Disasters and Disclosures
54 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2018
Date Written: January 19, 2018
Many securities fraud lawsuits follow corporate disasters of some sort or another, claiming that known risks were concealed prior to the crisis. Yet for a host of doctrinal, pragmatic and political reasons, there is no clear-cut duty to disclose these risks. The SEC has imposed a set of requirements that sometimes forces risk disclosure, but does so neither consistently nor adequately. Courts in 10b-5 fraud-on-the-market cases, in turn, have made duty mainly a matter of active rather than passive concealment and thus, literally, wordplay: there is no fraud-based duty to disclose risks unless and until the issuer has said enough to put the particular kind of risk “in play.” But when that is, and why, flummoxes them. This incoherence could be rationalized by a more thoughtful assessment of how words matter to investors and better appreciation of the variable role that managerial credibility plays in the process of disclosure and interpretation, which is the main focus of this article. Disasters are an ideal, if disturbing, setting for thinking through the micro-structure of corporate discourse — the implicit rules of interpretation for how marketplace actors interpret what issuers say and don’t say, whether in formal SEC disclosures, conference calls, press conferences and even executive tweets. But even if there is more thoughtfulness to the endeavor, it is fair to ask why wordplay should make so much of a difference as to duty in the first place, or whether instead our impoverished conception of duty and its links to scienter, reliance and causation deserve a more thorough makeover. The study of disasters and disclosures also offers a distinctive reference point for thinking about contemporary controversies associated with bringing matters of social responsibility (e.g., law abidingness) and sustainability (environmental compliance, cybersecurity, product safety, etc.) into the realm of securities law.
Keywords: securities fraud, risk disclosures, sustainability
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation