What Difference Does it Make that Paulson "Instructed" Lewis Not to Disclose the Fed Backstop of the BofA/Merrill Deal?
One of the most interesting aspects of the complicated sequence of events surrounding the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch merger is the suggestion that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson instructed BofA’s CEO Ken Lewis not to disclose to BofA shareholders that the government, in order to keep BofA from backing out of the deal, was backstopping BofA to the tune of billions of dollars of additional TARP funds and asset guarantees.
As I recently pointed out in my discussion of the opinion, Southern District of New York Judge Kevin Castel, in his August 27, 2010 dismissal motion ruling in the BofA/Merrill securities suit, found that the plaintiffs had not sufficiently alleged scienter in connection with BofA’s alleged failure to disclose this federal backstop.
In support of this conclusion, Castel said the defendants were "acting at the instruction of the Treasury Secretary during a moment of acute economic and political uncertainty. There are no allegations of personal gain derived from the federal funds, or a violation of a statute or regulation in a ‘highly unreasonable’ manner."
Castel doesn’t say that BofA didn’t have a duty to disclose the existence of the federal backstop. But if BofA had a duty to disclose the information, what difference does it make under the federal securities laws that Paulson told Lewis not to disclose it? As CNN Money journalist Colin Barr noted on September 1, 2010 in his Street Sweep blog post entitled "Judge Embraces ‘Paulson Made Me’ Defense" (here), Castel’s ruling has "left some observers scratching their heads."
Is Castel suggesting that there is some kind of governmental instruction or national emergency exception to the disclosure requirements under the federal securities laws? On what basis? Whose instruction is sufficient? What level of exigency is sufficient and who decides?
I was glad to see Barr’s post focusing on this aspect of Judge Castel’s ruling. I think these issues are both interesting and important, but for whatever reason, this part of Castel’s opinion has largely gone without public comment.
I did explore these issues in my prior post about Judge Castel’s opinion. Because I think these issues are worthy of attention and further consideration, and at risk of appearing a little too self-referential, I am reproducing here my prior comments about this aspect of Judge Castel’s ruling, in order to try to highlight these issues and to try to encourage further discussion of these questions. Here are my thoughts on this issue:
The BofA/Merrill Lynch merger was one of highest profile events during the peak of the global financial crisis in late 2008 and early 2009. The disclosures in early 2009 about Merrill’s losses and about the bonus payments were highly controversial. As a result, Judge Castle’s opinion in the consolidated shareholder litigation undoubtedly will provoke extensive scrutiny and commentary. There are indeed a number of parts of the opinion that are worthy of discussion, but the part this is the most interesting to me is his conclusion regarding the inadequacy of the scienter allegations in connection with the alleged failure to disclose the federal bailout that Lewis negotiated with Paulson.
As alleged in the complaint, this massive federal package was negotiated after the shareholder vote but before the deal closed. Its existence was apparently critical to the BofA board’s vote to go forward with the deal rather than to invoke the MAC clause. Moreover, it was understood that Paulson’s verbal agreement would have to be disclosed if it were reduced to writing – and accordingly, it was not reduced to writing so it wouldn’t have to be disclosed.
In concluding that these actions, which seem to have been taken precisely so that something everyone recognized as important would not have to be disclosed prior to the merger closing, do not give rise to a strong inference of scienter, Judge Castel relied on two considerations: (1) Paulson "instructed" Lewis not to disclose the federal package; and (2) Lewis had nothing to gain personally from withholding disclosure.
Though these factors undoubtedly are relevant, it strikes me that these points do not necessarily answer the question whether or not Lewis consciously misled BofA shareholders of acted with reckless indifference to the truth.
It could be argued that the allegations strongly suggest that Lewis did not want the BofA shareholders to know that the only reason the BofA board was willing to go forward with the deal was the existence of massive federal support. A plausible inference is that he, like Paulson, feared the chaos that would have emerged if these facts were revealed before the deal closed. It is also plausible to infer that Lewis and others didn’t want to anger Paulson and risk losing the proffered federal support.
These might all have seemed like good and sufficient reasons to withhold the information, but whether or not the reasons might have seemed good and sufficient does not answer the question whether Lewis and others acted with awareness of or conscious disregard whether BofA shareholders would be misled.
The fact that Paulson "instructed" Lewis to withhold disclosure does not answer the question whether or not Lewis was aware BofA shareholders would be mislead; to the contrary, it might actually suggest a concern that BofA’s shareholders couldn’t be trusted with the truth. (Indeed, Paulson’s instruction arguably does nothing more than make him complicit in the alleged deception, which in Paulson’s case, encompassed not just BofA shareholders but also U.S. taxpayers.)
Why is Paulson’s "instruction" relevant at all to the question whether or not the securities laws were violated? Is Castel suggesting that there is some sort of immunity from securities liability if the actions were at the request of a government official? It seems to me that the supposed relevance of Paulson’s instruction is surprisingly unexamined in Castel’s opinion, and the entire discussion of the issue is disconnected from the question whether or not Lewis knew that the shareholders would be misled.
Judge Castel’s emphasis on Lewis’s lack of personal benefit, while not irrelevant, is also beside the point. Lewis’s lack of personal benefit certainly doesn’t answer the question whether Lewis and others were deliberately taking steps to avoid disclosing material information because they were afraid of what would happen if they did.
In the final analysis, I think Judge Castel’s ruling can perhaps only be understood by his observation that these events took place "during a moment of acute economic and political uncertainty." While this fact has nothing to do with whether or not Lewis was consciously withholding information from BofA shareholders, it does suggest Castel is simply unwilling to permit liability for actions taken at the direction of senior public officials at a time of national exigency. It is almost as if he is saying, with shrugging shoulders, "What else was BofA going to do?" I certainly understand this way of looking at these circumstances. The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily address the questions required by the securities laws.
Judge Castel does not actually say he is inferring either an official instruction or national emergency exception to the requirements of the securities laws. But by emphasizing those aspects of the situation, he seems to be suggesting that these exceptions exist and apply.
To be sure, Judge Castel did observe that the scienter allegations regarding the nondisclosure of the federal package, which he characterized as "thin," might have been sufficient if they were accompanied by adequate allegations of motive or recklessness. It could be argued that his ruling is simply a reflection of insufficient factual pleading, which may be the case. Nevertheless, his analysis raises many questions that in my view are insufficiently examined, whether or not the scienter allegations themselves were or were not sufficient.
Given the high profile nature of this case, I suspect there will be much discussion of Judge Castle’s opinion in the weeks and months ahead. Legal proceedings arising out of these circumstances do seem to attract controversy – as, with for example, Judge Rakoff’s high profile rejection of the SEC’s settlement of its enforcement action against BofA arising from these circumstances.
Back to School: Add one more company to the list of for-profit education companies that have recently been sued in securities class action lawsuits. As I discussed in a recent post, within the space of just a few days in August, plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a cluster of lawsuits against for-profit education companies. On August 31, 2010, plaintiffs’ lawyers added one more company to the list when they sued Corinthian Colleges and certain of its directors and offices, based on allegations similar to those raise against the other for-profit education companies. A copy of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ press release can be found here.
Old School: I wonder if this for-profit education company’s schools cover their chairs with Soft Corinthian Leather. For those who miss the reference, and in respectful memory of Ricardo Montalban, here is the original Chrysler Cordoba advertisement to which I was referring :