The year of 2008 will likely be remembered as the year subprime mortgages and corporate scandals changed the face of Wall Street. Buried under the weight of the subprime crisis, financial institutions took nearly $800 billion in writedowns and losses. The value of stocks worldwide plummeted by more than $30 trillion. Goliath investment houses like Bear Stearns fell apart. State, municipal and corporate pension funds reported massive losses from investments tied to faulty valuation models and high-risk mortgage-backed securities and their derivative spin-offs, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).
Then there’s the near financial collapse of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and American Insurance Group (AIG), which required a financial intervention courtesy of the U.S. government. Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the United States, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008. Washington Mutual and IndyMac, along with some 20 other banks were forced to close their doors. Government bailouts reached an astronomical $9 trillion. And as a final nod to 2008, investors lost some $50 billion in a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by the former Nasdaq chairman, Bernard (Bernie) Madoff.
For investors, 2008 is the year that went from bad to worse. It began with the collapse of the auction-rate securities market in February and continued with credit default swaps and structured investment products. For the first time since the 1930s, the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced losses of more than 30%, closing the year at 8,776.39. By comparison, the Dow finished out 2007 at 13,264.82. Bank stocks in particular took a beating in 2008, with Bank of America and Citigroup losing nearly 70% of their value. As for shareholders, they saw about $7 trillion of their wealth wiped out.
In the world of ultra-short bond funds, 2008 provided the lesson that ultra short does not translate to “ultra safe.” A number of supposedly safe and conservative ultra-short funds got into trouble in 2008 by investing in risky mortgage-backed securities and collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs). When losses in those toxic assets began to skyrocket, investors lined up to pull their money out in droves, sparking a wave of fund redemptions.
As a result, several fund managers were forced to liquidate their funds’ assets. State Street Global Advisors’ SSgA Yield Plus Fund began liquidating in May after the fund fell 19%. It turns out more than 50% of the fund’s assets were tied to mortgage-related securities funds. One month later, the Evergreen Ultra-Short Opportunities Fund liquidated, as well, when its assets plunged more than 20% in value. Finally, there is Charles Schwab’s YieldPlus Fund. Marketed to investors as a safe alternative to cash, the fund suffered the most losses of any ultra-short bond fund in 2008, losing more than 40% of its value.
Investors, meanwhile, are suing all three funds, charging that they investments were represented as conservative “cash alternatives” and similar to money-market funds. Far from safe or conservative, the funds were heavily concentrated in risky mortgage and asset-backed securities. And, in the case of Schwab’s YieldPlus Fund, several investors who have filed lawsuits claim various Schwab executives and fund manager Kimon Daifotis committed “acts of gross misconduct” by encouraging investors to hold on to their YieldPlus shares, while simultaneously dumping millions of YieldPlus shares from the portfolios of Schwab’s other mutual funds.
Capping out 2008, of course, is the Bernie Madoff scandal. The disgraced hedge fund manager was arrested Dec. 11 by federal agents on charges of securities fraud for scamming $50 billion from investors. Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the supposed protector of investors and their investments, apparently turned a blind eye to Madoff’s subterfuge over the years by ignoring red flags that signaled problems with his funds and their “too-good-to-be-true” returns.
For investors, the Madoff affair may well be the final nail in the coffin when it comes to confidence in Wall Street. Already shaken from a year that was punctuated by the subprime crisis and corporate scandals - including the implosion of Bear Stearns, the collapse of the auction rate securities market, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and inept accounting practices by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and other institutions - Wall Street has its work cut out in 2009 as it tries to renew investors’ faith once again.
Our affiliation of securities lawyers is actively involved in advising individual and institutional investors in evaluating their legal options when confronted with subprime and other mortgage-related investment losses.