Saturday, June 25, 2016

Whither Audit Opinions

Section 11 imposes liability for false statements in registration statements.  See 15 U.S.C. §77k.  Section 11 is distinctive in that the plaintiffs do not have to show fault on the part of any defendants - a sharp contrast with Section 10(b), which requires plaintiffs to prove that the defendants acted with scienter.

When it comes to imposing liability on corporate auditors who approve false financial statements, very often, Section 11 is the only viable option for plaintiffs.  This is because it is very, very hard to show that auditors acted with scienter – especially at the pleading stage.  When a company blows up, typically a lot of information becomes available that would help the plaintiffs demonstrate that there was fault within the corporate ranks.  But it is far less typical for information to become available against the auditor.  So Section 11 is really the only way for plaintiffs to go.

In Querub v. Moore Stephens Hong Kong, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 9213 (2d Cir. N.Y. May 20, 2016) (unpublished), the Second Circuit held that for Section 11 purposes, audit opinions are “opinions” in the manner described in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Constr. Indus. Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015).  This means that audit opinions can only be shown to be false – and liability based on them can only be imposed – if the plaintiffs show either that the auditors did not believe the opinion (the functional equivalent of scienter), or that the auditors left out critical facts regarding the manner in which the opinion was formed (which in most cases is likely to mean that the auditor failed to comply with Generally Accepted Accounting Standards (GAAS)).

It’s my view that this holding contradicts the text of Section 11. 

Section 11, provides that if a registration statement contains a false statement or material omission, liability will lie against:

every accountant, engineer, or appraiser, or any person whose profession gives authority to a statement made by him, who has with his consent been named as having prepared or certified any part of the registration statement, or as having prepared or certified any report or valuation which is used in connection with the registration statement, with respect to the statement in such registration statement, report, or valuation, which purports to have been prepared or certified by him...

On my reading, this language directs courts to ask whether the corporate financial statements are false.  If they are, then liability is imposed on the auditor who “certified” the statements – automatically.  The act of auditor certification of a false financial statement is what triggers liability, period.  No further inquiry into the truth or falsity of the certification itself – independent of the underlying financial statement – is permitted.

But, the auditor is permitted to offer a defense.  Auditors (who are “experts”) may avoid liability if they prove that:

as regards any part of the registration statement purporting to be made upon his authority as an expert or purporting to be a copy of or extract from a report or valuation of himself as an expert … he had, after reasonable investigation, reasonable ground to believe and did believe, at the time such part of the registration statement became effective, that the statements therein were true and that there was no omission to state a material fact required to be stated therein or necessary to make the statements therein not misleading….

In other words, the auditor will not be liable if it believed the financial statements were true, based on a reasonable investigation.  Presumably, the auditor will try to meet this standard by showing that it complied with GAAS, which itself would require a showing of good faith and professional due diligence.  If the auditor makes that showing, it avoids liability.

The Second Circuit (and, I must confess, several other courts) undermine this scheme when they put the burden on the plaintiff to make an initial showing that there was a failure to comply with GAAS.

This is a problem that may be broader than audit certifications, and extend to the proper interpretation of Section 11 generally - occasioned not so much by Omnicare's definition of opinion falsity, but by its capacious definition of what counts as opinion in the first place - but in the context of audit opinions, the tension looms particularly large.

Now, one counterargument is that auditors do not “certify” financial statements any more.  Certification is an old terminology; it fell out of favor several decades ago (after the passage of the Securities Act), to be replaced by the “opinion” phrasing, which more accurately reflects the fact that auditors don’t guarantee the accuracy of corporate financial statements.  And indeed, today, SEC regulations dictate that auditors offer “opinions” (not certifications) of financial statements.

But to me, this is beside the point.  As far as I know - and I'd be curious if anyone has any contrary evidence - these changes in terminology were never intended to change the liability scheme, let alone shift Section 11's burden of proof (something that presumably auditors could not do unilaterally).

June 25, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

And as long as I’m talking about insider trading

As Rodney Tonkovic discusses in more detail, the plaintiff in Fried v. Stiefel Labs, 814 F.3d 1288 (11th Cir. 2016), has petitioned the Supreme Court to delineate disclosure duties in the context of trading by private companies.

Richard Fried was the former CFO of Stiefel Labs, which was privately held.  As an employee, he received stock as part of a pension plan.  When he retired, he sold the stock back to Stiefel (I don’t know much about the market for Stiefel stock, but I’m guessing that, since it was privately held, Fried didn’t think he had many alternative options).  Sadly for Fried, shortly after his sale, it was announced that Stiefel was being acquired by GlaxoSmithKline, and that negotiations had been in the works at the time of his sale.  By selling to Steifel instead of waiting for GSK’s acquisition, he missed out on, roughly, an additional $1.62 million.  He sued Stiefel, alleging that Stiefel had been obligated to disclose the negotiations to him at the time of his sale.

This is not something that comes up very often, but the case law that does exist tends to hold that insider trading principles apply both to private and public companies and, in particular, that when a company buys its own stock back from an employee, it has a duty to disclose material inside information.  See, e.g., Castellano v. Young & Rubicam, Inc., 257 F.3d 171 (2d Cir. 2001); Jordan v. Duff & Phelps, Inc., 815 F.2d 429 (7th Cir. 1987).

The issue is a bit of a theoretical muddle, though, not least because it is the company – not a particular employee – who is doing the trading, and thus the precise fiduciary duty at issue is harder to nail down.  The employee knows the price is not being set by the market generally, and the employee's expectations regarding the company's superior information depend - well - on the existing background legal regime of required disclosures.   (The SEC filed a brief in a related case, where it argued that “where a company trades in its own stock it does have a duty to disclose material information or abstain from trading.” SEC Brief, Finnerty v. Stiefel Labs, 2013 WL 2903651, at *9-*10.  This was an odd statement because that’s a hard case to make if the company is selling its stock, at least to the extent it’s relying on a Section 5 exemption.)  So what the employee might reasonably expect, or rely upon - and thus be deceived by - is something of a moving target.

I’m not going to hazard a guess as to whether the Supreme Court is likely to grant cert in the Fried case– my track record on these sorts of predictions is embarrassingly terrible – but I will say that there are some uphill battles Fried may have to climb.  First and most importantly, the Eleventh Circuit never actually decided the issue of whether a private corporation counts as an "insider" for insider trading purposes, because it rejected the claim on essentially technical grounds – i.e., that Fried should have requested jury instructions under 10b-5(a) or 10b-5(c), not 10b-5(b).  The Circuit's failure to address the substantive issues detract from its utility as a vehicle for addressing the duties of a private corporation.  Indeed, the “questions presented” in Fried’s petition do not even mention the Eleventh Circuit’s focus on the distinctions between 10b-5(a), (b), and (c) - which, as we know, are really important distinctions to the Supreme Court, see Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 564 U.S. 135 (2011).

Even leaving that point aside, because of the dearth of caselaw, the Court might reasonably say these issues need more development in the lower courts.  And though Fried argues that this case involves the question whether 10b-5 prohibits trading in possession of material inside information, or only trading on the basis of inside information, that point was only mentioned by the Eleventh Circuit in passing, and it certainly has nothing to do with the far more interesting question of the duties owed by private companies repurchasing their stock.

But, as I said, I’m not going to try to predict what the Court is likely to do here.  I’ll simply say that assuming the Supreme Court rejects Fried’s petition, it almost certainly will have other chances to get at these problems, because of the increasing tendency of companies to stay private for prolonged periods of time, and to go through multiple rounds of financing.  As Bloomberg reports:

[T]he more money you have, the more information you get in private markets. Sven Weber launched the SharesPost 100 index fund in 2012 to let unaccredited investors (with a net worth below $1 million) own shares in late-stage startups, including DocuSign Inc., Spotify AB and Social Finance Inc., with a minimum investment of $2,500. He could only write $500,000 checks at first and it was hard to get information to gauge if he was getting a fair price. As the SharesPost 100 grew to 34 startup positions and $71 million under management, he got more access.

Weber said one Silicon Valley unicorn provided virtually no information when he was trying to purchase shares last year. Based on historical statements and publicly available documents like articles of incorporation, he invested anyway. During the past year, he increased his stake, got to know company executives and eventually convinced them to share quarterly revenue updates and forward-looking statements.

The differential access to information has attracted not only SEC attention, but also other lawsuits like Fried’s - and I'm assuming there will be more to follow.   So the really interesting question is, when you invest in a private company, to what extent are you assuming the risk of this kind of informational asymmetry?

June 18, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Friends with Benefits

I attended my first Law and Society meeting this year (made easier by the fact that it was held in New Orleans, my newly-adopted city!)   And as Joan indicated in a prior post, she gave a presentation on her most recent project, tentatively titled “Pillow Talk, The Parent Trap, Sibling Rivalries, Kissing Cousins, and Other Personal Relationships in U.S. Insider Trading Cases.”  And very shortly after she concluded, a news story dropped in my inbox about SEC v. Maciocio, involving two longtime friends charged in an insider trading scheme that lasted for several years. 

The reason the case interests me is that I assume the SEC (and the DOJ in a parallel criminal complaint) are teeing it up in light of the pending Supreme Court case of Salman v. United States

According to the SEC’s allegations, Maciocio worked for a pharmaceutical company that engaged in business dealings with several other companies.  Hobson was his longtime childhood friend.  The details of their relationship are described in the SEC’s complaint, including their days of Little League baseball, and daily phone calls and emails.

Hobson, as it turns out, was a securities broker.  So, Maciocio tipped off Hobson whenever his employer struck a new business deal – as you do – allowing Hobson to reap nearly $200,000 in trading profits.  Maciocio made similar trades himself.  

But the striking thing about the complaint is that the SEC is extraordinarily vague in describing any personal benefit that Maciocio received from tipping Hobson.  Maciocio profited from his own trades, of course, but in exchange for passing information to Hobson, the SEC only alleges that he received barely-described “investment advice” and “stock tips” – not much of a benefit, considering that Hobson was Maciocio’s broker and presumably would have given advice anyway.  Beyond that, the SEC openly alleges that the tips were simply a “gift” to Maciocio’s “close personal friend.” 

The reason this is striking, of course, is that in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983), the Supreme Court - reacting to the extraordinarily bizarre facts before it - invented the rule that gratuitous tipping does not a Section 10(b) violation make.

So the critical question is, does friendship maintenance have legally cognizable value?

Well, that's what the Supreme Court is set to consider in Salman: whether “gift” of information is enough to count as a 10(b) violation, even in the absence of a concrete benefit to the tipper.  In Salman, though, the giftee was a relative, and the law has a much harder time with the nebulous bonds of friendship.  The difficulty is that without a grand theory of insider trading – which the law has yet to develop – it's not clear what kind of relationships suffice.  The last thing we want is a case by case analysis about whether a friendship was close enough to count - creating uncertainty for everyone who trades - and there's no obvious reason why a tip to a casual buddy should somehow be less harmful to markets than a tip to a BFF. Then again, if friendship isn't enough, the government will make do with whatever benefit peppercorns it can find - steak dinners, anyone? - which hardly makes any more sense.

Point being, Joan – I look forward to seeing what you can make of all this!

June 9, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

How much paternalism do we need?

How much do we trust institutional investors to protect their interests?

Delaware law has gradually been inching toward a recognition that in a stock market dominated by institutional investors, old assumptions – about a dispersed,  uninformed, and rationally passive shareholder base – must give way to a new recognition of shareholder sophistication and incentives.

You can see the tendrils of this growing awareness in, for example, opinions like Corwin v. KKR Fin. Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), where the Delaware Supreme Court held that a shareholder vote in favor of a merger would act as a ratification of the directors’ conduct – a ruling that implicitly relied on an expectation of shareholder sophistication.  See id. (“When the real parties in interest—the disinterested equity owners—can easily protect themselves at the ballot box by simply voting no, the utility of a litigation-intrusive standard of review promises more costs to stockholders in the form of litigation rents and inhibitions on risk-taking than it promises in terms of benefits to them.”)  You can see it in then-Vice Chancellor Strine’s opinion in In re Pure Res. S'Holders Litig., 808 A.2d 421 (Del. Ch. 2002), where he held that controlling shareholder tender offers need not always be subject to entire fairness review, in light of the “increased activism of institutional investors and the greater information flows available to them” – which influenced later standards applied to the merger context.  See Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635 (Del. 2014).

You can also see it in Myron Steele’s recent lecture at Fordham, where he predicted that “it’s only a matter of time before substantive coercion is history. Because when you have a seventy-five percent institutional stockholder base, it’s not like you're their guardian. They’re perfectly capable of making their own decisions…”  See 20 Fordham J. Corp. & Fin. L. 352 (2015).

But in In re Appraisal of Dell, 2016 Del. Ch. LEXIS 81 (Del. Ch. 2016), Vice Chancellor Laster pooh-poohed market judgments, embarking on a prolonged discussion about why shareholders – and even market analysts – might fail to recognize the value of new investments with long term payoffs, not even necessarily because they lack information, but because of what he deemed an “anti-bubble.”  The most eyebrow-raising moment came when, in support of this thesis, he cited Martin Lipton’s blog posts at the HLS Forum and CLS Blue Sky.  Martin Lipton**, of course, frequently argues that shareholders are uninformed and not to be trusted, in support of a general agenda of minimizing shareholder power and maximizing management discretion.

All of this just begs the question:  if shareholders’ judgments are so untrustworthy, why do their votes in favor of a merger have such an immunizing effect?*

 

*the contradiction is made more obvious by Martin Lipton's recent blog post decrying the Dell decision; the irony, of course, is that Lipton's own arguments were used to justify the court's conclusion that shareholder valuations are unreliable.

**in case anyone was wondering, no relation.

June 4, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Roseanne’s Lessons for Corporate Managers

Public companies are required to report certain material events within 4 business days on Form 8-K.  These events include such matters  as the departure of directors or officers, the disposition of assets, or material impairment of assets. 

In their paper Strategic Disclosure Misclassification, Andrew Bird, Stephen A. Karolyi, and Paul Ma find that in their 8-K filings, corporate managers seem to be taking a leaf from Roseanne’s bill paying system:

 

Specifically, Bird et al. find that companies frequently “misfile” their 8-Ks, categorizing them as miscellaneous “other” rather than properly identifying them in the appropriate category.  “Misfiling” is particularly likely to occur for negative events, and during periods when investor attention is high - suggesting that misfilings are part of a strategic effort to deflect investor attention.  Happily for corporate managers, the strategy is an effective one: misfiled 8-Ks not only receive less traffic, but they also have less stock price impact.

Roseanne would be so proud.

May 28, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Delaware’s Vulnerability

Last week, Chancellor Andre Bouchard dismissed the derivative complaint filed against Walmart concerning the WalMex bribery scandal, on the grounds of issue preclusion:  Earlier, a federal court in Arkansas had dismissed identical claims filed by a different set of plaintiffs. 

The reason that the Arkansas decision came so much earlier than the Delaware decision was, of course, that the Arkansas plaintiffs filed their complaint without first exercising their inspection rights under Section 220.  The Delaware plaintiffs did exercise their rights, as Delaware has repeatedly counseled plaintiffs should do, and fought Walmart for years over it – taking a trip to the Delaware Supreme Court as a result.

Standing alone, then, this case stands for the proposition that Delaware has no way of enforcing its own guidance to plaintiffs that they seek books and records before filing a derivative claim. 

But there’s hope – because this is exactly the kind of destructive competition among plaintiffs’ firms that forum selection bylaws were meant to address.  Had such a bylaw been in place, all of the plaintiffs could have been shunted into a Delaware forum.

Right?

Unfortunately, no.  Because defendants have the freedom to ignore a forum selection bylaw if their interests are served by dealing with a weaker set of plaintiffs in a foreign forum.

I’ve expressed concern about this issue before, and my fears came to fruition in Gordon Niedermayer, et al. v. Steven A. Kriegsman, et al. and CytRx Corp., C.A. No. 11800-VCMR, tr. ruling (Del. Ch. May 2, 2016).  There, the company waived its forum selection bylaw just in time to choose which group of plaintiffs with which to settle.  When the Delaware plaintiffs challenged the waiver, the court upheld it: though the court warned directors against forum selection “gamesmanship,” it found no such gamesmanship here.

Though I'm not expressing an opinion on the particular ruling in CytRx, the situation stands as a warning of how Delaware procedural law - which is becoming as much a part of its corporate jurisprudence as its substantive standards - may be threatened.  For example, in cases like In re Trulia Stockholder Litigation, 2016 WL 325008 (Del. Ch. Jan. 22, 2016), Delaware has declared a new war on “intergalactic releases” for meaningless disclosures in merger litigation – a move largely applauded by many commenters.  But Trulia and cases like it will be reduced to rubble if plaintiffs can simply file in other jurisdictions, while defendants – seeking certainty that their deal is insulated from further challenge – waive forum selection bylaws as it suits them.

Indeed, according to a study by C. N. V. Krishnan, Steven Davidoff Solomon, & Randall S. Thomas, experienced defense counsel take advantage of the fact that doubtful merger agreements tend to result in challenges in multiple fora, reaching sweetheart settlements with the most amenable group of plaintiffs.  In other words, the very weakness of the merger is what neuters the plaintiffs’ challenge: Lower premiums invite litigation by multiple firms, whom defendants can then play off each other.

If Delaware doesn’t come up with a way to manage this situation, the market will – and not to Delaware’s benefit.

 

May 21, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Saturday Movie Blogging – Money Monster

Money Monster, directed by Jodie Foster, is the latest addition to the pop cultural anti-finance zeitgeist.  George Clooney plays – well, Jim Cramer, with Julia Roberts as his long-suffering director.  Their usual television buffoonery is interrupted by a disgruntled investor who lost his life savings by following Clooney’s advice to invest in – well, Knight Capital.  Now he insists on holding Clooney hostage at gunpoint until he can get an explanation for the trading “glitch” that caused his investment to go sour.

 

Warning:  Below be spoilers, though I’ll try to keep them to a minimum (roughly movie review standards).

Continue reading

May 14, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 7, 2016

I do not think it means what you think it means.

The latest example of dramatic institutional failure – that somehow was entirely accidental – comes to us from MetLife.

The story begins with variable annuities, a product that might be suitable if you’re trying to shelter your assets from a lawsuit, but otherwise one whose chief virtue lies in its capacity to serve as a litmus test for the honesty of your broker. 

After the financial crisis, insurance companies decided that their outstanding variable annuities were too good for existing customers, and began offering very high commissions to any brokers who could persuade their clients to exchange an older one for a newer, less generous model.

Enter MetLife.  From 2009 to 2014, MetLife brokers churned $3 billion worth of variable annuities, resulting in $152 million in dealer commissions.  Customers were told that the newer annuity was less expensive or comparable, when in fact, 72% of the time, this was, shall we say, not so much true.   For example, 30% of the replacement applications falsely stated that the new contract was less expensive than the old one.  Applications also failed to disclose benefits and guarantees that the customer would forfeit in making the exchange, understated the value of existing benefits, and overstated the value of the benefits on the new contracts. 

MetLife approved the exchange applications despite the errors.  And as icing on the cake, sent false quarterly account statements that understated customer fees on their variable annuities.

For these sins, FINRA charged MetLife with “negligently misrepresent[ing] ... material facts” and failure to “reasonably supervise” its annuity replacement business.  Without admitting or denying wrongdoing, MetLife consented to censure, a $20 million fine, and to pay damages to customers up to $5 million.

Now, forgive me for being perhaps a touch cynical, but it strikes me as a bit farfetched to imagine that a 5 year course of conduct that affected nearly 75% of a $3 billion business line represented merely “negligent” behavior - i.e., a mere failure to exercise due care - especially at a time when exchanges were being pushed precisely to persuade customers to shed the desirable features of older annuities.

 

Notably, these “mistakes” never resulted in customers being falsely told the new contract was worse than the old one; somehow, these happy accidents consistently worked to benefit MetLife at the customers’ expense.  It’s hard not to suspect MetLife would have discovered the errors a lot more quickly if they were working in the other direction.

In recent years, the SEC and DOJ have both promised to put more teeth into investigations of corporate misconduct by pursuing individuals, avoiding “neither admit nor deny” settlements, and calling out intentional misbehavior for what it is.  I guess FINRA hasn’t gotten the Yates Memo.

May 7, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The supper dictates the song

Securities regulations have increasingly required disclosure of, and shareholder input into, corporate executives’ pay.  For years, public corporations have been required to disclose the salaries of named executive officers, Dodd-Frank instituted (nonbinding) shareholder say-on-pay votes, and very soon, companies will be required to disclose the ratio of the CEO’s pay to median employee pay.

Many have argued that disclosure creates a Lake Wobegon effect:  No one wants to admit that their CEO gets below-average pay, and so disclosure ends up causing pay levels to rise across the board.

Now, a new study by Hongyan Li and Jin Xu looks at the effect in the context of CFO pay.  

Prior to 2006, the SEC required disclosure of the pay of five highest paid executive officers, including the CEO.  In 2006, however, the SEC changed its regulations to require disclosure of CFO pay, regardless of whether the CFO was one of the most highly paid.  The authors used the change as a natural experiment to discover the effect of disclosure on both CFO salary levels and CFO behavior.

Using a sample of S&P 1500 firms from 1999 through 2013, they find that at firms that had not previously disclosed CFO pay, CFO pay increased at a greater rate than at firms that had been disclosing CFO pay all along.  More worryingly, they also found that after companies began disclosing CFO pay, the quality of financial reporting deteriorated.  I.e., it seems as though once the CFO position becomes more prominent – and more highly paid – CFOs feel more need to “sing for their supper” in the form of generating positive (and potentially artificial) results.

That said, there seems to be room for further analysis.  The authors divide companies into 4 groups based on whether they reported CFO pay prior to the 2006 changes (always reported, often, seldom, and never) and they find that on some measures, the increase in earnings management is confined to the seldom and/or often groups.  So the story is not as simple as disclosure = deterioration.  Still, the study highlights flaws in a regulatory philosophy based on the disciplining effects of disclosure.

April 30, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Visiting Tax Professor Position at Tulane

Hello, everyone - I'm passing this along in case any of our readers have an interest, or know anyone who might have an interest.  And if anyone needs convincing as to why they should spend a semester or a year in New Orleans, email me privately and allow me to extol the city's virtues.

Tulane Law School is currently accepting applications for a visiting tax professor for either the Fall of 2016 or for the entire 2016-2017 Academic Year.  Visitors would be expected to teach basic Income Tax and other tax related courses.  Applicants at any career stage are encouraged.  To apply, please submit a CV along with a statement of interest and any supporting documentation.  Applications and questions may be directed to Vice Dean Ronald J. Scalise Jr. at rscalise@tulane.edu.   Tulane University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer committed to excellence through diversity.  All eligible candidates are invited to apply. 

 

April 28, 2016 in Ann Lipton, Jobs, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Introducing the Surly Subgroup

I wanted to drop a quick plug for the latest addition to the blawgosphere:  The Surly Subgroup: Tax Blogging on a Consolidated Basis.  My colleague, Shu-Yi Oei, is one of the founding members, and they've put together a really nice group of professors with a variety of interests who will post about a range of tax-related issues.  They just went live this week, but already there are a couple of posts up that may be of interest to BLPB readers, including one on the new regulations for Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco, one on whether organizations that distribute marijuana are eligible for charitable organization status for tax purposes, one on Donald Trump's tax proposals, and one on Prince's tax dispute with the French government.

If you're like me, you have no idea what the phrase "Surly Subgroup" means.  No matter; Shu-Yi's helpfully posted an explanation here.  Basically, affiliated corporate groups may file a consolidated tax return, raising questions about the extent to which losses in one can offset the income of another.  "Separate Return Limitation Year" (SRLY) rules govern that question for corporations that have losses prior to their affiliation with the group.  And those rules allow the "subgrouping" of corporations that were affiliated with each other prior to joining the larger group - hence, SRLY subgroups.

April 23, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

It's a reversal! Our First Appellate Interpretation of Halliburton II Has Arrived

A few days ago, the Eighth Circuit became the first appellate court to interpret Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014) (Halliburton II), relying on that case to reverse a district court’s class certification order in IBEW Local 98 Pension Fund v. Best Buy Co.

The case is interesting because it has an unusually clean fact pattern for analyzing some basic dilemmas in the law governing Section 10(b) actions.

The facts are these:

On the morning of September 14, 2010, before the market opened, Best Buy issued a press release that increased its full-year earnings guidance.  By the time of the opening, its stock price was up 7.5% from the prior day’s close.  Two hours after the press release issued, Best Buy held a conference call with market analysts, during which the CFO stated that the company was “on track to deliver and exceed” its EPS guidance. 

On December 14, 2010, Best Buy issued a press release announcing a decline in sales and reduction in EPS guidance, causing a stock price decline.

The plaintiffs alleged that both the September 14 press release, and the subsequent conference call, were fraudulent.  The district court held that the press release was immunized as a forward-looking statement, accompanied by sufficient cautionary language, under the PSLRA’s safe harbor.  However, the court held that the “on track” representation was not forward looking, and claims based on that statement could proceed.

The problem, however, as the plaintiffs’ own expert eventually opined, was that Best Buy’s stock price increased after the immunized press release, and did not appear to react to the earnings conference call.  The plaintiffs’ expert also opined that the conference call conveyed information that was “virtually the same” as the information in the press release. 

The plaintiffs offered two theories to explain how the conference call may have impacted Best Buy’s stock price.  First, they claimed that the conference call caused an upward earnings drift over the next several weeks.  And second, they claimed that the “on track” confirmatory statements served to maintain Best Buy's stock price, already boosted by the press release.  Accepting this evidence, the district court certified the class.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed.  It concluded that, in accordance with Halliburton II, the defendants had rebutted the presumption that the conference call impacted Best Buy's price.  In the Eighth Circuit’s view, because the plaintiffs' own expert agreed that the stock price had only increased in response to the immunized press release, and agreed the conference call conveyed no new information, the conference call could not have had an effect.  The court rejected the "earnings drift" theory as contrary to the efficient market hypothesis, but did not – in explicit terms – weigh in on the plaintiffs’ price maintenance theory, except to say that this was unlike situations where a third-party confirms an earlier corporate statement.

Judge Murphy, in dissent, faulted the majority for failing to directly confront the plaintiffs’ price maintenance theory – which, she believed, had not been rebutted.

There are several interesting things to comment on here.

[More under the jump]

Continue reading

April 16, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Can Consumer or Investor Pressure Make a Difference on Corporate Actions? The Carnival Conundrum

Today in my Business and Human Rights class I thought about Ann's recent post where she noted that socially responsible investor Calpers was rethinking its decision to divest from tobacco stocks. My class has recently been discussing the human rights impacts of mega sporting events and whether companies such as Rio Tinto (the medal makers), Omega (the time keepers), Coca Cola (sponsor), McDonalds (sponsor), FIFA (a nonprofit that runs worldwide soccer) and the International Olympic Committee (another corporation) are in any way complicit with state actions including the displacement of indigenous peoples in Brazil, the use of slavery in Qatar, human trafficking, and environmental degradation. I asked my students the tough question of whether they would stop eating McDonalds food or wearing Nike shoes because they were sponsors of these events. I required them to consider a number of factors to decide whether corporate sponsors should continue their relationships with FIFA and the IOC. I also asked whether the US should refuse to send athletes to compete in countries with significant human rights violations. 

Because we are in Miami, we also discussed the topic du jour, Carnival Cruise line's controversial decision to follow Cuban law, which prohibits certain Cuban-born citizens from traveling back to Cuba on sea vessels, while permitting them to return to the island by air. Here in Miami, this is big news with the Mayor calling it a human rights violation by Carnival, a County contractor. A class action lawsuit has been filed  seeking injunctive relief. This afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in saying Carnival should not discriminate and calling upon Cuba to change its rules. 

So back to Ann's post. In an informal poll in which I told all students to assume they would cruise, only one of my Business and Human Rights students said they would definitely boycott Carnival because of its compliance with Cuban law. Many, who are foreign born, saw it as an issue of sovereignty of a foreign government. About 25% of my Civil Procedure students would boycott (note that more of them are of Cuban descent, but many of the non-Cuban students would also boycott). These numbers didn't surprise me because as I have written before, I think that consumers focus on convenience, price, and quality- or in this case, whether they really like the cruise itinerary rather than the ethics of the product or service. 

Tomorrow morning (Friday), I will be speaking on a panel with Jennifer Diaz of Diaz Trade Law, two members of the US government, and Cortney Morgan of Husch Blackwell discussing Cuba at the ABA International Law Section Spring Meeting in New York. If you're at the meeting and you read this before 9 am, pass by our session because I will be polling our audience members too. And stay tuned to the Cuba issue. I'm not sure that the Carnival case will disprove my thesis about the ineffectiveness of consumer pressure because if the Secretary of State has weighed in and the Communist Party of Cuba is already meeting next week, it's possible that change could happen that gets Carnival off the hook and the consumer clamor may have just been background noise. In the meantime, Carnival declared a 17% dividend hike earlier today and its stock was only down 11 cents in the midst of this public relations imbroglio. Notably, after hours, the stock was trading up.

April 14, 2016 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Law, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A strike against divestment

Institutional investors – often in response to some protest – occasionally choose to divest themselves of investment in industries that they believe are doing some social harm.

That move is a controversial one; many believe it is unlikely to have any impact on the industry, and thus the investors are only harming themselves by depriving themselves of potential profits.

And Marcia here at BLPB has argued that investors (like consumers) are rarely sufficiently committed to these causes – she doubts that “name and shame” policies, which are intended in part to encourage such moves, will have much of an effect in light of investors’ greater desire for return.

Well, here’s one new datapoint:  Calpers is revisiting its policy of refusing to invest in tobacco stocks.  Apparently, its moral commitments can’t quite hold up in the face of the industry’s rising share prices.  Calpers’s official position is apparently that it can do more good by “engaging” rather than by walking away, although when it comes to tobacco – a product that many criticize merely for its existence – it’s hard to see exactly how that happens.

April 9, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A deepening split

A while back, I posted about a new split between the Second and Ninth Circuits regarding the ability of plaintiffs to bring a Section 10(b) action based on a failure to disclose required information, even in the absence of allegations that the omitted information rendered the remaining statements misleading.  The Second Circuit is for; the Ninth is against.

At the time, the split was not well-developed; the Second Circuit allowed for the possibility of such claims, but also held that the case before it failed to allege scienter.  And the last time the Second Circuit had allowed similar claims to go forward was in In re Scholastic Corp. Sec. Litig., 252 F.3d 63 (2d Cir. 2001). 

So it wasn’t clear whether the split would have much practical effect. 

Well, the Second Circuit now found a case where scienter was properly alleged – and it reversed a district court’s dismissal of the complaint.  The opinion is a veritable goldmine of interesting nuggets.

[More under the jump]

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April 2, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Continuing Legal Education

Lately I've been thinking about CLE programs.  I no longer am required to take them (thank goodness) but they were a regular feature in my life when I was practicing.  I'm only familiar with New York's requirement, but I assume other states' programs are not terribly dissimilar.  I'm sorry to say that I generally found CLE requirements to be a thundering waste of my time - not to mention the fees for classes that functioned as a waste of my firm's money.  I realize there's been a decades-long debate about this issue, but I'll throw my hat in and speculate whether there's anything that could be done to improve them. 

My first problem with CLE - and this I gather has always been the complaint - is that the classes were generally of no use to me in my practice.  I was a specialist; almost all of my time was spent on securities litigation, with the occasional sprinkling of corporate.  That meant I lived the latest case law and proposed legislation/rulemaking on a day to day basis.  The majority of CLE programs in the area were simply pitched at a level that was far too introductory for me - if I actually needed, say, an hourlong course on the latest Supreme Court decisions in the field, that would have been a flashing red light that I was committing malpractice on a day to day basis.

Aware of this, I sometimes selected CLE programs that were outside my field: electronic privacy, IP, employment, antitrust.  And these were interesting, and new to me - but they were also entirely irrelevant to my work.

My other problem with CLE - and this is perhaps a new complaint - was, frankly, the political bias.  I was a plaintiff-side litigator in a highly politicized area of law.  I found that, at least in my area,  CLE programs tended to consist mostly, if not entirely, of defense-side speakers (sometimes with a smattering of government).  As a result, I found most of the discussions to be heavily slanted in the defense's favor, both in terms of their interpretation of existing law, and their recommendations and commentary.  This wasn't always true, of course, but it was true enough on a regular basis to be frustrating.  The occasional panel with one plaintiff-side attorney was rarely enough to counter what was an overwhelmingly defense-side spin.  I used to fear that to the extent some lawyers found these programs novel, they were receiving a very distorted picture of the law - one that they would then carry through to their own practice.

I imagine there are a lot of entrenched interests in maintaining the current system, but I wonder if there might be some ways to make the CLE requirement more meaningful.

First, I'd propose a some option of self-certification, whereby attorneys with a certain number of years of experience, who attest that they specialize in a particular field, are able to fulfill the requirement by certifying that they have read/studied a specified amount recent legal developments in their area of practice - caselaw, new regulations, new publications and updates, etc. 

Second, I'd propose a balance requirement.  At least for fields where attorneys tend to specialize on one side of the "v," any program featuring more than one speaker would be required to devote 50/50 time, or 60/40 time, or even 70/30 time, to each side.

I imagine that there are a zillion reasons why these proposals are impractical and unlikely to be adopted, and I know these issues have been discussed in various fora before, but it seems to me they can't render the requirement any less useful than it is now. 

I'd be curious to know how others experience CLE.  Am I too harsh in my assessment?  Do others get more out of it than I did?

 

March 26, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Tulane's 28th Annual Corporate Law Institute

On Thursday and Friday, I attended Tulane’s 28th Annual Corporate Law Institute. I’d never had the chance to go before, but now that I’m a member of the faculty, it’s a fabulous perk of the job. It was marvelous to get expert, practical analysis of the most pressing issues in corporate governance and M&A practice. I was also delighted to see a couple of my students in attendance – during one of the breaks, they told me how the speakers helped bring together the reality behind the theories they learned in their business courses (and, having never heard Chief Justice Leo Strine speak before, they were predictably … ahem … amazed by his comments).

I’ve compiled a (very) incomplete list of the particular remarks that struck me as interesting or enlightening – with a heavy disclaimer that I wasn’t able to take notes on everything, so this should not be viewed as representative of the conference as a whole. It’s more like, Things From Some Panels Ann Lipton Was Able to Jot Down Quickly. (And also it’s possible I misheard some comments – if so, I apologize!).

I’ll note that the orientation of the speakers was almost all defense-side practice – defending from lawsuits, and defending from activist investors – which made it all the more valuable and interesting when someone spoke up from the other side of the table, or even from a more centrist point of view (the SEC, ISS, M&A journalists, Strine, and Chancellor Andre Bouchard).

[More under the jump]

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March 19, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Lifting the Veil of Auditor Anonymity

I’ve become interested in the proposal to require auditing firms to disclose the names of engagement partners, and other firms, involved in an audit of a public company. Though I can’t pretend to have waded through all the comments that have been submitted on this issue, I gather one of the concerns is that disclosure will increase potential liability under Section 10(b). I actually think that it will and it won’t, and as someone who feels that auditors should be held to more stringent standards than the law currently allows, I have mixed feelings about the proposal.

[More under the jump]

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March 12, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The scramble to avoid conflicts in M&A transactions

The Wall Street Journal reports on a growing phenomenon – in the wake of cases like RBC Capital Mkts., LLC v. Jervis, 2015 Del. LEXIS 629 (Del. Nov. 30, 2015), corporate boards considering M&A deals are rooting out investment banking conflicts by turning to smaller boutique firms to advise them.

My off the cuff reactions -

First, I find this notable if only because board directors are shielded from personal liability both by exculpatory clauses in corporate charters, and by D&O insurance. Scholars frequently argue that the lack of personal liability blunts the potential deterrent effects of shareholder lawsuits; I am fascinated to see a real-world demonstration that the lawsuit threat remains potent. It’s particularly striking in this instance because ultimately it is the conflicted banks – not the directors – who risk liability, and yet the directors are the ones who are exhibiting concern. This is a salutary result: the directors, of course, are the ones who have a fiduciary duty to protect shareholders. (But cf. Andrew F. Tuch, Banker Loyalty in Mergers and Acquisitions) But it’s not necessarily what one would have expected given the liability regime. The WSJ piece suggests that boards’ concerns stem from their fears that their corporations will be responsible for the banks’ legal fees, but I wonder if it’s more that lawsuits, especially ones that appear meritorious, really do have a shaming effect that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Second, to avoid conflicts, directors are hiring smaller, boutique advisory firms. In the post Dodd Frank world, many have questioned whether large mega banks are financially viable, and have suggested that breakups may be inevitable; chalk this up as another datapoint.

Finally, though, it's worth pointing out that there is a legitimate question about how much shareholders will ultimately benefit. To the extent boutique firms are hired as secondary advisors to work with larger banks, is there a risk that the additional fees will cancel out any cost savings? And of course, there’s the standard argument that large banks' connections and knowledge of industry is a benefit to their clients. We’ve seen this argument before – everywhere from the “revolving door” to independent directors to industry arbitrators to farcical questions about whether Supreme Court nominees have an opinion on Roe v. Wade – and it comes down to the claim that a loss of objectivity is the price of expertise. The problem is, it’s still not clear where the right balance lies.

March 5, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Movie Blogging Again

I generally try to catch pop cultural representations of securities law/business law issues; though I haven't yet had a chance to see Billions, I did recently watch Madoff and 99 HomesSo, my thoughts under the jump:

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February 27, 2016 in Ann Lipton | Permalink | Comments (0)