As the markets for various types of subprime-related assets have seized up, many companies find themselves faced with complicated issues concerning asset valuation and disclosure. These issues have in turn both subjected companies to the possibility of litigation and encouraged investors to target the entities and institutions that sold them the assets in the first place. The extent of the asset valuation and disclosure issues suggests that the turmoil, and the ensuing litigation, will continue to spread.
One example where the valuation and disclosure issues have already led to litigation involves the securities class action lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota on March 28, 2008 against MoneyGram International and certain of its directors and officers. A copy of the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ press release can be found here and a copy of the complaint can be found here.
The complaint against Moneygram relates to the company’s January 14, 2008 press release (here) in which the company stated that it had completed its valuation of its investment portfolio as of November 30, 2007, as a result of which the company said that it had “experienced net unrealized losses of $571 million from September 30, 2007, bringing cumulative net unrealized losses to $860 million.” The company also announced that it has commenced a process to “realign is portfolio away from asset-backed securities,” as a result of which it had realized in January a loss of $200 million on asset sales of $1.3 billion.
According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ press release, the complaint alleges that the defendants “concealed from the investing public” that:
(a) the Company lacked requisite internal controls to ensure that the reserves for the Company’s investments in asset-backed securities were adequate, and, as a result, the Company’s projections and reported results issued during the Class Period were based upon defective assumptions and/or manipulated facts; and (b) the Company concealed the extent of its potential losses arising from its exposure to asset-backed securities containing uncollectible debt.
The prospect of securities litigation arising from asset valuation and disclosure issues is a potentially very substantial problem, because so many companies are facing these same kinds of issues due to asset-backed securities in their investment portfolio. Similarly, companies holding auction rate securities are facing particularly challenging valuation and disclosure issues, and as I have previously noted (most recently here), these challenges are not limited to companies in the financial sector, but indeed are widely dispersed throughout the economy. For example, a March 28, 2008 Wall Street Journal article entitled “’Auction Rates’ Clip Tech Firms’ Profits” (here) discusses the financial impacts that a variety of technology companies are facing because of the companies’ inability to convert their auction rate securities holdings into cash.
One measure of the depth of the problems arising from the failure of the auction rate securities market is that it is not just companies whose balance sheets are under pressure. Many households and individuals are also now about to recognize their own personal balance sheet hits due to the auction rate problem. According to a March 29, 2008 Wall Street Journal article entitled “UBS Plans Auction-Rate Price Cut” (here), UBS is going to lower the values of the auction rate securities held by its customers. The reduced values, which will be based on computer models and “will range from a few percentage points to more than 20%” will be reflected on their customers’ forthcoming statements.
As I have previously noted (most recently here), investors have already filed a number of class action lawsuits against the companies that sold them auction rate securities, and on March 27, 2007, Citibank became the latest to be sued in a securities class action on behalf of investors for its sale of auction rate securities (see press release here and complaint here). The reduction of the carrying values of auction rate securities on investors’ statements will likely further bestir investors and could lead to even more litigation. But making no adjustments could create a different set of issues and lead to greater problems later.
The question of how best to reflect the valuation of assets for which there is no current market is one that potentially affect participants at all levels of the economy. And while there undoubtedly will be more lawsuits on behalf of investors against the companies that sold them the auction rate securities, a potentially greater litigation threat may arise from shareholders who may contend they were misled about a company’s balance sheet exposure to these kinds of assets. There could well be a great deal of litigation in which it is alleged, as asserted in the complaint in the MoneyGram case, that a company failed to disclose the “extent of its potential losses arising from its exposure to asset-backed securities containing uncollectible debt.”
The extent of the problem shall be revealed in the fullness of time. But meanwhile the subprime-related securities class action litigation still continues to accumulate. With the addition of the MoneyGram and Citigroup lawsuits, my running tally of subprime-related securities lawsuits (which can be accessed here) now stands at 61, 23 of which have been filed in 2008, and seven of which are filed on behalf of auction rate investors against the companies who sold them the securities.