September 9, 2014
Reiss on FIRREA Penalties
Bloomberg quoted me in S&P Faces Squeeze After $1.3 Billion Countrywide Fine. It opens,
Standard & Poor’s (MHFI)’ chances of settling the government’s lawsuit over mortgage-bond ratings for less than $1 billion may have slipped away after Bank of America Corp.’s Countrywide unit was socked with a $1.3 billion fine.
The Countrywide ruling was the first to lay out what penalties financial institutions could face under a 1989 bank-fraud law the Obama administration is using against alleged culprits of the subprime mortgage crisis. It has boosted the government’s hand against McGraw Hill Financial Inc.’s S&P, said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University.
“If the starting negotiation point for the Justice Department to settle was $1 billion before, that number has just gone up,” Henning said in a phone interview.
The U.S. sued S&P and Countrywide under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, a law passed by Congress in the wake of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. The administration, which seeks as much as $5 billion from S&P, is using the law to punish alleged misconduct in the creation and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities blamed for the financial crisis two decades later.
For the Justice Department, the case against S&P goes to the heart of the financial crisis, attacking the company’s claims that its ratings — relied on by investors worldwide — were honest and neutral. S&P has countered that the case is really retribution for it downgrading the U.S. government’s own debt and it has subpoenaed officials including former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in an effort to prove that.
A hearing on the company’s request to force Geithner and the government to turn over records is scheduled for today in federal court in Santa Ana, California.
Countrywide was found liable by a federal jury in Manhattan for lying about the quality of the almost $3 billion in mortgages it sold to Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FMCC) in 2007 and 2008. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan agreed with the Justice Department that the penalty should be based on how much money the mortgage lender fraudulently induced the companies to pay for the loans.
“The civil penalty provisions of FIRREA are designed to serve punitive and deterrent purposes and should be construed in accordance with those purposes,” the judge said in his July 30 ruling.
S&P is accused of defrauding institutions that relied on its credit ratings for residential mortgage-based securities and collateralized debt obligations that included those securities. The government claims S&P lied to investors about its ratings on trillions of dollars in securities being objective and free of conflicts of interest.
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The judge’s analysis, using the nominal value of the transactions as a starting point to determine the penalty, was “out of whack” and will probably be appealed by Bank of America to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, said David Reiss, a professor at the Brooklyn Law School.
“The Second Circuit has no problem reversing Rakoff,” Reiss said in in a phone interview. “The ruling pushes the balance of power in favor of the government by expanding the definition of a civil penalty.”
While other judges aren’t obliged to follow Rakoff’s reasoning, they will pay close attention to the decision because the federal court in Manhattan is the leading business law jurisdiction in the country and the ruling was clearly explained, Reiss said.| Permalink