The economic crisis that began as the subprime meltdown has clearly entered a dark new phase. And just as the prior stages of the crisis generated waves of related litigation, this new phase already has produced its own distinctive round of lawsuits. Like the underlying economic circumstances, the new litigation phase also seems darker and more threatening.
As might have been predicted, shareholder lawsuits have already been filed against the directors and officers of some of the most prominent companies caught up in the recent events. For example, on September 15, 2008, Merrill Lynch shareholders filed a complaint (here) in New York state court against the company and certain of its directors and officers alleging that the company’s planned merger with Bank of America is the result of a "flawed process and unconscionable agreement" and that the defendants had breached their fiduciary duties.
Similarly, as reported on September 18, 2008 in CFO.com (here), shareholders have filed a Delaware Chancery Court lawsuit against certain current and former directors and officers of AIG. The lawsuit blames the defendants for the company’s "exposure to and grossly imprudent risk taking in the subprime lending market and derivative instruments." The lawsuit seeks the return to AIG of all compensation paid to AIG’s CEO and to its directors, among other things.
These lawsuits are perhaps the almost inevitable products of events reported in last week’s headlines. But along with these more predictable litigation consequences, there have also been additional developments and resulting litigation, and it is this further litigation that suggests that the credit crisis litigation wave my now have entered a new, more complex phase.
As widely reported last week, the Primary Fund money market fund of the Reserve Family of Funds "broke the buck" when its "net asset value" fell below one dollar a share. Reserve’s September 16, 2008 press release announcing that net asset value of the Primary Fund had fallen below one dollar can be found here. On September 18, 2008, plaintiffs’ counsel filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York (complaint here), on behalf of persons who purchased shares of the Primary Fund between September 28, 2007 and September 16, 2008, against the Fund’s underwriters, investment advisor, and officers and directors.
The complaint alleges that the Fund’s offering documents failed to disclose, among other things, "the lack of diversification of the Fund’s assets and exposure to, at a minimum, now largely worthless debt securities valued at $785 million of the now defunct Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc."
The circumstances behind this lawsuit represent something of a second derivative of the subprime crisis. That is, the subprime meltdown led to problems with certain real estate assets and investments of Lehman Brothers, which ultimately led to Lehman’s collapse, which caused its debt securities to lose substantially all their value, which undermined the asset value of the Primary Fund and harmed its investors.
The reverberations of these second derivatives of the subprime meltdown are rippling through the economy, encompassing a broader array of participants, many of whom may have had little or no direct exposure to subprime-prime related investments per se. However, these companies had exposures to other companies that had exposures to mortgage backed assets.
The Primary Fund is far from the only market participant that has been harmed by its exposure to losses during this latest phase of the economic cycle. By way of illustration, on September 16, 2008, Conseco announced (here) that as of that date it held $108 million of securities of Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Washington Mutual, and that the company had during the third quarter realized losses of approximately $40 million on sales of securities of these issuers. Conseco’s shares fell over 40% the next trading day, although the share price has subsequently recovered somewhat.
Similarly, Japanese insurers have disclosed a combined $2.4 billion of potential losses from Lehman’s collapse (refer here).
On September 11, 2008, Progressive Corporation announced (here) August 2008 write-downs of $324 million (of which $278 million related to common and preferred stock investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), and also disclosed that the U.S. government’s take over of the companies produced an additional $171 million of September 2008 losses, bringing Progressive’s combined two month investment write-downs on its Fannie and Freddie holdings to nearly a half a billion dollars – a substantial amount even for a company with $20 billion in assets.
A multitude of other companies have announced or will be announced similar losses, and not just related to Lehman, but also in connection with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, and other companies whose securities have faced or that will face similar collapses. A September 18, 2008 CFO.com article entitled "Exposed and Disclosed: Filings Show Ties to Turmoil" (here) highlights recent filing in which companies have disclosed their exposure to investment declines as a result of adverse developments at these companies. A September 16, 2008 CFO.com article similarly identifying companies disclosing losses from the Lehman bankruptcy can be found here.
The losses on these investments are widespread and will affect a wide variety of market participants. The heroic (and astronomically expensive) bailout package that the Treasury department announced over the weekend (refer here) will not restore the value of these investments. In the weeks and months ahead, many other entities will be reporting losses or write-downs on these and other investments. In addition, in a completely different aspect of the current crisis, market participants who depended on Lehman for credit default protection will also be reporting the consequences of Lehman’s demise.
These announcements undoubtedly will trigger strong investor reactions for at least some of the disclosing companies, as was the case, for example, in connection with Conseco’s recent announcement. And in some instances, as was the case in connection with the Primary Fund, these announcements will also result in litigation.
Several months ago, I noted that the evolving litigation wave had long ago ceased to be just about the subprime meltdown. As lawsuits emerge from what I described above as the second derivative of the subprime meltdown, where companies lacking any direct exposure to subprime nevertheless experience losses because of exposure to other companies suffering credit crisis-related reversals, the ensuing litigation wave could threaten to become a generalized inundation deluging a substantial number of participants in the larger economy.
The ultimate wildcard is the impact that the current comprehesive Treasury bailout will have on litigation going forward. The analytic model for the current bailout plan is the formation of a government salvage operator along the lines of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) during the Savings & Loan crisis. Those of us who were around then will recall that the RTC was an active litigant aggressively using litigation to try to recover taxpayer losses. Law.com has a September 22, 2008 article entitled "U.S. Could Emerge as Major Player in Suits Stemming From Financial Crisis" (here) that speculates on that the new government bailout agency could once again play an active litigation role.
How the current bailout package ultimately will shake out remains to be seen. But one of the important themes in the current dynamic is the urge to assign blame. Some congressional figures have already targeted executive compensation and compensation clawbacks as important considerations of the bailout effort. These kinds of considerations could well lead to an effort to target directors and officers as well as their professional advisors, as part of the overall bailout.
More Reserve Fund Litigation: Shareholders have raised an additional concern in connection with the recent events involving the Reserve Fund. In a separate September 19, 2008 lawsuit (complaint here), Fund investors have also alleged that the Fund tipped off "about a dozen institutional investors" to withdraw a total of $40 billion from the funds at one dollar a share immediately before the Fund’s announcement of the losses due to the Lehman investment’s drove the net asset value below one dollar.
In a September 19 order (here), Judge Paul Magnuson entered a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Fund from honoring withdraw requests of over $10,000, until an evidentiary hearing can be held. Among other things, Judge Magnuson’s order said that "plaintiffs would be irreparably harmed if Defendants were allowed to honor redemption requests of investors who were made privy to the bad news before the public was made aware." The court will hold further hearings on September 23, 2008.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for providing copies of the insider tipping complaint and the TRO.
Run the Numbers: I have added the AIG bailout lawsuit and the Merrill Lynch/BoA lawsuit to my list of subprime and credit crisis-related derivative lawsuits, which can be accessed here. With the addition of these two lawsuits, the current tally of subprime and credit-crisis related derivative lawsuits now stands at 23.
In addition, I have added the Reserve Fund lawsuit, together with a more conventional subprime-related lawsuit filed last week against the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (about which refer here) to my list of subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits, which can be accessed here. With the addition of these two new securities lawsuits, the current tally of subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits now stands at 117, of which 77 have been filed in 2008.
Storm Surge: Plaintiffs’ securities attorneys were extraordinarily busy this past week. By my unofficial count, there were at least nine new securities class action lawsuits filed in the past week alone. And while some of this activity is directly attributable to the economic circumstances discussed above, a part of the activity is less directly connected.
Indeed the past week’s new lawsuits involve a broad variety of companies including clothing companies (refer here), wireless communications companies (refer here and here) and silicon wafer manufacturers (refer here).
We clearly are well past the securities lawsuit filing lull that prevailed from mid-2005 through mid-2007. The more troubling question now is whether we have entered a dangerous new phase of heightened litigation activity that includes but also extends well beyond lawsuits arising directly from financial difficulties attributable to turbulence in the credit markets.