The Pritzkers like to say they did sub-prime lending to help the disadvantaged get into the home equity business, [but] it would be more accurate to state they ran a very large nationwide predatory lending operation,” Anderson said, citing criticism of Superior’s lending practices in a letter written to the Office of Thrift Supervision on July 3, 2002, by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, an association of more than 600 community-based organizations that promote access to basic banking services.
As an owner and board chair of Superior, Penny Pritzker also was named in a RICO class action suit on behalf of the more than 1,400 depositors at Superior, who initially lost over $50 million of their life savings.
“This is a story of two Americas with two sets of laws, one for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us,” said Clint Krislov, the depositors’ attorney, in an interview. “My clients will all be dead, before they get back their money, given the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the lower court, which put the predatory owners on the front of the line, if any money is recovered.”
The Pritzkers arrayed a powerful and well-connected legal team including former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment lawyer Lanny Davis, two ex-comptrollers of the currency, and two former General Counsels to the FDIC, the American Banker Magazine reported.
Given the political sensitivity of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Anderson said he believes Penny Pritzker should have resigned her post as Obama’s Finance Chair, the person who oversaw the campaign’s fundraising. Otherwise, Anderson said, Pritzker’s presence could undercut Obama’s credibility on the issue of predatory lending and create a possible conflict of interest if Obama is elected President and tries to crack down on sub-prime abuses.
Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor had no comment about the controversy surrounding Pritzker, but added: “Barack Obama has already made it very clear that he’s going to crack down on fraudulent brokers and lenders.”
One might wonder why Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t jumped on this issue. Maybe it was because Penny’s little brother, J.B. Pritzker, was a mover and shaker in the Clinton campaign. In May of 2007, Jay Robert, aka, (J.B.) Pritzker, threw his support behind Hillary Clinton, representing a coup for her campaign by wresting the billionaire out of Obama’s home town of Chicago, and better still, the brother of Obama’s Campaign Finance Chair.[On Thursday, President Obama nominated Penny Pritzker, who was also co-chair of his reelection campaign in 2012, to be the next Commerce Secretary. In announcing her appointment, Obama hailed Pritzker as "one of the country's most distinguished business leaders" with more than 25 years experience in the fields of real estate, finance and the hospitality industry.]