Judge Wheeler: Fed Overreached with AIG, but No Damages

This is an amazing decision; you should read the entire thing!

“The main issues in the case are: (1) whether the Federal Reserve Bank of New York possessed the legal authority to acquire a borrower’s equity when making a loan under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, 12 U.S.C. § 343 (2006); and (2) whether there could legally be a taking without just compensation of AIG’s equity under the Fifth Amendment where AIG’s Board of Directors voted on September 16, 2008 to accept the Government’s proposed terms. If Starr prevails on either or both of these questions of liability, the Court must also determine what damages should be awarded to the plaintiff shareholders. Other subsidiary issues exist in varying degrees of importance, but the two issues stated above are the focus of the case . . .”

The weight of the evidence demonstrates that the Government treated AIG much more harshly than other institutions in need of financial assistance. In September 2008, AIG’s international insurance subsidiaries were thriving and profitable, but its Financial Products Division experienced a severe liquidity shortage due to the collapse of the housing market. Other major institutions, such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America, encountered similar liquidity shortages.

Thus, while the Government publicly singled out AIG as the poster child for causing the September 2008 economic crisis (Paulson, Tr. 1254-55), the evidence supports a conclusion that AIG actually was less responsible for the crisis than other major institutions. The notorious credit default swap transactions were very low risk in a thriving housing market, but they quickly became very high risk when the bottom fell out of this market. Many entities engaged in these transactions, not just AIG. The Government’s justification for taking control of AIG’s ownership and running its business operations appears to have been entirely misplaced. The Government did not demand shareholder equity, high interest rates, or voting control of any entity except AIG. Indeed, with the exception of AIG, the Government has never demanded equity ownership from a borrower in the 75-year history of Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. Paulson, Tr. 1235-36; Bernanke, Tr. 1989-90 . . .

The Government’s unduly harsh treatment of AIG in comparison to other institutions seemingly was misguided and had no legitimate purpose, even considering concerns about “moral hazard.”4 The question is not whether this treatment was inequitable or unfair, but whether the Government’s actions created a legal right of recovery for AIG’s shareholders.

Turning to the issue of damages, there are a few relevant data points that should be noted. First, the Government profited from the shares of stock that it illegally took from AIG and then sold on the open market. One could assert that the revenue from these unauthorized transactions, approximately $22.7 billion, should be returned to the rightful owners, the AIG shareholders. Starr’s claim, however, is not based upon any disgorgement of illegally obtained revenue. Instead, Starr’s claim for shareholder loss is premised upon AIG’s stock price on September 24, 2008, which is the first stock trading day when the public learned all of the material terms of the FRBNY/AIG Credit Agreement. The September 24, 2008 closing price of $3.31 per share also is a conservative choice because it represents the lowest AIG stock price during the period September 22-24, 2008. Yet, this stock price irrefutably is influenced by the $85 billion cash infusion made possible by the Government’s credit facility. To award damages on this basis would be to force the Government to pay on a propped-up stock price that it helped create with an $85 billion loan. See United States v. Cors, 337 U.S. 325, 334 (1949) (“[V]alue which the government itself created” is a value it “in fairness should not be required to pay.”).

* * *

In the end, the Achilles’ heel of Starr’s case is that, if not for the Government’s intervention, AIG would have filed for bankruptcy. In a bankruptcy proceeding, AIG’s shareholders would most likely have lost 100 percent of their stock value . . .

Particularly in the case of a corporate conglomerate largely composed of insurance subsidiaries, the assets of such subsidiaries would have been seized by state or national governmental authorities to preserve value for insurance policyholders. Davis Polk’s lawyer, Mr. Huebner, testified that it would have been a “very hard landing” for AIG, like cascading champagne glasses where secured creditors are at the top with their glasses filled first, then spilling over to the glasses of other creditors, and finally to the glasses of equity shareholders where there would be nothing left. Huebner, Tr. 5926, 5930-31; see also Offit, Tr. 7370 (In a bankruptcy filing, the shareholders are “last in line” and in most cases their interests are “wiped out.”).

 

OPINION AND ORDER

WHEELER, Judge.

Plaintiff Starr International Company, Inc. (“Starr”) commenced this lawsuit against the United States on November 21, 2011. Starr challenges the Government’s financial rescue and takeover of American International Group, Inc. (“AIG”) that began on September 16, 2008. Before the takeover, Starr was one of the largest shareholders of AIG common stock. Starr alleges in its own right and on behalf of other AIG shareholders that the Government’s actions in acquiring control of AIG constituted a taking without just compensation and an illegal exaction, both in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The controlling shareholder of Starr is Maurice R. Greenberg, formerly AIG’s Chief Executive Officer until 2005, and one of the key architects of AIG’s international insurance business. Starr claims damages in excess of $40 billion.

On the weekend of September 13-14, 2008, known in the financial world as “Lehman Weekend” because of the impending failure of Lehman Brothers, U.S. Government officials feared that the nation’s and the world’s economies were on the brink of a monumental collapse even larger than the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the Government frantically kept abreast of economic indicators on all fronts, the leaders at the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the U.S. Treasury Department began focusing in particular on AIG’s quickly deteriorating liquidity condition. AIG had grown to become a gigantic world insurance conglomerate, and its Financial Products Division was tied through transactions with most of the leading global financial institutions. The prognosis on Lehman Weekend was that AIG, without an immediate and massive cash infusion, would face bankruptcy by the following Tuesday, September 16, 2008. AIG’s failure likely would have caused a rapid and catastrophic domino effect on a worldwide scale.

On that following Tuesday, after AIG and the Government had explored other possible avenues of assistance, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors formally approved a “term sheet” that would provide an $85 billion loan facility to AIG. This sizable loan would keep AIG afloat and avoid bankruptcy, but the punitive terms of the loan were unprecedented and triggered this lawsuit. Operating as a monopolistic lender of last resort, the Board of Governors imposed a 12 percent interest rate on AIG, much higher than the 3.25 to 3.5 percent interest rates offered to other troubled financial institutions such as Citibank and Morgan Stanley. Moreover, the Board of Governors imposed a draconian requirement to take 79.9 percent equity ownership in AIG as a condition of the loan. Although it is common in corporate lending for a borrower to post its assets as collateral for a loan, here, the 79.9 percent equity taking of AIG ownership was much different. More than just collateral, the Government would retain its ownership interest in AIG even after AIG had repaid the loan.

The term sheet approved by the Board of Governors contained other harsh terms. AIG’s Chief Executive Officer, Robert Willumstad, would be forced to resign, and he would be replaced with a new CEO of the Government’s choosing. The term sheet included other fees in addition to the 12 percent interest rate, such as a 2 percent

commitment fee payable at closing, an 8 percent undrawn fee payable on the unused amount of the credit facility, and a 2.5 percent periodic commitment fee payable every three months after closing. Immediately after AIG began receiving financial aid from the Government on September 16, 2008, teams of personnel from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and its advisers from Morgan Stanley, Ernst & Young, and Davis Polk & Wardwell, descended upon AIG to oversee AIG’s business operations. The Government’s hand-picked CEO, Mr. Edward Liddy, assumed his position on September 18, 2008. Although the AIG Board of Directors approved the Government’s harsh terms because the only other choice would have been bankruptcy, the Government usurped control of AIG without ever allowing a vote of AIG’s common stock shareholders.

Out of this nationalization of AIG, Starr has identified two classes of common stock shareholders that were affected by the Government’s actions: (1) a class comprised of AIG shareholders who held common stock during September 16-22, 2008 when the Government took 79.9 percent ownership of AIG in exchange for the $85 billion loan; and (2) a reverse stock split class comprised of AIG shareholders who held common stock on June 30, 2009 when the government-controlled board engineered a twenty-for- one reverse stock split to reduce the number of AIG’s issued shares, but left the number of authorized shares the same. The Court formally certified these two classes of shareholders as plaintiffs on March 11, 2013. See Starr Int’l Co. v. United States, 109 Fed. Cl. 628 (2013). Under the Court’s Rule 23 “opt in” procedure to join in a class action, 274,991 AIG shareholders have become class plaintiffs in this case.

The main issues in the case are: (1) whether the Federal Reserve Bank of New York possessed the legal authority to acquire a borrower’s equity when making a loan under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, 12 U.S.C. § 343 (2006); and (2) whether there could legally be a taking without just compensation of AIG’s equity under the Fifth Amendment where AIG’s Board of Directors voted on September 16, 2008 to accept the Government’s proposed terms. If Starr prevails on either or both of these questions of liability, the Court must also determine what damages should be awarded to the plaintiff shareholders. Other subsidiary issues exist in varying degrees of importance, but the two issues stated above are the focus of the case.

Continues here

 

 

 

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  1. Bob K. commented on Jun 15

    More like acted illegally.

  2. Expat commented on Jun 16

    Ok, so it is now officially official. Big banks can do whatever they want and no one goes to jail. Hedge funds can do whatever they want and no one goes to jail. HFT houses can do whatever they want and no one goes to jail. The Fed can do whatever it wants, etc….

    It’s one giant racket. If Wall Street and the US government were answerable to any authority whatsoever, they would all be charged under RICO and have all assets, personal and corporate, seized.

    Barry, five or six years ago on this very blog I said that Wall Street was utterly and thoroughly corrupt. At the time you claimed I was exaggerating since there were really only a few bad apples. Well, I still think that the best thing to do to save the world economy and humanity in general is to chain together every employee of every financial institution and drop them into the Laurentian Abyss.

    Disclaimer: I would unfortunately have to chain myself last and go down with the rest of the crooks.

    • willid3 commented on Jun 16

      while i have no doubt that there were more than a few crooks on wall street and the banks. and that wall street is basically a rigged game. it sounds like the court found the fed guilty of doing wrong. but when looking for compensation to those who were wronged, it figured out that those who files the suit would have been in even worse shape if the government hadnt done what they did. one of the draw backs of a civil suit is usually individuals can only get compensation for what lost. if you would have been in worse shape had who you sued dont nothing, you get nothing.

      and lets face. AIG was going into bankrupt. and stock holders will end up with nothing

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