As the year end approaches, various commentators will be issuing their retrospectives on the year’s securities litigation activity. The lead story undoubtedly will be that the wave of subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuits continued to flood in during the year. With some 94 new subprime and credit crisis related securities lawsuits so far in 2008 (by my count, which can be accessed here), the litigation wave undoubtedly is an important part of the story. But it is not the whole story. The danger is that the wave of credit crisis-related litigation has become so predominant that other important developments may be overlooked.
This past week illustrates my point. There were seven new securities class action lawsuits filed during the week of December 8, which is noteworthy in and of itself, as December historically is a slow month for securities class action lawsuit filings.
Among this past week’s seven new securities lawsuits was one new credit-crisis related filing. On December 11, 2008, plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against GS Mortgage and certain of its directors and officers, on behalf of purchasers of mortgage pass-through certificates and asset-backed securities the company issued. (GS Mortgage is an affiliate of Goldman Sachs, which is also named as a defendant.)
According to the plaintiffs’ press release (here), the GS Mortgage complaint alleges a variety of misrepresentations in the instruments’ offering documents, including with respect to the underwriting standards and appraisals used in the origination of the underlying mortgages.
But while the seven lawsuits filed last week did include this one subprime-related lawsuit, the other six lawsuits appear completely unrelated to the subprime or credit crisis-related events.
The remaining six companies named include a Canadian mining company, Crystallex International, allegedly facing regulatory issues in Venezuela (about which refer here); two medical device companies, Medtronix and Atricure (refer here and here); a media conglomerate, CBS Corporation, that announced non-cash impairment charges to intangible assets and goodwill (refer here); a laser and technology manufacturer, GSI Corp., that restated its financials due to revenue recognition issues (refer here), and a Chinese agricultural company, China Organic Agriculture, facing allegations regarding its development of organic products (refer here).
These six lawsuits represent a diverse mix of companies and allegations. The point here is that none of these six lawsuits is related to the subprime meltdown or credit crisis. Similarly, during the past year, while there have been a host of credit crisis-related lawsuits filed, there have also been many other lawsuits that are totally unrelated to the credit crisis.
Given the nature and magnitude of the financial developments this year, it is hardly surprising that there has been significant litigation activity involving the financial sector. What may be even more noteworthy is that notwithstanding the predominance of the financial events, there have been a significant number of lawsuits having nothing to do with the credit crisis or the financial sector.
I will detail these observations in my own forthcoming year-end analysis of securities litigation activity. In the interim, particularly as the various year-end reports emerge, it is important to keep in mind that 2008 securities litigation activity was not just about the credit crisis alone, nor was it confined just to the financial sector.
Does This Sounds Familiar?: Our age is not the first to have to contend with the consequences from cultural excess fueled by speculation, debt and deficit spending enabled by “financial wizardry.” A similar pattern also appeared in the events leading up to the French Revolution. In his book, Revolutionary France, 1770-1880 (here), historian François Furet details the country’s astonishing accumulation of indebtedness, and the consequences that followed.
In particular, Furet explores the way the French monarchy, led by Finance Minister Jacques Necker, financed its participation in the American war of independence by increasing state-guaranteed life annuities, fueling a speculative bubble and enabling borrowing backed by inflated values. Furet writes:
In total, between 1776 and 1781, 530 million in loans of all kinds fed the Treasury and financed a war that was all the more popular because it was painless. Money continued to flow in, and the resale of annuities enriched Parisian speculation. Even if the state was seriously compromising its future, Necker retained his popularity. In 1781, to counter-attack court intrigues … he published the Compte rendu, a statement of accounts which concealed the expenditure of the extraordinary budget and revealed an apparent surplus revenue of ten million livres.
As Furet observed, “after three years of war and no new taxes, that was truly financial wizardry!” The problem is that, contrary to Necker’s assurances, “the real deficit lay in the region of eighty million.”
Similar deficit financing by Necker’s successors furthered the French government’s financial challenges. A successor minister, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, “found, out of 600 million livres in annual revenue, 176 million committed in advance, 250 million absorbed by debt service, and 390 million in accounts in arrears to be settled.” What was Calonne’s response? “He borrowed money on all sides, even more and at a higher rate than his predecessors.”
Among other things, this massive indebtedness enabled the illusion of prosperity; “one would need to reconstruct the entire circuit of money borrowed by Calonne to understand how these years were without doubt the most dazzling in court civilization.” But, as Furst notes, “sinking borrowed money into the parasitic round of court life proved eventually to be the downfall of this aristocratic sleight of hand.” This “artifice” unleashed “one of the most gigantic crashes in history.”
As we face the consequence of the collapse of our own era of debt-fueled prosperity, with its accompanying speculation, asset-valuation bubbles and financial wizardry, there is something sobering in realizing that once again the response consists of “borrowing money on all sides.” The ever-cumulating deficits have reached the point where figures of billions and trillions have lost all meaning. I am sure I am not the only one with the uneasy feeling that we may be sinking borrowed money into parasitic hands and that we could be “seriously compromising our future.”
PLUS D&O Symposium: The Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) will be holding its annual D&O Symposium on February 25 and 26, 2009, at the Marriott Marquis in New York City. I will be co-Chairing the event again this year, along with my good friends, Tony Galban of Chubb and Chris Duca of Navigators Pro. There will be a terrific line up of speakers, including the keynote speakers Madeline Albright and New York Insurance Commissioner Eric Dinallo .
The panels will include all of the familiar favorites, such as the securities litigation update panel, to be chaired again by Boris Feldman of the Wilson Sonsini firm, and View from the Top panel, featuring the heads of the leading D&O underwriting facilities. Other panels will also address issues surrounding the governmental bailouts and increased business failures. An added bonus is that the fascinating video The Rise and Fall of Bill Lerach will be shown during the conference. (View a trailer of the video here).
Further information about the 2009 PLUS D&O Symposium, including registration information, can be found here. This event sells out every year, so early registration is advised.