Saturday, March 28, 2015
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court finally issued its decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund (.pdf), concerning the definition of “opinion falsity” in the context of a lawsuit under Section 11 of the Securities Act.
Joan described the case in more detail here, but the basic issue was, what does it mean for a statement of opinion to be false? Or, to ground it more in the facts of Omnicare, if the company files a registration statement - as Omnicare did - that claims that the company "believes" its contracts are in compliance with the law, is that statement false when the DoJ sues for Medicaid fraud?
The defendants argued that opinion statements - such as a "belief" in legal compliance - can only be false if they falsely represent the speaker’s belief, i.e., if the speaker did not really believe that Omnicare was in compliance. If the speaker did believe in such compliance, then even if that belief was unfounded or turned out to be false, the statement itself would be literally true.
The plaintiffs agreed that statements of opinion may be false if the speaker misrepresents his or her own opinion, but also argued that opinions may be false for other reasons. For example, according to the plaintiffs, an opinion statement is false if the statement has no reasonable basis, regardless of the subjective beliefs of the speaker. So in Omnicare's case, its statement about legal compliance would be false if it did not bother to investigate whether its contracts were in compliance with the law, or if it ignored information that suggested the contracts were not in compliance.
In general, the case was pitched as a dispute about the continuing viability of Section 11 as a strict liability statute. Section 11, 15 U.S.C. §77k, provides that issuers are strictly liable for false statements in registration statements, and signatories of the registration statement are liable unless they demonstrate that they conducted a reasonable investigation of those statements. So, if Omnicare prevailed in its argument that belief statements are only false if the speaker misstates his own belief, it would, as a practical matter, require the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the speaker intentionally misled investors, thus importing a scienter requirement into Section 11. The effect would be particularly pronounced because there is a great deal of slipperiness regarding what counts as an opinion statement in the first place.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court adopted a standard that fit within the framework advocated by the plaintiffs, although the Court used a narrower formulation. The Court agreed with the defendants that statements of opinion can only be false if disbelieved by the speaker – if the speaker misstates his or her own belief – but then went on to hold that such statements may be misleading if they omit material information. Such as, if they omit the fact that the speaker had no basis for the belief he or she purported to hold and failed to conduct any investigation into the matter. It depends on context and delicate inferences yadda yadda yadda, but a registration statement is a formal document and investors are likely to assume that statements of belief contained therein are the product of a reasonable investigation, etc.
But none of this is what the case was really about.
[More under the cut]
Friday, March 27, 2015
Plenty of valuable information was shared today at Vanderbilt's 17th annual law & business conference, including remarks from Elisse Walter (former-SEC Chairman), Jim Cox (Duke), Bob Thompson (Georgetown), Amanda Rose (Vanderbilt), and others.
The most immediately useful information, however, might be the fact that SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher, our luncheon speaker, is on Twitter. In academic and other circles, Commissioner Gallagher garnered a great deal of attention due to his controversial article co-authored with Joseph Grundfest (Stanford) entitled "Did Harvard Violate Federal Securities Law? The Campaign Against Classified Boards of Directors."
Below is a recent Tweet from Commissioner Gallagher for those who would like to follow him.
My statement from this a.m.'s open mtg re Reg A+. I'm very excited about what this rule will do for small biz. http://t.co/C51EGq9oRR— Dan Gallagher SEC (@DanGallagherSEC) March 25, 2015
After teaching my early morning classes, I will spend the rest of the day at Vanderbilt Law School for their Developing Areas of Capital Market and Federal Securities Regulation Conference.
This is Vanderbilt's 17th Annual Law and Business Conference and they have quite the impressive lineup, including Commissioner Daniel Gallagher, Jr. of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
I am grateful to the Vanderbilt faculty members who invited me to this event and others like it. Vanderbilt is only about 1 mile from Belmont and I have truly enjoyed getting to know some of the Vanderbilt faculty members and their guest speakers.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Below is a call for papers and description of a weeklong project on business and human rights. If you are interested, please contact one of the organizers below. I plan to participate and may also be able to answer some questions.
Lat Crit Study Space Project in Guatemala
Corporations, the State, and the Rule of Law
We are excited to invite you to participate in an exciting Study Space Project in Guatemala. Study Space, a LatCrit, Inc. initiative, is a series of intensive workshops, held at diverse locations around the world. This 2015 Study Space project involves a 7 working day field visit to Guatemala between Saturday June 27 (arrival date) and Saturday July 4, 2015 (departure date). We are reaching out to you because we believe that your interests, scholarship, and service record align well with the proposed focus of our trip.
This call for papers proposes a trip to Guatemala to study more closely the phenomena of failed nations viewed from the perspective of the relationship of the state of Guatemala with corporations. With the recent surge of Central American unaccompanied minors and children fleeing with their mothers, the United States has had to confront the human face of children and women whose claim to asylum or other immigration relief is rooted in the dire reality that the countries from which they flee cannot or will not protect them. Largely, these fleeing migrants are escaping violence perpetuated by private actors, at times gang members or even their own parents or spouses. Their stories of flight cannot be disengaged from the broader context in which the violence occurs. Theirs is also the story of failed nations, characterized by ineptitude, weakness, and even worse, indifference or at times even complicity.
This story of failed nations applies beyond the reign of private “rogues” whom everyone agrees are bad actors (i.e., gangs, drug traffickers, violent criminals). The other side of the coin, invisible in this new wave of Central American refugees, is a more nuanced story about the failing role of some of these Central American nations in regulating the acts of corporations, whether owned by the oligarchy or operated by transnational actors. Corporations are entities with great potential to promote and further the public good, such as through job creation and economic development. Corporations, however, can also be the cause of social ills, particularly when left unregulated or at times even supported by the state to pursue private interests that conflict with the public good. In Guatemala, examples of deeply problematic unregulated arenas abound-- from the lack of antitrust legislation to the absence of meaningful environmental protections to protect even the most precious of natural resources, such as water. There is also the misuse of public institutions and laws to shield corporations from their public and fiscal responsibility or to aid them in capitalizing on public goods, including minerals or land. Ironically, here, the state apparatus functions quite effectively to exert its authority in the execution of laws. The failure, however, rests in the illegitimacy of law, not in its execution.
Guatemala is a nation that is experiencing tremendous social upheaval from the acts of corporations on issues that include mining, water uses, deforestation, genetically modified seeds, free-trade zones, and maquiladoras, to name a few. Caught between the state and corporations are the communities most deeply affected by both the absence and the presence of law in ways that appear to conflict with the public interest. The questions that arise include how law can and should restore the balance between the promotion of investment and economic development with the protection of the public interest and the preservation of the public good. These inquiries also involve issues related to the protection of rights, whether of individuals or communities in the collective, including the right to self-determination, the right to food and water, or the right to dignified work.
The purpose of this trip is not to single out Guatemala for scrutiny. The reality is that the bilateral and multilateral relations that Guatemala is forced to sustain with other more powerful nations aggravate many of its pressing problems. Questions about Guatemala’s regulation of corporations must also address the relationship between the powerful transnational forces of globalization and the domestic laws of Guatemala, including those related to trade liberalization and intellectual property. This inquiry must also acknowledge how the absence of accountability of transnational corporations operating in Guatemala in the corporation’s own nation-state – including the power these corporations have to influence law-making-- should lead us to a discussion of shared responsibility and a proposal for solutions that are transnational and international in character.
Should you decide to participate, you would be encouraged and welcomed to suggest specific topics (and field visits) you would like to be included as part of this project. While we are still working on a precise itinerary (which you can help us shape), our projected goals right now are to visit with government officials, non-profits, community groups and the private sector with a special focus on labor and environment. The trip would include time in Guatemala City but also time in key rural sectors. For example, we are planning to visit a transnational mining site and the free-trade zone where maquiladoras are concentrated in Guatemala. As part of the trip, we will include orientations and debriefings with the group so we can share knowledge, impressions, and insights as the trip progresses.
The cost of your participation (excluding flight) is $1,900. This fee will cover housing, food, in-country transportation, conference space, and other fees that we will pay such as to translators, community groups assisting with logistics, and a modest fee to Luis Mogollón (a Guatemalan lawyer with significant law school academic program development experience in Guatemala) who will spend countless hours making this trip safe and enjoyable for all of us. The flight to Guatemala from the United States should range between $600 to $800.
Our aim is to publish essays from this project as a book in Spanish and English. We hope to have between 15-20 contributions. While ideally participants will speak Spanish, we can accommodate non-Spanish speakers (or those who only speak “un poquito”) and will hire interpreters to work with you during the trip to Guatemala. Keep in mind that you may need to conduct some research in Spanish (at least for primary sources) depending on the focus on your project. We also hope to present papers about this project at several conferences upon the completion of our project, including at LatCrit, Inc. and ideally in Guatemala.
The organizing Committee is comprised of Raquel Aldana, Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; Steven Bender, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Seattle University School of Law; José R. Juárez, Professor of Law and Director of the Spanish for Lawyers Program at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law; Beth Lyon, Director of the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic and Professor of Law at Villanova University School of Law; Mario Mancilla, Technical Assistant of the Secretariat of Environmental Matters, CAFTA-DR; Luis Mogollón, Adjunct Professor and Consultant of the Inter-American Program from Pacific McGeorge; Rachael Salcido, Professor of Law at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; and Enrique Sánchez-Usera, Chair of the Inter-Disciplinary Studies at the University of Rafael Landívar Law School.
Please do not hesitate to contact any of us with questions. We do hope you decide to join us in this great project.
March 26, 2015 in Business Associations, Law Reviews, Call for Papers, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Marcia Narine, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)
Last week, NCAA lawyers went into court seeking to reverse the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California’s ruling in O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association. In that case, the district court had held that the NCAA member colleges illegally restrained trade under Section 1 of the Sherman Act when they colluded among other things, to keep college athlete compensation below the full cost of college attendance.
Among the NCAA’s many legal arguments in seeking reversal was their claim that college athletics is exempt from the Sherman Act because amateurism, according to the NCAA, is driven by economic motives and not commercialism. Although previous court decisions from the Third and Sixth Circuit seem to side with the NCAA’s argument on that point, other circuits have long rejected this contention and analyzed NCAA conduct in labor markets under the traditional Sherman Act.
Nevertheless, even to the extent there exists a split in the circuits on this important issue, it seems extraordinarily disingenuous for the NCAA lawyers to even make the argument that it prioritizes education over economics when considering the economic realities of the ongoing NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In the past ten days alone, the NCAA has pocketed upwards $1 Billion from media rights and other revenues related to this single tournament tournament. And, not only are the athletes unpaid, they are also going uneducated based on the NCAA’s attempt to maximize their own television revenues through midweek tournament games.
Through the first week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, athletes on many college basketball teams have already missed upwards of three class days. While the NCAA elects to schedule midweek games in the early rounds to maximize its television revenues, the NCAA could easily recast the tournament with all teams playing back-t0-back games on Friday night and Saturday night much as all Ivy League teams do during the Ivy League’s regular season.
Making matters worse, the NCAA has once again scheduled its men’s college basketball championship game on a Monday night – requiring athletes on the two finalist teams not only to miss late-week classes, but also to miss Monday and Tuesday classes in that last round. Indeed, while NCAA member schools make substantial money from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the athletes’ main “compensation” -- a minimum of at least six missed class days – places them substantially behind in the classroom on their way home.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Today, part of the assignment for my Securities Regulation students was to read a chapter in our casebook and, as assigned by me, come to class prepared to teach in a three-to-five-minute segment a part of the assigned reading. The casebook is Securities Regulation: Cases and Materials by Jim Cox, Bob Hillman, and Don Langevoort. The chapter (Chapter 7, entitled "Recapitalization, Reorganizations, and Acquisitions") covers the way in which various typical corporate finance transactions are, are not, or may be offers or sales of securities that trigger registration under Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the "1933 Act"). I have used this technique for teaching this material before (and also use a student teaching method for part of my Corporate Finance course), and I really enjoy the class each time.
I find that the students understand the assigned material well (having already been through a lot of registration and exemption material in the preceding weeks) and embrace the responsibility of teaching me and each other. I am convinced that they learn the material better and are more engaged with it because they have had to read it with a different intent driven by a distinct objective. For their brief teaching experience, each student needs to understand both the transaction at issue and the way in which it implicates, does not implicate, or may implicate 1933 Act registration requirements. They do not disappoint in either respect, and I admit to being interested in their presentations and proud of them.
I also find that changing my role principally to that of a listener and questioner refreshes me. I organize and orchestrate the general structure of the class meeting and come to class prepared with the knowledge of what needs to be brought out during the session. But since I cannot control exactly what is said, I must listen and react and help create logical transitions and other links between the topics covered. In addition, I can create visuals on the board to illustrate aspects of the "mini-lectures" (as I did today when a student was explaining a spin-off transaction). I honestly have a lot of fun teaching this way.
There are, no doubt, many ways in which we can engage students in teaching course material in the classroom that may have similar benefits. What are yours? When and how do you use them to make them most effective? Teach me! :>)
The Economist has a helpful brief outline -- here -- of why oil prices are so low. I continue to think that oil prices will stabilize in the $55-$65 range, but now that it's apparent that most Bakken oil is profitable around $42, I would not be surprised to see prices bounce around in that range periodically for a while, too.
A few things to keep in perspective when you hear about how the energy sector is suffering:
(1) It's not very often through the years that anyone would be upset by low energy prices. That usually is a sign of good things to come in terms of markets because low energy prices can reduce costs of manufacturing, they tend to increase demand (in energy and beyond), and it tends to mean more money in consumers' pockets. Those are usually very good things.
(2) Despite layoffs are some energy sector companies, and a dramatic slow down of drilling, if you looked back to 2005 0r 2006 (an even more recently) people would have been thrilled to see the sector with this many jobs. Even another 20-30% slow down represents a strong and viable industry.
(3) Legal work for the sector is likely to carry on at a strong pace. A slow down will mean a slower pace in many sectors, and mineral leasing and other title work will likely slow significantly, but slow downs can lead to increases in M&A, restructuring, and litigation.
There are concerns, but it's always helpful to keep things in perspective. It's fair to raise questions and highlight the rapid changes, but it's not all gloom and doom.
Today marks my return to blogging after a brief (3 weeks) respite, and what better way to be welcomed back than with news of a mega-merger?!? Today, Kraft Foods, a publicly traded company, and H. J.Heinz, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian private equity firm 3G, signed a multi-billion dollar merger agreement to create what will become the third largest food company in North America.
Under the proposed merger Kraft shareholders will receive 49% of the stock in the newly merged company, plus a cash dividend of $16.50 per share, representing a reported 27% premium on Kraft's trading stock price as of Tuesday, March 24th which closed at around $61.33/share.
The stock market reacted positively to the news with Kraft stock opening around $81/share and climbing up to $87 and settling down in the low $80's (it was trading at $82/share around 2:00 pm). You can track the stock price here. The immediate bump in price casts some shadows on the Kraft stock premium agreed to in the deal.
Over at the Faculty Lounge, Kim Krawiec (Duke) is hosting an interesting mini-symposium on board diversity entitled “What’s The Return On Equality?”
The posts to date are linked to at the bottom of this recent post.
Monday, March 23, 2015
The JOBS Act requires the SEC to create an exemption for small, crowdfunded offerings of securities. That exemption, if the SEC ever enacts it, will allow issuers to raise up to $1 million a year in sales of securities to the general public. (Don’t confuse this exemption with Rule 506(c) sales to accredited investors, which is sometimes called crowdfunding, but really isn’t.)
The crowdfunding exemption restricts resales of the crowdfunded securities. Crowdfunding purchasers may not, with limited exceptions, resell the securities they purchase for a year. Securities Act sec. 4A(e); Proposed Rule 501, in SEC, Crowdfunding, Securities Act Release No. 9470 (Oct. 23, 2013). Unlike the resale restrictions in some of the other federal registration exemptions, the crowdfunding resale restriction serves no useful purpose. All it does is to increase the risk of what is already a very risky investment by reducing the liquidity of that investment.
Enforcing the “Come to Rest” Idea
Some of the resale restrictions in other exemptions are designed to enforce the requirement that the securities sold “come to rest” in the hands of purchasers who qualify for the exemption.
Rule 147, the safe harbor for the intrastate offering exemption in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act, is a good example. To qualify for the intrastate offering exemption, the securities must be offered and sold only to purchasers who reside in the same state as the issuer. Securities Act sec. 3(a)(11); Rule 147(d). This requirement would be totally illusory if an issuer could sell to a resident of its state and that resident could immediately resell outside the state. Therefore, Rule 147(e) prohibits resales outside the state for nine months.
The resale restrictions applicable to the Rule 505 and 506 exemptions have a similar effect. Rule 506 only allows sales to accredited investors or, in the case of Rule 506(b), non-accredited, sophisticated investors. Rules 506(b)(2)(ii), 506(c)(2)(i). These requirements would be eviscerated if an accredited or sophisticated purchaser could immediately resell to someone who does not qualify.
Rule 505 does not limit who may purchase but, like Rule 506, it does limit the number of non-accredited investors to 35. Rules 505(b)(2)(ii), 501(e)(1)(iv). If an issuer could sell to a single purchaser who immediately resold to dozens of others, the 35-purchaser limitation would be meaningless.
To enforce the requirements of the Rule 505 and 506 exemptions, Rule 502(d) restricts resales in both types of offering.
Preventing an Information-less Resale Market
Rule 504 also includes a resale restriction, Rule 502(d), even though it does not impose any restrictions on the nature or number of purchasers. A resale would not, therefore, be inconsistent with any restrictions imposed on the issuer’s offering.
However, Rule 504 does not impose any disclosure requirements on issuers. See Rule 502(b)(1). Because of that, people purchasing in a resale market would not have ready access to information about the issuer. But the Rule 504 resale restriction does not apply if the offering is registered in states that require the public filing and delivery to investors of a disclosure document. Rules 502(d), 504(b)(1). In that case, information about the issuer is publicly available and there’s no need to restrict resales. People purchasing in the resale market would have access to information to inform their purchases.
The resale restrictions in Rule 505 and 506 offerings could also be justified in part on this basis. If issuers sell only to accredited investors in those offerings, there is no disclosure requirement. If they sell to non-accredited investors, disclosure is mandated, but even then there’s no obligation to make that disclosure public. See Rule 502(b). People purchasing in the resale market therefore would not have ready access to public information about the issuer.
This lack-of-information justification is consistent with the lack of resale restrictions in Regulation A. To use the Regulation A exemption, an issuer must file with the SEC and furnish to investors a detailed disclosure document. Rules 251(d), 252. Because of that, information about the issuer and the security will be publicly available to purchasers in the resale market.
The Crowdfunding Exemption
Neither of these justifications for resale restrictions applies to offerings pursuant to the forthcoming (some day?) crowdfunding exemption.
The come-to-rest rationale does not apply. The crowdfunding exemption does not limit the type or number of purchasers. An issuer may offer and sell to anyone, anywhere, so no resale restriction is necessary to avoid circumvention of the requirements of the exemption.
The information argument also does not apply. A crowdfunding issuer is required to provide a great deal of disclosure about the company and the offering—as I have argued elsewhere, probably too much to make the exemption viable. See Securities Act sec. 4A(b)(1); Proposed Rule 201 and Form C. The issuer is also obligated to file annual reports with updated information. Securities Act sec. 4A(b)(4); Proposed Rule 202. All of that information will be publicly available. Even if one contends that the information required to be disclosed is inadequate, it will be no more adequate a year after the offering, when crowdfunding purchasers are free to resell. Securities Act sec. 4A(e); Proposed Rule 501.
Some people, including Tom Hazen and my co-blogger Joan Heminway, have argued that resale restrictions may be necessary to avoid a repeat of the pump-and-dump frauds that occurred under Rule 504 when Rule 504 was not subject to any resale restrictions. As I have explained, Rule 504, which requires no public disclosure of information, fits within the information rationale. Such fraud is much less likely where detailed disclosure is required. There will undoubtedly be some fraud in the resale market no matter what the rules are, but public crowdfunding will be much less susceptible to such fraud than the private Rule 504 sales in which the pump-and-dump frauds occurred.
The resale restrictions are consistent with neither the come-to-rest rationale nor the information rationale for resale restrictions Forcing crowdfunding purchasers to wait a year before reselling therefore serves no real purpose. The only real effect of those resale restrictions is to make an already-risky investment even riskier by reducing liquidity.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Under Newman, unless "the tippee is particularly loquacious, sub-tippees will never be liable" http://t.co/yr6Y0sGvIE— Stefan Padfield (@ProfPadfield) March 18, 2015
"when a duty of care breach is not the exclusive claim, a court may not dismiss based upon an exculpatory provision" 2002WL31584292 #corpgov— Stefan Padfield (@ProfPadfield) March 18, 2015
SEC Chair on "the current state of shareholder activism; the shareholder proposal process; and fee-shifting bylaws" http://t.co/TMQbyNaJDt— Stefan Padfield (@ProfPadfield) March 21, 2015
Saturday, March 21, 2015
The UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust recently won a battle with Gilead and Vertex to have those companies include on their proxy statements proposals to require them to explain to shareholders the risks of their drug pricing decisions.
Basically, both Gilead and Vertex have come under fire recently for charging extremely high prices for new drugs. There's an argument, of course, that this is simply a bad business decision - if your customers can't afford your drugs, they won't buy them. And that's the official basis for the Trust's proposal. The Trust describes, for example, how Sanofi was once forced to dramatically cut drug prices because the initial prices were set unrealistically high.
But I find it very hard to believe that the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust is genuinely concerned about drug pricing in its capacity as a shareholder seeking maximum returns. Instead, it seems far more likely that the Trust's concern is, you know, drug prices. That it has to pay. For its beneficiaries. And it's using its status as shareholder of several pharmaceutical companies to try to influence policy in that regard. The fact that the SEC is allowing the proposal to be included on the companies' proxies suggests that the SEC is not terribly concerned about that possibility (unlike Delaware, which does not want shareholders to pursue their own idiosyncratic agendas).
It reminds me of the AFL-CIO's earlier objection to Wall Street banks' practice of paying deferred compensation to executives to leave to go to government. From a wealth max perspective, you'd think this would be an awesome thing for shareholders - which means the AFL-CIO's objections were not really rooted in concern about the banks' financial performance, but in its broader political concerns about the practice. But the SEC didn't have a problem with that - it refused to allow Goldman to exclude the proposal.
So, I repeatedly threatened that I’d eventually post a summary of my paper on arbitration clauses in corporate governance documents – and well, now you’re all finally being subjected to it.
This post was originally published at CLS Blue Sky blog, but I've made some minor edits and added a new introduction.
For many years, commenters have argued that at least some shareholder disputes can and should be arbitrated, rather than litigated, and that this could be accomplished by amending the corporate “contract” – namely, its charter and/or its bylaws – to require arbitration. The possibility was raised in articles by John Coffee and Richard Shell in the late 1980s, and the idea has resurfaced many times since then, including this year by Adam Pritchard. For almost as long as the idea has been kicked around, there have been warnings that if arbitration clauses are “contractually” binding by virtue of their presence in corporate governance documents, then they may be subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which would preempt state attempts to regulate/oversee their use. Coffee discussed that possibility in his 1988 piece on the subject; more recently, Barbara Black and Brian Fitzpatrick have sounded further alarms.
For foes of shareholder litigation, this is a feature, not a bug; though they rarely say so explicitly, whenever anyone relies upon FAA cases to justify the insertion of arbitration clauses in corporate charters and bylaws, they are implicitly advocating the idea that not only are charters and bylaws “contracts” for FAA purposes, but that federal law requires their enforcement, regardless of the preferences of the chartering state. After the Supreme Court decided AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, the notion was particularly powerful, because it meant that corporations would be free to use arbitration clauses to require that shareholder claims be brought on an individual, rather than class, basis. Given the economics of shareholder litigation, this would almost certainly mean the death of most shareholder lawsuits.
And that’s where my paper comes in.
[More under the cut]
Friday, March 20, 2015
Last week, I wrote sports and the problems that could arise from a myopic focus on winning.
I promised to attempt to tie that post to business this week, but because I am running to a lunch meeting and then to the Belmont v. Virginia NCAA tournament basketball game viewing party, I am going to keep this short.
(Also, please indulge a little more bragging about my school. Before the game even begins, I am already incredibly proud of our basketball team. Belmont won the academic bracket for the NCAA tournament teams this year, which is based on academic measures like Academic Progress Rate (APR) and Graduation Success Rate (GSR)).
Anyway, I think there are a number of parallels between sports and business. Sports, done the right way, can teach many valuable lessons, such as the importance of teamwork, diligence, unselfishness, strategy, preparation, etc. In fact, team sport participation was one of the things I looked for when interviewing for law students when I was in practice and it is something I look for now when interviewing research assistants.
As mentioned in last week's post, sports can lead participants off-track if there is a myopic focus on winning that trumps certain overriding principles. Similarly, a myopic focus on profits in business, without adherence to certain legal rules and ethical principles, can lead individuals and companies astray. What the overriding principles should be, and the appropriate level of focus on profits, are two difficult questions that all businesses should attempt to address.
Bernard Sharfman has posted a new article entitled “Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Long-Term Value Creators or Destroyers?" In the paper he makes the argument that hedge fund activism contributes to long-term value creation if it can be assumed that the typical board of a public company has an adequate amount of independence to act as an arbitrator between executive management and the activist hedge fund. He also discusses these funds’ focus on disinvestment and attempts to challenge those in the Marty Lipton camp, who view these funds less charitably. In fact, Lipton recently called 2014 “the year of the wolf pack.” The debate on the merits of activist hedge funds has been heating up. Last month Forbes magazine outlined “The Seven Deadly Sins of Activist Hedge Funds,” including their promotion of share buybacks, aka “corporate cocaine.” Forbes was responding to a more favorable view of these funds by The Economist in its February 7, 2015 cover story.
Whether you agree with Sharfman or Lipton, the article is clearly timely and worth a read. The abstract is below:
Numerous empirical studies have shown that hedge fund activism has led to enhanced returns to investors and increased firm performance. Nevertheless, leading figures in the corporate governance world have taken issue with these studies and have argued that hedge fund activism leads to long-term value destruction.
In this article, it is argued that an activist hedge fund creates long-term value by sending affirming signals to the board of directors (Board) that its executive management team may be making inefficient decisions and providing recommendations on how the company should proceed in light of these inefficiencies. These recommendations require the Board to review and question the direction executive management is taking the company and then choosing which path the company should take, the one recommended by executive management, the one recommended by the activist hedge fund or a combination of both. Critical to this argument is the existence of a Board that can act as an independent arbitrator in deciding whose recommendations should be followed.
In addition, an explanation is given for why activist hedge funds do not provide recommendations that involve long-term investment. There are two reasons for this. First, the cognitive limitations and skill sets of those individuals who participate as activist hedge funds. Second, and most importantly, the stock market signals provided by value investors voting with their feet are telling the rest of the stock market that a particular public company is poorly managed and that it either needs to be replaced or given less assets to manage. These are the kind of signals and information that activist hedge funds are responding to when buying significant amounts of company stock and then making their recommendations for change. Therefore, it is not surprising that the recommendations of activist hedge funds will focus on trying to reduce the amount of assets under current management.
The biggest recent news in the social enterprise world is that certified B corporation Etsy is going public.
Despite confusing press releases, Etsy is not legally formed as a benefit corporation, they are only certified by B Lab. (In one of the coolest comments I have received blogging, an Etsy representative admitted that they confused the "benefit corporation" and "certified B corporation" terms and corrected their public statements). If you are new to social enterprise, the differences between a "certified B corporation" and a "benefit corporation" are explained here.
Etsy, however, will face a dilemma as noted in this article sent to me by Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown). The B Lab terms for certified B corporations require Etsy to convert to a public benefit corporation (Delaware's version of the benefit corporation) within four years of the Delaware law becoming effective. Delaware's public benefit corporation law went effective August 1, 2013.
So, unless B Lab changes its terms, Etsy will lose its certified B corporation status if it does not convert to a public benefit corporation on or before August 1, 2017.
Given that converting to a public benefit corporation while publicly-traded would be extremely difficult--obtaining the necessary vote, paying dissenters' rights, etc.--I imagine Etsy will need to make this decision before it goes public. Perhaps, Etsy will postpone the decision, and hope that they can just quietly lose their certification in 2017 or that B Lab will make an exception for them. Etsy's CEO is on record promising social responsibility, but we will see whether that promise includes maintaining B Lab certification and making a legal entity change.
Many interesting issues would stem from a publicly-traded benefit corporation; I have added a number of items to my article ideas list this morning.
This Etsy story is one I hope to follow, so stay tuned.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Contrary to widespread belief, corporate directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders. This is reflected in the acceptance in nearly all jurisdictions of some version of the business judgment rule, under which disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be in the best long term interests of the company as a separate entity, even if this does not entail seeking to maximise short-term shareholder value. Where directors pursue the latter goal, it is usually a product not of legal obligation, but of the pressures imposed on them by financial markets, activist shareholders, the threat of a hostile takeover and/or stock-based compensation schemes.
Prof. Bainbridge is with Delaware Chief Justice Strine in that profit maximization is the only role (or at least only filter) for board members. As he asserts, “The relationship between the shareholder wealth maximization norm and the business judgment rule, . . . explains why the business judgment rule is consistent with the director's "legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders."
CJ Strine has noted that the eBay decision, which I have written about a lot, says that if “you remain incorporated in Delaware, your stockholders will be able to hold you accountable for putting their interests first.” I think this is right, but I remain convinced that absent self-dealing or a “pet project,” directors get to decide that what is in the shareholders best interests.
I have been criticized in some sectors for being too pro-business for my views on corporate governance, veil piercing law, and energy policy. In contrast, I have also been said to be a “leftist commentator,” in some contexts, and I have been cited by none other than Chief Justice Strine as supporting a “liberal” view of corporate norms for my views on the freedom of director choice.
When it comes to the Business Judgment Rule, I think it might be just that I believe in a more hands-off view of director primacy more than many of both my “liberal” and “conservative” colleagues. Frankly, I don’t get too exercised by many of the corporate decisions that seem to agitate one side or the other. I thought I’d try to reconcile my views on this in a short statement. I decided to use the model from This I Believe, based on the 1950s Edward R. Murrow radio show. (Using the Crash Davis model I started with was a lot less family friendly.) Here’s what I came up with:
I believe in the theory of Director Primacy. I believe in the Business Judgment Rule as an abstention doctrine, and I believe that Corporate Social Responsibility is choice, not a mandate. I believe in long-term planning over short-term profits, but I believe that directors get to choose either one to be the focus of their companies. I believe that directors can choose to pursue profit through corporate philanthropy and good works in the community or through mergers and acquisitions with a plan to slash worker benefits and sell-off a business in pieces. I believe that a corporation can make religious-based decisions—such as closing on Sundays—and that a corporation can make worker-based decisions—such as providing top-quality health care and parental leave—but I believe both such bases for decisions must be rooted in the directors’ judgment such decisions will maximize the value of the business for shareholders for the decision to get the benefit of business judgment rule protection. I believe that directors, and to shareholder or judges, should make decisions about how a company should pursue profit and stability. I believe that public companies should be able to plan like private companies, and I believe the decision to expand or change a business model is the decision of the directors and only the directors. I believe that respect for directors’ business judgment allows for coexistence of companies of multiple views—from CVS Caremark and craigslist to Wal-Mart and Hobby Lobby—without necessarily violating any shareholder wealth maximization norms. Finally, I believe that the exercise of business judgment should not be run through a liberal or conservative filter because liberal and conservative business leaders have both been responsible for massive long-term wealth creation. This, I believe.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Avantages de Participation à des Conférences Internationales Interdisciplinaires (Benefits of Attending Interdisciplinary International Conferences)
Greetings from Lyon, France, where I am presenting a work-in-process at an international conference on microfinance and crowdfunding organized by the Groupe ESC Dijon Borgogne (Burgundy School of Business) Chaire Banque Populaire en Microfinance. As the only legal scholar, the only U.S. researcher, and the only presenter with an orange-casted arm (!), I stand out in the crowd. So what is a one-armed U.S. law professor like me, with limited French language skills, doing in a place like this on my spring break? Among other things, I am:
- Broadening my academic and practical view of the world of business finance;
- Making new connections, personally and substantively;
- Getting different, pointed feedback on my ongoing crowdfunding work;
- Offering assistance and new perspectives (U.S.-centric, legal, regulatory, etc.) to scholars and industry participants from a spectrum of countries; and
- Securing potential partners and resources for future projects.
Although most of the participants speak English, I am still living at the edge of my socio-lingual comfort zone. It helps that I am an off-the-charts extrovert. Regardless, however, the benefits of attendance have been immediate and meaningful.
Questions for our readers:
Do you participate in interdisciplinary research conferences?
If not, why not?
If so, what scholarly traditions were emphasized? What did you find most beneficial . . . or most difficult?
Have you attended international research conferences?
If not, is it because of cost, personal discomfort, or another reason?
If so, how (if at all) have you benefitted from your attendance? What insights can you offer those considering doing the same?
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
On the floor later Friday evening, the House put an amendment in a bill designed to shore up car dealers’ legal standings in dealings with auto manufacturers that effectively blocks innovative electric car manufacturer Tesla from doing business in the state.
The floor debate is best left forgotten: Several delegates played the crony capitalism card, talking about how their local car dealers are generous in sponsoring Little League teams and community events (not to mention campaign contributions), while other sneered about the company being owned by California billionaire Elon Musk (some called him “Monk,” but fortunately no one referred to him as “Elton”), and claiming the company relies on federal subsidies.
Never mind that it was stated that fewer than a dozen West Virginians own Teslas, or that a boom in demand for electric-powered cars might just be a good thing for a state that provides coal for electric power plants.
If you're about a free (or at least more free) markets, why stop a competitor from competing? Sorry, but the federal subsidy argument for the auto industry went out the window when the government bailed out GM and Chrysler.
Beyond that, for the life of me, I can't understand why coal friendly constituencies seem so often to be hostile to electric vehicles. (In fairness, Kentucky just added a Tesla charging station.) If it uses electricity, you should be all for it. Why is running a car on electricity any different than leaving the lights on all night? If you're for consumption, who cares who does it?
There is some debate about whether electric cars are better for the environment than gasoline powered cars. This remains an open question. But there's little doubt that increased demand for electricity is generally good for the coal industry.
More important, though, if consumers want to buy a Tesla, why not let them? What's the value in blocking consumers from buying the vehicles they want? Oh yeah, rent seeking and cronyism. By the way, the West Virginia legislature knows we can buy cars in other states, right?
Monday, March 16, 2015
The depth of everyone's knowledge varies from subject to subject. I have a deep understanding of many areas of securities law, but a very shallow understanding of physics. (I’m not even in the wading pool.) But, even in subjects I teach—business associations, securities law, accounting for lawyers—the depth of my knowledge varies from topic to topic.
When I’m teaching the Securities Act registration exemptions, my knowledge base is very deep. I research and write primarily in that area. I know the law. I know the lore. I know the policy.
In other areas, my knowledge is much shallower. In some cases, I know just enough to teach the class. My business associations class sometimes touches on entity taxation issues, but I’m far from an expert on entity taxation. (My tax colleagues would say “far, far, far.”)
One’s knowledge deepens over time, of course. That’s one of the great joys of becoming an expert, whether you’re a law professor or a practitioner. I know more now about every topic I teach (including entity taxation) than I knew when I began teaching 27 years ago.
Several years ago, I decided to teach a course on investment companies and investment advisers. I started from scratch. I had no such class in law school and I didn’t practice in that area, so I had to learn the details myself before teaching the class. Now, having taught the class many times and having written two articles that deal with issues in the area, my knowledge base is much deeper.
All law professors have shallow and deep areas of knowledge. Over time, all of us should try to deepen our knowledge in the shallower areas. This improves our teaching and, less obviously, improves our scholarship. I tell my students that a broad education benefits the specialist, and my own experience confirms that. I have often drawn on what I learned in one of my shallower areas while writing an article in a deep area.
Professors also need to be careful that our teaching isn’t negatively affected by our shallow and deep areas.
- Be sure your course coverage (and your exam coverage) is based on the importance and relevance of the topics and the needs of the students, not on your knowledge base. There’s a natural psychological tendency to focus on what we know best, which is usually also what we’re most interested in. Don’t minimize a topic just because your knowledge of the topic is shallow. Don’t stress a topic just because your knowledge is deep. I would like to spend my entire securities regulation course talking about Securities Act exemptions, but I don’t.
- Be careful to maintain the same classroom atmosphere in shallow and deep areas. When I’m teaching in a deep knowledge area, I’m often just scratching the surface of what I know. I sometimes have to fight to stay excited about the material and avoid going on autopilot. When I’m teaching in a shallow area, the discussion is fresher and more exciting to me. I’m more likely to learn from my students and I can empathize with their struggles to master the material. The key is to keep an even keel—to keep the discussion equally fresh and exciting, no matter how deep or shallow your knowledge.
- Don’t overwhelm the students with your deep knowledge. They need to spend some time in the shallow end before you can take them into the depths. It’s taken you years to develop your deep knowledge; you can’t replicate that for your students in an hour or two.
- Admit when your knowledge is shallow. “I don’t know” is a perfectly appropriate response even when your knowledge is deep, even more so when your knowledge is shallow. And “I don’t know” is much better for you and your students than trying to fake it. Use these opportunities to deepen your knowledge and get back to the students with your answer. I can’t count how many times in my career I have faced situations like that.
I apologize for disillusioning any readers who, based on this blog, believed I was omniscient and had deep knowledge of everything.