I’ve talked before about the problem of circularity in securities class actions. Briefly put:

[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.

At the time, I pointed out that while the circularity critique may suggest that securities class-acton plaintiffs are inadequate the moment they bring a lawsuit, courts were unlikely to give that argument much credit. Villanova professor Richard Booth, however, has authored a working paper that refines the argument, and shows why securities class actions may actually cause adequacy problems in language most courts will understand. Booth notes that there are two kinds of investors: diversified investors that actively manage their portfolios in some way, and more passive "buy-and-hold" investors. diversified investors are far less likely to buy and hold investments. Instead, they tend to be "actively managed," trading investments based on a number of factors in an attempt to beat the returns the market offers. Most importantly, even a diversified investor with a stable strategy will buy and sell individual stocks as it rebalances its portfolio. As a result, a diversified investor–and many, if not most, investors are diversified–is just as likely to gain from a securities fraud (selling the stock when its value is still inflated) as it is to lose. Under those circumstances, as Booth describes it, securities class actions operate as a redundant insurance policy.

Moreover, because the diversified investor has shielded itself from any large individual loss that comes from a buy-and-hold strategy, they are more likely to prefer derivative lawsuits to class actions. Why? Because in a derivative class action, the vast majority of the money recovered goes back into the corporation, rather than out to the original buyers of the stock. Booth also points out that attorney fees tend to be lower in derivative actions, effectively reducing the "lawyer tax" on any recovery. Or, as Booth himself puts it:

Undiversified investors are likely to favor class actions. Diversified investors are likely to oppose class actions and favor derivative actions. Although undiversified investors would not object to a derivative action in principle, they might object because the derivative recovery would reduce the class recovery. In other words, each group opposes what the other favors. Investors who stand to gain more from a class action will want their representative plaintiff (and lawyer) to maximize their claim by downplaying or indeed ignoring any evidence of derivative claims. The remainder of investors will want a zealous derivative plaintiff (and lawyer) to maximize derivative claims.

(Emphasis added)  Booth’s working paper suggests three strategies for the lawyer defending a securities class action:

  • Aim discovery at the plaintiff’s investment strategy. If the plaintiff in a securities class action actively manages its assets, then it is far less likely to have suffered a significant loss. If it pursued a buy-and-hold strategy for the stock, it may not be an adequate or typical representative of those investors who more actively manage their assets. (Many defense lawyers already ask about investment strategy as a matter of course, but a reminder never hurts.)
  • Argue derivative actions are superior to class actions. I’ve discussed superiority in securities class actions before, but Booth’s analysis reinforces the point: a securities class action may not be the best way of recovering investment losses. In fact, a derivative lawsuit–because it generates less in fees and puts the money back into the corporation itself–offers natural advantages over a class action.
  • Argue adequacy. One of the strongest strands of adequacy doctrine is the discussion of intra-class conflict. If the defendant can generate evidence that shows that the named plaintiff does not actually represent the investment strategies of a significant percentage of the class–and in fact may be actively undermining others’ investment strategies–that is strong evidence that an irreconcilable class conflict exists.

These tactics are hardly radical; in fact, they’re based on common sense about how people actually invest. Unfortunately, as the circularity critique highlights, common sense is not always so common in the realm of securities class actions.