Monday, March 2, 2015
As many of you know, both I and my co-blogger Joan Heminway have written several articles on crowdfunding. My articles are available here and Joan’s are available here. I think that a properly structured crowdfunding exemption (unfortunately, not the exemption Congress authorized in Title III of the JOBS Act) could revolutionize the finance of very small businesses.
Professor Darian M. Ibrahim, of William & Mary Law School, has posted an interesting and important new paper on crowdfunding, Equity Crowdfunding: A Market for Lemons? It’s available here.
Professor Ibrahim discusses two types of “crowdfunding” approved by the JOBS Act: (1) sales to accredited investors pursuant to SEC Rule 506(c), adopted pursuant to Title II of the JOBS Act; and (2) sales to any investors pursuant to the crowdfunding exemption authorized by Title III of the JOBS Act, but not yet implemented by the SEC. I don’t think the former should be called crowdfunding, but many people call it that, so I’ll excuse Professor Ibrahim.
Title II “Crowdfunding”
Professor Ibrahim points out that traditional investing by venture capitalists and angel investors is characterized by contractual controls and direct personal attention to the business by the investors. This allows the investors to monitor the investment and control misbehavior, and the investors’ participation and advice also provides a benefit to the business.
Ibrahim argues that Title II (506(c)) “crowdfunding” has been successful because it mimics what angel investors have been doing all along. It’s not really revolutionary, just making the existing model of angel investing more efficient by moving it to the Internet.
Title III Crowdfunding
Title III crowdfunding, on the other hand, is revolutionary; it doesn’t resemble anything that currently exists in the United States. If the SEC ever adopts the required rules, issuers will be selling to unaccredited investors who lack the knowledge and sophistication of venture capitalists and angel investors. It’s less obvious how they will judge among the various offerings and protect themselves from misbehavior by the entrepreneur.
Some have argued that the new crowdfunding exemption will appeal only to those companies that are too low quality to obtain traditional VC or angel funding, leaving unaccredited investors with the bottom of the barrel. Ibrahim disagrees, arguing that Title III crowdfunding will appeal to some high-quality entrepreneurs—those who need less cash for their businesses or are unwilling to share control with VCs or angel investors.
But how are we to avoid a “lemons” problem if the unsophisticated investors likely to participate in crowdfunding cannot distinguish good companies from bad? Ibrahim poses two possible answers. The first is the “wisdom of crowds,” the idea that the collective decision-making of a large crowd can approximate or even exceed expert judgments. Possibly, although I’m not completely sure. Collective judgments by non-experts can equal or surpass the judgments of experts, but I'm still unsure that the necessary conditions for that to happen are met on crowdfunding platforms. At best, I think the wisdom of the crowd is only a partial answer.
Ibrahim’s second answer is for the funding portals who host crowdfunding offers to curate the offerings—investigate the quality of the offerings and either provide ratings or limit their sites to higher-quality offerings. I think this is a good idea, but, unfortunately, the SEC’s proposed regulations would prohibit funding portals from doing this. Funding portals required to check for fraud, but that’s all they can do. Any attempt to exclude entrepreneurs for reasons other thanfraud or to provide ratings would go beyond what the proposed regulations allow and subject the portals to regulation under the Investment Advisers Act. Ibrahim has the right solution, but it’s going to require congressional action to get there.
Abstract of the Paper
Here’s the full abstract of Professor Ibrahim’s article:
Angel investors and venture capitalists (VCs) have funded Google, Facebook, and virtually every technological success of the last thirty years. These investors operate in tight geographic networks which mitigates uncertainty, information asymmetry, and agency costs both pre- and post-investment. It follows, then, that a major concern with equity crowdfunding is that the very thing touted about it – the democratization of investing through the Internet – also eliminates the tight knit geographic communities that have made angels and VCs successful.
Despite this foundational concern, entrepreneurial finance’s move to cyberspace is inevitable. This Article examines online investing both descriptively and normatively by tackling Titles II and III of the JOBS Act of 2012 in turn. Title II allows startups to generally solicit accredited investors for the first time; Title III will allow for full-blown equity crowdfunding to unaccredited investors when implemented.
I first show that Title II is proving successful because it more closely resembles traditional angel investing than some new paradigm of entrepreneurial finance. Title II platforms are simply taking advantage of the Internet to reduce the transaction costs of traditional angel operations and add passive angels to their networks at a low cost.
Title III, on the other hand, will represent a true equity crowdfunding situation and thus a paradigm shift in entrepreneurial finance. Despite initial concerns that only low-quality startups and investors will use Title III, I argue that there are good reasons why Title III could attract high-quality participants as well. The key question will be whether high-quality startups can signal themselves as such to avoid the classic “lemons” problem. I contend that harnessing the wisdom of crowds and redefining Title III”s “funding portals” to serve as reputational intermediaries are two ways to avoid the lemons problem.
It’s definitely worth reading.
Andrew Schwartz at the University of Colorado is also working on a paper that addresses the problems of uncertainty, information asymmetry, and agency costs in Title III crowdfunding. I have read the draft and it’s also very good, but it’s not yet publicly available. I will let you know when it is.
Monday, February 23, 2015
I serve on the Tennessee Bar Association Business Entity Study Committee (BESC) and Business Law Section Executive Committee (mouthfuls, but accurately descriptive). The BESC was originated to vet proposed changes to business entity statutes in Tennessee. It was initially populated by members of the Business Law Section and the Tax Law Section, although it's evolved to mostly include members of the former with help from the latter. The Executive Committee of the Business Law Section reviews the work of the BESC before Tennessee Bar Association leadership takes action.
Just about every legislative session of late, these committees of the Tennessee Bar Association have been asked to review proposed legislation on benefit corporations (termed variously depending on the sponsors). A review request for a bill proposed for adoption for this session recently came in. Since I serve on both committees, I get to see these proposed bills all the time. So far, the proposals have pretty much tracked the B Lab model from a substantive perspective, as tailored to Tennessee law. To date, we have advised the Tennessee Bar Association that we do not favor this proposed legislation. Set forth below is a summary of the rationale I usually give.
February 23, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (14)
Thursday, February 5, 2015
Many corporate governance professionals have been scratching their heads lately. In November, a federal judge in Delaware ruled that Wal-Mart had wrongfully excluded a shareholder proposal by Trinity Wall Street Church regarding the sale of guns and other products. Specifically, the proposal requested amendment of one of the Board Committee Charters to:
27. Provid[e] oversight concerning the formulation and implementation of, and the public reporting of the formulation and implementation of, policies and standards that determine whether or not the Company [i.e., Wal-Mart] should sell a product that:
1) especially endangers public safety and wellbeing;
2) has the substantial potential to impair the reputation of the Company; and/or
3) would reasonably be considered by many offensive to the family and community values integral to the Company's promotion of its brand.
Wal-Mart filed with the SEC under Rule 14a-8 indicating that it planned to exclude the proposal under the ordinary business operations exclusion. The SEC agreed that there was a basis for exclusion under 14a-8(i)(7), but the District Court thought otherwise because the proposal related to a “sufficiently significant social policy.” In mid-January Wal-Mart appealed to the Third Circuit arguing among other things that the district court should have deferred to the SEC’s precedents and guidance over the past forty years on these issues.
In an unrelated but relevant matter in December 2014, the SEC issued a no action letter to Whole Foods stating:
You represent that matters to be voted on at the upcoming stockholders' meeting include a proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market to amend Whole Foods Market's bylaws to allow any shareholder owning 9% or more of Whole Foods Market's common stock for five years to nominate candidates for election to the board and require Whole Foods Market to list such nominees with the board's nominees in Whole Foods Market's proxy statement. You indicate that the proposal and the proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market directly conflict. You also indicate that inclusion of both proposals would present alternative and conflicting decisions for the stockholders and would create the potential for inconsistent and ambiguous results. Accordingly, we will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if Whole Foods Market omits the proposal from its proxy materials in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(9).
In a startling turn of events, the SEC withdrew its no action letter on January 16, 2015 after a January 9th letter from the Council of Institutional Investors questioning the reasoning in the Whole Foods and similar no action letters. The withdrawal of the no action letter came on the same day as the release an official SEC statement declining “to express a view on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) during the current proxy season” due to questions about the scope and application of the rule.
This announcement, a contradictory departure from a decision made just weeks earlier, benefits neither issuers nor investors and introduces an additional layer of uncertainty into an already complicated set of rules. The CCMC believes this reversal underscores why corporate governance policies must provide certainty for all stakeholders, not just to advance the goals of a small minority of special interest activists….[t]he January 16 announcement places many issuers in an untenable position, and presents them with a series of questions for which there may be no good answers. For those issuers wishing to present their own alternative proposal to shareholders for consideration, do they exclude a shareholder proposal in favor of their own and face the heightened risk of litigation with the proponent or the Commission? Do they risk shareholder confusion by including both their own proposal and a competing one from a proponent? Do they incur the added expense and distraction to management of seeking declaratory relief in federal district court? Are shareholders deprived of their right to include a proposal that is omitted because of the absence of SEC action? Far from encouraging private ordering, the recent announcement will only serve to stymie it.
The CCMC also recommends a review of the entire 14a-8 process because, as the letter claims, “it is well-known that the shareholder proposal process has been dominated by a small group of special interest activists, including groups affiliated with organized labor, certain religious orders, social and public policy advocates, and a handful of serial activists. These special interests use the shareholder proposal process to pursue their own idiosyncratic agendas, often far removed from the mainstream, as evidenced by the overall low approval rates of many shareholder proposals that are put to a vote. Indeed, mainstream institutional investors account for only one percent of shareholder proposals at the Fortune 250.”
Reasonable people may disagree on how the CCMC characterizes the motives behind the shareholder proposals, but there can be no disagreement that the current SEC silence doesn't serve any constituency. Steve Bainbridge also has an informative post on this topic. Proxy season is coming up and shareholders and companies alike are awaiting a decision from the Third Circuit in the Wal-Mart action that could dramatically alter the landscape for shareholder proposals, possibly flooding the courts with expensive, protracted litigation. The timing couldn’t be worse for the SEC’s lack of action on no action letters.
February 5, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, February 2, 2015
On December 22 and again on January 9, I posted the first two installments of a three-part series featuring the wit and wisdom of my former student, Brandon Whiteley, who successfully organized a student group to draft, propose, and instigate passage of Invest Tennessee, a state crowdfunding bill in Tennessee. The first post featured Brandon's observations on the legislative process, and the second post addressed key influences on the bill-that-became-law. This post, as earlier promised, includes Brandon's description of the important role that communication played in the Invest Tennessee endeavor. Here's what he related to me in that regard (as before, slightly edited for republication here).
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Greetings from Dublin. Between the Guinness tour, the champagne afternoon tea, and the jet lag, I don’t have the mental energy to do the blog I planned to write with a deep analysis of the AALS conference in DC. I live tweeted for several days and here my top 25 tweets from the conference. I have also added some that I re-tweeted from sessions I did not attend. I apologize for any misspellings and for the potentially misleading title of this post:
Posner: judges ought to give reasons for rulings but shouldn't pretend they're interpreting intention of the statute drafters #AALS2015— Dalie Jimenez (@daliejimenez) January 5, 2015
Studies show that scholars are more productive if they write 15-30 minutes every day- more so if they are accountable for time #AALS2015— Marcia Narine (@mlnarine) January 4, 2015
#AALS2015 Judge Rosenthal-lots of questions are so practical re access to courts that academics haven't focused on them.— Marcia Narine (@mlnarine) January 3, 2015
Next week I will write about the reason I'm in Dublin.
January 15, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, January 9, 2015
A few weeks ago, I described to you a really special extracurricular project undertaken by one of my students, Brandon Whiteley, now an alum, this past year. The project? Proposing and securing legislative passage of Invest Tennessee, a Tennessee state securities law exemption for intrastate offerings that incorporates key features of crowdfunding. The legislation became effective on January 1.
In that first post, I described the project and Brandon's observations on the legislative process. This post highlights his description of the influences on the bill that became law. Here they are, with a few slight edits (and hyperlink inserts) from me.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Effective as of January 1. 2015, Tennessee will allow Tennessee corporations to engage in intrastate offerings of securities to Tennessee residents over the internet without registration. The new law, adopted earlier this year, is the direct result of a law-student-led movement. The key student leader was one of my students, and he kept me informed about the effort as it moved along. (I was called upon for advice and commentary from time to time, but the bill is all their work.)
In my experience, this kind of effort--a student-initiated, non-credit, extracurricular engagement in business law reform--is almost unheard of. I was intrigued by the enterprise and impressed by its success. As a result, I asked the student leader, Brandon Whiteley, now an alumnus, to send me some of his perceptions about drafting and proposing the bill and getting it passed.
This is the first in a series of three posts that feature Brandon's observations on the legislative process, the key influences on the bill, and the importance of communication. This post highlights his commentary on the legislative process (which I have edited minimally with his consent). I think you'll agree that his wisdom and humor both shine through in this first installment (as well as the others). His organizational capabilities also are evident throughout.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
In September, Myles Udland wrote an article citing Burton G. Malkiel and his book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, noting, "The past history of stock prices cannot be used to predict the future in any meaningful way." This is a great point.
I also saw Udland's article from today, which notes oil prices (and stock prices) have gone bonkers. Both prices have fluctuated wildly, and oil has been mostly trending mostly downward. As I have said before, I don't expect prices to stay low (sub-$70 per barrel) for long, but time will tell.
Low oil and gas prices are certainly having an impact on markets and economies. The big one right now is Russia, which is struggling, in major part because of low oil prices. The ruble has taken a beating, and the nation's central bank raised interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent. Wow.
The bulk of U.S. oil production appears safe well in the low- to mid-$40 per barrel price range, and I don't think it will stay below $55 for long. Then again, as much as I follow all of this, I am still a law professor, and not a financial analyst, so keep that in mind.
Anyway, having read all of this, I was reminded that people are sometimes inclined to view stock prices and commodities markets similarly. That would be wrong. Despite my views that oil is likely to go back up, at least some, it's also worth noting that using history as a predictor of markets is a dangerous game. It's reasonable to assume that, eventually, a market will go up, but whether it will take three weeks, three months, or three years (or more) is hard to say.
One recent report notes that oil price histories suggest we're near the bottom, and that (on average) prices should rebound significantly. The timing here is unpredictable, too, but the history of oil prices do suggest a rebound will happen sooner rather than later, even with global markets struggling.
Uland's articles keep the issues separate, but still, lest anyone get confused (and history suggest they might), it is worth noting that charting commodity markets is different than charting stock prices. As Professor Bainbridge's Safety Tip of the Day: Charting Doesn't Work from ten years ago notes, "Consistently, empirical studies have demonstrated that securities prices move randomly and, moreover, have shown that charting is not a long term profitable trading strategy." Bainbridge similarly cites Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street (1996) in that post, and in an earlier one from 2003, Random stock traders and the ECMH; with a review of Malkiel's Random Walk.
I learned a lot about stock markets (and Business Organizations) from reading the good professor's writing, and I thought it worthwhile to continue to spread the message: Even though some people like to think that stock prices will follow historical trends and that stocks are like commodities and currencies, you follow their lead at your own peril.
Monday, December 15, 2014
. . . here's a relatively new Dodge Challenger commercial (part of a series) that you may find amusing. I saw it during Saturday Night Live the other night and just had to go find it on YouTube. It, together with the other commercials in the series, commemorate the Dodge brand's 100-year anniversary. "They believed in more than the assembly line . . . ." Indeed!
You also may enjoy (but may already have read) this engaging and useful essay written by Todd Henderson on the case. The essay provides significant background information about and commentary on the court's opinion. It is a great example of how an informed observer can use the facts of and underlying a transactional business case to help others better understand the law of the case and see broader connections to transactional business law generally. Great stuff.
On December 10, the press reported the Second Circuit's decision in the insider trading prosecution of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson (two of multiple defendants in the original case). In its opinion, the court reaffirms that tippee liability for insider trading is predicated on a breach of fiduciary duty based on the receipt of a personal benefit by the tipper and clarifies that insider trading liability will not result unless the tippee has knowledge of the facts constituting the breach (i.e., "knew that the insider disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit"). The court summarized its opinion, which addresses these matters in the context of the Newman case, a criminal case, as follows:
[W]e conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
In many companies, executives and employees alike will give a blank stare if you discuss “human rights.” They understand the terms “supply chain” and “labor” but don’t always make the leap to the potentially loaded term “human rights.” But business and human rights is all encompassing and leads to a number of uncomfortable questions for firms. When an extractive company wants to get to the coal, the minerals, or the oil, what rights do the indigenous peoples have to their land? If there is a human right to “water” or “food,” do Kellogg’s, Coca Cola, and General Mills have a special duty to protect the environment and safeguard the rights of women, children and human rights defenders? Oxfam’s Behind the Brands Campaign says yes, and provides a scorecard. How should companies operating in dangerous lands provide security for their property and personnel? Are they responsible if the host country’s security forces commit massacres while protecting their corporate property? What actions make companies complicit with state abuses and not merely bystanders? What about the digital domain and state surveillance? What rights should companies protect and how do they balance those with government requests for information?
The disconnect between “business” and “human rights” has been slowly eroding over the past few years, and especially since the 2011 release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Businesses, law firms, and financial institutions have started to pay attention in part because of the Principles but also because of NGO pressures to act. The Principles operationalize a "protect, respect, and remedy" framework, which indicates that: (i) states have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses; (ii) businesses have a responsibility to comply with applicable laws and respect human rights; and (iii) victims of human rights abuses should have access to judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms from both the state and businesses.
Many think that the states aren’t acting quickly enough in their obligations to create National Action Plans to address their duty to protect human rights, and that in fact businesses are doing most of the legwork (albeit very slowly themselves). The UK, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Denmark have already started and the US announced its intentions to create its Plan in September 2014. A number of other states announced that they too will work on National Action Plans at the recent UN Forum on Business and Human Rights that I attended in Geneva in early December. For a great blog post on the event see ICAR director Amol Mehra's Huffington Post piece.
What would a US National Action plan contain? Some believe that it would involve more disclosure regulation similar to the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, the Ending Trafficking in Government Contracting Act, Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Burma Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment, and others. Some hope that it will provide additional redress mechanisms after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel significantly limited access to US courts on jurisdictional grounds for foreign human rights litigants suing foreign companies for actions that took place outside of the United States.
But what about the role of business? Here are five observations from my trip to Geneva:
1) It's not all about large Western multinationals: As the Chair of the Forum Mo Ibrahim pointed out, it was fantastic to hear from the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, but the vast majority of people in China, Sudan and Latin American countries with human rights abuses don’t work for large multinationals. John Ruggie, the architect of the Principles reminded the audience that most of the largest companies in the world right now aren’t even from Western nations. These include Saudi Aromco (world’s largest oil company), Foxconn (largest electronics company), and India’s Tata Group (the UK’s largest manufacturing company).
2) It’s not all about maximization of shareholder value: Unilever CEO Paul Pollman gave an impassioned speech about the need for businesses to do their part to protect human rights. He was followed by the CEO of Nestle. (The opening session with both speeches as well as others from labor and civil society was approximately two hours long and is here). In separate sessions, representatives from Michelin, Chevron, Heinekin, Statoil, Rio Tinto, Barrick, and dozens of other businesses discussed how they are implementing human rights due diligence and practices into their operations and metrics, often working with the NGOs that in the past have been their largest critics such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. The US Council for International Business, USCIB, also played a prominent role speaking on behalf of US and international business interests.
3) Investors and lenders are watching: Calvert; the Office of Investment Policy at OPIC, the US government’s development finance institution; the Peruvian Financial Authority; the Supervision Office of the Banco Central do Brasil; the Vice Chair of the Banking Association of Colombia; the European Investment Bank; and Swedfund, among others discussed how and why financial institutions are scrutinizing human rights practices and monitoring them as contractual terms. This has real world impact as development institutions weigh choices about whether to lend to a company in a country that does not allow women to own land, but that will provide other economic opportunities to those women (the lender made the investment). OPIC, which has an 18 billion dollar portfolio in 100 countries, indicated that they see a large trend in impact investing.
4) Integrated reporting is here to stay: Among other things, Calvert, which manages 14 billion in 40 mutual funds, focused on their commitment to companies with solid track records on environmental, social, and governance factors and discussed the benefits of stand alone or integrated reporting. Lawyers from some of the largest law firms in the world indicated that they are working with their clients to prepare for additional non-financial reporting, in part because of countries like the UK that will mandate more in 2016, and an EU disclosure directive that will affect 6,000 firms.
5) Is an International Arbitration Tribunal on the way?: A number of prominent lawyers, retired judges and academics from around the world are working on a proposal for an international arbitration tribunal for human rights abuses. Spearheaded by lawyers for better business, this would either supplement or possibly replace in some people’s view a binding treaty on business and human rights. Having served as a compliance officer who dealt extensively with global supply chains, I have doubts as to how many suppliers will willingly contract to appear before an international tribunal when their workers or members of indigenous communities are harmed. I also wonder about the incentives for corporations, the governing law, the consent of third parties, and a host of other sticking points. Some raised valid concerns about whether privatizing remedies takes the pressure off of states to do their part. But it’s a start down an inevitable road as companies operate around the world and want some level of certainty as to their rights and obligations.
On another note, I attended several panels in which business executives, law firm partners, and members of NGOs decried the lack of training on business and human rights in law schools. Even though professors struggle to cover the required content, I see this area as akin to the compliance conversations that are happening now in law schools. There is legal work in this field and there will be more. I look forward to integrating some of this information into an upcoming seminar.
In the meantime, I tried to include some observations that might be of interest to this audience. If you want to learn more about the conference generally you can look to the twitter feed on #bizhumanrights or #unforumwatch, which has great links. I also recommend the newly released Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues Whitepaper.
December 11, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, December 4, 2014
I had planned to blog about the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights this week, but my head is overflowing with information about export credits, development financing, a possible international arbitration tribunal, remarks by the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, and the polite rebuff to the remarks by the Ambassador of Qatar by a human rights activist in the plenary session. Next week, in between exam grading, I promise to blog about some of the new developments that will affect business lawyers and professors. FYI, I apparently was one of the top live tweeters of the Forum (#bizhumanrights #unforumwatch) and gained many valuable contacts and dozens of new followers.
In the meantime, I recommend reading this great piece from the Legal Skills Prof Blog. As I prepare to teach BA for the third time (which I hear is the charm), I plan to refine the techniques I already use and adopt others where appropriate. The link is below.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
As regular readers know, I research and write on business and human rights. For this reason, I really enjoyed the post about corporate citizenship on Thanksgiving by Ann Lipton, and Haskell Murray’s post about the social enterprise and strategic considerations behind a “values” message for Whole Foods, in contrast to the low price mantra for Wal-Mart. Both posts garnered a number of insightful comments.
As I write this on Thanksgiving Day, I’m working on a law review article, refining final exam questions, and meeting with students who have finals starting next week (being on campus is a great way to avoid holiday cooking, by the way). Fortunately, I gladly do all of this without complaint, but many workers are in stores setting up for “door-buster” sales that now start at Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Best Buy, and Toys R Us shortly after families clear the table on Thanksgiving, if not before. As Ann pointed out, a number of protestors have targeted these purportedly “anti-family” businesses and touted the “values” of those businesses that plan to stick to the now “normal” crack of dawn opening time on Friday (which of course requires workers to arrive in the middle of the night). The United Auto Workers plans to hold a series of protests at Wal-Mart in solidarity with the workers, and more are planned around the country.
I’m not sure what effect these protests will have on the bottom line, and I hope that someone does some good empirical research on this issue. On the one hand, boycotts can be a powerful motivator for firms to change behavior. Consumer boycotts have become an American tradition, dating back to the Boston Tea Party. But while boycotts can garner attention, my initial research reveals that most boycotts fail to have any noticeable impact for companies, although admittedly the negative media coverage that boycotts generate often makes it harder for a companies to control the messages they send out to the public. In order for boycotts to succeed there needs to be widespread support and consumers must be passionate about the issue.
In this age of “hashtag activism” or “slacktivism,” I’m not sure that a large number of people will sustain these boycotts. Furthermore, even when consumers vocalize their passion, it has not always translated to impact to lower revenue. For example, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A’s comments on gay marriage triggered a consumer boycott that opened up a platform to further political and social goals, although it did little to hurt the company’s bottom line and in fact led proponents of the CEO’s views to develop a campaign to counteract the boycott.
Similarly, I’m also not sure of the effect that socially responsible investors can have as it relates to these labor issues. In 2006, the Norwegian Pension Fund divested its $400 million position (over 14 million shares in the US and Mexico operations) in Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart constitutes two of the three companies excluded for “serious of systematic” human rights violations. Pension funds in Sweden and the Netherlands followed the Fund’s lead after determining that Wal-Mart had not done enough to change after meetings on its labor practices. In a similar decision, Portland has become the first major city to divest its Wal-Mart holdings. City Commissioner Steve Novick cited the company’s labor, wage and hour practices, and recent bribery scandal as significant factors in the decision. Yet, the allegations about Wal-Mart’s labor practices persist, notwithstanding a strong corporate social responsibility campaign to blunt the effects of the bad publicity. Perhaps more important to the Walton family, the company is doing just fine financially, trading near its 52-week high as of the time of this writing.
I will be thinking of these issues as I head to Geneva on Saturday for the third annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which had over 1700 companies, NGOs, academics, state representatives, and civil society organizations in attendance last year. I am particularly interested in the sessions on the financial sector and human rights, where banking executives and others will discuss incorporation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into the human rights policies of major banks, as well as the role of the socially responsible investing community. Another panel that I will attend with interest relates to the human rights impacts in supply chains. A group of large law firm partners and professors will also present on a proposal for an international tribunal to adjudicate business and human rights issues. I will blog about these panels and others that may be of interest to the business community next Thursday. Until then enjoy your holiday and if you participate in or see any protests, send me a picture.
November 27, 2014 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, November 24, 2014
Happy Thanksgiving you all! With my co-blogger colleagues here on the BLPB writing various Thanksgiving posts on retail-related and other holiday-oriented business law issues (here and here), I find myself in a Thanksgiving-kind-of-mood. I honestly have so much to be thankful for, it's hard to know where to start . . . . But apropos of the business law focus of this blog, I am choosing today to be thankful for my students. They make my job really special.
This semester, I have been teaching Business Associations in a new three-credit-hour format (challenging and stressful, but I have wanted to teach Business Associations in this format for fifteen years) and Corporate Finance (which I teach as a planning and drafting seminar). I have 69 students in Business Associations and ten in Corporate Finance. I have two class meetings left in each course.
The 69 students in Business Associations have been among the most intellectually and doctrinally curious folks to which I have taught this material. I have talked to a lot of them after class about the law and its application in specific contexts. Two stayed after class the other day to discuss statutory interpretation rules with me in the context of some problems I gave them. This large group also includes a number of students who have great senses of humor, offering us some real fun on occasion in class meetings and on the class TWEN site. They are not always as prepared as I would like (and, in fact, some of the students have expressed to me their disappointment in their colleagues' lack of preparedness and participation), but they pick up after each other when one of them leaves a mess in his or her wake (volunteering to be "co-counsel" for a colleague--a concept I introduce in class early in the semester). I enjoy getting up on Monday mornings to teach them at 9:00 am.
Corporate Finance includes a more narrow self-selected group. Almost all of these students have or are actively seeking a job in transactional or advocacy-oriented business law. They handed in their principal planning and drafting projects a bit over a week ago, projects that they spend much of the semester working on. (These substantial written projects are described further in this transcribed presentation.) Now, each student is reviewing and commenting on a project drafted by a fellow student. Both the project and the review are constructed in a circumscribed format that I define. I am excited to read their work on these projects, given the great conversations I have had with a number of them over the course of the semester as they puzzled through financial covenants, indemnification provisions, antidilution adjustments, and the like. Great stuff. I teach this class from 1:00 pm to 2:15 pm two days a week--a time in the day when I generally am most sleepy/least enthusiastic to teach. But these folks ask good questions and seem to genuinely enjoy talking about corporate finance instruments and transactions, making the experience much more worthwhile.
So, I am very thankful for each and all of these 79 students. I may not feel that way after I finish all the grading I have to do, but for now, I am both grateful and content. And I didn't consume a single calorie getting there (which is more than I will be able to say Thursday night . . .). Just looking at the picture at the top of this post makes my stomach feel full and me feel heavier. Ugh.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
CALL FOR PAPERS
Fourth European Research Conference on Microfinance
1-3 June 2015
Geneva School of Economics and Management, University of Geneva
Access to suitable and affordable finance is a precondition for meeting basic human needs in incomes and employment, health, education, work, housing, energy, water and transport. Microfinance – and more broadly, financial inclusion – will continue to be on the research and policy agenda. 2015 will be a special occasion to question received notions about the link between access to finance and welfare. In 2015 the Millennium Development Goals will make place for the Sustainable Development Goals. A broad debate and exchange on micro, macro and policy topics in financial inclusion will advance our knowledge and ultimately improve institutional performance and policy. This applies in particular to issues of financial market organization, but also patterns, diversity and trade-offs in institutional performance, scope for fiscal instruments, impact of technology on efficiency and outreach etc.
The European Research Conference on Microfinance is a unique platform of exchange for academics involved in microfinance research. The three former conferences organized by the Centre for European Research in Microfinance (CERMI) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 2009, by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2011 and the University of Agder in Norway in 2013 brought together several hundred researchers, as well as practitioners interested in applied research. The upcoming Fourth Conference is organized by the University of Geneva, in cooperation with the European Microfinance Platform (www.e-mfp.eu) and in association with the University of Zurich and the Graduate Institute of Geneva.
To provide cutting-edge insights into current research work on microfinance and financial inclusion and to enrich the conference agenda we invite papers on the following topics:
- Client-related issues: consumer behavior, client protection, financial education, household-enterprises and entrepreneurship
- Financial products: credit, insurance, deposits, domestic and cross-border payments
- Non-financial services
- Microfinance adjacencies: Millennium Development Goals
- Institutional issues: management, governance, legal form, transformation, growth, mission drift
- Market: monopolies, competition, alliances and cooperation, mergers and acquisitions, crowding-in and crowding-out issues
- Funding: subsidies (smart and other), investments (public and private) in microfinance institutions
- Policy and regulatory issues
- International governance
Papers will be selected for presentation at the conference by the Scientific Committee, based on criteria of academic quality.
Members of the Scientific Committee include, amongst others: Arvind Ashta (Burgundy School of Business), Bernd Balkenhol (U Geneva), Georges Gloukoviezoff (U Bordeaux and U College Dublin), Isabelle Guerin (IRD, Cessma), Begona Gutierrez-Nieto (U Zaragoza), Malcom Harper (Cranfield School of Management), Valentina Hartarska (U Auburn, USA), Marek Hudon and Ariane Szafarz (CERMI and Solvay School of Business Brussels), Susan Johnson (U Bath), Annette Krauss (U Zürich), Marc Labie (CERMI and University of Mons), Roy Mersland (U Agder), Christoph Pausch (European Microfinance Platform Luxembourg), Trond Randoy (U Agder), Daniel Rozas (European Microfinance Platform Luxembourg), Jean Michel Servet (Graduate Institute Geneva) and Adalbert Winkler (Frankfurt School of Finance and Management), Hans Dieter Seibel (U of Cologne).
Authors are invited to submit an abstract of their paper (not exceeding 2 pages) to firstname.lastname@example.org by December 20, 2014.
The full paper needs to be sent in by March 31, 2015.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Regular readers of this column know that I’m a strong supporter of a federal crowdfunding exemption, which would allow companies to sell securities online to ordinary investors without registration.
The SEC’s Foot-Dragging
The JOBS Act, passed in April 2012, included a crowdfunding exemption, but, 956 days later, the SEC still has not adopted rules to implement it. Last month, I complained about the SEC’s failure to adopt those rules. Now, I’m not so sure I want that to happen.
A Little Legislative History
Why have I changed my mind? First, a little legislative history. The House originally passed a crowdfunding bill, sponsored by Representative Patrick McHenry, that was much less regulatory than the final law. Unfortunately, the Senate amended the JOBS Act to substitute the version that was eventually enacted into law. That final version is much more regulatory than Congressman McHenry’s version, and is riddled with errors and ambiguities. The House accepted that Senate substitution, probably because fighting would have risked everything else in the JOBS Act.
As I wrote shortly after the JOBS Act passed, the exemption that came out of the Senate is flawed and unlikely to be effective. If so, it’s not the SEC’s fault. The SEC has limited discretion to fix the problems in the statute.
A Better Way
Things have changed since my last post on crowdfunding. No, the SEC still has not acted. Things have changed in other ways.
The Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and the Republican-controlled Congress will undoubtedly be friendlier to small business and more concerned about the regulatory costs involved in raising capital. The new Congress is dominated by people like Congressman McHenry.
It might be better at this point to start over, instead of waiting for the SEC to finish its exercise in regulatory futility. And, this time, Congress shouldn’t wait for SEC action. It should put the final exemption in the statute itself, with SEC input. The SEC certainly can’t argue that they need more time to study the issue.
President Obama might threaten a veto and argue that we should wait to see if the existing provisions work. But keep in mind that the Obama administration endorsed the original House bill. Was that original endorsement mere political grandstanding, or does President Obama really want to provide an effective exemption?
Congress is unlikely to override a presidential veto, so if that happens, we’ll probably have to wait for a new President to get a workable crowdfunding exemption.
Friday, November 14, 2014
In a 2012 article on securities crowdfunding, I warned about the U.S. securities law issues raised by foreign crowdfunding sites selling securities to U.S. investors. I pointed out that “some of those foreign sites also sell to U.S. investors, and some of the investments they sell would almost certainly qualify as securities under U.S. law.”
A recent SEC consent order involving Eureeca Capital shows that the SEC is well aware of the issue and willing to go after foreign sites that sell to U.S. investors.
According to the consent order, Eureeca, based in the Cayman Islands, operates a global crowdfunding platform that connects non-U.S. issuers with investors interested in buying equity securities. Eureeca had a disclaimer on its website that the securities were not being offered to U.S. residents, but it nevertheless allowed U.S. residents to invest in some of the offerings. Eureeca apparently knew these investors were Americans; they provided copies of their passports and proof of U.S. addresses before investing.
The consent order finds that these unregistered sales of securities violated section 5 of the Securities Act and also that Eureeca was acting as an unregistered broker, in violation of section 15 of the Exchange Act. Eureeca is required to pay a $25,000 fine (a fairly significant fine considering that the total amount sold to the U.S. investors, according to the order, was only $20,000).
Given the plethora of international crowdfunding platforms, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more actions like this in the future.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Received Saturday (edited slightly for publication here):
Please consider submitting your work to the Track "Crowdfunding: a democratic way for financing innovative projects" @ the RnD Management Conference 2015.
The RnD Management Conference 2015 will be held in June 23-26 at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa.
You can find more information on the Conference Track and on the submission process at the following link: http://www.rnd2015.sssup.it/.
I warmly apologize for cross-posting.
Cristina Rossi Lamastra, PhD
Associate Professor at Politecnico di Milano School of Management
Phone: 0039 0223993972
Fax: 0039 0323992710
Thursday, November 6, 2014
I have previously blogged about Institutional Shareholder Services’ policy survey and noted that a number of business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, had significant concerns. In case you haven’t read Steve Bainbridge’s posts on the matter, he’s not a fan either.
Calling the ISS consultation period “a decision in search of a process,” the Chamber released its comment letter to ISS last week, and it cited Bainbridge's comment letter liberally. Some quotable quotes from the Chamber include:
Under ISS’ revised policy, according to the Consultation, “any single factor that may have previously resulted in a ‘For’ or ‘Against’ recommendation may be mitigated by other positive or negative aspects, respectively.” Of course, there is no delineation of what these “other positive or negative aspects” may be, how they would be weighted, or how they would be applied. This leaves public companies as well as ISS’ clients at sea as to what prompted a determination that previously would have seen ISS oppose more of these proposals. This is a change that would, if enacted, fly in the face of explicit SEC Staff Guidance on the obligations to verify the accuracy and current nature of information utilized in formulating voting recommendations.
The proposed new policy—as yet undefined and undisclosed—is also lacking in any foundation of empirical support… Indeed, a number of studies confirm that there is no empirical support for or against the proposition ISS seems eager to adopt.
[Regarding equity plan scorecards] there is no clear indication on the part of ISS as to what weight it will assign to each category of assessment—cost of plan, plan features, and company grant practices… this approach benefits ISS (and in particular its’ consulting operations), but does nothing to advance either corporate or shareholder interests or benefits. The Consultation also makes clear that, for all ISS’ purported interest in creating a more “nuanced” approach, in fact the proposed policy fosters a one-size-fits-all system that fails to take into account the different unique needs of companies and their investors.
Proxy votes cast in reliance on proxy voting policies based upon this Consultation cannot—by definition—be reasonably designed to further shareholder values.
ISS had a number of other recommendations but they didn’t raise the ire of Bainbridge and the Chamber. For the record, Steve is angry about the independent chair shareholder proposals, but please read his well-documented posts and judge for yourself whether ISS missed the mark. The ISS’ 2015 US Proxy Voting Guidelines were released today. Personally, I plan to raise some of the Guidelines discussing fee-shifting bylaws and exclusive venue provisions in both my Civil Procedure and Business Associations classes.
Let’s see how the Guidelines affect the next proxy season—the recommendations from the two-week comment period go into effect in February.
November 6, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Back in 2010, Art Durnev published a short paper, The Real Effects of Political Uncertainty: Elections and Investment Sensitivity to Stock Prices, available here. The article studies the interaction between national elections and corporate investment. Today is not a national election -- we get two more years before we have to choose our next president -- but it's still seems like an apt day to think about the role of elections on corporate activity.
The most interesting part of the article, to me anyway, is the test of the relationship between political uncertainty and firm performance. As the article explains,
If prices reflect future profitability of investment projects, investment-to-price sensitivity can be interpreted as a measure of the quality of capital allocation. This is because if capital is allocated efficiently, capital is withdrawn from sectors with poor prospects and invested in profitable sectors. Thus, if political uncertainty reduces investment efficiency, firm performance is likely to suffer. Consistent with this argument, we show that firms that experience a drop in investment-to-price sensitivity during election years perform worse over the two years following elections.
The conclusion: this signifies that political uncertainty significantly impacts real economic outcomes. Therefore, "political uncertainty can deteriorate company performance because of inferior capital allocation."
So, it's election day. Please vote, regardless of your views. Voting is a right, a privilege, and duty. And if you're in charge of a firm's investment decisions, consider this study. As we approach the next national election, you might want to be wary of dropping your investment-to-price sensitivity leading up to the next election. If you do, odds are your firm will do worse in the two years following the election.
And, while we're talking presidential politics, here's another study worth considering: Effects of Election Results on Stock Price Performance: Evidence from 1980 to 2008. Here's the abstract (and, please, go vote!):
We analyze whether the results of the 1980 to 2008 U.S. presidential elections influence the stock market performance of eight industries and we examine factors that are expected to affect firms’ stock returns around these elections. Our empirical analysis reflects firms’ exposure to government policies in two ways. First, to determine whether investors presume any Democratic or Republican favoritism towards or biases against certain industries we perform an event study for each of the eight industries around the eight elections. Second, we include the firms’ marginal tax rate as proxy for the firms’ exposure to uncertainty about fiscal policy in a regression analysis. We do not find a consistent pattern in industry returns when comparing the effect of Democratic versus Republican victories. However, the extent of the reaction differs among industries. The victory of a Democratic candidate rather negatively influences overall stock returns, while the results are rather mixed for Republican victories. Furthermore, a change in presidency from either a Democratic to a Republican candidate or from a Republican to a Democratic candidate causes stronger stock market effects than re-election or the election of a president from the same party. We also find that the firms’ marginal tax rate is positively correlated with abnormal stock price returns around the election day. The results are relevant for academics, investors and policy makers alike because they provide insight on the question whether stock market participants respond to expected changes in policy making as a result of presidential elections.