Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bank of America, Agency Problems and Selective Blindness in Our Judicial System

We wrote a widely read post about Bank of America's $40 billion mistake in acquiring Countrywide Financial back in 2012, which we link here for context.

The government's 2012 complaint in Federal Court (Southern District) makes interesting reading also for context to the current settlement debates.  According the Feds, Countrywide engaged in a scheme to defraud FNMA and FHLMC, and as a consequence the GSEs suffered more than a billion dollars in unreimbursed losses.

The story picks up, for some reason, in 2007 when Countrywide's originations had fallen from $490 billion in 2005, to $450 billion in 2006 to $408 billion in 2007.  A very superficial discussion of the monthly loan performance monitoring program required of the originators by the GSEs begs a very important question. Surely, delinquent or non-performing loans (here referred to as loans with 'defects') would have been evident from the 2005 vintage long before 2007.  There are mechanisms for dealing with these problems from the GSE perspective, including putting the loans back to the originators.  One would also think that reimbursement or compensation provisions would have been part of normal securitization agreements.  None of this is even mentioned in passing.

As we have said before, agency problems for Countrywide shareholders existed writ large because of the behavior of CEO Angelo Mozillo's outlandish behavior, which has been covered widely in the press. His compensation, bonuses and option grants were conditioned on the volume of originations, even if they were subprime 'stated income,' 'liar loans,' or 'NINJA loans.'

Mozillo, in turn, created compensation opportunities for Franklin Raines, who eventually relinquished $24.7 million of ill-gotten stock options gains from a reported six year earnings manipulation scheme, over which his gains would have surely been greater than $24.7 million. Mr. Raines never felt the heat and wrath of Federal prosecutors, rather his slap on the wrist came from another Federal oversight agency. Why wouldn't the full force of our justice system fall on two kingpins of this mess?  Justice for friends is different from justice for those deep pocketed corporations, who are giving up shareholders' money in the end.

In the government's complaint against Bank of America, there are a few selected quotes from the former CEO and from the current CEO which should arose the ire of BAC shareholders.

"We did extensive due diligence...It was the most extensive due diligence we (Bank of America) have ever done.  So we feel comfortable with the valuation.."  Former CEO Ken Lewis.

"....we will pay for all the things that Countrywide did."  Loose language from current CEO Brian Moynihan.
Fast forward to the recent imposition of fines by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff.  As one reads through the 19 page opinion, the judge's conception of gross versus net losses and his infantile examples seem to challenge the usual shibboleth that Federal court judges are more capable of understanding complex financial issues. Recent problems arising in the interpretation of potential sovereign defaults by Argentina raise similar issues.

The total value of 17,611 loans issued by the HSSL loan mechanism of Countrywide amounted to $2, 960,737,608.  But, 57% of these loans were, in the opinion of the government's 'expert' not in fact bad apples.  So the final penalty imposed was 43% of the maximum, or $1,267,491,770.  The wisdom of Solomon!

As Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here."  Well, what about the higher ups who sanctioned all ludicrous, uncontrolled financial malfeasance at their institutions?  According to Judge Rakoff, "....the fact that other, higher-level individuals arguably participated in the fraud but were, for whatever reason, not charged by the government..." doesn't rise to the level of this judge's scrutiny.

Instead, he lays liability at the foot of Rebecca Mairone, a Countrywide executive, who took the actions necessary to perpetuate the fraud described in the complaint.  Was she a lone, rogue agent?  Not hardly. Her crime seems to be having given "implausible testimony."  Judge Rakoff is given to pats on the back and slaps in his opinion. Attorneys on both sides are described as "excellent" (from Wayne's World?) and "superb."  Ms. Mairone apparently wasn't well coached by her excellent attorney to not give implausible testimony.  The jury in fact asked Judge Rakoff why the higher ups weren't being brought up on charges. They got the answer quoted above.

Finally, we are left with Bank of America, which recently reported results. Earnings were a bit better than expected, analysts claim because of expense controls, better than expected trading revenues, and lower provisioning, offset by much higher than expected legal expenses.  Revenues from the core banking businesses were, however, disappointing.  I wonder what will drive 2014 incentive compensation for the executive team?  Based on current expectations, BAC looks fully valued, but longer term its future growth, if it can ever put Countrywide issues behind it, still remains in question.

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