On December 12, 2007, Sallie Mae announced that the extremely lucrative buy-out deal that it had reached earlier in the year with an investor group led by the private equity firm J.C. Flowers & Co. had gone up in smoke. A week later, Sallie Mae executives began to acknowledge the rapidly deteriorating state of the company's private loan portfolio, particularly among those high-risk loans it had made to sub-prime borrowers at some of the largest chains of for-profit colleges in the country.
Was the timing a coincidence? Or had the student loan giant's leaders engaged in a deliberate scheme to mask the company’s true financial condition to make sure the deal -- which promised to bring great riches to its board members, including chairman Al Lord, who was set to rake in $225 million -- was consummated?
Those questions are at the center of a class action shareholder lawsuit (click here for part 1 of the complaint and here for part 2) that a federal judge in Manhattan has allowed to proceed against Sallie Mae [SLM]. Late last month, William Pauley of the Federal District Court in Southern New York rejected a motion by Sallie Mae to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that the investors suing the company had provided sufficient evidence of possible wrongdoing to allow the litigation to move forward.
The case dates back to the fall of 2006 when Sallie Mae put itself up for sale. In the immediate years preceding, the loan company had forged sweetheart deals with some of the largest chains of for-profit colleges in the country, including Career Education Corporation, Corinthian Colleges, and ITT Educational Services, as Higher Ed Watch has previously reported. Under these arrangements, Sallie Mae agreed to provide funds for private student loans, with interest rates and fees totaling more than 20 percent per year, to low-income and working class students at these schools who normally wouldn’t qualify for them because of their poor credit records. Sallie Mae apparently viewed these loans as “loss leaders,” meaning that the company was willing to make these loans, many of which were likely to go into default, in exchange for becoming the exclusive provider of federal loans to the hundreds of thousands of students these huge chains collectively serve.
As they started to shop the company around, Sallie Mae executives, the lawsuit says, decided to double down on this risky strategy. "Defendents sought to increase short-term profits in an effort to negotiate a sale to the Flowers group (or another buyer) at an attractive premium and convince investors that an acquisition on favorable terms was likely,” the complaint states. “The scheme consisted of writing billions of dollars in private loans to high-risk borrowers, recording increased income from these loans (as a result of increased loan volume and higher rates of interest SLM was entitled to receive on the loans" as compared to federal loans), and "underreporting expected losses.” From June 2006 to December 2007, Sallie Mae’s private loan portfolio “more than doubled,” from $7 billion to $15.8 billion.
To make the strategy work, Sallie Mae officials needed to find a way to mask the amount of risk the company was taking on. Their aim was to keep delinquency and default rates on these high-cost loans artificially low while the buy-out deal was pending, the lawsuit says. Otherwise, they would have had to significantly raise the amount of money they held in reserve to cover possible losses on these loans -- which would have “reduced reported income and earnings” and ultimately the company’s value.
According to the lawsuit, Sallie Mae officials found an easy solution: pretend that the problems with the portfolio didn't exist by pushing delinquent borrowers into forbearance. By manipulating the company's forbearance, they could ensure that delinquent borrowers would not default on their loans until after the buy-out deal was completed and ownership had changed hands.