By Peter Koven and David Pett
The Ontario Securities Commission’s extraordinary action against Sino-Forest Corp. could pave the way for years of legal wrangling as shareholders fight to get their money back.
Investors’ worst fears about the Chinese forestry company came closer to reality on Friday, as the regulator halted trading of the stock and said that officers and directors committed acts which they “know or reasonably ought to know perpetuate a fraud.”
The OSC order appears to support the key allegations that short seller Muddy Waters LLC made back in June. They seemed almost unbelievable at the time.
If the OSC is right (and it appears that the commission received information directly from Sino-Forest’s independent committee), experts said that there may be nothing for shareholders to recoup from the company. That puts a big bull’s-eye on the investment banks, auditors and analysts who have helped Sino-Forest raise almost $3-billion on Bay St. since 2003.
“To the extent that [shareholders] get anything back, they will be getting it from the banks who have the deepest pockets,” said Cristie Ford, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.
At the end of the second quarter, Sino-Forest had approximately US$862-million in cash on its balance sheet, which is less than half its unsecured debt of roughly US$1.8-billion. Should the company be liquidated, bondholders get first crack at getting their money back, potentially leaving next to nothing for shareholders.
However, class action lawyers already have the financial institutions in their sights.
“If ultimately the company doesn’t survive, its outstanding debt is a complicating factor, no doubt about it. But whether [shareholders] will be able to recover from other sources is a different question,” said Dimitri Lascaris, a partner at Siskinds LLP who is leading one of two major shareholder class actions against Sino-Forest.
The investment banks that raised money for Sino-Forest include Dundee Securities, TD Securities, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley. Ernst & Young was the auditor.
Anita Anand, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said the OSC’s cease trade order gives it the power to try a case against Sino-Forest, but does not allow the regulator to order restitution for shareholders. She said the commission’s Investor Advisory Panel, which she chairs, has recently recommended that the OSC implement an ability to award restitution.
“The whole subject of shareholder restitution is a big one and an important one,” said Ms. Anand. “It’s been kicking around, but not much action has been taken by the Commission or [the Ontario] government.”