What Is ‘Unreasonable’ Compensation? And Who Gets to Decide?

As could be expected, the effects of the financial crisis — and people’s reaction thereto — are starting to make their way to the least political branch of government, the judiciary.  The Supreme Court this term will be hearing several cases that could have serious repercussions on our economic recovery, one of which led us to file an amicus brief.  Here’s the situation:

The Investment Company Act of 1940 places on investment advisers a fiduciary duty with respect to the compensation they receive for the services they provide their clients. In the case of Jones v. Harris Associates, shareholders in various mutual funds contend that their adviser fees were excessive and violated the ICA. The Seventh Circuit, the federal appellate court based in Chicago, affirmed the judgment of the district court that the fees were not excessive but also expressly disapproved of the  methodology for evaluating such claims used by the Second Circuit (based in New York). Judge Frank Easterbrook’s opinion explains that the ICA creates a fiduciary duty but does not act as a rate regulator, and that judicial price-setting does not accompany fiduciary duties. Judge Richard Posner, writing for five judges, dissented from the denial of an en banc rehearing. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case to settle the circuit split.

Our brief supports the investment adviser and makes three arguments:

  1. All persons have a fundamental human right to whatever compensation their contracting partners freely and honestly choose to pay them.
  2. Courts have no power to second-guess the reasonableness of any salary or compensation agreement honestly and freely signed by both contracting parties.
  3. The ICA’s fiduciary duty requires only fair dealing, not any particular outcome.

Thanks to Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur for spearheading this effort, and to Cato legal associate Matthew Aichele for helping with much of the attendant busywork.