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.
If JPMorgan Chase and the Justice Department thought that all the zeroes at the end of the bank’s multibillion-dollar settlement for mortgage securitization failures would foreclose questions about the bank’s actual wrongdoing, clearly they thought wrong. Days after the much-leaked-about $13 billion deal was finally announced, New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson looked at the admissions accompanying the settlement and wondered why it had taken the federal government so long to hold the bank accountable for conduct that’s been in the public domain for years. Morgenson’s column echoed posts at Bloomberg and Slate that also scoffed at JPMorgan “admissions.” On Monday, even a commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission piled on. Dan Gallagher, a Republican, criticized the settlement as a penalty on the bank’s current shareholders that’s not justified by JPMorgan’s admitted conduct. “It is not rational,” Gallagher told an audience in Frankfurt at an event organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany.
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?
I have a bold assertion: Breach of contract suits by mortgage-backed securities trustees are no longer a rarity. In my daily feed of new filings, I’m seeing a fairly regular trickle of cases asserting trustee claims that mortgage originators didn’t live up to their representations and warranties about the loans they sold to MBS trusts. The roster of firms filing cases for trustees has expanded as well. Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman still seems to be the likeliest to appear on the signature page of MBS trustee complaints, but last week MoloLamken filed a put-back suit in New York State Supreme Court for the trustee of a Morgan Stanley MBS trust, and Holwell Shuster & Goldberg brought a put-back claim in the same court for the trustee of a Deutsche Bank-backed trust.
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.
If you’re reasonably literate about the financial crisis, you probably know that the credit rating agencies have slipped through the carnage like a cat walking away from a knocked-over vase. With their opinions on publicly offered mortgage-backed securities protected by the First Amendment, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have won dismissals of the vast majority of MBS investor claims against them in state and federal court, despite powerful evidence from congressional investigations that they worked with underwriters to confer investment-grade ratings on securities backed by dreck. With one possible exception, the only surviving cases against rating agencies involve claims by investors in private placements, who have successfully argued that private ratings aren’t protected free speech.