Stories We're Following: Failed Banks, China and More

Stories We're Following: Failed Banks, China and More

The short week after the July 4th holiday is usually quiet. There certainly did seem to be less traffic on the roads. But nevertheless, there was news of note this past week on several stories we have been following, as discussed below. The traffic on the roads may have slowed but the circulation on the information superhighway continued unabated.

Pace of Bank Failures Slows - But More Closures Loom: Earlier this year (refer here), I had noted that it seemed as if the pace of bank failures had finally started to decline. As discussed in a July 9, 2011 Wall Street Journal article (here), the pace of bank failures did indeed slow  in the first half of 2011, compared both to the equivalent period a year ago as well as to the second half of last year. There were 48 bank failures in the first half of 2011, compared to 74 in the second half of 2010 and 86 in the first half of 2010.

This slowdown is consistent with the FDIC's projections. The agency had previously indicated that it believed 2010 would represent a high water mark for bank failures. But while the pace of bank closures has finally started to slow, the wave of bank failures is far from finished. As I noted here, the FDIC's most recent Quarterly Banking Profile, released in May, showed that the number of "problem institutions" was a record levels, a situation that the Journal article characterized as representing a "backlog" of troubled banks. The FDIC reported that as of the end of March 31, 2011 there were 888 "problem institutions."

And while the 48 bank failures in the year's first half represents a decrease compared to recent periods, that figure still represents a sizeable number. By way of comparison, in 2008, when the financial crisis reached its crescendo, there were only 25 bank failures. Moreover, it is clear that bank failures will continue for the foreseeable future, even if at reduced levels from a year ago. Indeed, on Friday evening - the first Friday of the year's second half - the FDIC took control of three more institutions.

The Journal article quotes one commentator as saying that historically about 19% of the banks on the FDIC's problem list wind up failing, which implies about 169 bank failures after March 31, 2011. Since 22 banks failed in the second quarter of 2011, that would suggest that there may be about 147 bank failures yet to go. The completion of the current  bank closure process could, according to a source cited in the Journal article, take about two more years. As another commentator quoted in the article put it, the process is about in "the seventh inning" of the cycle of failures.

Though the bank closure process may now be slowing and will run its course in time, the mopping up process may only have just begun. Allowing for the extensive post-mortem that follows each failure, and the attendant lag time before the FDIC initiates litigation against the directors and officers of failed banks, the era of failed bank litigation may just be getting started. If the wave of bank failures is in the seventh inning, we are much earlier in the bank litigation wave ball game. Refer here for my recent review of the details surrounding the failed bank litigation.

U.S. Investors Are Not the Only Ones Concerned About Chinese Company Accounting Scandals: As various accounting scandals involving U.S.-listed Chinese companies have emerged, shareholders have launched a series of lawsuits in the U.S. against the companies and their senior officials, as I have previously noted on this blog. It turns out that U.S. investors are not the only ones upset about the problem involving Chinese companies.

A July 8, 2011 Bloomberg article (here) examines the concern that investors in Singapore have about Chinese companies, based on the various accounting issues that have come to light. Among other things, the article states that since 2008, more than ten percent of the Chinese companies listed on the Singapore stock exchange have been delisted or had trading in their shares suspended. The article also reviews investor concerns that executives of Chinese companies are outside the reach of Singapore enforcement authorities.

The crescendo of voices raising concerns about the Chinese companies may be being heard in China itself. News reports this past week (refer here) suggest that officials from the SEC and the PCAOB will be meeting with their Chinese counterparts this upcoming week to discuss the possibility of allowing the U.S. regulators to investigate Chinese companies and Chinese audit firms for the first time.

In the meantime, however, the wave of lawsuits in the U.S. involving U.S.-listed Chinese companies continues to mount. The latest lawsuit involves A-Power Energy Generation Company, which obtained its U.S. listing by way of a reverse merger with a U.S. listed publicly traded shell company. According to their July 5, 2011 press release (here), plaintiffs' counsel have filed a securities class action lawsuit in the District of Nevada against the company and certain of its officers. The complaint (which can be found here), refers to published reports describing the company's auditors concerns about weaknesses in the company's internal controls and differences between financial figures the company reported to Chinese regulatory source compared to those reported in the company's SEC filings. On June 28, 2011, the company announced (here) that its auditor had resigned because of the company's failure to hire an independent forensic accountant to investigate certain business transactions.

With the arrival of this latest lawsuit, there have now been a total of 27 securities class action lawsuits filed against U.S. listed Chinese companies so far in 2011, representing about one-quarter of all 2011 securities lawsuit filings in the U.S.

One variation on this litigation theme has arisen in a separately filed securities suit that has been brought as an individual action rather than as a class action. As discussed in Jan Wolfe's July 5, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily article (here). Starr International has amended its securities suit against China MediaExpress Holdings and certain of its directors and officers to include as defendants three American businessmen who helped the company obtain its U.S. listing by way of reverse merger.

While there have been calls to reform the reverse merger process, particularly for foreign companies, if the functionaries that make the process possible are going to find themselves hauled into litigation involving the companies they help to go public, the reverse merger process may cease to exist as a means for non-U.S. companies to use in order to process the more conventional method of going public. In any event, in the current climate, it seems likely that there would be much investor interest in shares of foreign domiciled companies that obtained their U.S. listings by way of a reverse merger.

Variation on the Auction Rate Securities Concerns: There have been extensive developments recently involving financial companies involved with marketing or selling auction rate securities, as Tom Gorman summarized in a July 5, 2011 post on his SEC Actions blog. But a new adversary action filed in the Land American Financial Group bankruptcy proceeding shows an interesting variation on the usual auction rate securities litigation theme.

As discussed at length in the bankruptcy trustee's June 24, 2011 complaint (here), Land America had a division ("LES") whose purpose was to facilitate tax-advantaged land swaps. In essence, a property seller could "park" the proceeds of a land sale with LES until an appropriate land swap counterparty emerged, allowing the "exchange" to take place. The property sales proceeds were invested during the holding period. According to the complaint, beginning in about 2003, LES invested a substantial portion of the proceeds in auction rate securities. When the auction rate securities market froze up in 2008, 41% of LES's assets were tied up in auction rate securities. The failure of the auction rate securities market eventually created a liquidity crisis for LES and for its parent company. The liquidity crisis, according to the complaint, was a substantial cause in the demise of the parent company.

According to the complaint, the parent company (LFG) "met its demise because the LFG and LES directors and officers failed to properly inform themselves and failed to consider and implement any timely action to mitigate the effects of the LES liquidity crisis. These failures caused LFG and its stakeholders to incur hundreds of millions of dollars in damages."

As discussed in this July 8, 2011 Richmond Biz Sense article (here), the bankruptcy trustee is seeking damages of $365 million in the action , which names 21 former Land America directors and officers as defendants. The article quotes sources as saying that "the purpose of the suit is to trigger insurance policies that protect executives and directors in such instances." 

Though the lawsuit itself may be an unremarkable bankruptcy-related effort to snare D&O insurance proceeds for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate, the allegations themselves represent an interesting variation from the usual action rate securities allegations. The typical auction rate securities lawsuit involves allegations by the securities buyer against the firm that sold the securities. Here the allegations are brought against the buyer's own company officials in connection with the purchases.

These kinds of auction rate securities allegations are not unprecedented - as I have previously noted (for example, here), there have been prior lawsuits brought against the auction rate securities buyers rather than the sellers. The fact that these kinds of complaints are continuing to arise even critical events of the financial crisis continue to recede into the past suggests that while time may have passed, the critical effects of the crisis remain. And the lawsuits continue to mount.

Special thanks to a loyal reader for forwarding the news article about the Land America case.  

Second Circuit Rules out RICO Claims Against Securities Fraud Aiders and Abettors: One of the interesting questions is whether private claimants, foreclosed from pursuing claims against third parties for aiding and abetting securities law violation, could pursue their aiding and abetting claims against the third parties under RICO. In a July 7 decision (here), in a case captioned MLSMK Investment Company v. J.P. Morgan, the Second Circuit held that the aggrieved investors cannot pursue the aiding and abetting claims under RICO.

Alison Frankel has an excellent summary of the legal issues and of the holding in her July 8, 2011 article on Thompson Reuters News & Insight (here). As Frankel's article discusses, the case has mostly drawn attention for its connection to the Madoff scandal and for its implications for the Madoff trustee's pending claims against certain litigation targets. However, as she notes, the case does "far more" - it "forecloses the only possible route to recovery through federal court for securities investors suing defendants who help a company engage in securities fraud." Frankel's interesting article details the larger significance of the decision.

Special thanks to the several loyal readers who called this decision to my attention and for sending me a link to Frankel's article.

Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.

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