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.

Big Decision in GSE Litigation

Regular readers of this blog know that I have written a lot about the shareholder suits arising from the conservatorships of Fannie and Freddie. One of the main cases is being presided over by Judge Lamberth in the District Court for the District of Columbia. This case raises a range of challenges to the government’s action: violations of the Administrative Procedures Act, violations of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 and more. Judge Lamberth has issued an opinion that dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ claims, dealing a severe (but not fatal) blow to their cause. His conclusion captures the tenor of the whole opinion:

It is understandable for the Third Amendment, which sweeps nearly all GSE profits to Treasury, to raise eyebrows, or even engender a feeling of discomfort. But any sense of unease over the defendants’ conduct is not enough to overcome the plain meaning of HERA’s text. Here, the plaintiffs’ true gripe is with the language of a statute that enabled FHFA and, consequently, Treasury, to take unprecedented steps to salvage the largest players in the mortgage finance industry before their looming collapse triggered a systemic panic. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ grievance is really with Congress itself. It was Congress, after all, that parted the legal seas so that FHFA and Treasury could effectively do whatever they thought was needed to stabilize and, if necessary, liquidate, the GSEs. Recognizing its role in the constitutional system, this Court does not seek to evaluate the merits of whether the Third Amendment is sound financial — or even moral — policy. The Court does, however, find that HERA’s unambiguous statutory provisions, coupled with the unequivocal language of the plaintiffs’ original GSE stock certificates, compels the dismissal of all of the plaintiffs’ claims. (52)
Not one to typically say “I told you so” (or at least not on the blog), I will say that I had predicted that deference to the Executive during a time of national crisis was going to be hard for the plaintiffs to overcome. That being said, this is an extraordinarily complex cases both legally and factually so we can expect appeals up to the Supreme Court (and perhaps a return to the District Court), so it is premature to say that the plaintiffs’ claims are DOA just yet.

Fairholme or Foul? Investor Complaint Over Fannie and Freddie Preferred

I recently reviewed the complaint filed by former Solicitor General Olson in Perry Capital LLC v. Lew and today I review the complaint in a similar lawsuit, Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. United States, filed July 9, 2013.  Fairholme filed another lawsuit the next day, Fairholme Funds, Inc. et al. v. FHFA et al., which I will review tomorrow. Whereas the Perry case alleged violations of the Administrative Procedures Act and the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), the July 9th Fairholme case alleges that the United States must pay just compensations pursuant to the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution for taking the plaintiffs’ property, by gutting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac preferred shares of all of their worth.

As with the Perry case, the Fairholme complaint turns on whether an amendment to the government’s preferred stock documents which gave to the government all of Fannie and Freddie’s profits created a new security in violation of HERA.  In particular, the complaint alleges that by “changing the dividend on its Government Stock in this manner, FHFA actually created, and Treasury purchased, an entirely new security.” (5) This, it appears to me, is a highly contested claim.

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Evoking a famous Supreme Court case, the complaint also states that just “as the Federal Government cannot seize the assets of corporations (for example, the nation’s steel mills) for a public purpose without paying just compensation, so too it cannot seize the shares of stock in corporations to accomplish the same end.” (23) This implicit comparison to the Youngstown Steel case does not work as far as I am concerned.  In Youngstown Steel, the Supreme Court struck down President Truman’s exercise of his inherent authority to seize steel mills in order to support the Korean War mobilization.  Here, we have the federal government already knee deep in the affected companies.  Fannie and Freddie are government-sponsored enterprises; were placed in conservatorship; and have the federal government as their majority shareholders.

While the issues here are complex, my first read of the complaint is that the plaintiffs have a tough row to hoe even though the federal government may have upended preferred shareholders’ settled expectations.