In recent days, all eyes have been on two of the world’s largest banks. Commentators have questioned, for example, whether Citigroup should be nationalized (refer here) or if the Merrill Lynch-related losses might cost Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis his job (refer here). These institutions’ enormous size makes their problems predominant.


But while the woes of the financial titans are undeniably deeply troublesome, I have found myself increasingly concerned about the problems involving three much smaller banks: First Centennial Bank of Redlands, California; Bank of Clark County of Vancouver, Washington; and National Bank of Commerce of Berkley, Illinois.


My concerns about these banks are not about their business prospects – it is too late for that, as these three banks have already failed. Regulators closed First Centennial after the close of business this past Friday, January 23, 2009 (about which refer here), and Bank of Clark County and the National Bank of Commerce were closed the preceding Friday, on January 16, 2009 (refer here and here).


My concerns relating to these banks have to do with the facts and circumstances surrounding their closures, as well what the closures may portend.


1. The Number and Pace of Bank Failures: The closure of three banks on two successive Fridays in just the first few weeks of the New Year shows that the pace of bank failures, which accelerated as 2008 progressed, has continued unabated as we have headed into 2009. In 2008, there were a total of 25 bank closures (complete list here), of which 21 were in the second half of the year. With three closures already this year, signs suggest the heightened level of bank closures at year’s end has carried forward into 2009.


2. Community Banks are Not Immune After All: All three of these banks fall within a standard definition of "community banks" – that is, they had assets below $1 billion. National Bank of Commerce had assets of $430.9 million; Bank of Clark County had assets of $446.5 million; and First Centennial Bank had assets of $803.3 million. The community bank sector has largely been viewed as less affected by the worst of the current credit crisis. However, these three banks’ failures, and their geographic dispersion, suggest that the problems in the community bank sector could be more widespread than previously perceived.


3. Is the Worst Yet to Come?: These three bank failures are likely only the first of many yet to come in 2009. A January 23, 2009 Wall Street Journal article entitled "Banks Die Too Fast for Regulators" (here) reports that "federal regulators are bracing for more than 20 bank failures in the first quarter of this year," which were it to happen would mean nearly as many bank failures in the first quarter as during all of 2008 (which in turn was the most active year for bank failures since 1994).


Moreover, the Journal article specifically noted that the banks "are failing with accelerating speed, exposing holes in the regulatory infrastructure designed to catch collapsing institutions."


A vexing related issue is the apparent intervention of politicians on behalf of troubled banks. A January 24, 2009 Wall Street Journal article entitled "Politicians Asked Feds to Prop Up Failing Banks" (here) describes the efforts of two Illinois politicians on behalf of the National Bank of Commerce prior to its failure. As the article notes, politicians’ efforts "recall the savings and loan turmoil of the late 1980s, when members of Congress pressured the government to go easy on struggling thrift institutions." As one commentator cited in the article stated, these kinds of things "made the saving-and-loan debacle into a political scandal as well as a financial scandal."


4. Dead Banks Mean More Dead Bank Litigation: Both historically and more recently, failing banks have meant failed bank litigation. The Cornerstone Research Report on the 2008 securities litigation activity specifically observed that "five of the 25 banks that failed in 2008 were named in federal securities class actions filed in 2008," even though "only 11 of the 25 banks that failed were publicly traded."


Indeed, already in 2009, another one of the 25 banks that failed in 2008 has been sued in a securities class action lawsuit. As noted here, on January 5, 2009, plaintiffs initiated a securities lawsuit against PFF Bancorp and certain of its directors and officers, whose banking subsidiary was closed on November 21, 2008 (about which refer here). This 2009 lawsuit suggests the likelihood of even further "dead bank" litigation ahead, especially of the heightened level of bank closures persists.


5. Will Asset Woes Afflict More Banks – And Other Kinds of Companies?: There is a specific aspect of the National Bank of Commerce failure that I find particularly troublesome. As noted in much greater detail in a January 23, 2009 American Banker article entitled "Failure Over Securities Losses Sets Off Alarm" (here, registration required), the National Bank of Commerce failed not because of liquidity issues (the usual reason for bank failures) but "because it suffered such massive losses on its investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock that it had negative capital levels." As the article notes, the bank’s failure "heightens concern about the fate of some other banking companies that had heavy securities losses."


The American Banker article also specifically notes that similar problems indirectly led to the failure of PFF Bancorp, the banking company noted above as having been sued in 2009. PFF apparently had agreed in June 2008 to sell itself to FBOP Corp. of Oak Park, Illinois, but after FBOP wrote down at the end of the third quarter $936 million of investment securities, the $17-billion asset bank found itself undercapitalized and regulators refused to approve the pending deal. Undoubtedly other banks face similar challenges in their investment portfolios.


Concerns about banks’ troubled asset portfolios were the original basis for TARP, but the American Banker article noted that TARP money wouldn’t have been sufficient to save the National Bank of Commerce, as "the bank would have been eligible for a maximum of $12 million but needed at least $26 million to become well-capitalized again."


Financial institutions’ exposures to troubled assets could be widespread and could become significantly worse as the credit crisis continues to spread. In particular, the number of assets that are troubled continues to grow. They included not only all of the toxic mortgage-backed assets, but also securities and other assets related to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and also assets related to a growing list of other institutions, including Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, American International Group, and the Icelandic banks.


More recent financial turmoil has made this list even longer. For example, just in the past few days, Aflac’s share price fluctuated sharply and the company’s financial strength rating was downgraded because to the company’s exposure to debt securities issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays and other troubled European banks.


The Aflac example shows that the asset issues that capsized the National Bank of Commerce stretch far beyond the banking sector. Indeed, a January 24, 2009 Washington Post article entitled "Life Insurers Take a Hit" (here) cites Aflac and states, among other things, that "financial markets downward spiral has drawn the nation’s life insurers into its vortex, reducing the already depressed value of its stock by a third since early this month." The article specifically notes concerns that life insurance companies’ balance sheets and financial statements might not "fully reflect the reduced value of the investments they hold."


Nor are these concerns limited just to the banking and life insurance sectors. The Wall Street Journal’s January 24, 2009 Heard on the Street column (here) notes balance sheet concerns involving reinsurer Swiss Re.


The various companies’ balance sheet vulnerabilities arising from their exposure to the securities of other failed or failing financial institutions is precisely the circumstance to which I was referring when I asserted (here) that the credit crisis and its related litigation wave had reached an "inflection point" – that is, companies are getting punished in the financial marketplace (and also getting sued) not necessarily because of their own direct credit crisis-related problems but rather because of their exposure through their investment portfolios to other companies’ credit crisis woes.


Whether or not a revitalized TARP program would be sufficient to remediate these problems for troubled banks is a question our political leaders must decide. But in the interim, the widespread balance sheet exposure to trouble assets will continue to burden a wide variety of companies, including but not limited to banks.


Moreover as the list of companies whose related assets are toxic continues to grow (now including Royal Bank of Scotland with others yet to come), the number of companies struggling with toxic balance sheet assets will also grow. One inevitable consequence undoubtedly will be further litigation, both in the banking sector and elsewhere as well.


A Case of Earlier Indigestion: Concerns surround the most recent financial institution mergers, such as the Bank of America’s acquisitions of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide; Wells Fargo’s acquisition of Wachovia; and PNC Banking Corporation’s merger with National City Corporation.


But a recently filed lawsuit is concerned not with these recent deals, but rather a transaction froman earlier era – Wachovia’s ill-fated $25 billion acquisition of Golden West, which at the time was the nation’s second largest savings and loan.


The new lawsuit was filed in California (Alameda County) Superior Court on January 21, 2009. The complaint, which can be found here, alleges that as a result of the Golden West acquisition, Wachovia acquired a $120 billion portfolio of Option ARM (or "Pick-A-Pay" loans as they were called) which the complaint alleges were not properly underwritten, inadequately capitalized, and became delinquent at very high rates. Within two years of the Golden West transaction, the complaint alleges, Wachovia "ultimately collapsed under the delinquencies and defaults on the Pick-A-Pay loans."


The complaint alleges that Wachovia, certain of its directors and officers, and its offering underwriters failed to disclose these risks to investors who purchased Wachovia’s shares in various securities offerings between 2006 and 2008. The compliant alleges that when the concerns were "ultimately revealed" the company was "forced into a fire sale by the FDIC that finally revealed to investors what had been misrepresented for months, if not years, as a result of its toxic subprime assets, Wachovia was a shell of a corporation that could not exist independently."


The plaintiffs’ lawyers have chosen to file their lawsuit in state court in express reliance on the concurrent jurisdiction provisions of Section 22 of the ’33 Act. I have previously discussed the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ possible forum selection (shopping?) motivations for filing federal securities lawsuits in federal court, here. As I also discussed in a recent post (here), the federal courts are split on whether SLUSA or CAFA preempted the concurrent jurisdiction provisions in the ’33 Act, although the law is most favorable to a finding of state court jurisdiction in the Ninth Circuit.


In any event, I have added the new securities suit to my list of subprime and credit crisis-related cases, which can be accessed here. With the addition of this case, there have now been a total of 147 subprime and credit crisis-related securities cases filed during the period 2007 through 2009, of which seven have been filed already in 2009. A spreadsheet of the 2009 cases can be accessed here.


A Word to the Wise: Those of you who may be planning on attending the 2009 PLUS D&O Symposium, to be held February 25 and 26 at the Marriott Marquis in New York, will want to know that the early registration discount is about to expire. The registration fee for those registering prior to January 30, 2009 is $845 for PLUS members and $1,045 for nonmembers. For after January 30, the fee will rise to $975 for members, and $1,175 for nonmembers. Registration and agenda information can be found here.


This year’s conference promises to be particularly interesting and informative. I am co-Chairing this year’s Symposium with my good friends, Chris Duca of Navigators Pro and Tony Galban of Chubb. The key note speakers include former Secretary of States Madeline Albright and New York Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo. Other panelists and speakers include a number of noteworthy individuals, including Stanford Law Professor Joseph Grundfest, Wilson Sonsini partner Boris Feldman and many others.


The Symposium will also feature a reprise of the excellent video, first shown at the PLUS International Conference in November, of "The Life and Times of Bill Lerach." The Securities Docket recently featured a trailer of the video, here.


And Finally: On January 28, 2009, the Securities Docket will be sponsoring the latest in its series of free webinars on securities related topics. The upcoming webinar is entitled "FCPA Enforcement: The Paradigm Shift" and will feature F. Joseph Warin of the Gibson Dunn law firm. Further information can be found here.