Lee Sherman, securities litigation consultant
|the question of foreseeability asks at what point in time senior management at these investment banks should have foreseen the possibility of the disasters that eventually befell them.|
UPDATE: Because Bear Stearns Execs' FCIC testimony largely focused on allegedly unforeseeable, "unprecedented" market forces to defend their lack of competent management, Wall Street Law Blog decided to re-post one of our favorites.
Long before their respective employers ceased to exist as independent companies, former Merrill Lynch Top North American Economist David A. Rosenberg and former Bear Stearns Chief Equities Investment Strategist Francois Trahan published research reports with explicit warnings about asset and credit bubbles in the U.S. housing and mortgage markets.
As early as August 2004, Mr. Rosenberg, Chief Economist at Merrill Lynch for North America, published a detailed analysis regarding the precarious state of the American housing market. Rosenberg warned that there could serious problems ahead in an Economic Commentary entitled: "Housing: If not a Bubble Then an Oversized Sud."
Former Bear Stearns Chief Equities Investment Strategist Francois Trahan first published a report that raised serious questions about housing and real estate investments in a May 2005 report called "REIT all About it." Trahan and his team at Bear Stearns followed their 2005 report with publications in 2006 that explicitly warned about the difficult future facing the U.S. housing market and even raised the possibility of a global credit crisis. The 2006 Bear Stearns reports definitively described the housing market as an unsustainable "bubble" and further cautioned that the term bubble was not one the Bear team used lightly.
It was not until 2008 that overcommitments to mortgage-backed securities (a byproduct of the housing boom), CDO's and related products tied to residential and commercial mortgages caused Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns to suffer backbreaking losses so severe that Merrill sold itself to Bank of America and Bear Stearns narrowly avoided bankruptcy with a Fed-assisted fire sale to JP Morgan.
Along with a number of other Wall Street firms, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns lost tens of billions of dollars because of their firms' respective commitments to securities backed by mortgages in the "subprime" and "Alt-A" categories. Subprime and Alt-A residential mortgages are considered risky loans because they carry higher default rates than "conforming" mortgages (also called prime mortgages, or agency-quality mortgages). Typical subprime or Alt-A borrowers cannot qualify for a conforming mortgage due to factors that include, but are not limited to, bad credit histories, personal bankruptcies, insufficient income, and the inability to make sufficiently large down-payments.
--Significance of the Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns reports
While the ultimate import of the reports remains to be seen, The Sherman Law Firm says there is no doubt that the documents are crucial to the touchstone litigation element of foreseeability. "In a litigation sense," said Managing Attorney Brett Sherman, "the question of foreseeability asks at what point in time senior management at these investment banks should have foreseen the possibility of the disasters that eventually befell them."
According to The Sherman Law Firm, the reports at issue may show that senior management at Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns should have foreseen the liklihood of a looming financial crisis with ample time to permit business model shifts that may have prevented crippling losses and, ultimately, the end of these former pillars of Wall Street as independent companies.
--Likely Defenses and Response
When confronted with documents like the reports at issue, senior managers may respond that they cannot be expected to read the huge volumes of research produced by their companies. The view of Brett Sherman, securities fraud lawyer and Managing Attorney of The Sherman Law Firm is that "the significance of these reports is that they conclusively establish the views of top economic analysts at Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns. Whether plaintiffs' attorneys prove that senior management at the two investment banks actually read the reports ought to be immaterial."
Litigation strategist and recently retired attorney Lee Sherman - a frequent consultant to The Sherman Law Firm, former municipal court judge, and founding partner of a top Philadelphia area firm - concurred. "These aren't simply the comments of some junior level analysts," Sherman said. "I mean, we're talking about the Senior North American Economist of Merrill Lynch and the Chief Equities Strategist at Bear Stearns. Any claims by their CEOs and the other senior decision makers at these banks to the effect that they should not have been well-aware of the opinions and outlooks of the top economic and market experts at their companies are simply not credible."
Lee Sherman continued: "Remember, from mid-2004 until the subprime crisis had clearly arrived, the Fed steadily raised interest rates. For lesser quality borrowers, most of whom had adjustable rate mortgages, higher interest rates meant higher default rates. To say the least, there was great uncertainty as rates were rising about where we were headed. Then, the housing market slowed. I'm talking about 2005 now, before home values really fell off the table. It strikes me as incredible that the kinds of warnings in these reports were out there for years, yet seem to have gone unheeded."
The Sherman Law Firm represents investors in securities fraud / investment loss claims of all types, including claims against investment banks for losses related to mismanagement and other misconduct during the housing and credit bubbles.
Brett Sherman, The Sherman Law Firm