We’re near the end. With the news Wednesday that Bank of America will pay AIG $650 million to settle their long-running and many-tentacled litigation over mortgage backed securities –along with a report in The Wall Street Journal that the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s is contemplating a $1 billion settlement with the Justice Department for its MBS rating failures — it’s time to declare the twilight of financial crisis litigation.
For a change, JPMorgan’s rollercoaster negotiations with state and federal regulators to resolve the bank’s liability for rotten mortgage-backed securities did not make news Wednesday. Has there ever been more public dealmaking between the Justice Department and a target? It feels as though the public has been made privy to every settlement proposal and rejection, as if we’re all watching a soap operatic reality show. Will there be a reunion episode if the bank and the Justice Department end up finalizing the reported $13 billion global settlement, with Eric Holder and Jamie Dimon shouting imprecations at each other?
The biggest news to come out of Tuesday’s ongoing hearing to evaluate Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with investors in 530 Countrywide mortgage-backed securities trusts is that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency gave Bank of America clearance to put Countrywide into bankruptcy if Countrywide’s liabilities threatened BofA’s existence. Or at least that’s what Kathy Patrick of Gibbs & Bruns, who represents 22 institutional investors that negotiated the proposed deal with BofA and Countrywide MBS trustee Bank of New York Mellon, said her clients were told by BofA Chief Risk Officer Terry Laughlin in 2011 as they tried to come to terms on a settlement of investor claims that Countrywide breached representations and warranties about the underlying mortgage loans. To my knowledge, Patrick’s assertion – which was intended to support her argument that MBS investors risked getting much less than $8.5 billion for their put-back claims – is, if true, the first tangible indication that Bank of America ever did more than hypothesize bankruptcy for Countrywide.
To say that the hearing to evaluate Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion breach of contract settlement with investors in Countrywide mortgage-backed securities got off to a slow start would be something of an understatement. In a courtroom so crowded that New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick repeatedly admonished observers to clear a path to the door, the judge heard hours of pretrial motions, many on issues she regarded as already settled. In particular, objectors to the settlement – led by AIG, several Federal Home Loan Banks and other assorted pension and investment funds – told Kapnick that they should not be forced to proceed with opening statements until they’ve had a chance to take depositions based on privileged communications between Bank of New York Mellon, the Countrywide MBS trustee, and its lawyers at Mayer Brown. Kapnick ordered the documents produced late last month, and AIG counsel Daniel Reilly of Reilly Pozner said it wouldn’t be fair to begin a hearing to determine whether BNY Mellon made a reasonable decision to agree to the $8.5 billion settlement – which resolves potential claims by 530 trusts that Countrywide breached representations and warranties about underlying mortgage loans – until objectors have quizzed witnesses on the confidential material.
On Monday, after word leaked that Bank of America and MBIA had resolved their epic five-year, multidimensional litigation against one another, investors in both companies judged the deal. Shares in MBIA, whose structured finance arm had been widely considered to be on the brink of a regulatory takeover, closed 45 percent higher at $14.29, adding about a billion dollars to the market capitalization of the insurer’s holding company. Bank of America’s shares went up as well. They didn’t rise as dramatically as MBIA’s, closing up 5 percent at $12.88. But that added $6.9 billion to BofA’s market cap – three times as much as the $1.6 billion in cash that the bank agreed to pay to MBIA as part of the settlement.
Late last month, without any fanfare, a New York appeals court issued a terse, one-page ruling that upheld the dismissal of Walnut Place’s breach-of-contract suit against Countrywide, Bank of America and Countrywide’s mortgage-backed securitization trustee, Bank of New York Mellon. It was an abrupt end for what was once a promising attempt at vindication for an MBS investor. It was also a huge setback for Walnut, its lawyers at Grais & Ellsworth and all the other Countrywide MBS investors who were counting on litigation against BofA as an alternative to the bank’s proposed $8.5 billion global settlement of breach-of-contract, or put-back, claims.
Oh, the ironies of megabillion-dollar securities class action litigation!
Last Friday, shareholders filed their response to summary judgment motions by Bank of America and its executives in a class action claiming BofA failed to tell shareholders about Merrill Lynch’s escalating losses and sky-high executive bonuses before BofA bought Merrill in 2008. As you would expect, the shareholders and their lawyers at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann, Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer and Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check spend considerable time rebutting defense arguments that, as a matter of law, shareholders weren’t injured by BofA’s alleged disclosure lapses. Those arguments, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said, have already been rejected in U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel‘s class certification decision in February.
On Friday, the Wall Street Journal called Bank of America’s 2008 acquisition of the tottering mortgage giant Countrywide a $40 billion mistake. Sure, the bank only paid a total of $4.5 billion to pick up Countrywide, paying $2 billion for a minority stake in 2007 and an additional $2.5 billion for the rest of the company in 2008. BofA had its eye on Countrywide’s then-profitable mortgage servicing business, but since the acquisition Countrywide and its deficient mortgages have been pretty much nothing but trouble for Bank of America, which has seen its share price drop 68 percent and is still digesting what the Journal estimated to be at least $40 billion in “total real estate losses, settlements with government agencies and amounts pledged to investors who purchased poor-performing Countrywide mortgage-backed securities.” The Journal‘s Dan Fitzpatrick quoted a North Carolina banking professor who called BofA’s Countrywide acquisition “the worst deal in the history of American finance.”
Former Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis has a simple argument for why he’s not liable to shareholders who claim they were defrauded into supporting BofA’s 2008 acquisition of Merrill Lynch: It’s the lawyers’ fault. In a summary judgment brief filed Sunday night in the shareholder class action, Lewis’s counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton asserted that as Merrill Lynch’s fourth-quarter projected losses ballooned from the $5 billion BofA had estimated in November to more than $10 billion by Dec. 3, Lewis asked BofA’s then-CFO, Joe Price, whether those losses had to be disclosed to shareholders. He was informed that the CFO had “consulted with legal counsel” and had concluded that interim projections didn’t need to be made public.
There’s a good reason the exchange of information in civil litigation is called discovery. If you want an example of the kind of powerful facts shareholders can obtain once they’re finally allowed to take depositions from securities class-action defendants – and remember, they only get there after surviving defense motions to dismiss – look no further than the motion for summary judgment that plaintiffs’ lawyers filed Sunday against Bank of America in the securities class action over the Merrill Lynch merger. There’s nothing like a former CEO’s admission that insiders withheld dire predictions from shareholders to boost the class’s case.