Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Subprime Litigation and Politics: A Volatile Mix

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In response to the developing credit crisis, politicians have proposed legislative fixes and, more recently, advocated the need for fiscal stimuli. Some politicians of a more aggressive cast have launched investigations (about which refer here). In this environment, it is hardly surprising that other politicians are also resorting to litigation – and not merely to recoup supposed subprime-related losses, but also to extract political gains from the current turmoil.

The most substantial examples of subprime-related litigation as political theater are from Ohio. Exhibit One is the case filed last week in the Northern District of Ohio (Youngstown Division) against the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) on behalf of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS). A copy of the complaint can be found here. . For its part, OPERS apparently believes that its losses from the fraud alleged in the complaint could be as much as $27.2 million.

It is the lawsuit’s context rather than its relative merits that concern me. The first of the troublesome contextual elements is the January 22, 2008 press release that Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann issued in connection with the lawsuit’s filing (here). The press release not only announces the lawsuit and describes its allegations, but also thanks OPERS "for supporting my effort to hold Freddie Mac accountable for the role the company and its top executives played in bilking investors and fueling the foreclosure crisis that is destroying neighborhoods across the state and the entire nation."

Dann goes on to say that "by authorizing me to bring the suit on their behalf," they are not only protecting pensioners’ and taxpayers’ interests but "sending a loud and clear message to Wall Street that this type of fraud and manipulation will not be tolerated by the people who live on Main Streets that are being devastated by what Freddie Mac has done." As may be seen from this January 23, 2008 Columbus Dispatch article (here), Dann’s epistle achieved the media attention his press release so obviously sought.

An additional contextual element of this lawsuit is the venue where it was filed. Dann did not file the suit in Virginia, where Freddie Mac has its headquarters, or in New York, where its shares trade and where a prior lawsuit against Freddie Mac on similar grounds is already pending, or even Columbus, where OPERS has its headquarters. Rather, Dann filed the lawsuit in Youngstown. The critical thing to know here is that Dann is from Youngstown, and that is where he has his political base.

Now, given the uncertainties of litigation, it is entirely possible that this case will wind up being litigated in Youngstown. And it is entirely possible that this lawsuit could ultimately even gain a substantial recovery on behalf of OPERS’ pensioners and other members of the purported class – indeed, OPERS already has an impressive track record against Freddie Mac, having recovered as lead plaintiff in a prior securities lawsuit against Freddie Mac a $410 million class settlement. And Dann did note in his press release that, in addition to the Youngstown lawsuit, he has also filed a lead plaintiff petition on behalf of OPERS in the previously pending New York securities lawsuit against Freddie Mac. But obviously, announcing a mere lead plaintiff petition wouldn’t make for much of a press release.

Nor is Dann the only Ohio politician using subprime-related litigation to portray themselves as the scourge of Wall Street and the champion of the oppressed masses. For example, in a January 11, 2008 press release (here), Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson announced that the City of Cleveland was initiating a lawsuit against 21 investment banks and mortgage lenders who "financed and cultivated the subprime market." A copy of the complaint can be found here.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports (here) that the firms are accused of "creating a public nuisance by making mortgages available to people who had ‘no realistic means of keeping up their loan payments.’" The loans allegedly have resulted in thousands of foreclosures in Cuyahoga County. Jackson also told the newspaper that "to me this is no different than organized crime or drugs. It has the same effect as drug activity in neighborhoods."

The situation in Cleveland is dire, and the specter of thousands of empty, foreclosed houses haunts the city and silently testifies to its straitened condition. On that score, I am sympathetic to Jackson’s frustrated desire for retribution. But it is hard to know what to say about the lawsuit’s implicit suggestion that lenders should be liable for having had the audacity to lend money to the city’s residents. While subprime lending undoubtedly involved excesses, and even some unscrupulous practices, the city’s current desperate condition cannot possibly be improved without outside investment, and, yes, the availability of home financing, neither of which the Mayor’s lawsuit does anything to encourage.

Ohio has long-standing, complex economic problems. It saddens me that, rather than confront the real issues facing the state and its people, its political leaders would rather indulge in finger-pointing and scapegoating. Whatever the merits of these lawsuits, they will do little to solve or even relieve the deep economic problems that beset the state.

These lawsuits are troublesome not only because of the squandered political leadership they represent, they are also of concern because Ohio’s politicians clearly will not be the only ones tempted to seek political capital from subprime-related litigation. (Indeed, Baltimore’s leaders have also filed their own lawsuit against Wells Fargo, here, alleging reverse redlining) With so many forces already adding momentum to the growing subprime litigation wave, it is truly discouraging development that politicians feel compelled to exacerbate an already appalling situation. The problems from the subprime situation will only get worse if our political leaders are more interested in assigning blame than finding solutions.

Subprime and the Insurance Market: As the subprime meltdown has emerged, one of the recurring questions has been what impact it will have on the professional liability insurance industry. The latest attempt to answer this question appears in the January 2008 issue of Risk & Insurance, in an article entitled "Will the Liability Market Turn?" (here). (Full disclosure: I was interviewed in connection with the article.) Among other things, the article quotes "one estimate" as putting the "professional liability insurance losses connected with the subprime lending mess at $16 billion."

My own thoughts on the impact on the professional liability insurance industry are reflected in a December 17, 2007 interview published in full on the Risk & Insurance website and entitled "Coverage Expert on Subprime Pricing" (here).

A Closer Look at a Busted-Buyout: In prior posts (most recently here), I have examined the lawsuits that busted buyouts have spawned. Among other deals I have examined is KKR’s now canceled deal to acquire Harman International, which I discussed here. A January 23, 2008 Fortune article entitled "An Old Hand in a Strange New World" (here) takes a closer look at the failed deal, and examines the myriad of forces that led to its demise.

Of particular interest is the article’s discussion of the company’s increased capital spending while the deal was pending and that was the source of the "material adverse change" KKR attempted to invoke to try to scuttle the deal. Apparently, the company’s German division, anticipating KKR’s post-deal fiscal austerity, and exhibiting "exuberant behavior," overspent its capital budget by $25 million. The article, anticipating the presumed question, states, "no, there weren’t controls then in place to prevent this."

Though KKR and Harman have resolved their legal disputes, the separate lawsuit brought by Harman’s shareholders against Harman’s management remains pending. In that context, the article is particularly interesting.

Now This: The Professional Liability Underwriting Society has decided to join the blogosphere, with their new blog, The PLUS Blog (here). The site has just come out of beta testing and they are off to a great start. The blog, which will focus on breaking news and features affecting the professional liability insurance industry, should be worth watching.

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