Obviously, securities fraud is bad for firms. But, once a fraud has been discovered (driving down the stock price), does a securities class action add injury to injury? A number of commentators have suggested so, using the following logic: a securities class action takes money from the firm, and pays it to the shareholders, minus costs and attorneys’ fees. The hitch is that the firm is owned by the shareholders, which means that the attorneys have just taken money from the shareholders’ property and handed it to them directly, while taking a one-third cut for themselves. (This is sometimes known as the "circularity" critique, because the money just moves in a circle–except for the part that moves into the lawyers’ pockets.)

If securities class actions really just represent a 33% "lawyer tax," then why haven’t firms challenged these lawsuits as being, on their face, evidence of inadequate counsel? One big reason is that doing so is dangerous from a rhetorical point of view. If a firm has been accused of defrauding its shareholders, it may lack the ethos to argue that the real fraud is the lawsuit itself.

And yet the circularity problem remains. However, a new article from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Lying and Getting Caught: An Empirical Study of the Effect of Securities Class Action Settlements on Targeted Firms, by Lynn Bai, James D. Cox, and Randall S. Thomas (158 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1877), suggests a possible legal argument for countering this kind of lawsuit.

The authors looked at a number of firms in different industries that had been accused of securities-related frauds (usually accounting frauds designed to artificially inflate the price of the stock), in order to determine whether the resulting class actions harmed the firms’ performance in the long term. They examined a number of different measurements of performance, including stock price, sales, and liquidity.

The basic conclusion? Filing a securities class action has an immediate negative effect on stock price, but the firm gradually rebounds, even as the litigation progresses. However, both stock price and operational efficiency tend to remain low for a long time afterwards. Why? Because, in settling a class action, the firm winds up using most of its cash to pay the shareholders and lawyers, forcing a liquidity crisis that impairs its short-term performance. Once a firm lacks sufficient cash to operate day-to-day, it can’t do what it needs to regain legitimate competitiveness, resulting in a continually depressed stock price.

Now, one possible reason for a continued low stock price is that the firm’s performance was never that great to begin with. However, the authors also compared the firm’s performance to the amount they paid in settlement, and found a strong relationship. In the authors’ own words:

"defendants were more likely to experience lower liquidity levels than their peers in the post-settlement years than in the Pre-class Period. Moreover, this probability increased with the settlement amount … These numbers are consistent with the theory 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."

So, does this suggest that a securities defendant could accuse a plaintiff of being inadequate simply for filing the lawsuit in the first place? Not really. But it does suggest that in many cases, a securities class action may not be superior to other methods of resolving the lawsuit. If a class-action settlement (or by extension, damages award) harms the firm by reducing liquidity when the firm needs it most, then it is harming many of the same shareholders it is supposed to help. By contrast, SEC fines aimed at the officers who profited from a fraud, or SEC consent orders aimed at reforming the company’s bad practices, can reform bad practices without crippling a firm’s ability to rebound from actions of bad managers.