In the largest subprime-related securities suit settlement to date, Countrywide Financial has reached an agreement to pay $600 million to settle the securities class action pending against the company and certain of its directors and officers, according to an April 23, 2010 article by Gabe Friedman in The Daily Journal (here, subscription required). The settlement reportedly is still confidential and is also subject to the approval of several pension boards.


The settlement agreement would include the release several top Countrywide executives, including former CEO Angelo Mozillo.


The settlement is also subject to court approval; however, the agreement reportedly was the product of mediation before U.S. District Judge Howard Matz, and accordingly it seems unlikely that it would be set aside by the court, assuming it ultimately is approved by all parties.


The consolidated securities class action lawsuit against Countrywide is pending before Central District of California Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer. In a massive December 1, 2008 opinion, about which refer here, Judge Pfaelzer had denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The Countrywide case remains one of the most prominent subprime-related securities cases in which the motions to dismiss were denied.


The settlement reportedly only relates to the securities class action lawsuit; the separate California-based shareholders’ derivative lawsuit, which also survived a motion to dismiss (refer here), apparently remains pending. The separate Countrywide ERISA class action lawsuit previously settled for $55 million (refer here).


In addition to these actions brought by private litigants, the SEC has also separately filed an enforcement action against former CEO Angelo Mozillo, as well as the company’s former CFO and COO, as discussed here. In addition, a recent report in the Wall Street Journal suggested that a Central District of California grand jury is also looking into the possibility of criminal misconduct at Countrywide.


By any measure, this is a very large settlement – should it in fact be finalized. According to the RiskMetrics’ Top 100 Settlements report (here), the $600 million Countrywide settlement would be tied for 13th largest securities settlement of all times.


The $600 million Countrywide settlement is also by far the largest subprime-related securities class action lawsuit settlement, by far eclipsing the $475 million that Merrill Lynch agreed to pay to settle its subprime related securities class action lawsuit (about which refer here).


Despite the sheer size of the Countrywide settlement and its relative high ranking on the settlement tables, there may be some who may question the settlement at this dollar figure. Shareholders lost billions of dollars when Countrywide’s stock price plunged before the company’s acquisition by Bank of America. In addition, Angelo Mozillo sold hundreds of millions of dollars in his personal holdings in the company’s stock before the share price began its plunge.


As the post mortem on the subprime meltdown has developed, Countrywide has become the preferred example of many of the excesses that preceded the subprime meltdown. Accordingly, there may well be some who question whether $600 million, as big of a number as it is, is "enough."


The problem with arguments about what is "enough" is that it immediately begs the question of "compared to what?" Those who contend that it is not "enough" may well point to the magnitude of the investor losses (although clearly not all of the drop in Countrywide’s market capitalization is attributable to the alleged fraud). They may also point out that even just with respect to options backdating, there was at least one securities lawsuit settlement greater than $600 million (the UnitedHealth Group case, which settled for a total $925.5 million, taking all settlements into account).


On the other hand, there have only been a dozen cases in the entire history of securities litigation that have settled for more than $600 million and many of those involved companies that were brought down due to criminally fraudulent misconduct (e.g., Enron, WorldCom, Cendant). Other cases just involved criminal misconduct (e.g., Tyco). But WorldCom was acquired, it didn’t go bust and so far there have been no criminal allegations.


There may be those who feel so strongly that that the investors’ recovery should have been larger that they may object to the settlement; indeed, there could be those who feel they could do better on their own and who choose therefore to opt-out of the class settlement. As I have detailed elsewhere, even in many of the prior settlements that were larger even than the Countywide settlement, there were significant numbers of individual opt outs and in many cases, the aggregate amount of the opt-outs’ recovery represented a very significant percentage of the class settlement amount.


But whatever else may be said, $600 million is a lot of money. The Countrywide settlement comes close on the heels of the $200 million Schwab YieldPlus settlement. The quick succession of these two settlements suggests that the evolution of the subprime litigation wave may have reached a critical point. We may now begin to see other settlements emerge, particular in those cases that have survived dismissal motions.


The Countrywide and Schwab settlements, taken together with the $475 Merrill Lynch settlement, represent over $1.2 billion. These few data points suggest that the aggregate costs of resolving all of the subprime and credit crisis related litigation could be staggering.


But as impressive as these three settlements are, both individually and collectively, they all share one trait that may make them irrelevant in many cases. That is, in each of these three cases, there was a solvent and relatively strong entity available to fund a significant settlement. (Indeed, by the time the cases settled, the relevant entity with respect to both the Merrill Lynch and Countrywide settlements happened to be Bank of America.)


In many other pending cases, the relevant entity has long since folded (e.g., New Century Financial), and other than quickly dwindling insurance proceeds, there may be relatively few sources out of which to fund settlements. These eye-poppingly large settlements may represent nothing so much as what may be possible where there are deep pockets available, but they may not represent relevant reference points for many other cases.


In any event, my running tally of the subprime and credit crisis related lawsuit resolutions can be accessed here. However, readers should be aware that I will not be entering the data on the Countywide settlement until I have complete data and a link to a primary source that is not behind a firewall.