Pomerantz LLP

January/February 2014

JPMorgan Chase Admits that it Covered Up the Madoff Ponzi Scheme

Pomerantz Monitor, January/February 2014 

This January, Federal District Judge Jed Rakoff published an essay in The New York Review of Books that reverberated in the financial community. He noted that, five years after the market crash of 2008 that caused millions of people to lose their jobs, “there are still millions of Americans leading lives of quiet desperation: without jobs, without resources, without hope.” Yet the Wall Street malefactors who caused this catastrophe have never been called to account. “Why,” he asked, “have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” Many of us have asked the same question. After all, after previous periods of financial scandal, several big time honchos spent years staring at the inside of a jail cell. Just ask Dennis Koslowski and Jeffrey Skilling, to name only two. The JPMorgan Chase case shows how much things have changed. The bank has confessed to a litany of misconduct, including fraud in connection with its sale of mortgage-backed securities, and allowing its “London Whale” trader to run amok, causing the company to lose billions of dollars, and then covering it up. Now, on almost the same day as Judge Rakoff’s essay was published, JPMorgan Chase has fessed up again, admitting that it committed two criminal violations when it covered up its knowledge of Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, which was run through Madoff’s bank accounts at the bank. According to prosecutors, JPMorgan’s actions amount to “programmatic violation” of the Bank Secrecy Act, which requires banks to maintain internal controls against money laundering and to report suspicious transactions to the authorities. According to Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, JPMorgan’s “miserable” institutional failures enabled Madoff “to launder billions of dollars in Ponzi proceeds.” To resolve these Madoff cases, JPMorgan agreed to pay more than $2.6 billion in various settlements with federal authorities. At the same time, it also filed two settlements in private actions totaling more than $500 million – one for $325 million with the trustee liquidating the Madoff estate, and the other for $218 million to settle a class action. 

Interestingly, the federal prosecutors credited the trustee’s team with discovering many of the unsavory facts of the bank’s involvement. 

These payouts bring to nearly $32 billion the total that JPMorgan has reportedly paid in penalties to federal and state authorities since 2009 to settle a litany of charges of misconduct. Most notably it came to a record $13 billion settlement just months ago with federal and state law enforcement officials and financial regulators, over its underwriting of questionable mortgage securities before the financial crisis. 

And yet, no one at the bank has been criminally prosecuted for any of this. The deal reached by JPMorgan with prosecutors in the Madoff case stopped short of a guilty plea, and no individual prosecutions were announced. Instead, the bank entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, which suspends a criminal indictment for two years on condition that the “too big to fail” and “too big to jail” bank overhauls its money laundering controls. Even so, this is reportedly the first time that a big Wall Street bank has ever been forced to consent to a non-prosecution agreement. 

Given what JPMorgan Chase admits happened here, it is amazing that there were no prosecutions of individuals. According to documents released by the U.S. Attorney’s office, the megabank’s relationship with Madoff stretched back more than two decades, long before Madoff was arrested in 2008. One document released by prosecutors outlining the megabank’s wrongdoing observed that “The Madoff Ponzi scheme was conducted almost exclusively through” various accounts “held at JPMorgan.” 

By the mid-nineties, according to an agreed statement of facts released by prosecutors, bank employees raised concerns about how Madoff was able to claim remarkably consistent market-beating returns. Indeed, one arm of the bank considered entering into a deal with Madoff’s firm in 1998 but balked after an employee remarked that Madoff’s returns were “possibly too good to be true” and raised “too many red flags” to proceed. Then, in the fall of 2008, the bank withdrew its own $200 million investment from Madoff’s firm, without notifying either its clients or the authorities. 

Twice, in January 2007 and July 2008, transfers from Madoff's accounts triggered alerts on JPMorgan's anti-money-laundering software, but the bank failed to file suspicious activity reports. In October 2008, a U.K.-based unit of JPMorgan filed a report with the U.K. Serious Organised Crime Agency, saying that "the investment performance achieved by [the Madoff Securities] funds ... is so consistently and significantly ahead of its peers year-on-year, even in the prevailing market conditions, as to appear too good to be true — meaning that it probably is." But that information was not relayed to U.S. officials, as required by the Bank Secrecy Act. On the day of Mr. Madoff’s arrest in December 2008, a JPMorgan employee wrote to a colleague: “Can’t say I’m surprised, can you?” The colleague replied: “No.” 

In commenting on this latest settlement by the bank, Dennis M. Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, an advocacy group, observed that “banks do not commit crimes; bankers do.” Jailing people is the best way to deter future misconduct. If anyone thinks that huge fines are enough to deter misconduct by huge financial institutions, they should think again. Despite its huge penalties, JPMorgan just reported another multi-billion dollar quarterly profit, and announced that Chairman Jamie Dimon will receive a hefty raise. Obviously, it can afford to keep treating penalties as just another cost of doing business.

"Go-Shop" Provisions – Too Little, Too Late

Pomerantz Monitor, January/February 2014 

In a previous issue of the Monitor, we discussed potential problems the combination of certain “deal protection devices” may cause for shareholders wanting to receive the most they can get for their stock when their corporation receives an acquisition offer. 

In most merger transactions, the party making the offer wants to lock up the transaction as tightly as possible. The offeror, after all, has just finished negotiating the deal, usually after a long and expensive process of due diligence, and does not want its offer to be just the opening of an all-out bidding war with competing bidders. Offerors therefore typically condition their offer on the target agreeing to limit its ability to consider other offers. 

On the other side of the table sits the target company’s board of directors, which has fiduciary duties to the target company and its public shareholders. Among those is the duty to maximize shareholder value if the company is sold, and, to that end, to keep itself as free as possible to consider (or even to seek out) superior offers, should they be made (through what are known as “fiduciary out” provisions). 

This conflict is usually resolved through the adoption of multiple deal protection devices which are incorporated into the merger agreement between the target company and buyer. These devices can include, among other things, “no solicitation” provisions which restrict the target’s board of directors from soliciting and negotiating potentially superior offers; “matching rights” which essentially give the buyer a leg-up over any potential bidder, allowing it to match any superior offer made for the target company; and termination fees which require the target company to pay a significant amount (usually ranging between 3% and 4% of the total value of the transaction) to the buyer in the event the target’s board decides to pursue a superior offer. 

Sometimes the target’s board will negotiate what is known as a “go-shop period,” which is a period of time, usually between 30-45 days, during which the target’s board of directors is allowed to actively solicit superior offers from potential bidders without breaching the “no solicitation” mechanism. 

But there is an inherent flaw in this mechanism, which in most cases does not turn up any superior bids. More often than not, go-shop provisions are negotiated in lieu of a pre-signing market check. This usually happens when the buyer pressures the target’s board to accept its bid in a short period of time. The board, afraid that any delay may thwart this opportunity, may choose to skip a market check – a process that takes time – and instead enter into a merger agreement with the buyer, leaving itself the theoretical possibility of potentially securing a better offer after the deal with the buyer is already agreed upon and publicly announced. 

However, at that point, the target’s board has already approved the deal with the buyer, including the consideration to be paid for the target’s common stock. This acceptance by the target’s board sometimes leads to a number of insiders (including board members) entering into voting and support agreements pursuant to which they agree to vote their shares in favor of the deal with the buyer, and against any other deal. 

Moreover, the go-shop mechanism doesn’t necessarily neutralize the other deal protection devices in place including, without limitation, the termination fees and matching rights. This means that any potential bidder who is now interested in making an offer for the target company must assume significant time and expense just to be able to make a superior offer, knowing that the buyer can always simply match the bidder’s offer. Such potential bidder will also have to work harder to secure a majority supporting its offer, in light of any voting or support agreements entered into by target insiders. Even if the buyer chooses not to match, the new bidder must, directly or indirectly, incur the termination fees, thereby increasing even further the cost of such a transaction. 

It is no surprise, then, that the go-shop process usually produces zero competitive bids for the company. The hoops potential bidders must jump through are usually just too many, and they usually go on to search other opportunities, potentially leaving money on the table instead of in the target’s shareholders’ pockets. As a result, go-shop provisions are often dismissed as “too little, too late.” 

It should therefore be shareholders’ preference that a company undergo a significant and meaningful pre-signing market check, or outright auction, rather than negotiate a post-signing go-shop. Bidders are far more likely to materialize if the target hasn’t already signed a deal with someone else. Target boards have to weigh the risk that the offeror will walk away, with the risk that they will be foregoing possibly better offers. In other words, directors have to decide whether a bird in the hand is really better than two in the bush.

Threat to Shareholder Protections in Transactions with Controlling Parties

Pomerantz Monitor, January/February 2014 

A recent Delaware Chancery Court decision, now on appeal before the Delaware Supreme Court, may dramatically lessen the customary safeguards for minority shareholders in controlling party transactions, such as going private mergers. 

In M&F Worldwide(“MFW”), Chairman Ronald Perelman offered to acquire the remaining 57% of MFW common stock he did not already own. As part of his proposal, Perelman indicated that he expected that the “board of Directors will appoint a special committee of independent directors to consider [the] proposal and make a recommendation to the Board of Directors,” and also noted that the “transaction will be subject to a non-waivable condition requiring the approval of a majority of the shares of the Company not owned by M&F or its affiliates.” 

Controlling shareholder transactions normally trigger the enhanced “entire fairness” standard of judicial review. This enhanced standard places a burden on the corporate board, and the controlling shareholder, to demonstrate that the transaction is inherently fair to the shareholders, by both demonstrating fair dealing and fair price. This is a very difficult standard for the company to meet. 

However, Delaware courts have held that the burden of proof on the issue of “entire fairness” can be shifted to the plaintiff challenger if the transaction has been approved either by an independent special committee of directors or by a positive vote of a majority of the minority shareholders. Independent committee and “majority of the minority” provisions are an attempt to assure that the company and its shareholders can exercise independent judgment in deciding to accept or reject the transaction. Although shifting of the burden of proof creates a higher hurdle for minority shareholders to surmount, it is not an impossible one, because the ultimate inquiry remains the same: the “entire fairness” of the transaction. 

Critically, even if these devices are used, Delaware courts have consistently held, up to now, that the business judgment rule does not protect the transaction. That rule, which protects most ordinary business decisions from shareholder challenge, is almost impossible for shareholders to overcome, because it provides that in making a business decision the directors of a corporation are presumed to have “acted on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action taken was in the best interests of the company.” 

In his decision, Chancellor Strine (who was just nominated to become the next Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court), ruled that where a transaction with a controlling person is conditioned on both negotiation and approval by an independent, special committee and a fully-informed, un-coerced vote of the majority of the minority, the proper standard of review is that of business judgment. According to Chancellor Strine, because Perelman conditioned the deal on implementation of procedural protections that essentially neutralized his controlling influence, the transaction is no different from routine corporate transactions in which the deferential business judgment standard is applicable. 

At oral argument, the Supreme Court seemed interested in the policy arguments both for accepting and rejecting the Chancellor’s reasoning. Chancellor Strine’s ruling, if adopted by the Supreme Court, could provide a roadmap for corporate boards to forestall litigation on even the most one-sided controlling shareholder transactions. Though too early to predict fully the repercussions of such a ruling, there is fear that institutional investors will use the power of the purse to reduce their holdings in controlled corporations over time, if their assets lose the valuable protections they are currently afforded.

Supremes About to Hear Historic Challenge to Fraud on the Market Theory

Pomerantz Monitor, January/February 2014

Twenty five years ago, in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, the Supreme Court adopted the so-called “fraud on the market” (“FOTM”) theory in securities fraud class actions. That theory holds that a security traded on an “efficient” market presumably reflects all public “material” information about that security, including any public misrepresentations by the defendants; and that in such cases investors rely on the market price as a fair reflection of the totality of information available. Because investors purchase their shares at the market price, assuming that that price reflects all available material information, it is fair to presume that all investors relied, indirectly, on defendants’ misrepresentations when they purchased their shares. 

Reliance is an essential element of securities fraud claims. The FOTM presumption allows investors to establish reliance on a class-wide basis, without having to show that each member of the class personally relied on defendants’ misrepresentations. If reliance had to be shown separately for each of the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of investors, individual questions of reliance would overwhelm the case. In legalese, individual questions would “predominate” over common questions in the action, and it would be next to impossible to certify a class. The FOTM theory adopted in Basic is therefore a foundation of securities fraud class actions. The importance of class-wide reliance was apparent to the courts from the outset of the modern class action era in 1966. Just two years later, the Second Circuit rejected a defendant’s argument “that each person injured must show that he personally relied on the misrepresentations” because, the court concluded, “[c]arried to its logical end, it would negate any attempted class action under Rule 10b-5 ….” Because most investors do not suffer large enough losses from securities fraud to support prosecution of an individual action, class actions are often the only way for most investors to obtain redress for securities fraud. In recent years, some members of the Supreme Court have become more critical of securities fraud class actions, echoing Chamber of Commerce arguments that the mere act of certifying a class in a securities fraud action puts enormous financial pressure on defendants, forcing them to settle claims regardless of their merit. Before Halliburton, defendants had mounted a series of efforts to get the courts to make it harder to certify a class, arguing that plaintiffs should be forced to prove, at the class certification stage, that the misrepresentations were material (the Amgen case), or that they caused plaintiffs’ losses (an earlier Halliburton case). Both of those efforts failed. 

Those were merely the preliminary bouts; the main event is now here. For years, corporate interests have been mounting attacks on the FOTM theory, arguing that markets are not as efficient as economists previously thought. With the Supreme Court agreeing to revisit its decision in Basic, these well-funded efforts have finally paid off. On November 15, 2013, the Court granted certiorari in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund. In Halliburton, the Supreme Court will decide two issues: 

 (1) Whether it should overrule or substantially modify the holding of Basic to the extent that it recognizes a presumption of class-wide reliance derived from the fraud-on-the market theory; and

(2) Whether, in a case where the plaintiff invokes the presumption of reliance to seek class certification, the defendant may rebut the presumption and prevent class certification by introducing evidence that the alleged misrepresentations did not distort the market price of its stock. 

For everyone involved in litigating securities fraud class actions, the answers to these questions could be game-changers; and Pomerantz’s clients are among the potentially affected. If Basic is overruled and FOTM is jettisoned, securities fraud class actions as we have known them for a quarter century will be a thing of the past. 

Another possibility is that the Court will modify, rather than reject, Basic and FOTM. This possibility exists because FOTM theory actually consists of two distinct, but related, parts: first, “informational efficiency,” the idea that the market is capable of efficiently and speedily processing material information; and second, “price distortion,” whether fraudulent statements injected into the informationally-efficient market in a particular case actually distort a given security’s market price. After Basic was decided, courts weighing class certification in securities fraud cases focused primarily on informational efficiency, allowing the FOTM presumption of reliance to attach where that test was satisfied. By contrast, inquiries into price distortion were rare, if they occurred at all, on class certification motions. The Court could keep FOTM while requiring that plaintiffs establish both an informationally-efficient market, and some price distortion, perhaps using event studies of a type already much in use in securities fraud litigation. 

Defendants are arguing that the issue of price distortion is closely related to another element of a securities fraud claim, “loss causation,” proof that defendants’ misstatements, once corrected, caused the price of the stock to drop, causing plaintiff’s losses. A court that simply assumes price distortion also, to some extent, assumes loss causation. Second, the FOTM presumption is essentially predicated on another independent element of a securities fraud claim, “materiality.” By presuming reliance, courts presume the materiality of the alleged misstatement, and on the class certification motion defendants cannot offer rebuttal evidence negating materiality. Defendants argue that plaintiffs should not be entitled to such presumptions in their favor on a class certification motion. 

At the end of the day, at summary judgment or at trial, defendants will have their opportunity to rebut all these presumptions. But, the argument goes, that is too late, as a practical matter. Once a class is certified, defendants have a strong incentive to settle. Very few defendants have the chutzpah to take a “bet the company” securities fraud class action to trial. 

Even if the Court abrogates Basic and the FOTM theory completely, class actions will still be possible in cases involving failures to disclose (rather than misrepresentations), or involving violations of the Securities Act, which relates primarily to initial public offerings. In other cases, however, investors will be left to pursue individual actions, mostly on behalf of large institutional investors, and possibly in state court. Pomerantz’s current BP litigation, which alleges common law fraud and negligence claims stemming from over two dozen clients’ losses associated with BP common stock investments, provides a glimpse into what this post-Basic world might look like. In such cases, institutions with significant losses can pursue individual actions even without the FOTM presumption, if their advisors actually relied on defendants’ misrepresentations. 

Oral arguments in Halliburton are set for March 5, 2014. In the meantime, Pomerantz attorneys continue to work with economists, Supreme Court consultants, and the law firm that will argue the case, to craft an amicus brief that will support the continued viability of FOTM. Barring the outright affirmance of Basic, we will urge the Court to adopt an approach that leaves FOTM in place – as securities fraud class actions are untenable without some version of it – while adopting a limited inquiry into price distortion.