A group of businessmen with ties to Warren Buffett, George Soros, President Obama, and socialist senator Bernie Sanders are pushing a plan to use the government's power of eminent domain to seize billions of dollars worth of underwater mortgages from banks and bondholders.
Word of the plan surfaced earlier this month in a Reuters dispatch that reported the eminent domain strategy but not the political ties of the businessmen involved in the plan nor their links to two of America's most prominent and outspoken billionaires. The Reuters article said a firm called Mortgage Resolution Partners, chaired by Steven Gluckstern, a former owner of the New York Islanders hockey team, was working with politicians in Nevada, Florida, and California's San Bernadino County to advance the plan.
"Gluckstern acknowledges that using eminent domain for mortgages is untested but said the firm's lawyers believe the strategy would withstand a legal challenge from bondholders or banks," the Reuters article said.
California, Florida, and Nevada all changed their state laws to make it harder to use eminent domain after the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London allowed a Connecticut city to seize a private home for a corporate development plan and ignited a national political storm over government property condemnations via eminent domain. In the case of the mortgages, lawyers may be able to argue that the anti-Kelo laws do not apply because the houses themselves aren't being condemned, just the mortgages. They may also argue that the mortgage condemnations, by preventing foreclosures, are actually consistent with the anti-Kelo law's intent of allowing people to remain in their homes.
If the personal and political ties of the men involved are any sign, though, the mortgage condemnation plan is likely to have more allies on the left end of the political spectrum than among the libertarians, conservatives, and Tea Party types who spearheaded the state-level "anti-Kelo" laws.
The Mortgage Resolution Partners Web site says Mr. Gluckstern "worked for investor Warren Buffett and served as General Manager of reinsurance operations of the Berkshire Hathaway Insurance Group." Also according to the Mortgage Resolution Partners Web site, the firm's chief of staff, BJ Greenspan, "comes to MRP most recently from the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET), founded in the aftermath of the most recent financial crisis, where she helped to launch their efforts and served as Chief of Staff." The Institute for New Economic Thinking was founded by hedge fund manager and philanthropist George Soros with a $50 million pledge in 2009 and a $50 million follow-up grant in 2012.
The Reuters article reports that Mortgage Resolution Partners "is working with investment banks Evercore Partners Inc and Westwood Capital to find institutional investors interested in providing the billions of dollars necessary to fund the condemnation process on a significant scale."
Evercore is led by Roger Altman, a Clinton and Carter administration official who was mentioned as a possible successor to Lawrence Summers as President Obama's chairman of the National Economic Council. Mr. Altman's firm was paid $46 million by General Motors pre-bankruptcy, then turned around and asked for a $17.9 million "success fee." A U.S. bankruptcy trustee termed the fees "staggering" and "inordinately large" and said it "clearly exceeds the bounds of reasonableness" given that "Evercore had no success at finding a purchaser or funder for the Debtors." Mr. Altman then wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times praising President Obama's auto bailout.
Federal Election Commission records show that on September 25, 2006, four Westwood Capital employees including managing partner Daniel Alpert gave campaign contributions totaling $2,000 to Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist.
Mr. Gluckstern's campaign contributions have overwhelmingly favored Democrats. In 2003 and 2004 he gave a total of $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee, and in February 2012 he gave $5,000 to President Obama's campaign, Federal Election Commission records show.
Several other signs point to a desire for some kind of political fix to the housing or mortgage market. A recent New Yorker article on President Obama's second-term agenda listed "housing reform" as a possible priority and quoted Austan Goolsbee, a former Obama administration official, as saying, "Somebody has to eat the seven hundred billion dollars...There's no way to cover up the fact. Either the banks and mortgage holders have to take seven hundred billion dollars of losses or the government has to come up with seven hundred billion dollars of subsidies to cover these costs."
And both in an interview with Fortune and in his testimony this week before the Senate banking committee, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon observed, "we still haven't fixed the mortgage market."
The strongest objection to the plan may relate less to the political giving or personal ties of those involved but rather to the principle that if some investors think they can make money on restructuring mortgages where the homes are now worth less than the loans, they should have to do so through transactions that are voluntary, not by using the power of the state to get control of the loans or the houses at prices that are more steeply discounted than might be achieved in a transaction that did not involve state power.