Lawsuits

Here’s a fun Libor lawsuit: the ghost of problematic former hedge fund FrontPoint is suing the Libor banks for (1) selling FrontPoint some interest-rate swaps and (2) manipulating Libor in a way that hosed FrontPoint on those swaps. Here is the complaint and here is Alison Frankel on the legal issues, which are interesting and which we can talk about a little below.1

Up here let’s talk about the trades that FrontPoint (and Salix Capital, which now owns these claims) is suing over. They’re interest rate swaps, of course, where FrontPoint received Libor, and where Libor was systematically manipulated lower by banks looking to enhance confidence in themselves by showing lower funding costs. But those swaps were part of a larger negative-basis package trade where (1) FrontPoint bought bonds (funded at a spread to Fed Funds), (2) FrontPoint bought CDS from a bank to hedge credit, and (3) FrontPoint entered into a swap with the bank to hedge interest rates. Schematically, when everything cancels, it looks like this:

If you asked FrontPoint what the trade was they might say “we are betting that the negative basis in these bonds will converge, making the bonds worth more relative to the CDS,” or alternately, that they would just ride the trade to maturity, getting paid that negative basis, and “earn a risk-free return by buying and selling the same credit exposure via alternative instruments in different markets.” That’s what the trade is primarily about: that orange thing in the lower-right-hand corner labeled “(Basis).” Read more »

Everyone knows the story of Abacus 2007-AC1 by now: Goldman Sachs sold some mortgage-backed-security CDOs to some people, and those people thought that the underlying mortgage-backed securities were chosen by an outfit called ACA Management to be Good, but in fact they were chosen by Paulson & Co. to be Bad, and they turned out to be Bad, and that was Bad. The SEC sued Goldman over it, and Goldman settled for $550 million, and then everyone else sued too because they had been lied to about who picked the mortgage-backed securities (Paulson, not ACA) and why (to fail, not to succeed).

Among the people who sued was ACA, whose role in the transaction was (1) pretending to pick the underlying RMBS and (2) issuing a financial guaranty policy (to Goldman) referencing the super senior tranche of Abacus. That tranche more or less went poof, and ACA ended up owing $840 million to Goldman (though, really, ABN Amro paid the $840mm, and Paulson got it).1 Since ACA was in the business of writing terrible financial guaranty policies, it blew right up and ended up paying only $30 million. Then it sued Goldman for the $30 million back, plus punitive damages. ACA’s claim is that, while it knew that Paulson had selected the underlying RMBS, it thought Paulson was net long Abacus, because Goldman schemed and lied, and that it wouldn’t have insured Abacus if it’d known the truth about Paulson’s position.

Yesterday ACA lost when a New York appellate court dismissed its case. The court split 3-2, and the opinion is short and pretty weird; basically the majority says “it doesn’t matter that Goldman lied to ACA about Paulson’s position, because ACA should have kept asking until it got the truth,” which is a funny law.2 The two dissenting judges seem to have rather the better of it.3

Still the result seems right. Read more »

  • 02 May 2013 at 12:09 PM

Lehman’s Bankruptcy Worked Out Well For Intel, Anyway

One possible reaction to Apple’s gigantic tax-optimized share repurchase program is to think that spending a lot of time fiddling with how to optimize your share repurchase program might mean you’re out of better ideas. You can ponder whether this Intel share repurchase trade described in a Lehman Brothers bankruptcy lawsuit filed yesterday supplies any evidence on that question. Intel decided to buy back $1bn of its stock in August and September of 2008, and rather than just buy it in the market it entered into a pretty fiddly forward contract with Lehman like so:1

  • Intel gives Lehman $1bn on August 29.
  • Lehman hands the $1bn back to Intel for safekeeping – it’s Lehman’s money, but Intel keeps it as collateral.
  • On September 29, Lehman gives Intel some shares, based on the average price of Intel stock from August 29 to September 26.2
  • The dollar amount of shares Intel buys is $1bn, if the average price is $21 or below, or $250mm, if the average price is $25 or above, or some amount linearly in between if the average price is between $21 and $25:

  • If the dollar amount Intel buys is less than $1 billion, Lehman gives back the extra money.
  • So in other words as the stock price goes up Intel buys fewer shares, and vice versa, which is kind of wrong-way for them3 but right-way for Lehman.
  • In exchange for that risk Lehman agrees to give them a discount of 10.6 cents per share.4
  • The number of shares Intel buys is equal to the dollar amount divided by the average price minus 10.6 cents:

Read more »

Standard & Poor’s asked a federal judge on Monday to dismiss a U.S. Justice Department civil suit against the rating agency, arguing the government’s case is based on vague statements that cannot be used to prove fraud. In a $5 billion suit, the U.S. government accused the rating agency of issuing inflated ratings on faulty products to drum up business before the financial crisis, despite company statements that its ratings were objective. S&P has vociferously defended itself in public since the case was filed in February in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, denouncing the lawsuit as meritless and accusing the government of cherry-picking emails to misconstrue what its analysts did…While the government says those messages, which include one analyst performing a pop song parody about the housing market burning down, paint a picture of a company knowingly slapping inflated ratings on structured finance products, the company’s filing says otherwise. Those messages, instead, the company said, show internal squabbling or even “robust internal debate.” [Reuters]

I confess that I have not followed the swap-futurization thing closely but my assumption was that the politico-regulatory view was:

  • Swaps are evil instruments of financial instability and fraud and should be discouraged, and
  • Listed futures are mostly harmless.

I mean, look around. Swaps blew up AIG, Oakland, Monte dei Paschi, the U.S. housing market, whatever. Futures just blew up those old guys in Trading Places.

You can have various objections to this preference for futures,1 but surely the most compelling is that swaps and futures are to some reasonable approximation the same thing. They’re just delta-one exposures to some underlying quantity; calling them a “swap” or “future” doesn’t matter economically.

That, anyway, is Bloomberg’s line of argument: Read more »

  • 08 Apr 2013 at 7:14 PM

Snowflake Greenberg’s Trust Fund At Risk

Insurer American International Group Inc has asked a court to block Maurice “Hank” Greenberg’s efforts to sue the U.S. government on AIG’s behalf, saying its former CEO has not proven he should have the right to do so. Earlier this year, AIG drew sharp criticism from members of Congress and an outraged public when the firm considered the possibility of joining Greenberg’s lawsuit, which challenges the terms of the insurer’s $182.3 billion bailout by the federal government in 2008. AIG said Greenberg had forced its hand in even deliberating the prospect, but that ultimately it did not want to sue anyway amid a public backlash. Absent AIG’s participation, Greenberg is pursuing a derivative claim, seeking to sue the U.S. government on AIG’s behalf over the terms of the $182.3 billion rescue. Greenberg and his company Starr International, which owned 12 percent of AIG before the rescue, are also suing the government directly.

My favorite financial news story of 2013 so far might be the Reuters story last Friday about how NYSE and Nasdaq each listed more IPOs than the other during the first quarter. A normal human might find that odd: listing an IPO is the sort of thing that you tend to notice and keep a record of, so you could pretty easily just add up the IPOs you listed and compare. But to a banker, it’s obvious that everyone would claim, with some sort of semi-plausible justification, to be first in every league table. In fact the explanation is perfectly, almost paradigmatically natural: Nasdaq excludes REITs, spin-offs, and best efforts deals.1 I remember when I used to exclude REITs! Excluding REITs is, like, 20% of what a capital markets banker does.

A deep tension at the heart of the financial industry is that it attracts a lot of quantitative logical evidence-oriented people and then puts them to work in essentially sales roles, and a lot of what it sells is unsubstantiated mumbo-jumbo. You wrote your senior thesis on geometric Brownian motion in the prices of inflation-linked Peruvian bonds from 1954 to 1976? Great, go make a page telling clients why Bank X is so much better at underwriting commoditized debt deals than Bank Y. Or: your thesis took for granted the truth of the efficient markets hypothesis? Great, go market a hedge fund that charges 2 and 20 to beat the market. You have to be quantitative enough to manipulate the data to get it to say what you want (“This fee run is 0.2% higher if we exclude REITs” “Well, do that then”), but not so quantitative that you find the whole process revolting. It’s a hard line to walk, and it’s not surprising that Eric Ben-Artzi or Ajit Jain or the quant truthers at S&P end up disgruntled and either blowing whistles or writing regrettable emails.2

Does that explain Lisa Marie Vioni? I dunno, her economics degree came with a side of French, she became a hedge fund marketer, and she’s done it for over 20 years, so I’d have pegged her as pretty comfortable in the gray areas. But in January 2012 she went to work for Cerberus as an MD selling its RMBS Opportunities Fund, and in February 2013 they fired her, and now she’s suing them. She’s suing in part for gender discrimination, which is hard to evaluate from her complaint but sure, maybe.3

But she’s also suing as a Dodd-Frank whistleblower, because she complained about what she thought were misleading marketing materials and was more or less told to go pound sand. And those accusations go like this: Read more »