Next up as targets in the ever-growing wave of subprime-related class action lawsuits are closed-end funds that issued auction preferred securities. The auction marketplace for these securities, like the market for auction rate municipal bonds, has broken down, and investors who bought the securities are now suing the closed end funds that issued the instruments.

First, some background. According to the Investment Company Institute’s web page describing and explaining closed end funds (here), closed end funds are managed investment companies that issue a fixed number of shares. The shares trade on the open market. In addition to these common shares, many closed end funds also issue preferred shares. The owners of the preferred shares are paid dividends, but they do not participate in the fund’s gains and losses. The sale of preferred shares gives the fund leverage, by permitting the fund to make additional investments, hoping to improve the common shareholders’ returns. For auction rate preferreds, the dividend rate is set through periodic auctions, typically held every seven or 28 days.

According to a March 9, 2008 New York Times article entitled “As Good as Cash, Until It’s Not” (here), the marketplace for municipalities’ auction rate notes is $330 billion, and the market for closed end fund auction rate preferred securities is $65 billion. But more to the point, investors in auction rate preferred securities, like investors in municipalities’ auction rate notes, have discovered that due to the February 2008 breakdown of the auction rate marketplace, investors find they are “stuck” with their investments and unable to sell them through the auction market.

But auction rate preferred investors are, according to the Times article, faring “far worse than investors stuck with municipal issues,” because many municipal note investors are receiving a penalty rate of up to 12 percent or more, a rate that is “much higher than the caps on closed-end notes, which are currently around 3.25 percent.” The closed end issuers “have no incentive to redeem their notes since the interest rate resulting from the failed auction is so low.”

A March 30, 2008 New York Times article entitled “If You Can’t Sell, Good Luck” (here) explains that auction rate preferred investors’ difficulties put the closed-end fund issuers “in something of a conflicted position,” because the common shareholders’ returns are enhanced by the leverage from the preferred securities investment. While the preferred holders would like their shares to be redeemed, the “common shareholders would lose out on extra income generated by the preferred share structure.”

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the class action securities attorneys have now gotten involved. According to their press release (here), on April 21, 2008, the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ filed a purported securities class action lawsuits in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against the Calamos Global Dynamic Income Fund, on behalf of investors who acquired “Auction Rate Cumulative Preferred Shares” (ARPS) in the fund’s September 17, 2007 offering of $350 million of the securities. The complaint, which can be found here, also names as defendants the two investment banks that led the offering.

According to the press release, the complaint alleges that the offering documents omitted that:

(i) the purported “auctions” used by Calamos Fund to get the dividend rates were not bona fide auctions at all, but rather a mechanism to maintain the illusion of an efficient and liquid market for the ARPS so that the Calamos Fund could continue to earn fees from the so-called auctions and from the ongoing stabilizing of the market because of the lack of buyer demand; (ii) the default interest rate set as a consequence of a failed auction is less than the interest rate paid when auctions of certain competing municipal auction rate securities (“MARS”) offered directly by municipal issuers fail; (iii) the ARPS suffer from an additional disadvantage compared to MARS because the ARPS are securities which exist in perpetuity until such time as the Fund calls them due while MARS have a set due date; and (iv) the default interest rate as set would cause the ARPS to trade at a discount to their par value if, and when, the auctions began to fail.

The complaint further alleges that as a result of the auction rate marketplace failure “auction rate securities that were once offered as ‘cash equivalents’ are now illiquid, resulting in economic losses and severe hardships for investors.”

As I have previously noted (most recently here and here), there already is a growing wave of auction rate securities class action lawsuits. However, this most recent lawsuit differs from the prior actions, and not merely because it involves closed end fund auction rate preferred securities rather auction rate notes issued by municipalities. The new lawsuit is also different because it targets the issuer; in the prior auction rate lawsuits, the plaintiffs targeted the broker dealers that sold the securities, not the municipalities that issued the securities.

One thought I had while reviewing the Calamos complaint is that many of these auction rate lawsuits may present some interesting issues related to damages. In most instances, the instruments are continuing to pay interest according to their terms. With respect to the closed end fund notes, the securities are backed by real assets held in the funds, which would seem to suggest that the instruments retain substantial economic value. Even if the auction rate market itself proves to be permanently broken, it would seem that there should be strong economic incentives all the way around for a secondary market for these shares to develop. Of course, whether a fully functional secondary market emerges, and whether the marketplace requires a significant discount for these shares to trade, remains to be seen. But right now, calculating the alleged damages does seem to pose some challenging issues, particularly some mechanism to trade the shares develops while these cases are pending.  

Subprime Litigation Wave Hits Credit Suisse: On April 21, 2008, plaintiffs’ counsel also initiated a securities class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Credit Suisse Group and certain of its directors and officers. According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ press release (here), the complaint alleges that the “defendants failed to write down known impaired securities containing mortgage-related debt.” Specifically, the complaint alleges that

(a) that defendants failed to record losses on the deterioration in mortgage assets and collateralized debt obligations (“CDOs”) on Credit Suisse’s books caused by the high amount of non-collectible mortgages included in the portfolio; (b) that Credit Suisse’s internal controls were inadequate to ensure that losses on residential mortgage-related assets were accounted for properly; and (c) that Credit Suisse’s traders had put incorrect values on CDOs and other debt securities, concealing the exposure the Company had to losses.

The complaint (which can be found here), also alleges that on February 19, 2008, the company announced (here) fair value reductions of $2.25 billion following its repricing of its asset-backed positions, triggering a sharp decline in the company’s share price.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers have engineered the purported class on whose behalf the action is brought, in a clear attempt to avoid jurisdictional challenges and other concerns. The purported class includes all shareholders who purchased Credit Suisse ADRs on the NYSE, and all U.S. residents or citizens who purchased Credit Suisse stock elsewhere. This purported class excludes non-U.S. investors who purchased their securities outside of the United States.

This class composition seems tailored to match the composition of the class recently certified in the Converium securities lawsuit (as discussed in greater detail on the Securities Litigation Watch blog, here). This class composition also avoids many of the so-called “f-cubed” litigant problems (involving foreign domiciled shareholders who bought their shares in a foreign company on a foreign exchange). Avoiding this issue could eliminate friction at the lead plaintiff, motion to dismiss, and class certification stages. It does raise questions about the foreign litigants and their apparent inability to seek class remedies of the type that other securityholders in the same company are able to pursue in the U.S. Whether that triggers these securityholders to file a bunch of individual actions, as happened after the foreign litigants were excluded from the Vivendi lawsuit (as also discussed on the Securities Litigation Watch blog, here), remains to be seen.

For further background about the “f-cubed” issue, refer to my prior posts, here and here.

Run the Numbers: With the addition of these two new lawsuits, the current tally of subprime and other credit crisis related lawsuits, which can be accessed here, now stands at 76, 36 of which have been filed in 2008. Of the 38 so far in 2008, 15 (including the Calamos lawsuit described above) are auction rate securities lawsuits.

Excess D&O Insurance Coverage Issues: In several posts (most recently here), I have examined the increasingly important emergence of coverage disputes involving excess D&O insurance. In the latest issue of InSights, entitled “Excess Liability Insurance: Coverage Disputes and Possible Solutions” (here), I take a more comprehensive look at the coverage issues involving excess D&O insurance.

Speaker’s Corner: On April 22, 2008 at 1:00 P.M. EDT, I will be participating in a one-hour webinar sponsored by Merrill Corporation entitled “The Subprime Ripple Effect: Preparing for the Wave of Litigation.” The other participants include Thomas Reilly, the former Massachusetts Attorney General and a shareholder in the Greenburg Traurig law firm, and Mark Kindy, EVP of Strategy and Operations for Merrill Corp. Registration (which is free) can be accessed here.