Mr. Thoma's court appearance added new drama to an already contentious case, which began when the U.S. government seized the bank in September 2008. The court-ordered probe riled hedge-fund managers, who said they did nothing wrong, and made Mr. Thoma a folk hero among Washington Mutual's legions of small investors.
...It is possible to take on mamoth trading houses, if you're knowledgable on the subject. I just hope this man prevails in fighting these somewhat unethical practices, that end up screwing "the little guy."
His transformation from small-time investor to activist shareholder began following the seizure of Washington Mutual. Mr. Thoma's shareholding in the bank was wiped out. He spent weeks in front of his Scottrade account, trying to figure out how to recoup money he had lost.
"I started looking at the capital structure, and I saw an opportunity to make back my investment," Mr. Thoma said. He bought trust preferred securities, a hybrid of debt and equity, which rank above common and preferred shares. That enabled him to essentially jump ahead in line for any money distributed from the bank's estate.
It also put him in the same pool as Appaloosa, Aurelius, Centerbridge and Owl Creek, which were snapping up the same securities.
Those securities were quoted at around one cent in November 2008, when Mr. Thoma first started buying—they are now at 16 cents—but they rarely traded and were hard to buy through his online brokerage account.
In the following months, Mr. Thoma bought in lots of 500 or 1,000 units. But he noticed other investors were occasionally able to buy them in much larger amounts, at one point as many as six million units in a day.
Mr. Thoma suspected the buying was being made by hedge funds, which already owned the bank's bonds. Owning large chunks of both classes of securities would help them control the bankruptcy's course, he figured. While this practice is standard in most bankruptcies, in the case of Washington Mutual, the hedge funds' strategies affected thousands of retail investors, who still owned the bank's securities.
In his December objection, Mr. Thoma said he thought it was unfair that hedge funds were able to eventually negotiate on behalf of trust preferred holders, seeing as they were also bondholders and involved in settlement talks. He questioned whether they were acting in all of the preferred holders' best interests.