A surprising decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Midland Funding v. Madden threatens the functioning of the national markets in loans and loan-backed securities. The ruling, if it stands, would overturn the more than 150-year-old guiding principle of “valid when made.”

The effects of the decision could be wide-ranging, affecting loans beyond the type at issue in the case. It is in the banking industry’s interest for the Supreme Court, at the very least, to limit its applicability. And since the Madden case could deal a blow to preemption under the National Bank Act, it is time for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to voice an opinion.

Under the valid-when-made principle, if the interest rate on a loan is legal and valid when the loan is originated, it remains so for any party to which the loan is sold or assigned. In other words, the question of who subsequently owns the financial instrument does not change its legal standing. But the appeals court found that a debt buyer does not have the same legal authority as the originating bank to collect the stated interest.

In the words of the amicus brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of several trade associations:

Since the first half of the nineteenth century, this Court has recognized the ‘cardinal rule’ that a loan that is not usurious in its inception cannot be rendered usurious subsequently. ” U.S. credit markets have functioned on the understanding that a loan originated by a national bank under the National Banking Act is subject to the usury law applicable at its origination, regardless of whether and to whom it is subsequently sold or assigned.

This, the argument continues, “is critically important to the functioning of the multitrillion-dollar U.S. credit markets.” So it is. And such markets are undeniably big, with hundreds of billions of dollars in consumer credit asset-backed securities, and more than $8 trillion in residential mortgage-backed securities, plus all whole loan sales.

Marketplace lenders and investors have already raised intense concerns about the decision, but the impact could go further. The validity of numerous types of loan-backed securities packaged and sold on the secondary market could suddenly be called into question. Packages of whole loans, as well as securitizations, include the diversified debt of multiple borrowers from different states with different usury limits, and then sold to investors. But the Madden decision suggests those structures are at risk of violating state usury laws.

A possible interpretation to narrow the impact of the case would be for future court decisions to find that the Madden outcome only applies to the specific situation of this case, namely to defaulted and charged-off loans sold by a national bank to an entity that is not a national bank. Thus, only the buyers of such defaulted debt would be bound by state usury limits in their collection efforts, and the impact will largely be limited to diminishing the value of such loans in the event of default.

The Second Circuit decision might not, based on this hypothesis, apply to performing loans or to the loan markets in general. However, as pointed out in a commentaryby Mayer Brown: “it will take years for the Second Circuit to distinguish Madden in enough decisions that the financial industry can get comfortable that Madden is an anomaly.” The law firm’s commentary presented many potential outcomes, including that the Madden case could be “technically overturned” but without the high court providing explicit support for the “valid-when-made” principle. That “would be a specter haunting the financial industry,” according to the firm’s analysis.

In the meantime, what happens?

It would be much better for the Supreme Court to reaffirm the valid-when-made principle as a “cardinal rule” governing markets in loans, and the Supreme Court is being petitioned to accept the case for review.

But at this point, one would also expect the OCC, the traditional defender of the powers of national banks and the preemption of state constraints on national bank lending, to be weighing in strongly. The comptroller of the currency should protect the ability of national banks to originate and sell loans guided by the valid-when-made principle. But the OCC seems not to be weighing in at all and is strangely absent from this issue.

Everyone agrees that national banks can make loans under federal preemption of state statutes, subject to national bank rules and regulations. Everyone agrees, as far as we know, that the valid-when-made principle is required for loans to move efficiently among lenders and investors in interstate and national markets, whether as whole loans or securities.

In our view, the OCC ought to be taking a clear and forceful public position to support the ability of national banks to originate loans which will be sold into national markets.

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