postings by Adam Levitin

Bankruptcy Valuations: A Pair of Modest Proposals

posted by Adam Levitin

I want to take up Michelle Harner's call for "innovation and new approaches to valuation". Valuation may well be the most important issue in bankruptcy, and it is also the issue that is least subject to meaningful judicial review. Imagine a Court of Appeals trying to parse through discounted cash flow models or what are proper comparables. The lack of meaningful appellate review makes it all the more important that we get valuation right. 

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Second-Liens and the Leverage Option

posted by Adam Levitin

Susan Wachter and I have a new (short!) paper up on SSRN. It's called Second-Liens and the Leverage Option, and is about the curious absence of negative pledge clauses in US home mortgages, which enabled enormous amounts of second-lien leverage (much more than anyone realized) during the housing bubble. We have a very simple, narrowly tailored legislative fix that should make additional mortgage leverage via junior liens a bargained-for matter between the borrower and the senior lienholder(s), rather than an absolute right of the borrower. 

Abstract is below the break:

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Antonio Weiss Nomination Post-Mortem

posted by Adam Levitin

There've been a bunch of post-mortems of the Antonio Weiss nomination in the press the last few days (see, e.g., here, here, and here). When I read them I often feel like I'm reading a story about a kid who went to a fancy eastern boarding school, where he was head of the literary society, lettered in three sports, and did lots of charity work, but didn't get into the Ivy League school where all of his family and family friends went. The result: shock and outrage that the kid was denied his birthright! 

Being nominated for Undersecretary of the Treasury isn't quite like getting into Harvard (or even Yale). Yet reading Weiss's defenders' (and their all-too-willing jouralist abetters), one would think that's the story. And that underscores precisely what the problem was with the Weiss nomination, and what Weiss's defenders just don't get (or want to admit they get): the assumption that Wall Street success entitles someone to an important policy position for which they have no apparent qualifications.

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Betting on the House: The Dueling Caesar's Bankruptcies

posted by Adam Levitin

It's turning into a wild week in Chapter 11 with the dueling bankruptcy petitions for Caesar's Entertainment.  On Monday, an involuntary petition was filed in Delaware against Caesar's by some of its Second Lien noteholders. Today, Caesar's filed a voluntary petition in the Northern District of Illinois. It's not the year of the Four Emperors yet, but it is the year of the Two Caesar's petitions.  

So what's going on? Here's the story, at least as I've been able to figure out so far.  It's a sordid and quite fascinating tale of private-equity vs. hedge funds grappling in an age-old bankruptcy dance: the squeeze play. 

Continue reading "Betting on the House: The Dueling Caesar's Bankruptcies" »

Corporate Recidivism? Ocwen's Charter Problems

posted by Adam Levitin

Last month mortgage servicer Ocwen (that's NewCo backwards) was mauled by the NY State Department of Financial Services. Now the California Department of Corporations is seeking to revoke Ocwen's license to do business in that state. 

Here's the thing that is often forgotten:  this ain't the first time!  Ocwen used to be a federal thrift. In 2005, however, Ocwen "voluntarily" surrendered its thrift charter in the face of predatory lending/servicing investigation. And here we are, a decade later. What's changed?  By the NY and California allegations, not much. In other words, we're looking at a potential case of corporate recidivism. I'll refrain from commenting on the merits of the allegations, but there should be zero tolerance for corporate recidivism. 

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Safe Banking

posted by Adam Levitin

Just in time for the new year, I've got a new article called Safe Banking up on SSRN. The article is a first principles reexamination of the industrial organization of financial services. It identifies the institutional combination of deposits and lending as the key problem in our financial system. We've developed an enormous financial regulatory state to attempt to hold these lending and deposits together, but it might be time to admit that bank regulation just doesn't work and can't. Our bank regulatory system is simply too complex and too politicized to work flawlessly as it must.

My solution is a radical, yet conservative structural change that has become possible because of recent technological and market changes: mandate the institutional separation of deposits from lending in both traditional and shadow banking markets, a reform I call "Pure Reserve Banking". Pure Reserve Banking means 100% reserve banking plus withdrawal of the entire panoply of government support and subsidization of shadow banking products. There's a host of financial stability and political economy benefits that would flow from such a change, but at core Pure Reserve Banking means ending the subsidization of a volatile growth economy in which gains are privatized and losses socialized and shifting to a more stable—and inherently equitable—growth economy.

The abstract is below the break:

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Daaaaaaa-rryl...

posted by Adam Levitin

We're talking softball, from Maine to San Diego...  

We're talking Homer,

Ozzie and the Straw...

281574-Strawberry

The IRS is auctioning off a deferred annuity the Mets owe to Darryl Strawberry (yup, the Mets are still paying for Darryl).  What does this have to do with the Slips besides our love of the Simpsons? The annuity had been subject of a bankruptcy dispute between the Service and Strawberry's ex-wife. And, let's not forget the Wilpon family's experience with the Madoff bankruptcy.

Mortgage Servicer Privity with Borrowers

posted by Adam Levitin

A lot of the mortgage servicing litigation over the past seven years has faltered on standing issues. Does the borrower have standing to sue the servicer? This has been a problem for RESPA and HAMP suits, where there are questions about whether there is a private right of action, as well as for plain old breach of contract actions. The point I make in this post is that borrowers almost always have standing to sue the servicer for a breach of contract action arising out of the mortgage loan contract itself because the servicer is an assignee of part of the mortgage note. This was an issue that lurked in the background of a case I recently testified in, and I think it's worth highlighting for the Slips readers.  

A lot of courts have misunderstood the nature of the servicing relationship vis-a-vis the borrower and assumed that because the servicer is not expressly a party to the note and security agreement that there is no privity between the borrower and servicer and hence the borrower cannot maintain a breach of contract suit.  That's wrong. The servicer is not on the note or the security agreement, but the servicer is an assignee of the note, just like the securitization trust, and that provides all the privity needed for a breach of contract suit.  

Continue reading "Mortgage Servicer Privity with Borrowers" »

For the Soul of the Party: the Budget Showdown and Financial Reform

posted by Adam Levitin

Will we have an appropriations bill before a government shutdown? The fight over the 2015 Appropriations Bill is now focused on one of the non-appropriations measures stuck onto the bill by the House GOP. That provision would repeal section 716 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which prohibits bailouts of swap entities and pushes certain types of particularly risky swaps out of insured depositories. Section 716 might be thought of as the "Banks Aren't Casinos" provision of Dodd-Frank.

On the surface, the fight about section 716 looks like a partisan squabble. But the real issue is the internal Democratic Party struggle going on because if the Democratic leadership doesn't force party discipline in opposing the appropriations bill with this provision, the appropriations bill will likely pass. The outcome of the internal Democratic debate is frankly more important than whether section 716 gets rolled back. (I write that because I don't think the no-bailouts prohibition in section 716 is credible or that any prohibition on bailouts can be credible. When things get hairy, we'll bail, law be damned.) No, what matters here is how Democrats line up. The fight over section 716 is a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

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Why the World Hates Lawyers

posted by Adam Levitin

Why does the world hate lawyers?  Because of stuff like this.  You can't make this up:  the on-line menu prices for a Chinese restaurant weren't up-to-date, and a customer was overcharged $4. I get being pissed about that.  But what would most people do?  Just lump it, stop patronizing the restaurant, ask the restaurant for a refund, or complain to the credit card issuer. But in this case, the customer has a JD (and to make it more delicious, happens be a Harvard Business School professor). The professor decides to go all legal on the restaurant, demanding $12, as treble damages under Massachusetts' unfair and deceptive acts and practices (UDAP) statute, MGL 93a (even citing the statute!).  

I get why people would be hating on the professor for that alone. But here's what really peeves me. He gets MGL 93a wrong!!!  (I happen to teach this statute.) The professor is demanding something that he almost assuredly cannot get under law.

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What Qualifies an Investment Banker to be a Regulator?

posted by Adam Levitin

As the Antonio Weiss nomination contest heats up, I'd like to pose a question that seems to be taken for granted by Weiss's supporters, namely that he's obviously qualified for the job.  As far as I can tell, Weiss's chief qualifications are that (1) he's an investment banker and (2) he's a major Obama donor, who (3) professes Progressive sympathies. (It's awesome that he bankrolls the Paris Review, but surely that's not what qualifies him.)  

Weiss isn't Obama's only donor, and his Progressive bona fides seem to consist of co-authoring a Center for American Progress piece in favor of progressive (small p) taxation.  So really the case for Weiss's qualification comes down the the fact that he's an investment banker. His investment banking experience appears to be in mergers and acquisitions, and at an investment bank that does not have a depository.  Why on earth does that qualify him to be the Undersecretary for Domestic Finance?  

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Zombie Debt and the Metaphysics of Discharge

posted by Adam Levitin

The NYT has a piece about credit reporting of so-called "zombie debt"--debt that has been discharged in bankruptcy.  Apparently the US Trustee Program is investigating various creditors in connection with this debt.

The reporting obscured a bit of very subtle bankruptcy metaphysics. The discharge of debt in bankruptcy does not void the debt. The debt is still owing. But it cannot be collected except if the debtor volunteers to repay it. The discharge is an injunction against the enforcement of the debt against the debtor as a personal liability. The discharge voids judgments on the debt, but not the debt (and it does not prevent the enforcement of liens).  In other words, the debt still exists post-discharge.  It just isn't enforceable.

That means that there is nothing per se inaccurate about the debt being reported to a credit reporting agency as owing, provided that the debt is also reported as discharged in bankruptcy. (Different story altogether under Fair Credit Reporting Act and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act if the discharge is not reported.)   

As far as I can glean from the reporting, the problem seems to be less the continued reporting of the debt than creditors saying that they will only cease reporting it as owing if the debt is paid.  Is that a violation of the discharge injunction?  I'm not sure.  It is fine for a private party to require payment as a condition of future dealings:  "pay up if you want to do another deal with me." But that's not quite this situation. The purpose of continuing to report a discharged debt is not to invite a condition of future dealings.  Instead, its purpose (other than if continued reporting were the default) would seem to be to extract payment, which would be an "act to collect, recover, or offset any such debt as a personal liability of the debtor."  It'll be interesting to see more about how this plays out. 

QRM's Missed Opportunities for Financial Stability and Servicing Reform

posted by Adam Levitin

There are three major new regulations shaping the housing finance market:  QM (qualified mortgage), QRM (qualified residential mortgage) and Reg X.  QM is a safe harbor from the statutory ability-to-repay requirement that applies to all mortgages.  QRM is a safe harbor from the statutory risk retention requirement that applies to mortgage securitization.  And Reg X are the new mortgage servicing regulations.  It's important to understand how these three regulations interact and how they're going to affect the housing finance market.  (There's also new TILA/RESPA disclosure stuff, but I don't think that's particularly impactful, in part because I don't think disclosure regulation is especially effective in most real world circumstances.) 

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Credit Risk Retention Rules and QRM

posted by Adam Levitin

The long awaited credit risk retention rules for securitization are out. The big question--whether the qualified residential mortgage or QRM exemption would be narrower than the CFPB's qualified mortgage or QM safe harbor to the Ability to Repay requirement for mortgages is no. QRM=QM. The short version is that the rule doesn't require meaningful credit risk retention where it counts, and imposes significant market-shaping safe-harbor requirements where skin in the game isn't so important.

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Are You Sure That's Your Testimony?

posted by Adam Levitin

Yves Smith has had some great coverage of the AIG bailout trail over on Naked Capitalism.  While the litigation, as Yves has characterized it, is a bit like a brawl between the ugly stepsisters, it's telling us all kinds of stuff we didn't know (or at least couldn't document) about the 2008-09 bailouts.   

Today's coverage is a must-read piece by Matt Stoller about the civil service regulatory capture at the Fed, as personified by its general counsel.  The AIG trial has highlighted some of the worldview problems at the Fed. It has also included some jaw-dropping exchanges like the following:

Q: Would you agree as a general proposition that the market generally considers investment-grade debt securities safer than non-investment-grade debt securities?
A: I don’t know.

You can't make this stuff up.  I'll let readers draw their own conclusions. 

Unseal the Doomsday Book!

posted by Adam Levitin

When I first heard about the NY Fed's Doomsday book, my initial thought was, "Wow, they've got a comprehensive survey of land titles, so MERS really isn't an issue!" Then I realized it was a Doomsday book, not a Domesday book. Apparently the Doomsday book is some sort of "in case of emergency" do-it-yourself bailouts manual that outlines the steps the NY Fed believes it can legally take to stave off economic Armageddon. 

I'm rather puzzled by the NY Fed's claim that it should be kept under seal.  I guess we'll find out more of the Fed's reasoning soon enough, but it hardly seems to be particularly sensitive of secret information.  This isn't the Coca-Cola recipe or some sort of trade secret. It's hard to believe that we didn't see the full panoply of the Fed's bailout powers on display in 2008, and perhaps then some. (A colleague has suggested that they might be developing some sort of secret, stress-tested, boilerplate clad bailout machine in the basement of the NY Fed. Of course such a bailoutbot would exercise its own free-living-will. Its only vulnerability would be following a haircut.)

The fact that the Doomsday book apparently contains legal advice is not a seal issue--that's a privilege issue. Once that privilege is waived (I'm guessing it has been), I can't see why the fact that the document includes legal advice presents cause for remaining under seal. 

Courts have a lot of discretion in what they can allow to remain under seal, but I just don't see the Doomsday book as fiting into traditional categories of sealed documents. But as I said, we will see.  

Hacking and Systemic Financial Armageddon

posted by Adam Levitin

The revelation that 76 million JPMorgan Chase consumer accounts were compromised by hacking should be scaring the heck out of us. The Chase hacking is a red flag that hacking poses a real systemic risk to our banking system, and a national security risk as well. Frankly, I find this stuff a lot scarier than either ISIS or our still largely unregulated shadow banking space.  

Consider this nightmare scenario:  what if the hackers had just zeroed out all of those 76 million Chase accounts and wipes out months of transaction history making it impossible to determine exactly how much money was in the accounts at the time they were zeroed out? The money wouldn't even have to be stolen.  Just the account records changed.  What would happen then?

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Flagstar Servicing Enforcement Order

posted by Adam Levitin

The CFPB entered into a Consent Order with Flagstar Bank regarding its default mortgage servicing practices. This order is really important. It's the first enforcement action of the CFPB's new servicing rules, and its "benching" remedy that prevents Flagstar from most default servicing until it demonstrates compliance shows that the Bureau is serious about cleaning out the Augean stables of servicing. (The Ocwen order had a much larger dollar figure attached, but was about pre-2014 conduct).

The details given in the consent order tell an all-too-common picture about mortgage servicing.  

In 2011, Flagstar had 13,000 active loss mitigation applications but only assigned 25 full-time employees and a third-party vendor in India to review them. For a time, it took the staff up to nine months to review a single application. In Flagstar’s loss mitigation call center, the average call wait time was 25 minutes and the average call abandonment rate was almost 50 percent. And Flagstar’s loss mitigation application backlog numbered well over a thousand. 

And we wonder why loss mitigation hasn't been more effective?

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Digital Wallets

posted by Adam Levitin

Interesting op-ed on digital wallets by Edward Castronova and Joshua Fairfield in the NYT. I'm a little more skeptical. Thoughts follow the break.

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Apple Pay and the CFPB

posted by Adam Levitin

Apple Pay has been getting a lot of attention, and I hope to do a longer post on it, but for now let me highlight one possible issue that does not seem to have gotten any attention. I think Apple may have just become a regulated financial institution, unwittingly. Basically, I think Apple is now a "service provider" for purposes of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, which means Apple is subject to CFPB examination and UDAAP. 

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Isis Wallet Mobile Payments

posted by Adam Levitin

One of the competitors in the Great Mobile Payments Race is changing its name. Isis Wallet, a mobile payments joint venture of AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile is changing its name to Softcard for fairly obvious reasons. Isis Wallet operates by having the consumer store his/her payment card information on a "secure element"--tech speak for a tamper resistant chip that safely stores encrypted information.  (The particular secure element for Isis Wallet depends on the phone model.) That payment information is then communicated with merchants using NFC (near field communications, i.e., contactless).  Isis Wallet also integrates various loyalty programs and merchant offers (including some that are proximity based). As Apple's Apple Pay platform shows, mobile payments is becoming a crowded field with some real heavyweights. Yet, as I'll blog shortly, there are some real challenges ahead for anyone in the field. 

Is Housing Such a Bad Investment? Maybe Not...

posted by Adam Levitin

One of the post-bubble conventional wisdom stories that has gotten a lot of traction is that housing is a bad investment and that consumers would do better to rent and invest in the stock market.  The problem is that it's wrong.

The prooftext for the idea that housing is a bad investment is a straightfoward comparison of the returns on stock market indices with those on housing market indices.  If one compares the return on the S&P500 index vs. the S&P/Case-Shiller Composite 10 index from the beginning of the Case-Shiller data (1987) to present, one sees that the S&P500 went up 630%, while the Case-Shiller went up only 197%.  Even if one uses an average return (averaging the monthly index values, relative to the starting value), S&P500 is 244%, while Case-Shiller is 98%.  Ergo housing is a bad investment compared to the stock market, right?

That's certainly what a bunch of smart people have argued. (I won't link or name names, but Google isn't coy.) There are two problems with this line of argument.

First, it fails to account for the leveraged nature of housing investment.  Most homes are purchased on leverage, and housing is the only leveraged investment broadly available to the middle class. When one factors in leverage, housing massively outperforms stock market mutual funds, making it a pretty sensible investment in most cases.   

Second, the simple return comparison fails to account for the indirect benefits of housing, such as school districts, commuting time, quality of life etc. I'm not going to try to quantify the indirect benefits, although some of them definitely translate into pecuniary terms (schooling, for example).

If you'll indulge me with some number play below the break, you'll see that the leverage point alone blows the "housing is a bad investment" argument out of the water. Leverage is not without its complications, though.  

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Single-Point-of-Entry: No Bank Left Behind

posted by Adam Levitin

Last December the FDIC put out for comment a proposal for a Single-Point-of-Entry (SPOE) Strategy to implement its Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) under Title II of Dodd-Frank. Single-Point-of-Entry has gotten a lot of policy traction. The Treasury Secretary supports it and there’s huge buy-in from Wall Street.  And it’s an approach that is likely to ensure financial stability in the event that a systemically important financial institution gets into trouble.  There’s just one problem with it.  SPOE means “No Bank Left Behind”.  

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Duties to Serve in Housing Finance

posted by Adam Levitin

Mark Fogarty has a nice write-up in National Mortgage News of a book chapter about duties to serve in housing finance that I wrote with Jannecke Ratcliffe for a volume entitled Homeownership Built to Last (Brookings/Joint Center on Housing Studies 2014).  It's a real pleasure to realize that someone has actually read our chapter! 

MBS Settlements--Following the Money

posted by Adam Levitin

Financial crisis litigation has been going on for several years now and has been resulting in lots of piecemeal settlements. As a result, it's easy to miss the big picture.  There's actually been quite a lot of settlements covering a fair amount of money.  (Not all of it is real money, of course, but the notionals add up).  

By my counting, there have been some $94.6 billion in settlements announced or proposed to date dealing with mortgages and MBS.  

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Toward a Universal Ability to Repay Requirement

posted by Adam Levitin

The latest consumer financial product to come under the regulatory microscope is subprime auto lending, which has seen a boom in the last few years.  The subprime auto market's boom underscores a real problem in consumer financial regulation: different consumer financial products have developed different substantive regulatory regimes that are not justified by differences in the products. Most fundamentally, we have an ability-to-repay requirement for mortgages, a different ability-to-pay requirement for credit cards, and nothing else for other products. In light of the changes in all consumer finance markets, in which securitization and sweatbox lending have undermined the traditional lender-borrower partnership that encouraged responsible lending, it is time to consider a universal ability-to-repay requirement for consumer credit. 

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A National Debt Registry?

posted by Adam Levitin

There's a fascinating long magazine piece in the NYTimes about consumer debt sales and collection. The piece ends by asking why we don't have a national debt registry, as if that were the solution to all debt collection problems.  Unfortunately, the author only asked the FTC about this issue (and acknowledges that it isn't in FTC jurisdiction), not the CFPB, and the author doesn't consider any of the problems with creating and implementing a debt registry.  (I'm guessing Dalie will have something to say about this...) As the case of MERS shows, it isn't so easy to create a well-functioning registry of property rights of any sort.  Let me illustrate a few challenges to creating a debt registry:  

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Feeling Vindicated

posted by Adam Levitin

My Consumer Finance students used to think I was wasting their time by spending a whole class session on usury laws and taking them into the nitty-gritty of their application (or non-application). I think usury is important conceptually (but for the Marquette decision and its fallout, our regulation of consumer credit would likely be very different), has a lot of neat statutory reading twists and turns, and it actually can matter for non-bank lenders.  Among other things I cover is the NY state usury statute, including its criminal provisions. Cyrus Vance's prosecution of payday lenders under the usury statute would seem to vindicate my choice of class materials. 

Whose Fault Is the Argentina Debacle?

posted by Adam Levitin

I name names and point fingers in the Wall Street Journal.  NML gets some blame for overplaying its hand, but the fault primarily lies with the federal courts for letting the case go forward. I understand the courts being angered by an unrepentant debtor thumbing its nose at them, but the federal courts should know better than to get into a pissing match with a foreign sovereign. Federal judges are possessed of awesome powers, but not that awesome. It's not at all clear to me how Judge Griesa's going to get this case out of the hole he dug, and the recent reporting on the case indicates that he doesn't have any idea either. "We're in the soup."  Indeed. 

Operation Choke Point Hysteria: Are Choke Point's Critics Responsible for the Account Closings?

posted by Adam Levitin

At today's House Judiciary Committee hearing on Operation Choke Point it seemed that Choke Point's critics are conflating a fairly narrow DOJ civil investigation with separate general guidance given by prudential regulators.  In particular, Rep. Issa attempted to tie them together by noting that the DOJ referenced such guidance in its Choke Point subpoenas, but that's quite different than actually bringing a civil action on such a basis (or on the basis of "reputational risk"), which the DOJ has not done.  

There is a serious issue regarding the bank regulators' use of "guidance" to set policy. Guidance is usually informal and formally non-binding, but woe to the bank that does not comply--regulators have a lot of off-the-radar ways to make a bank's life miserable.  This isn't a Choke Point issue--this is a general problem that prudential bank regulation just doesn't fit within the administrative law paradigm.  There are lots of reasons it doesn't and perhaps shouldn't, but when it is discovered by people from outside of the banking world, it seems quite shocking, even though this is how bank regulation has always been done in living memory:  a small amount of formal rule-making and a lot of informal regulatory guidance.  By the same token, however, compliance with informal guidance is enforced informally, through the supervisory process, not through civil actions, precisely because the informal guidance is not actionable.  Yet, that is what Choke Point critics contend is being done--that DOJ is using civil actions to enforce informal guidance.  

I don't think that's correct (or at least it hasn't been shown).  But the conflation of DOJ action with prudential regulatory guidance may be creating the very problem Choke Point's critics fear.  

Bank compliance officers may be hearing what Choke Point critics are saying and believing it and acting on it.  If compliance officers believe that the DOJ will come after any bank that serves the high-risk industries identified by the FDIC or FinCEN, not just those that knowingly facilitate or wilfully ignore fraud, they will respond accordingly.  The safe thing to do in the compliance world is to follow the herd and avoid risks.  The attack on Operation Choke Point may well have spooked banks' compliance officers, who'd aren't going to parse through the technical distinctions involved.  

What matters is not what the DOJ actually does, but what compliance officers think the DOJ is doing, and they're likely to head the loudest voice in the room, that of Choke Point's critics.  So to the extent that we are having account terminations increasing after word got out of Operation Choke Point it might be because of Choke Point's critics' conflation of a narrowly tailored civil investigation with broad prudential guidance.  Ironically, we may have a self-fulfilling hysteria whipped up by Choke Point critics, who shoot first and ask questions later.  

Operation Choke Point: Payday Lending, Porn Stars, and the ACH System

posted by Adam Levitin

Pop quiz:  what do payday lenders have in common with on-line gun shops, escort services, pornography websites, on-line gambling and the purveyors of drug paraphrenalia or racist materials?  

You can read my testimony for this Thursday's House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law's hearing on Operation Choke Pointo find out. Or you can just keep reading here.  

Continue reading "Operation Choke Point: Payday Lending, Porn Stars, and the ACH System" »

Can Argentina Not Pay Yet Not Default? Perhaps. And Maybe There's Still a Route to NY State Court...

posted by Adam Levitin
A footnote to Mark's recent post on Argentina's remaining options got me thinking about what an Event of Default actually is under the exchange bond indenture. From a reasonably quick look at the (lengthy) documents, I think there might be a non-default route open to Argentina, and possibly also a procedural route to getting the pari passu clause interpretation in front of a New York State court. The exchange bond indenture para. 3.1 obligates the Republic to pay principal and interest "to the Trustee". The Republic is not obligated to pay the bondholders directly. That's the trustee's duty, if it is paid by the Republic, although the Republic has the option of directly paying the bondholders. Now, there is language in the Prospectus Supplement (page S-67) that:
Notwithstanding the foregoing, Argentina's obligations to make payments of principal and interest on the New Securities shall not have been satisfied until such payments are received by registered holders of the New Securities.
However, when one looks at the Indenture, this language appears only in the form of the debt security itself (exhibit C-2), not in the actual Indenture. The context of the language makes clear that it is an anti-mailbox rule provision making the obligation discharged upon receipt, not mailing because the preceding sentence explains that Argentina has the option of either paying the trustee or paying the registered noteholders directly. The "shall not have been satisfied" language immediately follows the direct payment option, which indicates that its purpose is to prevent Argentina from claiming that its obligation was discharged by putting the check in the mail. The "shall not have been satisfied" language does not apply when Argentina pays the trustee itself, which is the obligation in paragraph 3.1 of the Indenture.

Continue reading "Can Argentina Not Pay Yet Not Default? Perhaps. And Maybe There's Still a Route to NY State Court..." »

Consumer Finance Movie: Spent: Looking for Change

posted by Adam Levitin
I just saw Spent: Looking for Change, a documentary about the financial challenges of the unbanked. The film was funded by American Express, but there is no marketing of Amex products in the film. (Amex does offer one of the best non-DDA account options for the unbanked, however.) You can watch the movie for free on YouTube. The movie really puts a human face on the problems of the unbanked. It doesn't get into solutions (that would take a Peter Jackson trilogy), but it does a great job of setting forth what life is like for the unbanked. Highly recommended.

Does Bad Research Beat No Research? Durbin Amendment Data

posted by Adam Levitin

Todd Zywicki, Geoff Manne and Julian Morris have an article on the effect of the Durbin Amendment.  Sigh.  No surprises here.  Zywicki et al. are making claims beyond what their data can support and in fact directly contradicted by their own data, which shows that some of the "effects" of Durbin preceded the enactment and effective date of the Amendment.   

Continue reading "Does Bad Research Beat No Research? Durbin Amendment Data" »

Did Law v. Siegel Sound the Death Knell for the Equity Powers of the Bankruptcy Court?

posted by Adam Levitin

Did Law v. Siegel Sound the Death Knell for the Equity Powers of the Bankruptcy Court?  Mark Berman thinks so.  I'm skeptical (fuller version of my argument here).  But it depends what we mean when we refer to "equity", which is often used as a rubric for an array of different non-Code practices.  More complete coverage at the Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable.

Larry Summers' Attempt to Rewrite Cramdown History

posted by Adam Levitin

Larry Summers has a very interesting book review of Atif Mian and Amir Sufi's book House of Debt in the Financial Times. What's particularly interesting about the book review is not so much what Summers has to say about Mian and Sufi, as his attempt to rewrite history. Summers is trying to cast himself as having been on the right (but losing) side of the cramdown debate. His prooftext is a February 2008 op-ed he wrote in the Financial Times in his role as a private citizen. 

The FT op-ed was, admittedly, supportive of cramdown. But that's not the whole story. If anything, the FT op-ed was the outlier, because whatever Larry Summers was writing in the FT, it wasn't what he was doing in DC once he was in the Obama Administration.

Let's make no bones about it.  Larry Summers was not a proponent of cramdown.  At best, he was not an active opponent, but cramdown was not something Summers pushed for.  Maybe we can say that "Larry Summers was for cramdown before he was against it." 

Continue reading "Larry Summers' Attempt to Rewrite Cramdown History" »

Book Review: Jennifer Taub's Other People's Houses (Highly Recommended)

posted by Adam Levitin

I just read Jennifer Taub's outstanding book Other People's Houses, which is a history of mortgage deregulation and the financial crisis. The book makes a nice compliment to Kathleen Engel and Patricia McCoy's fantasticThe Subprime Virus. Both books tell the story of deregulation of the mortgage (and banking) market and the results, but in very different styles. What particularly amazed me about Taub's book was that she structured it around the story of the Nobelmans and American Savings Bank.

The Nobelmans?  American Savings Bank? Who on earth are they? They're the named parties in the 1993 Supreme Court case of Nobelman v. American Savings Bank, which is the decision that prohibited cramdown in Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Taub uses the Nobelmans and American Savings Banks' stories to structure a history of financial deregulation in the 1980s and how it produced (or really deepened) the S&L crisis and laid the groundwork for the housing bubble in the 2000s.

Continue reading "Book Review: Jennifer Taub's Other People's Houses (Highly Recommended)" »

Siphoning Value through Captives: Private Equity and Securitization

posted by Adam Levitin

Yves Smith has a fascinating post about how private equity firms (which, as she notes in the comments is largely a polite rebranding of "leveraged buyout firms") charge fees for services provided by captive affiliates to their portfolio companies.  On some level none of it is anything so new--part of the LBO game has always been to suck out fees and dividends from the target company, while gambling that the target would be able to service the debt incurred for its acquisition.  Even if the target goes bankrupt, the LBO sponsor may have still made money because of the fees and dividends. 

What I thought was really interesting here was to see the parallel with the private-label mortgage securitization market.  

Continue reading "Siphoning Value through Captives: Private Equity and Securitization" »

Regulation of Financial Politics

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a multi-book review essay on the financial crisis that is now out in the Harvard Law Review. Sadly, Timothy Geithner went to print to late for me to include his book. James Kwak has written a nice response to my essay here.   

Faith-Based Markets

posted by Adam Levitin

Paul Krugman has a column today about the blind, fundamentalist faith in efficient markets.  This is a phenomenon that Stephen Lubben and I have been discussing recently (did Krugman just preempt our paper idea?), as we've both encountered it in the financial regulatory policy debate: 

  • The Chapter 14 proposal that would resolve large financial institutions in bankruptcy takes it as a matter of faith that there would be sufficient private DIP financing available to resolve, say, JPMorgan Chase. I don't know how much would be needed, but it would be a multiple of the largest private DIP loans to date:  $10B for Energy Future Holding and $8B for Lyondell Chemical.  Where would the, perhaps $100B needed for a megabank come from?  Well, not from that megabank...  But don't worry, the market will provide.
  • Housing finance reform proposals that would either total privatize the housing market (the House Republican solution) or privatize 10% of the market (the Johnson-Crapo bill in the Senate).  We could have a completely private housing finance system.  But don't be surprised when home prices drop precipitously.  There just isn't enough private risk-capital willing to assume credit risk on housing to finance the whole market. It's not clear to me that there's enough private risk-capital willing to assume the credit risk on 10% of the market, and if there isn't it is going to result in at least a 50 basis point increase across the board, and much higher price increases for riskier borrower.  But don't worry about these details.  The market will provide. 

So here's the inconvenient paradox of market fundamentalism:  the idea that the free market can be directed. Either the market is free or it will follow direction, but it's not going to do both. Markets do what markets want.  

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Who Knew Google Was a Credit Reporting Agency?

posted by Adam Levitin

You thought that Google was just a search engine.  It turns out that Google is also a credit reporting agency.  The octopus has a 9th tentacle.  Didn't see that coming. (I guess that makes it a Googlepus...) That's the implication of the European Court of Justice's ruling ordering Google to take down links to the advertisements to a foreclosure sale from 16 years ago.  

The commentary on the ECJ's Google ruling has focused on the ECJ classifying Google as a data processor, but I think the credit reporting part of the decision may be just as significant. The ruling looks a lot less radical when understood from the credit reporting perspective, although it remains a problematic ruling because it is not limited to such a context.  

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Consumer Arbitration: Taking Stock

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an op-ed in today's American Banker on the supposed efficiency and fairness of binding mandatory arbitration.  We've given arbitration occasional coverage on the Slips over the years, but it's never been a major focus of our posting, in part because it isn't inherently a credit issue. Instead, the fight over arbitration is another chapter in the fight over whether public services should be privatized.  It's worth noting, however, in the time since our coverage began (not to take any credit for it), the needle has moved a bit on binding mandatory arbitration in consumer contracts--both ways.  

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Payday Lending and the FTC Credit Practices Rule

posted by Adam Levitin

Why doesn’t payday lending violate the FTC’s Credit Practices Rule (16 C.F.R. 444.2)?  That’s what I’m trying to figure out.  

The Credit Practices Rule prohibits taking or receiving directly or indirectly an assignment of wages in most circumstances.  (None of the exceptions appear applicable to the payday lending context.) The FTC has gone after some payday lenders for taking a formal direct assignment of wages, but that's an usual term for payday loans. Rather, I'm more interested in the question of an indirect wage assignment. I think there's a pretty good case that a payday loan is an indirect assignment of wages:

  • A payday loan is called a “payday loan”—it’s designed to ensure repayment from the borrower’s wages;
  • the loan’s maturity is usually designed to match with pay periods;
  • usually the only “underwriting” is verification of the borrower’s employment;
  • the loan is “secured’ with either a post-dated check or authorization for an ACH debit with the date set for…payday.  

That sure looks to me like an indirect assignment of wages—the loan is designed to enable the lender to be repaid from the borrower’s wages without having to go to court and get a judgment and a garnishment order (i.e., a judicial wage assignment).  

I’m curious to hear readers thoughts on whether this sounds right or whether I’m missing something.  Please limit comments to the legal interpretation issue—I’m not looking to open a discussion on the merits of payday lending, just to understand if it violates the FTC Credit Practices Rule or if not, why not.  

Legal Notice. Read Carefully: Your Rights May Be Affected

posted by Adam Levitin

In light of General Mills policy of claiming that its binding mandatory arbitration requirement (with class action waiver) applies to anyone who purchases its products, including via third-party vendors, I have decided, to post the following legal notice, applicable to all persons, everywhere:     

By permitting, allowing, or suffering me to purchase any of your products or services, whether directly from you or indirectly through dealers, vendors, agents, or other third-parties, you agree to irrevocably surrender all rights to compel me to arbitration or to waive my rights to proceed against you as a member of a class action.  In order to make this provision effective and allow effective vindication of my rights, you also agree to irrevocably surrender all rights to compel arbitration and to prevent class actions against all other purchasers of your products and services.  You also agree to cover all of my costs associated with bringing an action, including attorneys' fees and any damages awarded against me, irrespective of the outcome of the action. 

Is General Mills notice any more effective than mine?  I don't see why it would be.  Let's get this long-range battle of the forms on! 

It's My Fault You Can't Get a Mortgage

posted by Adam Levitin

Can’t get a mortgage?  Turns out it’s my fault.  As in mine, personally.  Yup.  That’s the claim in a Housing Wire written by right-wing banking analyst R. Christopher Whalen.  Here is Whalen’s argument in a nutshell:  

Servicing regulations make banks really reluctant to deal with anyone but very good credit borrowers because it takes so long to foreclose on anyone anymore.  Servicing regulations are so onerous because of an article Tara Twomey and I wrote on mortgage servicing that said that servicers were doing bad things. The problem (in Whalen's view) is that Tara and I had it totally wrong.

I'm flattered that Whalen credits the article with having inspired all of the subsequent foreclosure regulation, but it would be nice if Whalen would accurately characterize the article. (Has he even read it?)  It would also be nice if Whalen would acknowledge that servicers have done an awful lot of bad things over the past several years, which might just possibily have something to do with the current regulatory enviornment for servicing. But such an admission that might get in the way of Whalen grinding his political axe (two legs good, regulation ba-a-a-d).

Continue reading "It's My Fault You Can't Get a Mortgage" »

Bitcoin Tax Ruling

posted by Adam Levitin

The IRS has spoken:  Bitcoins are property, not currency.  This was hardly a surprise, but it has some important implication that tells us a lot about what it takes to make a currency work.  

Satoshi

For a payments geek, the real lesson from the IRS Bitcoin ruling is that for a currency--or any payment system--to work, its units must be completely fungible.  One reason dollars work really well as a currency is that one $20 bill is entirely fungible with another $20 bill.  This means that when I pay, I don't have to make a decision about which $20 bill to use (unless I have some idiosyncratic attachment to the crisp ones or the like). It means that when I accept a payment, I don't care which $20 bill I am given, in part because I know that my ability to spend that $20 bill will not depend on which $20 bill it is.  If payment were in, say, camels, then it would probably matter a great deal which camel were tendered.  Camels aren't fungible. And we know that's not going to make for a very good payment system. 

So what does this have to do with Bitcoin?  

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The Politics of Financial Regulation and the Regulation of Financial Politics

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an new article, The Politics of Financial Regulation and the Regulation of Financial Politics, forthcoming in the Harvard Law ReviewThe article is a multi-book review essay that serves as a launching pad for a discussion about the role of politics in financial regulation. The basic point is that the real issue in financial regulation is one of neutralizing or harnessing politics. Without addressing the political problem in financial regulation, regulatory reforms will be incomplete and unsustainable.

Why Do Community Banks Carry Water for the Megabanks?

posted by Adam Levitin

A phenomenon that has puzzled me for the last several years is why community banks consistently carry water for the megabanks on regulatory reform issues.  I'm hoping that readers might be able to shine some light on this issue.

Continue reading "Why Do Community Banks Carry Water for the Megabanks?" »

New Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Blog

posted by Adam Levitin

Harvard Law School's Bankruptcy Roundtable, a dialogue between academics and practitioners, is now in the blogosphere!  The Roundtable has launched with a number of very substantive posts by Douglas Baird and Anthony Casey; Judge Sontchi; Thomas Jackson and David Skeel; Nelly Alemeida; and Marshal Huebner and Hilary Dengel.  I know that we academics benefit a lot from discussions with practitioners. (I hope, but am not entirely sure, that the benefits are mutual...)  

Highly recommended.  

Everything You Wanted to Know about CLOs, But Were Afraid to Ask

posted by Adam Levitin

Well, not exactly. But for anyone who is interested, here is my written Congressional testimony for a House Financial Services Committee, Subcommittee on Capital Markets and GSEs hearing on "The Dodd-Frank Act's Impact on Asset-Backed Securities".  If you've been dying to understand the Volcker Rule's impact on ABS and on CLOs in particular, then this testimony is for you! 

Four main points of interests to non-technical readers: 

(1) The loan/security distinction regarding CLOs (securitizations of high yield corporate loan syndication interests) seems silly, but it's also really hard to say what makes a CLO different from a hedge fund.  

(2) The ultimate Volcker Rule concern about any type of ownership interest in an investment fund (be it a hedge fund, a private equity fund, a CLO, or any other type of ABS) is that there will be an implicit guarantee and we'll have deposit insurance funding a bailout of an uninsured, speculative investment fund, like we had with the SIVs. 

(3) skin-in-the-game credit risk retention for securitizations is unlikely to work when dealing with too-big-to-fail institutions.  If downside is socialized, credit risk retention won't align incentives of securitizers and investors.

 (4) The SEC needs to start taking its systemic stability mandate seriously. You're not just an investor protection shop any more SEC! 

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