Most securities lawsuits settle. The common assumption is that once the cases are settled, the litigation wraps up and everybody moves on. But does the litigation have a lingering effect on the defendant company? Is there a "hidden dark side" for companies that settle securities lawsuits?
That is the question asked in a March 18, 2010 paper entitled "Lying and Getting Caught: An Empirical Study of the Effect of Securities Class Action Settlements on Targeted Firms" (here) by Cincinnati Law Professor Lynn Bai, Duke Law Professor James Cox, and Vanderbilt Law Professor Randall S. Thomas. (Hat Tip to the Class Action Countermeasures blog, which has a post about this paper here.):
Through their research, the authors sought to discover whether getting hit with a securities a lawsuit and then subsequently entering into a settlement "weakens the defendant firm so that from the point of view of well-received financial metrics the firm is permanently worse off as a consequence of the settlement."
In order to examine this question, the authors examined 480 companies that were defendants in settled post-PSLRA securities class action lawsuits. The authors then examined whether there is any change in the defendants’ financial well-being and stock performance relative to their peer group over time.
The authors compared the defendants’ performance with that of comparable companies over several time periods. "Comparable" companies consisted of those with the same SIC Code and the same asset size but that had not been involved in a securities class action lawsuit during the relevant time periods.
The authors compared the defendant companies to the comparable companies using seven performance criteria, including asset turnover; return-on-assets: the ratio of Earnings Before Income and Tax payments to total assets; the current ratio; the Altman Z-Score (a bankruptcy prediction measure); the market to book ratio; and the one-year stock price return. The authors looked at changes in defendants’ performance according to these measures over time using multivariate regressions.
The authors’ research produced a number of results which even they characterized as "puzzling." On the one hand, companies that settled securities class action lawsuits experienced no decline in sales opportunities, but did "experience a reduced level of operating efficiency while the lawsuit was pending (but not after it was settled)."
More significantly however, the authors did also observe that "defendant firms experience liquidity problems post-settlement and worsening Altman-Z scores." The authors wrestle with how to interpret these latter findings. On the one hand, the deterioration of the Altman Z-scores could suggest that "settlements drive firms toward financial distress (i..e., settlements are causally related to the worsening situation)," but on the other hand these data could suggest that "the financial deterioration observed in earlier time periods continues downward." Or perhaps it could be some combination.
The authors concede that their analysis could support alternative conclusions, but they nevertheless offer their own interpretations as well. Among other things, they note that "while uncertainty persists about the precise connection between the settlements and financial distress, there is no uncertainty that firms that are involved in securities class action litigation experience statistically greater risks of financial distress than their cohort firms."
The authors also conclude that their findings "lend strong support for the view that such suits are better directed toward the officers, advisors and other individuals who bear responsibility for the fraudulent representation(s) that spawned the suit."
The authors’ findings about the post-litigation performance of companies settling securities class action lawsuits are interesting. With full recognition that the question of the causation for that diminished performance is uncertain, the conclusion that companies experiencing securities suits perform worse than there peers is relevant information, both from an investment and a D&O insurance underwriting standpoint.
One implication of the authors’ analysis is particularly interesting to me, because one factor implicitly contributing to the negative post-litigation performance is the financial burden the litigation and the settlement imposed on the company. This implication (if indeed my interpretation is valid) seems at odds with other recent research, particularly that of Stanford Law Professor Michael Klausner, who in a recent article published with a colleague concluded that "on the whole D&O insurance pays substantial portions of settlements in a large majority of cases, and that both corporate and individual defendants are highly protected."
There seems to be a tension in the analysis between these two academic studies, since if it is the case that D&O insurance substantially protects corporate defendants in securities class action lawsuits, why should there be lingering negative financial effects on the defendants companies?
Perhaps the answer may be that the reason for the negative performance relative to the companies’ peers post-litigation may not be financially related, but may be operationally related, and the same below standard operational performance post-litigation in some cases may be related to the factors that led to the litigation in the first place.
An alternative explanation may be that while the D&O insurance funds a "substantial portion" of settlements, that still leaves a substantial portion unfunded, and the burden on the companies to fund the difference harms them financially. The authors even note that their analysis insurance in consistent with the conclusion that insurance "provided less than full coverage of the settlement amounts and that the defendants paid the discrepancy out of their current assets. The settlement payment exacerbated liquidity constraints, making the defendants more vulnerable to liquidity crunches and prone to bankruptcy."
In other words, it may be that once the case is settled, everyone may move on to other things, but the company is left financially impaired in a way that undermines its future performance – which obviously harms the interests of the company’s shareholders. All of which does leave you wondering about the ultimate value of a process carried out in the name of shareholders but that leaves shareholders’ interests indelibly impaired. .