The current financial crisis involves a potent witches’ brew of bankruptcies, mortgage bailouts, failed banks, blame assignment, and liquidity issues. Because every one of these ingredients contributes in some important way to the total mix of current woe, this post briefly references each one of these issues and concludes with a video that manages to find humor despite the current dismal circumstances.


Bankruptcies Double: Though it is early yet, one of 2009’s stories of the year has to be the surge in corporate bankruptcies. According to recently published data (here), bankruptcies this year by publicly traded companies are running at more than twice their 2008 pace. Bankruptcies of companies with assets over $1 million are fueling the surge.


According to the data, there have been 46 bankruptcy filings (under Chapter 11 or Chapter 7) by public companies in 2009, with total combined assets of $74 million. As this point last year, there were only 21 bankruptcies totaling $11 billion.


Some context is required for these numbers, however. This year’s bankruptcy pace is still below that of 2002, a "record-breaking" year in which there were 60 bankruptcies by early March.


The financial market turmoil is producing numerous casualties. Indeed, Blackstone Chairman Stephen Schwarzman was quoted today (here) as saying that "between 40 and 45 percent of the world’s wealth has been destroyed in little less than a year and a half." Give the staggering scale of market losses, even optimists will recognize that further bankruptcies undoubtedly lie ahead.


My recent post discussing D&O insurance issues arising from bankruptcy can be found here.


A Successful Mortgage Bailout: As depressing as the current circumstances are, a sucessful bailout from an earlier era may provide reason to hope that it may be possible to manage our way out of the current mortgage crisis.


A March 6, 2009 post in the Harvard Business Review Editors’ Blog entitled "The Mortgage Bailout That Worked (here) describes a "remarkably similar catastrophe" that "happened during the real estate boom of the 1920s." In that earlier time, an investment frenzy developed over "guaranteed mortgage certificates" that were issues, in denominations as small as $100, for shares in residential mortgages and groups of mortgages. The certificates were issued by guaranty companies and backed by the state of New York.


Investor demand for the certificates soon outstripped the supply of mortgages, in turn fueling a demand for even more mortgages, whether or not the mortgages were compliant with regulatory requirements. The frenzy to supply investors with more certificates also encouraged the guaranty companies to assume borrowers’ loan fees and offer bonuses to brokers for mortgages. Ultimately, to protect their own investments, the guaranty companies swapped good mortgages out of customers’ certificates and transferred them to their own certificates. (Sound familiar?)


Eventually, the scheme collapsed and the state of New York stepped in and "amazingly, managed to clean up the bulk of the mess in just four years of hard, hard work." The state formed a Commission, which eventually had over 1,000 employees, to "take over the guaranty companies and sort out the certificates." What they did was to "preserve the value of the certificates by preserving the value of the underlying real-estate assets."


The process the Commission followed, which was designed to work out the mortgage or dispose of the property in some productive way, could be a useful model for today. The lesson for the current circumstances from the prior effort, according to the HBR post, seems to be to "hire a sufficiently large group of people to track down and preserve the value of the assets underlying all of our current toxic real-estate securities" in a similar manner. It certainly worked in the earlier era; the Commission "recouped 84% of the value of the certificates" and brought "order out of chaos."


Are Bank Failures a Necessary Recovery Prerequisite?: Some readers may have noted that this past Friday night, the FDIC took control of yet another bank, Freedom Bank of Georgia (as noted here). Prior to its closure, the bank, which was located in Commerce, Georgia, had assets of $173 million. This latest bank closure brings the year to date total of failed banks to 17, and the number of banks that have failed just since July 1, 2008 to 39. The FDIC’s complete list of banks that have failed since October 2000 can be found here.


While bank failures are one among the more disturbing parts of the current economic turmoil, they may also be a necessary part of the recovery as well. A March 7, 2009 Washington Post article entitled "Every Bank Failure is Also a Beginning" (here) states that the increase in bank closures is "a sign of the nation’s economic distress," but it is also a "first step toward revival." According to the article, "in wiping away problem loans and brining in new investors, the government is creating the necessary conditions for new lending."


The Post article explains the FDIC’s bank closure process, including its efforts to transfer the bank’s existing banking relationships to a healthier institution. The process is not without its pitfalls, but it is, according to the article, essential to ensuring that a community has banking resources available despite the closed bank’s failure.


The Post article focuses on the events surrounding the closure of the Community Bank of Loganville, Ga., which failed in November 2008 (refer here). Last Friday’s bank closure involved yet another bank from Georgia, the seventh bank in Georgia to fail since October 2007. Many of the failed banks were located in or around Alphretta, Georgia, which earlier this year the Wall Street Journal referred to (here) as "Bank-Failure Central."


Among other things, commentators cited in the Journal article ascribed the rash of bank failures in Georgia to "overabundant home building, years of risky lending and one of the most relaxed environments in the U.S. for starting new banks." The Journal article also states that the failures "reflect an unusually dense concentration of go-go optimism run amok."


Credit Agency Focus: When assigning blame for the current crisis, many commentators often cite the credit rating agencies. Indeed, Time Magazine’s list of the 25 people to blame for the current financial debacle included Kathleen Corbet, who ran S&P for most of the last decade. Whether or not the credit rating agencies are blameworthy is one question; whether they can be held liable for it is yet another, as this blog has previously noted (here).


A recent memorandum by the Jenner & Block firm entitled "Credit Rating Agencies in the Spotlight: A New Casualty of the Mortgage Meltdown" (here) admirably summarizes the legal issues that investor litigation against the credit rating agencies might present. One noteworthy observation in the memo is the possibility federal preemption of state regulatory action under the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act of 2006. In addition to discussing other defenses that may be available to the credit rating agencies, the article also helpfully cites a lists a number of cases currently pending against the firms.


A recent post in which I discussed the partial denial of the motion to dismiss in the securities lawsuit that Moody’s shareholders filed against the company, and the ruling’s possible implications for the rating agencies’ potential liability for their ratings activities, can be found here.


Liquidity Issues Affect Everything: A company’s inability to access cash when needed can raise a host of complications, including even with respect to pending securities class action lawsuit settlements. As reflected in its March 10, 2009 press release (here), due to liquidity constraints, Korean semiconductor company Pixelplus is unable to fund its agreed $1 million cash contribution to the settlement of the securities class action lawsuit that had been filed against the company.


According to the press release, the court has approved an addendum to the parties’ settlement stipulation with respect to the company’s agreed settlement contribution. The press release states that the company could not make its contribution "due to the economic turmoil in Asia arising from the global financial crisis and the world-wide recession, which continues to have a severe negative impact on the financial position and business operations of the company."


In lieu of the company’s contribution, its insurance carrier is paying about $331,000 (at current exchange rates). The company will make up the difference "if and when such funds become available."


There may be implications here for the growing wave of subprime and credit crisis-related litigation. A cause of action is not worth much if the target company can’t even fund an eventual settlement. There may be more than a few target companies that might eventually prove unable to fund their portion of any eventual settlements.


Citi of the Future: Citigroup’s shares were up today on relatively positive news. However, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (here), "barely a week after the third rescue of Citigroup," U.S officials are weighing "what fresh steps they might need to take if its problems mount." The bank’s continuing problems have, among other things, fueled rampant speculation that the government eventually will be forced to nationalize Citigroup.


The prospect of a nationalized Citigroup might have been unimaginable even a short time ago, but now some at least some folks apparently have no trouble imaging what a government-owned Citibank might be like, as reflected in the following video. (Sensitive readers should be forewarned that this video makes rather promiscuous use of the F-bomb and may otherwise be offensive. On the other hand, it is also very funny.)