Yesterday, the world’s largest SPAC, Pershing Square Tontine Holdings, was named as a defendant in a shareholder derivative lawsuit filed by, among others, former SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson and Yale Law Prof. John Morley. In a nutshell, the complaint alleges that PSTH is an unregistered investment company, and that as a result, the goodies that flow to insiders under the typical SPAC structure – specifically, sponsor & director warrants – represent unlawful compensation under the Investment Company Act.
Much of the media appears to be reporting the story like its hair is on fire. Here’s an excerpt from the NY Times DealBook that makes it sound like this lawsuit could, if successful, result in “SPACmageddon”:
If the suit succeeds, it could make professional investors who have found SPACs attractive wary of potential legal challenges, chilling the market. Proving damages will be difficult because the Universal Music deal was scrapped. But more important, perhaps, the case attempts to address underlying issues about the motivations of some SPAC sponsors. And its analysis of the meaning of investing in securities — part of any M.&A. deal — raises existential questions about the purpose and treatment of SPACs in general.
I think that DealBook has a point about the difficulty of proving damages, but although I’m no 1940 Act guru, it seems to me that the plaintiff may have bigger problems than that. Here’s why – all of the allegations in the complaint seem to depend upon the court concluding that PSTH should be registered under the Investment Company Act. But the problem is that there’s an exemption from that statute that this SPAC & every other one has been structured to fit into. This Mayer Brown memo explains:
The structure of a SPAC’s trust account is designed to avoid the SPAC being classified as an “investment company” under the Investment Company Act of 1940, as amended (the “Investment Company Act”). Following its IPO, a SPAC is typically required to invest the IPO proceeds held in trust in either government securities or in money market funds that invest only in government securities.
By doing so, a SPAC may rely on Rule 3a-1 under the Investment Company Act, which excludes companies with no more than 45% of the value of its total assets consisting of, and no more than 45% of the issuer’s net income after taxes deriving from, securities (excluding government securities). There are also no-action letters in which the SEC Staff concurs with the view that securities in certain money market funds also can be excluded from these calculations.
The complaint says that “an Investment Company is an entity whose primary business is investing in securities. And investing in securities is basically the only thing that PSTH has ever done. From the time of its formation, PSTH has invested all of its assets in securities.” What kind of securities has it invested in? Again, here’s what the complaint says: “The Company’s agreement with its trustee specified the money was to be “invested only in U.S. Treasury obligations with a maturity of 180 days or less or in money market funds . . . which invest only in U.S. Treasury obligations.”
So, the complaint appears to allege that PSTH is an investment company because it – like every other SPAC – has invested the proceeds of IPO in exactly the type of securities that would permit it to rely on the exemption provided by Rule 3a-1 of the Investment Company Act. This excerpt from a CNBC article on the lawsuit makes it clear that this point wasn’t lost on Pershing Square:
A spokesperson at Pershing Square said the complaint bases its allegations, among other things, on the fact that PSTH owns or has owned U.S. Treasurys and money market funds that own Treasurys, as do all other SPACs while they are in the process of seeking an initial business combination. “PSTH has never held investment securities that would require it to be registered under the Act, and does not intend to do so in the future. We believe this litigation is totally without merit,” the spokesperson said.
Like I said, this isn’t my area of expertise, so there may well be depths to this complaint that I haven’t fathomed. After all, this just can’t be that simple, right? I mean, there are some pretty serious folks on the pleadings. Maybe this case will turn out to have some traction. If so, then it may well toss a rather large monkey wrench in the works of the increasingly troubled SPAC boom. But at this stage, I think the media should stop hyperventilating.
– John Jenkins