Securities lawsuit filings reached a six-year high in 2008, according to a year-end report released today by NERA Economic Consulting. The report, entitled "2008 Trends in Securities Class Actions" (here), was written by NERA economists Stephanie Plancich and Svetlana Starykh, and reports that through December 14, 2008, there were 255 securities class action filings, up from only 131 filings in 2006 and 195 filings in 2007. NERA’s December 18, 2008 press release regarding the report can be found here.


If the "atypical" cases (e.g., IPO laddering) are excluded from the comparison, the 2008 filings are "on pace to reach a 10-year high." The filings are also on pace for a 37% increase over 2007 and the highest annual increase since 2002 (the year of the corporate scandals).


The report attributes the "surge" in filings to the credit crisis. Of the 255 YTD filings, 110 were credit crisis related, and almost 50% of cases involved defendants in the financial sector, as compared to only 16% of cases in the 2005-06 period. (My table of the credit crisis-related securities lawsuit filings can be accessed  here.)


But while the financial sector saw increased litigation activity, "other sectors also saw continued filing activity." For example, though lawsuits against companies in the health technology sector declined as a percentage of all filings, the absolute number of filings against companies in the health technology sector increased, as there were 29 filings against health technology companies in 2008, compared to only 19 in 2006.


The 2008 filings have been concentrated in the second and ninth circuits. The second circuit filings were increased by the large number of filings in the Southern District of New York, particularly financial companies domiciled there.


Though the pattern of increased filing activity in 2008 is clear, "there have been no clear increasing or decreasing trends in the patter of resolutions." The report notes that median settlements have "remained relatively stable." The 2008 median settlement of $7.5 million is slightly below the 2007 median of $9.4 million, but above the 2006 median of $7.0 milllion.


Average settlements, which can be substantially affected by large settlements, were up in 2008 relative to 2007. The average settlement in 2008 was $38 million, up from $31 million in 2007, but well below the post-Sarbanes Oxley average from 2003 to 2008 of $45 million. (The annual average settlement has ranged from $21 million to $82 million during this six-year period.)


The report does observe that over time there has been an increase in the dollar value of claimed investor losses, from about $120 million ten years ago, to around $340 million during 2008. However, the ratio of median settlement to median investor losses has "stayed relatively steady in the 2-3% range over the past few years."


Looking forward, the report notes that there could be "two opposing factors" that could determine whether or not average or median settlements will increase in the future. On the one hand, investor losses associated with the credit crisis lawsuits in 2008 are very large, which could be "an indicator of big settlements to come." On the other hand, the credit crisis has "dramatically shrunk the size of many defendants’ pockets." Lower financial wherewithal might operate as a downward force on settlement values.


The report concludes that "only time will tell if the huge investor losses for credit crisis filings may put upward press on median settlements in the future, or if the financial distress faced by defendant companies may pull median settlement values down."


My own observations on the 2008 securities litigation activity will be detailed in my year-end analysis, which will be forthcoming after the first of the new year. UPDATE: My year end analysis can be found here. For now, I note a few things.


First, this has been an extraordinarily difficult year in which to just try and count the cases. For example, many litigation targets have been sued multiple times by different claimants, whether they are shareholders who acquired their shares over different time periods, or they are security holders with different classes of equity interests. Whether a new filing should or should not be "counted" has been difficult. Further complicating this has been the large number of state court filings, which are difficult just to find. I emphasize this point simply because there is going to be a significant variation in the various commentators’ year-end reports about how many filings there were this year. My own count is lower than NERA’s.


Second, while the 2008 filings were significantly increased by filings against companies in the financial sector, as the year has progressed and the impact of the credit crisis has become more widespread, the credit crisis-related filings have spread outside the financial sector (refer for example here).


Third, you may see comments elsewhere that the 2008 filings were inflated by one-time sector events, like the auction rate securities lawsuits. While this is true, the recent surge of litigation activity involving the Madoff victims demonstrates that in many ways the pace of securities litigation activity is simply a reflection of a series of supposed one-time events. The mere fact that there is an identifiable event arguably may be irrelevant to analyses of current or future filing trends.


Fourth, the NERA report makes no projections about what is likely to happen to the pace of filing activity in 2009. My own view is that the current active filing pace is likely to continue well into 2009 and perhaps beyond. Among other things, filing activity has been elevated over the last several weeks, which is unusual for December, historically a slow month. The continued spread of credit crisis filings outside the financial sector is likely to continue in 2009. Moreover, the impacts of the financial downturn will begin to emerge as company’s report their 2008 results and as the year progresses, which could contribute to litigation activity.


As I said, my own report will be forthcoming. I am very interested in hearing readers’ thoughts and reactions in the interim.


Special thanks to Ben Seggerson of NERA for providing me with a copy of the NERA report.