postings by Adam Levitin

Not Cool, Bank of America

posted by Adam Levitin

I used my phone to remotely deposit a check today at Bank of America. Before I was able to proceed with the transaction, however, Bank of America required me to agree to new terms and conditions for mobile deposits. The terms and conditions were presented to me on my smartphone (roughly a 4''x 2'' screen). I could have pressed "accept" before I scrolled through any of the terms, but I actually went and scrolled through.  It took several scrolls before I got to the end—these were not a short list of terms and conditions, and there was no indication of what had changed. I have no idea there was only a minor amendment or something substantial. More disturbingly, I was given no option of printing or emailing myself the new terms and conditions to which I agreed; I have no idea where (if anywhere) I can access those terms that I have supposedly "agreed" to.  

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Addressing Credit Invisibility Through Federal Contracting Power

posted by Adam Levitin

The Biden administration could substantially reduce the number of "credit invisible" and "thin file" consumers without legislation, simply through a determined use of federal contract regarding multi-family mortgages and wireless spectrum licenses. By requiring credit reporting as a condition of federal purchase of multi-family mortgages or sale of wireless spectrum, the Biden administration could ensuring credit reporting for a lot of renters and all cellphone contracts, which would help millions of Americans start to come into the credit system and escape the Catch-22 of credit invisibility. This would be a major step toward achieving economic equity in the United States. 

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Consumers and Price Volatility: Texas Electricity Prices

posted by Adam Levitin

Some Texas consumers who didn't lose power are now finding themselves socked with massive electric bills, as high as $17,000. The reason? They were paying variable kW/h pricing for their electricity at wholesale rates, without any sort of price collar. The Washington Post explains

The state’s unregulated market allows customers to pick their utility providers, with some offering plans that let users pay wholesale prices for power. Variable plans can be attractive to customers in better weather, when the bill may be lower than fixed-rate ones. Customers can shift their usage to the cheapest periods, such as nights. But when the wholesale price increases, the variable plan becomes the worst option.

This story jumped out at me for two reasons.

Continue reading "Consumers and Price Volatility: Texas Electricity Prices" »

NRA Bankruptcy: Enter Kirkland?

posted by Adam Levitin

The latest development in the NRA bankruptcy is the NRA's motion to retain Kirkland & Ellis as special counsel.  The retention seems to be for appellate issues, and the partner submitting the retention affidavit is an appellate specialist, not a bankruptcy lawyer. Yet this raises the question why Kirkland, which has long represented the NRA in various matters, is not the NRA's bankruptcy counsel. Kirkland has one of the top chapter 11 practices in the US. You'd think that they'd be the first place the NRA would turn if it was thinking about bankruptcy.🧐

Oh yeah, in the spirit of economy, Kirkland is giving the NRA a 15% discount from its normal rates. I get that it's a nonprofit, but there's something ironic about giving a solvent debtor a discount, but charging full freight to the ones that are broke. Also, does that count as a charitable contribution? 

Update:  Maybe I wrote too soon. The notice address given for Kirkland is for Ryan Bennett a restructuring lawyer out of Chicago, not part of the DC-based appellate practice. Maybe that was just for handling the retention application, however. 

Is the NRA Out of Bullets?

posted by Adam Levitin

The NRA's Gone to Texas bankruptcy just keeps getting wilder and wilder. First an NRA board member files a motion for an examiner. Then the NRA's largest creditor files a motion for the case to be dismissed as a bad faith filing (or in the alternative seeking a trustee). Then the NYAG also  files a motion seeking the dismissal of the case as a bad faith filing or in the alternative requesting a trustee be appointed. And then to top it off, the US Trustee files an objection to the retention of the NRA's counsel as not disinterested only to have one of the NRA's largest trade creditors file a motion for the Official Creditors' Committee set up by the US Trustee to be reconstituted (and basically alleging bias by the US Trustee's office against NRA management). This is turning in the bankruptcy version of the shoot out at the OK Corral. 

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Is the NRA Board Shooting Itself in the Foot By Doing Nothing?

posted by Adam Levitin

In my previous blog post on the NRA bankruptcy, I was focused on the bankruptcy implications of the incredible examiner motion filed by an NRA board member against the NRA. But as I think about it more, it's also got some important corporate governance implications: did the NRA board violate its fiduciary duties?  

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NRA Examiner Motion

posted by Adam Levitin

As I predicted, things were not going to go so smoothly for the National Rifle Association in bankruptcy. Today, the Hon. Phillip Journey, a Kansas state judge who was recently elected to the NRA's board of directors, filed an examiner motion in the case. There are some bombshells in Judge Journey's motion, including that the NRA board was never informed of the bankruptcy filing or the creation of the venue-hook subsidiary! 

That cause me to go back and look at the NRA's bankruptcy petition. There's no board authorization of the filing attached! Instead, there's an authorization by the NRA's special litigation committee. The special litigation committee's purported authority to file the NRA for bankruptcy is language in its enabling resolution about undertaking actions to "reorganize or restructure the affairs of the Association". Is that a grant of authority for a chapter 11 filing? I'm skeptical. I would have expected express language about filing "for bankruptcy under title 11 of the United States Code" or the like. "Reorganize or restructure the affairs" could include a lot of things other than bankruptcy, and given the importance of bankruptcy for corporate governance, this doesn't seem like the sort of power to be given by implication. 

Eviction Moratoria Save Lives: the Evidence

posted by Adam Levitin

Once in a while you see an empirical paper that makes you say "wow." That's my first reaction to an NBER paper out from some economists and a sociologist at Duke and UNC. The paper, entitled "Housing Precarity & the Covid-19 Pandemic: Impacts of Utility Disconnection and Eviction Moratoria on Infections and Deaths Across US Counties" has an absolute bombshell finding:  eviction and utility disconnect moratoria save lives.  A lot of them.  

The paper suggests that had eviction and disconnect moratoria been in place since the start of the pandemic, deaths would be down by over 55!!!! That's 246,000 deaths that shouldn't have happened. From the abstract

We find that policies that limit evictions are found to reduce COVID-19 infections by 3.8% and reduce deaths by 11%. Moratoria on utility disconnections reduce COVID-19 infections by 4.4% and mortality rates by 7.4%. Had such policies been in place across all counties (i.e., adopted as federal policy) from early March 2020 through the end of November 2020, our estimated counterfactuals show that policies that limit evictions could have reduced COVID-19 infections by 14.2% and deaths by 40.7%. For moratoria on utility disconnections, COVID-19 infections rates could have been reduced by 8.7% and deaths by 14.8%.

Here's the key graphic: 

Evictions

The methodology is a regression analysis on COVID infection/death rates and a county-level housing insecurity measure—that means that the paper is not connecting actual deaths and actual evictions. And one might question if the controls adequate capture everything. People more methodologically expert than me need to kick the tires here. But at a first glance, the directional findings here are very strong (over 99% chance of a correlation in all of the key specifications and models) and the point estimates are huge. Even if the findings are off by a factor of 100, we're talking about 2,460 unnecessary deaths, a staggering number from a pre-COVID perspective (close to the 9/11 direct death toll). If the paper is right, the CDC's eviction moratorium might have done more to save lives than any other single action taken during the pandemic. 

This paper should be a real spur for states to tighten up their renter protections and utility disconnect regulations during the pandemic. It should also be a call for the CDC to not only extend its eviction moratorium at least until the fall, but to expand it to cover utility disconnects and mobile home repossessions. 

NRA Bankruptcy

posted by Adam Levitin

The National Rifle Association filed for bankruptcy in the Northern District of Texas (Dallas). The NRA's press release says that the purpose of the bankruptcy is to enable the NRA to change from being a New York corporation to a Texas corporation. This is critical to the NRA because the NY Attorney General, who regulates NY non-profits, is seeking to have the NRA dissolved for financial malfeasance. Notably, the NRA states that it "will propose a plan that provides for payment in full of all valid creditors’ claims. The Association expects to uphold commitments to employees, vendors, members, and other community stakeholders." In other words, the NRA's petition is not driven by financial exigencies, but to avoid the reach of the New York Attorney General. As the press release boasts, the NRA is "dumping New York."

This is going to be one heck of an interesting case. There are already so many glaring issues (or should I say "targets"?): venue, good faith filing, disclosures, the automatic stay the trustee question, fiduciary duties to pursue claims against insiders, executory employment contracts, the fate of Wayne LaPierre, and the generally overlooked governance provisions of the Bankruptcy Code. I'll take quick aim at these all below. 

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CBRA Op-Ed

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an op-ed about the Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act running on CNBC's site. Given that both collection moratoria and benefit extensions keep getting dribbled out in one to three month bites, we will definitely see an expiration of both as the pandemic wanes, and neither is sufficient for many households to address their arrearages.

Consider this (not in the op-ed): there's now 4.78% of mortgages that are 90+ delinquent. That's the third-highest level since 1978. Part of that is that there are virtually no foreclosures happening, but a lot of it is that the delinquencies aren't being cured. Once a household runs 90+ delinquent, cure gets very difficult—the arrearage is just too big. We are going to be looking at a lot of foreclosures down the road. Add to that a rental delinquency rate somewhere between 18% (Census numbers) and 23% (Nat'l Multifamily Housing Council numbers), and we've got a real mess looming. Unfortunately, it won't just be an economic problem or a personal tragedy for many families. It will be a political problem that will have long-term ramifications, just like the 2008 foreclosure crisis.  

Mick Mulvaney for Hypocrite Laureate?

posted by Adam Levitin

Remember Mick Mulvaney?  He was a Tea Party Congressman who became head of OMB for Trump and was then named acting CFPB Director and ultimately acting Chief of Staff for Trump before being appointed special envoy to Northern Ireland.  Well he’s resigned in protest over the sacking of the Capitol. 

I'm glad to hear that Mick is opposed to mob violence. But Mick has always been a virutoso of hypocrisy, but here he’s outdone himself. Let's not forget that Mick Mulvaney personally did far worse damage to our country than all of the Trumpist rioters.

The Kraninger Discount

posted by Adam Levitin

The CFPB has been chugging out enforcement actions and settlements at a fairly fast clip the last several months. Part of that might be businesses deciding to settle because they think they're going to get a better deal with Director Kraninger than under any Director appointed by President Biden. And here's the thing:  they might well be right because there is a clearly observable "Kraninger Discount" in CFPB enforcement statistics. Director Kraninger has suspended nearly 18% of civil monetary penalties and 11% of consumer redress. That's nearly 7x and 3x the rate penalty and redress suspensions under Director Cordray.

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"Madden-Fix" Amicus

posted by Adam Levitin

I filed an amicus brief today in Becerra v. Brooks, the challenge brought by the California, Illinois, and New York attorneys general against the OCC's "Madden-fix" rule. Consider it a stocking stuffer for the Acting Comptroller, Brian Brooks, and a bit of goodwill toward mankind. 

Many thanks to my able counsel, Ted Mermin and Eliza Duggan from the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law & Economic Justice! 

The OCC Is a Problem Agency

posted by Adam Levitin

It's time to say it loud and clear: the OCC is a problem agency.

Here's a list of only some of the issues from the past year: the fair access rule, toleration of rent-a-banks, the valid-when-made rule, the true lender rule (that the FDIC notably didn't copy), the fintech charter, Figure's bank charter application, failure to deal with BoA's fair housing issues; failure to take JPM's unauthorized overdrafts seriously, even a ridiculous interpretation of preemption standards that came out today. (Does this laundry list of problems remind anyone of the FHLBB or OTS?)  

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Regulatory Comments to the OCC on the Fair Access to Financial Services Rule

posted by Adam Levitin

I submitted comments to the OCC about its proposed rulemaking regarding Fair Access to Financial Services. I previously blogged on the topic here and here. There are a LOT of problems in this poorly thought-through rulemaking, starting with whether there is even statutory authority, continuing to its myriad inconsistencies with safety-and-soundness (and thank goodness for President Trump, who provides many helpful examples), going on to First Amendment problems, and then wrapping up with an antitrust analysis that would flunk any antitrust course—it doesn't even define a relevant product market! Sigh. 

The Unconvincing Case for a Public Credit Registry

posted by Adam Levitin
Public provision—whether public options or public monopoly—has become all the rage in some progressive circles. I’d like to claim early mover status in this regard—back in 2009 I wrote a piece calling for public provision in payments, and in 2013 I wrote a piece underscoring the importance of public options and public provision in housing finance. One public provision proposal I haven’t previously commented on, but which has been troubling me for a while is the idea of a public credit registry. I’m sympathetic to consideration of public provision as a tool in the regulatory toolbox, and the idea is supported by a bunch of folks whom I very much respect, but I just don’t see the case here at all.  Public provision just isn’t a solution to most of the market failures in credit reporting. Moreover, even if there were a case, of all the possible priorities in consumer finance regulation, this seems really far down the list and a poor use of limited agency resources. 

Continue reading "The Unconvincing Case for a Public Credit Registry" »

The Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2020

posted by Adam Levitin

Today Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced the Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2020. This is the first major consumer bankruptcy reform legislation to be introduced since the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA). Whereas BAPCPA introduced a number of major, but targeted reforms to consumer bankruptcy law (and also a few business bankruptcy provisions as well), the CBRA is a much more ambitious bill:  it proposes a wholesale reform of the structure of consumer bankruptcy law with an eye toward reduces the costs and frictions that prevent consumers from being able to address their debts in bankruptcy.

This is a long post with an extended overview of the bill. The bill's sponsors have a one-page version or a two-page summary, but I figure you're here at the Slips because you just can't get enough bankruptcy law, and we're happy to oblige. Let me start with a disclosure, though. I was privileged to provide assistance with the bill, along with several other Slipsters. That means I know what's in it, and I think it's a really good and important piece of legislation that I hope will become law. 

A New Chapter 10 for Consumer Bankruptcy (Eliminating Consumer 7s and Chapter 13) 

Whereas consumer bankruptcy has long existed in two primary flavors—liquidations (chapter 7) and repayment plans (chapter 13)—the CBRA proposes a single chapter structure (a new chapter 10).  Under the CBRA, individual debtors would no longer be eligible for chapter 7, and chapter 13 would be repealed in its entirety. All individual debtors with debts of less than $7.5 million would be eligible for chapter 10; those with larger debts would have to file for 11 (or 12 if they qualify).  It's important to keep this structure in mind when evaluating the CBRA. While the CBRA takes elements from chapters 7 and 13, the CBRA is not trying to replicate existing 7 or 13. That means if you come to CBRA with a mindset of "wait, that's not how we do it in 13," well, yeah, that's kind of the point. 

The CBRA is a huge bill (188-pages) with a lot of provisions. In addition to the new chapter 10, it also contains amendments to numerous provisions in chapters 1, 3, and 5 of the Bankruptcy Code, as well to certain federal consumer financial protection statutes. I'm not going to try to cover everything in detail, but I want to cover how chapter 10 would work, as well as some of the highlights from other provisions. This is a very long post, but I think it's important for there to be a clear statement of how chapter 10 would work because there will undoubtedly be some misinterpretations of the bill, and I'd like to see consideration of the bill be on its actual merits.  

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Restructuring Support Agreements and the "Proceduralist Inversion"

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm usually fussing about bank regulation issues here on the Slips, but I do try to make time for my first love, business bankruptcy. Ted Janger and I have a short piece about restructuring support agreements out in the Yale Law Journal's on-line supplement. It's a response to David Skeel's excellent article about RSAs. Suffice it to say that we are a bit more skeptical that Skeel about the benefits of RSAs, which we see as a mixed bag that require some policing.

What's particularly fascinating to me and Ted, however, is the way that Skeel's article illustrates the way that "camps" of bankruptcy scholar have effectively swapped positions over time. The "bankruptcy conservatives"—law-and-economics camp—was historically associated with a concern about procedure over outcomes and criticized the "bankruptcy liberals"—the traditionalist camp—as too concerned about distributional outcomes. Yet now it is bankruptcy liberals who are urging adherence to procedural protections, while it is the bankruptcy conservatives who are cheering on procedurally suspect devices because of their effects. 

Figure's National Banking Charter Application: Illegal and Bad Policy

posted by Adam Levitin

It's not every day that I write a letter in opposition to the issuance of a bank charter. But that's what I just did. Here is my comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in opposition to the charter application for Figure, which is seeking to operate an uninsured national bank. Not only is that not legally permitted, but issuing such a charter would be jaw-droppingly terrible policy from both a safety-and-soundness and consumer protection standpoint. I often disagree with the OCC only policy issues, but chartering an uninsured national bank goes far beyond any reasonable policy position. 

There are lots of reasons to be concerned about Figure's application on its own, but what really worries me is that Figure will be the camel's nose under the tent. If it's possible to get a national banking charter without being an insured depository or subject to the Bank Holding Company Act or the Community Reinvestment Act, ever tech company and its mother is going to be lining up to become a national bank. 

Purdue's Poison Pill and the Broken Chapter 11 System

posted by Adam Levitin

Jonathan Lipson and Gerald Posner have an important op-ed about the Purdue bankruptcy in the NYT and how the DOJ settlement with Purdue is likely to benefit the Sacklers. What's going on in Purdue is troubling, but not just for its own facts. Purdue illustrates a fundamental breakdown of the checks and balances in the corporate bankruptcy system.

The basic problem is that debtors can pick their judges in a system that precludes any meaningful appellate review. That lets debtors like Purdue push through incredibly inappropriate provisions if they can get a single non-Article III judge of their choice to sign off. This happening in as high-profile and important a case as Purdue should be an alarm bell that things have gone off the rails in large chapter 11 practice. Where Purdue goes, chapter 11 practice in other cases will surely follow. 

Purdue is perhaps the most extreme illustration of the confluence of three trends in bankruptcy each of which is problematic on its own, but which in combination are corrosive to the fundamental legitimacy of the bankruptcy court system.  

  • First, there is a problem of debtors attempting to push ever more aggressive and coercive restructuring plans.
  • Second, there is the lack of effective appellate review of many critical bankruptcy issues.
  • And third, there is the problem of forum shopping, particularly its newest incarnation, which is about shopping for individual judges, not just judicial districts.

Put together this means that debtor are picking their judge, knowing that certain judges will be more permissive of their aggressive restructuring maneuvers and that there will never be any meaningful appellate review of the judges, who are free to disregard even clear Supreme Court decisions. A single judge of the debtor's choosing is effectively the only check on what the debtor can do in chapter 11. That is a broken legal system.  

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The OCC Stands Up for Fossil Fuels, Gun Makers, Opioid Manufacturers, and Payday Lenders

posted by Adam Levitin

Those wascally wabbits at OCC are back at it again in the waning light of the Trumpshchina. The OCC has proposed a rule on "Fair Access to Financial Services." 

The gist of the rule is that banks cannot deny service to business based on the bank's opinion of "the person's legal business endeavors, or any lawful activity in which the person is engaging or has engaged."  Instead, the bank may deny service only based on "quantified and documented failure to meet quantitative, impartial, risk-based standards established in advance by the covered bank".  

This means that if a bank has moral qualms about financing the fossil fuel industry, opioid manufacturers, firearm manufacturers, payday lenders, reproductive health services, pornographers, gay conversion therapy, fur farming, makers of drug paraphernalia, the private prison industry, or businesses involved in the deportation of immigrants, to give a range of examples of businesses that pose serious reputational risk to banks (and very direct financial risk in some instances), well, too bad. Unless the bank can show that the borrower doesn't meet quantitative, impartial, risk-based underwriting standards, it must lend because these are all legal industries. Is it like that any bank will ever have "quantitative, impartial, risk-based underwriting standards" regarding a particular disfavored industry? The standard for denial of service is near impossible to meet, as it seems to require some sort of empirically grounded underwriting by industry that banks are unlikely to have. 

Put another way, the OCC's proposed rule says reputation risk doesn't matter. That's insane. It's a quite reasonable business decision for a bank to say that it doesn't want to be known as the bank that financed school shootings or consumer lending products that it would never offer itself. A bank might reasonably fear that it would lose a chunk of its deposit base if it became known as the go-to bank for a controversial industry. If you don't think reputation risk matters, look at the law firms that have been dropping President Trump's election appeals like a hot potato. They are terrified that they are going to lose other clients who don't want to be associated with those efforts. All the more so with a bank, where depositors are literally financing the loans.  

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Trump's Personal Guaranties and Liquidity

posted by Adam Levitin

The revelations about Donald Trump's taxes might hold in them an explanation for why he didn't divest from his businesses when he became President, despite the obvious political problems that was going to create:  he couldn't afford divesting.  

Trump seems to have personally guarantied hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate borrowing. That's not uncommon for someone in his position, but I would imagine that at least some of those personal guaranties have key man provisions that require him to remain involved with the business. If he doesn't, the loan (and guaranty) might be in default and callable. And there are surely cross-default clauses in some of the borrowings, so it wouldn't be just one loan that could come due, but a bunch of them. It's pretty clear that in 2016 Trump didn't have the liquidity (and perhaps not even the assets) to deal with that sort of situation. 

Now let's be clear. There might have been other motivations for Trump to retain control over his businesses. But to that list, we should add the possibility that he had boxed himself in and couldn't divest even if he had wanted to without ending up broke. 

Congressional testimony on Small Business Lending regulation

posted by Adam Levitin

I am testifying later today (virtually) before the House Small Business Committee on "Transparency in Small Business Lending."  My written testimony is here.

Here's the background: consumer credit is governed by an extensive regulatory regime, starting with disclosure regulation, but extending to some substantive term regulation, and regular supervision (inspections) of lenders. There is no equivalent system for business lending.

The lack of protections for businesses is because they are presumed to be more sophisticated entities, but the range of financial and legal sophistication among businesses varies considerably. In particular, small businesses are often much more similar to consumers, and in fact their borrowing is often based on the owner's personal credit and guarantied by the owner and collateralized by the owner's personal property.

This leaves small businesses vulnerable to abusive practices that were prohibited in the consumer credit markets in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s:  disclosure of credit costs in non-standardized and misleading terms (e.g., quoting daily interest rates, rather than annual percentage rates, as required for consumer credit by the Truth in Lending Act), and confessions of judgment (prohibited for consumers by the FTC Credit Practices Rule). 

The Committee's chairwoman, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, has proposed a bill that would extend some consumer credit protections to loans for under $2.5 million made to small businesses, as well as create a system for regulating brokers of small business loans. The bill is an important step forward. While there are some tweaks I'd like to see to it, I very much hope it advances and becomes law. 

 

OCC Suggests "Fair Access" Rulemaking to Require Banks to Finance the Oil and Gas Industry

posted by Adam Levitin

Just when you think it can't get more ridiculous... The Office of Comptroller of the Currency, which hasn't taken racially discriminatory lending seriously, is concerned about banks' discriminatory refusal to serve the oil and gas industry. In fact, the OCC is so concerned that it is suggesting legal theories so farfetched that would be laughed out of a courtroom if it actually tried to act on them. 

The underlying issue here is that banks seem have gotten cold feet about financing fossil fuels. Why? Any number of reasons, including that their investors don't like it (ESG), that global warming threatens their own balance sheets, that oil and gas prices right now are so low that investment in the sector might not be a good business move, and that there's huge risk to fossil fuel projects' value based on the 2020 election outcome. But Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska wants to drill in the Arctic and has expressed concern about banks' unwillingness to fund global warming to the OCC.

In response, the Acting Comptroller of the Currency, Brian Brooks, wrote a letter to Senator Sullivan that can only be described as verging on legal malpractice in the service of political expediency while pushing a vision of economic regulation that looks like communist China. 

Acting Comptroller Brooks argues that 12 U.S.C. § 1(a):

requires the OCC to ensure that banks provide "fair access" to financial services. Decisions by major banks to deny the oil and gas sector, among other targeted industries, access to financial services may violate that statute. Accordingly, the OCC will examine the possibility of issuing regulations defining fair access to provide clarity to banks and customers alike.

Let's take a look at 12 U.S.C. § 1. The relevant section states:  

There is established in the Department of the Treasury a bureau to be known as the “Office of the Comptroller of the Currency” which is charged with assuring the safety and soundness of, and compliance with laws and regulations, fair access to financial services, and fair treatment of customers by, the institutions and other persons subject to its jurisdiction.

12 USC 1 is a general expressive statement of the general purposes of the OCC. It's not even a "be excellent to each other" sort of exhortation. It is not by any stretch a provision creating any substantive rights or obligations. If OCC tried to use this as the basis for a "fair access" rulemaking, as Brooks suggests, the rulemaking would get thrown out by a court on an APA challenge in a hot minute. 12 USC 1 authorizes the OCC to do precisely nothing. 

Whatever 12 USC 1 is, it is not a roving commission for the OCC to undertake rulemakings about "fair access" and "fair treatment", etc. It is not a free-standing authorization to undertake any sort of rulemaking. It is very plainly not a delegation by Congress. Furthermore, the suggestion that "Decisions by major banks to deny the oil and gas sector ... access to financial services may violate that statute" is risible. 12 USC 1 is at most an obligation on the OCC, not on banks. It's embarrassing to see the OCC put forth such a legal argument.  

Note that what Brooks is proposing is the flip-side of the allegations made against Operation Chokepoint, namely that regulators were discouraging banks from lending to certain disfavored industries. Now Brooks is talking about forcing banks to lend to certain favored industries. That sounds like ... communist China. It makes my head spin. 

(btw, where are the conservatives who bitch about affordable housing goals and the CRA? Aren't they up in arms that a financial regulator is talking about forcing banks to lend to someone?)  

But let's say that I'm wrong and Brooks is right. Consider the implications. Imagine what a Comptroller with a different political tinge might have with provisions such as "fair treatment of customers" and "fair access to financial services". Who needs UDAAP when you've got "fair treatment"? Who needs CRA, when you've got "fair access"? If Brooks wants to weaponize 12 USC 1, he might want to first recognize that "fair" is a word that progressives can do a lot more with than he can.  

No More Bailouts

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new white paper out from the Roosevelt Institute's Great Democracy Initiative. The paper, which is co-authored with Lindsay Owens and Ganesh Sitaraman, proposes a standing emergency economic stabilization authority to provide an off-the-shelf immediately available response to common problems that recur in national economic crises.

The motivation for the white paper is that in the past dozen years we've been through two rounds of massive ad hoc bailouts. We shouldn't be doing this on the fly. Instead, we need to have a suite of programs ready to go. Think of this as an "in case of emergency, break glass" approach.

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Seila Law v CFPB: Winners and Losers

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court's long-awaited decision about the CFPB's constitutionality is out. It's a tricky opinion to parse politically. The Court, in a 5-4 partisan decision, held that the CFPB's structure violates the separation of powers because of the for-cause only removal provision for the CFPB Director in conjunction with the Bureau's other features. Accordingly, the Court found that the Director must be removable at will. Here's my attempt to lay out the winners and losers. As you'll see, they do not track with the headlines of the CFPB losing—the CFPB was actually the winner here for most purposes.  

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Best Interest Blog

posted by Adam Levitin

There's a new bankruptcy blog around:  the Best Interest Blog.  Welcome to the blogosphere!  

I'm delighted that the blog features a great post by my former student and research assistant Mitchell Mengden about the "J. Screwed" maneuver of stripping out collateral from the restricted group and then pledging it to other creditors. While the maneuver has been going on for a while, as Mitchell explains, it's interesting how infrequently underwriter's counsel has insisted on J. Crew provisions in bond indentures, although the use seems to be picking up in junk indentures. 

How to Start Closing the Racial Wealth Gap

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an article out in The American Prospect about How to Start Closing the Racial Wealth Gap. Unlike a lot of writing bemoaning the racial wealth gap, this piece has a concrete reform that could be undertaken on day 1 of a Biden administration without any need for legislation or even notice-and-comment rulemaking. The article  points the disparate impact of an obscure, but enormous indirect fee on mortgage borrowers that the Federal Housing Finance Agency has required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to charge since 2007. The fee is structured in a way that disadvantages borrowers with fewer resources and lower credit scores, which has a disparate impact on borrowers of color. (I'm not saying it's an ECOA violation--that's a different analytical matter.) The fee was adopted in response to a competitive environment in 2007 that doesn't exist today; there's really no good reason for the fee to exist any more. 

The Great American Housing Bubble

posted by Adam Levitin

My new book, The Great American Housing Bubble:  What Went Wrong and How We Can Protect Ourselves in the Future was just released by Harvard University Press. The book is co-authored with my long-time collaborator, Wharton real estate economist Susan Wachter. It's the culmination of over a decade's worth of work on housing finance that began in the scramble of fall 2008 to come up with ways of assisting hard-pressed homeowners.

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Why Is Anyone Paying Retention Bonuses in Today's Economy?

posted by Adam Levitin

Wall Street Journal today has a story about Hertz having paid out $16 million in retention bonuses before filing for bankruptcy. It seems that several other firms have done the same recently.

In normal times, a retention bonus isn't a crazy idea--there are downsides to remaining employed at a bankrupt company, particularly the uncertainty about the company's future--will it survive, in what form, and under what management? An employee might reasonable look at other employment options if bankruptcy looms. 

But in today's economy, I have trouble seeing a justification for paying retention bonuses for executives. With real unemployment at nearly 25% and few firms hiring (and certainly not rental car companies), the alternative to sticking with the bankrupt company is likely unemployment, not a similar position at another firm. The bonuses just look like corporate waste (and perhaps self-dealing). But if I had to guess, given their size, they'll go unchallenged, whether because of terms of the carve-out for the official committee in the DIP financing or because of a release in the plan.  

The Brown M&M Theory of Telltale Minor Regulatory Violations or What's Wrong with "Earn a savings rate 5X the national average"?

posted by Adam Levitin

A CapitalOne savings account ad has got me thinking about whether Van Halen has anything to teach regulators. Van Halen is famous for its use of a contract that requires provision of M&Ms for the band, but expressly prohibits provision of any brown M&Ms. It's not that they taste different, of course, but that if a concert promoter fails to adhere to the brown M&M term in the contract, it's a red flag that there might be other more serious problems, so the band will undertake a safety check of the stage and equipment. 

IMG_5469So what does this have to do with CapOne?  I'm one of the few folks in the world who bothers to teach the Truth in Savings Act, so I'm probably more inclined to pay attention to deposit account advertising than most folks. I was about to throw out an early May issue of The Economist (yes, my tastes run distinctly to middle brow), when a CapitalOne ad caught my eye.

The ad, which I've posted to the right says, "Why settle for average?  Earn a savings rate 5X the national average."  In smaller, less bold font it then says "Open a new savings account in about 5 minutes and earn 5X the national average." Under that, in smaller, but bold, "This is Banking Reimagined®." Faint, fine print on the bottom says "ONLY NEW ACCOUNTS FOR CONSUMERS. RATE COMPARISON BASED ON FDIC NATIONAL RATE FOR SAVINGS BALANCE < $100,000. OFFERED BY CAPITAL ONE, N.A. MEMBER FDIC © 2019 CAPITAL ONE" Above this is a photo featuring some random dude (or celebrity I don't recognize) with a croissant and coffee and faux casual outfit (jeans and a t-shirt, but a jacket with a pocket square) inviting the reader to join him. Breakfast and banking perhaps? But in the background, over his shoulder is a sign that says "Savings Rate 5X National Average" (its hard to read in the original, and doesn't come across in my photo, unfortunately).

So what's the problem here?

Continue reading "The Brown M&M Theory of Telltale Minor Regulatory Violations or What's Wrong with "Earn a savings rate 5X the national average"?" »

Corona Cash and Refund Anticipation Checks

posted by Adam Levitin

Vijay Raghavan, who will be joining the Brooklyn Law School faculty this summer shared a troubling observation about the payment of the recovery rebates ("Corona Cash" or "Mnuchin Mnoney") through direct deposit to taxpayers. It seems that the payments for around 15% of individual tax filings might be going to bank accounts that are closed or not controlled by the taxpayers. That 15% is surely a much larger percentage of households eligible for Corona Cash. I wouldn't be surprised if close to a quarter of eligible households are affected.

Raghavan writes:

Recovery rebates (stimulus payments) under the CARES Act are supposed
to go out this week. A number of people have noted that the payments
will be delayed for unbanked consumers and the funds are at risk of
being swept by lenders or debt collectors. What has received less
attention is the fact that many banked or underbanked taxpayers may
not receive their rebates because they financed tax preparation with a
refund anticipation check (“RAC”). [AJL: a RAC is distinct from a refund anticipation loan, when the preparer advances the taxpayer part of the anticipated tax refund.]

RACs allow taxpayers to defer the cost of tax preparation and finance
preparation out of their refund. The refund is deposited in a
temporary bank account that the tax preparer arranges to have opened.
The taxpayer may never be made aware that the temporary account
exists. The refund is then distributed to the taxpayer minus
preparation fees and ancillary fees via check, direct deposit, or
using some other payment instrument.

The conventional wisdom is RACs are primarily used by unbanked
consumers. But many banked or underbanked taxpayers may also use RACs.
Smaller tax prep chains and individual tax prep stores rely on RAC
financing for at least two reasons. First, the intermediaries these
tax preparers use to process the returns charge numerous
per-transaction fees, which are easier to pay for out of a taxpayer’s
refund since the cash-strapped taxpayer can’t afford to pay for the
intermediaries’ services up-front. Second, financing may serve to
conceal inordinately high tax preparation fees. As a result, it is not
uncommon to find tax preparation stores in low-income neighborhoods
that refuse to accept up-front payment and only process RAC-financed
returns. In the 2018 tax year, approximately 21 million returns were
financed with RACs. [AJL: for context, there were around 150 million individual returns filed in 2018.]

RACs present a few problems for stimulus distribution. If returns were
already filed and processed, the temporary banks accounts may be
closed, which will delay distribution of the rebate. If the temporary
account is still open, the rebate may sit in the account without being
distributed. There should be less problems if returns have not been
filed or are still pending. But if refunds are initially distributed
to the tax preparer as opposed to the taxpayer (which happens in some
cases), there is some risk tax preparer may take the CARES Act money.

The good news is large chains like H&R Block and tax software
companies should have bank account information for the returns they
processed. They could turn this data over to the Treasury but the
CARES Act may limit the Treasury's ability to disburse payments. The
CARES Act seems to only allow electronic disbursement to accounts the
taxpayer has previously authorized. Taxpayers who regularly financed
tax prep with RACs likely have not authorized disbursement to their
own bank account or may not maintain an open bank account in regular
use. Treasury probably has to lean on preparers and software companies
to ensure that payments to RAC-financed returns are disbursed to the
taxpayer bank accounts.

The problems in doing a quick disbursal of Corona Cash highlight some deficiencies in the US payment and banking system. The House counterproposal to the CARES Act had in it a provision for the creation of FedAccounts--giving every consumer a bank account held at the Fed. It's kind of late in the game to try and set up such a system to deal with the corona virus crisis, but the crisis is exposing areas that need to be shored up going forward. 

How to Treat Post-Petition Attorneys' Fees

posted by Adam Levitin

This is a hyper-technical bankruptcy question that's been bothering me for a while: what happens with post-petition attorneys' fees for undersecured/unsecured creditors after the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Travellers v. PG&E? Specifically, assuming that the post-petition attorneys' fees fees are allowed as an unsecured claim, are they credited against a collateral cushion before or after post-petition interest?  

Continue reading "How to Treat Post-Petition Attorneys' Fees" »

Mitch McConnell Is Robbing Taxpayers to Bailout the Rich

posted by Adam Levitin

There’s a lot of moving parts of the economic Rube Goldberg machine that is the latest McConnell bailout bill, but if you step back and look at the big picture, what becomes clear is that the bill is robbing taxpayers to bail out the rich. Everything in the bill is ultimately taxpayer funded. Yet the benefits of the bill are going disproportionately to the wealthiest households, which are precisely the ones which do not need assistance at this time.   

This massive handout for the wealthy is disguised because it involves the interaction of provisions in two separate titles of the bill, specifically the unemployment insurance provisions in title II and the $425 general billion bailout fund in title IV.  Because the government is picking up the tab for workers under title II and not requiring maintenance of employment by firms that receive the $425 billion under title IV, it is quite possible that the much of the $425 billion will just be used as a slush fund enrich corporate executives and shareholders, who happen to be overwhelmingly the wealthiest households in the country. 

[Update:  The $425 billion might actually be $4.25 trillion by the time the Fed gets done with it. The $425 billion might be a guaranty for an equity tranche that can be leveraged perhaps 10x.]

Continue reading "Mitch McConnell Is Robbing Taxpayers to Bailout the Rich" »

Bailout Oversight Lessons from 2008

posted by Adam Levitin

Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO's Policy Director and former Vice-Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has a really important column about the oversight lessons from the 2008 bailout. It was a struggle to get the Obama administration to be forthcoming about what it was doing with the bailout. It will be a much bigger challenge in the current political environment. Read Damon's column here.

How to Help Small Businesses...Fast

posted by Adam Levitin

A debt collection moratorium operates as float, which is needed to buy time until the relief checks start flowing. In other words, a debt collection moratorium is a form of stimulus. My New York Times op-ed explaining this is here.  

Summary of the McConnell Bailout Bill

posted by Adam Levitin

The McConnell Bailout Bill (a/k/a HR 748 or the CARES Act), weighs in at just shy of 600 pages. I've taken the liberty of summarizing it in a powerpoint deck for teaching (syllabus be damned) and thought it might be helpful to make generally available. Here it is. (11:00 3/23 updated/corrected version).

I only warrant it as best efforts (meaning I might have misread or just missed something in this monster bill) and I have made no attempt to summarize the details of the social insurance program (UI, Medicare, Medicaid) interventions because they are outside my expertise. You'll have to read the bill itself (Part I and Part II) for that.  

I'll note quickly two things for Slips aficionados: there's no bankruptcy piece anywhere within the bill. There might end up being some very minor bankruptcy changes, but bankruptcy really isn't where the action is right now. 

You might consider how the airline bailout package in the bill compared with GM/Chrysler. That ought to be the benchmark for direct government rescue lending to real economy firms.  

The Bailout Cronyism and Corruption Have Already Begun

posted by Adam Levitin

We need to bail out the economy, and it's not going to be cheap. The government is going to have to carry the economy for 18-24 months. There's no way of avoiding that. But we don't need to be stupid or corrupt about the way we do it. And stupidity and corruption is unfortunately so hardwired into the Trump administration's DNA that it is being reflected in virtually every proposal out of the administration. 

Start with Treasury's ill-advised proposal to send checks out to every man, woman, and child in the United States. Beside being operationally difficult and misdirecting much of the aid, it is first and foremost a political move. These are serious times. They call for serious responses, not political maneuvers.  

And now, we learn that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is proposing turning to Goldman Sachs executives to provide assistance in administering the bailout. It's hard to think of anything more politically tone-deaf other than perhaps delegating the bailout to Wells Fargo.

More importantly, Goldman is objectively not the right institution to help. Goldman does virtually no small business lending, and their consumer lending is a small portfolio of loans to affluent individuals. It’s not even at the top of the bracket in commercial lending generally. Goldman is primarily an investment bank that does M&A and securities underwriting; they're not known as commercial bankers. The challenges in the bailout response are restructuring and commercial banking issues, including a lot of operational problems. That's just not where Goldman's strengths lie. So why Goldman? Just more cronyism.

This should be a bright flag to ever member of Congress that Steven Mnuchin cannot be trusted to lead the bailout efforts. If he does, we're looking at something a lot worse than HAMP 2.0. A key part of any bailout is going to be its governance. There's inevitably going to be a fair amount of discretion involved in the bailout efforts. We need the bailout to be led by serious people. Sadly, there are not many serious people in any position of authority in the Trump administration. That suggests that Congress needs to come up with a governance structure for any bailout funds that is new and independent of the Trump administration.

I don't mean by this that it needs to be a bunch of people who share my political views. There are plenty of competent and serious people from both parties who aren't in the Trump administration. Hopefully this is a time that Senator McConnell recognizes that he can't turn the keys over the Trumpists; the effectiveness of a bailout is going to depend on whether Congress gets the governance structure right. We need to take a serious problem serious and not see it as an opportunity for self-enrichment and political gain. 

 

COVID-19 Response: The Need for Speed

posted by Adam Levitin

While Congress struggles to figure out the best way to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, it is very apparent that immediate relief measures are necessary, if only to buy time for a more comprehensive approach. Layoffs are already happening and with they continue, it will result in more economic disruption from diminished consumption.

1. Sending out checks isn't fast enough (and can't happen in two weeks)

There is, fortunately, some recognition of that speed is imperative, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way is what the Trump administration is proposing, namely sending everyone a check. Besides being poorly tailored—$1,000 isn't enough for those who really need help and is wasted on many other folks—the problem is it just cannot happen fast enough. No one is being honest about the operational problems. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is going around saying that he wants to get checks for $1,000 to every American within two weeks. That's just not possible, and Mnuchin should stop overpromising. 

Here's why it won't work fast enough: for Treasury to send everyone a check, it would need to know where to send the checks. It doesn't. Treasury knows where to send checks to individuals who are receiving Social Security and Disability Insurance (actually, it would be electronic transfers in almost all such cases). But what about everyone else? Treasury doesn't know (a) who is still alive, and (b) where they live. The first problem might mean sending out some checks that shouldn't happen, but the second problem is more serious, as it means that checks won't get where they need to go. Treasury is able to send me a tax refund because I give an address with my tax return. At best Treasury has year-old information, which will be wrong for many people. Those people who most need the money are the people who are most likely to have moved in the last year—economically insecure renters (see Matthew Desmond's Evicted on this). Sending everyone a check really isn't a very good solution. 

2. Foreclosure/eviction moratoria are equivalent to an immediate cash injection to the economy.

Fortunately, there's a better solution:  an immediate national moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, repossessions, utility disconnects, garnishments, default judgments, and negative credit reporting for all consumers and small businesses. The point of a national collection action moratorium is not to be nice to debtors. A national collection moratorium is a stimulus measure:  it has the effect of immediately injecting cash into the economy in that it allows people and businesses to shift funds from debt service obligations to other consumption. It's basically a giant forced loan from creditors to debtors. And it happens immediately, without any administrative apparatus. There's nothing else that will have such a big effect so immediately. Congress should move on moratorium legislation asap as a stand-alone bill to buy itself some more time for a longer-term fix.  

Now let's be clear—what I am talking about is not debt forgiveness. It is forced forbearance. The debts will still be owed and may accrue interest and late fees (there may be ways to limit those, but that's another matter). That's important because it substantially reduces the argument that the delay constitutes a Taking—government is always free to change how remedies operate, such as changing foreclosure timelines, etc. without the changes being a Taking.

This is exactly what a moratorium would be doing. A number of states and localities have already undertaken such moratoria, and FHFA and HUD have done so for federally or GSE insured or guarantied loans. But we've got a national crisis, so this should be done uniformly on the federal level using the Interstate Commerce power for the entire consumer and small business debt market. Given that all collection actions involve the mails or wires and that debt markets are national, this seems squarely within the scope of federal power. 

Now a collection moratorium is not a permanent fix and will cause some dislocations itself. Consumers/small businesses will eventually need to come current on their obligations, and they may need assistance to do so, but that's something that we can work on later when we're not in free fall. But right now what we need more than anything is time, and a collection moratorium can buy us some time more broadly and more immediately than any other possible step. 

COVID-19's Impact on Higher Education's Finances

posted by Adam Levitin

There's a lot to say about the economic dislocation from the coronavirus and the economic policy response. But I want to focus for a moment about its impact on higher education.  Lots of schools have gone to virtual classrooms either temporarily or for the rest of the semester. It's not ideal pedagogically (and it really unsuitable for certain types of classes), but it works as a stop gap measure, especially for courses which have already been going for several weeks, in which some rapport has developed between faculty and students.  

But there's no reason to think that this disruption will be over by the end of the semester. What happens with summer courses? And most importantly, what happens in the fall? Will schools be able to enroll new cohorts of students? I suppose it's possible to teach 2Ls and 3Ls virtually all the time. But can that be done for 1Ls? Or for college freshmen? And even if it is possible to do generally, what about enrolling foreign students? To be sure, University of Phoenix and other on-line schools do this all the time, but they offer a very different kind of educational experience. Will students seek to defer for a year or simply not enroll?

This matters hugely for universities as businesses.

Continue reading "COVID-19's Impact on Higher Education's Finances" »

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