While I have been keeping track of the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation as it has accumulated (refer here), it has been some time since I have undertaken a detailed litigation overview. Fortunately, NERA Economic Consulting, in a July 3, 2008 report entitled “Subprime Securities Litigation: Key Players, Rising Stakes and Emerging Trends” (here), has taken care of it, with an excellent analysis of the subprime litigation to date.
The NERA Report, written by my friend Dr. Faten Sabry and her colleagues Anmol Sinha and Sungi Lee, observes that the growing wave of subprime lawsuits has swept up an increasingly diverse array of plaintiffs and defendants. With respect the defendants, the Report notes that:
Almost every market participant in the securitization process—which transforms illiquid assets such as mortgages, auto loans, and student loans into tradable securities—has been named as a defendant. The list of defendants includes lenders, issuers, underwriters, rating agencies, accounting firms, bond insurers, hedge funds, CDOs, and many more.
The Report also describes the way that the litigation has evolved, noting that:
The majority of the early lawsuits have been against mortgage lenders. As various other market participants reveal the extent of their losses and exposure, they too are being dragged into litigation. The plaintiffs include shareholders, investors, issuers and underwriters of securities, plan participants, and others.
The NERA Report specifically discusses the subprime-related lawsuits that have been filed against lenders, issuers, rating agencies, bond insurers and asset management companies. The Report also observes (as has been noted on this blog, here) that as the litigation has accumulated, it has spread far beyond just subprime-related issues, and has encompassed parties and circumstances “in the context of the trouble in the broader markets.”
The Report notes that as the subprime litigation has evolved, the broader “credit crunch” litigation has encompassed a wider variety of lawsuits and litigants, including lawsuits involving asset-backed commercial paper, lawsuits related to failed deals, lawsuits related to corporate debt losses, and lawsuit related to asset-backed securities.
The NERA Report was clearly intended to be descriptive and not exhaustive, so it is no criticism of the report for me to add some additional observations. There are, in fact, a few notes I would add to the report’s overview.
In addition to the categories of litigants the NERA Report discusses, there are some additional categories I think merit attention. The first relates to hedge funds. While the NERA Report does reference hedge funds, I think the involvement of hedge funds is worth of separate comment. Hedge funds have become involved both as plaintiffs (refer here) and as defendants (refer here and here). The likelihood of additional litigation involving hedge funds seems strong.
One group not specifically mentioned in the NERA report is the mutual fund industry. By my count, there have been at least five subprime securities lawsuits against mutual funds and mutual fund families. (Refer for example here and here.) These lawsuits are brought by investors claiming that the mutual funds misrepresented the relative stability of their investment strategy and assets.
The NERA report does specifically discuss the litigation against the credit rating agencies. The only thing I would add is that the credit rating agency litigation falls into two categories. The first involves lawsuits brought by the credit rating agencies’ own shareholders, for allegedly inadequate disclosures (refer, for example, here). The second involves investor lawsuits brought against the rating agencies for the rating company’s actual rating activities (about which refer here).
Yet another industry group that has been hit with subprime lawsuits is the mortgage insurance industry, in which all of the leading participants – including MGIC (refer here), The PMI Group (refer here), and Radian (refer here) – have all been hit with securities lawsuits. Indeed, the Blackstone Group was also hit with a securities lawsuit (refer here) for alleged disclosure issues relating to its investment in mortgage insurer FGIC. As discussed in a July 11, 2008 Wall Street Journal article (here), the mortgage insurers’ woes are one of the litany of problems besetting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Freddie Mac has also itself been the target of a subprime-related securities class action, as noted here.
The NERA Report specifically acknowledges the fact that the litigation wave has long since moved past subprime lending alone. For example, the NERA report specifically mentions lawsuits involving corporate debt (as I also noted, here). An important corollary of this observation is that even with respect to residential real estate lending, the litigation wave has swept far beyond subprime lending alone; for example, it has also encompassed Option ARM loans, as I discussed here. IndyMac, the lending institution whose dramatic collapse over the weekend may potentially signal a dark new inflection point in the evolving credit crisis, was focused on so-called Alt-A loans.
In addition, other kinds of debt have also been the source of credit crunch litigation. For example, in addition to corporate debt, problems arising from student loans have also been the source of litigation, as discussed here and here.
Finally, I do think it is noteworthy that at least one credit crisis lawsuit, involving MoneyGram International (refer here), relates to the company’s disclosures about its investments in subprime-related assets. Many companies, including many companies outside the financial sector, have balance sheet exposure to subprime assets, and therefore there is the potential at least for this kind of litigation to spread far beyond the financial sector. I have discussed this issue at length in prior posts (most recently here), but I recognize at this point that it remains to be seen whether or not there will be substantial credit crisis-related litigation outside the financial sector. As I recently noted in my mid-year review of securities litigation (refer here), the vast bulk of credit crisis-related litigation has been in the financial sector.
The NERA report concludes with the observation that “most of the lawsuits are still in their initial stages and it is too early to predict the outcomes,” but that “given the continuing turmoil in the financial markets, the mounting losses, and the growing list of lawsuits, this story is far from over.” I couldn’t agree more, and as the story continues to evolve, I will continue to track the lawsuits – the securities and ERISA lawsuits here, and the derivative lawsuits here. I will also continue to track subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuit case dispositions, here.
Rubble Without a "Cause"?: I was struck by the reports in the press coverage surrounding the regulatory seizure of IndyMac Bank, for example in the July 12, 2008 Wall Street Journal (here), that Office of Thrift Supervision director John Reich blamed the bank’s failure on “comments made in late June by Senator Charles Schumer, who sent a letter to the regulator raising concerns about the bank’s solvency.” Spooked depositors reportedly withdrew $1.3 billion in 11 days. The Journal reports that “Mr. Reich said Sen. Schumer gave the bank a ‘heart attack.’” A July 14, 2008 Wall Street Journal article (here) also quotes Reich as saying that "Schumer sparked a deposit run that ‘pushed IndyMac over the edge.’ "
Schumer is reported to have responded that if the regulator had done its job and prevented the bank’s “poor and loose lending practices,” we “wouldn’t be where we are today.” (This is of course the same Senator Schumer who barely a year ago urged that regulatory standards should be loosened in order for America’s financial markets to be more competitive globally.)
The sharp exchange between Reich and Schumer dramatically highlights the fundamental question of causation that surrounds so many problems arising from the entire subprime meltdown. While Senator Schumer’s letter may well have undermined IndyMac depositor confidence, it was also merely one link in a chain of events leading up to the bank’s failure. The bank’s very business model, built around so-called Alt-A loans, in which borrowers are not required to fully document income or assets, arguably could be a more fundamental cause. Or if plaintiffs’ allegations are to be believed, the bank’s failure to follow its own underwriting standards also could have led to the bank’s failure.
Indeed, it is arguably possible to take the causal chain even further back. Here, I have in mind several driving trips I made during 2005 and 2006 on the I-10 corridor between LA and Palm Springs. It seemed as if on each trip, yet another roadside hilltop even further east than the last had been scraped bare and festooned with hundreds of cookie-cutter monstrosities “attractively priced in the low 500,000s."
The continuing emergence of these self-described “lifestyle” communities depended in the end on ever-rising house prices, record low interest rates, and two dollar a gallon gas. When all of these circumstances changed, the construct collapsed. (A more technical summary of this analysis can be found in a July 14, 2008 Wall Street Journal article, here, entitled "Continuing Vicious Cycle of Pain in Housing and Finance Ensnares Market.")
The ensuing defaults may or may not have been inevitable but they surely were a latent possibility built into lending arrangements borrowers had to stretch to afford. Every participant in the process contributed and accepted some part of this risk. In other words. it could plausibly be argued that the ultimate cause of the subprime meltdown (even if not the collapse of IndyMac) was cultural, or perhaps social. Call it cultural complicity.
Theorists would contend that the cultural context was merely a causally relevant condition but not the proximate cause either of the subprime meltdown or of IndyMac’s collapse, and perhaps they would be correct. Indeed, in a society that insists on assigning legal blame, proximate causation may be the only relevant inquiry.
But on that score, it may be worth noting that Reich, the OTS official, is reported to have asked rhetorically, “Would the institution have failed without the deposit run? We’ll never know the answer to that question”
Reich’s rhetorical inquiry, technically a “counterfactual,” poses a causal inquiry based on possible consequences from alternative facts. An interesting recent discussion of counterfactuals in the securities litigation context appears in yet another recent NERA Economic Consulting paper, entitled “Shareholder Class Actions and the Counterfactual” (here). This interesting June 24. 2008 paper poses questions that may prove particularly provocative in the context of the subprime meltdown.
The courts will eventually assign blame for IndyMac’s collapse. (Somehow, I doubt the blame will ultimately be placed on Senator Schumer.) But, the legal inquiry aside, it is possible that the final answer to the question of ultimate causation may be found only at the bottom of a bottomless well.