Bank Settlements and the Arc of Justice

Ron Cogswell

MLK Memorial in DC

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A recent report by SNL Financial (available here, but requires a lot of sign-up info) offers us a chance to evaluate that claim in the context of the financial crisis.

SNL reports that the six largest bank holding companies have paid over $132 billion to settle credit crisis and mortgage-related lawsuits brought by governments, investors and other financial institutions.

In the context of the litigation over the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships, I had considered whether it is efficient to respond to financial crises by allowing the government to do what it needs to do during the crisis and then “use litigation to make an accounting to all of the stakeholders once the situation has stabilized.” (121)

Given that the biggest bank settlements are now in the rear view window, we can now say that the accounting for the financial crisis comes in at around $132 billion give or take. Does that number do justice for the wrongs of the boom times?  I don’t think I have my own answer to that question yet, but it is certainly worth considering.

On the one hand, we should acknowledge that it is a humongous number, a number so big that that no one would have considered it a likely one at the beginning of the financial crisis. This crisis made nine and ten digit settlement numbers a routine event.

On the other hand, wrongdoing (along with good old-fashioned boom mentality) during the financial crisis almost sent the global economy into a depression.  It also wreaked havoc on so many individuals, directly and indirectly.

I look forward to seeing metrics that can make sense of this (ratio of settlement amounts to annual profits of Wall Street firms; ratio to bonus pools; ratio to home equity lost), but I will say that I am struck by the lack of individual accountability that has come out of all of this litigation.

Individuals who made six, seven and eight figure paychecks from this wrongdoing were able to move on relatively unscathed.  We should think about how to avoid that result the next time around. Otherwise the arc of justice will bend in the wrong direction.


Bransten Trio: Part Tres

The last of the Bransten Trio of cases (previously, I wrote of Part Un and Part Deux) dealing with Allstate’s complaint against Morgan Stanley has some of the allegedly misrepresentative language at issues in such cases.  A sampling includes

  • “These mortgage loans may be considered to be of a riskier nature than mortgage loans made by traditional sources of financing . . ..  The underwriting standards used in the origination of [these loans] are generally less stringent than those of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac with respect to a borrower’s credit history and in certain other respects . . . . As a result of this less stringent approach to underwriting, the mortgage loans purchased by the trust may experience higher rates of delinquencies, defaults and foreclosures . . ..” (24)
  • “It is expected that a substantial portion of the mortgage loans will represent”  a DTI ratio exception, a pricing exception, a LTV ratio exception or “an exception from certain requirements of a particular risk category.” (25)
  • The court noted that the Morgan Stanley defendants indicated that in connection with various MBS certificates they issued, “‘a significant number,’ ‘a substantial portion,’ or a ‘substantial number’ of the loans represented underwriting exceptions.” (25)

Justice Bransten found, as she did in the other two cases referenced above, that such warnings are “ineffective.” (26) She further notes that the defendants’ “statements are misleading to the extent that they imply that defendants would act in accordance with, rather that [sic] completely disregard, the results of their findings” from their reviews of the loans securing the MBS certificates at issue in the case. (29)


A Bransten Trio Join Judicial Chorus on Misrepresentation

Justice Bransten, a judge in the Commercial Division of the N.Y. S. Supreme (trial) Court, issued three similar decisions last week denying motions to dismiss lawsuits by Allstate over its purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars of MBS. The net result is that various Deutsche Bank, BoA’s Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley entities must continue to face allegations of fraud relating to those purchases.

In the Deutsche Bank case, the court rejected “the notion that defendants are immunized from liability because the Offering Materials generally disclosed that the representations were based on information provided by the originators.”  (22)

The court also found that “defendants can be held liable for promoting the securities based upon the high ratings from the credit rating agencies, if, as alleged, thy knew the ratings were based on false information provided to the agencies.” (22)  Finally, the court found that “Defendants’ occasional disclaimers cannot be invoked to excuse the wholesale abandonment of underwriting standards and practices.”  (24-25)

Justice Bransten joins a growing chorus of judges who reject the notion that vague disclosures can protect parties who engage in rampant misrepresentation.  One wonders how this body of law will impact the behavior of Wall Street firms during the next boom.