The credit-crisis securities litigation wave, which began with the filing of the first subprime mortgage-related lawsuits in early February 2007, is about to enter its third year. Though the wave has evolved during the intervening period, it shows no sign of slowing down. The more interesting question going forward will be whether the litigation, which up until now has largely been concentrated in the financial sector, will spread to encompass companies in the wider economy.

The Wave’s History – So Far

The current subprime and credit crisis-related securities litigation wave began on February 8, 2007, with the filing of a securities lawsuit against New Century Financial Corporation and certain of its directors and officers. (Refer here for my most recent post on the New Century case.) Two years later, there have been 152 separate subprime or credit crisis-related lawsuits filed against companies and other entities, as reflected in my running tally of the suit, which can be accessed here.

The initial cases during 2007 were largely filed against subprime loan originators, banks, mortgages companies, home builders and residential real estate investment trusts. However, by year end 2007, a number of lawsuits had also been filed against investment banks, investment advisors, and rating agencies.

During 2007, there were a total of 40 subprime-related securities lawsuits filed.

In 2008, the lawsuits against banks and other mortgage originators continued to mount, but the litigation activity spread beyond just residential mortgage and real estate issues. The litigation also involved student lenders, commercial construction companies, commercial real estate investment trusts, bond insurers, and mortgage guaranty insurers. As I noted at the time (refer here), by early 2008, the litigation activity was no longer just about the subprime meltdown but had by that time become a credit crisis litigation wave.

The litigation wave also picked up considerable momentum during 2008, driven in part by the onslaught of cases involving auction rate securities. A total of 21 separate auction rate securities lawsuits were filed in 2008, against broker dealers, security issuers and mutual funds, among others. There were also a significant number of separate securities lawsuits filed on behalf of preferred shareholders and subordinated debtholders, which represents a relatively unusual securities litigation development, as discussed here.

The crisis in the global financial markets during fall 2008 also significantly affected the litigation wave. As I noted here, as a result of the financial market turmoil, the litigation wave reached an "inflection point" during the third quarter of 2008, where companies began to find themselves exposed to litigation not because of their own direct vulnerability to the credit crisis, but because of the companies’ exposure to other companies that were experiencing credit crisis-related issues.

During 2008, a total of 101 subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits were filed.

As 2009 has begun, the litigation wave has shown no sign of slowing down. Indeed, during January 2009 alone, there were eleven new credit crisis-related securities lawsuits. A spreadsheet of the 2009 cases can be found here.

One important consequence of the litigation wave’s evolution over time is that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain absolute definitional clarity about what should be included in the category. This challenge has become even more difficult now that the financial crisis basically encompasses the entire global economy. It has become progressively tricky to determine whether or not newly filed lawsuits logically ought to be group together with the earlier suits, or whether they represent something entirely different. This categorization challenge has made simply "counting" the subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuits increasingly more difficult over time.

Financial Sector Concentration

Though the litigation has evolved and become more diverse, the litigation activity has largely been concentrated in the financial sector. Of the 152 subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits that have been filed as of February 4, 2009 and that involved companies or other entities that have assigned standard industrial classification codes (SIC Codes), fully 117 of them have involved companies or other entities with SIC Codes in the 6000 series (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate).

Moreover, the 18 entities that have been sued but that have no SIC Code designated are also almost exclusive concentrated in the financial sector. These entities include mutual funds, private equity firms, hedge funds, and foreign firms whose shares do not trade on U.S. exchanges (e.g., Fortis and Société Générale).

Of the financial companies, the SIC Code categories with the largest number of lawsuits were SIC Code 6021 (National Commercial Banks) and SIC Code 6798 (Real Estate Investment Trusts), both of which had 16 lawsuits. Other categories with a significant number of securities lawsuits include SIC Code 6211 (Security Broker Dealers), which had 13 lawsuits; SIC Code 6189 (Asset Backed Securities), which had 12 lawsuits; and SIC Code 6035 (Savings Institutions, Federally Chartered), which had 11 lawsuits.

Has the Wave Entered a New Phase?

But while the litigation activity has largely been concentrated in the financial sector, there has more recently been a "new wave" of credit crisis lawsuits, as discussed at greater length here. These new wave lawsuits involved companies exposed to some of the credit crisis casualties (Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Washington Mutual, American International Group, etc); that made wrong-way bets on commodities or currencies; and companies outside the financial sector whose balance sheets are laden with auction rate securities or other troubled assets.

The interesting question these new wave cases present is how far outside the financial sector these kinds of cases will spread as we go forward.

How are the Cases Faring?

Even though the subprime and credit crisis-securities litigation wave is about to enter its third year, most of the cases are still only in their earliest stages. There has really been only one significant settlement, the recent massive $550 million settlement involving Merrill Lynch (about which refer here). The few other settlements have been considerably more modest (refer here).

Only a handful of these cases have even reached the motion to dismiss stage. Among the cases where dismissal motions actually have been addressed, there have been several notable cases in which the dismissal motions were denied – for example, the New Century case (refer here) and the Countrywide case (refer here).

On the other hand, there have also been a handful of cases in which the motions to dismiss have been granted, and at least some courts have seemed skeptical that the target companies financial woes were the result of fraud (about which refer here).

My complete list of subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuit settlements, dismissals and dismissal denials can be found here.

Looking Ahead

Even though the litigation wave is about to enter its third year, it is clear that we have still only just begun. With the cases already filed only in their earliest stages and with new lawsuits continuing to pour in, the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave is likely to continue to remain an important feature of the litigation landscape for years and years to come.