February 13, 2015

Reiss on $1.5B S&P Settlement

By David Reiss

Westlaw Journal Derivatives quoted me in S&P Settles Fraud Suits for $1.5 Billion. The story reads in part,

Standard & Poor’s has agreed to pay $1.5 billion to settle lawsuits filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, 19 states and a pension fund that accused the ratings agency of damaging the economy by inflating credit ratings in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

According to a statement issued Feb. 3 by S&P, a subsidiary of McGraw-Hill Cos, the ratings agency will pay $687.5 million each to the DOJ and the states. It also will pay $125 million to settle a lawsuit filed by California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Cal. Pub. Employees’ Ret. Sys. Moody’s Corp. et al., No. CGC-09-490241, complaint filed (Cal. Super. Ct., S.F. County July 9, 2009).

The parties filed a joint stipulation of dismissal with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Feb. 4.

“After careful consideration, the company determined that entering into the settlement agreement is in the best interests of the company and its shareholders and is pleased to resolve these matters,” McGraw-Hill said in the statement.

S&P did not admit to any wrongdoing in agreeing to settle.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the settlement for the Justice Department and states.

“On more than one occasion, the company’s leadership ignored senior analysts who warned that the company had given top ratings to financial products that were failing to perform as advertised,” he said in a statement.

*     *     *

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, also said the settlement closes an important chapter of the crisis.

“S&P would have faced a lot of unquantifiable risk if it had to admit wrongdoing in the settlement,” he said. “It is unclear that the Justice Department would have wanted to expose one of the three major rating agencies to such a risk because it could have destabilized the rating agency industry.”

Reiss added that the $1.5 billion settlement should have a deterrent effect.

”[It] likely gives ratings analysts some firm ground to stand on if they are pressured to lower their standards by others in their organizations,” he said. (1, 18-19)

The article also has a sidebar that reads,

Ratings agencies had avoided liability for their actions for quite some time based on the theory that they were First Amendment actors who dealt in opinions.

Recent cases have held that the rating agencies can be held liable for some of their ratings notwithstanding the First Amendment. United States v. McGraw-Hill Cos. et al., No. 13-CV-0779, 2013 WL 3762259 (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2013) and Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston v. Ally Financial Inc. et al., No. 11-10952, 2013 WL 5466631 (D. Mass. Sept. 30, 2013).

For instance, if the rating agency did not follow its own rating procedures, it could be held liable for fraud.

David Reiss, Brooklyn Law School (18)

February 13, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

February 12, 2015

Realistic Strategies for Consumer Education

By David Reiss

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued its latest Strategic Plan, Budget, and Performance Plan and Report. I was critical of last year’s strategic plan as it related to financial education. I felt that the CFPB was too optimistic about the efficacy of financial education, given the current state of research on this topic.

I was impressed, however, by the CFPB’s approach in this year’s strategic plan:

The CFPB believes that financial education’s primary goal is to help consumers to take the steps necessary to make choices that will improve their financial well-being and help them reach their own life goals. However, prior to the start of the CFPB’s work, very little empirical research had been conducted in the financial education field regarding what variables measure financial health in terms of real-world outcomes for consumers. By defining these variables through data-driven research, the Bureau will be able to define what knowledge and skills are associated with financial health. This research will inform the Bureau’s ongoing efforts to identify, highlight, and spread effective approaches to financial education. (64)

I am pleased that the CFPB appears to be more skeptical about the efficacy of consumer education in this strategic plan and that is reflected in its performance measure:

FY 2013: Identify variables that are likely to be key drivers of financial health

FY 2014: Develop and test metrics (questions) that accurately measure these variables

FY2015: Develop and implement framework for integration into Consumer Education and Engagement Activities; Complete testing financial health metrics

FY2016: Use metrics to establish a baseline of U.S. consumer financial well-being and begin testing hypotheses of identified success factors in consumer financial decision-making (64-65)

This performance measure does not make assumptions about the efficacy of financial education. By treating the topic like a blank slate, it is more likely that the Bureau will be able to avoid dead ends and blind alleys as it attempts to help people to navigate the world of consumer finance.

This is not to say that the Bureau will necessarily be successful.  But it does appear that the Bureau is not falling for some of the wishful thinking that some of those in the financial education field have succumbed to.

February 12, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

February 11, 2015

Nation of Renters

By David Reiss

NYU’s Furman Center and Capital One have produced an interesting graphic, Renting in America’s Largest Cities. The graphic highlights the growing trend of renting in urban communities, but also the increasing expense of doing so. The press release about this study provides some highlights:

  • In 2006, the majority of the population in just five of the largest 11 U.S. cities lived in rental housing; in 2013, that number increased to nine.
  • As demand for rental housing grew faster than available supply, rental vacancy rates declined in all but two of the 11 cities, making it harder to find units for rent.
  • Rents outpaced inflation in almost all of the 11 cities. Rents Increased most in DC, with a 21 percent increase in inflation-adjusted median gross rent, and least in Houston, where rents were stable.
  • In all 11 cities, an overwhelming majority of low-income renters were severely rent-burdened, facing rents and utility costs equal to at least half of their income.
  • Even In the most affordable cities in the study, low-income renters could afford no more than 11 percent of recently available units.
  • In five major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Miami, moderate-Income renters could afford less than a third of recently available units in 2013.

Rental housing clearly has an important role to play in providing stable homes for American households, particularly in big cities. While rental housing has been the stepchild of federal housing policy for far too long, it is good that it is finally get some attention and resources.

I look forward to the Furman Center’s follow-up report, which will provide more detail than the graphic does. I am particularly curious about whether the researchers have addressed the difference between housing affordability and location affordability in the longer study. I would guess that the relative affordability of the cities in this study is greatly impacted by households’ transportation costs.

February 11, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

By Shea Cunningham

February 11, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

February 10, 2015

Risky Reverse Mortgages

By David Reiss

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report, Snapshot of Reverse Mortgage Complaints:  December 2011-December 2014. By way of background,

Reverse mortgages differ from other types of home loans in a few important ways. First, unlike traditional “forward” mortgages, reverse mortgages do not require borrower(s) to make monthly mortgage payments (though they must continue paying property taxes and homeowners’ insurance). Prospective reverse mortgage borrowers are required to undergo mandatory housing counseling before they sign for the loan. The loan proceeds are generally provided to the borrowers as lump-sum payouts, annuity-like monthly payments, or as lines of credit. The interest and fees on the mortgage are added to the loan balance each month. The total loan balance becomes due upon the death of the borrower(s), the sale of the home, or if the borrower(s) permanently move from the home. In addition, a payment deferral period may be available to some non-borrowing spouses following the borrowing spouse’s death. (3, footnotes omitted)

The CFPB concludes that

borrowers and their non-borrowing spouses who obtained reverse mortgages prior to August 4, 2014 may likely encounter difficulties in upcoming years similar to those described in this Snapshot, i.e., non-borrowing spouses seeking to retain ownership of their homes after the borrowing spouse dies. As a result, many of these consumers may need notification of and assistance in averting impending possible displacement should the non-borrowing spouse outlive his or her borrowing spouse.

For millions of older Americans, especially those without sufficient retirement reserves, tapping into accrued home equity could help them achieve economic security in later life. As the likelihood increases that older Americans will use their home equity to supplement their retirement income, it is essential that the terms, conditions and servicing of reverse mortgages be fair and transparent so that consumers can make informed decisions regarding their options. (16)
Reverse mortgages have a number of characteristics that would make them ripe for abuse: borrowers are elderly; borrowers have a hard time refinancing them; borrowers can negatively affect their spouses by entering into to them. Seems like a no brainer for the CFPB to pay close attention to this useful but risky product.

February 10, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments