In my preceding post, I quoted recent reassuring words from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson about the current credit crunch. Billionaires Warren Buffett and George Soros apparently have a less sanguine view, and there is in any event substantial recent evidence to support the view that, whether or not the worst is over, the effects will be felt for some time to come.
According to news reports (here), Warren Buffett told reporters in Europe yesterday that “I don’t necessarily think we’re halfway through or necessarily a quarter of the way through the effects throughout the general economy. The initial effects are felt by people who really did the silliest things, but you can have a whole bunch of domino-type effects that eventually can get to people who are doing fairly sound things.” Buffett added that “I think there will be rippling secondary, tertiary effects.”
Soros, while willing to concede (here) that the “acute phase” of the crisis may have passed, also said that “now we have to feel the effects,” which he said might “almost inevitably” include recessions in the U.S. and U.K.
An even more pessimistic voice is that of Meredith Whitney, the analyst for Oppenheimer who correctly predicted disaster for Citigroup and others last fall. She recently said (here) that "the credit crisis is far from over" and "what lies ahead will be worse that what is behind us." Dang.
There are already a wide variety of effects that are rippling through the economy and affecting a diverse array of companies, even outside the financial sector. For example, on May 19, 2008 Bloomberg reported (here) that “more than 300 companies are struggling to value auction rate bonds” that they are carrying on their balance sheets. These companies’ auction rate securities investments were valued at $98 billion as recently as January 1, 2008.
“About half” of these companies have “reported losses totaling $1.8 billion as the markets for securities, sold as higher-yielding alternatives to money markets, seized up.” Among the companies the Bloomberg article names as having taken auction-rate securities-related write-downs are UPS, Google, HCA and Teva Pharmaceuticals. But while half of the companies holding these assets may have recognized the valuations issues, the other half have not, and even the companies that have taken some recognition have the issue of whether or not they got it right.
The wide dispersion of these and other credit crunch-related exposures throughout the economy puts pressure on many companies to recognize the risk; companies that delay or avoid recognition may be laying in problems down the road. As one commentator said in another Bloomberg article (here), “the smart people are the ones who’ve identified the problems, put them out there in full transparency, and addressed them by raising more capital. There is still billions of dollars of crap out there that hasn’t worked its way through the system.”
The May 19, 2008 Bloomberg article in which this latter statement appeared is entitled “Banks Keep $35 billion Markdowns Off Income Statements” (here). The article describes multiple financial institutions that are “failing to acknowledge their in their income statements at least $35 billion of additional write-downs included in their balance sheets.” A commentator in the article notes that “keeping the markdowns off income statements just delays the realization of losses.” Indeed, the article suggests that ignored bad debt and postponing the inevitable losses is one of the reasons behind Japan’s decades long economic slump.
Behind every postponed day of reckoning is an optimistic hope that the reckoning might not just be delayed but perhaps avoided altogether. And perhaps things will come right. But the kinetic potential for the kinds of secondary and tertiary ripple effects Buffett projected inheres within every one of these postponements, laying the potential for further disruption when the day of reckoning arrives.
The consequences of these secondary and tertiary effects inevitably will include litigation, as is perhaps illustrated by the lawsuit, described in today’s Wall Street Journal (here), in which Fifth Third Bank has sued an insurer and a brokerage firm that arranged an investment for the bank in the Citigroup Falcon Strategies hedge fund. (A copy of the complaint can be found here.)
Fifth Third’s investment involved a complex life insurance investment, in which the aggregate premiums were invested in a diversity of assets. The complaint alleges that the defendants failed to monitor and manage Fifth Third’s $612 million investment, particularly when changing conditions (triggered by the credit crunch) should have triggered a reallocation of assets. This lawsuit demonstrates the range of potential litigation issues and the breadth of potential litigation targets that may become involved in future litigation.
In a post on this blog last December (here), I discussed “the truth telling yet to come” in connection with the subprime meltdown. In many ways, the phrase is even more apt now. The dynamic possibilities of the truth telling yet to come include the litigation yet to come, as well. And as Buffett said, we are not necessarily even a quarter of the way through this yet.
A June 1, 2008 article in Corporate Counsel entitled “Wipeout!” (here) describes the credit crisis-related litigation to date and the litigation yet to come. Among other things, the article quotes one commentator as saying that “we haven’t seen most of the litigation yet.”
Top Ten Securities and Corporate Law Review Articles: The Securities Litigation Watch blog (here) has reproduced (with hyperlinks) the list of the Top Ten Corporate and Securities Law Review articles of the year. I was very pleased to see that my good friends Tom Baker and Sean Griffith’s article "The Missing Monitor in Corporate Governance: The Directors’ & Officers’ Liabiltiy Insurer" (here) made the list. I discussed Professor Baker and Griffith’s article at length in an earlier post, here.
A Big Fee Anwhere (But Especially in Tajikistan): A May 20, 2008 Financial Times article about lawyers’ fees entitled “Time to Stop the Lawyers’ Clock from Ticking” (here), noted that observers had
expressed concern about the £50m in fees that Herbert Smith, another top firm, expects to bill on behalf of Tajikistan in a dispute over alleged corruption at a state-owned aluminum smelter.
The projected costs, revealed at a High Court hearing in April, would represent 2.7 per cent of the central Asian nation’s gross domestic product, where the average monthly wage stands at a paltry $63.