[Updated to clarify a distinction between securities suits and investment company act suits.]
This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Jones v. Harris. Briefly, the Oakmark complex of mutual funds "hired" Harris Associates as investment advisers, paying Harris 1% (per year) of the first $2 billion of the fund’s assets, 0.9% of the next $1 billion, 0.8% of the next $2 billion, and 0.75% of anything over $5 billion. I write "hired" because the situation is murky: Harris is directly affiliated with Oakmark. Importantly, the fee charged by Harris to Oakmark is more than double the fee it charges unaffiliated mutual funds.
Plaintiffs are investors in Oakmark funds who sued Harris under a variety of claims, including a claim that Harris’s fees were "excessive," in violation of Section 36(b) of the Investment Company Act.
Section 36(b), which was added in 1970, is almost poetic in its ambiguity:
For the purposes of this subsection, the investment adviser of a registered investment company shall be deemed to have a fiduciary duty with respect to the receipt of compensation for services, or of payments of a material nature, paid by such registered investment company, or by the security holders thereof, to such investment adviser or any affiliated person of such investment adviser. An action may be brought under this subsection by the Commission, or by a security holder of such registered investment company on behalf of such company, against such investment adviser . . . . With respect to any such action the following provisions shall apply:
(1) It shall not be necessary to allege or prove that any defendant engaged in personal misconduct, and the plaintiff shall have the burden of proving a breach of fiduciary duty.
(2) In any such action approval by the board of directors of such investment company of such compensation or payments, or of contracts or other arrangements providing for such compensation or payments, and ratification or approval of such compensation or payments, or of contracts or other arrangements providing for such compensation or payments, by the shareholders of such investment company, shall be given such consideration by the court as is deemed appropriate under all the circumstances. . . .
In essence, the statute says only that the plaintiff can recover against the investment adviser by "proving a breach of fiduciary duty." Subsections (1) and (2) fill in a little detail — i.e., the investor need not prove "personal misconduct" and the court shall "consider" board of directors and/or shareholder ratification — but that’s it.
Congress might as well have written, "investors can sue if investment advisers do something bad, but ‘bad’ doesn’t necessarily mean really bad."
Twenty-seven years ago, faced with the same opaque language, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals came up with its own standard for "excessive fee" claims:
[T]he test is essentially whether the fee schedule represents a charge within the range of what would have been negotiated at arm’s-length in the light of all of the surrounding circumstances.
[t]o be guilty of a violation of §36(b) . . . the adviser-manager must charge a fee that is so disproportionately large that it bears no reasonable relationship to the services rendered and could not have been the product of arm’s-length bargaining.
Gartenberg v. Merrill Lynch Asset Management, Inc., 694 F.2d 923, 928 (2d Cir. 1982).
Last year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals came up with a different standard for "excessive fee" claims:
Having had another chance to study this question, we now disapprove the Gartenberg approach. A fiduciary duty differs from rate regulation. A fiduciary must make full disclosure and play no tricks but is not subject to a cap on compensation. The trustees (and in the end investors, who vote with their feet and dollars), rather than a judge or jury, determine how much advisory services are worth. …
Federal securities laws, of which the Investment Company Act is one component, work largely by requiring disclosure and then allowing price to be set by competition in which investors make their own choices. Plaintiffs do not contend that Harris Associates pulled the wool over the eyes of the disinterested trustees or otherwise hindered their ability to negotiate a favorable price for advisory services. The fees are not hidden from investors—and the Oakmark funds’ net return has attracted new investment rather than driving investors away.
In short, the Seventh Circuit held that, regardless of what the Investment Company Act says, investment advisers don’t have a fiduciary duty to investment companies; instead, they’re held to the same fraud and misrepresentation standards as total strangers.
The Seventh Circuit opinion was remarkable not only because it eviscerated the Investment Company Act — which clearly does not require personal misconduct like "pulling the wool over [investors’] eyes" — but also because it produced a sharp disagreement on the underlying economics between Judges Easterbrook and Posner, two of the most notable adherents to the conservative "law and economics" doctrine.
It goes almost without saying that there are reasonable arguments in favor of both the investors and the investment advisers. The statute is ambiguous; there’s no clear answer for what the standard "should" be in these cases, but there’s also little doubt that something has gone awry with investment adviser fees in the context of affiliated mutual funds.
How can such cases make it to the highest court in the land? Plaintiffs’ lawyers are able to file these cases because of three features of the US legal system. First, investors are dispersed, and cannot easily work together to protect their own interests. Collective action costs are often identified as a reason that investors cannot protect themselves from predatory institutions – and sometimes that is true. But those same costs also make it impossible for investors to control the lawyers who nominally represent them. Investors cannot stop lawyers from using weak or even frivolous claims to extract rich legal fees. Nor need lawyers even listen to investors with the most at stake in a case. Unlike the advisers, the lawyers are not required to negotiate with independent trustees, or to submit their lawsuit for approval to the investors. Once lawyers have appointed themselves as investor guardians, they face little competition – again, unlike the advisers, who compete with other advisers to attract new investments.
In Professor Coates’ world, a lawyer can, on her own, file a "weak or even frivolous" case and "extract rich legal fees" without any involvement of the actual investors.
What a great racket! Lawyers must be filing these cases all the time and collecting big fat checks for nothing.
Or maybe fewer than 200 securities class actions are filed every year, and maybe only half of them settle for any amount, with the other half of investors and their lawyers recovering nothing for their losses.
Since Coates has never represented any investors in a lawsuit, much less represented a class of investors on a contingent fee, I suppose he needs a few reminders on how the process works.
"Jones" in Jones v. Harris is an investor, not a lawyer. Only investors can bring lawsuits and they can only win if they prove every element of their case. Like I wrote above, most of these cases are sent to the rubbish heap without any payment.
If the investors are in the lucky half that survive years of litigating over dismissal (for reference, Jones v. Harris was filed five years ago and is still at the dismissal stage), the court will carefully analyze which investor should represent the class as the lead plaintiff, giving preference to the investors with the "most at stake in a case." Nonetheless, every investor with a stake in the case, even if not the lead plaintiff, can participate in, and object to any part of, the process, including any settlement and any award of attorneys’ fees.
Unsurprisingly, three-quarters of successful investor lawsuits are lead by large institutional investors (p. 27) such as public and union pensions, the ones with "the most at stake in the case."
Coates thus has it backwards: it’s not "impossible for investors to control the lawyers who nominally represent them," it’s impossible for lawyers to bring and win a lawsuit without the participation and support of the investors, particularly the ones with "the most at stake."
Indeed, in most potential investor class action cases, it’s impossible for the lawyers to collect any fee at all: you never know when a court will read an act that says "it shall not be necessary to allege or prove that any defendant engaged in personal misconduct" and nonetheless require the investor prove personal misconduct. Based on this week’s oral argument, it looks like the Supreme Court will do just that, leaving the investors and their lawyers with nothing after five years of litigation.
So much for a "rich legal fee." And that’s the greatest irony: in the nearly forty years since Section 36(b) was passed, not one single court (see pp. 3–4) has ever held an investment adviser’s fee was "excessive."