GSE Shareholders Floored, Again

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in Saxton v. FHFA (No. 17-1727, Aug. 23, 2018). The Eighth Circuit joins the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and D.C. Circuits in rejecting the arguments of Fannie and Freddie shareholders that the Federal Housing Finance Agency exceeded its authority as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The Court provides the following overview:

     The financial crisis of 2008 prompted Congress to take several actions to fend off economic disaster. One of those measures propped up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, which were founded by Congress back in 1938 and 1970, buy home mortgages from lenders, thereby freeing lenders to make more loans. See generally 12 U.S.C. § 4501. Although established by Congress, Fannie and Freddie operate like private companies: they have shareholders, boards of directors, and executives appointed by those boards. But Fannie and Freddie also have something most private businesses do not: the backing of the United States Treasury. 

     In 2008, with the mortgage meltdown at full tilt, Congress enacted the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA or the Act). HERA created the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and gave it the power to appoint itself either conservator or receiver of Fannie or Freddie should either company become critically undercapitalized. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(a)(2), (4). The Act includes a provision limiting judicial review: “Except as  provided in this section or at the request of the Director, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the [FHFA] as a conservator or a receiver.” Id. § 4617(f). 

     Shortly after the Act’s passage, FHFA determined that both Fannie and Freddie were critically undercapitalized and appointed itself conservator. FHFA then entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury whereby Treasury would acquire specially-created preferred stock and, in exchange, would make hundreds of billions of dollars in capital available to Fannie and Freddie. The idea was that Fannie and Freddie would exit conservatorship when they reimbursed the Treasury.

     But Fannie and Freddie remain under FHFA’s conservatorship today. Since the conservatorship began, FHFA and Treasury have amended their agreement several times. In the most recent amendment, FHFA agreed that, each quarter, Fannie and Freddie would pay to Treasury their entire net worth, minus a small buffer. This so-called “net worth sweep” is the basis of this litigation. 

     Three owners of Fannie and Freddie common stock sued FHFA and Treasury, claiming they had exceeded their powers under HERA and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by agreeing to the net worth sweep. The shareholders sought only an injunction setting aside the net worth sweep; they dismissed a claim seeking money damages. Relying on the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Perry Capital LLC v. Mnuchin, 864 F.3d 591 (D.C. Cir. 2017), the district court dismissed the suit.

What amazes me as a longtime watcher of the GSE litigation is how supposedly dispassionate investors lose their heads when it comes to the GSE lawsuits. They cannot seem to fathom that judges will come to a different conclusion regarding HERA’s limitation on judicial review.

While I do not rule out that the Supreme Court could find otherwise, particularly if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, it seems like this unbroken string of losses should provide some sort of wake up call for GSE shareholders. But somehow, I doubt that it will.

Trump Wins Another Round in CFPB Fight

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney

Judge Gardephe (SDNY) ruled against the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union in their suit against President Trump and Mick Mulvaney over the control of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Case 1:17-cv-09536-PGG, filed February 1, 2018) Trump has sought to install Mulvaney, his OMB Director, as the Acting Director of the CFPB. I submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Credit Union along with a number of other academics who write about the consumer financial services sector but the judge did not reach the merits of the case. Rather, the judge found that the Credit Union did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. Standing, for you non-lawyers out there, refers to a showing by the plaintiff that it has enough of a connection to, as well as harm from, an action that the plaintiff is challenging to be the basis for the lawsuit.

The dispute over the leadership of the CFPB is still ongoing as Leandra English, the Deputy Director appointed by former Director Cordray, is still pressing the suit that she filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia. In that suit, English claims that she is the rightful Acting Director of the CFPB. While she lost in the District Court, she has filed an appeal to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That case turns on the complex interaction between the Dodd-Frank Act and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, so it is hard to predict what the Court of Appeals will end up doing in that case.

In the short term, it means that the CFPB is somewhat rudderless as two people claim to lead the agency. This condition will likely prevail until President Trump gets a permanent Director confirmed by the Senate.

Fannie and Freddie Visit the Supreme Court

Justice Gorsuch

Fannie and Fredddie investors have filed their petition for a writ of certiorari in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin. The question presented is

Whether 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f), which prohibits courts from issuing injunctions that “restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of” the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) “as a conservator,” bars judicial review of an action by FHFA and the Department of Treasury to seize for Treasury the net worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in perpetuity. (i)

What I find interesting about the brief is that relies so heavily on the narrative contained in Judge Brown’s dissent in the Court of Appeals decision. As I had noted previously, I do not find that narrative compelling, but I believe that some members of the court would, particularly Justice Gorsuch. The petition’s statement reads in part,

In August 2012—nearly four years after the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac1 in conservatorship during the 2008 financial crisis—FHFA, acting as conservator to the Companies, agreed to surrender each Company’s net worth to the Treasury Department every quarter. This arrangement, referred to as the “Net Worth Sweep,” replaced a fixed-rate dividend to Treasury that was tied to Treasury’s purchase of senior preferred stock in the Companies during the financial crisis. FHFA and Treasury have provided justifications for the Net Worth Sweep that, as the Petition filed by Fairholme Funds, Inc. demonstrates, were pretextual. The Net Worth Sweep has enabled a massive confiscation by the government, allowing Treasury thus far to seize $130 billion more than it was entitled to receive under the pre-2012 financial arrangement—a fact that neither Treasury nor FHFA denies. As was intended, these massive capital outflows have brought the Companies to the edge of insolvency, and all but guaranteed that they will never exit FHFA’s conservatorship.

Petitioners here, investors that own preferred stock in the Companies, challenged the Net Worth Sweep as exceeding both FHFA’s and Treasury’s respective statutory powers. But the court of appeals held that the Net Worth Sweep was within FHFA’s statutory authority, and that keeping Treasury within the boundaries of its statutory mandate would impermissibly intrude on FHFA’s authority as conservator.

The decision of the court of appeals adopts an erroneous view of conservatorship unknown to our legal system. Conservators operate as fiduciaries to care for the interests of the entities or individuals under their supervision. Yet in the decision below, the D.C. Circuit held that FHFA acts within its conservatorship authority so long as it is not actually liquidating the Companies. In dissent, Judge Brown aptly described that holding as “dangerously far-reaching,” Pet.App. 88a, empowering a conservator even “to loot the Companies,” Pet.App. 104a.

The D.C. Circuit’s test for policing the bounds of FHFA’s statutory authority as conservator—if one can call it a test at all—breaks sharply from those of the Eleventh and Ninth Circuits, which have held that FHFA cannot evade judicial review merely by disguising its actions in the cloak of a conservator. And it likewise patently violates centuries of common-law understandings of the meaning of a conservatorship, including views held by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), whose conservatorship authority under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”), served as the template for FHFA’s own conservatorship authority. Judge Brown correctly noted that the decision below thus “establish[es] a dangerous precedent” for FDIC-regulated financial institutions with trillions of dollars in assets. Pet.App. 109a. If the decision below is correct, then the FDIC as conservator could seize depositor funds from one bank and give them away—to another institution as equity, or to Treasury, or even to itself—as long as it is not actually liquidating the bank. The notion that the law permits a regulator appointed as conservator to act in a way so manifestly contrary to the interests of its conservatee is deeply destabilizing to our financial regulatory system. (1-2)

We shall see if this narrative of government overreach finds a sympathetic ear at the Court.

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

Gorsuch and the CFPB

photo provided byUnited States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Judge Gorsuch

Bankrate.com quoted me in Supreme Court Pick Could Spell Trouble for the CFPB. It opens,

President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court pick has been identified as the “most natural successor” to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he would replace.

Neil Gorsuch, 49, a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, is said to share many of Scalia’s beliefs and his judicial philosophy. That could tip the high court back toward the 5-4 conservative split it held during controversial cases prior to Scalia’s death, although Justice Anthony Kennedy will remain a liberal swing vote on certain social issues before the court.

Gorsuch’s big judicial decisions have favored religious freedom over government regulation and state’s rights over the power of the federal government.

But how might that impact consumers or their wallets directly?

“I think with a judge like Gorsuch, you can see there probably will be a tendency in that direction to dissuade innovation,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and the academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

That could mean the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose unique management structure a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last fall called unconstitutional, could face an obstacle on the bench should the legal fight over its construction ever reach the Supreme Court.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion for the D.C. circuit panel, said because this independent agency is headed by a director whom the president cannot fire at will – and not, say, a set of commissioners like other agencies within the government – it is a threat to individual liberty.

“In short, when measured in terms of unilateral power, the director of the CFPB is the single most powerful official in the entire U.S. government, other than the president,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In essence, the director is the president of consumer finance.”

How Gorsuch May Rule

Supporters of the bureau are trying to get a hearing before the full U.S. Court of Appeals, but the issue could well wind up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court – that is if Congress doesn’t take action first.

Legal scholars say should Gorsuch win Senate confirmation he is unlikely to look favorably on the bureau’s structure.

Indeed, Gorsuch is likely to “echo the views of Judge Kavanaugh,” Melissa Malpass, senior legal editor for consumer regulatory finance at Thompson Reuters Practical Law, said in an email.

“Judge Gorsuch, through recent decisions, has expressed his disfavor with permitting government agencies to not only determine what the law is, but also to interpret and re-interpret the law as they see fit, often based on the political climate,” Malpass says.

If the Supreme Court were to uphold the Kavanaugh ruling, it “may, in effect, destroy the CFPB as we know it, and that will have an effect on consumers,” Reiss says.

Not everyone, though, thinks restructuring the CFPB as a commission-led agency like the Federal Communications Commission, for example, would be bad for consumers.

Gorsuch’s Path to the High Court

Democrats, still stung over the Senate’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland, then-President Barack Obama’s pick to succeed Scalia, could try to block Gorsuch’s nomination. Under current Senate rules, at least eight Democrats will need to cross the aisle to prevent a filibuster of the appointment.

Gorsuch, who was confirmed for his current post in 2006 by Senate voice vote, has won widespread acclaim in Republican circles. He also received a vote of confidence from a former Obama administration official.

“I think the Democrats are going to ask questions to determine if the nominee is outside what they call the political mainstream,” Reiss says. “We know this battle will be a brutal one, almost definitely because of the treatment of Merrick Garland’s nomination under the Obama administration.”

Business as Usual with the CFPB

photo by Lars Plougmann

Law360 quoted me in CFPB Remains Strong Despite DC Circ. Single-Director Ruling (behind paywall). It reads, in part,

A blockbuster D.C. Circuit ruling Tuesday declaring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s single-director leadership structure unconstitutional is unlikely to have a major effect on the bureau’s day-to-day operations and may make it easier for the agency to fend off critics who claim it lacks accountability, experts say.

The 110-page ruling from a split three-judge panel not only decried the leadership structure that Congress gave the CFPB in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, but made a change that allows the president to dismiss the bureau’s director at will, in a case that saw a $109 million judgment against PHH Corp. overturned. That move should provide the CFPB with more direct oversight, the D.C. Circuit said.

The change also does not touch the CFPB director’s power to issue rules and enforcement actions and oversee appeals of any administrative actions that the bureau brings. And because of that, the CFPB will not have to change much of what it does despite the harsh words in the opinion, said Frank Hirsch, the head of Alston & Bird’s financial services litigation team.

“I don’t think that the D.C. Circuit opinion was intended to create fundamental differences. I think the fact that the director can be dismissed at will now is the only substantive change,” he said.

Tuesday’s hotly anticipated ruling laid out in stark language many of the concerns that Republicans in Congress, the consumer financial services industry and other critics have long stated about the CFPB’s structure.

PHH was appealing the bureau’s $109 million disgorgement order over allegations the company referred consumers to mortgage insurers in exchange for reinsurance orders with its subsidiaries and reinsurance fees. The conduct, according to the CFPB, violated the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.

Included in PHH’s appeal was a constitutional challenge to the CFPB’s structure.

The opinion, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, laid out the potential dangers of giving one person the amount of authority that is vested in the CFPB director.

Judge Kavanaugh said that the bureau as constructed, with a single director that can only be fired for cause rather than the traditional multimember commission setup at independent regulatory agencies, vested too much power in one person to make decisions about new regulations, enforcement actions and appeals of those enforcement actions in administrative proceedings.

In its way, the CFPB director has authority rivaled only by the president, the decision said.

“Indeed, within his jurisdiction, the director of the CFPB can be considered even more powerful than the president. It is the director’s view of consumer protection law that prevails over all others. In essence, the director is the President of Consumer Finance,” Judge Kavanaugh wrote.

The judge also described at length why commissions were better for independent regulatory agencies than a single director, even though a single director can move more quickly on enforcement actions and rulemakings. Having a commission means that a director or chair will be constrained in their actions, potentially preventing abuses, the opinion said.

“Indeed, so as to avoid falling back into the kind of tyranny that they had declared independence from, the Framers often made trade-offs against efficiency in the interest of enhancing liberty,” Judge Kavanaugh wrote.

Those words were welcomed by the CFPB’s many critics.

“This is a good day for democracy, economic freedom, due process and the Constitution. The second-highest court in the land has vindicated what House Republicans have said all along, that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said in a statement.

Hensarling and other Republicans in Congress have long pushed to put a commission atop the CFPB, and legislation Hensarling has introduced to replace Dodd-Frank includes that change.

Backers of the CFPB have long rejected the argument that the bureau is unaccountable, noting that it is subject to notice and comment for rulemaking, its rules are subject to judicial and other reviews, and the director makes regular appearances before Congress.

But instead of installing a commission or eliminating the CFPB altogether because of the constitutional issue, as had been requested by PHH and other, largely conservative activist groups who filed amici briefs, Judge Kavanaugh simply severed the portion of Dodd-Frank that said the bureau’s director could be fired only for cause.

The result is that now the CFPB director is subject to the same employment standard as a cabinet secretary, and can be fired at the president’s whim.

“The president is a check on and accountable for the actions of those executive agencies, and the president now will be a check on and accountable for the actions of the CFPB as well,” Judge Kavanaugh said, adding that all of the CFPB’s previous decisions taken by its current director, Richard Cordray, remained in place.

*     *     *

But even with that uncertainty hanging over the bureau, it is unlikely that the ruling will have much of an effect on the way the CFPB currently operates.

“The industry and consumer advocates can expect to see much of the same,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

The Fate of the CFPB

photo by Lawrence Jackson

President Obama Nominating Richard Cordray to Lead Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with Elizabeth Warren

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a decision in PHH Corporation v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, No. 15-1177 (October 11, 2016), that found an important aspect of the structure of the CFPB to be unconstitutional:  the insulation of the Director from Presidential supervision. While this decision will almost certainly be appealed, even if it is upheld, it will allow the the CFPB to continue functioning much as it has.

I was interviewed about the decision on NPR’s All Things Considered in a segment titled, Appeals Court Orders Restructuring Of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (audio available). The transcript reads,

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A federal appeals court has mandated big changes to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The three-judge panel says the consumer watchdog agency is set up in a way that’s unconstitutional. In its ruling, the court says the agency will have to restructure. NPR’s Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The suit was brought by a mortgage lender called PHH, which asked the court to invalidate a $109 million enforcement action against it and scrap the agency, too. The D.C. Court of Appeals sent the fine back to the bureau for review.

But it also ruled that the CFPB’s director has too much power to write and enforce rules without enough oversight from another branch of government. The remedy, the panel says, is that the CFPB should fall under the president’s control. And the president should be able to remove the director at will.

The CFPB’s opponents in the financial services industry declared victory. Bill Himpler is executive vice president for the American Financial Services Association.

BILL HIMPLER: Our issue is still with the authority given to a single director. That is, as the court pointed out, not subject to a lot of oversight.

NOGUCHI: Himpler instead supports a CFPB run by a bipartisan commission, similar to others like the Securities and Exchange Commission. David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, says the ruling is not an existential challenge to the CFPB or its past decisions.

DAVID REISS: The decision does not invalidate the CFPB’s actions. This is more about its structure going forward.

NOGUCHI: Reiss says an appeal to the Supreme Court is all but guaranteed. Indeed, the CFPB says it disagrees with the conclusion. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson says the ruling does not change its mission and that it is, quote, “considering options for seeking further review of the court’s decision.”

Dennis Kelleher is CEO of Better Markets, a group that advocates for stronger financial regulation. He says the bureau’s actions on banks have made the financial sector more determined to undercut the agency.

DENNIS KELLEHER: They do not want a consumer watchdog on the Wall Street beat. That’s what this fight is about.

NOGUCHI: The decision was not unanimous on all the issues. Judge Karen Henderson dissented in part, saying the panel overreached in calling the bureau’s structure unconstitutional. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.