WASHINGTON — U.S. banks have taken another step to clear away the wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis by agreeing to pay $8.5 billion to settle charges that they wrongfully foreclosed on millions of homeowners.
The deal announced Monday could compensate hundreds of thousands of Americans whose homes were seized because of abuses such as "robo-signing," when banks automatically signed off on foreclosures without properly reviewing documents. The agreement will also help eliminate huge potential liabilities for the banks.
But consumer advocates complained that regulators settled for too low a price by letting banks avoid full responsibility for foreclosures that victimized families and fueled an exodus from neighborhoods across the country.
The settlement ends an independent review of loan files required under a 2011 action by regulators. Bruce Marks, CEO of the advocacy group Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, noted that ending the review will cut short investigations into the banks' practices.
"The question of who's to blame — the homeowners or the lenders — if you stop this investigation now, that will always be an open-ended question," Marks said.
The banks, which include JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, will pay about $3.3 billion to homeowners to end the review of foreclosures.
The rest of the money — $5.2 billion — will be used to reduce mortgage bills and forgive outstanding principal on home sales that generated less than borrowers owed on their mortgages.
A total of 3.8 million people are eligible for payments under the deal announced by the Office of Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve. Those payments could range from a few hundred dollars to up to $125,000.
The companies involved in the settlement announced Monday also include Citigroup, MetLife Bank, PNC Financial Services, Sovereign, SunTrust, U.S. Bank and Aurora. The 2011 action included GMAC Mortgage, HSBC Finance Corp. and EMC Mortgage Corp.
Regulators announced the deal on the same day that Bank of America agreed to pay $11.6 billion to government-backed mortgage financier Fannie Mae to settle claims related to mortgages that soured during the housing crash.
The agreements come as U.S. banks are showing renewed signs of financial health, extending their recovery from the 2008 crisis that nearly toppled many of them. They are lending more and earning greater profits than at any time since the Great Recession began in December 2007.
Monday's foreclosure settlement doesn't close the book on the housing crisis, which caused more than 4 million foreclosures. It covers only consumers who were in foreclosure in 2009 and 2010. Some banks didn't agree to the settlement.
"It's going to take a few more years to get it sorted out," said Bert Ely, an independent banking consultant.
Citigroup said in a statement that it was "pleased to have the matter resolved" and thinks the agreement "will provide benefits for homeowners." Citi expects to record a charge of $305 million in the fourth quarter of 2012 to cover its cash payment under the settlement. The bank expects that existing reserves will cover its $500 million share of the non-cash foreclosure aid.
Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said the agreements were "a significant step" in resolving the bank's remaining legacy mortgage issues while streamlining the company and reducing future expenses.
The settlement is separate from a $25 billion settlement among 49 state attorneys general, federal regulators and five banks: Ally, formerly known as GMAC; Bank of America; Citigroup; JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.