U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak, (right) in August, leaving the federal building to speak to the media after hearings on charges against former city of Atlanta officials. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Justice Department sues UBS over financial crisis

U.S. Justice Department officials in Atlanta on Thursday announced a long-awaited, high-stakes lawsuit against a Swiss banking behemoth for its actions leading up to the financial crisis a decade ago.

UBS and its subsidiaries had backed more than $41 billion in mortgage loans as part of a series of deals that became “catastrophic failures,” according to a statement issued by U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak in Atlanta.

The bank held back information from investors and set them up for financial disaster – all while employees privately expressed disdain for the products that UBS was pushing, Pak said.

“UBS allegedly placed a higher priority on selling bonds and making profits than accurately representing the quality of the underlying loans to investors.”

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Millions of mortgages were given to homebuyers whose ability to make monthly payments was suspect or – in some cases – non-existent. But the mortgages were typically bundled together by the tens of thousands and sold to investors in the hope that the poison would be diluted.

UBS is one of the big players responsible for the economic carnage that followed, Pak said. “These practices resulted in massive losses to investors, harmed homeowners, and ultimately jeopardized the banking system.”

Eventually, many thousands of homebuyers defaulted and as the bad loans failed, they tainted the entire package. Many lenders and investors were swamped with debts they could not pay. As the credit-worthiness of institutions and investors deteriorated, some failed while others desperately froze their own loan-making.

The financial system was virtually paralyzed, while the economy itself spun toward the abyss. Before it was over, more than eight million jobs had been lost and about five million homes had been foreclosed on, including about a quarter-million in metro Atlanta. It was years before a recovery began to take hold – and longer until unemployment rates fell to pre-precession levels.

Because Georgia was one of the home construction hubs, the crash hurt the state worse than most. In a five year period, 85 Georgia banks failed.

In Georgia, a number of counties have still not returned to pre-recession employment levels.

“The fraudulent actions by UBS as alleged in the complaint contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, which resulted in lasting economic harm to the nation and unnecessary suffering for Americans,” said Jesse Panuccio, deputy associate Attorney General. “This suit aims to hold UBS accountable and sends a strong message that the Department of Justice will not tolerate fraud committed by corporations.”

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