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.

Taking Apart The CFPB, Bit by Bit

graphic by Matt Shirk

Mick Mulvaney’s Message in the CFPB’s latest Semi-Annual Report is crystal clear regarding his plans for the Bureau:

As has been evident since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau is far too powerful, and with precious little oversight of its activities. Per the statute, in the normal course the Bureau’s Director simultaneously serves in three roles: as a one-man legislature empowered to write rules to bind parties in new ways; as an executive officer subject to limited control by the President; and as an appellate judge presiding over the Bureau’s in-house court-like adjudications. In Federalist No. 47, James Madison famously wrote that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Constitutional separation of powers and related checks and balances protect us from government overreach. And while Congress may not have transgressed any constraints established by the Supreme Court, the structure and powers of this agency are not something the Founders and Framers would recognize. By structuring the Bureau the way it has, Congress established an agency primed to ignore due process and abandon the rule of law in favor of bureaucratic fiat and administrative absolutism.

The best that any Bureau Director can do on his own is to fulfill his responsibilities with humility and prudence, and to temper his decisions with the knowledge that the power he wields could all too easily be used to harm consumers, destroy businesses, or arbitrarily remake American financial markets. But all human beings are imperfect, and history shows that the temptation of power is strong. Our laws should be written to restrain that human weakness, not empower it.

I have no doubt that many Members of Congress disagree with my actions as the Acting Director of the Bureau, just as many Members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor. Such continued frustration with the Bureau’s lack of accountability to any representative branch of government should be a warning sign that a lapse in democratic structure and republican principles has occurred. This cycle will repeat ad infinitum unless Congress acts to make it accountable to the American people.

Accordingly, I request that Congress make four changes to the law to establish meaningful accountability for the Bureau :

1. Fund the Bureau through Congressional appropriations;

2. Require legislative approval of major Bureau rules;

3. Ensure that the Director answers to the President in the exercise of executive authority; and

4. Create an independent Inspector General for the Bureau. (2-3)

Mulvaney gets points for speaking clearly, but a lot of what he says is wrong and at odds with how the federal government has operated for nearly one hundred years. He is wrong in stating that the CFPB Director acts without judicial oversight. The Director’s decisions are appealable and his predecessor’s have, in fact, been overturned. And his call to a return to the federal government of the type recognizable to the Framers has a hollow ring since at least 1935 when the Supreme Court decided Humphrey’s Executor v. United States.

I would think that it should go without saying that the federal government has grown exponentially since its founding in the 18th century. The Supreme Court has acknowledged as much in Humphrey’s Executor which held that Congress could create independent agencies.  Independent agencies are now fundamental to the operation of the federal government.

Mulvaney and others are seeking to chip away at the legitimacy of the modern administrative state. That is certainly their prerogative. But they should not ignore the history of the last hundred years and skip all the way back to 18th century if they want their arguments to sound like anything more than a bit of sophistry.

What in the World Is a Lis Pendens?

photo by Bjoertvedt

MoneyTips.com (via NBC news affiliate NewsWest 9) quoted me in Should I Worry About A Lis Pendens in A Title Report? It opens,

Is there anyone this side of a Supreme Court Justice who hasn’t signed off on a document without reading or understanding every single word and Latin phrase? When it comes to buying a house, it pays to know the phrase “lis pendens”.

lis pendens is the Latin term for a Notice of Pendency of Action. It means that a lawsuit is pending against the title of a property. The lis pendens is a public notice letting buyers know there is a dispute over the ownership of the property. It is filed in the county clerk’s office wherever the title of the actual property is listed.

Anyone willing to purchase property under a lis pendens is subject to the outcome of the lawsuit. This is why you should be worried if you discover a lis pendens on a title report, says David Reiss, a former private practice real estate attorney who is now the Academic Program Director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE) at Brooklyn Law School.

“Depending on the underlying action that is the subject of the lis pendens, ownership of the property might be at issue. If one of the parties of the underlying litigation wins, they may own the property,” Reiss explains. And if they own it, that means you don’t.

For buyers, a lis pendens should throw up many red flags. Lenders are usually unwilling to finance a mortgage until the lis pendens has been removed from the title. In addition, while a property can still be sold while there is a lis pendens, title companies will not insure the property, and that alone should be a deterrent to purchasing.

A lis pendens can be placed on a property for a variety of reasons. It could be due to divorce proceedings, an inheritance issue over a property held in estate, taxes owed to the IRS, or the property could be about to go into foreclosure. There could even be criminal fines owed.

“A lis pendens can be time-consuming and aggravating at best,” says Denise Supplee, a realtor and Co-Founder and Director of Operations at Spark Rental. “That being said, it is possible to move beyond these. Depending on state laws, there are steps that can be taken to have these attached lawsuits removed. However, there may be a cost of an attorney and definitely a loss of time.”

Because a lis pendens can only be about the property itself and not about the parties who have an interest in the property, there are two ways the lis pendens can be expunged, says Reiss. The first is “if the lis pendens really has nothing to do with the property and should never have been there in the first place, you can fight it,” because a lis pendens is a powerful tool that is often subject to abuse. The second is if the parties involved ultimately resolve the lawsuit.

Delaying Trump’s Wall

photo by Jimmysalv

USA Today cited me in No, Cards Against Humanity Can’t Delay Trump’s Border Wall. It opens,

By now you’ve played a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity or at least heard the game makers want to buy land to block the construction of President Trump’s proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

The raunchy game, where people fill in the blank or complete sentences with terrible — but funny — things, pulls a holiday marketing stunt every year. Last year, Cards Against Humanity raised money to dig a hole. Before that, they mailed people boxes filled with actual bulls–t.

This year, they asked for $15 from customers to buy a large plot of land along the U.S./Mexico border for their “Cards Against Humanity Saves America” campaign. The promotion already sold out.

A marketing video implies they would separate acres of land into tiny pieces for each participant, in order to hold the government up in court for years. They want to make the push to build a wall time-consuming and expensive by hiring lawyers to keep the land tied up in court, according to the website.

The only problem is, that’s not how eminent domain works.

“This is a way for them to utilize their popularity with an audience most people assume are either indifferent toward political issues or at the very least unsophisticated about how things get done,” said Steve Silva, an eminent domain and land use attorney for Fennemore Craig law group in Reno. Silva has literally used eminent domain to build a wall.

“It’s got a lot of people literally buying into this issue of significant public importance,” he said.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the Federal Government to take property from people for “just compensation.” The amendment favors the government’s ability to take while also protecting an owner’s right to make money. Meaning, property owners must be paid fair-market value for the land.

Determining value is what usually ends up taking years in court, Silva said. TheCongre actual taking of the property takes very little time.

“It’s a two-step process: First thing is that the government has to prove it has the right to take the property,” he said. “Once it establishes that, it can take it immediately.”

The federal government need only establish the land will be used for the public, such as for a large wall owned by the government. Then it can basically take that acreage and start building the wall while fighting out the value in court.

“Congress can also just pass a special bill to take land,” Silva said. “They’ve done that for national parks before. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted that the U.S. can just seize land summarily by occupying it and ousting the former owner.

“I suspect this sort of move would be really unpopular,” he added.

So, Cards Against Humanity may end up fighting the government for years after the wall is finished.

Even if Cards Against Humanity spreads the ownership of the land out to lots of people — say, thousands of them — the Federal Government can still take the land all at once. But now those individual owners will need to fight each other, Cards Against Humanity and the government for their just compensation.

Since people paid $15 for land, it’s likely they would establish land value and get that $15 back unless Cards Against Humanity somehow improves the land or plans to build a museum, monument or even a parking lot on that space.

But again, that would only increase its value, not slow down the wall’s construction.

In an interview on Mashable.com, law professors David Reiss and Richard Epstein argued the court would reject Cards Against Humanity’ claim over the land because they’re using it for political purposes. But attorneys Silva and Lynn Blais disagree. The game makers are using land as a protest, which should be respected by the court, so their protest shouldn’t matter in eminent domain proceedings.

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.

Running The CFPB out of Town

photo by Gabriel Villena Fernández

My latest column for The Hill is America’s Consumer Financial Sheriff and The Horse it Rides Are under Fire. It reads,

Notwithstanding its name, the Financial Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs Act, or Financial Choice Act, will be terrible for consumers. It will gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and return us to the Wild West days of the early 2000s where predatory lenders could prey on the elderly and the uneducated, knowing that there was no sheriff in town to stop ‘em.

The subprime boom of the early 2000s has receded in memory the past 15 years, but a recent Supreme Court decision reminds us of what that kind of predatory behavior could look like. In Bank of America Corp. v. Miami this year, the court ruled that a municipality could sue financial institutions for violations of the Fair Housing Act arising from predatory lending.

Miami alleged that the banks’ predatory lending led to a disproportionate increase in foreclosures and vacancies which decreased property tax revenues and increased the demand for municipal services. Miami alleged that those “‘predatory’ practices included, among others, excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser low-rate loans that overstated refinancing opportunities, large prepayment penalties, and — when default loomed — unjustified refusals to refinance or modify the loans.”

The Dodd-Frank Act was intended to address just those types of abusive practices. Dodd-Frank barred many of them from much of the mortgage market through its qualified mortgage and ability-to-repay rules. More importantly, Dodd-Frank created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB was designed to be an independent regulator with broad authority to police financial institutions that engaged in all sorts of consumer credit transactions. The CFPB was the new sheriff in town. And like Wyatt Earp, it has been very effective at driving the bad guys out of Dodge.

The Financial Choice Act would bring the abusive practices of the subprime boom back to life. The act would gut the CFPB. Among other things, it would make the Director removable at will, unlike other financial institution regulators. It would take away the CFPB’s supervisory function of large banks, credit unions and other consumer finance institutions. It would take away the CFPB’s power to address unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices. It would restrict the CFPB from monitoring the mortgage market and thereby responding to rapidly developing abusive practices.

The impacts on consumers will be immediate and harmful. The bad guys will know that the sheriff has been undercut by its masters, its guns loaded with blanks. The bad guys will re-enter the credit market with the sorts of products that brought about the subprime crisis: teaser rates that quickly morph into unaffordable payments, high costs and fees packed into credit products, and all sorts of terms that will result in exorbitant and unsustainable credit.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is the chief proponent of the Financial Choice Act. Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank and the CFPB place massive burdens on consumer credit providers. That is not the case. Interest rates remain near all-time lows. Consumer credit markets have many providers. Credit availability has eased up significantly since the financial crisis

One only needs to look at his top donors to see how the Financial Choice Act lines up with the interests of those consumer credit companies that are paying for his re-election campaign. These top donors include people affiliated to Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One Financial, Discover Financial Services, and the American Bankers Association, among many others.

Dodd-Frank implemented regulations that work very well in the consumer credit markets. It created a regulator, the CFPB, that has been very effective at keeping the bad guys out of those markets. The Financial Choice Act will seriously weaken the CFPB. When vulnerable consumers cry out for help, Hensarling would heave the CFPB over its saddle and let its horse slowly trot it out of town.

AIG Suit Strengthens Government Powers

photo by Tim Evanson

Law360 quoted me in Greenberg’s AIG Loss Strengthens Gov’t’s Crisis Powers (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

The Federal Circuit’s decision reversing Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg’s win in his campaign against the U.S. government over its bailout of American International Group Inc. was the latest in a string of defeats for investors challenging financial crisis bailouts, and could further strengthen the government’s hand in future crises, experts say.

The Federal Circuit on Tuesday rejected claims by Greenberg, AIG’s former chief executive, and his current company, Starr International Co. Inc., that the government engaged in an unconstitutional taking of property when it demanded and received 80 percent of the giant insurance company’s stock in exchange for an $85 billion bailout in September 2008.

Although the appellate panel overturned a lower court ruling by rejecting Greenberg’s standing to sue, it came in the wake of a series of rulings against shareholders in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those shareholders are seeking to overturn a President Barack Obama-era move to sweep profits from the bailed out mortgage giants back to the U.S. Department of the Treasury rather than into shareholder dividends, cases courts have repeatedly rejected.

Those wins mean that courts are giving the government wide latitude to respond to a financial crisis, even if some shareholders are harmed, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“There’s now a lot of judges who have come down to effectively say, ‘The government had very broad authority to address the financial crisis, and we’re not going to second-guess that,'” he said.

Greenberg’s campaign against the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and other arms of the U.S. government stems from the effort to bail out AIG in 2008 after it was brought to the brink of insolvency due to the failure of credit default swaps held by its structured finance unit.

In exchange for the $85 billion loan that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York ultimately extended, AIG and its board agreed to hand over nearly 80 percent of its equity and fire its top executives.

Greenberg, who left AIG in 2005 under a cloud, and his current firm Starr International were the largest shareholders in the world’s largest insurer, and argued in a 2011 lawsuit that the government had engaged in an illegal taking of shareholder property.

Federal Claims Judge Thomas C. Wheeler agreed with at least part of Greenberg’s argument in a June 2015 decision, saying that the Fed had placed unduly tough terms on AIG in exchange for the bailout loan, with those terms exceeding the central bank’s authority under Section 13(3) of the Bank Holding Company Act.

However, Judge Wheeler did not award any damages to Greenberg and shareholders in the class action, arguing that their shares would have been worth nothing without the government’s action.

Both Greenberg and the government appealed, and the Federal Circuit on Tuesday reversed Judge Wheeler’s holding on the question of whether the government exceeded its authority by placing tough terms on the bailout.

However, the opinion did not focus on the government’s actions but on the question of standing. Greenberg and his company did not have it, so the rest of his argument was moot, the panel said.

    *     *     *

While the Federal Circuit did not address the substance of Greenberg’s claims, the U.S. Supreme Court might.

Greenberg and Starr said Tuesday they plan to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court takes up the case, despite a lack of a circuit split on the issue of lawsuits over financial crisis-era bailouts, they could set the terms under which the government acts in a future financial crisis.

But even without a Supreme Court ruling in their favor, the government should feel that it is on stronger legal ground during a financial crisis with its two wins at the appellate court level, Reiss said.

“Companies who are looking to reverse government actions at the height of the financial crisis … are having a really tough row to hoe,” he said.