Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lawrence Mitchell on Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund and the Other Law Professors

[The following post comes to us from Lawrence E. Mitchell, Joseph C. Hostetler - Baker & Hostetler Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.  All formatting errors should be attributed to me, Stefan Padfield.]

The March 5, 2014 oral argument in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc.1 made clear that one of the issues being considered by the Supreme Court is whether to supplant the "market efficiency" analysis currently required at the class certification stage in securities fraud class action cases with a "price impact" analysis instead. Our purpose is not to debate the relative merits of that potential change. Rather, it is to identify a critical point that seemed to get lost in the argument: neither the Justices nor the advocates addressed what a price impact analysis would look like in the context of the most common securities fraud scenario—the making of false statements designed to mask bad news. While some of the briefing before the Court touches on the issue, the authors of a working paper cited by proponents of both sides have supplemented their views with a recent blog post that, while brief, discusses potential approaches to measuring the "price impact" of such fraudulent statements more comprehensively than anything the parties or their amici filed with the Court. The author-bloggers are law professors, but they are not the same law professors whose amicus brief dominated the questioning at the oral argument itself.

"The Law Professors' Brief"

Given the large number of amicus briefs filed in Halliburton—ten for petitioners, twelve for respondent, and one ostensibly in support of neither party—a disproportionally large portion of the oral argument was focused on the brief Professors Adam C. Pritchard of the University of Michigan Law School and M. Todd Henderson of the University of Chicago Law School filed in support of petitioner Halliburton. Their operating premise is that the "efficient capital markets hypothesis is not necessary to the use of the fraud on the market theory—whenever the market incorporates fraudulent information into the price, a 'fraud on the market' has occurred, whether the market is efficient or not."2 They argue in favor of eliminating one of the current requirements that securities fraud class action plaintiffs must establish to invoke the fraud-on-the-market presumption at the class certification stage, namely the requirement that "the market" in which the security at issue trades be shown to be "efficient." Instead, in determining reliance, they support using event studies to examine whether an alleged misrepresentation caused a movement in the price of the stock.

Justice Kennedy posed specific questions about the "position" or "theory" of "the law professors" to counsel for both sides, Justice Scalia asked about the effect of the professors' "Basic writ small" approach on the provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, and Justice Kagan sought from the Solicitor General's Office the government's view "if the law professors' position were adopted."3 More broadly, four of the Justices (Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito) asked questions specifically containing the terms "event study" or "event studies."4

The Halliburton Oral Argument Did Not Contemplate The Typical Securities Fraud Case

The vast majority of securities fraud cases do not involve alleged false statements of positive news that might be expected to increase the value of the stock price. Rather, in a typical securities fraud class action, the false statement is one that conceals a development adversely affecting the issuing corporation. Under those circumstances, there is little or no "impact" on the stock at the time the false statement is made; the false statement minimizes or prevents the decline that would otherwise have occurred had investors been given the opportunity to fully consider the negative development and reassess the value of their investments. A measurable "impact" on the stock price in such circumstances would not be seen until a "corrective disclosure" occurs, which could be substantially after the fraudulent statement is made.

However, to the extent the Justices dabbled in hypotheticals from the bench, they contemplated false statements that were accompanied by stock price increases. Justice Alito appeared to suggest that a stock price increase at the time of the misrepresentation is a necessary prerequisite for fraud, although the question could equally be taken as addressing an "inefficient" market where there is a time lag until new information was absorbed. He asked: 

to say that false representation affects the market price is quite different from saying that it affects the market price almost immediately, and it's hard to see how the Basic theory can be sustained unless it does affect the market price almost immediately in what Basic described as an efficient market. Isn't that true? Why should someone who purchased the stock on the day, shortly you know, an hour or two after the disclosure, be entitled to recovery if in that particular market there is some lag time in incorporating the new information?5 

The Other Law Professors

The amicus brief of Professors Pritchard and Henderson makes passing reference in a footnote to the fact that the impact of a misrepresentation may occur when corrective information is disseminated to the market.6 Two other law professors, Lucian Bebchuk and Allen Ferrell of Harvard Law School, also touch on the issue in a 2013 working paper, and although their paper was cited by petitioner and in one of respondent's amicus briefs, the citations were in support of other propositions.7 In a post-argument blog entry, Professors Bebchuk and Ferrell expand on their working paper, noting that "[w]hile event studies at the time of misrepresentation are an important tool, it is crucial to emphasize that the tools available for implementing a fraudulent distortion approach are not limited to event studies at the time of misrepresentation. A fraudulent distortion approach should not be generally implemented by conducting an event study at the time of misrepresentation."8 As further explained in their blog post:

there are reasons to expect that event studies at the time of misrepresentation would fail to identify a fraudulent distortion in some cases in which it exists. This would be the case when the misstatement was a so-called confirmatory lie—that is, a misstatement made so as to meet market expectations. In such a case, failure to document a price reaction to it would not be expected even assuming the misstatement had a fraudulent impact. In such a fact situation, the confirmatory lie might prevent a stock price drop that would have occurred had the truth been told.9 

Professors Bebchuk and Ferrell go on to discuss "event studies at the time of corrective disclosure" and "[a]nother potential analytical tool, with a long tradition in the finance and accounting literature [called] forward-casting."10 They conclude that "the determination of fraudulent distortion would not always be best done by conducting an event study at the time of the misrepresentation."11

*    *    *    *

Should the Supreme Court opt to change the rules of the road by adopting a "price impact" approach, the only rule that would make sense is one that recognizes that the impact can occur not only when a false statement is made, but alternatively (and indeed more often) when the truth is revealed. A rule in which the false statement must cause a measurable "impact" on the price of a company's stock at the time the statement is made would not legitimately incorporate the "price impact" approach as a workable test. 

[1] No. 13-317 (S. Ct.).

[2] Brief of Law Professors as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioners at 2 Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., (No. 13-317), 2014 WL 60721 at  *2.  

[3] See Oral Argument at 17:10-18; 29:15-17; 34:11-13; 41:11-13, 48:2-11 Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. (No. 13-317), available at http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts.aspx.

[4] See id. at 17:10-18, 18:7-12; 20:3-9, 21:3-6; 22:8-9, 24:8-14; 29:15-17; 34:11-13; 45:1-4; 52:22 -53:4.

[5] Id. at 32:1-11 (emphasis added).  See also, id. at 21:19-25 (hypothetical by Justice Breyer in which “everybody . . . bought on the New York Stock Exchange and our theory of this case is that the stock exchange did absorb the information and the price went up and then went down.”) (emphasis added).

[6] See Brief of Law Professors as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioners at 26 n.9 Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., (No. 13-317), 2014 WL 60721 at  *26.

[7] Lucian A. Bebchuk & Allen Ferrell, Rethinking Basic, Discussion Paper No. 764, Harvard Olin Ctr. for Law, Bus. & Econ. (Dec. 2013), revised April, 2014, available at, http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/olin_center/papers/764_Bebchuk.php (cited in Brief of Petitioners at 39, Brief of Securities Law Scholars as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondent at 11, 13.

[8] Lucian Bebchuk and Allen Ferrell, Remarks on the Halliburton Oral Argument (2): Implementing a Fraudulent Distortion Approach, The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation (March 12, 2014, 9:10 AM),  (Emphasis added).  https://blogs.law.harvard.edu/corpgov/2014/03/12/remarks-on-the-halliburton-oral-argument-2-implementing-a-fraudulent-distortion-approach/.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

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