In a February 12, 2009 FINRA Dispute Resolution Award, a panel of three arbitrators ruled that Credit Suisse must pay ST Microelectronics more than $400 million based on the company’s claims that Credit Suisse misled the company into buying subprime-exposed auction rate securities. A copy of the award can be found here.


The FINRA Award

As I detailed in an earlier post (here), ST Microelectronics had filed the FINRA claim against Credit Suisse (USA) LLC, while also separately filing a civil lawsuit against Credit Suisse Group, the U.S. affiliate’s Switzerland-based parent. The separate lawsuit complaint can be found here.


According to the February 12 Award, the FINRA complaint against the U.S. affiliate asserted claims under Section 10 of the ’34 Act and Rule 10b-5, alleging that the claimant "requested investments in student loan securities backed by U.S. government guarantees" but that instead their funds were invested in what the civil lawsuit complaint described as "illiquid, risky and unsustainable auction rate securities consisting of collateralized debt obligations and credit linked notes, some of which were backed by subprime real estate loans." (The separate complaint alleged that Credit Suisse had an "intentional strategy" of "dumping into the accounts of unsuspecting clients some of the worst ARS on the market.")


The Award makes no specific findings of fact but instead simply species the amounts to be awarded to ST Microelectronics. Credit Suisse is ordered to pay the claimant "compensatory damages" of $400 million, which is to be "paid immediately in exchange for Claimant’s entire portfolio." The award also orders the payment of certain of fees and costs, interest, and $3 million attorney’s fees.



The FINRA award has a number of significant implications, the most immediate of which may be those relating to Credit Suisse itself. The separate lawsuit complaint filed against the Credit Suisse parent company alleges that "at least a dozen other multinational corporations are victims of the same scheme," carried out by two Credit Suisse brokers who, in fact, are the subject of a current criminal prosecution (about which refer here). The complaint alleges that the supposed scheme involves "more than $2 billion of these clients’ money."


A July 31, 2009 Wall Street Journal article (here) listed ten overseas companies (including ST Microelectronics) that have initiated arbitration proceedings against Credit Suisse-affiliated companies based on auction rate securities. The February 12 FINRA Award may bode ill for Credit Suisse in these other proceedings.


In addition, the outcome, magnitude and prominence of the February 12 Award could also spur similar claims by other aggrieved parties against other broker-dealers, particularly other aggrieved institutional investors. By and large, institutional investors were excluded from the massive auction rate securities regulatory settlements that have been announced to great fanfare. These excluded investors may be encouraged by ST Microelectronics’ success, and seek to pursue their own claims. A February 13, 2009 Bloomberg article (here) discussing the Award quotes one observer as saying "this decision will likely lead to either more arbitrations or settlements between investors and broker-dealers."


To be sure, the circumstances relating to Credit Suisse’s involvement with auction rate securities may be distinct. As noted above, criminal proceedings have arisen from its brokers’ activities. Other prospective claimants’ claims may not be as sympathetic.


It is important to emphasize that while the Award itself describes the relief granted as "compensatory damages," what it actually accomplished is a rescission of the underlying securities transaction. Credit Suisse basically has to buy back the company’s securities at face value. (In that regard, the Award itself noted that what the claimant had requested was "relief equivalent to rescission" – which appears to what the claimant got.) Though the Award provides for the payment of other fees and costs, it does not award any other type of damages. The Award expressly denied the claimant’s request for punitive damages.


The absence of the award of other damages potentially could affect other prospective claimants. That is, while these cases may provide an avenue of relief, there is nothing about this Award to suggest that that a claim of this type is going to produce some kind of a bonanza. On the other hand, for many prospective institutional investor claimants, the opportunity to return their auction rate securities for face value at this point would be more than enough incentive for them to pursue a claim.


The Award does provide one very particular kind of encouragement for these kinds of claims. The panel’s award of $3 million in attorneys’ fees undoubtedly will capture the imagination of many would-be claimants’ attorneys. The prospect of this kind of fee recovery undoubtedly will encourage many attorneys to seek out and pursue these claims.


It is unclear from the Award what preclusive or superseding effect the Award might have on the separate federal court lawsuit ST Microelectronics filed against the Credit Suisse corporate parent. It seems that the company secured the relief it sought. What reason or even opportunity there might be to continue to prosecute the civil case is not immediately apparent.


Hat tip to the Law Blog (here) for the link to the FINRA Award.


Don’t Tell Me How to Fix It, Just Tell Me Who to Blame: If you missed it, you may want to take a look at the list of the "25 People to Blame" (here) in the February 23, 2009 issue of Time Magazine. The magazine’s attempt to identify the individuals responsible for the current financial mess is actually kind of interesting, even thought provoking.


The list includes the usual suspects: Dick Fuld, Jimmy Cayne Angelo Mozillo and Stan O’Neill.( I agree that Angelo Mozillo of Countrywide also belongs on the list, although I don’t think I would have put him first, as Time Magazine did.) Time also included, correctly in my view, Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland, whose ill-fated and ill-time take over assault on ABN AMRO is record setting in a number of extremely negative ways.


The list also recognizes others who rightfully should shoulder some of the blame, but who sometimes elude the harsh spotlight. In this category I would put Marion and Herb Sandler, whose Golden West Savings bank initiated the Option ARM mortgage. Sandy Weill also (correctly, in my view) appears on the list for the mess he made of Citigroup.


A couple of U.S. Presidents make the list — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Alan Greenspan, Hank Paulson and Chris Cox are also there. There is also one former Prime Minister, Davíð Oddsson of Iceland, and one Premier, Wen Jiabao of China.


There are a several interesting names on the list. For example, John Devaney appears as a sort of a stand in for the whole hedge fund industry, and Lew Ranieri gets belated recognition for having fathered mortgage securitization. Kathleen Corbett, the former head of rating agency Standard & Poor’s also gets a nod for the plethora of triple-A rating on mortgage backed securities that encouraged so much misdirected investment. Joe Casano gets due recognition for basically taking down AIG.


There are others whom I think are misplaced on this list. For one thing, what is Bernie Madoff doing there? He may have been a big crook, but in the end he is just a crook.


There are also at least two very significant omissions from the list.


First and foremost, the U.S. Congress deserves to be recognized for its encouragement of housing policy that was misguided and disproportionate to the requirements and limitations of sound principles. Congress is great at holding hearings and making speeches when things go wrong. Their own abysmal record of implementing policies that prevent problems warrants its own set of hearings. I’d like to put some of them in the dock and subject them to the same kind of sneering cross-examination that they have been imposing on others in recent days. (To be fair to the list-makers, they did slot former Texas congressman Phil Gramm at No.2 on the list, which arguably is a Congressional designation by proxy.)


And finally, why isn’t the American Homebuyer on the list? Yes, the American Consumer is recognized, but I think we need to be specific here. Within the larger group of well-intentioned home buyers are those who were driven by some weird form of housing lust to buy gigantic houses they couldn’t afford. There also appear to have been some who were all too willing to hide or even misrepresent their true financial condition to secure credit. Sure, the lenders were complicit, but as long as we are assigning blame, let’s put some everywhere that it belongs.Of course, many homeowners who are now struggling had nothing to do with any of this kind of conduct, but there are also those who were involved.


When you come right down to it, there is no shortage of culprits. Sadly, there are many, many victims. Some of them are even the same people.