Attorneys: H.Adam Prussin and Matthew C. Moehlman
Pomerantz Monitor March/April 2016
On February 2, 2016, Pomerantz achieved an important victory for investors when Judge Rakoff of the Southern District of New York certified two classes in our litigation against Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. – Petrobras, Brazil’s state run oil giant, concerning its involvement in one of the largest corruption and bribery scandals of the 21st century. One class consists of investors who purchased equity securities of Petrobras in the U.S. between 2010 and 2015. This class asserts fraud claims under Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The other class consists of purchasers of debt securities Petrobras issued in public offerings in May 2013 and March 2014, who are alleging violations of Sections 11 and 12(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933. The lead plaintiff in the case is our client, Universities Superannuation Scheme.
The case concerns one of the most notorious securities frauds ever committed – a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar kickback and bid-rigging scheme. The scheme was allegedly orchestrated by former top Petrobras executives from at least 2004 onward, who systematically conspired to steer construction contracts to a cartel composed of 20-30 of Brazil’s largest contracting companies. The executives ensured that the contracts, padded by billions of dollars, were awarded to designated members of the cartel without any authentic competitive process. In return, the cartel kicked back hundreds of millions of dollars to the executives, who pocketed a cut of the bribe money, then gave the rest to their patrons in Brazil’s three ruling political parties. Revelations of this scheme decimated Petrobras’ stock price, devastating a class of investors. So far, five Petrobras executives have been convicted on criminal conspiracy and money-laundering charges, as well as a number of their confederates at the construction companies, and facilitating intermediaries.
As in many securities fraud cases, a central issue in the class certification motion was whether plaintiffs could establish that defendants committed “fraud on the market,” which allows investors to establish the element of reliance on a classwide basis. Failing this test would mean that reliance would have to be shown separately for each class member and that common questions would therefore not “predominate” over individual ones. To establish fraud on the market, plaintiff has to show that the securities in question trade on an efficient market, and that therefore defendants’ frauds affected the market price that each class member paid for purchasing Petrobras securities.
Courts have established a series of criteria for determining market efficiency, referred to as the “Cammer factors,” originally put together in a seminal case of that name. Most of these factors are indirect measures of market efficiency, including such things as the company’s market capitalization, the volume of trading in its securities, the typical bid-asked spread, the number of market makers in its shares and the number of analysts covering the company. The market for Petrobras securities easily passed all of these tests.
However, using an argument being pressed by defendants in most securities actions, the Petrobras defendants claimed that the most important Cammer factor is the “direct evidence” test, measured by how the market price of the company’s securities actually reacted to disclosure of unexpected news. This test, typically measured by socalled “event studies,” can be more difficult for investors to satisfy, because price movements in the real world can be affected by a host of market-moving information that can obscure the effects of the actual disclosure of the fraud. Defendants argued that this single factor trumps all the other Cammer factors and that it was not satisfied here because the market did not always react perfectly and instantaneously to unexpected disclosures. The district court held that plaintiff’s event studies were sufficient, and, more importantly, that perfect efficiency was not required:
In assessing market efficiency, courts should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. In this case, where the indirect Cammer factors lay a strong foundation for a finding of efficiency, a statistically significant showing that statistically significant price returns are more likely to occur on event dates is sufficient as direct evidence of market efficiency and thereby to invoke Basic’s presumption of reliance at the class certification stage.
The court also rejected defendants’ argument that, because several large institutional investors had already “opted out” of the class, electing to pursue their own actions, investors were motivated to pursue their own actions and a class action was therefore unnecessary. To the contrary, the court determined that to deny class certification would plunge the courts into a morass of individual lawsuits and would do more harm than good.