Deepwater Horizon, Volkswagen (Dieselgate), Wirecard, Silcon Valley Bank and Credit Suisse are recent, high-profile examples of corporate wrong doing resulting in losses for investors. As stewards of retirement savings and guardians of beneficiaries’ interests, it is only natural that pension funds should scrutinise the investments they are making – or outsourcing to asset managers to make – on their members’ behalf. This is a central plank of fiduciary duty.
What positive developments can we report relating to class actions in UK and European pension funds? What regulatory challenges still need to be overcome to facilitate (for instance, simplify) the environment for class action by UK and European institutions? Where are the key gaps in knowledge among pension funds?
Europe’s institutional investors are latching on to the rewards of joining class actions against investee companies. Many of these are securities lawsuits, pursued when a publicly listed company has not properly disclosed or has misrepresented significant information, affecting the share price when the truth emerges. But so far, the vast majority of these have been in the US. In 2022, nearly $4.9bn (€4.6bn) was recovered in the US courts, according to Institutional Shareholder Services. So, what about class actions in Europe? “The US has had a class action system for over a hundred years that can be adopted for almost every cause of action, whereas the UK has only had class actions since 2015 and it is only available for competition cases,” says Harry McGowan, partner in the securities litigation department at law firm Stewarts.
Litigation outside the United States, and in particular in Europe, has been on the rise since the US Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank. In Morrison, the US Supreme Court ruled that “foreign” (non-US) investors cannot bring federal securities lawsuits in US courts to recover investment losses relating to foreign-issued securities traded on foreign exchanges (known as “F-cubed” claims). As former Justice Antonin Scalia explained, the concern was to prevent the US from becoming “the Shangri-La” of class-action litigation for lawyers representing those allegedly cheated in foreign securities markets. Although federal courts have since struggled to apply Morrison’s effect test consistently, it is clear, more than 10 years later, that the decision has had its intended effect.
A few years ago, a footwear producer’s claim that it was reducing carbon emissions in the economy because its customers walked rather than took the car provoked amusement among investment managers. It wanted to prove its product was healthier and greener than competing transport modes by claiming credit for emissions prevented from petrol use. This autumn, assessments of the role played by individual low-carbon products in replacing fossil fuels are again under scrutiny in the finance sector.
For institutional investors, investing in emerging markets is a true test of fiduciary duty. The asset class – if it can be defined as such – has enormous potential, yet it is also risky, not just in terms of volatility but also of reputation.