As I have shown (here) and has been detailed by others (here), the number of securities class action lawsuits declined during the first half of 2009 compared both to last year and to historical norms. There is a lot that might be said about the decline and its causes. However, the mainstream media (refer, for example, here) has latched onto the message that the number of securities suits is declining because the plaintiffs are "running out of people to sue."


Let’s be honest — fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and plaintiffs’ lawyers make their living filing lawsuits. The fish and the birds can be counted upon to continue their traditional activities, and so can the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The very idea that the plaintiffs have run out of targets is a flawed conclusion built on a faulty premise.


Before I get started on this topic, I think it would be useful to review why this question matters. Once before, the idea circulated that the securities class action plaintiffs’ lawyers were going out of business. This hypothesis turned out to be very wrong and it proved to be a very expensive mistake.


After the PSLRA was enacted at the end of 1995, some D&O insurers assumed the statute’s passage would mean that many fewer securities lawsuits would be filed, and so they slashed their insurance pricing. The marketplace followed. When securities litigation ramped back up, the D&O insurance industry suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. The industry paid a lot of tuition to learn that what plaintiffs’ lawyers do is file lawsuits. Given how expensive the lesson was, it would seem unwise to start assuming now that anything has changed.


But with respect to the recent decline in securities lawsuits, let’s at least get the facts straight. The number of lawsuits did not decline during the entire first six months of the year. During the period January through April, the number of new securities lawsuit filings was more or less at normal levels. The drop took place in May and June. Now, looking at the ebb and flow of securities lawsuit filings during the last 14 years, there arguably is nothing noteworthy about a two-month decline. It could just be a blip. It may or may not continue; only time will tell. It does seem important (to me at least) that so far in July, there have already been at least twelve new securities lawsuits, more than were filed in either May or June.


The other thing about the first half of 2009 is that it was not as if the plaintiffs’ lawyers were idle — they were just otherwise occupied. Among other things, they were busy filing lawsuits related to Madoff, the Stanford Financial Group and other Ponzi schemes. Indeed, my list of Madoff-related lawsuits (which can be accessed here) now runs to some 23 pages, with more than 40 new cases filed during May and June.


This other extensive litigation activity is highly relevant, because of the similarity to what happened back in the period mid-2005 to mid-2007. That was the period when there was a sustained "lull" in new securities class action lawsuit filings. During that period as well, the plaintiffs’ lawyers were also otherwise engaged. Then, they were busy filing options backdating-related shareholders’ derivative lawsuits, eventually filing 168 of them (as shown here).


That prior "lull" in new securities lawsuit filings motivated some observers to speculate that the move to lower securities litigation levels might represent a "permanent" change. Subsequent history has shown that in fact there was no permanent change, and indeed the securities lawsuit activity returned with a vengeance.


Of course, it is possible that plaintiffs’ lawyers have indeed run out of targets and that lower level of new securities class action filings will persist going forward. Only time will tell. Just based on what history has shown, though, both after the passage of the PSLRA and after the so-called "lull," I think it would be unwise to bet that hereafter the plaintiffs lawyers will file fewer securities lawsuits.


My own theory about why the number of lawsuits has dipped is that the plaintiffs’ lawyers have been busy, not just with the Madoff lawsuits, but also dealing with the extraordinary number of lawsuits they previously filed in connection with the subprime meltdown and credit crisis. Many of these lawsuits are uncommonly complicated and they have in many cases entered procedurally demanding stages.


The main reason I believe that the plaintiffs’ lawyers have just been jammed up is that I think there is evidence that they are dealing with a backlog of cases, a point that I have made before (here). Recent filings even further reinforce the conclusion that the plaintiffs’ lawyers are now starting to work off a backlog.


Many of the recent filings have proposed class periods that are well in the past, sometimes years in the past. For example, the securities lawsuit filed on July 14, 2009 against Ambassador Group (refer here) has a proposed class period cutoff date of October 23, 2007. The securities lawsuit filed on July 17, 2009 against Bare Escentuals (refer here) has proposed class period cutoff date of November 26, 2007. The securities lawsuit filed on July 22, 2009 against Accuray (refer here) proposes a class period cutoff of August 19, 2008. Other recent filings though not quite as superannuated involve class period cutoff dates that well over six months past (refer, for example, here).


If you notice from the cases I have listed above and in my prior post, these cases not only involve a time gap, but they also are all outside the financial sector. It seems as if the plaintiffs lawyers have been so preoccupied with the race to the courthouse in lawsuits against the financial sector, they are just now getting around to filing the cases against the other kinds of companies.


The way I look at it, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have not had a shortage of targets, they have just had a shortage of time. But evidence suggests that they are getting caught up and they are now getting around to working off the backlog that has been accumulating. The one thing I know for certain is that they will continue to file lawsuits. Consider how reliable the birds and fishes are, and I think you will see what I mean.


One line of analysis that does give me pause is the suggestion that the lawsuit filings declined because of diminished stock market volatility. According to this theory, there is a correlation between overall market volatility and the level of securities lawsuit activity. This theory may have something to it; it is certainly the case that an individual lawsuit is directly related to the target company’s experience of volatility in its own share price. If this market volatility theory is true and if the lower volatility persists, then we could be in for a period of lower numbers of security lawsuits. We had a lull before, we could certainly have one again.


Because of the possibility that persistent lower market volatility might mean reduced lawsuit filings for awhile, I am not making any absolute predictions. I am just saying that I wouldn’t make any bets based on the assumption that the plaintiffs lawyers have run out of people to sue.