Millions for Defense, Billions for Damages: State Street's Exposure

Backdating. It’s a scandal. No, not that backdating. I mean when bloggers can’t get to something when it first comes up, and then go back in time to talk about it. That’s what I mean by backdating, and that’s what I am going to do today. Last week, I read, but didn’t have a chance to discuss here, this article from Bloomberg on the State Street Bank subprime losses and potential ERISA related exposure. The article was particularly interesting because it takes a tack someone different than most articles that, like this one, rely on lawyers to evaluate the litigation against State Street arising out of those events; most such articles focus on liability issues, the procedural defenses available to State Street under ERISA, and the defensive position that the company can assert. This article, though, asks and attempts to answer the million dollar - or in this case, more like the billion dollar - question of how much losing these cases will cost State Street. The numbers bandied about by well informed lawyers are staggering, even to the jaded eye.

The article rounds up the usual band of worthies to comment, including the Workplace Prof’s mild mannered alter ego, Paul Secunda, who tacks the eye popping number of “hundreds of millions to the billions” on State Street’s potential liability, and Boston ERISA lawyer Marcia Wagner, who noted that the plan administrators filing suit against State Street may have had no other options but to sue. To quote the article:

Wagner said fund managers hurt by the drop may have an obligation to sue as the existing plaintiffs have. “To the extent plans were misled into purchasing something they were not authorized to purchase, they may have a fiduciary obligation to sue,'' said the lawyer, who isn't representing the investment manager or plaintiffs. ``It's sue or be sued,'' she said. ``They allowed bad investments, so they should be attempting to make the plans whole.”

This echoes something I said in my last post on the State Street mess, in which I raised concerns about the fact that pension fund managers invested in the State Street products without properly understanding what they were buying. As I suggested in that post, administrators fall down on their own fiduciary obligations in such circumstances. As Wagner’s comment suggests, it may well be that the administrators’ fiduciary duties under those circumstances require them to then try to remedy their initial mistakes by suing to recover the losses, rather than compounding their own fiduciary breaches by simply absorbing the loss; that latter course of action would likely just make the administrators themselves targets for breach of fiduciary duty lawsuits based on their own mistakes in investing in the State Street funds.