Wednesday, February 10, 2016
New Scholarship on Hedge Fund Activism Urges Courts to Adopt Enhanced Scrutiny of Boards' Defensive Actions
Bernard Sharfman, in his new article on SSRN, The Tension Between hedge Fund Activism and Corporate Law, argues that hedge fund activism for control of a publicly traded corporation is a positive corrective measure in corporate governance. After asserting that hedge fund activism should be permitted, Sharfman, argues, controversially, that courts should depart from traditional deference to a corporate board's decision making authority under the business judgment rule. Alternatively, Sharfman urges courts to adopt a heightened standard of scrutiny when reviewing defensive board actions against hedge funds.
[Hedge Fund Activism] has a role to play as a corrective mechanism in corporate governance and it is up to the courts to find a way to make sure it continues to have a significant impact despite the courts’ inclination to yield to Board authority. In practice, this means that when the plaintiff is an activist hedge fund and the standard of review is the Unocal test because issues of control are present, a less permissive approach needs to be applied, requiring the courts to exercise restraint in interpreting the actions of activist hedge funds as an attempt to gain control.
If there are no issues of control, then Board independence and reasonable investigation still needs to be the focus. That is, before the business judgment rule can be applied, the courts need to utilize an enhanced level of scrutiny in determining whether the Board is truly independent of executive management or any other insider such as a fellow Board member. As previously discussed, Board independence is critical to maximizing the value of HFA. Moreover, reasonable investigation of the activist hedge fund’s recommendations should be required to justify Board action taken to mute the fund’s influence. Like the Unocal test, the burden of proof for establishing independence and reasonable investigation needs to be put on the Board. In sum, what is required in the court’s review of Board actions to mute the influence of an activist hedge fund is something similar to the first prong of the Unocal test except independence and reasonable investigation is now focused on the Board’s evaluation of the fund’s recommendations, not the threat to corporate policy and effectiveness.
Sharfman uses Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht, the 2014 Delaware case invovling Sotheby's poison pill, to illustrate how the traditional (deference) standard of review leads to boards being able to defeat hedge fund activists.
An interesting comment published in the Yale Law Journal by Yale Law Student Carmen X.W. Lu, Unpacking Wolf Packs, offers an alternative view of the Third Point case emphasizing the coalition of hedge funds acting in that case and the court's skepticism of wolf pack activist investors.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the U.S., wrote a letter to the CEO's of S&P 500 Companies urging reforms aimed at fostering long-term valuation creation and curbing a myopic focus on near-term profits. Fink has long been a public advocate of long-term valuation creation for the health of American companies and the wealth of society (for an example see this April 2015 letter on the "gambling nature" of the economy"). His message has been consistent: long term, long term, long term.
Citing to increased dividends and buyback programs as evidence of corrosive short-termism, Fink laid out a modest play for action. He asks every CEO to publish an annual strategic plan signed off on by the board. The CEO strategic plan should communicate the vision for the company and how such long-term growth can be achieved.
[P]erspective on the future, however, is what investors and all stakeholders truly need, including, for example, how the company is navigating the competitive landscape, how it is innovating, how it is adapting to technological disruption or geopolitical events, where it is investing and how it is developing its talent. As part of this effort, companies should work to develop financial metrics, suitable for each company and industry, that support a framework for long-term growth.
Fink wants companies to create these long-term vision statements as a routine part of governance and not just in the context of hedge-fund motivated proxy fights. The idea is that informing the investing public as to the long-term direction of the company and short-term obstacles frames the company message and dampens the "quarterly earnings hysteria". Also interesting to me as I approach a class on corporate social responsibility is Fink's encouragement of companies to pay more attention to social and environmental risks as increasingly difficult obstacles that must be addressed as part of a long term plan. Fink also called upon lawmakers to incentivize a long-term view by thinking beyond the next election cycle as would be needed to enact tax reform (specifically capital gains) and increased resources for infrastructure.
As readers of the blog know, I am in interested in the long-term/short-term debate and have written past posts about it. How controversial would such a CEO statement be? Venture capital/private equity funds investing in companies often require an annual CEO statement. If the language can be crafted to avoid liability for future statements, what are the downsides? Tipping off competitors and losing information advantages or first actor advantages? Letting lesser competitors free ride and adopt market leaders's plans a year or two later? Exposing the board of directors and officers to breached duty claims for failure to meet the objectives? (this last one seems very unlikely given the liability standards and exculpation provisions.)
The financial press and blogs are awash in stories on this. If you are interested in the related commentary, here are a few:
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
In December, 2015, Dow Chemicals Co. and DuPont announced a proposed merger between their two companies. Under the proposed deal, and with the approval of stockholders and regulators, the two agro/chemical giants will merger their companies in 2016 to create DowDuPont, with an estimated $130 billion value. Within 18-24 months of closing, DowDuPont will be split into three independent, publicly traded companies .
The proposed "merger of equals" is structured to share power equally between Dow and DuPont and its leadership in the new company. Dow and DuPont stockholders will each own roughly half of DowDuPont. There will be 16 members on the new DowDuPont board of directors: 8 from each company. The roles of Chairman and CEO will be split with Andrew Liveris (Dow) serving as Chairman and Edward Breen (DuPont) as CEO.
Questions of equality and perceived power imbalance arise when we examine the relationships between (1) corporate boards and activist investors; (2) various shareholders (hedge funds vs. institutional investors vs. retail investors, etc.), and (3) possibly, CEO's.
Let's tackle the first (and tangentially the second) imbalance by talking about hedge funds. Last year, Trian hedge fund targeted DuPont in a very expensive, public and close proxy contest. DuPont defeated Trian, even with ISS recommendations to vote with Trian. The DuPont defense was widely regarded as a model proxy contest defense strategy (see here, e.g.,) and even more enthusiastically as
"a victory not only for DuPont and its chief executive, Ellen Kullman, but for others in corporate America concerned that activist investors’ influence has grown too strong and that companies have capitulated to their demands too readily." WSJ May 13, 2015
By October, Ellen Kullman, the trimphant CEO of DuPont, however stepped down. By December DuPont announced the mega-merger with Dow. DuPont's role in the mega-merger with Dow is being cast as a reaction to and attempt to seek protection from activist investors, which are increasingly garnering ISS and institutional investor support. DuPont's success against Trian rested largely on their ability to convince its three largest shareholders—Vanguard Group, BlackRock Inc. and State Street Corp.—which all manage index funds to vote with it (and against ISS recommendations). The inference here is that DuPont didn't want to roll the dice again and risk losing control in a future contest with Trian or another activist.
Dow Chemicals hasn't been immune to the hedge fund threat. Third Point LLC, Dan Loeb's hedge fund, has a 2% position in Dow and nearly pursued a proxy fight in 2015. Third Point has been making noise about the continued roll of Andrew Liveris in DowDuPont demonstrating that the hall monitor is still on duty.
The gaining strength of hedge fund campaigns in 2015 and the increasingly alignment of hedge funds and indexed funds has many boards running scared. The DealBook Deal Professor, Steven Davidoff Solomon, writes of the mega-merger:
The proposed combination of Dow Chemical and DuPont shows that in today’s markets, financial engineering prevails and that only activist shareholders matter....
This plan is one easily understood by a hedge fund activist or investment banker in a cubicle in Manhattan with an Excel spreadsheet. To them, it makes perfect sense to merge a company and then almost immediately split it in three.
Merger and acquisition volume was at a record high (too soon to say peak) in 2015 as companies sought, in part, to achieve paper returns and cost efficiencies in a slow-growth economy. When large (and voting) shareholders are index and mutual funds with pressures to earn returns for their investors, it can produce corresponding pressure on operating companies for tactics, if not actions to produce those returns. In the DuPont proxy fight, the large block of retail investors in the old-guard public company was a big barrier to Trian, but in companies with less percentage held by retail investors (e.g., newer companies), the hedge fund agenda can drive the company.
Finally, it is interesting to note the rise and fall of DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman in this story. She successfully warded off a proxy contest and seemed to have fended off hedge fund advances, but ultimately her fate and DuPont's were largely driven by Trian's agenda. Reading about this merger reminded me of the spate of stories last year about how hedge funds disproportionately target companies with female CEO's. This is an issue that as a female law professor, I am particularly sensitive to, but that bias not withstanding, the story received quite a bit of play in the financial press last year: DealBook, Bloomberg, and here, and here.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Second Circuit Affirms High Misconduct Standard for Caremark Claims in Cent. Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Dimon
In early January, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Cent. Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Dimon to affirm the dismissal of purported shareholder derivative claims alleging that directors of JP Morgan Chase--the primary bankers of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (“BMIS”) for over 20 years--failed to institute internal controls sufficient to detect Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The suit was dismissed for failures of demand excuse. Plaintiffs contended that the District Court erred in requiring them to plead that defendants “utterly failed to implement any reporting or information system or controls,” and that instead, they should have been required to plead only defendants’ “utter failure to attempt to assure a reasonable information and reporting system exist[ed].” (emphasis added). The Second Circuit declined, citing to In re General Motors Co. Derivative Litig., No. CV 9627-VCG, 2015 WL 3958724, at *14–15 (Del. Ch. June 26, 2015), a Chancery Court opinion from earlier this year that dismissed a Caremark/oversight liability claim. In In re General Motors the Delaware Chancery Court, found that plaintiffs' allegations that:
[T]he Board did not receive specific types of information do not establish that the Board utterly failed to attempt to assure a reasonable information and reporting system exists, particularly in the case at hand where the Complaint not only fails to plead with particularity that [the defendant] lacked procedures to comply with its . . . reporting requirements, but actually concedes the existence of information and reporting systems. . . .
In other words, the Plaintiffs complain that [the defendant] could have, should have, had a better reporting system, but not that it had no such system.
The Second Circuit's opinion in Central Laborers' affirms that Caremark claims require allegations misconduct sufficient to satisfy a failure of good faith, and cannot rest solely on after-the-fact allegations of failed reasonableness of the corporate reporting system.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Rob Weber posted on the Columbia Law School Blue Sky Blog an article titled The Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review and the New Contingency of Bank Dividends, highlighting his recent paper on the topic.
In both the post, and in greater detail in the paper, Rob highlights three aspects of the CCAR program:
[(1)] the significant practical implications of the CCAR for large U.S.-domiciled banks....[(2)] its reliance on discretionary judgments by regulators concerning a hypothetical, uncertain future... [and (3) the CCAR as a] “risk regulation” regime – a designation developed in the environmental, health, and safety (“EHS”) regulatory context that has been underappreciated, underutilized, and undertheorized in the financial regulatory context.
Focusing on this third aspect, Rob states that:
The risk regulation model ... confronts head-on the necessity of basing regulatory intervention into otherwise private activity on a discretionary assessment of an uncertain, hypothetical, and conjectural harm. It is no objection that the harm has not yet occurred. The uncertainty of the harm is a feature, not a bug, of the system.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
This post highlights SIGA Technologies, Inc. v. PharmAthene, Inc., Del. Supr., No. 20, 2015 (Dec. 23, 2015).
At the end of 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court issued an opinion affirming its earlier holding that where parties have agreed to negotiate in good faith, a failure to reach an agreement based upon the bad faith of one party entitles the other party to expectation damages so long as damages can be proven with "reasonable certainty."
Francis Pileggi, on his excellent Delaware Commercial and Business Litigation blog, provides a succinct summary of the case, available here. The parties to the suit entered into merger negotiations to develop a smallpox antiviral drug. Due to the uncertainty of the merger negotiations, the parties also entered into a non-binding license agreement, the terms of which would be finalized if the merger fell through for whatever reason. While nonbinding, the preliminary license agreement contained detailed financial terms and benchmarks. When the merger was terminated, SIGA proposed terms for a collaboration that departed from the preliminary license agreement. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery finding that SIGA's acted in bad faith. The question of the case became what damages were due from the bad faith breach of a preliminary agreement to "negotiate in good faith,” when all essential terms have not been agreed to by the parties?
The first gem in the opinion, and something I'll be working into my damages lectures for first year contracts this spring, is that:
when a contract is breached, expectation damages can be established as long as the plaintiff can prove the fact of damages with reasonable certainty. The amount of damages can be an estimate.
What constitutes reasonable certainty changes whether the party is establishing damages are due versus the amount of the damages. And here is the second gem: the standard of proof can be lessened where willful wrongdoing contributed to the breach and the uncertainty about the amount of damages.
where the wrongdoer caused uncertainty about the final economics of the transaction by its failure to negotiate in good faith, willfulness is a relevant factor in deciding the quantum of proof required to establish the damages amount.
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Tomorrow afternoon (as Anne promoted earlier today), I will participate in the annual Association of American Law Schools ("AALS") panel discussion for the Section on Agency, Partnerships, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations. The panel discussion this year is entitled "Contract is King, But Can It Govern Its Realm?" and focuses on the contractarian aspects of LLC law. Here's the panel description from the AALS annual meeting program:
This program will explore the role of contract in unincorporated associations, with particular emphasis on the LLC and limited partnership forms. In most jurisdictions, the sparse prescriptions in the default rules imply that the parties will draft an operating agreement that reflects the material points of their bargain. For example, Delaware emphasizes that its policy for LLCs and LPs is to give “maximum effect to the principle of freedom of contract.” Modern contract theory, however, raises significant questions about the extent to which any documentation of a transaction can be “complete,” even if sophisticated parties negotiate at arm’s length and attempt to fully reduce their expectations to writing. If complete contracts are indeed an ideal rather than the reality, can legislatures impose default rules (fiduciary or otherwise) to fill the gaps without undermining the benefits of private ordering? To what extent should judges look outside the operating agreement to determine the parties’ intent? Our format will be a lively moderated discussion, and we will invite significantly more audience participation from the outset than attendees may have come to expect from AALS section meetings.
As you may recall (and as Anne reminded us in her earlier post on the AALS conference sessions), we hosted a weblog micro-symposium on issues relating to this topic in anticipation of this annual meeting program back in November, for which the concluding post is here, and my contributions are here and here.
I expect that we will explore through the conference panel (which, as the program description indicates, will engage the audience for much of the time) the nature and status of LLC agreements as contracts and the coexistence of contract with fiduciary duties and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. I hope that we can cover points of theory, policy, doctrine, and practice. I will be adding some non-Delaware flavor in some areas of the discussion and encouraging folks to contemplate whether LLC operating agreements are contracts or merely treated like contracts for certain LLC law purposes. Please come join in on the fun if you are attending the conference this year! I may have more to say after the discussion has concluded . . . .
The AALS Section on Business Associations and Law is honoring 13 exemplary mentors for their contributions to scholarship, teaching and the development of new business law scholars. Those honored were nominated by fellow members of the AALS Section. The mentors will be recognized at the conclusion of the AALS BA Section meeting on January 8th (1:30-3:15) at the Annual AALS meeting in New York. Please join me in congratulating our colleagues and thanking them for their contributions to our field.
- Lynne L. Dallas (San Diego);
- Claire M. Dickerson (Tulane) (posthumous);
- Christopher R. Drahozal (Kansas);
- Egon Guttman (American);
- William A. “Bill” Klein (UCLA);
- Donald C. Langevoort (Georgetown);
- Juliet M. Moringiello (Widener Commonwealth);
- Marleen O’Connor (Stetson);
- Terry O’Neill (Emerita, Tulane);
- Charles “Chuck” R.T. O’Kelley (Seattle);
- Alyssa Christmas Rollock (formerly of Indiana-Bloomington);
- Roberta Romano (Yale); and
- D. Gordon Smith (BYU)
The AALS Annual meeting starts today in New York. The full program is available here, and listed below are two Section meeting announcements of particular interest to business law scholars:
Thursday, January 7th from 1:30 pm – 3:15 pm the SECTION ON AGENCY, PARTNERSHIP, LLC’S AND UNINCORPORATED ASSOCIATIONS, COSPONSORED BY TRANSACTIONAL LAW AND SKILLS will meet in the Murray Hill East, Second Floor, New York Hilton Midtown for a program titled:
"Contract is King, But Can It Govern Its Realm?"
The program will be moderated by Benjamin Means, University of South Carolina School of Law. Discussants include:
- Joan M. Heminway, University of Tennessee College of Law
- Lyman P.Q. Johnson, Washington and Lee University School of Law
- Mark J. Loewenstein, University of Colorado School of Law
- Mohsen Manesh, University of Oregon School of Law
- Sandra K. Miller, Professor, Widener University School of Business Administration, Chester, PA
BLPB hosted an online micro-symposium in advance of the Contract is King meeting. The wrap up from this robust discussion is available here.
Friday January 8th, from 1:30 pm – 3:15 pm join the SECTION ON BUSINESS ASSOCIATIONS AND LAW
AND ECONOMICS JOINT PROGRAM at the Sutton South, Second Floor, New York Hilton Midtown for a program titled:
"The Corporate Law and Economics Revolution Years Later: The Impact of Economics and Finance Scholarship on Modern Corporate Law".
The program will be moderated by Usha R. Rodrigues, University of Georgia School of Law, and feature the following speakers:
- Frank Easterbrook, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Chicago, IL
- H. Kent Greenfield, Boston College Law School
- Roberta Romano, Yale Law School
- Tamara C. Belinfanti, New York Law School
- Kathryn Judge, Columbia University School of Law
- K. Sabeel Rahman, Brooklyn Law School
At the conclusion of the program, the officers of the Section on Business Associations would like to honor 13 faculty members
for their mentorship work throughout the year.
I hope to see many of you in New York soon!
January 6, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Joan Heminway, Law and Economics, Law School, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Kent Greenfield recently published a provocative article with Democracy on ending Delaware's dominance over corporate law. As is Greenfield's way, he makes a familiar story sound fresh and raises an interesting question. Is it democratic for a state with less than 1% of the country's population to have its laws control more than half of the Fortune 500 companies? Greenfield says no.
Power without accountability has no democratic legitimacy. If companies could choose which state’s environmental, employment, or anti-discrimination law applied to them, we’d be outraged. We should be similarly outraged about Delaware’s dominance in corporate law.
Greenfield suggests two alternative paths for ending Delaware's dominance. First: states could amend their business organization statutes so that the law of the state of incorporation (Delaware) doesn't govern the corporation, rather the law of the principal place of business would. Second, and perhaps more radically, nationalize corporate law.
The undemocratic critique is an astute observation. It takes the debate outside of the "race to the bottom" standard trope and into territory with perhaps more broad public appeal. Leaving aside the state competition for headquarters, tax base and jobs with solution one and potential political friction with solution two, both solutions address the undemocratic critique.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
The Pep Boys – Manny, Moe & Jack (NYSE: PBY) merger triangle with Bridgestone Retail Operations LLC and Icahn Enterprises LP is proving to be an exciting bidding war. The price and the pace of competing bids has been escalating since the proposed Pep Boys/Bridgestone agreement was announced on October 16, 2015. Pep Boys stock had been trading around $12/share. Pursuant to the agreement, Bridgestone commenced a tender offer in November for all outstanding shares at $15.
Icahn Enterprises controls Auto Plus, a competitor of Pep Boys, the nation's leading automotive aftermarket service and retail chain. Icahn disclosed an approximately 12% stake in Pep Boys earlier in December and entered into a bidding war with Bridgestone over Pep Boys. The price climbed to $15.50 on December 11th, then $17.00 on December 24th. Icahn Enterprises holds the current winning bid at $18.50/share, which the Pep Boys Board of Directors determined is a superior offer. In the SEC filings, Icahn Enterprises indicated a willingness to increase the bid, but not if Pep Boys agreed to Bridgestone's increased termination fee (from $35M to 39.5M) triggered by actions such as perior proposals by third parties. Icahn challenged such a fee as a serious threat to the auction process.
Regardless of which company ends up claiming control over Pep Boys, this is a excellent example of sale principles in action and also shows the effect of merger announcements (and the promised control premiums) have on stock prices. This will be a great illustration to accompany corporations/business organizations class discussions of mergers and the role of the board of directors. For those teaching unincorporated entities as a separate course or component of the larger bus.org survey course, Icahn Enterprises is a publicly-traded limited partnership formed as a master limited partnership in Delaware-- BONUS! Bridgestone Retail Operations LLC, as in limited liability company, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bridgestone Corporation ADR, a publicly traded corporation.
See you all in the New Year! Anne Tucker
EDITED January 4, 2016. Based on the thoughtful observations of fellow BLPB editor Haskell Murray, I removed the inarticulate references to this bidding war as a "Revlon" transaction. As Haskell pointed out, Pep Boys is a Pennsylvania corporation and subject to a constituency statute. The constituency statute modifies directors' "Revlon" duties by authorizing (but not requiring) directors to consider:
The effects of any action upon any or all groups affected by such action, including shareholders, members, employees, suppliers, customers and creditors of the corporation, and upon communities in which offices or other establishments of the corporation are located.
(2) The short-term and long-term interests of the corporation, including benefits that may accrue to the corporation from its long-term plans and the possibility that these interests may be best served by the continued independence of the corporation.....15 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 515 (West)
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Divestment campaigns have been a popular form of corporate activism. With divestment pensions, institutions, endowments and funds withdraw investments from companies to encourage and promote certain social/political behaviors and policies.
Erik Hendey in his article Does Divestment Work (in the Harvard Political Review) recounted recent divestment campaigns including:
"sweatshop labor, use of landmines, and tobacco advertising. But undoubtedly the best known example of divestment occurred in the 1970s and ’80s in response to the apartheid regime of South Africa. Retirement funds, mutual funds, and investment institutions across the country sold off the stocks of companies that did business in South Africa."
A current divestment campaign is focused on guns. In the wake of the San Bernardino, California mass shooting, this issue is poised to gain momentum. The widespread investment in gun manufacturers will also make this campaign relevant to many investors. Andrew Ross Sorkin at the NYT DealBook writes in Guns in Your 401(k)? The Push to Divest Grows:
"If you own any of the broad index funds or even a target-date retirement fund, you’ve got a stake in the gun industry. Investments in gun makers, at least over the past five years, have performed well. Shares of Smith & Wesson are up nearly 400 percent since 2010. On Monday, shares of Smith & Wesson reached their highest price since 2007 after President Obama called for more gun control laws, leading investors to anticipate a rush of gun sales ahead of any restrictions."
If you are curious/concerned, Unload Your 401(k) is a website where you can check and see if you are personally invested, through your retirement savings plan, in one of the three major gun manufacturers.
Individuals may allocate their personal 401(k) money to socially responsible investment funds or in traditional funds that do not include gun manufacturers. A traditional fund is a hard bet because even if the fund doesn't currently invest in a gun manufacturer at the time of the individual's investment, it could become a part of the portfolio. Only funds with investment parameters that specifically exclude gun manufacturers can provide such a guarantee.
But what about endowments and pension funds-- large institutional investors who are often the target of divestment campaigns because when they choose to divest (or simply not to invest in the first place) this is where the real pressure can be applied to companies. Many stewards of such funds manage them according to certain social principles, especially if those principles are advocated by the beneficiaries of the funds (as is the case with student activists behind the fossil fuel divestment campaigns). Applying social pressure through such funds and on behalf of beneficiaries raises question of whether such actions are in appropriate fidelity to the trust position over the money (not the morals) the trustees are appointed to preserve. Bradford Cornell, at California Institute of Technology published a 2015 paper estimating the cost of fossil fuel divestment of major educational endowments, which for Harvard he figured to be over $100 million.
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
I am about 10, if not 15 years late to this party. This is not a new question: have investment time horizons shrunk, and if so, in a way that extracts company value at the expense of long-term growth and sustainability?
Since this isn’t a new question, there is a considerable amount of literature available in law and finance (and a definition available on investopedia). This may seem like great news, if like me, you are interested in acquiring a solid understanding of short termism. By solid understanding, I mean internalization of knowledge, not mere familiarity where I can be prompted to recall something when someone else talks/writes about it. I have some basic questions that I want answers to: What is short-termism?, What empirical evidence best proves or disproves short-termism? Which investors, if any, are short-term? What are the consequences (good and bad) of a short-term investment horizon? If there is short-termism, what are the solutions? I’ll briefly discuss each below, and my utter failure to answer these questions with any real certainty thus far.
What is the definition of short-termism and does it change depending upon context or user? There appears to be consensus on the conceptual definition of foregoing long-term investments in favor of corporate policies maximizing present payouts like dividends and stock buy-backs among hedge funds. As for what determines “short-term” with institutional investors- responsiveness to quarterly earnings? Over-reliance on algorithmic trading models? The definition gets less clear when we start looking at different types of investors.
How can one test the presence of short-termism? Stock holding patterns and redemption rates and turnover would be the obvious answers. This information is hard to aggregate, much of it is proprietary. Second, the issue of outliers, like high value high-frequency trades, may distort the view if most shareholders or at least the most influential shareholders like institutions, aren’t operating with a short-term time horizon. But that can mean different things for different investors. Once again which investors we are looking at drives this question in part.
This brings us to the next question, WHO might be short term? Hedge Funds? Institutional Investors like pensions and mutual funds? High Frequency Traders? Retail investors? Retirement Investors (I call these folks Citizen Shareholders)?
Looking to the next question: what are the consequences of a short-term investment horizon? Shareholders like hedge funds whose investment model differs from institutional investors, often employ shareholder activism to change management and corporate policies as a means to increase the share value of the company, after which the fund usually divests significantly, if not completely. The evidence here too is mixed (see e.g., conflicting findings by Bebchuk & Coffee).
For many the anecdotal evidence of short-termism pressures coming from board rooms is powerfully persuasive and hard to ignore even where researchers can’t pin down the source. I don’t use anecdotal in a derogatory sense at all, there is truth in experience and limitations in our ability to quantify naturally occurring phenomenons. Perhaps the question of short-termism is like trying to identify what smells bad in a pantry. You know it is there; finding the cause is much more difficult. Consider the position of Martin Lipton who wrote in response to the Bebchuk article:
"To the contrary, the attacks and the efforts by companies to adopt short-term strategies to avoid becoming a target have had very serious adverse effects on the companies, their long-term shareholders, and the American economy. To avoid becoming a target, companies seek to maximize current earnings at the expense of sound balance sheets, capital investment, research and development and job growth."
Also consider a survey of corporate board members reported that over 60% felt short term pressure from investors. It is a real problem to directors and one that corporate governance cannot ignore. A fair question to ask is whether or not the fear is misstated or if the concern is another way of arguing for greater control. And this brings us to the last question.
If there is short-termism, what are the solutions? Aligning corporate managers/directors incentive payments has been critiqued. Giving corporate boards more power and isolating them from shareholders tips the scales of the corporate power puzzle heavily towards managers which brings threats of agency costs and managerial abuses. But on the other hand, if a short-term investment perspective extracts company value in a way that causes externalities that undercuts the contractarian argument for shareholder primacy. If shareholders’, or at least some shareholders’, primary investment stake isn’t to be residual claimants in the traditional sense then their incentives aren’t aligned with the interests of other stakeholders. Those shareholders aren’t acting in everyone’s best interest. The debate often devolves into one of consequences, or perhaps it is the starting point for many who write in the area. If short-termism doesn’t exist or isn’t bad then there is no push back on shareholder primacy. If short-termism does exit and it does cause externalities then it is a powerful argument in favor of director primacy.
I am weeks into this inquiry and all I have done is further confuse myself about what I thought I knew, expanded my questions list and flooded my dropbox with articles (tedious, dense, often empirical articles).
A few things have come out of this quagmire. First, I have great discussion points for my corporate governance seminar and certainly a supplemental segment for my casebook. Second, I am increasingly thinking the tremendously important insights provided by many law and finance scholars isn’t the complete picture. I can’t get to the bottom of this question, because there might not be one (or one that I understand) yet. So where are the gaps? What do we still need to know to further explore this topic? These big, heavy, interdisciplinary questions are hard to tackle alone at our desks and benefit from engagement, dialogue, and rapid fire thinking that takes places at conferences/symposiums.
In terms of blogging, let’s focus back on you readers. I’ll check back in periodically on this topic by sharing my reading list on the topic and also highlighting some of the articles on my list. If you have a seminal article that you found help explain short-termism to you (or your students) please share. If you are working on any papers in this area, please email me separately (email@example.com) as I am working on putting together a symposium for summer 2017.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
This post concludes the Contract Is King, But Can It Govern Its Realm? Micro-symposium. The symposium was hosted as part of the AALS section on Agency, Partnership, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations in advance of the section meeting on January 7th at 1:30 where the conversation will be continued.
I summarized the conversation and provided links to all of the individual posts. Bookmark this page-- there is great commentary at your finger tips on a range of topics. Please keep reading (and commenting) on these great contributions by our insightful participants to whom we are very grateful.
Jeffrey Lipshaw kicked off the symposium conversation with his post (available here) questioning, in practice, how different LLCs are from traditional corporations. He used a great map analogy to talk about the role of formation documents and default rules as gap fillers.
“The contractual, corporate, and uncorporate models are always reductions in the bits and bytes of information from the complex reality, and that’s what makes them useful, just as a map of Cambridge, Massachusetts that was as complex as the real Cambridge would be useless.”
After asserting that LLCs differ from corporations only in matters of degrees, Jeff went on to to them illustrate how degrees of difference may still matter. He provided a good example of a situation where the ability to eliminate fiduciary duties may produce the right result—an option only available in alternative entities not corporations.
Mohsen argued that if contract is king, business revenue rules the reign in Delaware. Franchise taxes and revenues generated from being the business domicile of so many businesses, in all forms, is a source of riches, one that Mohsen argued will be protected by preserving a commitment to freedom of contract.
“Delaware’s annual tax charged to alternative entities is flat. All LLCs and LPs, no matter how large or small, whether publicly traded or closely held, pay the state only $300 annually for the privilege of being a Delaware entity. Thus, unlike the corporate context, where Delaware’s business is dependent on attracting large, publicly traded corporations, in the alternative entity context, Delaware’s business depends on volume alone.”
In his first post, Mohsen also addressed Delaware Chief Justice Strine and Vice Chancellor Laster’s provocative “Siren Song” book chapter, where the pair advocate for mandatory fiduciary duties in publicly traded LLCs and LPs. Mohsen questioned the limitation arguing that
“[M]any of critiques that Strine and Laster levy at publicly traded alternative entities– unsophisticated investors, the absence of true bargaining, and confusing contract terms that often unduly favor the managers—could be levied at many private entities as well. If so, then why should Strine & Laster’s proposal be limited to public entities?”
Sandra Miller blogged here about investor sophistication and its relationship to fiduciary duty waivers. She highlighted her scholarship in the area and provided helpful links to her papers discussing her points in greater detail.
“[T]here are asymmetries in the marketplace that make it unlikely that the marketplace will efficiently discount the effects of waivers. Given the investor profile, at a very minimum, the duty of loyalty should be non-waivable for publicly-traded entities.”
Joan Heminway questioned whether LLC operating agreements are contracts, and if not the implication for fiduciary duties, statue of frauds, capacity and public policy challenges and enforceability against third parties.
“[W]ith judicial and legislative attention on freedom of contract in the LLC, the status of the LLC as a matter of contract law may shed light on the extent to which contract law can or should be important or imported to legal issues involving LLC operating agreements...So, while contract may be king in LLC law, we may question whether a contract even exists under LLC law.”
Joan also highlighted her recent appearance at the ABA LLC Institute in a related post available here and shared the many functions of an operating agreement (whether contract or not!).
Daniel Kleinberger contributed to the conversation in four parts (appearing in three separate posts here (1), here (2) and here(3)). Daniel focused on Delaware’s implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing and the covenant’s role in Delaware entity law. He carefully distinguished the covenant from the UCC implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and from the corporate standards of good faith as articulated in Stone v. Ritter and Smith v. Van Gorkum. Thirdly he addressed waivers of good faith and fair dealing both in the governing agreement and arising from contract in Delaware and under the Uniform Limited Partnership Act.
“Perhaps ironically (or some might even say “counter-intuitively”), the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (2006) (Last Amended 2013) permits an ULLCA operating agreement to go where a Delaware operating agreement cannot.”
In his final post, available here, Kleinberger addressed interpretation questions with implied covenants analogizing the analysis to that used with impracticability.
“For impracticability or a breach of the implied covenant to exist, the situation at issue must have been fundamentally important to the deal and yet unaddressed by the deal documents. Put another way: the notion of a “cautious enterprise” means that only a condition that is egregious or at least extreme is capable of revealing a gap to be remedied by the implied covenant.”
BLPB editor, Joshua Fershee, was inspired by the topic and contributed his own post to the micro-symposium. In his post, he declared himself a Larry Ribstein devotee and highlighted how the structural differences in the LLC form, as opposed to the corporate form, provide business benefits for LLC members.
“The flexibility of the LLC form creates opportunity for highly focused, nimble, and more specific entities that can be vehicles that facilitate creativity in investment in a way that corporations and partnerships, in my estimation, do not.”
Greg Day, another BLPB-generated contribution to the conversation, blogged about sophisticated parties’ utilization of freedom of contract in LLC, and sophisticated investors demand for the conformity of traditional corporate formation over LLCs.
“[W] hen Delaware LLCs become big, and attract big funds, a condition of investment almost always requires an LLC to convert into a Delaware corporation. It seems that the lack of predictability associated with the freedom of contract scares potential investors who prefer the comforts of fiduciary duties, among other corporate staples. …So the parties who ostensibly are best served by contractual freedoms—i.e., sophisticated parties—appear to be the ones most likely to demand the traditional corporate form. And on a related note, this helps to explain why such a paltry number of LLCs and LPs have become public companies.”
Finally, Peter Molk & Verity Winship also contributed a last-minute addition to the symposium highlighting their empirical work on LLC operating agreement dispute resolution provisions as it relates to the question of contracting rights in unincorporated entities. They reported some of their early findings and linked it to the discussion about contractual freedom and the implications of mandatory fiduciary duties.
“More than a third of the agreements in our sample selected the forum for resolving disputes, primarily through exclusive forum provisions or mandatory arbitration provisions. The agreements also modified litigation processes through terms that imposed fee-shifting, waived jury trials, and, less commonly, through other means like books and records limitations.”
Participants in the Micro-Symposium were asked to respond to a series of questions (available here) that will be further discussed at the AALS section meeting. Joan MacLeod Heminway (BLPB editor), Dan Kleinberger, Jeff Lipshaw, Mohsen Manesh, and Sandra Miller.will be panelists at the AALS meeting and joined by Lyman Johnson and Mark Loewenstein.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Next week, the BLPB is hosting a micro-symposium organized by the AALS section on Agency, Partnership, LLCs, and Unincorporated Associations. Confirmed participants include Joan MacLeod Heminway (BLPB editor), Dan Kleinberger, Jeff Lipshaw, Mohsen Manesh, and Sandra Miller.
The micro-symposium will explore the role of private ordering in LLCs and other alternative business entities, a broad topic that encompasses many interesting questions:
(1) To what extent, and in what ways, does contract play a greater role in LLCs and LPs than in otherwise comparable corporations? Is it helpful to conceptualize private ordering in this context as contractual?
(2) Does unfettered private ordering reliably advance the interests of even the most sophisticated parties? Does it waste judicial resources? In their book chapter, The Siren Song of Unlimited Contractual Freedom, two distinguished Delaware jurists, Chief Justice Leo Strine and Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster, raise these concerns and argue in favor of more standardized fiduciary default rules.
(3) Should the law impose fiduciary duties of loyalty and care as safeguards against abuse of the unobservable discretion managers enjoy because those duties reflect widely held social norms that most investors would expect to govern the conduct of managers?
(4) If the parties themselves would choose to waive their fiduciary obligations, is there nevertheless a continuing role for mandatory terms and judicial monitoring of the parties' relationship?
(5) Does it matter whether an LLC or alternative business entity is closely held or publicly traded?
We look forward to an engaging discussion next week via blog, and we invite everyone who will be at AALS to attend our section meeting on January 7 at 1:30pm. Joined by panelists Lyman Johnson and Mark Loewenstein, we will continue the conversation in person.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
My recent article: Locked In: The Competitive Disadvantage of Citizen Shareholders, appears in The Yale Law Journal’s Forum. In this article I examine the exit remedy for unhappy indirect investors as articulated by Professors John Morley and Quinn Curtis in their 2010 article, Taking Exit Rights Seriously. Their argument was that the rational apathy of indirect investors combined with a fundamental difference between ownership of stock in an operating company and a share of a mutual fund. A mutual fund redeems an investor’s fund share by cashing that investor out at the current trading price of the fund, the net asset value (NAV). An investor in an operating company (a direct shareholder) exits her investment by selling her share certificate in the company to another buyer at the trading price of that stock, which theoretically takes into account the future value of the company. The difference between redemption with the fund and sale to a third party makes exit in a mutual fund the superior solution over litigation or proxy contests, they argue, in all circumstances. It is a compelling argument for many indirect investors, but not all.
In my short piece, I highlight how exit remedies are weakened for citizen shareholders—investors who enter the securities markets through defined contribution plans. Constrained investment choice within retirement plans and penalties for withdrawals means that “doing nothing” is a more likely option for citizen shareholders. That some shareholders are apathetic and passive is no surprise. The relative lack of mobility for citizen shareholders, however, comes at a cost. Drawing upon recent scholarship by Professors Ian Ayres and Quinn Curtis (Beyond Diversification), I argue that citizen shareholders are more likely to be locked into higher fee funds, which erode investment savings. Citizen shareholders may also be subsidizing the mobility of other investors. These costs add up when one considers that defined contribution plans are the primary vehicle of individual retirement savings in this country aside from social security. If the self-help remedy of exit isn’t a strong protection for citizen shareholders, then it is time to examine alternative remedies for these crucial investors.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
The Department of Labor issued new interpretive guidelines for pension investments governed by ERISA. A thorny issue has been to what extent can ERISA fiduciaries invest in environmental, social and governance-focused (ESG) investments? The DOL previously issued several guiding statements on this topic, the most recent one in 2008, IB 2001-01, and the acceptance of such investment has been lukewarm. The DOL previously cautioned that such investments were permissible if all other things (like risk and return) are equal. In other words, ESG factors could be a tiebreaker but couldn't be a stand alone consideration.
What was the consequence of this tepid reception for ESG investments? Over $8.4 trillion in defined benefit and defined contribution plans covered by ERISA have been kept out of ESG investments, where non-ERISA investments in the space have exploded from "$202 billion in 2007 to $4.3 trillion in 2014."
The new guidance admits that previous interpretations may have
"unduly discouraged fiduciaries from considering ETIs and ESG factors. In particular, the Department is concerned that the 2008 guidance may be dissuading fiduciaries from (1) pursuing investment strategies that consider environmental, social, and governance factors, even where they are used solely to evaluate the economic benefits of investments and identify economically superior investments, and (2) investing in ETIs even where economically equivalent."
Under the new interpretive guidelines, the DOL takes a much more permissive stance regarding the economic value of ESG factors.
"Environmental, social, and governance issues may have a direct relationship to the economic value of the plan's investment. In these instances, such issues are not merely collateral considerations or tie-breakers, but rather are proper components of the fiduciary's primary analysis of the economic merits of competing investment choices. Similarly, if a fiduciary prudently determines that an investment is appropriate based solely on economic considerations, including those that may derive from environmental, social and governance factors, the fiduciary may make the investment without regard to any collateral benefits the investment may also promote. Fiduciaries need not treat commercially reasonable investments as inherently suspect or in need of special scrutiny merely because they take into consideration environmental, social, or other such factors."
In other words, ESG factors may be economic factors and such investments are not automatically suspect under ERISA fiduciary duty obligations.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Earlier this month BLPB editor Ann Lipton wrote about the Delaware Supreme Court opinion in Sanchez regarding director independence (Delaware Supreme Court Discovers the Powers of Friendship). On the same day as the Del. Sup. Ct. decided Sanchez, it affirmed the dismissal of KKR Financial Holdings shareholders' challenge to directors' approval of a buyout. The transaction was a stock-for-stock merger between KKR & Co. L.P. (“KKR”) and KKR Financial Holdings LLC (“Financial Holdings”). Plaintiffs alleged that the entire fairness standard should apply because KKR was a controlling parent in Financial Holdings. The controlling parent argument hinged on the facts that:
Financial Holdings's primary business was financing KKR's leveraged buyout activities, and instead of having employees manage the company's day-to-day operations, Financial Holdings was managed by KKR Financial Advisors, an affiliate of KKR, under a contractual management agreement that could only be terminated by Financial Holdings if it paid a termination fee.
Chief Justice Strine, writing an en banc opinion for the Court, upheld Chancellor Bouchard's finding that KKR could not be considered a controlling parent where "KKR owned less than 1% of Financial Holdings's stock, had no right to appoint any directors, and had no contractual right to veto any board action."
The Delaware Supreme Court upheld the familiar standard of effective control, absent a majority, which focuses on "a combination of potent voting power and management control such that the stockholder could be deemed to have effective control of the board without actually owning a majority of stock."
Chancellor Bouchard had noted that plaintiff's complaint stemmed from dissatisfaction at the contractual relationship between KKR and Financial Holdings which limited the growth of Financial holdings. Chancellor Bouchard wrote:
At bottom, plaintiffs ask the Court to impose fiduciary obligations on a relatively nominal stockholder, not because of any coercive power that stockholder could wield over the board's ability to independently decide whether or not to approve the merger, but because of pre-existing contractual obligations with that stockholder that constrain the business or strategic options available to the corporation.
Sometimes a "nothing new" case provides a good reminder of an established standard and provides clear language for recapping the concept to students. This will become a note case on "effective" control in my ChartaCourse corporations casebook and also a good illustration of the role of private agreements in shaping how legal standards are applied.
You can read the opinion at: Corwin et al. v. KKR Fin. Holdings et al., No. 629, 2014, 2015 WL 5772262 (Del. Oct. 2, 2015).
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Home court advantage alleged in SEC securities cases brought before administrative judges rather than a jury. Read this recent thought provoking article in the NYT DealB%k, A Jury Not the SEC, by Suja A. Thomas, a Univ. of Illinois law professor, and Mark Cuban, billionaire investor.
After losing several cases before juries, the S.E.C. went to a place where it generally cannot lose: itself. When it accuses a person of a securities violation, the S.E.C. has often brought the case in an administrative hearing where one of its own judges decides the case, not a jury. Rarely does the agency lose such cases before its judges
Thomas and Cuban refute the argument that after the financial crisis securities issues are considered public rights questions and can constitutionally be transferred to an administrative judge.
Despite the persistence of this public rights doctrine, there is no constitutional authority for it. First, Article I does not give Congress any authority to determine who decides civil cases. Second, the Seventh Amendment itself tells us who should decide these cases. Under it, juries decide money issues and federal judges decide other matters.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Fellow BLPB editor Haskell Murray highlighted Laureate Education's IPO (here on BLPB) last week as the first publicly traded benefit corporation. Steven Davidoff Solomon, the "Deal Professor" on Dealbook at NYT, focused on the interesting issues that can be raised by public benefit corporations in his article, Idealism That May Leave Shareholders Wishing for Pragmatism, which appeared yesterday. Among the concerns he raised were the vagueness of the "benefit"provided by the company, the potential laxity or at least untested waters of benefit auditing, and the potential for management rent seeking at the expense of shareholder profit in the new form. Davidoff Solomon, who (deliciously and derisively) dubs benefit corporations the "hipster alternative to today’s modern company, which is seen as voracious in its appetite for profits," is certainly skeptical. But the concerns are valid and will have to be worked out successfully for this hybrid form to carve out a place in the securities market. What I found particularly interesting was his focus on the role of institutional investors, who as fiduciaries for their individual investors, have fiduciary obligations to pursue profits which may be in conflict with or at least require greater monitoring when investing in these alternative firms. The question of institutional investors' appetite for alternative purpose firms, like benefit corporations, is the focus of a recent article of mine, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme, and a big question for the future success of these firms.
For those of you wanting to highlight alternative firms in a general corporations course or a seminar, this article would be a good introduction and an accessible summary of the issues on the forefront. I will be including this in my seminar reading next semester as it is surely to generate discussion.