Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

July 29, 2013

Fannie/Freddie Take Down 3: Washington Federal v. The U.S. of A.

By David Reiss

This should catch us up on the Fannie/Freddie preferred stock Takings litigation (see here and here for two other suits).  Washington Federal et al. v. United States was filed June 10, 2013 and is a class action complaint. The theories are pretty similar in the three cases. I had earlier written about the importance of narrative in these Takings cases. Having lived through this history myself and having read the “first draft” of history carefully in the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and many trade periodicals, I am somewhat taken aback by this revisionist history. For instance, the complaint states that the companies were not “likely to incur losses that would deplete all or substantially all of” their capital. (38) News to me!

But what is most striking about the complaint is this notion that if the government had just taken this action (allowing the companies to buy more subprime mortgages) or not taken that action (strong arming the board to accept the conservatorship) or not deferring taking this other action (waiting to raise the guarantee fee), then everything would have worked out for the companies and their shareholders.  Maybe so, but it sure will be hard to categorize each of the government’s actions as either totally okay or completely inappropriate for the companies’ health in the context of the financial crisis. This leaves the plaintiffs with some tough work ahead. They are going to need to show a judge just how to categorize each of those facts and ensure that the categorization does not interfere with their theory of the case.

All of this raises a bigger, more interesting question. What role should these types of lawsuits play after a crisis has passed? Some would say that they are an outrage — second-guessing what are leaders did to avert financial ruin. Others might say that this is an efficient way to respond to crises: allow the government to do what it needs to do during the crisis, but use litigation to make an accounting to all of the stakeholders once the situation has stabilized. I don’t have a fully thought out view on this, but I am struck by the dangers of each approach. The first allows for various kinds of scapegoating (as Hank Greenberg argues in the AIG bailout litigation) while the second allows for the kind of revisionism that favors the wealthy and powerful (as with these Takings suits by powerful investors who bought Fannie and Freddie preferred shares on the cheap as a sort of long shot bet on what the two companies will look like going forward). Tough to choose between the two . . ..

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