REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 12, 2017

AIG Suit Strengthens Government Powers

By David Reiss

photo by Tim Evanson

Law360 quoted me in Greenberg’s AIG Loss Strengthens Gov’t’s Crisis Powers (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

The Federal Circuit’s decision reversing Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg’s win in his campaign against the U.S. government over its bailout of American International Group Inc. was the latest in a string of defeats for investors challenging financial crisis bailouts, and could further strengthen the government’s hand in future crises, experts say.

The Federal Circuit on Tuesday rejected claims by Greenberg, AIG’s former chief executive, and his current company, Starr International Co. Inc., that the government engaged in an unconstitutional taking of property when it demanded and received 80 percent of the giant insurance company’s stock in exchange for an $85 billion bailout in September 2008.

Although the appellate panel overturned a lower court ruling by rejecting Greenberg’s standing to sue, it came in the wake of a series of rulings against shareholders in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those shareholders are seeking to overturn a President Barack Obama-era move to sweep profits from the bailed out mortgage giants back to the U.S. Department of the Treasury rather than into shareholder dividends, cases courts have repeatedly rejected.

Those wins mean that courts are giving the government wide latitude to respond to a financial crisis, even if some shareholders are harmed, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“There’s now a lot of judges who have come down to effectively say, ‘The government had very broad authority to address the financial crisis, and we’re not going to second-guess that,'” he said.

Greenberg’s campaign against the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and other arms of the U.S. government stems from the effort to bail out AIG in 2008 after it was brought to the brink of insolvency due to the failure of credit default swaps held by its structured finance unit.

In exchange for the $85 billion loan that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York ultimately extended, AIG and its board agreed to hand over nearly 80 percent of its equity and fire its top executives.

Greenberg, who left AIG in 2005 under a cloud, and his current firm Starr International were the largest shareholders in the world’s largest insurer, and argued in a 2011 lawsuit that the government had engaged in an illegal taking of shareholder property.

Federal Claims Judge Thomas C. Wheeler agreed with at least part of Greenberg’s argument in a June 2015 decision, saying that the Fed had placed unduly tough terms on AIG in exchange for the bailout loan, with those terms exceeding the central bank’s authority under Section 13(3) of the Bank Holding Company Act.

However, Judge Wheeler did not award any damages to Greenberg and shareholders in the class action, arguing that their shares would have been worth nothing without the government’s action.

Both Greenberg and the government appealed, and the Federal Circuit on Tuesday reversed Judge Wheeler’s holding on the question of whether the government exceeded its authority by placing tough terms on the bailout.

However, the opinion did not focus on the government’s actions but on the question of standing. Greenberg and his company did not have it, so the rest of his argument was moot, the panel said.

    *     *     *

While the Federal Circuit did not address the substance of Greenberg’s claims, the U.S. Supreme Court might.

Greenberg and Starr said Tuesday they plan to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court takes up the case, despite a lack of a circuit split on the issue of lawsuits over financial crisis-era bailouts, they could set the terms under which the government acts in a future financial crisis.

But even without a Supreme Court ruling in their favor, the government should feel that it is on stronger legal ground during a financial crisis with its two wins at the appellate court level, Reiss said.

“Companies who are looking to reverse government actions at the height of the financial crisis … are having a really tough row to hoe,” he said.

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