On November 20, 2009, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray announced (here) the filing of a lawsuit in the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of five Ohio pension funds against Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch. According to his press release, the complaint, which can be found here, charges the rating agencies with "wreaking havoc on U.S. financial markets by providing unjustified and inflated ratings of mortgage-backed securities in exchanged for lucrative fees from securities issuers."
During the period January 1, 2005 through July 8, 2008, the plaintiff pension funds purchased a variety of asset-backed securities all of which had "false and misleading" ratings of AAA or equivalent. The complaint alleges that while the ratings purportedly were objective and independent, "in truth, the Rating Agencies subverted those principles and negligently provided unjustified and inflated ratings in exchange for the lucrative fees the ABS issuers paid the Defendants for not only rating the securities but also for helping to structure them."
The complaint makes liberal use of the rating agencies’ internal communications that the SEC disclosed following its own investigation of the firms, and also quote extensively from the SEC’s investigation report (about which refer here).
The complaint asserts that "when the housing and credit markets collapsed, the flaws in the Defendants’ AAA ratings gradually became clear." The value of the pension funds’ investments "dropped precipitously" which, the complaint alleges, caused the funds to lose over $457 million, as "these purportedly safe investments became obvious for what they were – high risk securities that both the issuers and the Rating Agencies knew to be little more than a house of cards." The complaint asserts claims for relief under the Ohio Securities Act and for negligent misrepresentation.
The Ohio action follow the similar action that Calpers filed in July 2009 against the rating agencies, as discussed here.
As I have previously discussed on this blog, the rating agencies have proven to be a popular target for investors angry about losses they sustained on mortgage-backed securities and other investments following the subprime meltdown. But as I have also previously noted, these investor actions could face significant hurdles, particularly with respect to the rating agencies’ constitutional defenses. Significant case law supports the rating agencies’ position that their ratings opinions are protected by the first amendment.
In attempting to overcome these arguments, the Ohio funds will undoubtedly seek to rely on Judge Shira Scheindlin’s September 2009 opinion in the Cheyne Financial case, in which she rejected the rating agencies’ argument that their rating opinions were entitled to immunity under the First Amendment.
But as I noted in my prior post discussing Judge Scheindlin’s opinion, the extent to which these plaintiffs will be able to rely on her opinion may be limited. First, as a district court opinion, it will be of at most persuasive but not precedential value. Moreover, Judge Scheindlin’s conclusions were made in the context of an action made under New York’s fraud laws, which may or may not be relevant to an action under Ohio’s laws.
In addition, Judge Scheindlin’s ruling in the case was limited by its own terms. In disallowing the first amendment defense, she said "where a rating agency has disseminated their ratings to a select group of investors rather than to the public at large, the rating agency is note afforded the same protection." To the extent the ratings the Ohio funds’ allege to be misleading were not made to a select group of investors, as was the case with respect to the investments involved in the Cheyne Financial case, Judge Scheindlin’s ruling arguably may not be relevant.
But despite the obstacles, Cordray appears enthusiastic about the case. In fact, he seems to have decided in general that he can extract significant political value by pursing securities litigation. On November 20, 2009, he wrote on his blog, Speak Out Ohio, that "my office is aggressively pursuing Wall Street corporations and executives that harm investors here in Ohio and around the world." (Yes, the Ohio Attorney General has a blog. Doesn’t everybody?) Among other things, he also references in his blog post the recent $400 million settlement in the Marsh contingent commission securities class action lawsuit, in which his office participated.
Just to underscore how enthusiastic he is about pursing securities class action litigation, Cordray also separately published on November 20, 2009 a detailed report of the securities class action lawsuits his offices has pursued or is pursuing.
The political value that Cordray thinks he can gain by initiating securities litigation may be discerned from the tenor and tone of some of his remarks in his blog. For example, with respect to the rating agency lawsuit, he says that:
This case goes to the heart of what’s wrong with Wall Street today. Ohio workers—including our families, friends and neighbors – work hard to create wealth in our economy. Then Wall Street corporations and executives manipulate that wealth, for their benefit, and they do so with total disregard for our life’s work and the importance of our retirement savings. Ordinary people throughout Ohio are hurt by this kind of misconduct. And we won’t stand for it.
If you are wondering whether Cordray’s litigation endeavors are producing their intended results (that is, by generating favorable publicity for Cordray, who clearly has higher political aspirations), you will be interested to know that the filing of the rating agency lawsuit made the front page of the business section of Saturday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer. Since the only thing in Cleveland worse than the Cleveland Browns is the Cleveland economy, the paper’s business section is actually widely read, for same morbid reasons that people gawk at traffic accidents.
Ben Hallman of the Am Law Litigation Daily has an interesting November 20, 2009 profile of Cordray and of the ratings agency case here. Among other things, Hallman notes that Cordray is a former five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champ. Hallman also (correctly, in my view) notes that Cordray is "making a strong bid to be the Midwest’s answer to Andrew Cuomo."
On the Other Hand, Securities Litigation Could Also a Scam Worse Than Bernie Madoff’s: While Cordray is convinced that he is helping to protect the little guy by pursuing securities suits against Wall Street, Lawrence W. Schonbrun, the executive director of Class Action Litigation Watch, asserts that securities class action litigation is "a financial rip-off worse than Bernie Madoff."
In a November 21, 2009 editorial in The Buffalo News (here), Schonbrun takes on the plaintiffs’ securities class action bar, asserting that class action securities litigation is "skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from investors in U.S. corporations." Using Judge Rakoff’s rejection of the SEC’s settlement of the BofA/Merrill Lynch bonus action as a starting point, Schonbrun argues that:
In a typical year, more than 200 securities class action lawsuits are filed against American companies, with an average settlement of more than $100 million each; that adds up to a staggering $20 billion a year! Over nearly 40 years, that means that the system has drained upward of $800 billion of shareholder wealth, not just from people who directly trade securities but from all Americans who own mutual funds, or have pension funds or other types of investments. Kind of dwarfs Madoff’s $65 billion, doesn’t it?
Schonbrun is rather obviously playing fast and lose with the numbers, since there has never yet been even one year when class action lawsuits settlements average $100 million, and there certainly have not be 40 years’ worth of average settlements of $100 million.
But his rant does raise an interesting question, which is -- who is actually helped and who is actually hurt by the class action lawsuits? It is true that when class action settlements are funded in whole or in part by defendant corporations, it is shareholders that are hurt. As Schonbrun points out, among the most significant shareholders are the very kinds of pension funds on whose behalf Cordray is busy filing lawsuits. Schonbrun’s intemperate screed didn’t quite get there, but there is a very interesting question about whether the kinds of lawsuits Cordray is busy congratulating himself for filing (at least to the extent they are filed against publicly traded companies, as opposed to the rating agencies) actually benefit the pension funds over the long haul.
So here’s my idea: Let’s have a public debate between Cordray and Schonbrun. Call it "Class Action Smackdown" or something like that. To enhance the entertainment value, the rules of engagement could specify (drawing on Cordray’s Jeopardy! experience) all of the contestants’ statements would have to be expressed in the form of a question. That could be quite a spectacle.
And Speaking of Class Action Litigation: Meanwhile, back at the Southern District of New York courthouse, the Vivendi securities class action lawsuit trial is now in its sixth week. The trial disappeared from the radar screen for a while, but it was back in the news again this week, as former Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier took the stand.
According to news reports, he told the jury that he might have made mistakes but her never misled shareholders. The AP newswire story quotes him as saying "Some of my management decisions turned out wrong, but fraud? No. Never. Never. Never." According to the AmLaw Litigation Daily account of his testimony, Messier also called the allegations in the case "blatant lies, infamous lies." Messier’s testimony reportedly will continue for several days.
And Speaking of Liability Exposures: I have been involved with D&O claims, one way or another, for well over 25 years. After such a long period observing the havoc of lawsuits against directors and officers, I never ceased to be amazed by corporate officials who are convinced they don’t need management liability insurance. To me, that attitude as foolhardy and dangerous as that of the soldier who is convinced he doesn’t need a helmet because he is sure that he is never going to get hit.
One product I have been particularly surprised that corporate officials often must be convinced they need is Fiduciary Liability Insurance. This insurance, which is quite inexpensive given the extent of the protection it affords, is designed to protect plan fiduciaries against claims by employee plan participants or beneficiaries that the fiduciaries breached their duties.
On November 19, 2009, CFO.com had a particularly good article entitled "Fiduciary Liabilities: Are you Covered?" (here) which describes Fiduciary Liability Insurance and explains why it is an indispensible part of every company’s insurance program. I commend the article for anyone involved in advising companies about their management liability insurance.
And Finally: So which country do you think has the most English speakers, India or China? You might might be tempted to say India. But you would be wrong. Correct answer? China. I guess if you start with a billion people, having the most of anything is a lot simpler.