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Alice N. Sanders

S&P Faces Squeeze After $1.3 Billion Countrywide Fine

Standard & Poor’s (MHFI)’ chances of settling the government’s lawsuit over mortgage-bond ratings for less than $1 billion may have slipped away afterBank of America Corp.’s Countrywide unit was socked with a $1.3 billion fine.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg


The Countrywide ruling was the first to lay out what penalties financial institutions could face under a 1989 bank-fraud law the Obama administration is using against alleged culprits of the subprime mortgage crisis. It has boosted the government’s hand against McGraw Hill Financial Inc.’s S&P, saidPeter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University.

“If the starting negotiation point for theJustice Departmentto settle was $1 billion before, that number has just gone up,” Henning said in a phone interview.

The U.S. sued S&P and Countrywide under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, a law passed by Congress in the wake of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. The administration, which seeks as much as $5 billion from S&P, is using the law to punish alleged misconduct in the creation and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities blamed for the financial crisis two decades later.

For the Justice Department, the case against S&P goes to the heart of the financial crisis, attacking the company’s claims that its ratings -- relied on by investors worldwide -- were honest and neutral. S&P has countered that the case is really retribution for it downgrading the U.S. government’s own debt and it has subpoenaed officials including former Treasury SecretaryTimothy Geithnerin an effort to prove that.

Hearing Today

A hearing on the company’s request to force Geithner and the government to turn over records is scheduled for today in federal court in Santa Ana, California.

Countrywide was found liable by a federal jury in Manhattan for lying about the quality of the almost $3 billion in mortgages it sold toFannie Mae (FNMA)andFreddie Mac (FMCC)in 2007 and 2008. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan agreed with the Justice Department that the penalty should be based on how much money the mortgage lender fraudulently induced the companies to pay for the loans.

“The civil penalty provisions of FIRREA are designed to serve punitive and deterrent purposes and should be construed in accordance with those purposes,” the judge said in his July 30 ruling.

S&P is accused of defrauding institutions that relied on its credit ratings for residential mortgage-based securities and collateralized debt obligations that included those securities. The government claims S&P lied to investors about its ratings on trillions of dollars in securities being objective and free of conflicts of interest.

‘Very Friendly’

Rakoff’s ruling was “very friendly” to the government and will influence other judges because there have been very few cases involving FIRREA penalties before the Justice Department started using the statute in its mortgage-fraud litigation two years ago, saidStavros Gadinis, an assistant law professor atUniversity of Californiaat Berkeley.

“The government will definitely try to make this part of the settlement negotiations,” Gadinis said in a phone interview. “It will have a significant impact.”

The S&P case is tentatively scheduled for trial in September 2015.

If the company is found liable for defrauding banks andcredit unionsand U.S. District JudgeDavid Carterin Santa Ana applies the same methodology as Rakoff, the credit rater’s penalty could be based on the amount the alleged victims paid for the securities that they wouldn’t have bought if it hadn’t been for S&P’s investment-grade rating, according to Gadinis.

Maximum Penalty

That would only set a possible maximum range for any penalty, which would also have to take into account S&P’s ability to pay, Gadinis said.

S&P issued ratings on more than $2.8 trillion of residential mortgage-backed securities from September 2004 through October 2007 and $1.2 trillion worth of CDOs, according to the Feb. 4, 2013, Justice Department complaint.

“What if 60 percent of the CDO market in 2007 was rated by S&P?” Gadinis said. “No company in the world could pay that amount of money.”

Ed Sweeney, an S&P spokesman, declined to comment on the effect Rakoff’s ruling might have on the case.

Rakoff’s calculation of the Countrywide penalty reduced the total value of the mortgages sold toFannie MaeandFreddie Macduring a nine-month period under a so-called High Speed Swim Lane program, which was $3 billion, by the percentage of loans that didn’t turn out to be defective.

Appeal Probable

The judge’s analysis, using the nominal value of the transactions as a starting point to determine the penalty, was “out of whack” and will probably be appealed byBank of Americato theU.S. Court of Appealsfor the Second Circuit in New York, said David Reiss, a professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

“The Second Circuit has no problem reversing Rakoff,” Reiss said in in a phone interview. “The ruling pushes the balance of power in favor of the government by expanding the definition of a civil penalty.”

While other judges aren’t obliged to follow Rakoff’s reasoning, they will pay close attention to the decision because the federal court in Manhattan is the leading business law jurisdiction in the country and the ruling was clearly explained, Reiss said

Rakoff, nominated by PresidentBill Clintonin 1995, has been critical both on and off the bench of the federal government’s policing of financial fraud.

He has twice rejected U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission settlements that let banks end probes without admitting wrongdoing.

SEC Settlement

In 2009, Rakoff rejected a $33 million SEC settlement withBank of Americaover alleged misstatements about the purchase of Merrill Lynch & Co., saying it suggested “a rather cynical relationship between the parties.” He later signed off on the deal when it was increased to $150 million. In an SEC case accusingCitigroup Inc. (C)of misleading CDO investors, he refused in 2011 to approve a $285 million settlement that didn’t document any proven or admitted facts.

The appeals court overruled Rakoff in the Citigroup case, finding that he had abused his discretion.

The judge’s reputation doesn’t mean the appellate court is likely to overturn his decision on the civil penalty against Countrywide if Bank of America appeals, Henning said.

‘A Gadfly’

“Rakoff comes across as a bit of a gadfly but he’s highly regarded by the Second Circuit,” Henning said. “He’s no dummy.”

Associate Attorney GeneralTony West, who led the Justice Department’s civil cases against banks involved in selling mortgage-backed securities, said last year S&P may face as much as $5 billion in civil penalties based on losses suffered by federally insured financial institutions. West announced he is leaving the department on Sept. 15.

S&P, based in New York, has denied the allegations and has argued it was singled out by the government because it was the only credit rating company to downgrade theU.S. debtin 2011. The government has denied there is a connection between the downgrade and the decision to sue S&P in 2013.

Bank of America last month asked Rakoff to throw out the jury’s verdict that Countrywide defrauded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Lawrence Grayson, a spokesman for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank, said in July that the penalty bore no relation to a Countrywide program that lasted several months. The bank hasn’t appealed the $1.3 billion penalty.

$5 Billion

Separately, Bank of America agreed last month to a $5 billion FIRREA fine as part of a settlement totaling about $16.7 billion to end federal and state probes into mortgage bond sales.

Carter, a 1998 appointee of Clinton, hasn’t shied away from imposing hefty penalties in high-stakes litigation.

In 2011 he awarded toymaker MGA Entertainment Inc. $225 million in punitive damages, attorney fees and costs after it prevailed on most of the claimsMattel Inc. (MAT)had brought in a second trial over the rights to Bratz dolls. A federal appeal court partly overturned Carter’s ruling but left intact his award of $137.2 million award to MGA for having to defend Mattel Inc.’s copyright infringement claim, which Carter said was “stunning” and “unreasonable.”

The Countrywide penalty may galvanize S&P to contest the Justice Department’s fraud claims as vigorously as possible to avoid the judge having to reach the question of penalties, said John Richter, a lawyer with King & Spalding LLP in Washington.

Less Culpable

S&P wasn’t a direct issuer of the securitized mortgages it rated and would be less culpable for any losses to federally insured financial institutions than the banks, including Bank of America, Citigroup andJPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), that issued the securities and admitted they misled investors, according to Richter.

As such, Rakoff’s Countrywide ruling may only be applicable to S&P in theory, Richter said.

“Each of these cases stands on its own, both factually and legally,” Richter said. “Judge Carter will be dealing with a different player in the story and a different set of facts.”

The S&P case is U.S. v. McGraw-Hill Cos., 13-cv-00779, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Santa Ana). The Countrywide case is U.S. v. Countrywide Financial Corp., 12-cv-01422, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.

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