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.

Friday’s Government Reports

  • The U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development jointly released the New Residential Construction statistics for June 2015 – which shows sizable increases in housing starts (compared to June 2014) for multiple unit construction, particularly in the Northeast (up 159.6% for 5 units or more), South (up 10.4% overall) and the West (up 27.4%).
  • The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI) for May 2015 is up .4% from April 2015. The FHFA HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From May 2014 to May 2015, house prices were up 5.7 percent. The U.S. index is 1.8 percent below its March 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the April 2006 index level.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Monthly Complaint Report reveals that the most complained about product is the Mortgage while the biggest increase in complaints has been in the debt collection sector.  The report details complaint data by company, region and financial product.

The Rescue of Fannie and Freddie

Federal Reserve researchers, W. Scott Frame, Andreas Fuster, Joseph Tracy and James Vickery, have posted a staff report, The Rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The abstract reads,

We describe and evaluate the measures taken by the U.S. government to rescue Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September 2008. We begin by outlining the business model of these two firms and their role in the U.S. housing finance system. Our focus then turns to the sources of financial distress that the firms experienced and the events that ultimately led the government to take action in an effort to stabilize housing and financial markets. We describe the various resolution options available to policymakers at the time and evaluate the success of the choice of conservatorship, and other actions taken, in terms of five objectives that we argue an optimal intervention would have fulfilled. We conclude that the decision to take the firms into conservatorship and invest public funds achieved its short-run goals of stabilizing mortgage markets and promoting financial stability during a period of extreme stress. However, conservatorship led to tensions between maximizing the firms’ value and achieving broader macroeconomic objectives, and, most importantly, it has so far failed to produce reform of the U.S. housing finance system.

 This staff report provides a nice overview of the two companies since the financial crisis. I was particularly interested by a couple of sections. First, I found the discussion of receivership versus conservatorship helpful. Second, I liked how it outlined the five objectives for an optimal intervention:

(i) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be enabled to continue their core securitization and guarantee functions as going concerns, thereby maintaining conforming mortgage credit supply.

(ii) The two firms would continue to honor their agency debt and mortgage-backed securities obligations, given the amount and widely held nature of these securities, especially in leveraged financial institutions, and the potential for financial instability in case of default on these obligations.

(iii) The value of the common and preferred equity in the two firms would be extinguished, reflecting their insolvent financial position.

(iv) The two firms would be managed in a way that would provide flexibility to take into account macroeconomic objectives, rather than just maximizing the private value of their assets.

(v) The structure of the rescue would prompt long-term reform and set in motion the transition to a better system within a reasonable period of time. (14-15)

You’ll have to read the paper to see how they evaluate the five objectives in greater detail.

Krimminger and Calabria on Conservatorships

When the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) was appointed conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it was the first use of the conservatorship authority under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (“HERA”), but it was not without precedent. For decades, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) has successfully and fairly resolved more than a thousand failing banks and thrifts using the virtually identical sections of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (“FDIA”).
*     *     *
The predictability, fairness, and acceptance of this model led Congress to adopt it as the basis for authorizing the FHFA with conservatorship powers over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in HERA. Instead of following this precedent, however, FHFA and Treasury have radically departed from HERA and the principles underlying all other U.S. insolvency frameworks and sound international standards through a 2012 re-negotiation of the original conservatorship agreement.
*     *     *
.
     This paper will:
  • Describe the historical precedent and resolution practice on which Congress based FHFA’s and Treasury’s statutory responsibilities over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac;
  • Explain the statutory requirements, as well as the procedural and substantive protections, in place so that all stakeholders are treated fairly during the conservatorship;
  • Detail the important policy reasons that underlie these statutory provisions and the established practice in their application, and the role these policies play in a sound market economy; and
  •  Demonstrate that the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ignore that precedent and resolution practice, and do not comply with HERA. Among the Treasury and FHFA departures from HERA and established precedents are the following:
    • continuing the conservatorships for more than 6 years without any effort to comply with HERA’s requirements
      to “preserve and conserve” the assets and property of the Companies and return them to a “sound and solvent” condition or place them into receiverships;
    • rejecting any attempt to rebuild the capital of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac so that they can return to “sound and solvent” condition by meeting regulatory capital and other requirements, and thereby placing all risk of future losses on taxpayers;
    • stripping all net value from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac long after Treasury has been repaid when HERA, and precedent, limit this recovery to the funding actually provided;
    • ignoring HERA’s conservatorship requirements and transforming the purpose of the conservatorships from restoring or resolving the Companies into instruments of government housing policy and sources of revenue for
      Treasury;
    • repeatedly restructuring the terms of the initial assistance to further impair the financial interests of stakeholders contrary to HERA, fundamental principles of insolvency, and initial commitments by FHFA; and
    • disregarding HERA’s requirement to “maintain the corporation’s status as a private shareholder-owned company” and FHFA’s commitment to allow private investors to continue to benefit from the financial value of the company’s stock as determined by the market. (1-3, footnotes omitted)

I am intrigued by the recollections of these two former government officials who were involved in the drafting of HERA (much as I was by those contained in a related paper by Calabria). But I am not convinced that their version of events amounts to a legislative history of HERA, let alone one that should be given any kind of deference by decision-makers. The firmness of their opinions about the meaning of HERA is also in tension with the ambiguity of the text of the statute itself. The plaintiffs in the GSE conservatorship litigation will see this paper as a confirmation of their position. I do not think, however, that the judges hearing the cases will pay it much heed.

Tough Row to Hoe for Frannie Shareholders

Inside Mortgage Finance quoted me in a story, GSE Jr. Preferred Shareholders Have a Tough ‘Row to Hoe’ in Winning Their Lawsuits (behind a paywall). It reads,

Expect a long and winding legal road to resolution of investor lawsuits challenging the Treasury Department’s “net worth sweep” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac earnings, warn legal experts.

More than a dozen lawsuits filed against the government – including hedge funds Perry Capital and Fairholme Capital Management – are pending in federal district court in Washington, DC, and in the Court of Federal Claims. The private equity plaintiffs allege that the Treasury’s change in the dividend structure of its preferred stock leaves the government-sponsored enterprises with no funds to pay anything to junior shareholders.

The complaints raise complex constitutional and securities law issues, according to Emily Hamburger, a litigation analyst for Bloomberg Industries. “It may be a year before the crucial questions can be answered by the courts because the parties are still in the early stages of gathering evidence,” explained Hamburger during a recent webinar.

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss agrees. “The plaintiffs, in the main, argue that the federal government has breached its duties to preferred shareholders, common shareholders, and potential beneficiaries of a housing trust fund authorized by the same statute that authorized their conservatorships. At this early stage, it appears that the plaintiffs have a tough row to hoe,” notes Reiss in a draft paper examining the GSE shareholder lawsuits.

Government attorneys argue that Treasury has authority to purchase Fannie and Freddie stock when it’s determined such actions are necessary to provide stability to the financial markets, prevent disruptions in the availability of mortgage finance and protect the taxpayer. The government also argues that the plaintiffs do not have a legal property interest for purposes of a Fifth Amendment “takings” claim due to the GSEs’ status in conservatorship.

Hamburger predicted that the judges in the various suits won’t be able to ignore the “obvious equitable tensions” involved. “The government is changing the terms years after their bailout, but on the other hand, the timing and motivation of investors is going to be challenged too,” she noted.

While Reiss agrees that the junior shareholders “look like they are receiving a raw deal from the federal government,” it’s a tall order to sue the federal government even under the most favorable of circumstances. The plaintiffs will have to overcome the government’s sovereign immunity, unless it is waived, and the government has additional defenses, including immunity from Administrative Procedures Act claims, under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.

Reiss explained that HERA states that except “at the request of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of [FHFA] as conservator or receiver.” It remains to be seen how this language might apply to Treasury’s change in the preferred stock agreement, but Reiss said it could be read to give the government broad authority to address the financial situation of the two companies.

“The litigation surrounding GSE conservatorship raises all sorts of issues about the federal government’s involvement in housing finance,” said Reiss. “These issues are worth setting forth as the proper role of these two companies in the housing finance system is still very much up in the air.”

The full paper, An Overview of the Fannie and Freddie Conservatorship Litigation (SSRN link), can also be found on BePress.

Reiss on Fannie/Freddie Suits

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in No Basis for Discovery by GSE Investors, Treasury Department, FHFA Memos Say. It reads

[Reproduced with permission from BNA’s Banking Report, 102 BBR 417, 3/11/14. Copyright  2014 by The Bureau
of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) http://www.bna.com]

The Treasury Department and the Federal Housing Finance Agency March 4 said a federal judge should deny a motion for discovery in lawsuits by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac investors, citing an agreed-upon schedule and saying the motion would do nothing to address legal questions at the core of the case (Fairholme Funds v. Federal Housing Finance Agency, D.D.C., No. 13-cv-01053, 3/4/14).

In its memo filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Treasury said Fairholme’s Feb. 12 motion for discovery (31 DER EE-6, 2/14/14) would be “improper” under a November scheduling order, and urged the court to dismiss the Fairholme suit and related cases.

“These cases should proceed on the agreed briefing schedule, which already provided ample time to the plaintiffs to file their substantive briefs, and the Court, upon review of a completed set of briefing with respect to the defendants’ dispositive motions, should dismiss these cases,” Treasury said March 4.

In its March 4 filing, the FHFA memo said “no discovery is necessary to assess the purely legal arguments” before the court, adding the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) bars second-guessing of the FHFA’s actions as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Litigation Ongoing

The suit is one of several in at least two district courts and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that challenge Treasury and FHFA action in August 2012 that restructured contracts governing preferred stock issued by the two government-sponsored enterprises.

Fairholme and other investors say the August 2012 amendment amounted to an expropriation of their assets and have variously sought damages and compensation in response.

The government has sought to dismiss the Fairholme case and others, but in its Feb. 12 motion, Fairholme said the government’s motion to dismiss was too expansive and raised questions that require access to government documents, e-mails and other materials.

Arrowood Indemnity Co., the plaintiff in a related case in the district court and a separate case in the Claims Court, Feb. 20 sought to link its own bid for discovery to Fairholme’s (36 DER EE-8, 2/24/14).

Fairholme has already prevailed on its discovery motion in the Claims Court. In a Feb. 26 order, Judge Margaret M. Sweeney granted Fairholme’s motion for a continuance to pursue discovery in that case.

March Reply Scheduled

In the district court, Fairholme is scheduled to respond to the government’s March 4 memos by mid-March.

“We are reviewing the opposition briefs filed by the defendants just yesterday, and we will respond to them in our reply brief, due on March 14,” a spokesman for Fairholme told Bloomberg BNA March 5.

High Stakes Seen

Professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School in New York March 5 said discovery usually occurs after motions to dismiss have been decided.

In this case, he said, “the stakes are so high and the quality of lawyering so high that there is litigation over the scheduling order itself.”

“This is a hard-fought battle and the issues are incredibly complex,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “Each side characterizes their arguments as relatively straightforward, but I think the judge will have a hard time parsing out the issues, because there are different statutory regimes, policy issues and the like that must be rationalized with each other. I think this is just the beginning of a long slog,” he said.

If QRM = QM, then FICO+CLTV > DTI ?@#?!?

The long awaited Proposed Rule that addresses the definition of Qualified Residential Mortgages has finally been released, with comments due by October 30th. The Proposed Rule’s preferred definition of a QRM is the same as a Qualified Mortgage. There is going to be a lot of comments on this proposed rule because it indicates that a QRM will not require a down payment. This is a far cry from the 20 percent down payment required by the previous proposed rule (the 20011 Proposed Rule).

There is a lot to digest in the Proposed Rule. For today’s post, I will limit myself to a staff report from the SEC, Qualified Residential Mortgage: Background Data Analysis on Credit Risk Retention, that was issued a couple of days ago about the more restrictive definition of QRM contained in the 2011 Proposed Rule.  The report’s main findings included

  • Historical loans meeting the 2011 proposed QRM definition have significantly lower SDQ [serious delinquency] rates than historical loans meeting the QM definition, but applying this definition results in significantly lower loan volume than QM.
  • FICO and combined loan-to-value (CLTV) are strong determinants of historical loan performance, while the effect of debt-to-income (DTI) is much lower.
  • Adding FICO or CLTV restrictions to the QM definition reduces SDQ rates faster than the loss of loan volume: max ratios achieved at 760 FICO and 55% CLTV. (2)

Certainly, some readers’ eyes have glazed over by now, but this is important stuff and it embodies an important debate about underwriting.  Is it better to have an easy to understand heuristic like a down payment requirement? Or is it better to have a sophisticated approach to underwriting which looks at the layering of risks like credit score, loan to value ratio, debt to income ratio and other factors?

The first approach is hard to game by homeowners, lenders and politicians seeking to be “pro-homeowner.” But it can result in less than the optimal amount of credit being made available to potential homeowners because it may exclude those homeowners who do not present an unreasonable risk of default but who do not have the resources to put together a significant down payment.

The second approach is easier to game by lenders looking to increase market share and politicians who put pressure on regulated financial institutions to expand access to credit. But it can come closer to providing the optimal amount of credit, balancing the risk of default against the opportunity to become a homeowner.

It would be interesting if the final definition of QRM were able to encompass both of these approaches somehow, so that we can see how they perform against each other.