Opinion

Alison Frankel

The last, best chance for besieged bank defendants

Alison Frankel
Jul 10, 2014 20:51 UTC

Goldman Sachs has a little more than two months for a miracle to happen.

Otherwise, on Sept. 29, the bank will go to trial in federal court in Manhattan against the Federal Housing Finance Agency to defend claims that Goldman deceived Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac about the quality of the mortgage-backed securities it was peddling before the financial crash.

For defendants in the FHFA litigation, trying to explain to jurors — and to a deeply skeptical judge — that you’re not responsible for woefully deficient securities is so unappealing a prospect that 15 other big banks have coughed up a collective $15 billion to Fannie and Freddie’s conservator. Only Goldman and three other banks have stuck out three years of lopsided litigation in which U.S. District Judge Denise Cote has consistently ruled against them on matters large and small.

These four holdouts have only one possible advantage over the defendants that have already capitulated: the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last month in an environmental case called CTS Corporation v. Waldburger.

The day that decision came down, I pointed out that it was good news for securities defendants because it cast doubt on the timeliness of fraud claims by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the National Credit Union Administration.

Waldburger addressed whether Congress extended state-law statutes of repose along with statutes of limitations when it passed a federal environmental cleanup law in 1980. (Both of those set time limits for when injury suits must be filed, but the statute of limitations depends on such factors as when the injury was discovered and whether the parties have agreed to stop the clock. The statute of repose, by contrast, is generally longer but sets an absolute time bar on a defendant’s potential liability.)

New ruling puts Fannie, Freddie in line for windfall MBS recovery

Alison Frankel
Dec 17, 2013 20:24 UTC

Has there ever been a more lopsided multibillion-dollar case than the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s fraud litigation against the banks that sold mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? I don’t think U.S. District Judge Denise Cote of Manhattan, who is overseeing securities fraud suits against 11 banks that haven’t already settled with the conservator for Fannie and Freddie, has sided with the banks on any major issue, from the timeliness of FHFA’s suits to how deeply the defendants can probe Fannie and Freddie’s knowledge of MBS underwriting standards in the late stages of the housing bubble. But even in that context, Judge Cote’s summary judgment ruling Monday – gutting the banks’ defenses against FHFA’s state-law securities claims – is a doozy.

In effect, Cote’s decision will permit FHFA to recover more from MBS issuers than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would have made if their MBS investments had paid as promised. Of course, FHFA and its lawyers at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman still have to show that the banks knew or had reason to know that their offering documents misrepresented the mortgage-backed securities they were peddling to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But if FHFA meets that burden, the banks can’t ward off claims under the state securities laws of Virginia and the District of Columbia by blaming Fannie and Freddie’s MBS losses on broad declines in the economy and the housing market.

What’s more, those state securities laws give FHFA the right to rescission – or restitution of the entire purchase price of the MBS Fannie and Freddie bought – plus fees, costs and, most importantly, interest. The Virginia statute mandates that securities fraudsters chip up 6 percent interest – more than the scheduled interest rate in many of the MBS trusts in which Fannie and Freddie invested. The banks, in other words, are now exposed to liability far beyond the actual losses Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac suffered – and even beyond what FHFA’s wards would have earned if the MBS trusts had performed exactly as the banks said they would at the time of sale. That extra interest would be a true windfall for FHFA.

UBS ‘likely’ to settle with FHFA before January trial: bank co-defendants

Alison Frankel
Jul 17, 2013 19:03 UTC

Remember UBS’s attempt to play what it considered a get-out-of-jail-free card in the megabillions litigation over mortgage-backed securities UBS and more than a dozen other banks sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? UBS’s lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom came up with an argument that could have decimated claims against all of the banks: When Congress passed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 and established the Federal Housing Finance Agency as a conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, UBS said, lawmakers explicitly extended the one-year statute of limitations on federal securities claims – but neglected to extend, or even mention, the three-year statute of repose. UBS argued that FHFA’s suits, which in the aggregate asserted claims on more than $300 billion in MBS, were untimely because they were filed after the statute of repose expired.

The judge overseeing almost all of the FHFA MBS suits, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, denied UBS’s motion to dismiss in 2012. The bank, she said, was splitting hairs: Congress clearly intended to give FHFA a chance to evaluate its potential causes of action and believed it was doing so when it extended the statute of limitations. The judge subsequently applied the same reasoning to other banks’ motions to dismiss FHFA suits on timeliness grounds, but she also granted UBS permission to take the issue to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Cote said that whichever way the appeals court ruled, its decision would help resolve the FHFA litigation. If she were reversed, FHFA’s claims would be drastically narrowed; if she were upheld, the banks would be more inclined to settle.

In April, as you probably recall, a three-judge 2nd Circuit panel affirmed Judge Cote. In the appeal, UBS stood alone among the FHFA bank defendants as a party, though the other banks filed an amicus brief endorsing UBS’s position that Congress failed to extend the statute of repose. Since the 2nd Circuit’s ruling, UBS and FHFA have been engaged in whirlwind discovery, which is scheduled to close in September. Judge Cote has set an inviolable January trial date for FHFA’s case against UBS.

Why FHFA IG report doesn’t mean big new liability for banks

Alison Frankel
Sep 27, 2011 21:44 UTC

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.

So if the FHFA Inspector General is castigating Freddie for overlooking BofA’s liability for mortgages that defaulted four or five years after they were issued — and FHFA is generally reckoned to be the most experienced evaluator of reps and warranties claims there is — have other put-back claimants underestimated potential bank liability? Are bond insurers and MBS investors making the same supposed mistake as Freddie Mac?

The short answer is no.

The IG report faults Freddie for failing to account for the exotic mortgage loans that proliferated in the housing bubble. Homeowners with interest-only or adjustable-rate mortgages often made it through the early teaser-rate years, only to default when they had to begin making higher payments. The FHFA IG report indicates that Freddie Mac has seen tens of thousands of these mortgages go into default three to five years after they were issued.

What are Fannie and Freddie’s MBS cases really worth?

Alison Frankel
Sep 6, 2011 23:03 UTC

Last Friday evening, after the Federal Housing Finance Agency filed 17 blockbuster suits against just about every major issuer of mortgage-backed securities, the buzz was about the staggering size of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s investments in mortgage-backed notes and certificates. The suits, 13 filed by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and four by Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman, cite about $196 billion in MBS holdings by Fannie and Freddie. Under both state and federal damages theories, the suits demand rescission, or a buyback of the notes by their issuers. Does that mean we should we assume that FHFA has $196 billion in claims?

Nope. Not even close. FHFA doesn’t specify any damages numbers in the complaints filed Friday, but in the agency’s previously-filed $4.5 billion MBS suit against UBS, FHFA asserted that Fannie and Freddie had “lost in excess of 20 percent” of their investment in UBS notes, including unrealized losses. Apply that rough logic to the FHFA’s new suits, and the agency’s claims are knocked down to $40 billion — a huge number, to be sure, but not a heart-stopping one. The banks, meanwhile, are cranking up defenses to shrink even that reduced estimate of FHFA losses. One bank defense lawyer told me Tuesday that by his firm’s calculation, which I’ll explain later, Fannie and Freddie have actually realized losses of no more than about $50 million on their $4.5 billion investment in UBS mortgage-backed certificates. Do the math: if FHFA’s losses are similar across the board, that would put Fannie and Freddie’s recoverable damages on MBS securities claims in the universe of a few billion dollars.

That is, of course, a lot of supposition. But any estimate of banks’ MBS liability, by necessity, involves supposition. MBS investor litigation is so new that there’s not much precedent to guide predictions of how FHFA’s suits, or those of any other MBS investor, will fare in court or in settlement talks. So far, there’s only been one public settlement of an MBS securities case — Wells Fargo’s $125 million deal in a class action involving investors in 28 MBS offerings. Lots of other MBS investors have filed federal court cases, including several class actions, but the litigation hasn’t progressed very far. (Late Tuesday FHFA put out a press release that clarified its damages theories and claims, spelling out some of the same points I make below.)

Quinn Emanuel is not riding an MBS wave: it triggered a tsunami

Alison Frankel
Sep 2, 2011 21:44 UTC

The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s reported mortgage-backed securities suits against a slew of major banks haven’t yet been filed. But if you want to know what they’re likely to look like, check out Mass Mutual’s 168-page MBS complaint against Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and J.P. Morgan, filed Thursday. (It’s so big the Massachusetts federal court docket split it into four parts: here, here, here and here.) Or you could look at AIG’s $10 billion megasuit against BofA, Countrywide, and Merrill, filed on Aug. 8, or Allstate’s 114-page complaint against Goldman Sachs on Aug. 15, or U.S. Bank’s MBS breach of contract suit against BofA, which came at the beginning of this week.

All of those complaints — and many, many more raising allegations that big banks misrepresented the quality of the mortgages underlying the asset-backed securities they packaged and sold — were filed by the law firm representing FHFA in its MBS investigation: Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. And that’s no accident. Quinn Emanuel, a 450-lawyer firm whose partners take home an average of more than $3 million a year, made a conscious decision more than three years ago to push into structured finance litigation against money-center banks, at a time when most litigators didn’t know the first thing about these instruments. In a way, the anticipated FHFA suits are the culmination of Quinn Emanuel’s four-year investment in MBS litigation.

Before 2007, Quinn Emanuel was usually competing for a seat on the banks’ side of the table. Then name partner John Quinn, a onetime Cravath, Swaine & Moore lawyer, had a revolutionary thought. Quinn Emanuel doesn’t have a big corporate practice, he reasoned, so there were no conflicts to keep the firm from suing financial institutions. Rather than vie with a pack of premier law firms for bank business, he decided the firm should give up its relationships with banks and accounting firms and start representing corporate clients with claims against big banks. “We deduced there weren’t very many prestigious law firms willing to be adverse to financial institutions,” name partner William Urquhart told me Friday.

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