DealBook, NYT, April 29, 2009
In January 2008, I saw a rock musical in Los Angeles called “Blood, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” The refrain from the main number was “pop-u-li-sm: yeah, yeah!” By early 2009, thanks in no small part to the likes of the Troubled Asset Relief Fund, John A. Thain of Merrill Lynch and the American International Group’s bonus babies, that chorus spread east, enveloped the country and galvanized The People.
Such atrocities as banker bonuses and Mr. Thain’s bathroom redecoration have made delicious targets of contempt. It was the liberal media’s dream: a chance to position the lowly taxpayer, the outraged face of TARP, against the mustache-twirling titans of Wall Street.
Taxpayer vs. corporate bad guy is a good one. But how about taxpayer vs. shareholder?
That, surprisingly, is a story that’s largely evaded the news pages, despite the fact that settlements resulting from the scores of shareholder suits against TARP entities will stretch into the stratosphere.
Sure, through TARP, taxpayer money may be used to pay off mortgages and fund bonus pools. But, in what will amount to a far more expensive proposition, TARP money will also be used to line the pockets of allegedly aggrieved shareholders and the lawyers who, wrapped smugly in the flag of corporate governance, are in the process of making a billion-dollar cottage industry out of filing strike suits.
Take the villainous Merrill Lynch. On Jan. 16, the government announced it would invest $20 billion of TARP money in Bank of America and guarantee $118 billion of assets in order to help it absorb its acquisition of Merrill. On that same day, Merrill announced it would shell out $550 million to settle claims by shareholders that it misled investors about assets backed by subprime mortgages.
Where is that settlement money going to come from? At the minimum, settlements like this one mean Bank of America is less able to pay back TARP money. At the worst, the bank must cut into its TARP allotment in order to settle up. In either case, shareholders of companies that would have gone bankrupt but for TARP are instead getting their settlements funded by bailout money.
And there will be more. Thirty-two TARP recipients had received $1 billion or more in federal money as of April 15, according to the Treasury’s Web site. And 19 of those companies have been sued since January 2008, according to data accumulated by the Stanford Securities Class Action Clearinghouse. Put otherwise, of the more than $300 billion that’s been paid out in TARP money, nearly $240 billion of it, or 78 percent, is subject to shareholder suits.
Even in flush times, the shareholder class action is a controversial legal mechanism. Its backers claim that these suits keep companies honest by deterring corporate malfeasance and making the bad guys pay. (Yes, believe it or not, some will argue that even with the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo of New York patrolling Wall Street, we still need shareholder suits to keep companies honest.) But even in a typical, TARP-free paradigm, the bad guys don’t pay. Instead, shareholders wind up paying each other.
The shareholder class action is a “circular and costly” process, according to Adam Pritchard, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. He explains: “It’s the company’s dollar that gets paid out in these suits. Shareholders effectively take a dollar from one pocket, pay about half of that dollar to lawyers on both sides, and then put the leftover change in their other pocket.”
But now, in the world according to TARP, that settlement money is no longer coming from the corporation or its insurance plan. It’s coming from you.
“At the end of day, you can’t avoid the fact that, in settling these cases, you will inevitably be taxing the taxpayer, as you shift tax money to the plaintiff-shareholder class,” says Joseph Grundfest, a professor at Stanford Law School and a former S.E.C. commissioner.
Ironically, by appearing to provide shareholders with a real remedy, class actions have long been billed as corporate law’s most populist event. But when taxpayer money, rather than the corporate coffer, is being used to fund the resulting settlements, whose bad behavior are we really punishing?
Dan Slater, a former litigator, is a freelance journalist in New York.