Article   |   Volume 160, Issue 1

The Political Economy of Fraud on the Market

By
William W. Bratton & Michael L. Wachter

December 2011










The fraud-on-the-market class action no longer enjoys much academic support. The justifications traditionally advanced by its defenders—compensation for out-of-pocket loss and deterrence of fraud—are thought to have failed due to the action’s real world dependence on enterprise liability and issuer-funded settlements. The compensation justification collapses when considered from the point of view of different types of shareholders. Well-diversified shareholders’ receipts and payments of damages balance over time and amount to a wash before payment of litigation costs. The shareholders arguably in need of compensation—fundamental value investors who rely on published reports—are undercompensated due to pro rata distribution of settlement proceeds to all class members. The deterrence justification fails when enterprise liability is compared to alternative modes of enforcement, such as actions against individual perpetrators, which deter fraud more effectively. If, as the consensus view now has it, fraud on the market makes no policy sense, then its abolition would seem to be the next logical step. Yet most observers continue to accept the action on the same ground cited by the Supreme Court when it first implied a private right of action under the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 in 1964’s J.I. Case v. Borak: a private enforcement supplement is needed in view of inadequate Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) resources. In other words, even a private-enforcement supplement that makes no sense is better than no private-enforcement supplement at all.

This Article questions this backstop policy conclusion by highlighting the sticking points retarding movement toward fraud on the market’s abolition and mapping a plausible route to a superior enforcement outcome. We recommend that private plaintiffs be required to meet an actual-reliance standard. We look to the SEC, rather than to Congress or to the courts, to initiate the change be- cause the SEC is the lawmaking institution most responsible for the unsatisfactory status quo and best equipped to propose corrective action. Because an actual reliance requirement would substantially diminish the flow of private litigation, we also suggest a compensating increase in public-enforcement capability. More specifically, the SEC Division of Enforcement needs enough funding to redirect its efforts away from the enterprise and toward culpable individuals.

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