The Supreme Court will grapple with private securities class actions when it hears oral argument tomorrow in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. The principal question in the case is the continuing validity of the fraud-on-the-market doctrine, endorsed by the Court twenty-five years ago in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, which relieves plaintiffs asserting claims under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of the obligation to prove actual reliance, and permits the reliance element of a securities fraud claim to be satisfied presumptively by proof that the securities at issue traded on an efficient market.
A significant part of the debate in the Halliburton briefs addresses new scholarship contradicting the views of economists who developed the hypothesis underlying fraud-on-the-market. That is precisely what Justice White predicted in his Basic dissent: “[W]hile the economists’ theories which underpin the fraud-on-the-market presumption may have the appeal of mathematical exactitude and scientific certainty, they are—in the end—nothing more than theories which may or may not prove accurate upon further consideration. . . . I doubt we are in much of a position to assess which theories aptly describe the functioning of the securities industry.”
But the defenders of fraud-on-the-market, perhaps recognizing the doctrine’s tenuous status based on the economic learning over the past quarter-century, focus considerable attention on three arguments unrelated to the doctrine’s merits:
- Principles of stare decisis prevent the Court from overturning Basic;
- Congress ratified Basic’s endorsement of fraud-on-the-market when it enacted the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act; and
- Securities class actions benefit investors and, because they would be harder to bring if Basic were overturned, the Court should leave fraud-on-the-market in place.
To spare readers (and myself) an exegesis into economic analysis, this post focuses on these contentions, explaining why a fair appraisal of these arguments in fact demonstrates that the Court is obligated to assess Basic on the merits, and overrule the decision if the fraud-on-the-market presumption can no longer be justified.