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.

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.

Fannie, Freddie & The Affordable Housing Feint

ShapiroPhoto

Robert J. Shapiro

kamarck_mm_duo

Elaine C. Kamarck

 

 

 

 

 

Robert J. Shapiro and Elaine C. Kamarck have posted A Strategy to Promote Affordable Housing for All Americans By Recapitalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. While it presents as a plan to fund affordable housing, the biggest winners would be speculators who bought up shares of Fannie and Freddie stock and who may end up with nothing if a plan like this is not adopted.  The Executive Summary states that

This study presents a strategy for ending the current conservatorship and majority government ownership of Fannie and Freddie in a way that will enable them, once again, to effectively promote greater homeownership by average Americans and greater access to affordable housing by low-income households. This strategy includes regulation of both enterprises to prevent a recurrence of their effective insolvency in 2008 and the associated bailouts, including 4.0% capital reserves, regular financial monitoring, examinations and risk assessments by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as dictated by HERA. Notably, an internal Treasury analysis in 2011 recommended capital requirements, consistent with the Basel III accords, of 3.0% to 4.0%. In addition, the President should name a substantial share of the boards of both enterprises, to act as public interest directors. The strategy has four basic elements to ensure that Fannie and Freddie can rebuild the capital required to responsibly carry out their basic missions, absorb losses from future housing downturns, and expand their efforts to support access to affordable housing for all households:

  • In recognition of Fannie and Freddie’s repayments to the Treasury of $239 billion, some $50 billion more than they received in bailout payments, the Treasury would write off any remaining balance owed by the enterprises under the “Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements” (PSPAs).
  • The Treasury also would end its quarterly claim or “sweep” of the profits earned by Fannie and Freddie, so their future retained earnings can be used to build their capital reserves.
  • Fannie and Freddie also should raise roughly $100 billion in additional capital through several rounds of new common stock sales into the market.
  • The Treasury should transfer its warrants for 79.9% of Fannie and Freddie’s current common shares to the HTF [Housing Trust Fund] and the CMF [Capital Magnet Fund], which could sell the shares in a series of secondary stock offerings and use the proceeds, estimated at $100 billion, to endow their efforts to expand access to affordable housing for even very low-income households.

Under this strategy, Fannie and Freddie could once again ensure the liquidity and stability of U.S. housing markets, under prudent financial constraints and less exposure to the risks of mortgage defaults. The strategy would dilute the common shares holdings of current private investors from 20% to 10%, while increasing their value as Fannie and Freddie restore and claim their profitability. Finally, the strategy would establish very substantial support through the HTF and CPM for state programs that increase access to affordable rental housing by very low-income American and affordable home ownership by low-to-moderate income households.

Wow — there is a lot that is very bad about this plan.  Where to begin? First, we would return to the same public/private hybrid model for Fannie and Freddie that got us into so much trouble to begin with.

Second, it would it would reward speculators in Fannie and Freddie stock. That is not terrible in itself, but the question would be — why would you want to? The reason given here would be to put a massive amount of money into affordable housing. That seems like a good rationale, until you realize that that money would just be an accounting move from one federal government account to another. It does not expand the pie, it just makes one slice bigger and one slice smaller. This is a good way to get buy-in from some constituencies in the housing industry, but from a broader public policy perspective, it is just a shuffling around of resources.

There’s more to say, but this blog post has gone on long enough. Fannie and Freddie need to be reformed, but this is not the way to do it.

 

The GSE Litigation Footnote Everyone Is Talking About

Judge Pratt (S.D.Iowa) ruled against the plaintiffs in the GSE shareholderr litigation, Continental Western Insurance Company v. The FHFA et al. (4:14-cv-00042, Feb. 3, 2015). The Judge’s order is mostly an analysis of why this case should be dismissed because of the doctrine of issue preclusion, which bars “‘successive litigation of an issue of fact or law actually litigated and resolved in a valid court determination essential to the prior judgment . . .'” (6, quoting Supreme Court precedent). The relevant prior judgment was Judge Lamberth’s (D.D.C.) opinion in a similar case that was decided last October.

While Judge Pratt did not reach the merits because he dismissed the case, he stated in a footnote

The Court notes that even if it were to reach the merits of Continental Western’s claims, including the allegedly new claims, it would agree with the well-reasoned opinion of the very able Judge Lamberth in Perry Capital that the case must be dismissed. Specifically the Court agrees that: (1) FHFA and Treasury did not act outside the power granted to them by HERA (see Perry Capital, 2014 WL 4829559 at *8–12); (2) HERA bars Continental Western’s claims under the APA (see id. at *7); (3) Continental Western’s claims for monetary damages based on a breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing against FHFA must be dismissed because they are not ripe and because Continental Western’s shares of the GSEs do not contractually guarantee them a right to dividends (see id. at *15–19); and (4) Continental Western’s claim for breach of fiduciary duty by FHFA is barred by HERA because it is a derivative claim and HERA grants all shareholder rights, including the right to bring a derivative suit, to FHFA (see id. at *13–15). The Court shares in Judge Lamberth’s observation that “[i]t is understandable for the Third Amendment, which sweeps nearly all GSE profits to Treasury, to raise eyebrows, or even engender a feeling of discomfort.” Perry Capital, 2014 WL 4829559 at *24. But it is not the role of this Court to wade into the merits or motives of FHFA and Treasury’s actions—rather the Court is limited to reviewing those actions on their face and determining if they were permissible under the authority granted by HERA. (19, n.6)

As I have noted before, this is not a surprising result. What remains surprising is how so many analysts refuse to see how these cases might be decided this way.

This is not to say that the plaintiffs’ cases are dead in the water. Appeals courts may reach a different result from those of the trial courts. But so many of those writing on this topic refuse to see any result other than a win for plaintiffs. Time for a reality check.

GSE Shareholder Litigation Issue

The NYU Journal of Law & Business has posted a special issue devoted to the GSE shareholder litigation. Here are the links for the the individual articles:

The Government Takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Upending Capital Markets with Lax Business and Constitutional Standards
Richard A. Epstein
The Fannie and Freddie Bailouts Through the Corporate Lens
Adam B. Badawi & Anthony J. Casey
An Overview of the Fannie and Freddie Conservatorship Litigation
Davis Reiss
Back to the Future: Returning to Private-Sector Residential Mortgage Finance
Lawrence J. White
Reforming the National Housing Finance System: What’s at Risk for the Multifamily Rental Market if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Go Away?
Mark Willis & Andrew Neidhardt

I have blogged about drafts of some of the articles here (Epstein), here (Badawi and Casey) and here (my contribution) and I may very well blog about the rest of them over the next few weeks. Given the nature of legal scholarship, these articles were written well before many of this year’s developments in the GSE shareholder litigations (such as Judge Lamberth’s ruling in the District Court for the District of Columbia case).  Nonetheless, these articles have a lot to offer in terms of understanding the broader issues at stake in the ongoing litigation (the first three articles) and in terms of reform efforts going forward (the last two articles).

Reiss on Shakespearean GSE Litigation

Fundweb quoted me in Stateside: My Kingdom for a House. It reads in part,

History repeats itself. In 1483, Richard III seized the British crown from his 13-year-old nephew on a trumped up legal sophistry.  One justification was to prevent a return to the chaos of the War of the Roses, considered likely to resume under a child king. (Many historians believe he subsequently murdered those princes in the tower to dispense with future claims.)

Five centuries later, the issue of confiscation returns in the form of US government actions taken to stabilise the financial system during the 2008 credit crisis.  The usurpation argument repeats that the end justifies the means and the rule of law may be subverted in perceived emergencies for the common good. Recent legal cases are challenging that principle, with momentous long- term consequences for the nation.

Specifically, in 2008, Congress enacted the Housing Economic and Recovery Act, which authorised loans to mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac known as government-sponsored entities. The HERA law placed the GSEs in a conservatorship, giving the US government senior preferred shares in the companies, which paid the government a 10 per cent dividend.

Eventually, the GSEs became immensely profitable again, having now repaid $30bn more to the government than the original loan. In 2012, the conservator passed a third amendment, which transformed the 10 per cent preferred dividend to a sweep of all profits, forever.

Richard Bove, vice-president equity research at Rafferty Capital Markets, responds: ”If the government has the right to override any contract and can appropriate private property for itself, then contracts mean nothing in the US and the government is like Richard III.”

Politics of populism
Ultimately, the government may determine whether the GSEs survive or in what guise or how their profits are distributed.

“Politicians are carrying out what people want them to do.  The public and the media maintain that if the bankers are harming society and the economy, there is no limitation on what the government can do,” says Bove. But beware. Investor confidence further erodes each time the government steps in to act unilaterally in the name of crisis control. The determinant is whether or not the country needs the GSEs to continue to underwrite mortgages and the answer is probably yes. Without them, there will be no one to under-write 30-year mortgages, “the monthly cost of owning a home will go up, prices will go down and it will kill housing in the US,” Bove insists.

Mel Watts, who was appointed this year as a new conservator, may represent a new direction for reshaping the GSEs. His recent speeches suggest he may be planning to merge the two agencies and liberate them from conservatorship status.

David Reiss, professor at Brooklyn Law School, points out another drawback to leaving the GSEs in limbo for six years. Executives, employees and others are now running for the exits, with turnover at the top. The agencies back 60 per cent of residential US mortgages but no longer know who they are. “It’s not healthy for homeowners or taxpayers,” says Reiss.

Investment War of the Roses
A number of hedge fund investors have rebelled, challenging the conservator’s behaviour. Marquee names include Perry Capital, Fairholme Funds and Pershing Square Capital Management. Their claims generally derive from assertions that the conservator illegally expropriated shareholder profits. The plaintiff hedge funds represent a motley crew, some of whom bought the stock after 2009, knowing they were picking up lottery tickets, and others well predating the conservatorship. From the sidelines, smaller investors watched keenly and joined the big boys’ ranks.

“People bought the stock only knowing that Icahn, Berkowitz and Ackmann had positions, so they followed like lemmings,” says Bove. To compound the confusion, most conventional wisdom from commentators lined up on one side. Many were openly remunerated by the shareholders, like New York University’s Richard Epstein.

Reiss adds that, “with no public speakers of equivalent prestige on the other side, it seemed inconceivable the investors might lose, which was a perfect set up for falling hard”.

Indeed they fell, with the recent ruling by Judge Royce Lamberth in the Perry hedge fund case.  The court dismissed the suit with complex arguments but one theme undergirded the judge’s ruling: the government had acted forcefully in a financial emergency, authorised by Congress, which he hesitated to unwind.