The drumbeat of calls for Bank of America to put what remains of Countrywide into Chapter 11 has grown so loud and relentless that according to a report last month by Bloomberg, BofA is actually considering what’s been called the “nuclear option.” Resorting to a Countrywide Chapter 11 would be fraught with unknown but surely devastating consequences for a commercial bank, as bankruptcy guru Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal & Manges explained in a fascinating Bloomberg video. But more significantly, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t accomplish the intended goal of roping off BofA’s liability for Countrywide’s mortgage-backed securities mess.
This post was co-written with Erin Geiger Smith.
Like hundreds other Twitterati this weekend, we read with righteous amusement Joshua Brown’s Reformed Broker screed against Bank of America. The bank, you probably know, disclosed Friday in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it is paying former executives Sallie Krawcheck and Joseph Price a total of $11 million for the pleasure of their departure, a year-long non-compete agreement, and a promise not to sue for, as the British say, being made redundant. The Reformed Broker found the deal offensive, to say the least.
Last week a rumor made the rounds of hedge funds that trade in Bank of America and MBIA shares: The bank had reputedly agreed to settle the bond insurer’s mortgage-backed securities fraud and put-back claims for $5 billion. The rumor turned out to be false, or at least premature, since no settlement is in the offing at the moment. But the size of the rumored deal gives you a sense of the magnitude of the litigation between the banks that packaged and sold mortgage-backed securities and the bond insurers that wrote policies protecting MBS investors. We are talking about billions of dollars — perhaps tens of billions — at stake in suits by MBIA, Syncora, Ambac, and Financial Guaranty against Countrywide, Credit Suisse, GMAC, Morgan Stanley, and other MBS defendants.
The most dramatic moment at the Sept. 21 hearing on Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities investors came near the end, when Gibbs & Bruns partner Robert Madden stood up to address Manhattan federal judge William Pauley’s concerns about how the settlement came to be. Tall and clear-spoken, Madden captured the judge’s attention as he explained that his clients, a group of 22 large institutional investors, hadn’t entered a sweetheart deal with BofA, but had banded together to force the bank to pony up billions to investors for claims BofA thought it would never have to deal with.
When New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman sued Bank of New York Mellon in August, the AG asserted that the Countrywide mortgage-backed securitization trustee had breached its duty to MBS investors. “As trustee, BNYM owed and owes a fiduciary duty of undivided loyalty,” said the AG’s suit, which was filed as a counterclaim in BNY Mellon’s case seeking approval of the proposed $8.5 billion Bank of America settlement with MBS investors. “[BNYM] breached that duty to [investors'] detriment and disadvantage, by failing to notify them of issues regarding the quality of loans underlying their securities.”
When I first read the Federal Housing Finance Agency Inspector General’s report criticizing Freddie Mac’s $1.35 billion MBS put-back settlement with Bank of America, I wondered if the FHFA IG had just exposed billions of dollars in untapped bank liability. The IG report notes, after all, that Freddie’s deal with BofA (unlike Fannie Mae’s simultaneous $1.52 billion BofA settlement) resolves not only pending breach of contract claims, but also any future claims that Countrywide breached representations and warranties on the mortgages it sold Freddie. Those are exactly the kinds of global settlements banks are going to have to reach if they have any hope of resolving their MBS put-back liability.
Over the last couple of months Bank of America has taken a stock market and regulatory beating so brutal that it’s reportedly considering the previously unthinkable option of putting Countrywide into Chapter 11. BofA’s mortgage-backed securities exposure seems to have no upper limit; throughout BofA’s long hot summer, it felt like every week investors surfaced with new claims that BofA, Countrywide, or Merrill Lynch violated state and federal securities laws in MBS offerings.
On Wednesday night, Grais & Ellsworth filed a 29-page brief laying out its arguments for why Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities investors belongs in federal court, not in New York state court, where Bank of New York Mellon, as Countrywide MBS trustee, filed it. I’ll talk about Grais’s assertions in a moment, but first I want to explain why the jurisdictional question is so crucial to the ultimate fate of BofA’s proposed deal. Two transcripts tell that tale.
Monitoring the docket Tuesday afternoon, as motions to intervene in Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities noteholders piled up, was sort of like watching guests arrive a cocktail party. Oh, here come the hedge funds. Look, there’s a bunch of insurance companies. The public pension funds always head straight for the shrimp. Homeowners? Did anyone invite them? And, of course, Goldman Sachs had to show up fashionably late.
Last October, when BofA’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement of Countrywide mortgage-backed securities breach of contract claims was just a twinkle in Kathy Patrick’s eye, David Grais of Grais & Ellsworth told me that one of the biggest problems for lawyers representing disgruntled MBS noteholders was the investors’ reluctance to come forward. Noteholders were afraid to provoke the banks that issued mortgage-backed securities, Grais said, so they didn’t want to sue under their own names. That’s why one of Grais & Ellsworth’s early put-back cases was filed on behalf of an ad hoc coalition of anonymous Countrywide MBS investors operating under the name Walnut Place.