In my preceding post, I wrote about a possible new wave of credit crisis lawsuits, where the defendant companies are not themselves directly affected by credit crisis fallout, but instead suffer from exposure to other companies that have been directly affected. In a litigation example of these circumstances at work, plaintiffs’ lawyers today initiated another securities class action against a company suffering the effects of Lehman Brothers’ collapse.

In a September 22, 2008 press release (here), plaintiffs’ lawyers announced their filing in the Southern District of New York of a securities class action lawsuit against Constellation Energy Group and certain of its directors and officers. A copy of the complaint can be found here.


According to the press release, the complaint alleges that


In July 2008, the Company reported favorable financial results and reaffirmed EPS guidance of 5.75 per share for 2008. In August 2008, analysts questioned Constellation’s accounting and the implications of a credit downgrade. Then, on September 15, 2008, investors and the market became aware of Constellation’s exposure to Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s (“Lehman”) bankruptcy, which affected the Company’s ability to engage in energy-related trades. With this news, Constellation’s shares plunged to $47.99, a 50% drop from the Company’s Class Period high of $97.34 per share.


The complaint specifically alleges that: 

(a) defendants were inflating Constellation’s results through manipulations relating to the characterization of depreciation expense which inflated the Company’s reported cash flows; (b) the Company’s financial results were inflated by overly optimistic assumptions which were reflected in mark-to-market accounting; (c) the Company’s exposure to credit problems of trading partners was much greater than represented – in fact, one of Constellation’s key trading partners, Lehman, was having severe financial problems; and (d) the Company was not on track to report 2008 EPS of $5.25+ per share.

This lawsuit raises a number of different allegations against the defendants, and the allegations relating to Lehman’s collapse are only part of this lawsuit. Nevertheless, this lawsuit demonstrates that the reverberations from the most recent phase of the credit crisis are spreading far beyond the high profile financial services companies whose names have dominated recent headlines. As Constellation’s circumstances show, the financial companies’ turmoil has also affected their “trading partners,” adding to their partners’ difficulties, and, at least in the case of Constellation, leading to litigation.


One of the questions I have long been asking about the subprime and credit crisis litigation wave is whether it will eventually spread beyond the financial sector. There may not yet be quite enough evidence to declare that the wave has done so. But the allegations against Constellation, and the fact that a company like Constellation has been sued, does suggest the way the litigation wave could well spread outside the financial sector, if it eventually does in any numerically significant way.


In my previous post, I described this potential new class of credit crisis litigation as representing the “second derivative” of the credit crisis litigation wave – that is, the companies targeted may not themselves have been directly affected by the credit crisis, but other companies to which they are exposed have been directly affected, as a result of which even the company seemingly remote from the direct credit crisis turbulence winds up experiencing and suffering from its effects.


It remains to be seen whether this new wave of credit crisis litigation becomes widespread. The one thing I know for sure is that the consequences from last week’s event are enormous and are continuing to ripple through the financial markets and the entire economy. Many companies are likely to be affected and some will be sued.


Some readers may recall that Constellation was also in the news last week in connection with the announcement that Constellation is to be acquired by Berkshire Hathaway affiliate company MidAmerican Energy. Indeed, MidAmerican has agreed to buy Constellation in a transaction valued at about $4.7 billion (refer here). Investors’ reaction to this transaction may be assessed from the per share acquisition price of $26.50, which is less than half the company’s market value just a week previously. At latest word (refer here), a competing bidder is weighing an alternative bid despite the fact that Buffett’s company has already injected $1 billion in cash into Constellation.


Ripple in Still Waters: In another illustration of the wide dispersion of the economic consequences from the large financial institutions’ failures, the September 23, 2008 Wall Street Journal reports in an article entitled “Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Takeovers Cost U.S. Banks Billions” (here), that about a quarter of the nation’s banks lost a combined $10 to $15 billion due to the mortgage giants’ government takeover.


According to the Journal, the American Bankers Association reports that approximately 2300 banks hold Fannie and Freddie preferred shares, which are likely worthless. 85% of the affected institutions are community banks with assets less than $1 billion. The irony is that many of these banks themselves steered clear of subprime lending excesses, and at the same time considered Fannie and Freddie, as the Journal states, “rock solid investments.”


For most of the affected banks, the losses will be small and manageable. Nevertheless, the dispersion of the losses shows how widespread are the effects from recent events. The impact on companies that were not themselves directly involved in subprime lending illustrates the way these consequence are spreading the effects of the credit crisis to the larger economy.