The headlines on the business pages have been dominated in recent days by the news of the blockbuster Citigroup and UBS auction rate securities settlements (about which refer here). But as noted in an August 8, 2008 CFO.com article (here), at the same time, a number of other leading banks have been hit with regulatory subpoenas as problems surrounding auction rate securities become “the crisis of the day for the large global financial services companies.”
In addition, investor litigation against the banks related to auction rate securities continues to accumulate. For example, on August 6, 2008, STMicroelectronics sued Credit Suisse Group in the Eastern District of New York, alleging that Credit Suisse placed $450 million of the chipmaker’s securities in unauthorized auction rate securities. A copy of the complaint can be found here. An August 7, 2008 Bloomberg article describing the lawsuit can be found here.
The complaint’s tone is blistering. The complaint alleges that in August 2007, when the company sought to liquidate what it thought was a portfolio of “liquid, safe and authorized student loan securities,” it discovered that Credit Suisse had actually invested in “illiquid, risky and unsustainable auction rate securities consisting of collateralized debt obligations and credit linked notes, some of which are backed by subprime real estate loans.”
Not stopping there, the complaint further alleges that “at least a dozen other multinational corporations are victims of the same scheme,” allegedly carried out by the same Credit Suisse brokers. The complaint alleges that this supposed scheme “involves more than $2 billion of these clients’ money.” The complaint further alleges that Credit Suisse “furthered the fraud by keeping it hidden from victims, governmental authorities and the investing public” and by “refusing to follow instructions to liquidate the assets.”
The complaint also alleges that Credit Suisse had an “intentional strategy” reducing its own exposure to auction rate securities and that it accomplished that goal by “dumping into the accounts of unsuspecting clients some of the worst ARS on the market.”
According to the complaint, ST has separately filed a FINRA arbitration against Credit Suisse Securities (USA), but because Credit Suisse Group itself is not a member of FINRA, it is not subject to its arbitration requirements, and therefore is not a party to the FINRA action, which remains pending. As a result, the newly filed civil lawsuit presents the spectacle of one Swiss domiciled company suing another Swiss domiciled company in U.S. federal court.
With relation to the matters alleged in the ST complaint, it is interesting to note that on July 9, 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported (here) that federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York are “investigating whether two former Credit Suisse Group brokers lied to investors about how they placed their money into short-term securities.” Prosecutors are investigating whether investors were “misled about the nature of the auction rate securities they bought.”
The July 9 article quotes a statement from Credit Suisse as saying that the two employees, who resigned in September 2007, had “violated their obligations to Credit Suisse and to our clients.” The Credit Suisse statement added that “we promptly notified regulators when this matter arose last year and we have continued to work closely with them”
In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported in a front page article on July 31, 2008 (here) that one of the two brokers under investigation, a 35-year old broker named Julian Tzolov, “has left the U.S. and could have fled to his native Bulgaria.” The July 31 article also lists ten overseas companies (including ST Microelectronics) that have initiated arbitration proceedings against Credit Suisse affiliate companies based on auction rate securities companies.
On U.S. Market Competitiveness: Consider Departing Foreign Companies: Would-be reformers cite concerns that U.S financial markets are losing out to other countries’ markets due to concerns about U.S regulatory burdens and litigiousness (about which refer here). But if these concerns were as significant as the reformers suggest, you would expect that foreign companies cross-listed on U.S. exchanges would see a positive boost in their share price when they eliminate their U.S. listing. Recent academic suggest the opposite may be true.
In an August 2008 paper entitled “Why do Foreign Firms Leave U.S. Equity Markets” (here), Andrew Korolyi and Rene Stulz of Ohio State and Craig Doidge of the University of Toronto took at look at the 59 foreign companies that chose to deregister their U.S. listings after the SEC enacted Rule 12h-6 in March 2007, making it easier for such companies to do so.
Their study produced two essential findings. First, they found that the 59 companies as a group “experienced significantly lower growth and lower stock returns than other U.S-exchange listed foreign firms in the years preceding the decision.” Second, they found that there is only “weak evidence that firms experience negative stock returns when they announce deregistration and stronger evidence that the stock price return is worse for firms with higher growth.”
The authors said their finding “support the hypothesis that foreign firms list shares at the lowest cost to finance growth opportunities and that, when those opportunities disappear, a listing become less valuable to corporate insiders so that firms are more likely to deregister and go home.”
As discussed here, the authors’ prior research substantiates that overseas firms benefit, through lower cost of capital, when they choose to list their shares on U.S. exchanges, and their shares trade for higher prices than do those of similar companies that do not choose to list here. One theory for this “listing premium” is the “bonding hypothesis,” which speculates that investors put more confidence in companies complying with American disclosure requirements and accounting standards. The authors’ more recent research suggest that the only companies punished for delisting from the U.S. exchanges are those that continued to have growth opportunities and a need to attract American capital. Other companies, who lack those opportunities, delist with impunity.
Perhaps ironically, current efforts to make the U.S. markets more competitive arguably may be undercutting the “listing premium,” which might be the U.S. markets’ greatest competitive advantage. As discussed in Floyd Norris’s August 8, 2008 New York Times article entitled “Reasons Some Firms Left the U.S.” (here):
By letting companies walk away easily, the advantage of an American registration is reduced, Mr. Stulz has argued. The S.E.C. is moving to allow foreign companies to use international accounting rules, so any advantage from confidence in U.S. accounting rules will vanish. And the commission is making it much easier for brokers to sell unregistered foreign shares to Americans.
“I think there is a grave risk that the advantage may be lost because of the continued chipping away at the rock,” Mr. Karolyi said. “It just doesn’t seem like the right time or the right place to be engaged in a serious deregulation of financial markets.”