New York’s powerful anti-fraud weapon known as the Martin Act was crimped by the state’s highest court, which scaled back what was an $11 billion lawsuit against Credit Suisse Group AG over mortgage-securities practices in the run-up to the financial crisis.
The New York Court of Appeals found that many of the claims were too old, trimming the statute-of-limitations of the law to three years from six years. The Martin Act has been used by the state’s attorney general to police the securities markets since the 1920s, so the ruling may limit the prosecution of fraud in stock and bond sales and some other financial transactions.
“Anything that reduces a statute of limitations will have a big impact on enforcement,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, noting that it can take many years to develop complex financial cases. “This case reflects a significant curtailment of the New York attorney general’s ability to go after alleged financial wrongdoing.”
Prior to the legal battle against Credit Suisse, the Martin Act, one of the country’s oldest and toughest anti-fraud tools, faced relatively few tests in court. The law can be used by the state attorney general to file both civil suits and criminal charges, and requires a lower standard of proof for civil cases than other anti-fraud statutes. It can also be used to launch investigations, which can help extract settlements.
Through the specter of the Martin Act, New York state has been able to collect billions of dollars in fines from investment banks, insurance companies and mutual funds over a wide variety of alleged fraud. It has also been used to charge individuals, including executives at Tyco International Ltd., accused of looting the company, and former officials at the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Barbara Underwood, said she pursues cases quickly and will continue to do so.
“This decision will have no impact on our efforts to vigorously pursue financial fraud wherever it exists in New York,” Spitalnick said. “That includes continuing our case against Credit Suisse.”
In recent years, the Martin Act has been used against Barclays Plc and other banks to pursue claims they misled customers about the role of high-frequency traders in dark pools, to win a settlement from the Bank of New York Mellon Corp. over foreign-currency trading, and to start an investigation into Exxon Mobil Corp. about whether it misled investors about the impact of climate change.
The case against Zurich-based Credit Suisse came as the office started probes into allegations of wrongdoing related to the financial crisis. The lawsuit, filed by former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in November 2012, claimed the bank ignored warning signs about the quality of loans it was packaging and selling in 2006 and 2007.
Coroners Inquests in Gloucestershire from The Gloucester Journal 1814
Juan Ospina and Harald Uhlig have posted Mortgage-Backed Securities and the Financial Crisis of 2008: A Post-Mortem to SSRN. Given that the market for private-label MBS pretty much died by 2008, the title is apt. The paper presents a challenge to many of the standard narratives that have developed to explain the causes of the subprime crisis and the broader financial crisis that followed. Other researchers in this area will surely take up the gauntlet thrown down by this paper. Hopefully, we will collectively come up with the right narrative to explain the whole mess. The paper opens,
Gradually, the deep financial crisis of 2008 is in the rearview mirror. With that, standard narratives have emerged, which will inform and influence policy choices and public perception in the future for a long time to come. For that reason, it is all the more important to examine these narratives with the distance of time and available data, as many of these narratives were created in the heat of the moment.
One such standard narrative has it that the financial meltdown of 2008 was caused by an overextension of mortgages to weak borrowers, repackaged and then sold to willing lenders drawn in by faulty risk ratings for these mortgage back securities. To many, mortgage backed securities and rating agencies became the key villains of that financial crisis. In particular, rating agencies were blamed for assigning the coveted AAA rating to many securities, which did not deserve it, particularly in the subprime segment of the market, and that these ratings then lead to substantial losses for institutional investors, who needed to invest in safe assets and who mistakenly put their trust in these misguided ratings.
In this paper, we re-examine this narrative. We seek to address two questions in particular. First, were these mortgage backed securities bad investments? Second, were the ratings wrong? We answer these questions, using a new and detailed data set on the universe of non-agency residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS), obtained by devoting considerable work to carefully assembling data from Bloomberg and other sources. This data set allows us to examine the actual repayment stream and losses on principal on these securities up to 2014, and thus with a considerable distance since the crisis events. In essence, we provide a post-mortem on a market that many believe to have died in 2008. We find that the conventional narrative needs substantial rewriting: the ratings and the losses were not nearly as bad as this narrative would lead one to believe.
Specifically, we calculate the ex-post realized losses as well as ex-post realized return on investing on par in these mortgage backed securities, under various assumptions of the losses for the remaining life time of the securities. We compare these realized returns to their ratings in 2008 and their promised loss distributions, according to tables available from the rating agencies. We shall investigate, whether ratings were a sufficient statistic (to the degree that a discretized rating can be) or whether they were, essentially, just “noise”, given information already available to market participants at the time of investing such as ratings of borrowers.
We establish seven facts. First, the bulk of these securities was rated AAA. Second, AAA securities did ok: on average, their total cumulated losses up to 2013 are 2.3 percent. Third, the subprime AAA-rated segment did particularly well. Fourth, later vintages did worse than earlier vintages, except for subprime AAA securities. Fifth, the bulk of the losses were concentrated on a small share of all securities. Sixth, the misrating for AAA securities was modest. Seventh, controlling for a home price bust, a home price boom was good for the repayment on these securities. (1-2)
Community groups and banks agree that the Community Reinvestment Act needs an update, but with regulators beginning an ambitious overhaul of the 1977 law there is little agreement on how that update should look.
The Trump administration has been targeting the CRA — which measures how well banks lend to low- to middle-income areas — for a rewrite since last June. Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting said March 28 that the first draft would be coming in early April.
Otting set out some broad ideas that his agency, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the other regulators that oversee the CRA will present to the public. The Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation also have responsibility for measuring banks’ compliance with the law, and the OCC says that it hopes the two agencies will sign on to the coming advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.
Banking industry experts and community groups all said that the broad strokes of the regulators’ plan sound promising, but few expect that comity to continue when the details come more into view.
“I think you can assume that everybody is not going to be happy,” Laurence Platt, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP, told Bloomberg Law.
The CRA’s Present
The Trump administration first put the CRA in its sights in a June 2017 Treasury Department report outlining its broader views on altering the rules banks operate under.
The law calls for the OCC, the Fed and the FDIC to periodically measure how much lending the banks they oversee do inside geographical assessment areas based on their branch and ATM locations. If banks are found not to do enough of such lending, regulators can stop some business activities or hold up branch expansions and mergers. But it hasn’t been updated for nearly two decades.
The Treasury Department followed up the June 2017 statement on the CRA with an April 3 report outlining its thinking on ways to modernize the law. The report largely aligns with the path laid out by Otting.
“Our recommendations will improve the effectiveness of CRA by enhancing the assessment and examination process, enhancing the ability of banks to deliver services in the communities they serve while considering technological advances in the financial industry,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement accompanying the report.
Changes to the Community Reinvestment Act have already begun, with the OCC under former acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika in October declaring that the OCC examiners would no longer include enforcement actions that are not linked to a bank’s CRA compliance in their rating.
That change was minor, and affected only one of the three regulators responsible for the CRA. Otting on March 28 laid out a host of other changes likely coming in a new proposal.
The CRA’s Future?
The broad outline Otting provided on March 28 largely highlights the areas in the CRA that community activists and banks have said need to be addressed.
Among the changes Otting said will be put out for comment include expanding the types of lending that would be included in calculations of banks’ CRA compliance to encompass small business, student lending and other money going into a community.
“I think there’s a sense that community-based activities, beyond individual lending, should be given more credit, such as small business loans and infrastructure loans,” Mayer Brown’s Platt said.
Other areas that are going to be addressed in the proposal will touch on the way CRA information is calculated and reported to the public. Currently, banks are examined for compliance every three to five years, and the banks’ reviews take an additional year.
Overall, Otting said the changes would be significant.
“This is monumental change for America,” Otting said in an appearance March 28 at the Operation Hope Global Forum in Atlanta.
The changes Otting discussed all sound promising, but they are vague. So fights are likely to emerge when the details come out.
“The comments that were made were vague enough to give you both concern and possible joy,” Taylor said.
One other aspect of the CRA that is ripe for reform is the geographic assessment areas regulators use to evaluate banks’ lending efforts. Otting and other regulators have yet to specifically outline their ideas for making changes to that, but both the comptroller and Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles have discussed including mobile banking, online lending, and other financial technology tools into their reviews.
How they elect to make that change is likely to be contentious as well.
“If the assessment area is poorly defined, then the CRA will lose its teeth and that’s going to drive CRA policy for a long time to come,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.
Jared Kushner relinquished control of his family’s multibillion-dollar real-estate business in January to eliminate conflicts of interest when he became a top White House adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.
Yet Kushner Cos. has apartment buildings from New Jersey to Maryland with more than $500 million in government-backed mortgages financed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That could put officials at those agencies in an awkward spot: If Kushner Cos. applies for a new loan, or wants to refinance, would Freddie turn them down? If Kushner Cos. fails to comply with the terms of a loan, will Fannie seek to foreclose on a property owned by the president’s in-laws?
“It clearly represents a conflict-of-interest because the government or the president can take actions that would benefit his family,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who has written about issues related to Fannie and Freddie.
Hope Hicks, a White House spokeswoman, said Kushner would comply with applicable ethics rules and would recuse himself from any discussions about overhauling Fannie and Freddie, which lawmakers have sought to do in recent years. Jamie Gorelick, an attorney who has represented Jared Kushner, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kushner Cos. says Jared’s White House position won’t have any effect on the family business. “The election has not changed Kushner Companies’ relationship with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” said Kushner Cos. spokesman James Yolles. “And we will respond to policy changes like any other private company in the marketplace.”
The federal government took over Fannie and Freddie in 2008, amid the financial crisis, putting them under the control of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, an independent regulator.
Expect a pullback in fair lending enforcement in 2017, and especially less focus on disparate impact discrimination as the Trump administration takes office.
That’s the assessment of banking attorneys and others weighing the role of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Justice Department in the uncertain year ahead.
Although a recent court ruling raises questions about CFPB Director Richard Cordray’s tenure, several said they expect the CFPB to be less assertive no matter who heads the agency.
Meanwhile, new leadership at the Justice Department and HUD means that disparate impact claims—allegations of discriminatory effect, without regard to subjective intent—will get less attention than in recent years.
David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y., summed up the assessment of several interviewed by Bloomberg BNA on the picture ahead for 2017.
“I would guess that disparate impact won’t be a priority for the Trump administration,” Reiss said.
New Leadership Ahead
In November, Trump said he’ll nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general. The president-elect also Dec. 5 named Ben Carson, the former director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, as his candidate to lead HUD.
Alan S. Kaplinsky, a partner in Philadelphia who leads the consumer financial services practice at Ballard Spahr, said he doesn’t expect Sessions “to be a strong advocate for pushing the legal envelope on fair lending issues.”
And Carson might not use what some have called an “enforcement by litigation” approach to housing policy, according to Joseph Pigg, the American Bankers Association’s senior vice president for mortgage finance.
“Returning to a more normal enforcement regime should be a positive for borrowers and lenders alike,” Pigg told Bloomberg BNA. HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan declined to comment on the fair-lending outlook at HUD.
A Well-Known Unknown
Carson, a well-known physician and education reform advocate, took on an even higher profile by entering the 2016 White House race. But on lending, housing and other matters likely to come before him should he take the helm at HUD, Carson’s record is sparse.
One exception is a July 23, 2015, opinion piece in the Washington Times, where Carson criticized HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. Although HUD has a distinct regulation that governs disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act, the AFFH rule has a different focus. The regulation, drawn from language in the Fair Housing Act itself, lays out a new process that HUD says “promotes housing choice and fosters inclusive communities free from housing discrimination.”
Carson criticized the AFFH rule, saying it would inject too much government decision-making into local housing policy. The rule, issued in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a major 2015 case on disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act, might actually frustrate efforts to develop new housing, he said.
Reiss predicted that Carson will either try to get rid of the AFFH rule, or decide not to enforce it. But he also said Carson’s stance on the regulation probably is somewhat nuanced.
“He’s acknowledged the history of redlining, restrictive covenants, and other problems,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “He doesn’t seem to be denying a history of structural racism in the housing market. He seems to be saying the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule goes too far.”
On a chilly December afternoon in Atlanta, a judge told Reiton Allen that he had seven days to leave his house or the marshals would kick his belongings to the curb. In the packed courtroom, the truck driver, his beard flecked with gray, stood up, cast his eyes downward and clutched his black baseball cap.
The 44-year-old father of two had rented a single-family house from a company called HavenBrook Homes, which is controlled by one of the world’s biggest money managers, Pacific Investment Management Co. Here in Fulton County, Georgia, such large institutional investors are up to twice as likely to file eviction notices as smaller owners, according to a new Atlanta Federal Reserve study.
“I’ve never been displaced like this,” said Allen, who said he fell behind because of unexpected childcare expenses as his rent rose above $900 a month. “I need to go home and regroup.”
Hedge funds, large investment firms and private equity companies helped the U.S. housing market recover after the crash in 2008 by turning empty foreclosures from Atlanta to Las Vegas into occupied rentals.
Now among America’s biggest landlords, some of these companies are leaving tenants like Allen in the cold. In a business long dominated by mom-and-pop landlords, large-scale investors are shifting collections conversations from front stoops to call centers and courtrooms as they try to maximize profits.
“My hope was that these private equity firms would provide a new kind of rental housing for people who couldn’t — or didn’t want to — buy during the housing recovery,” said Elora Raymond, the report’s lead author. “Instead, it seems like they’re contributing to housing instability in Atlanta, and possibly other places.”
American Homes 4 Rent, one of the nation’s largest operators, and HavenBrook filed eviction notices at a quarter of its houses, compared with an average 15 percent for all single-family home landlords, according to Ben Miller, a Georgia State University professor and co-author of the report. HavenBrook — owned by Allianz SE’s Newport Beach, California-based Pimco — and American Homes 4 Rent, based in Agoura Hills, California, declined to comment.
Colony Starwood Homes initiated proceedings on a third of its properties, the most of any large real estate firm. Tom Barrack, chairman of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, and the company he founded, Colony Capital, are the largest shareholders of Colony Starwood, which declined to comment.
Diane Tomb, executive director of the National Rental Home Council, which represents institutional landlords, said her members offer flexible payment plans to residents who fall behind. The cost of eviction makes it “the last option,” Tomb said. The Fed examined notices, rather than completed evictions, which are rarer, she said.
“We’re in the business to house families — and no one wants to see people displaced,” Tomb said.
According to a report last year from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, a record 21.3 million renters spent more than a third of their income on housing costs in 2014, while 11.4 million spent more than half. With credit tightening, the homeownership rate has fallen close to a 51-year low.
In January 2012, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke encouraged investors to use their cash to stabilize the housing market and rehabilitate the vacant single-family houses that damage neighborhoods and property values.
Now, the Atlanta Fed’s own research suggests that the eviction practices of big landlords may also be destabilizing. An eviction notice can ruin a family’s credit and make it more difficult to rent elsewhere or qualify for public assistance.
In Atlanta, evictions are much easier on landlords. They are cheap: about $85 in court fees and another $20 to have the tenant ejected, according to Michael Lucas, a co-author of the report and deputy director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. With few of the tenant protections of places like New York, a family can find itself homeless in less than a month.
In interviews and court filings, renters and housing advocates said that some investment firms are impersonal and unresponsive, slow to make necessary repairs and quick to evict tenants who withhold rent because of complaints about maintenance. The researchers said some landlords use an eviction notice as a “routine rent-collection strategy.”
Aaron Kuney, HavenBrook’s former executive director of acquisitions, said the companies would rather keep their existing tenants as long as possible to avoid turnover costs.
But “they want to get them out quickly if they can’t pay,” said Kuney, now chief executive officer of Piedmont Asset Management, a private equity landlord in Atlanta. “Finding people these days to rent your homes is not a problem.”
The Atlanta Fed research, based on 2015 court records, marks an early look at Wall Street’s role in evictions since investment firms snapped up hundreds of thousands of homes in hard-hit markets across the U.S.
Researchers found that evictions for all kinds of landlords are concentrated in poor, mostly black neighborhoods southwest of the city. But the study found that the big investors evicted at higher rates even after accounting for the demographics of the community where homes were situated.
Tomb, of the National Rental Home Council, said institutional investors at times buy large blocks of homes from other landlords and inherit tenants who can’t afford to pay rent. They also buy foreclosed homes whose occupants may refuse to sign leases or leave.
Those cases make the eviction rates appear higher than for smaller landlords, according to Tomb, whose group represents Colony Starwood, American Homes 4 Rent and Invitation Homes. The largest firms send notices at rates similar to apartment buildings, which house the majority of Atlanta renters.
Not all investment firms file evictions at higher rates. Invitation Homes, a unit of private equity giant Blackstone Group LP that is planning an initial public offering this year, sent notices on 14 percent of homes, about the same as smaller landlords, records show. In Fulton County, Invitation Homes works with residents to resolve 85 percent of cases, and less than 4 percent result in forced departures, according to spokeswoman Claire Parker.
The Fed research doesn’t say why many institutional investors evict at higher rates. It could be because their size enables them to negotiate less expensive legal rates and replace renters more quickly than mom-and-pop operators.
“Lots of small landlords, when they have good tenants who don’t cause trouble, they’ll work with someone who has lost a job or can’t pay for the short term,” said David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in residential real estate.
Bank of America must face claims that it and another company violated federal anti-racketeering laws by denying loan modifications to eligible borrowers, a federal appeals court said Aug. 15 ( George v. Urban Settlement Svcs., 10th Cir., No. 14-cv-01427, 8/15/16 ).
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reinstates purported class claims by Richard George and other borrowers that Bank of America and Urban Settlement Services (“Urban”), a settlement company, feigned compliance with guidelines under the Home Affordable Modification program (HAMP) while modifying as few loans as possible.
A district court dismissed the claims, saying the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege the existence of an association-in-fact enterprise under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), but the Tenth Circuit reversed, saying they made a “facially plausible” claim.
The ruling sends the case back to the district court to consider that and other allegations.
Case Moves Forward
The decision is the latest in connection with HAMP, a 2009 Treasury Department effort aimed at stabilizing the housing market that was closely related to disbursement of government funds to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Bank of America received $45 billion in TARP funds.
The plaintiffs are represented by Steve Berman, Ari Y. Brown, Kevin K. Green, and Tyler S. Weaver in the Seattle and San Diego offices of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro.
“We are more than pleased the court has ruled our complaint has sufficiently alleged that Bank of America’s massive HAMP mortgage-modification program was in fact a RICO enterprise,” Berman, the firm’s managing partner, said in an Aug. 15 statement. “For years, we have tirelessly fought this major Wall Street kingpin to right the wrongs it committed against hundreds of thousands of homeowners and taxpayers who footed the $45 billion government bailout BoA took in, only to have it used to propagate a scheme to squeeze every dollar from BoA customers and wrongfully foreclose thousands of homes in the process.”
Bank of America spokesman Rick Simon said the bank denies the claims, which he said paint a false picture of the bank’s practices and its employees.
“In fact, Bank of America has been an industry leader in HAMP and other beneficial mortgage modifications,” Simon told Bloomberg BNA in an Aug. 15 e-mail. “We are reviewing the Circuit court’s decision and considering our options.”
The lawsuit, which involved loans originally held by Countrywide Home Loans, said Bank of America and Urban were part of a fraudulent scheme to keep borrowers from acquiring permanent HAMP loan modifications, allegedly because defaulted loans were more profitable.
They said Urban functioned as a “black hole” for HAMP-related documents submitted by borrowers, ensuring that trial modifications would not be made permanent.
Tenth Circuit Reverses
In its September 2014 ruling, the district court said the plaintiffs failed to allege, as required by RICO, that Bank of America was distinct from the alleged racketeering enterprise.
The Tenth Circuit reversed in a decision by Judge Nancy Moritz, who wrote for a three-judge panel. The plaintiffs, she said, “don’t contend that either a parent corporation or its subsidiary corporation is the enterprise. Rather, they assert that BOA and Urban—two separate legal entities— joined together, along with several other entities, to form and conduct the affairs of the BOA-Urban association-in-fact enterprise.”
According to the plaintiffs, she said, Bank of America and Urban “performed distinct roles within the enterprise while acting in concert with other entities to further the enterprise’s common goal of wrongfully denying HAMP applications.”
That is enough to “plausibly allege” that Bank of America meets the “enterprise” requirement, she said.
Crisis Cases Continue
Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss said the decision shows that financial crisis-era litigation is not over. “This case is an example of litigation that arises from the supposed fixes for the crisis—fixes that were often implemented poorly, as can be seen from a variety of cases and regulatory actions,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA in an Aug. 15 e-mail.
The lawsuit alleged in part that documents submitted by borrowers were intentionally “scattered” across various computer databases and systems, allegedly with the goal of creating the appearance that borrowers had not completed the paperwork required to convert their trial plans into permanent modifications.
Reiss called it significant that the court accepted, for purposes of a motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs’ theory that the alleged “black hole” treatment of documents could rise to the level of a RICO violation.
“While courts have held against defendants in individual cases with similar facts, the possibility that they could hold against lenders and servicers in a class action raises the stakes quite a bit for defendants,” Reiss said.