In Bear Stearns’ March 16, 2008 announcement (here) of J.P. Morgan’s acquisition of the company, Alan Schwartz, Bear’s CEO, is quoted as saying that “this transaction represents the best outcome for all our constituencies based upon the current circumstances.” Apparently, a few of those constituencies take a different view.. In addition to the securities class action lawsuits and employees’ ERISA lawsuit noted in yesterday’s post, a Bear shareholder has also filed a New York state court lawsuit (complaint here) alleging that Bear and its senior officials breached their fiduciary duty to shareholders. (Hat tip to the Courthouse News Service for the complaint.)
The relatively short complaint, which bears certain indicia of having been prepared in haste, is not presented as a derivative lawsuit, but rather as a direct claim, and is filed as a class action on behalf of all Bear shareholders. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the company “allowed itself to be sold to the lowest bidder…at the lowest possible price,” which, the complaint alleges, “is far below Bear Stearns’ value.” The complaint quotes a statement from the Wall Street Journal that the deal constitutes a "fire sale."
Schwartz’s statement that the deal was the best for “all constituencies” is noteworthy for its seeming distinction from the usual formulation that it is the obligation of a corporation’s board to maximize the interests of the shareholders. In this context, the obligations to the shareholders are usually referenced as their Revlon duties, as noted on the Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation blog (here). One constituency that was particularly interested in outcome of this transaction is composed of the federal regulators. Another constituency consists of Bear’s creditors and counterparties, whose anxieties apparently triggered the crisis that led to the company’s sale. These constituencies are likelier to agree with Schwartz’s characterization of the transaction.
The constituency that consists of Bear’s shareholders, or at least the ones who have retained plaintiffs’ attorneys, see things differently. Whether or not Bear’s shareholders have a legal basis on which to protest under Delaware law is the subject of an interesting post by BYU law professor Gordon Smith on the Conglomerate blog (here). In the post, Smith refers to a prior Delaware case in which minority shareholders complained that the majority shareholder should have pursued bankruptcy rather than foreclosure (effectively, sale, as here). Smith concludes that because “there is no hint of self-dealing” in this instance, the board’s actions will be evaluated under the business judgment rule. Smith states that stockholders may be upset, “but Delaware corporate law will not come to the rescue.”
A number of other legal scholars added comments to Smith’s original post, and I recommend reading all of the comments, which are particularly interesting and thoughtful.
The Bear shareholders’ initiative to realize what they contend is (or was) Bear’s actual value may be frustrated by a quirk of Delaware law. As noted on the DealBook blog (here), because J.P. Morgan is offering stock, “there are no appraisal rights under Section 262 of the Delaware General Corporate Law Code.” If it had been a cash deal, shareholders could have gone to Delaware court for a determination of the fair value of their stock. It is in a way too bad that they cannot, because that would have made for an interesting leagl proceeding – arguably right up there with defining the value of a “burned and hairy hand.” (Readers who do not recognize this allusion should refer to the video clip below.)
As the DealBook blog details, the merger agreement (which can be found here) has a number of other interesting features, including the fact that the deal has no material adverse change clause, so J.P. Morgan has no “out.” On the other hand, Bear Stearns apparently retains what is in effect a “put,” providing Bear the right, even if Bear’s shareholder vote down the transaction, to require J.P. Morgan to reenter negotiations. (This provision may suggest one of the reasons why Bear’s shares are trading so far above the merger price – for further thoughts about which refer here..)
Readers of this blog will also be interested to note that in Section 6.6 of the merger agreement, Bear Stearns’ directors and officers are entitled to six years of tail D & O coverage. (All of those insurance markets clamoring to provide the tail coverage should form an orderly line, please.). In addition, Bear’s directors and officers are given full indemnification from J.P. Morgan. I suspect these provisions, and especially the J.P. Morgan indemnity, were particularly attractive to the Bear Stearns senior officials involved in the negotiations. While one might suppose that the very attractiveness of the indemnity put the Bear Stearns officials in a potentially conflicted position (as the terms represented a form of consideration valuable to the officials but not to Bear’s shareholders), in the end the J.P. Morgan indemnity might prove quite valuable to Bear’s shareholders in a roundabout sort of way, if you follow my drift….
In any event, it may come as little surprise that the SEC is reportedly investigating trading ahead of Bear’s collapse last Friday. According to a March 18, 2008 Bloomberg.com article (here), “U.S. regulators are investigating whether traders illegally sought to force Bear Stearns Cos. shares into a tailspin last week by spreading false information about the firm’s finances.”
For its part, the SEC released today “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions Concerning The Bear Stearns Companies, Inc.” (here), which, among other things explains the role of the SEC staff in the Bear Stearns/J.P. Morgan transaction.
More About Credit Default Swaps: In an earlier post (here), I wrote about the rising litigation threat from credit default swap transactions, particularly due to the growing counterparty risk. A March 17, 2008 Time.com article entitled “Credit Default Swaps: The Next Crisis?” (here) takes a closer look at CDSs and concludes that the instruments “could soon become the eye of the credit hurricane.”
Among other things, the article notes that the market for these instruments exploded to $45 trillion in mid-2007 – by contrast to the mortgage market, which is “only” $7.1 trillion. The article details the conditions that have rattled the marketplace, and concludes that the “potential repercussions are far-reaching.”
Those prone to concerns that we could be facing a period of significant economic adversity may be reassured that we have many safeguards in place that did not exist, for example, in 1929 and 1930. But, as the article concludes, none of these safeguards “are directly targeted at CDS.”
More About Foreign Litigants: In earlier posts (refer here), I have discussed the problem of foreign litigations who purchased their shares in foreign companies on foreign exchanges (the so-called “f-cubed” litigants) who are suing the foreign companies in U.S court under U.S. securities laws. In a recent post on the Securities Litigation Watch blog (here), Adam Savett takes a look at the recent decision in the Converium case, in which the court denied class certification to all putative class members who were neither U.S. citizens nor purchased shares on U.S. exchanges. As I noted on post discussing the recent U.S lawsuits filed against SocGen, it appears that the plaintiffs’ counsel in that case conformed their putative class to conform to the limitations adopted by the Converium court.
Break in the Action: The D & O Diary will be on a reduced publication schedule for the next few days. We will resume our normal publication schedule some time after March 25.
A Burned and Hairy Hand:: The reference above to “the value of a burned and hairy hand,” is an allusion to the standard Contracts law case of Hawkins v. McGee, a case made famous (or perhaps infamous) in the classic scene from the movie The Paper Chase. I suspect that few law students have actually endured anything like this famous scene (I actually enjoyed law school), but for some reason the scene has become an archetypical representation of the legal classroom. Here is Professor Kingsfield in all of his sadistic glory: