postings by Adam Levitin

The Ibanez Property Ring

posted by Adam Levitin

There’s an interesting new article out on the celebrated Massachusetts U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case that suggests that the defendant, Antonio Ibanez, was at the center of a property fraud ring. It's not clear to me that there was anything illegal about Ibanez's activities, but even if there were, I don't think it much matters.  

Continue reading "The Ibanez Property Ring" »

The Promise and Limits of Postal Banking

posted by Adam Levitin

It’s easy for Progressives to get excited about the idea of postal banking: a public option for banking! What’s not to love?

I’m glad to see the idea of public options in financial services getting some play of late; it’s something I’ve championed for a while in payments and housing finance. But I think it’s necessary to recognize some of the limits to postal banking. In particular, it's not at all clear to me why we would want to involve the Post Office in the public provision of financial services. What the Post Office offers is a way to recreate a brick-and-mortar branch bank network. This really doesn't make a lot of sense for 21st century banking. Additionally, postal banking is often pitched as an alternative to payday and title lenders. Before we go running down that path, we should think about what it means to have the government in the payday lending business.

Continue reading "The Promise and Limits of Postal Banking" »

The Myth of the Disappearing Free Checking Account

posted by Adam Levitin

A regular trope sounded by opponents of consumer financial regulations is that the regulations have resulted in the disappearance of free checking. Whether it's the Durbin Interchange Amendment, the CFPB, or the Dodd-Frank Act in general, all are variously blamed for the supposed demise of free checking.  As it turns out, free checking is a little like Mark Twain--reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.  Most Americans with bank accounts report paying nothing for their services.  The prevalance of such respondents has actually increased since 2010, from 53% to 61% of respondents. 

Continue reading "The Myth of the Disappearing Free Checking Account" »

Unhappy Birthday, BAPCPA

posted by Adam Levitin

BAPCPA's been in effect for 10 years now. I still remember the day before it went into effect, seeing round the block lines at the Wilmington courthouse as consumers rushed to file. 

There's lots to say about BAPCPA, for both consumers and businesses, but it boils down to this: it's not a fine wine and hasn't improved with age. The vinegar only gets more sour. 

Who's Afraid of a Republican CFPB?

posted by Adam Levitin

My thoughts on the issue at The American Banker.  Short version: the possibility of a GOP presidential victory in 2016 isn't a good argument for changing the CFPB to a commission structure. 

Glass-Steagall: It's the Politics, Stupid!

posted by Adam Levitin

It was like eight nights of Chanukkah in one for me watching the Democratic debate last night. There was a Glass-Steagall lovefest going on. But here's the thing:  no one seems to get why Glass-Steagall was important or the connection between Glass-Steagal and the financial crisis. The importance of Glass-Steagall was not as a financial firewall between speculative investment activities and safe deposits. It was as a political Berlin Wall keeping the different sectors of the financial industry from uniting in their lobbying efforts and disturbing the peace of the nation.

Until and unless we realize that the importance of Glass-Steagall was political, we're going to continue wasting our time debating insufficient half-measures of financial regulation like the Volcker Rule, which has the financial, but not the political benefits of Glass-Steagall. More critically, we're going to pass regulations like the Volcker Rule and then wonder slack-jawed why they don't work, as the financial industry undermines them through the regulatory implementation and legislative amendments. Financial regulation is just not that complex technically, even if if has a lot of technical rules (it's the capital, stupid!). The problem we face is not technical, but political.

Continue reading "Glass-Steagall: It's the Politics, Stupid!" »

Covenant Banking

posted by Adam Levitin

A new book out by University of Minnesota Law Professors Claire Hill and Richard Painter proposes a really intriguing proposal for disciplining wayward financial services firms: "covenant banking." The problem, as Hill and Painter observe, is that when things go badly at a financial institution, the burden is borne by shareholders, not by the managers, who have portable human capital and whose compensation is not typically subject to clawback. In essence the problem, as Hill and Painter see it, is that bankers lack "skin in the game." And Hill and Painter have a plan to fix it. 

Continue reading "Covenant Banking" »

Note to Payments Innovators: You Need a Value Proposition!

posted by Adam Levitin

The past year has seen two notable innovations in the payments world and a third is coming down the pike.  ApplePay was rolled out last spring, the EMV liability shift went into effect on October 1, and the Fed has convened a task force on designing a faster payment system.  All three of these developments seem unlikely to result in major changes in payments unless they come up with a clear value proposition for consumers, merchants, or both. 

Continue reading "Note to Payments Innovators: You Need a Value Proposition!" »

Interchange Evidence?

posted by Adam Levitin

Both sides in the interchange fee debate have pointed to a recent Richmond Fed study as evidence supporting their position (here and here). Frankly, it's hard to tell without agreeing on a baseline for analysis: pre-Durbin interchange fees or what the fees would have been but for Durbin or the anticipated post-Durbin drop in fees? The finding that most merchants didn't notice a change in their merchant fees (which, of course, aren't the same as interchange fees) means very different things depending on the baseline used: that Durbin is pointless, that Durbin saves merchants money, or that Durbin isn't working as intended because of a defective rulemaking by the Fed.

In the midst of the race to claim vindication based on the study, however, no one seems to have noticed that a least some of the data used in the study—which comes from a merchant survey conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research—seems a little screwy.

Continue reading "Interchange Evidence? " »

CFPB Data Collection

posted by Adam Levitin

I've got an op-ed in the American Banker about the CFPB's data collection, which has become the latest inside-the-Beltway attack on the CFPB.  

The problem is that the CFPB's data collection critics (and here and here and here, among others) don't understand the first thing about the nature of the data collected by the CFPB.  Newt Gingrich, for example, worries about the civil liberties implications of the CFPB seeing your credit card bill. I'd be worried about that too, but that's not the data the CFPB's getting.  Nor is it getting metadata that can be used to reidentify accounts. Nor is the data that the CFPB collects useful to cybercriminals--it lacks account numbers, expiry dates, PINs, etc. And almost all of it is already commercially or publicly available and already collected by other government agencies.  But shoot first, ask questions later is how things often play out with attacks on the CFPB.  Would it be too much to ask for factually-grounded policy discourse every once in a while?

The Agency That's Got Your Back

posted by Adam Levitin

Nice piece in Time Magazine on the CFPB here

Donald Trump Speaks the Truth

posted by Adam Levitin

I never thought I'd write this, but Donald Trump speaks the truth, at least as far as bankruptcy is concerned. 

There's plenty to criticize regarding Donald Trump, but I really wish the media would back off the bankruptcy angle of his career, or at least be smarter about it.  

Continue reading "Donald Trump Speaks the Truth" »

Dodd-Frank's Constitutionality

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm testifying tomorrow before Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on The Constitution (yes, that's the official capitalization), about the constitutionality of the Dodd-Frank Act.  

Short version: nothing to see here folks.

Slightly longer version: really nothing to see here.

Even longer version:  the plaintiffs in State National Bank of Big Spring v. Lew have a totally non-Originalist interpretation of the Bankruptcy Clause, namely that "uniform laws" apparently requires equal treatment of all similar creditors, so title II Orderly Liquidation Authority is unconstitutional.  Yes, that's the sound of me shaking my head.

My written testimony is available  here.  

Faster Payments: Is There a Business Case?

posted by Adam Levitin

The Federal Reserve System has embarked on a project of exploring the possibility of faster retail payments in the United States.  A similar move has occurred with the UK Payments Council.  At the same time, the Electronic Payments Network is rolling out a faster version of ACH.

Here's what puzzles me:  what on earth is the business case for faster retail payments in the United States?  The U.S. payment system works incredibly well. Yes, it has flaws: the interchange system is unfair and security is atrocious. But those aren't really speed issues.  Real-time authentication is a security issue, but that's separate from speed of payment clearance and settlement.  

Now, it's true that the US lags behind other countries in terms of mobile payment technology.  We don't have anything like Kenya's m-Pesa mobile payment system. But there's a reason for that:  we don't need m-Pesa in the US because we already have a functioning retail banking system, and our banks are better safety-and-soundness risks than our telecom operators.  (Kenya's government owns a large share of m-Pesa, making it quasi-guarantied, I guess.)  

So readers, tell me, what am I missing?  Is there a business case, or is this just about chasing shiny bells and whistles and wanting to have the latest technology just because?  My sense is that we're seeing an "iPhone effect" of wanting the best and newest, even though the current system is just fine. 

Madden v. Marine Midland Funding

posted by Adam Levitin

In a recent case called Madden v. Marine Midland Funding, the Second Circuit ruled that a loan owned by a debt collector violated New York's usury statute.  The loan had been originally made by a national bank and was subsequently sold to the debt collector when it was in default.  There's no question that the state usury law was preempted when the loan was held by the national bank.  The Supreme Court's (awful) Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corp. decision from 1978 makes that very clear.  (The Court suddenly discovered in 1978 that over a century of legal understanding of the 1864 National Bank Act was somehow wrong and that banks had been leaving lots of money on the table.)  

The debt collector argued that because the loan had been made by a national bank, it carried preemption of state usury laws with it as a permanent, indelible feature.  "Applesauce!" proclaimed the Second Circuit:  National Bank Act preemption of state usury laws extends no further than National Bank Act regulation.  Preemption is part of a package with regulation, but once the loan passes beyond the hands of a National Bank, it loses its preemption protection and becomes subject to state usury laws.  (Some of you might recognize that this is an argument I made several years ago. Plaintiff's counsel sent me a very nice email to this effect.  You owe me a citation, 2d Circuit!).  

Continue reading "Madden v. Marine Midland Funding" »

Is There a Student Loan Debt Crisis?

posted by Adam Levitin

I've been a skeptic for some time about claims that we have a student loan "crisis" in the United States. For individuals mired with student loan debt, it is very much a crisis, of course.  But my reluctance to term growing levels of student loan debt a crisis reflects the fact that student loan debt is highly concentrated within the population and is generally structured in a way that does not create sharp liquidity crises:  long (and often deferrable) maturities, no sharp repayment shocks, and often offers established repayment and forgiveness programs. (This is more true of government loans than private loans.) And, while student loan debt is growing rapidly, it is still only about a 9th of the size of the mortgage market. All of this has kept the student loan kettle from boiling over.  

Yet at the same time it is precisely because of the concentration of student loans in the younger population that it is concerning.  Large debt loads at the beginning of one's adult life are likely to have very different effects on than debt spread out over a life time.  Moreover, student loans are not incurred based on current income, but on assumptions of future income (if that), so student loan debt burdens are more likely to be poorly calibrated to borrower's actual earning capacity. Additionally, because student loan debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy (except in extreme circumstances), unlike other types of debt, it likely to stick around.  And, unlike various types of secured debt, there is no "put" option. A homeowner who runs into trouble with a mortgage or a cash-strapped auto loan borrower can always sell the house or car (or let them be repossessed) to pay off part or all of the debt. That's not possible with unsecured debt.  

The real concern with student loans is not an acute liquidity crisis, like a mortgage payment resets or a massive surge in defaults, as with underwater homeowners.  Instead, the systemic danger from student loans is a debt overhang problem in which consumers' consumption habits are altered by the constant drag of debt service. That's not a "crisis" yet, but it's a problem that needs to be addressed before it becomes one. 

Continue reading "Is There a Student Loan Debt Crisis?" »

Andrew Ross Sorkin in SO Wrong about Starr v. Board

posted by Adam Levitin

Andrew Ross Sorkin is waiving his arms about the Starr v. Board of Governors ruling being the "end of bailouts." And he is SO wrong.  Sorkin writes that "Legal experts say that the ruling, coupled with certain provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law enacted after the crisis, makes it unlikely the government would ever rescue a failing institution, even if an intervention was warranted." 

I don't know which "legal experts" Sorkin is referring to (not least as he doesn't name any), but anyone who has imbibed the slightest draught of legal realism will recognize that bailouts are never constrained by law. The prime directive in a financial crisis, as Anna Gelpern has taught us, is to prevent the ship from sinking.  All other concerns--legality, moral hazard, expense, etc.--are jettisoned the moment they get in the way. Afterwards there's inevitable finger waging and cases like Starr, but whenever there's trouble again, we'll be right back at it. Put another way, the Fed is not Superman, but Batman. It will break the rules to protect Gotham, no matter what.  And that's probably the way we want it deep down.  

So what does Starr mean? The ruling is a justly deserved embarrassment for the Fed. There were a lot of ugly details that emerged during the trial that Sorkin doesn't want to mention, but in the end, the case really doesn't matter when one looks at the big picture. It is going to have ZERO effect on future bailouts. So Sorkin and others can be outraged that the mighty Fed was called to task for the imperious way it conducted the bailouts, but this judicial tonguelashing is just that and nothing more. 

After Hey Hey, Ho, Ho, Mary Jo It's Time to Go

posted by Adam Levitin

Senator Warren has written a pretty stinging rebuke of the ineffectiveness of Mary Jo White as SEC Chair. The take-away from Senator Warren's letter is that it's time for MJW to go: the SEC needs new and effective leadership. The SEC was asleep at the switch during the lead-up to the financial crisis and its post-crisis performance has been less than impressive. In a target-rich environment, the SEC has not notched any major enforcement wins and its rulemaking has been milquetoast (and in many cases continues to be delinquent, five years after Dodd-Frank required the rules). The SEC has also been unwilling to seriously discipline large financial institutions, creating a double standard in which insider traders and boiler room operators are treated much harsher than recidivist institutions.  

I don't know if MJW will be out the door in a month or if she'll tough it out until the next administration. But I think it's useful to ask why things went so wrong with MJW and how not to repeat the mistake of her appointment.  

My view is that MJW had entirely the wrong background to be running the SEC. MJW's background was as a litigator:  a US Attorney and defense counsel at Debevoise Plimpton. She's got impressive litigation chops.  The SEC Chair, however, is not a litigation position. It's a policy and administrative position. The SEC Chair doesn't run litigation and cannot single-handedly direct litigation. The SEC in general does a lot more than litigation, including rulemaking and oversight. It's ambit extends far beyond the stupid, but headline grabbing insider trading cases and reaches into much more important things like regulation of rating agencies and safety-and-soundness issues with clearinghouses and broker-dealers.  So why would a litigation resume be what we want in an SEC Chair?  Many of the most important issues before the SEC never end up in litigation. In fact, the stuff that gets litigated is often the more minor stuff, like prosecution of penny stock frauds. 

I'm not sure what the ideal resume for an SEC Chair is, but I think it has to be someone who has some policy chops, not another former prosecutor or securities litigator. Unfortunately, a President who wants to indicate that s/he'll be tough on Wall Street often thinks the best way to signal this is to appoint a former prosecutor.  Hopefully we won't fall for that trick again. If we want better securities regulation, a prosecutor is probably the wrong choice to head the SEC. 

Caulkett: SCOTUS Hands BoA a Victory

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Bank of America in Caulkett v. Bank of America. Basically the Court found itself bound by its previous decision in Dewsnup and didn't think that any of the distinctions presented (by yours truly among others) between Dewsnup and Caulkett were compelling. I continue to disagree, not least because the Court never explains why the distinctions weren't compelling, or even state what those distinctions were.  Given the lengthy opinions that the Court usually issues, I'd like to think that it could have taken the time to explain itself in this regard, if only to help guide future litigants. 

What all this means is that that I owe Bob Lawless a dinner:  I had been much more optimistic about the outcome of the case following oral argument.

Rent-to-Own Hair Weaves

posted by Adam Levitin

Apparently there is a business of rent-to-own hair weaves.  As a bald man, this is of particular interest. Below is a description of some of the program:

Please use our purchase program. The owners of this website or The Weave Loan Store/Weave Loans is not a lender Approval will vary based on credit determination and state law. This transaction is a rental-purchase agreement (or in NV, a lease agreement with an option to purchase; in IA, ND, NE, and SC, a consumer rental-purchase agreement; in CT and NH, a rent-to-own agreement; in AK, DC, DE, HI, ID, KS, OR, SD, VA, and WA, a lease-purchase agreement; in MA and RI, a lease; or in VT a consumer lease agreement). The Weave Loan Store Purchase Program is not available in MN or WI. For Consumers in Massachusetts and Rhode island, at any time after the initial payment, [sic]. You will not own the merchandise in The Weave Loan purchase program until the total amount necessary to acquire ownership is paid in full or until you purchase your early purchase option of our program. Ownership is optional. For consumers In VT, minimum 18-week  billing period applies. Product availability and pricing may vary by store, the internet sales, and seasons.. The Weave Loan Store Hair Extension Sales is not responsible for merchandise damaged by the customer. Free or reduced rent offers will not reduce total rent or purchase-option amounts. Our program contains credit and no credit check and no credit needed. The Customer must agree to not abide by the merchandise care instructions it is and shall hold The Weave Loan Store harmless of any damage caused by the customer. Program validation and Agreement requires verification of residence, income and personal references. You can release merchandise. The Weave Loan Store and Weave Loans, Wig Loans etc. are trademarks of Couture Enterprises INC. and the use of the names in anyway without written permission of the owners of Couture Enterprises is strictly prohibited and if used without permission will be subject to penalty of the law. By using the services and participating in our program are agreeing to the Terms & Conditions of this website and The Weave Loan Store. By using the services on this website you are agreeing to the Terms and Conditions listed.

There are clearly some editing problems with this langauge, such as "The Customer must agree to not abide by the merchandise care instructions".  

There's also the irony of a place called "The Weave Loan Store" claiming that it's not a lender. 

I particularly like the highlighted portion noting that "You can release merchandise."  Perhaps that's meant for hair weave businesses to finance their weaves and then sublet them to customers, but if not, how'd you like to rent my weave? 

But here's the real question:  what happens if you default on the rental?  Can The Weave Loan Store replevy the hair?  I don't think there's a self-help remedy here that doesn't involve breaching the peace.  And how does The Weave Loan Store prove that the hair being replevied is its hair?  It's not as if weaves come with serial numbers (as far as I know). 

Bankruptcy and Student Loan Debt

posted by Adam Levitin

My thoughts on whether the Bankruptcy Code should be amended to allow easier discharge of student loan debt are upon The Examiners at the Wall St. Journal. Short of it is yes for private student loans, no for public student loans. I'm sure to catch hell for this from some of the more aggressive student loan forgiveness advocates, given that most of the market is public student loans, but there are other restructuring and foregiveness options available for public loans and serious fairness problems with allowing discharge of existing student loans.  New borrowers shouldn't have to subsidize older ones' dischargeability, and taxpayers shouldn't be picking up the tab for social insurance to the extent that bad educational/career choices are within individuals' control.      

Dodd-Frank 2.0: The Unfinished Business of Financial Reform

posted by Adam Levitin

Our former co-blogger, Senator Elizabeth Warren, delivered an incredibly important speech yesterday laying out the work still to be done on financial reform. This speech is a bigger deal than Senator Warren's Antonio Weiss speech or her famous Citibank speech. This speech is a blueprint for Dodd-Frank 2.0.  It lays out a detailed vision of the challenges for reform work going forward:

  • break up the big banks;
  • a 21st Century Glass-Steagal Act that promotes narrow banking;
  • a targeted financial transactions tax to reduce unnecessary volatility from excessive arbitrage;
  • elimination of the tax system's preference for debt over equity financing, a limit on the Fed's emergency lending authority;
  • a simplification of the financial regulatory system (does this as presaging a reduction in the number of bank regulators? The SEC should certainly feel the heat from this speech...);
  • reforms aimed at the various types of short-term debt that are the hallmark of the shadow banking sector (money market mutual funds, repo). 

There are three remarkable things about this speech.  First, what is truly groundbreaking is that Senator Warren recognizes that the problems in the financial regulatory space are not just technocratic ones but political, and that technocratic fixes will never work until and unless the political structure of financial regulation is reformed.  Senator Warren's speech says exactly what needs to be said:  the power of large financial institutions not only threatens our economy, it threatens our democracy. Senator Warren has picked up the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt. 

Second, as a political matter this speech announces a reform offensive. Since the high-water mark of Dodd-Frank's passage in 2010 we have seen a steady push for deregulation. For Senator Warren to take the offensive here, particularly when her party is in the minority in both houses of Congress shows real moxie. That this speech is credible in such political circumstances is also a testiment to its substantive strength. 

Third, this speech presents the only vision for financial reform in the policy space. (OK, I guess the "deregulate 'em all" approach is a vision of sorts, but come on...) There isn't a competing right or left alternative out there.  No one else has a cohesive reform platform.  I think that makes Senator Warren's speech all the more important because this is the speech that will shape the policy field going forward into 2016.  This is the yardstick against which all presidential candidates, Democratic and Republican will be measured. It will be interesting to see which ones endorse what parts of Warren's vision and how enthusiastically. Silence will be particularly telling, as it is a vote for the dysfunctional status quo that leaves the Too-Big-To-Fail banks intact and growing. 

Read the speech.  This is important. 


Insurance Capital Games and PMI Reinsurance Kickbacks

posted by Adam Levitin

The New York Times carried an important story about the risky investment moves of life insurance companies. There's a lot of good stuff in the story, but it missed an important angle, namely the consumer harm that has already resulted from bank affiliation with captive reinsurers in the private mortgage insurance space, namely inflated and unecessary private mortgage insurance premiums because of illegal kickback arrangements. 

Continue reading "Insurance Capital Games and PMI Reinsurance Kickbacks" »

Clickwrap Contracts and the Federal Government

posted by Adam Levitin

The government is a major player in the marketplace as a buyer of goods and services, but legal scholars seldom pay attention to the law governing federal acquisitions. As it turns out this nearly completely ignored branch of contract law is actually way ahead of the curve, at least on the question of shrinkwrap and clickwrap contracts.  Title 48 of the Code of Federal Regulations contains the Federal Acquisition Regulations promulgated by the General Services Administration. Among them is a true gem that was promulgated in 2013 that addresses contracts that purport to bind the government to indemnify the government contractor in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act:

If the EULA, TOS, or similar legal instrument or agreement is invoked through an “I agree” click box or other comparable mechanism (e.g., “click-wrap” or “browse-wrap” agreements), execution does not bind the Government or any Government authorized end user to such clause.

If such a provision is good enough for Uncle Sam himself, shouldn't it be good enough for the taxpayers who would ultimately foot the bill? Contract law went off on a very bad trajectory when courts began to uphold clickwrap contracts based on arm-chair economics efficiency theories. It may well be that such contracts are efficient, at least in some cases, but contract law has never been solely about efficiency. Absent some meaningful evidence of a meeting of the minds between counterparties, it is hard to conclude that we are getting the mutual gains from trade we hope contracts produce, and a mere click isn't very good evidence of assent to particular terms. Hopefully the Restatement-in-Progress of the Law of Consumer Contracts will take note. 

Rodgin Cohen: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

posted by Adam Levitin

The Wall Street Journal ran a story today about H. Rodgin Cohen, the Senior Chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell and "one of Wall Street's top lawyers" decrying "the myth of regulatory capture." All I can say is wow. That's some chutzpah. 

For Rodgin Cohen to downplay regulatory capture is a like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the Wizard says, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." It's hard to think of an individual more at the center of the regulatory capture phenomenon than Rodgin Cohen.  Cohen plays a particular and unique role in the regulatory capture problem. Cohen is not just "one of Wall Street's top laywers". He is the top bank lawyer. He's a node through which all sorts of connections happen. Cohen is the eminece grise of financial services law and is an institution unto himself. Think of him as a sort of super-consiglieri or Mr. Wolf. There's no one who quite plays the role of Cohen in the world of financial regulation, and he's rightly greatly respected. 

I don't think of Cohen as an anti-regulatory ideologue (heck, regulation is how he earns a living), but he is deeply implicated in the regulatory capture problem because his strong suit is mediating between financial institutions and regulators. His job is to convinece regulators that they are on the same team as the banks and to get issues resolved quietly and out of the spotlight. Cohen, for example, was a drafter of the little noticed 1991 amendment to section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act that enabled the Fed to bailout non-banks like AIG and Goldman Sachs. Cohen's skill in persuading regulators to advance the financial services' industry's agenda is part of why Cohen is so respected and valued. But it also means that for him to admit that there's a capture problem of any sort would be to admit that financial institutions and regulators do not have aligned interests and to recognize that he's an advocate for financial institution clients, whose interests are not those of the public. And that would undercut the very sort of cozy relationship between banks and regulators that he aims to foster. Cohen's success is based in part on capture, so he's the last person who'd want it to go away. 

Continue reading "Rodgin Cohen: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain" »

Community Banks and the CFPB

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm testifying before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday at a hearing entitled "Preserving Consumer Choice and Financial Independence." I'm the only non-industry witness (no surprise there). For those interested, my testimony is linked here.  Here's the highlight:  

Community banks face a serious structural impediment to being able to compete in the consumer finance marketplace because they lack the size necessary to leverage economies of scale. The CFPB has repeatedly acted to ease regulatory burdens on community banks in an attempt to offset this structural disadvantage. While community banks continue to face serious problems with their business model, their profits were up nearly 28% in the last quarter of 2014 over the preceding year, which strongly indicates that they are not being subjected to stifling regulatory burdens.

Ultimately, if Congress wants to help community banks, the answer is not to tinker with the details of CFPB regulations... Instead, if Congress cares about community banks it needs to take action to break up the too-big-to-fail banks that receive an implicit government guarantee and pose a serious threat to global financial stability. Until and unless Congress acts to break up the too-big-to-fail banks, community banks will never be able to compete on a level playing field. 

SPOE: Backdoor Bailouts and Funding Fantasies?

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm thrilled that Jay Westbrook has finally come into blogosphere with his posts on Single-Point-of-Entry.  I've blogged a little on SPOE already, but I want to highlight what I still think are two critical problems with SPOE.  In keeping with Jay's spirit, let's call them "Backdoor Bailouts" and "Funding Fantasies". 

Continue reading "SPOE: Backdoor Bailouts and Funding Fantasies?" »

Translating the Warren-Yellen Exchange

posted by Adam Levitin

Senator Elizabeth Warren surprised a lot of people by laying into Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen as hard as she ever laid into Timothy Geithner. I think this was a really important exchange. But it's easy to miss exactly what's being communicated in it. Senator Warren's comments can basically be translated as follows:  

"Janet, I like you, but let me level with you. You need to replace your General Counsel, pronto. He's not on the same page about regulatory reform, and it's a problem. There's really no place for obstruction by Fed staffers, even the General Counsel. It's time for him to go."

There was a further subtext, though, that I think should be highlighted, and that's "What you do about your GC is a shibboleth about whether you're serious on regulatory reform."

Continue reading "Translating the Warren-Yellen Exchange" »

A 21st Century Trust Indenture Act?

posted by Adam Levitin

MBS investors suffered a serious legal blow a couple of months back when the Second Circuit held that the Trust Indenture Act of 1939 doesn't apply to MBS

The Second Circuit's decision hinges on treating a "mortgage" as a "security." That's rather counterintuitive.  The Trust Indenture Act doesn't define "security," but refers to the Securities Act's definitions. The Securities Act defines "security" to include "any note" but the definition bears the caveat "unless the context otherwise requires." I'd think that the context would have pretty easily counseled for reading "note" not to include residential mortgages. What the Securities Act is trying to pick up are issuances of corporate notes.

Frankly, I think the Second Circuit's reading (and the resulting decision) are absurd.  First, it is hard to see any context in which "note" should be read to include "residential mortgage" (especially in light of all of the other things that constitute a "security" under the Securities Act, when Congress could easily have included a "mortgage" in the definition).  Second, the Second Circuit's reading arrives at an absurd policy result.  It excludes from the Trust Indenture Act the very sort of securities (proto-MBS) that were the driving force behind the creation of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939 (and the NY state Trust Indenture Act of 1935 before that).  The groundwork for the federal Trust Indenture Act was a 1936 SEC report authored by William O. Douglas, Jerome Frank, and Abe Fortas (among others) that documented in incredible detail the abusive role of trustees in mortgage bond reorganizations.  (While bankruptcy scholars have tended to focus on the railroad reorganizations chapter of the report, the real estate chapter is just as important, and goes a long way to understanding why Douglas was such a champion of the absolute priority rule.)

The point here isn't to belabor a questionable decision by the Second Circuit (which did not mention the policy issues in its decision, but I don't know if they were argued), but to underscore the ruling's consequence. At least in the 2d Circuit, it's now clear that MBS investors are not protected by the Trust Indenture Act, and that's a bad thing. This decision means that there's very little (if anything) protecting investors from wrongdoing by MBS trustees, whether acts of omission (e.g., failing to police servicers) or commission (e.g., entering into sweetheart settlements of rep and warranty liability). This is exactly what the Trust Indenture Act was supposed to prevent. If Congress cares about investor protection, it's time to devise a 21st century Trust Indenture Act. 

[Update:  A state securities regulator emailed me to draw my attention to the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Reves v. Ernst & Young.  That decision expressly adopted an older 2d Circuit case's test regarding what is a security. That case excluded residential mortgage loans from the definition of "security" in the context of a securities fraud action. The 2d Circuit cited to its older decision (but not the Supreme Court's subsequent adoption of its test), but said that the context was different. Unfortunately, the 2d Circuit didn't think it was necessary to explain what about that context was sufficiently different to merit a different result. I can't see any plausible contextual distinction. There's really no context in which loans made for personal, family, or household purposes should ever be considered securities. They are subject to entirely different regulatory regimes, they are part of different markets, and no one would ever think to refer to such loans as securities. Except, apparently the 2d Circuit. It's one thing to arrive at the wrong conclusion after a serious analysis, but I am troubled that the 2d Circuit didn't bother to explain itself in this context.]  


Hacking and Systemic Financial Risk (Encore)

posted by Adam Levitin

The data breach stories just don't seem to stop. (And why would they?). The latest (I think) is about a massive and sophisticated multi-million dollar hacking of several banks.  If you read down through the story, one of the things the hackers did was manipulate the balances of real accounts.  They'd change a real $1,000 balance to $10,000 and then have $9,000 wired to an account at another institution.  

But why take out only $9,000?  The hackers were being nice, I suppose, in that they didn't steal any actual depositor's funds (as far as we know). And that was also probably smart, because if they zeroed out an account, there might be a bounced transaction that would alert the consumer and then the bank to the theft.  But I don't know that we can count on future hackers being so polite, considerate, or careful. Indeed, they might actually want to create havoc by messing with account balances.  

I raised this scenario several months ago, and before that a couple of years ago. I think today's news confirms that the financial Armageddon via hacking scenarios I have nightmares about aren't totally farfetched. Between state-sponsored hacking (I'm looking at you DPRK), terrorist hacking (ISIS and Newsweek), and rogue individuals, I think we're looking at a matter of when, not if, we see consequences from financial hacking that go beyond a few hundred million in losses and result instead in institutions failing. 

Man Bites Dog! Regulatory Edition

posted by Adam Levitin

I woke up this morning to see an abstract of a paper entitled Is Regulation to Blame for the Decline in American Entrepreneurship? When I saw that one of the co-authors was on the George Mason University economics faculty, I said to myself, "Well I know how this plays out." But then I read the abstract, which concludes: Federal regulation has had little to no effect on declining dynamism."

I wonder what the same commentators who trumpeted the "Dodd-Frank is killing community banks" stuff will think of this paper. I'm personally skeptical that one can measure the stringency of regulation in any quantifiable way, much less for different industries, but I'll just flag that this paper is out there.

Size Matters: Community Banks' Real Problem

posted by Adam Levitin

Community banks are ailing.  Over the past decade many of them have failed or been gobbled up by larger banks. What's going on? 

A new study by a fellow and a masters student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government thinks it has found the culprits:  Dodd-Frank!  The CFPB!  Regulation! Not surprisingly, this paper is already getting circulated by bank lobbyists as a prooftext for their anti-regulatory agenda. 

Let me make no bones about this study. It is gussied up to look like serious academic research, with footnotes and working paper series cover page, but don't let looks fool you. The study doesn't conform with basic norms of scholarship, such as discussing contrary evidence and having conclusions flow from evidence. Instead, the study is really a mouthpiece for a big bank anti-regulatory agenda that pretends to really be looking out for community banks.  

I'm not going to spend the time on a full-blown Fisking of this piece, but let me point out some serious problems and then talk about the real problem facing community banks and how big banks exploit community banks' problems to advance their own agenda. 

Continue reading "Size Matters: Community Banks' Real Problem" »

Sh*t In, Sh*t Out? the Problem of Mortgage Data Corruption & Empirical Analysis

posted by Adam Levitin

Empirical economic analysis is a powerful tool. It can elucidate correlations and sometimes even get us to causual explanations. But it has a serious weak-spot:  its value is entirely dependent upon the integrity of the data analyzed. To put the problem succinctly: sh*t in, sh*t out.

This brings us to analyses of the housing bubble. There's a sizeable academic literature on the housing bubble (and relatedly also expert witness reports on loss causation in MBS litigation) that rely on loan-level data. The problem is that a lot of that loan-level data is suspect. That should hardly be a surprise: the industry even referred to some products as "liar loans". And there were also FBI Mortgage Fraud reports indicating an uptick in mortgage fraud. But it was easy for economists to ignore the data integrity problem as long as the problems were merely anecdotal (e.g., the mariachi musician with the six-figure income), and could be blissfully assumed to only affect a small number of loans.

No longer. It's hard to show mortgage fraud empirically, but there's a growing empirical literature about mortgage fraud. There are now a couple of academic studies demonstrating significant inflation of borrower income on loan applications (here and here and here and here and here). (To be clear, this does not mean that the income was inflated by the borrowers. It could be inflated by either borrowers or lenders, including loan brokers.) There's also a Fitch Ratings report from late 2007 that shows questionable stated income, employment, FICO scores, property occupancy status, and appraisals on a large percentage of a small sample of subprime loans. 

I want to emphasize that this literature does not undermine all empirical work on the housing market during the bubble years. But it should give us pause when considering any analysis that relies on either loan-level or pool-level loan characteristics such as income, DTI, FICO, occupancy status, and LTV/CLTV. I suspect that the empirical mortgage fraud literature will not deter many economists from plowing ahead whenever their data produces a regression with statistical significance. And the studies might well be right in the end. But it should tell the rest of us to consume the studies with a grain of salt.

The Disappearance of HOEPA Loans

posted by Adam Levitin

While I'm on the subject of dead markets, what about HOEPA loans? HOEPA loans are super-high-cost loans that qualify for special consumer protections under the Home Owners Equity Protection Act of 1994. (Yes, that's the one that directed that the Fed "shall" implement a rule on abusive lending, which the Fed understood to be discretionary until 2008.) 

HMDA data has previously been a bit of a pain to manipulate to get summary statistics--big data sets and annoying variable labels.  No longer. The CFPB has an amazing on-line HMDA data tool that is a lot of fun to explore. The CFPB's created the Rolls-Royce LoPucki-BRD of HMDA data.  It's a real public service. My only complaint is that the CFPB only has data going back to 2007. Hopefully the Bureau will add in 2005-2006, at least (there was a reporting change in 2004). The Urban Institute also has a nice HMDA data page, but it's really more for power users. 

OK. So what's gone on with HOEPA loans? HOEPA status was always a kiss of death, but in 2005, there were 35,980 HOEPA loans made. In 2013 (still under the same definitions), there were just 1,873. That's a 95% decline in HOEPA lending. Now it might well be that lenders are making lots of loans just under the HOEPA reporting thresholds. But there's little reason to think that they suddenly started doing that in 2013--that trick's been around for a while. Instead, what we're seeing is that high-cost mortgage lending has simply disappeared in the United States, much more so than lending has contracted in general.

Just How Dead Is the Private-Label MBS Market?

posted by Adam Levitin

Pretty darn dead. In 2014, there were all of 22 private-label RMBS deals. These deals provided $5.67 billion in financing for 7,342 mortgages. Let that sink in for a second. The private-label market financed fewer home mortgages than were made in the District of Columbia last year.  

Perhaps the private-label market's defenders will finally accept that it is a seriously broken market and that fixing it isn't just a matter of interest rates moving a few basis points. This is a market that needs to take major steps to restore investor confidence, and that means, among other things, a total redesign of servicing/trustee compensation structures and roles and a major standardization of deal documentation so that investors won't have to worry about what language got snuck in on page 73 of a 120 page indenture.

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. 

Continue reading "Bankruptcy Valuations: A Pair of Modest Proposals" »

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:

Continue reading "Second-Liens and the Leverage Option" »

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.

Continue reading "Antonio Weiss Nomination Post-Mortem" »

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. 

Continue reading "Corporate Recidivism? Ocwen's Charter Problems" »

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:

Continue reading "Safe Banking" »


posted by Adam Levitin

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

We're talking Homer,

Ozzie and the Straw...


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.

Continue reading "For the Soul of the Party: the Budget Showdown and Financial Reform" »

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.

Continue reading "Why the World Hates Lawyers" »

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?  

Continue reading "What Qualifies an Investment Banker to be a Regulator?" »

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. 



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