August 4, 2014

TARP’s Smallish Rogues Gallery

By David Reiss

The Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) issued its Quarterly Report to Congress on July 30, 2014. There is a lot to digest in this 500+ page document, but I thought that readers of this blog might be interested in the rogues gallery found at Figure 1.3 on pages 54-56 (note that this is the pagination found in the document, which is different from the pdf’s pagination of the document). Figure 1.3 lists the 85 people sentenced to prison as a result of a SIGTARP investigation, the sentences they received, and their affiliations:

Many of the criminal schemes uncovered by SIGTARP had been ongoing for years, and involved millions of dollars and complicated conspiracies with multiple co-conspirators. On average, as a result of SIGTARP investigations, criminals convicted of crimes related to TARP’s banking programs have been sentenced to serve 77 months in prison. Criminals convicted for mortgage modification fraud schemes or other mortgage fraud related investigations by SIGTARP were sentenced to serve an average of 39 months in prison. Criminals investigated by SIGTARP and convicted of investment schemes such as Ponzi schemes and sales of fake TARP-backed securities were sentenced to serve an average of 88 months in prison. (53-54)

Hard to tell if that is many or only a few people being held accountable. But it is interesting to note that restitution and forfeiture from crimes related to TARP have so far “resulted in more than $5.11 billion in court orders for the return of money to victims or the Government.” (59) That comes out to roughly $60 million for each of the 85 prisoners and about $800,000 for each of the 77 months each of them was sentenced (on average) to prison. While these metrics are merely impressionistic, they certainly make me wonder if this report is right to being touting SIGTARP as an agent of accountability so much.

August 4, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

August 1, 2014

FHFA Wins on “Actual Knowledge”

By David Reiss

Judge Cote issued an Opinion and Order in Federal Housing Finance Agency v. HSBC North America Holdings Inc., et al. (11-cv-06189 July 25, 2014). The opinion and order granted the FHFA’s motion for partial summary judgment concerning whether Fannie and Freddie knew of the falsity of various representations contained in offering documents for residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) issued by the remaining defendants in the case.

I found there to be three notable aspects of this lengthy opinion. First, it provides a detailed exposition of the process by which Fannie and Freddie purchased mortgages from the defendants (who included most of the major Wall Street firms, although many of them have settled out of the case by now). it goes into great length about how loans were underwritten and how originators and aggregators reviewed them as they were evaluated  as potential collateral for RMBS issuances.

Second, it goes into great detail about the discovery battle in a high, high-stakes dispute with very well funded parties. While not of primary interest to readers of this blog, it is amazing to see just how much of a slog discovery can be in a complex matter like this.

Finally, it demonstrates the importance of litigating with common sense in mind. Judge Cote was clearly put off by the inconsistent arguments of the defendants. She writes, with clear frustration,

It bears emphasis that at this late stage — long after the close of fact discovery and as the parties prepare their Pretrial Orders for three of these four cases — Defendants continue to argue both that their representations were true and that underwriting defects, inflated appraisals and borrower fraud were so endemic as to render their representations obviously false to the GSEs. Using the example just given, Goldman Sachs argues both that Fannie Mae knew that the percentage of loans with an LTV ratio below 80% was not 67%, but also that the true figure was, in fact, 67%. (65)

August 1, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

July 31, 2014

Reiss on the Poor Door

By David Reiss

Law360 quoted me in ‘Poor Door’ A Symptom Of Tough Balancing Act In Housing (behind a paywall). It opens,

Extell Development Co.’s so-called “poor door” — a separate entrance for affordable housing tenants at a development on Riverside Drive — made headlines last week after receiving official approval, but experts say the controversy clouds the reality of balancing private and public housing interests in a city like New York.

The building and its “poor door” first caught the world’s attention last year, when the developer released renderings for the project that showed separate doors for condominium buyers and affordable rental tenants.

It wasn’t the first setup of its kind, particularly not in New York City, but with news of growing inequality around the country and especially in large urban areas, many criticized the separate door as classist and suggested that affordable housing tenants were being treated as “second-class citizens.”

The controversy erupted again last week when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development confirmed that it had approved Extell’s application for the department’s inclusionary housing program, which gives the developer access to certain incentives in exchange for adding to the city’s affordable housing inventory.

Many have argued that the trade-off may not be worth it: If developers that qualify for such programs end up relegating lower-income tenants to a separate entrance, are those tenants benefiting fully from the city’s efforts to house them?

“One reason that the ‘poor door’ issue touches a nerve is that real estate and class are so closely linked in New York City,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who focuses on real estate finance and community development. “Affordable housing units are seen as a great equalizer. The notion that someone living in an affordable housing unit must be constantly reminded of their status is repugnant to many.”

This has led to headlines around the world proclaiming Extell’s design and the city’s approval a “disgrace.” But experts say the question of what to do about such practices is not that simple.

Inclusionary housing has been a major tenet of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to add or maintain 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade. In a city with such high land prices and rents, it has become clear that developers need some kind of incentive to include affordable housing in their projects, and the mayor and city council have made a series of adjustments and concessions to get such housing into projects like the new Domino Sugar Factory development and under-construction buildings at Hudson Yards.

But just how affordable and market-rate housing should be built together in these developments has not been as closely considered, and experts say the “poor door” controversy may just be the first of many unanticipated issues in need of creative solutions.

To get around the issue of affordable units having different entrances or looking different and having different amenities from market-rate units, some have suggested making the units indistinguishable, but Reiss warns that this might cause additional problems.

“For instance, given a particular amount of funding for affordable housing, is it better to build fewer units of affordable housing that are indistinguishable from market-rate units in a Manhattan building, or is it better to build more units of affordable housing in an outer-borough — and therefore cheaper — building?” he said. “There is no right answer to that question. Each reflects a policy preference. But it is most important to realize that a trade-off between cost and number of units exists.”

July 31, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

July 30, 2014

Reiss on Big BoA FIRREA Penalty

By David Reiss

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in FIRREA-Fueled Penalty Against BofA Signals More Risk for Large Institutions (behind a paywall). It reads in part,

A federal judge in New York ordered Bank of America to pay $1.26 billion in civil penalties to the U.S. government in connection with a Countrywide lending program, setting up a likely appeal in one of the most closely watched cases in the financial services arena (United States v. Bank of Am. Corp., S.D.N.Y., No. 12-cv-01422, 7/30/14).

The ruling by Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which also said former Countrywide official Rebecca Mairone must pay $1 million in installments, followed an October jury verdict that found Bank of America liable for Countrywide’s sale of bad loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, some of which were securitized.

Countrywide sold those loans under its “High-Speed Swim Lane” program—an initiative aimed at speeding the loan approval process and one launched before Bank of America acquired Countrywide in 2008.

Rakoff called the nine-month HSSL program “from start to finish the vehicle for a brazen fraud,” and imposed a $1,267,491,770 penalty on Bank of America.

The amount was less than the $2.1 billion sought by the government, but well above what Bank of America argued was appropriate, which was $1.1 million at the most .

“We believe that this figure simply bears no relation to a limited Countrywide program that lasted several months and ended before Bank of America’s acquisition of the company,” Bank of America spokesman Lawrence Grayson told Bloomberg BNA July 30. “We are reviewing the ruling and assessing our appellate options,” he said.

*     *      *

According to Rakoff, Firrea could have allowed a penalty in this case that would have equaled the value of the loan transaction itself, which totaled $2.96 billion.

Rakoff, citing the discretion granted to judges in such cases, reduced the penalty to $1.267 billion, saying not all of the loans were flawed.

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss called Rakoff’s ruling significant and a new turn in an important area of case law for businesses.

“We’re beginning to see a jurisprudence of Firrea penalties and a penalty regime that is very pro-government,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “This shows that the penalty can be as high as the nominal amount of the transaction. It’s good guidance in the sense that it helps businesses know the outer boundaries of their risk, but it’s a generous view of deterrence,” he said.

July 30, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

July 29, 2014

Good Data Makes Good Mortgages

By David Reiss

The CFPB issued a proposed rule about increasing the quality of information that lenders report about mortgage applications. The press release regarding the proposed rule states that these changes will ease the reporting burden on lenders, and that may very well be true. But the contested part of these rules relate to the type of information to be collected:

  • Improving market information: In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress directed the Bureau to update HMDA regulations by having lenders report specific new information that could help identify potential discriminatory lending practices and other issues in the marketplace. This new information includes, for example: the property value; term of the loan; total points and fees; the duration of any teaser or introductory interest rates; and the applicant’s or borrower’s age and credit score.
  • Monitoring access to credit: The Bureau is proposing that financial institutions provide more information about underwriting and pricing, such as an applicant’s debt-to-income ratio, the interest rate of the loan, and the total discount points charged for the loan. This information would help regulators determine how the Ability-to-Repay rule is impacting the market, and would also help the Bureau monitor developments in specific markets such as multi-family housing, affordable housing, and manufactured housing. The proposed rule would also require that covered lenders report, with some exceptions, all loans related to dwellings, including reverse mortgages and open-end lines of credit.

Lenders are not going to like this, because this new information may be used against them in a variety of ways — in Fair Housing lawsuits, by the CFPB in enforcement actions, by members of Congress seeking to increase credit access to various constituencies.

I like this because regulators and academic researchers have been hamstrung by limited and stale data on the fast-moving mortgage market. The mortgage market is often driven by the short-term profit-seeking of private actors and by special interests pushing their agendas with the Executive and Legislative Branches.  Good data can inform good decision-making that can ensure that the housing finance system is vibrant and provides sustainable credit for households over the long term.

Comments on the proposed rule are due by October 22, 2014.

 

July 29, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

July 28, 2014

NYC’s Abandoned Public Housing

By David Reiss

The Community Service Society issued an important report, Strengthening New York City’s Public Housing. Public housing has a terrible reputation in much of the country, but the New York City Housing Authority traditionally had the reputation, notwithstanding its real flaws, as the best large public housing system in the nation. This report makes a strong case that many of its current flaws are the result of systemic disinvestment at the federal, state and local levels in recent years. The report concludes,

the analysis confirms the reality of the appalling living conditions in NYCHA apartments reported by residents and the media for several years. But the Authority’s reputation or its competence should not be at issue; it performed relatively well until its resource base fell apart in the period following 2001. Government defunding was and is the root cause of the accelerating deterioration over the last decade. The state and city were major contributors to that decline, often at levels equivalent to the federal disinvestment. They should be open to a major role in restoring NYCHA.

Moreover, existing institutional arrangements that make NYCHA opaque to public scrutiny need to be changed—those that mask the Authority’s financial condition and its failures to comply with local housing and building codes—because they cloak the real consequences of government defunding and, as a result, deprive residents, advocates, concerned elected officials, and the interested public of the information they could use as ammunition to press for needed resources. The NYCHA Board also needs to be freer to act as a leading advocate for the Authority. Its governance structure should be reconsidered to assure the Board the independent voice it needs to better make the case for itself and its residents. (27)

The de Blasio Administration has made affordable housing a centerpiece of its agenda, so there is reason to think that this report will get its attention. Let us hope so — there is a lot of solid infrastructure which just needs its deferred maintenance issues addressed. But the report also highlights various operational changes that can lead to real improvements in the lives of NYCHA residents.  These reforms could provide many low-income households with decent homes.

July 28, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

July 25, 2014

Financial Literacy Rehash

By David Reiss

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released its second Financial Literacy Annual Report. In blogging about last year’s report, I noted that the CFPB assumed that financial education worked more than research had shown it to work. Unfortunately, this report seems to be mostly a rehash (in many cases an extensive word-for-word rehash) of last year’s (pace Senator Walsh). From what I could tell, the only significant new financial education research that the CFPB has undertaken since last year is its “rules of thumb” project.

“Rules of thumb” are a decision-making and education technique that uses practical, easily-implemented guidelines for making decisions. Existing research has found rules of thumb to be a successful technique for improving decision making in many areas, and more successful than comprehensive education in some instances. Thus, rules of thumb could be a cost-effective method to improve consumer decision making. However, little research exists examining the effectiveness of rules of thumb for financial decision making.

Accordingly, in 2014 the Bureau began a research project to study the effectiveness of rules-of-thumb-based approaches aimed at helping consumers decrease their credit card debt. Rules-of-thumb-based education may be particularly appropriate for improving consumer literacy about credit card use, as credit card decisions are repetitive and frequent. We have finished the first phase of the project to understand how to create rules of thumb, when they are most useful, and how they can be implemented to ensure maximum success. The second phase of the project will test a set of rules of thumb aimed at helping consumers decrease their credit card debt. When we release the final results, which are expected in 2015, we expect that this project will increase knowledge of the efficacy of a rules-of-thumb approach to financial education both within the CFPB and among a range of external stakeholders who serve consumers. (72-73, footnote omitted)

This seems like a great project for the CFPB to undertake. But the rest of its efforts to improve its understanding about the efficacy of financial literacy leaves me under, underwhelmed, particularly because the rule-of-thumb project is limited to just one consumer financial product, credit cards.

July 25, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments