Unstructured Finance

The nine lives of the eminent domain for mortgages debate

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

Law professor Bob Hockett, widely credited with popularizing the idea of using eminent domain to restructure underwater mortgages, says he continues to be approached by yield-hungry angel investors looking for a way to help out struggling homeowners and make money at the same time.

He said an increasing number of wealthy investors on “both coasts” regularly reach out to him to get more information about how eminent domain would work and get a better read on “the prospects of municipalities adopting one or another variance of the plan.”

Hockett also is continuing to advise local officials in a variety of cities including some in New Jersey and New York (Irvington, N.J. and Yonkers, N.Y. for instance) on how they might use eminent domain to condemn, seize and restructure deeply underwater mortgages for homeowners determined to keep-up with their high monthly mortgage payments.

Local officials continue to consider the idea of eminent domain even after it ultimately was rejected in San Bernardino County, Calif., North Las Vegas and banks and bond investors sued Richmond, Calif., the municipality that is furthest along the path to condemning underwater mortgages. The lawsuit against Richmond was dismissed by a federal judge as being premature because the California city merely has said it is considering eminent domain but has yet to actually condemn any home loans.

The lawsuits, however, were something of a warning shot to local officials in Richmond and elsewhere that Wall Street will fight like tooth and nail against the plan that would effectively give municipalities the powers to rewrite mortgages and in the process reduce the value of the bonds the loans were packaged into it.

Ackman’s Penney-sized revenge?

It’s hard to say that Bill Ackman came out of the J.C. Penney debacle looking good. But in one regard the hedge fund manager did score a minor victory: he and his Pershing Square Capital Management sold their shares before the bloodbath began in the ailing retailer’s stock.

In hindsight, the $12.90 a share price that Pershing Square sold its 18 percent stake in Penney to Citigroup doesn’t look so bad compared to the $8.73 a share price the stock closed at on Tuesday. There was much made in the press about the $473 million loss Ackman’s fund was saddled with after the hedge fund manager’s push to remake Penney into an upscale retailer failed. The criticism was justified as even Ackman conceded he isn’t great at retail.

But Ackman’s quick late August exit from the stock after first blistering the company’s board for taking too long to find a permanent CEO doesn’t look as bad in retrospect. Forbes’ Nathan Vardi even went so far a few days ago to write that Ackman’s decision to bolt on Penney looks like a “brilliant” decision.

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