Are Billions Enough?

Jenner & Block has issued the Citi Monitorship First Report. By way of background,

The Settlement Agreement resolved potential federal and state legal claims for violations of law in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, structuring, arrangement, and issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) between 2006 and 2007. As explained below, in the Settlement Agreement, Citi agreed to pay $4.5 billion to the settling governmental entities, acknowledged a statement of facts attached as Annex 1, and agreed to provide consumer relief that would be valued at $2.5 billion under the valuation principles set forth in Annex 2.2 As part of the Settlement Agreement, [Jenner partner] Thomas J. Perrelli was appointed as independent monitor (Monitor) to determine Citi’s compliance with the consumer relief and corresponding requirements of the Settlement Agreement. This is the first report assessing Citi’s progress toward completion of those obligations. (3, footnote omitted)

Because this is the first report, much of it sets the stage for what is to come. I was, however, struck by the section titled “Impact of Relief Provided:”

To evaluate fully the impact of the relief that is the subject of this report and authorized under the Settlement Agreement would require a variety of activities not contemplated by the settlement and not easily achievable (e.g., interviews with individual homeowners). Isolating the effect of this settlement, the National Mortgage Settlement, and other RMBS settlements from the broader housing market is also difficult.

One question frequently asked is whether the relief provided to borrowers and for which Citi has received credit would have been provided in any event (e.g., is this really additional?) On this question, the answer is mixed. Given ordinary accounting practices, loans for which foreclosure does not make economic sense are frequently written-off by financial institutions. In that circumstance, however, the banks may not release liens as a matter of routine, leaving borrowers with an ongoing burden and impeding potential efforts to redevelop the property. To get credit under the Settlement Agreement, Citi was required to release the lien, thus giving an additional benefit to the homeowner to allow him or her to make a fresh start and to remove any legal obstacles from the transfer of the property. (17, footnote omitted)

As I have noted before, it is hard to truly assess the restorative and retributive impacts of the ten and eleven digit settlements of litigation arising from the financial crisis. Are individuals appropriately helped? Are wrongdoers appropriately punished? Are current actors appropriately deterred?  I find it bizarre that it is so hard to tell even when settlements are measured in the billions of dollars.

Regulating Fannie and Freddie With The Deal

Steven Davidoff Solomon and David T. Zaring have posted After the Deal: Fannie, Freddie and the Financial Crisis Aftermath to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The dramatic events of the financial crisis led the government to respond with a new form of regulation. Regulation by deal bent the rule of law to rescue financial institutions through transactions and forced investments; it may have helped to save the economy, but it failed to observe a laundry list of basic principles of corporate and administrative law. We examine the aftermath of this kind of regulation through the lens of the current litigation between shareholders and the government over the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We conclude that while regulation by deal has a place in the government’s financial crisis toolkit, there must come a time when the law again takes firm hold. The shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who have sought damages from the government because its decision to eliminate dividends paid by the institutions, should be entitled to review of their claims for entire fairness under the Administrative Procedure Act – a solution that blends corporate law and administrative law. Our approach will discipline the government’s use of regulation by deal in future economic crises, and provide some ground rules for its exercise at the end of this one – without providing activist investors, whom we contend are becoming increasingly important players in regulation, with an unwarranted windfall.

Reading the briefs in the various GSE lawsuits, one feels lost in the details of the legal arguments and one thinks that the judges hearing these matters might feel the same way.  This article is an attempt to see the big picture, encompassing the administrative, corporate and takings law aspects of the dispute. However the judges decide these cases, one would assume that they will need to do something similar to come up with a result that they find just.

I also found plenty to argue with in this article.  For instance, it characterizes the Federal Housing Finance Administration as the lapdog of Treasury. (26) But there is a lot of evidence that the FHFA charted its own course away from the Executive Branch on many occasions, for instance when it rejected calls by various government officials for principal reductions for homeowners with Fannie and Freddie mortgages. Notwithstanding these disagreements, I think the article makes a real contribution in its attempt to make sense of an extraordinarily muddled situation.

Reiss on $17 Billion BoA Settlement

Law360 quoted me in BofA Deal Shows Pragmatism At Work On Both Sides (behind a paywall). It reads in part,

Bank of America Corp.’s $16.65 billion global settlement over its alleged faulty lending practices in the run-up to the financial crisis may have made bigger waves than recent payouts by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc., but attorneys say the deal still represents the best possible outcome for the bank and for federal prosecutors, who can now put their resources elsewhere.

The settlement, inked with the U.S. Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Housing Administration and the states of California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland and New York, released most of the significant claims related to subprime mortgage practices at Countrywide Financial Corp. and investment bank Merrill Lynch, both of which Bank of America picked up during the crisis.

Although the hefty price tag, which includes $7 billion in consumer relief payments and a record $5 billion in civil penalties, is nothing to balk at, the settlement will help Bank of America avoid a series of piecemeal deals that could stretch out over a much longer period without the prospect of closure, according to Ben Diehl of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP.

“They want to start being looked at and considered by the market, their customers and regulators based on what they are doing today, in 2014, and not have everything continue to be looked at through the perspective of alleged accountability for conduct related to the financial crisis,” said Diehl, who formerly oversaw civil prosecutions brought by the California attorney general’s mortgage fraud strike force.

And the bank isn’t the only one looking for closure, according to Diehl.

“It’s in a regulator’s interest as well to be able to look at what is currently being offered to consumers and have a dialogue with companies about that, as opposed to talking about practices that allegedly happened six or more years prior,” he said.

The government also saw great value in getting a big dollar number out to a public that has expressed frustration over a perceived lack of accountability of financial institutions for their role in the financial crisis.

“The executive branch get a big news story, particularly with the eye-poppingly large settlements that have been agreed to recently,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, who added that the federal government also has an interest in global settlements that keep the markets running more predictably.