Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Last week, the Deal Professor, Steven Davidoff Solomon, wrote an article titled, The Boardroom Strikes Back. In it, he recalls that shareholder activists won a number of surprising victories last year, and more were predicted for this year. That prediction made sense, as activists were able to elect directors 73% of the time in 2014. This year, though, despite some activist victories, boards are standing their grounds with more success.
I have no problem with shareholders seeking to impose their will on the board of the companies in which they hold stock. I don't see activist shareholder as an inherently bad thing. I do, however, think it's bad when boards succumb to the whims of activist shareholders just to make the problem go away. Boards are well served to review serious requests of all shareholders, but the board should be deciding how best to direct the company. It's why we call them directors.
As the Deal Professor notes, some heavy hitters are questioning the uptick in shareholder activism:
Some of the big institutional investors are starting to question the shareholder activism boom. Laurence D. Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, with $4 trillion, recently issued a well-publicized letter that criticized some of the strategies pushed by hedge funds, like share buybacks and dividends, as a “short-termist phenomenon.” T. Rowe Price, which has $750 billion under management, has also criticized shareholder activists’ strategies. They carry a big voice.
I am on record being critical of boards letting short-term planning be their primary filter, because I think it can hurt long-term value in many instances. I don't, however, think buybacks or dividends are inherently incorrect, either. Whether the idea comes from an activist shareholder or the board doesn't really matter to me. The board just needs to assess the idea and decide how to proceed.
[Please click below to read more.]
Friday, November 14, 2014
The Supreme Court of Wyoming recently decided to pierce the limited liability veil of a single-member LLC. Green Hunter Wind Energy, LLC (LLC), had a single member: Green Hunter Energy, Inc. (Corp). LLC entered into a services contract with Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc. (Western). The court determined that veil piercing – thus allowing Western to recover LLC’s debts from Corp – was appropriate for several reasons. I think the court got this wrong. The case can be accessed here (pdf).
The court provides the following rule for piercing the veil of a limited liability company, providing three basic factors 1) fraud; 2) undercapitalization; and 3) “intermingling the business and finances of the company and the member to such an extent that there is no distinction between them.” The court noted that the failure to following company formalities was recently dropped as a factor by changes to the state LLC statute.
Here’s where the court goes wrong:
(1) As to undercapitalization, the court completely ignores the fact that Western freely contracted with the LLC with little to no cash. If Western wanted the parent Corp to be a guarantor, it could have required that. If Western thought LLC was acting as an agent for Corp, Western should have claimed that. It seems to me this is directly analogous to an actual parent-child relationship. Western contracted with adult (but penniless) child. Child didn't have money when the contract was signed or when the bill was submitted. Western then calls parent and says, "Pay up." Western is free to call, but parent can say, “No. You dealt with my kid, not me, and I didn't agree to this debt.”
(2) There is a better argument this should be different if this were a tort suit where Western did not choose to engage with the LLC, but that's not the case here. I don't see how Western can claim undercapitalization now when they had the opportunity to ask before the contract was formed. Western is the least cost avoider here and assumed the risk of dealing with a lightly capitalized company. It seems to me that should be part of the assessment. Undercapitalization is, as the court notes, “a relative concept.” The court cites potential abuse of LLC laws if they were to adopt such a rule that motivates companies to ask for guarantees. instead adopting a rule that could incentivize companies like Western actively avoid ask ingfor guarantees. Why? Because if you ask for a guarantee and are refused, it could be used against you later. But if you don’t ask, you may get to piece the veil and seek a windfall recovery by getting a post hoc guarantee that was not available via negotiation.
The court’s rationale is as follows:
It makes good business sense for a contract creditor to try to obtain a guarantee from the member or retainer from the limited liability company itself. But we are mindful of the reality of the marketplace that many businesses are not in a position—competitively or economically—to insist on guarantees. For that reason, we decline Appellant’s invitation to find piercing inappropriate in this case because Western did not protect itself from Appellant’s misuse of the LLC by attempting to obtain a guarantee or other form of security. To do so would invite abuse of entities, as is the case here.
No way. If you can’t “competitively or economically” secure a guarantee, then too bad. If the legislature wants to create guarantees or minimum capitalization requirements for all entities, fine. Otherwise, this is absurd.
(3) Further, Court state that "the district court correctly concluded that the LLC 'failed to adequately capitalize the LLC, that LLC was undercapitalized at all times relevant to this suit and the LLC lacks corporate assets." Wrong. Again, if Western knew the finances of LLC at the time of contracting (as it could and should have), then it wasn’t undercapitalized. LLC simply existed and Western did not seek to avoid the risk of dealing with such an entity.
More important, though LLCs cannot have “corporate assets.” It’s a limited liability company, not a corporation. Sheesh. I’ll add this one to my list of courts getting LLC distinctions wrong. (See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.) I would have loved to see the Supreme Court correct the district court on that, at least.
(4) The court incorrectly suggests that the tax filings of the parent corporation and a subsidiary LLC can be a factor in the veil piercing analysis. Sorry, but no. For a single-member LLC, for federal tax purposes, the LLC will probably be a disregarded entity. As such, the LLC will usually (if not always) look like part of the parent corporation. To even consider the tax filing necessarily makes one factor weigh toward piercing. That’s wrong.
Early in the opinion, the court notes, “Piercing seems to happen freakishly. Like lightning, it is rare, severe, and unprincipled.” (quoting Frank H. Easterbrook & Daniel R. Fischel, Limited Liability and the Corporation, 52 U. Chi. L. Rev. 89 (1985) (internal quotation marks omitted)). In this case the court seems to be trying to make veil-piercing law in LLCs more predictable. I’m concerned they are – they are making is more likely the veil piecing will occur, at least in the single-member LLC context. To the extent we’re going to allow single-member LLCs, that’s unfortunate.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
At West Virginia University College of Law, we started classes yesterday, and I taught my first classes of the year: Energy Law in the morning and Business Organizations in the afternoon. As I do with a new year coming, I updated and revised my Business Organizations course for the fall. Last year, I moved over to using Unicorporated Business Entities, of which I am a co-author. I have my own corporations materials that I use to supplement the book so that I cover the full scope of agency, partnerships, LLCs, and corporations. So far, it's worked pretty well. I spent several years with Klein, Ramseyer and Bainbridge's Business Associations, Cases and Materials on Agency, Partnerships, and Corporations (KRB), which is a great casebook, in its own right.
I did not make the change merely (or even mostly) because I am a co-author. I made the change because I like the structure we use in our book. I had been trying to work with KRB in my structure, but this book is designed to teach in with the organization I prefer, which is more topical than entity by entity. I'll note that a little while ago, my co-blogger Steve Bradford asked, "Are We Teaching Business Associations Backwards?" Steve Bainbridge said, "No." He explained,
I've tried that approach twice. Once, when I was very young, using photocopied materials I cut and pasted from casebook drafts the authors kindly allowed me to use. Once by jumping around Klein, Ramseyer, and Bainbridge. Both times it was a disaster. Students found it very confusing (and boy did my evaluations show it!). It actually took more time than the entity by entity approach, because I ended up having to do a lot of review (e.g., "you'll remember from 2 weeks ago when we discussed LLCs most recently that ...."). There actually isn't all that much topic overlap. Among corporations, for example, you've got the business judgment rule, derivative suits, "duty" of good faith, executive compensation, the special rules for close corporations, proxies, and so on, most of which either don't apply to LLCs etc.... or don't deserve duplicative treatment.
I have great respect for Prof. Bainbridge, and his writing has influenced me greatly, but (not surprisingly), I come out more closely aligned with my perception of Larry Ribstein on such issues, and with Jeff Lipshaw, who commented,
I disagree about the lack of topic overlap, and suspect Larry Ribstein is raging about this in BA Heaven right now. . . .
This may reflect differences among student populations, but the traditional corporate law course, focusing primarily on public corporations, is less pertinent in many schools where students are unlikely to be doing that kind of work when they graduate. It's far more likely that they'll need to be able to explain to a client why the appropriate business form is a corporation or an LLC, and what the topical differences between them are.
I completely agree, and I would go another step to say that I find the duplication to be a valuable reinforcement mechanism that is worth (what I have seen as limited) extra time. I am teaching a 4-credit course, though, which gives me time I never had in my prior institution's 3-credit version.
One thing I am doing differently this year is my first assignment, which seeks to build on what I see as a need for students here. That is, I think many of them will need to be able to explain entity differences and help clients select the right option.
I had my students fill out the form for a West Virginia Limited Liability Company (PDF here). I had a few goals. First, I don't like to have students leave any of my classes without handling at least some of the forms or other documents they are likely to encounter in practice. Second, I did it without any instruction this time (I have used similar forms later in the course) because I thought it would help me tee up an introduction to all this issues I want them thinking about with regard to entity choice. (It did.) Finally, I like getting students to see the connection between the form and the statute. We can link though and see why the form requires certain issues, discuss waivable and nonwaivable provisions, and talk about things like entity purpose, freedom of contract, and the limits of limited liability.
If nothing else, the change kept things fresh for me. I welcome any comments and suggestions on any of this, and I wish everyone a great new academic year.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
(1) As I explained here, entities should be able to take on a racial, religious, or gender identity in discrimination claims. I would add that I feel similarly about sexual orientation, but (though I think it should be) that is still not generally federally protected. To the extent the law otherwise provides a remedy, I’d extend it to the entity.
(2) It is reasonable to inquire, why is discrimination different than religious practice? For me, I just don’t think religious exercise by an entity is the same as extending discrimination protection to an entity. There is something about the affirmative exercise of religion that I don’t think extends well to an entity. That is, discrimination happens to a person or an entity. Religious practice is an affirmative act that is different. Basically, reification of the entity to the point of religious practice crosses a line that I think is unnecessary and improper because discrimination protection should be sufficient.
As a follow up to that, I also think it's a reasonable question to ask: Why is religion different than speech? To me it is different because entities must speak, but entities don’t have to practice religion. The entity needs speech to conduct business. A public entity speaks in its public filings. Speech is not just something an entity could do. It is something it must do. Religion, at the entity level is not necessary.
(3) Reverse piercing is not as good a solution as it might appear. Professor Bainbridge suggests that reverse veil piercing is one way in which the religion of the shareholders could be used to justify extending a religious identity to the Hobby Lobby entity, thus allowing the entity to object to certain provisions of the federal healthcare mandate. His argument is, as usual, reasonable and plausible. Still, as explained above, I don't think this is necessary.
More important, though, I don’t like expanding the use of any form of veil piercing. Veil piercing is supposed to be used (at least in my view) solely as a heightened level of fraud protection. It is already used too often and too haphazardly, and further degradation of the line between the entity and others is a dangerous proposition, regardless of the purpose. That is, as people (and courts) get more comfortable with disregarding the entity, they are more likely to disregard the entity. As a general proposition, I think that’s a bad outcome. That alone is reason enough for me to hope the Court will pass on reverse veil piercing as a potential remedy.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Business law has a broad overlap with tax, accounting, and finance. Just how much belongs in a law school course is often a challenge to determine. We all have different comfort levels and views on the issue, but incorporating some level of financial literacy is essential. Fortunately, a more detailed discussion of what to include and how to include it is forthcoming. Here's the call:
Call For Papers
AALS Section on Agency, Partnerships LLCs, and Unincorporated Associations
Bringing Numbers into Basic and Advanced Business Associations Courses: How and Why to Teach Accounting, Finance, and Tax
2015 AALS Annual Meeting Washington, DC
Business planners and transactional lawyers know just how much the “number-crunching” disciplines overlap with business law. Even when the law does not require unincorporated business associations and closely held corporations to adopt generally accepted accounting principles, lawyers frequently deal with tax implications in choice of entity, the allocation of ownership interests, and the myriad other planning and dispute resolution circumstances in which accounting comes into play. In practice, unincorporated business association law (as contrasted with corporate law) has tended to be the domain of lawyers with tax and accounting orientation. Yet many law professors still struggle with the reality that their students (and sometimes the professors themselves) are not “numerate” enough to make these important connections. While recognizing the importance of numeracy, the basic course cannot in itself be devoted wholly to primers in accounting, tax, and finance.
The Executive Committee will devote the 2015 annual Section meeting in Washington to the critically important, but much-neglected, topic of effectively incorporating accounting, tax, and finance into courses in the law of business associations. In addition to featuring several invited speakers, we seek speakers (and papers) to address this subject. Within the broad topic, we seek papers dealing with any aspect of incorporating accounting, tax, and finance into the pedagogy of basic or advanced business law courses.
Any full-time faculty member of an AALS member school who has written an unpublished paper, is working on a paper, or who is interested in writing a paper in this area is invited to submit a 1 or 2-page proposal by May 1, 2014 (preferably by April 15, 2014). The Executive Committee will review all submissions and select two papers by May 15, 2014. A very polished draft must be submitted by November 1, 2014. The Executive Committee is exploring publication possibilities, but no commitment on that has been made. All submissions and inquiries should be directed to Jeff Lipshaw, Chair.
Jeffrey M. Lipshaw
Suffolk University Law School
Click here for contact info
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Donna M. Nagy recently posted “Owning Stock While Making Law: An Agency Problem and A Fiduciary Solution” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article focuses on Members of Congress and their widespread practice of holding personal investments in companies that are directly and substantially affected by legislative action. Whether entirely accurate or not, congressional officials with investment portfolios chock full of corporate stocks and bonds contribute to a corrosive belief that lawmakers can – and sometimes do – place their personal financial interests ahead of the public they serve.
Fiduciary principles provide a practical solution to this classic agency problem. The Article first explores the loyalty-based rules that guard against self-interested decision-making by directors of corporations and by government officials in the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. It then contrasts the strict anti-conflict restraints in state corporate law and federal conflicts-of-interest statutes with the very different set of ethical rules and norms that Congress traditionally has applied to the financial investments held by its own members and employees. It also confronts the parochial view that lawmakers’ conflicts are best deterred through public disclosure of personal investments and the discipline of the electoral process. The Article concludes with a proposal for new limitations on the securities that lawmakers may hold during their congressional service. Specifically, and as a starting place, Congress should prohibit its members (and their staffs) from holding securities in companies substantially affected by the work of any congressional committee on which they hold membership. But Congress should also explore the adoption of even stricter anti-conflict restraints, such as a statute or rule that would, subject to some narrow exceptions, prohibit members and senior staff officials from owning any securities other than government securities or shares in diversified mutual funds.
Saturday, January 18, 2014
My Akron colleague Will Huhn just posted “2013-2014 Supreme Court Term: Court's Decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman, No. 11-965: Implications for the Birth Control Mandate Cases?” over at his blog wilsonhuhn.com. Here is a brief excerpt, but you should go read the entire post:
On January 14, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its decision in favor of Daimler AG (the maker of Mercedes-Benz), ruling that the federal courts in California lacked personal jurisdiction over Daimler to adjudicate claims for human rights violations arising in Argentina. The ruling of the Court may have implications for the birth control mandate cases pending before the Court in Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties…. In those cases the owners of two private, for-profit business corporations contend that their individual rights to freedom of religion "pass through" to the corporation -- that the corporations are in effect the "agents" of the principal shareholders, and that this is why the corporations have the right to deny their employees health insurance coverage for birth control. In Daimler the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had held that MBUSA was the "agent" of Daimler AG, and that the substantial business presence of MBUSA in California could be imputed to Daimler AG. The Supreme Court was not persuaded by this agency analysis…. It would be anomalous for the Court to adhere to corporate identity for purposes of personal jurisdiction and liability for tort, and yet to ignore corporate identity to give effect to the personal religious choices of stockholders.
Saturday, December 28, 2013
Sitkoff explains why “a mandatory fiduciary core is ... reconcilable with an economic theory of fiduciary law.”
Robert H. Sitkoff recently posted “An Economic Theory of Fiduciary Law” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This chapter restates the economic theory of fiduciary law, making several fresh contributions. First, it elaborates on earlier work by clarifying the agency problem that is at the core of all fiduciary relationships. In consequence of this common economic structure, there is a common doctrinal structure that cuts across the application of fiduciary principles in different contexts. However, within this common structure, the particulars of fiduciary obligation vary in accordance with the particulars of the agency problem in the fiduciary relationship at issue. This point explains the purported elusiveness of fiduciary doctrine. It also explains why courts apply fiduciary law both categorically, such as to trustees and (legal) agents, as well as ad hoc to relationships involving a position of trust and confidence that gives rise to an agency problem.
Second, this chapter identifies a functional distinction between primary and subsidiary fiduciary rules. In all fiduciary relationships we find general duties of loyalty and care, typically phrased as standards, which proscribe conflicts of interest and prescribe an objective standard of care. But we also find specific subsidiary fiduciary duties, often phrased as rules, that elaborate on the application of loyalty and care to commonly recurring circumstances in the particular form of fiduciary relationship. Together, the general primary duties of loyalty and care and the specific subsidiary rules provide for governance by a mix of rules and standards that offers the benefits of both while mitigating their respective weaknesses.
Finally, this chapter revisits the puzzle of why fiduciary law includes mandatory rules that cannot be waived in a relationship deemed fiduciary. Committed economic contractarians, such as Easterbrook and Fischel, have had difficulty in explaining why the parties to a fiduciary relationship do not have complete freedom of contract. The answer is that the mandatory core of fiduciary law serves a cautionary and protective function within the fiduciary relationship as well as an external categorization function that clarifies rights for third parties. The existence of a mandatory fiduciary core is thus reconcilable with an economic theory of fiduciary law.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Martin Gelter & Geneviève Helleringer posted “Constituency Directors and Corporate Fiduciary Duties” on SSRN a few weeks ago, and I’m finally getting around to passing on the abstract:
In this chapter, we identify a fundamental contradiction in the law of fiduciary duty of corporate directors across jurisdictions, namely the tension between the uniformity of directors’ duties and the heterogeneity of directors themselves. Directors are often formally or informally selected by specific shareholders (such as a venture capitalist or an important shareholder) or other stakeholders of the corporation (such as creditors or employees), or they are elected to represent specific types of shareholders (e.g. minority investors). In many jurisdictions, the law thus requires or facilitates the nomination of what has been called “constituency” directors. Legal rules tend nevertheless to treat directors as a homogeneous group that is expected to pursue a uniform goal. We explore this tension and suggest that it almost seems to rise to the level of hypocrisy: Why do some jurisdictions require employee representatives that are then seemingly not allowed to strongly advocate employee interests? Looking at US, UK, German and French law, our chapter explores this tension from the perspective of economic and behavioral theory.
Friday, October 18, 2013
Really great piece by Justin Fox on “What We’ve Learned from the Financial Crisis” over at the Harvard Business Review. What follows is a brief excerpt, but you'll want to go read the whole thing.
Five years ago the global financial system seemed on the verge of collapse. So did prevailing notions about how the economic and financial worlds are supposed to function. The basic idea that had governed economic thinking for decades was that markets work…. In the summer of 2007, though, the markets for some mortgage securities stopped functioning…. [T]he economic downturn was definitely worse than any other since the Great Depression, and the world economy is still struggling to recover…. Five years after the crash of 2008 is still early to be trying to determine its intellectual consequences. Still, one can see signs of change…. To me, three shifts in thinking stand out: (1) Macroeconomists are realizing that it was a mistake to pay so little attention to finance. (2) Financial economists are beginning to wrestle with some of the broader consequences of what they’ve learned over the years about market misbehavior. (3) Economists’ extremely influential grip on a key component of the economic world—the corporation—may be loosening.
Fox goes on to dissect each of these shifts, putting them in historical perspective. As I said, I think it is well worth your time to read his entire piece. A couple of additional noteworthy quotes from his analysis of item (3) above follow:
- [M]ost economic theories also build upon a common foundation of self-interested individuals or companies seeking to maximize something or other (utility, profit) …. Still, one narrow way of looking at the world can’t be the only valid path toward understanding its workings. There’s also a risk that emphasizing individual self-interest above all else may even discourage some of the behaviors and attitudes that make markets work in the first place—because markets need norms and limits to function smoothly.
- I don’t think the shareholder value critics have come up with a coherent alternative. We’re all still waiting for some other framework with which to understand the corporation—and economists may not be able to deliver it. Who will? Sociologists have probably been the most persistent critics of shareholder value, and of the atomized way in which economists view the world. Some, such as Neil Fligstein, of UC Berkeley, and Gerald Davis, of the University of Michigan, have proposed alternative models of the corporation that emphasize stability and cohesion over transaction and value.