2008 was a remarkably eventful year, from the dramatic events that rocked the financial markets to the Presidential election that resulted in a change in national leadership. Virtually all of the significant events during 2008 also had an impact on the world of D&O insurance, one way or another. In all likelihood, significant developments will continue to emerge during 2009, with further implications for the D&O marketplace.
In a year as eventful as 2008, selecting as the most significant events is a challenging task. But with an eye toward the developments of greatest significance for the D&O industry, I have prepared the following list of the top ten stories of 2008.
1. Credit Crisis Becomes Global Financial Calamity: What began in 2007 as a subprime meltdown had by early 2008 become a credit crisis, which in turn evolved during Fall 2008 into a full blown global financial disaster.
Within the space of just a few short weeks, the government took control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the FDIC took over Washington Mutual, in the largest U.S. bank failure ever; Lehman Brothers collapsed, in the largest U.S. bankruptcy ever; Bank of America agreed to acquire Merrill Lynch in a government brokered deal; the government undertook a massive bailout of AIG; Congress enacted a colossal $700 billion bailout package; and Wells Fargo agreed to acquire Wachovia. And those events came after a raft of prior financial shocks, including the collapse of Bear Stearns, the seizure of the auction rate securities market, and the disintegration of U.S. residential real estate market.
Any one of these events on its own would be significant. Taken collectively these events represent an enormous upheaval, the full ramifications and consequences of which will only emerge over the months and years to come.
And those are just the headlines. In other developments reported "below the fold," companies around the world have grappled with a general business downturn, wrestled with the threat of their own insolvency or that of their customers or suppliers, and basically tried to maintain their ground in an increasingly hostile financial environment.
All of these developments have enormous potential significance, much of it yet to unfold. These events have not only fueled litigation, but they have also presented D&O underwriters with a dramatically altered underwriting environment. The perils involve not only the challenge of underwriting financially troubled companies, but also the trial of underwriting in the context of rapidly changing (and deteriorating) conditions in the financial and credit markets.
During 2008, the world became significantly more dangerous for D&O underwriters. All signs suggest the current perilous conditions will continue into 2009, and perhaps beyond.
2. Financial Market Disruptions Hit Major Insurers: The turmoil in the financial markets also battered three insurers that are major players in the D&O marketplace. AIG’s woes required an enormous government bailout. XL and Hartford both faced differing degrees of turbulence due to write-downs in their respective investment portfolios.
Each of one of these insurers is dealing with their own unique set of circumstances. Rating agencies have noted and responded to these developments. Insurance buyers remain anxious and wary. The implications of these developments, both for each of these insurers and for the marketplace as a whole, remain to be seen. At a minimum, these events have disrupted the D&O insurance marketplace and introduced a significant element of uncertainty. The disruptive impact from these developments is likely to continue to affect the D&O industry throughout 2009.
3. Subprime and Credit Crisis Litigation Wave Rolls On: The subprime litigation wave that began in 2007 continued to surge in 2008, as there were 101 new subprime and credit-crisis related securities lawsuits filed during 2008, bringing the two-year total to 141. My running tally of the subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits can be accessed here.
As time has passed, the litigation wave has continued to evolve; for example, the 2008 subprime and credit crisis-related litigation included as many as 21 auction rate securities lawsuits all of which were filed in the earlier part of 2008. Later in the year, a string of lawsuits initiated by holders of preferred or subordinated securities emerged (as discussed here).
In February 2009, the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave will enter its third year, but the phenomenon shows no signs of abating. The credit crisis-related securities lawsuits continued to accumulate throughout 2008. Of the 101 subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuits filed in 2008, 45 were filed in the second half of the year, including ten in December alone.
The credit crisis lawsuit filings remained high as the year ended, suggesting that significant credit crisis litigation activity will continue well into 2009 and perhaps beyond.
4. Credit Crisis Litigation Spreads Beyond the Financial Sector: As massive as the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave has been, it had until recently been concentrated in the financial sector. But as 2008 wore on, and largely as a result of the dramatic events in the global financial markets during September and October 2008, the litigation wave spread beyond the financial sector.
The companies that have become involved in this extended litigation wave include, for example, those that had significant exposure to Lehman Brothers or other companies that collapsed this fall. (Refer here and here for discussion of these "new wave" credit crisis lawsuits). In addition, companies that have been drawn in include companies that made wrong way bets on commodities or currencies (about which refer here).
These developments suggest that the credit crisis-related litigation wave may have entered a dangerous new phase, as I discuss at greater length here. These developments also underscore the challenges for D&O underwriters in the current environment.
My complete rundown of all 2008 securities litigation can be found here.
5. Bank Failures Surge: Led by the FDIC’s assumption of control of Washington Mutual in the largest bank failure in U.S. history, bank failures surged in 2008. According to the FDIC’s website (here), there were 25 bank failures in 2008, the highest annual total since 1994, at the end of the last era of failed banks. Perhaps even more significantly, the pace of bank closures increased as the year progressed; 21 of the 2008 bank closures took place in the second half of 2008, 12 of them in the fourth quarter.
In many ways, other financial events have overshadowed this sudden surge in bank failures. Indeed, as I noted here, the WaMu failure, the largest in U.S. history, has largely been relegated to yesterday’s news pile. But the timing and pace of the bank closures during 2008 suggests that there are likely to be further bank failures ahead, carrying with it the threat of associated "dead bank" litigation, a possibility I previously discussed here.
6. Madoff Scandal Triggers Litigation Torrent: The revelation of the massive Ponzi scheme involving Bernard Madoff and his firm has triggered a wave of litigation as aggrieved investors scrambled to try to recoup their losses. The first Madoff-related lawsuits targeted Madoff and his firm. But given the unlikelihood of a significant recovery there, investors have quickly moved on to other targets. A running tally of the Madoff investor litigation can be accessed here.
The primary Madoff-related litigation targets are the so-called "feeder funds" that invested with Madoff on their clients behalf. Recent blog posts discussing these "feeder funds" lawsuits can be found here and here. Given the magnitude of the investor losses and the depth of investor outrage, these lawsuits are likely to continue to accrue for some time to come. Press reports (for example, here) suggest that lawyers are gearing up for a litigation onslaught.
7. Presidential Election Signals Changes: I don’t know whether you heard, but there was an election in November. The coming changes in the White House as well as the increased Democratic majority in Congress could signal significant future legislative and other developments.
The arrival of the new administration will likely mean a change in direction for judicial appointments. A more interesting question is whether the Democratic control of Congress and the White House could lead to legislative changes in the securities laws. As discussed at the PLUS International Conference in November (about which refer here), the current financial turmoil could be used as a justification for legislative reform efforts – for example, an attempt to overturn Central Bank and Stoneridge.
At a minimum, the coming changes in the leadership at the SEC, together with a different leadership interpretation of the meaning and value of regulation, could lead to a changed environment for the enforcement of the securities laws.
8. Largest-Ever Fine Underscores the Growing Significance of the FCPA: For some time now (most recently here), I have been writing about the growing importance of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement activity and associated civil litigation. The FCPA mounting significance was dramatically underscored recently when Siemens agreed to pay an $800 million fine.
The Siemens fine is the largest ever, dwarfing the previous record fine, paid by Baker Hughes, of $44 million (about which refer here). The outcome of the Siemens investigation is merely the latest development in a long chain of events highlighting the growing importance of the FCPA.
As I have previously noted (refer here), one of the usual accompaniments of an FCPA investigation is follow-on civil litigation. As the threat of FCPA-related exposure continues to grow, the threat of follow-on civil litigation will also increase.
The FCPA Blog has a detailed overview of 2008 FCPA enforcement activity here.
9. Defense Expense Tests Limits Adequacy: Companies ensnared in high stakes litigation may find themselves confronting an unexpected new challenge – the increasing likelihood that defense costs alone could exhaust the entire amount of available D&O insurance coverage. This threat was unfortuntately realized in connection with the Collins & Aikman bankruptcy and related criminal proceeding (about which refer here), where accumulated defense expense exhausted the company’s entire $50 million D&O insurance, before the criminal case even went to trial.
The possibility that escalating defense expense could entirely deplete available insurance presents a frightening prospect for individuals involved in a serious D&O claim, and also raises troubling questions about traditional notions of limits adequacy. In addition, the possibility of total limits exhaustion as the result of the requirements of multiple claims and multiple insureds underscores the need for insurance buyers to consider alternative insurance structures (such as, for example, separate insurance for an individual or a group of individuals) to ensure that segregated funds remain available in the event of a catastrophic claim.
10. Indemnity Developments Trigger Additional Insurance Structure Concerns: In the Schoon v. Troy case (about which refer here), the Delaware Chancery Court held that a board of directors properly could eliminate former directors' advancement rights retroactively. The possibility that former directors could lose their rights to advancement or indemnification comes as unwelcome news to many directors.
This case development, like the development about limits adequacy noted above, highlights the need to address program structure as part of the insurance acquisition process. In general, directors and officers have become more concerned about the availability of insurance protection when they need it most. As a result, interest in a wider variety of auxiliary insurance structures has increased. These structures can include new insurance solutions designed for the needs of retiring directors.
In a year as eventful as 2008, reasonable minds could differ about what events deserve to be included in any Top Ten list. I am very interested in readers’ views about the top stories, particularly those who feel that other events deserved to be included on the list.
More "Top" Lists: Making year-end lists seems to be a nearly universal phenomenon, and Top Ten lists abound. Time Magazine simplified things by creating "The Top Ten of Everything of 2008," which can be found here.
Then there are always the lists of the "Bottom Ten," like Business Week’s list of the Ten Worst Predictions About 2008 (here). Fortune has a list (here) of the "dumbest" business decisions of 2008, but given the kind of year 2008 was, a list of just ten was not enough – the magazine’s targets 21 business decisions as "dumbest."
Perhaps the most entertaining "Top" list is VideoGum’s list of the Top Viral Videos of 2008, which can be viewed below. (Viewer discretion is advised as some persons may find some of the content offensive.)
PLUS D&O Symposium: Readers will also want to be sure to register for the annual PLUS D&O Symposium, which will be held on February 25 and 26, 2009, at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York. Information about the Symposium, including registration instructions, can be found here.
The Symposium will feature an all-star cast, including keynote speakers Madeline Albright and NY Insurance Department Superintendant Eric Dinallo. Wilson Sonsini partner Boris Feldman will once again be moderating the annual panel on securities litigation developments. The schedule also includes a panel on Bankruptcies and Bailouts, with panelists including VJ Dowling of Dowling & Partners Securities and David Bradford of Advisen.
The conference will also include a replay of the excellent video, "The Rise and Fall of Bill Lerach" (a movie trailer for which can be found here). Stanford Law Professor Joseph Grundfest will lead a panel discussion of the video. The video was shown at the PLUS International Conference in November 2008 and received rave reviews.
Readers with any questions about the Symposium should feel free to drop me a note or give me a call.