Wednesday, July 1, 2015
As I earlier noted, on June 23rd, I moderated a teleconference on proposals to shorten the Section 13(d) reporting period, currently fixed by statute and regulation at 10 days. If you don't mind registering with Proxy Mosaic, you can listen to the program. The link is here.
The discussion was lively--as you might well imagine, given that one of the participants represents activist shareholders and the other represents public companies. A number of interesting things emerged in the discussion, many (most) of which also have been raised in other public forums on Schedule 13D, including those referenced and summarized here, here, and here, among other places.
- Exactly how does the Section 1d(d) reporting requirement protect investors or maintain market integrity or encourage capital formation? Or is it just a hat-tipping system to warn issuers about potential hostile changes of control, chilling the potential for the market for corporate control to run its natural course? Of course, the answer to many questions about Section 13(d) depends on our understanding of the policy interests being served. It's hard to tinker with the reporting system if we cannot agree on the objectives it seeks to achieve . . . . (Read the remaining bullets with this in mind.)
- We're not in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s any more. If market accumulations are deemed to present dangers to investors today (and that case needs to be made), why are they not just an accepted risk of public market participation? Shouldn't every investor know that market accumulations are a risk of owning publicly traded securities? And how does the reporting requirement really protect them from harm? Is this just over-regulation that treats investors as nitwits?
- Not all activist investors are the same. Some act or desire to act as a Section 13(d) group; others don't. Some seek effective or actual control of an issuer; some don't.
- Provisions within the Section 13(d) filing requirements interact. So, can we really talk about decreasing disclosure time periods without also talking about triggering thresholds and mandatory disclosure requirements?
- Why is 5% beneficial ownership the triggering threshold for reporting? What's the magic in that number--and if it were to be changed, should it be lower or higher?
- Schedule 13D is a disclosure form fraught with complexity. Many important judgment calls may have to be made in completing the required disclosures accurately and completely, depending on the circumstances. Is all this complexity needed? In particular, can the Item 4 disclosure requirement be simplified? And is the group concept necessary?
- What is the value, if any, in looking at the issue from a comparative global regulatory viewpoint? Toward the end of the call, international comparisons were increasingly being made and used as evidence that a change in U.S. regulation is needed or desirable. But are other markets and systems of regulation enough like ours for these comparisons to work? E.g., although other countries require Schedule 13D-like filings fewer days after attainment of a triggering threshold of ownership, does that mean we also should reduce the time period for mandatory disclosure here in the U.S.?
Lots of questions; I am beginning to think through answers. Regardless there's much food for thought here. Any reactions? What do you think, and why?
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
SEC Commissioner Kara M. Stein provided remarks at the Brookings Institute's 75th Anniversary of the Investment Company Act on Monday, June 15th. Now if that isn't an exciting introduction to a post, I just don't know what is. She addressed a topic that is of great interest to me and a focus of my research: retail/retirement investors. I tend to call them Citizen Shareholders in my writing, and it is sentiment shared by Commissioner Stein:
"By retail investor, I mean the everyday citizen or household that is investing – not institutional investors or pension funds. Eighty-nine percent of mutual fund assets are attributable to retail investors." (emphasis added).
In her remarks she detailed several troubling aspects of the mutual fund industry--a primary investment source for retail investors-- liquidity, leverage and disclosure. She also highlighted future SEC rule making initiatives related to these issues. For example, the Commission recently proposed new rules to enhance data reported to the Commission by registered funds. The proposed rule is available here (Download SEC proposed disclosure rules) and received comments can be tracked on the SEC's website here.
Noting that a major function of the 1940 Investment Act was transparency and accuracy through disclosures, she lamented the mission drift in the mutual fund industry which she described as:
"[T]he liquidity of registered funds is one area where it seems that regulation has drifted into “buyer beware.” A retail investor looks at a mutual fund and expects that he or she will be able to get money out of a fund very quickly if needed. A retail investor is generally not performing cash flow analyses on mutual funds to test their true liquidity."
SEC rules require redemption within 7 days and only 15% of mutual fund assets can be invested in illiquid funds. Bank loans and ETF funds, increasingly dramatically in popularity since 2009 (by over 400%) take over one month to settle and thus threaten the redemption rights and liquidity of funds in times of financial stress.
Additional "drift" comes from interpretation that the 15% threshold is at the time of purchase, not at the time of settlement so there is no true 15% threshold.
Promising high liquidity, which all mutual funds must do, on illiquid assets, that have not traditionally been a part of mutual funds, does not seem in keeping with the intent of the Investment Company Act.
Commissioner Stein identified a second problem: leverage. Another cornerstone principle in mutual fund regulation has been the requirement for relatively low leverage, as mandated by Section 18 of the Investment Company Act. Section 18 of the Investment Company Act requires low leverage with senior securities mandating a coverage ratio of 3:1 (300% asset coverage for senior securities). Commissioner Stein described the SEC's enforcement on leverage restrictions as "ad hoc" beginning in 1970 through the 30 subsequent no-action letters issued by the Commission.
Additionally Commissioner Stein addressed the rapid evolution and popularity of alternative mutual funds that attempt to mimic hedge fund returns based on mutual fund liquidity: propositions that she finds troubling.
Assets under management in alternative mutual funds have exploded in recent years. In 2008, there were approximately $46 billion in assets under management for these funds. By the end of 2014, the number had surged to over $311 billion in assets under management. This is an increase of over 575%.
[T]oday, alternative mutual funds promising the upside of hedge fund investments with the liquidity of traditional mutual funds are all the rage. I think that this trend should give everyone pause, and regulators and the public need to be asking questions about this development. ..... Should we consider regulating these funds differently than plain vanilla, traditional mutual funds?
Commissioner Stein's remarks highlight several areas in the mutual fund industry that are being reevaluated by the SEC and should be interested developments to watch if you are an attorney representing mutual fund companies and investment advisers, an academic or simply an average "retail" investor.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
My recent scholarship (e.g., Outside Investor & Retirement Revolution) has focused on retirement and institutional investors. On the retirement investor side, I frequently address the impact that fees have on retirement investment returns, in part, as a critique of the opacity and lack of choice in the defined contribution plans (i.e., 401K and 457 plans). A focus on fee reduction (as well as simple diversification) has driven growth in the index and electronically-traded (ETF) funds, which charge lower fees because they are passively managed. These simple lessons in finance are not just relevant to the individual investor. Earlier this week, CalPERS announced that it would cut fund management fees by reducing (nearly in half) the number of active fund managers overseeing the investment of its over $300 billion in assets. The New York Times reported that:
Eliminating some external managers will help Calpers shore up its investments by reducing fees. Last year, it paid $1.6 billion in management fees, $400 million of which was a one-time payment for its real estate managers, a Calpers spokesman said.
With larger pools of assets shifted to the remaining asset managers, CalPERS should have more leverage to demand lower fees and cost savings of the chosen few. CalPERS, as a leader in the pension world, may pave the way to increased pressure on Wall Street fees by other pension funds.
Monday, June 8, 2015
I was reading an article on securities crowdfunding in China and came across this description of Chinese practice:
Generally, in China, equity-based crowdfunding capital-seekers rely on the strength of experienced, leading investors to advise “follow-up” investors in locating investment projects. Leading investors are usually professionals with rich experience in private offerings and label themselves as holding innovative techniques in investment strategies and possessing sound insights. On the contrary, follow-up investors usually do not have even basic financial skills, but they do ordinarily control certain financial resources for investment. When a leading investor selects a target investment project through an equity-based crowdfunding platform, the leading investor usually invests personal funds into the project. Crowdfunding capital- seekers then take advantage of the leading investor’s funds to market the project to follow-up investors.
(This is from a recent article by Tianlong Hu and Dong Yang, The People’s Funding of China: Legal Developments of Equity Crowdfunding-Progress, Proposals, and Prospects, 83 U. CIN. L. REV. 445 (2014).)
This is not unique to China. Private offerings to accredited investors in the United States often follow a similar path. Smaller investors are more likely to commit once a well-known, sophisticated investor has made a commitment. But the article made me wonder if we could use that structure to create a new securities offering exemption—one that responds to some of the policy concerns people have about the existing exemptions.
Most unregistered primary offerings of securities in the United States are pursuant to Rule 506 of Regulation D, the regulatory safe harbor for the private offering exemption in the Securities Act. Offerings pursuant to Rule 506, either by law [Rule 506(c)] or for practical reasons [Rule 506(b)], are limited to “accredited investors,” a defined term.
Many people have argued that the definition of accredited investor in Regulation D is too broad. Some of the investors covered by the definition are sophisticated institutional investors who clearly can fend for themselves. But the definition also includes many unsophisticated individuals who meet relatively low net worth and income requirements. Many of these investors, it is argued, cannot adequately evaluate the merits and risks of Rule 506 private offerings.
On the other hand, some people have complained that limiting these offerings to accredited investors privileges wealthy people at the expense of “ordinary” investors. Rich people have the opportunity to participate in these sometimes-lucrative offerings, but the rest of us cannot. That was one of the arguments for the not-yet-implemented section 4(a)(6) crowdfunding exemption added by the JOBS Act.
One way to resolve the tension between these two arguments, and deal with both concerns, would be to allow unsophisticated investors to invest in an offering only after a sophisticated investor has made a commitment. Ordinary investors might not be able to protect themselves, but they could free ride on the sophisticated investor’s evaluation of the offering.
We could create a new category of super-accredited investors, consisting only of institutions or individuals who clearly have the sophistication to protect themselves. Once one of those investors purchases a significant stake in an offering, other investors could purchase on the same terms.
For example, if Startup Corporation wanted to raise $50 million in an unregistered offering, it could first sell $10 million of the securities to a large venture capital firm. After that, it would be free to sell the remaining $40 million on the same terms to any investor, accredited or non-accredited, wealthy or not.
The lead investor’s evaluation of the offering wouldn’t completely protect the other investors. In particular, the lead investor’s tolerance for risk might be much higher than most ordinary investors’. But lead investor's evaluation would help protect against fraud and overreaching by the issuer.
The exemption would have to include some additional requirements to make sure that the other investors can reasonably rely on the lead investor’s decision to invest:
1. No conflicts of interest. The lead investor could not have a relationship to the issuer. Otherwise, the lead investor’s decision to invest might be due to that relationship, not because it believes the investment is a good one.
2. Minimum Investment. There should be a minimum investment requirement for the lead investor, to give the lead investor sufficient incentive to review the deal. To take an extreme example, a lead investor’s decision to invest $1 in a $50 million offering tells us little about the quality of the deal.
3. Same Terms. The lead investor must be investing on the same terms as the subsequent investors. The lead investor’s decision that an investment is worthwhile offers no protection at all to subsequent investors if those subsequent investors are getting a materially different deal.
4. Exit. If the lead investor’s decision to invest provides a signal to the other investors, so does the lead investor’s decision to exit the investment. At a minimum, the lead investor should have to disclose to the other investors when it sells. And, if the issuer is repurchasing the lead investor’s securities, we might want to impose a requirement that the issuer also offer to repurchase the securities of the other investors who purchased in the exempted offering.
This is just a sketch of what such an exemption would look like, about as far as one can go in a blog post. The proposed exemption would not be perfect. It wouldn’t guarantee that investors were getting a good deal, or even that the offering was not fraudulent. But even registration can’t do that. And I think the proposal is a nice compromise between investor protection and capital formation concerns.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Earlier I blogged (on the BLPB here and CLS Blue Sky Blog here) about my co-authored piece, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme--a 30-year empirical and case review study analyzing institutional investors' response to constituency statutes as one lens into the question of institutional capital available for alternative purpose firms, like benefit corporations. On Monday, I wrote a short post on our article for the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Reform, which is available here.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
This week I have found myself reading the co-authored, empirical piece by C.N.V. Krishnan, Frank Partnoy, and Randall Thomas titled, Top Hedge Funds and Shareholder Activism. Through their sample they observe that top hedge funds have repetitional capital in that the market responds more positively to announcements by certain hedge funds with certain features, like a longer track record, larger assets under management and management participation through board of director seats. Its an interesting and insightful article on the role, and value, of hedge funds. The authors conclude that
The market appears to anticipate the superior performance of these top hedge funds even before announcement of intervention. Moreover, post-intervention target-firm operating performance associated with these top hedge funds is significantly superior to that of other hedge fund activists.
The focus on reputation reminded of Elisabeth de Fontenay's good work on reputation in private equity. Her article, Private Equity Firms as Gatekeepers, 33 Review of Banking & Financial Law 115-189 (2014). de Fontenay argues in her piece that:
private equity firms act as gatekeepers in the debt markets. As repeat players, private equity firms use their reputations with creditors to mitigate the problems of borrower adverse selection and moral hazard in the companies that they manage, thereby reducing creditors’ costs of lending to these companies. Private equity-owned companies are thus able to borrow money on more favorable terms than standalone companies, all else being equal. By acting as gatekeepers, private equity firms render the debt markets more efficient and provide their portfolio companies with an increasingly valuable borrowing advantage.
Updated to add: Frank Partnoy informed me that he and Elisabeth presented these 2 papers collaboratively to the Duke law faculty with each commenting on the other. This either proves once again that I have no original ideas OR this validates my insights about the overlapping observations in these papers.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Some of you may recall that I blogged last summer about a SEALS (Southeastern Association of Law Schools) discussion group on "publicness." That post can be found here. My contribution to the discussion group was part of a paper that then was a work-in-process for the University of Cincinnati Law Review that I earlier had blogged about here.
That paper now has been released in electronic and hard-copy format. I just uploaded the final version to SSRN. The abstract for the paper reads as follows:
Conceptions of publicness and privateness have been central to U.S. federal securities regulation since its inception. The regulatory boundary between public offerings and private placement transactions is a basic building block among the varied legal aspects of corporate finance. Along the same lines, the distinction between public companies and private companies is fundamental to U.S. federal securities regulation.
The CROWDFUND Act, Title III of the JOBS Act, adds a new exemption from registration to the the Securities Act of 1933. In the process, the CROWDFUND Act also creates a new type of financial intermediary regulated under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and amends the 1934 Act in other ways. Important among these additional changes is a provision exempting holders of securities sold in crowdfunded offerings from the calculation of shareholders that requires securities issuers to become reporting companies under the 1934 Act.
This article attempts to shed more light on the way in which the CROWDFUND Act, as yet unimplemented (due to a delay in necessary SEC rulemaking), interacts with public offering status under the 1933 Act and public company status under the 1934 Act. Using the analytical framework offered by Don Langevoort and Bob Thompson, along with insights provided in Hillary Sale’s work, the article briefly explores how the CROWDFUND Act impacts and is impacted by the public/private divide in U.S. securities regulation. The article also offers related broad-based observations about U.S. securities regulation at the public/private divide.
I hope that you are motivated to read the article--and that you get something out of it if you do read it. The thinking involved in creating the article was often challenging (even if the expressed ideas may not reflect or meet that challenge). Yet, writing the article, in light of the super work already done by Don Langevoort, Bob Thompson, and Hillary Sale, was joyful and illuminating for me in many ways.
I often say that I stand on the shoulders of giants in my teaching and scholarship. That was transparently true in this case. If only all academic research and writing could be so rewarding.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Last week, I looked lovingly at a picture of a Starbucks old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwich. It had 580 calories. I thought about getting the sandwich and then reconsidered and made another more “virtuous” choice. These calorie disclosures, while annoying, are effective for people like me. I see the disclosure, make a choice (sometimes the “wrong” one), and move on.
Regular readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time thinking about human rights from a corporate governance perspective. I thought about that uneaten sandwich as I consulted with a client last week about the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The law went into effect in 2012 and requires retailers, sellers, and manufacturers that exceed $100 million in global revenue that do business in California to publicly disclose the degree to which they verify, audit, and certify their direct suppliers as it relates to human trafficking and slavery. Companies must also disclose whether or not they maintain internal accountability standards, and provide training on the issue in their direct supply chains. The disclosure must appear prominently on a company’s website, but apparently many companies, undeterred by the threat of injunctive action by the state Attorney General, have failed to comply. In April, the California Department of Justice sent letters to a number of companies stating in part:
If your company has posted the required disclosures on its Internet website or, alternatively, takes the position that it is not required to comply with the Act, we request that – within 30 days of this letter’s date – you complete the form accessible at http://oag.ca.gov/sb657 and provide this office with (1) the web links (URLs) to both your company’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act disclosures and its homepage containing a link to the disclosures; and/or (2) information demonstrating your company is not covered by the Act.
There are no financial penalties for noncompliance. Rather, companies can face reputational damage and/or an order from the Attorney General to post something on their websites. A company complies even if that disclosure states that the company does no training, auditing, certification, monitoring or anything else related to human trafficking or slavery. The client I spoke to last week is very specialized and all of its customers are other businesses. Based on their business profiles, those “consumers” are not likely to make purchasing decisions based on human rights due diligence. I will be talking to another client in a few weeks on the California law. That client is business to consumer but its consumers specifically focus on low cost—that’s the competitive advantage for that client. Neither company-- the B2B nor the B2 (cost conscious)C-- is likely to lose significant, if any business merely because they don’t do extensive due diligence on their supply chains. Similarly, Apple, which has done a great job on due diligence for the conflict minerals law will not set records with the sale of the Apple Watch because of its human rights record. I bet that if I walked into an Apple Store and asked how many had seen or heard of Apple’s state of the art conflict minerals disclosure, the answer would be less than 1% (and that would be high).
People buy products because they want them. The majority of people won’t bother to look for what’s in or behind the product, although that information is readily available through apps or websites. If that information stares the consumer in the face (thanks Starbucks), then the consumer may make a different choice. But that assumes that (1) the consumer cares and (2) there is an equally viable choice.
To be clear, I believe that companies must know what happens with their suppliers, and that there is no excuse for using trafficked or forced labor. But I don’t know that the use of disclosures is the way to go. Some boards will engage in the cost benefit analysis of reputational damage and likelihood of enforcement vs cost of compliance rather than having a conversation about what kind of company they want to be. Many board members will logically ask themselves, “should we care if our customers don’t care?”
My most recent law review article covers this topic in detail. I’ll post it in the next couple of weeks because I need to revise it to cover the April development on the California law, and the EU’s vote on May 19 on their own version of the conflict minerals law. In the meantime, ignorance is bliss. I’m staying out of Starbucks and any other restaurant that posts calories- at least during the stressful time of grading exams.
May 14, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Monday, I had the privilege of moderating a discussion on structuring merger and acquisition transactions that I had organized as part of a continuing legal education program for the Tennessee Bar Association. Rather than doing the typical comparison/contrast of different business combination structures (with charts, etc.), I organized the hour-long discussion around the banter that corporate/securities and tax folks have in structuring a transaction. We used the terms of a proposed transaction (an LLC business being acquired by a public corporation) as a jumping-off point.
The idea for the format came from a water cooler conversation--literally--among me (in the role of a corporate/securities lawyer), one of my property lawyer colleagues, and one of my tax lawyer colleagues. The conversation started with a question my property law colleague had about the conveyance of assets in a merger. I told him that mergers are not asset conveyance transactions but, rather, statutory transactions that have the effects provided for in the statute, which include a vesting of assets in the surviving corporation. I told him that I call this "merger magic." I showed him Section 259(a) of the Delaware General Corporation Law:
When any merger or consolidation shall have become effective under this chapter, . . . all property, real, personal and mixed, and all debts due to any of said constituent corporations on whatever account, as well for stock subscriptions as all other things in action or belonging to each of such corporations shall be vested in the corporation surviving or resulting from such merger or consolidation . . . .
We discussed the possibility of an assignment/transfer of assets by operation of law under that provision and more generally under Delaware law in connection with different types of mergers, including recent case law regarding reverse triangular mergers. Ultimately, my property law colleague decided that a direct merger involved an asset sale by the target entity and a purchase transaction by the surviving corporation, as a matter of property law, notwithstanding my "merger magic" explanation I was forwarding as a descriptor under state corporate law.
The tax guy thought all this (both descriptions of a merger) was balderdash. These descriptions were too complex and stilted for his taste. Not to be outdone, he offered that all merger and acquisition transactions are either asset sales or sales of equity. At least, he allowed, that's how federal income tax law looks at them . . . . I told him that asset and equity sale transactions are joined by mergers (direct, reverse triangular, and forward triangular) and share exchange transactions (which are also statutory transactions, available in Tennessee and other Model Business Corporation Act states, but not available in Delaware) in the corporate lawyer's business combination toolkit. I also noted that federal securities law voting and reporting requirements work off these different corporate law descriptors.
Fascinating! Three lawyers, three different conceptions of business combination transactions. The moderated discussion on Monday was, in effect, an attempt by me to recreate, albeit in a different form, parts of that conversation. The discussion was, in my view, decently successful in achieving its limited purpose in the program. Nevertheless, I really wish I had a transcription of that original conversation by the water cooler. That was truly priceless . . . .
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Perhaps this post would have been timelier before the spring submission cycle, but hopefully it will be helpful in framing title options for pieces being developed this summer. One of the many benefits of co-authorship is learning substantive and procedural knowledge from your collaborators. On a recent article, I worked with three economists who have different skill sets, perspectives, and discipline standards. When we were trying to finalize our title, we came up with several different categories or types of article titles—a framework that I will utilize again in the future and which I am sharing with you today. We selected the “themed” based title for our article, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme, and a play on words, Institutional Investors’ Appetite for Alternatives, for a shorter piece appearing on Columbia Blue Sky Blog.
SOBER: Institutional Investing after Constituency Statutes
QUESTION: Does Changing Shareholder Value Maximization Standards Change Institutional Investors’ Behavior?
CONTRAST: Institutional Investors Behavior Before and After Constituency Statutes
PLAY ON WORDS: Appetite for Alternatives: Institutional Investors’ Behavior in the Fact of Shareholder Value Maximization Pressures
FORWARD THINKING: What Does Institutional Investors Behavior after Constituency Statutes Tell Us Regarding Benefit Corporations?
HISTORICAL: The Changing Landscape of Directorial Duties: Constituency States to Alternative Purpose Firms
SLATE/OP-ED: Who’s Afraid of Alternative Purpose Firms?
THEME: Agency Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme
For those interested and perhaps to put the title options in perspective, here is a little background on our article, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme. In an earlier BLPB post, I linked to our short piece appearing in Columbia Blue Sky Blog. Our article examines institutional investors’ response to corporate director duty changes embodied in constituency statutes and links our findings to current questions of institutional investors’ potential acceptance of alternative business entities. Our paper surveys the 30+ year literature debate on directors’ duties to maximize shareholder value, a case law analysis of constituency statute litigation, and an empirical study (utilizing a difference-in-differences approach) of institutional investors’ divestment of stock held in companies incorporated in constituency statute jurisdictions. We first verified that courts enforced constituency statutes, or in other words, that constituency statutes represented at least a small change to directors’ legal duties. In our empirical section, we found no statistically significant departure of institutional investors after the passage of constituency statutes, focusing specifically on institutions with high fiduciary duties. If institutional investors had fled constituency statute investments, which are subject to lower director duties changes than with say benefit corporations, then there would be grounds to think that institutional investors would not invest in alternative purpose firms. Finding no such negative reaction to constituency statutes does not conclusively indicate institutional investor’s acceptance of alternative purposes firms, especially given the greater deviation from shareholder value maximization by requiring (rather than permitting) directors to consider nonshareholder interests codified in benefit corporation statutes. It does suggest, however, some latitude for institutional investors to consider alternative purpose firm investments without running afoul of fiduciary duties. If I were explaining the results to a student, I would say that our study could have produced strong evidence shutting the door on this possibility, but instead the findings leave the door open. This paper is valuable in the absence of direct information on the question, and will certainly give way to findings utilizing empirical data directly on point with publicly-traded benefit corporations and/or B Corporations.
Monday, April 27, 2015
The following guest blog post on my recent article, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme, is available at Columbia's Blue Sky Blog discussing institutional investors' attitudes towards alternative business forms and similar issues raised by Etsy's IPO.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
For thirty years, I have had a pet peeve about the media's routine reporting on mergers and acquisitions. I have kept this to myself, for the most part, other than scattered comments to law practice colleagues and law students over the years. Today, I go public with this veritable thorn in my side.
From many press reports (which commonly characterize business combinations as mergers), you would think that every business combination is structured as a merger. I know I am being picky here (since there are both legal and non-legal common parlance definitions of the verb "merge"). But a merger, to a business lawyer, is a particular form of business combination, to be distinguished from a stock purchase, asset purchase, consolidation, or statutory share exchange transaction.
The distinction is meaningful to business lawyers for whom the implications of deal type are well known. However, imho, it also can be meaningful to others with an interest in the transaction, assuming the implications of the deal structure are understood by the journalist and conveyed accurately to readers. For instance, the existence (or lack) of shareholder approval requirements and appraisal rights, the need for contractual consents, permit or license transfers or applications, or regulatory approvals, the tax treatment, etc. may differ based on the transaction structure.
Monday, April 6, 2015
Yesterday was the third anniversary of the JOBS Act. President Obama signed it into law on April 5, 2012. The JOBS Act, as regular readers of this blog know, requires the SEC to adopt rules to enact an exemption for crowdfunded securities offerings. The statutory deadline for the SEC to do so was December 31, 2012. The SEC proposed the required rules on October 23, 2013, but it still has not adopted them.
It is now
- 1096 days since Congress passed the JOBS Act
- 826 days since the deadline for the SEC to adopt the required rules
- 530 days since the SEC proposed the rules
. . . and still no crowdfunding exemption.
If I treated my tax returns like the SEC has treated the crowdfunding rules, I would be in jail.
SEC Chair Mary Jo White has recently said that the SEC hopes to finalize the rules by the end of the year. I certainly hope so.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
In connection with the current legislative debate on benefit corporations in Tennessee (which has been gathering momentum since I last wrote on the topic), I have repeatedly asked about the impetus for the bill. Of course, there is the obvious "push" for benefit corporation legislation by the B Lab folks, who have gotten the ear of folks at the Chamber, convincing them that the legislation is needed in Tennessee to protect social enterprise entities from the application of a narrow version of the shareholder wealth maximization norm (a conclusion that I dispute in my earlier post). But what else? What real parties in interest in Tennessee, if any, have expressed a desire that Tennessee adopt this form of business entity?
There is anecdotal information from one venture attorney that some Tennessee entrepreneurs have indicated a preference for the benefit corporation form and have specifically requested that their business be organized as a Delaware benefit corporation. Leaving aside the Delaware versus Tennessee question, why are these entrepreneurs looking to organize their businesses as benefit corporations? Where does this idea come from?
Earlier this week I went to a really useful workshop conducted by the Venture Law Project and David Salmon entitled "Key Legal Docs Every Entrepreneur Needs." I decided to attend because I wanted to make sure that I’m on target with what I am teaching in Business Associations, and because I am on the pro bono list to assist small businesses. I am sure that the entrepreneurs learned quite a bit because I surely did, especially from the questions that the audience members asked. My best moment, though was when a speaker asked who knew the term "right of first refusal" and the only two people who raised their hands were yours truly and my former law student, who turned to me and gave me the thumbs up.
Their list of the “key” documents is below:
1) Operating Agreement (for an LLC)- the checklist included identity, economics, capital structure, management, transfer restrictions, consent for approval of amendments, and miscellaneous.
2) NDA- Salmon advised that asking for an NDA was often considered a “rookie mistake” and that venture capitalists will often refuse to sign them. I have heard this from a number of legal advisors over the past few years, and Ycombinator specifically says they won't sign one.
3) Term Sheets- the seminar used an example for a Series AA Preferred Stock Financing, which addressed capitalization, proposed private placement, etc.
4) Independent Contractor Agreement- the seminar creators also provided an IRS checklist.
6) Employment Agreement- as a former employment lawyer, I would likely make a lot of tweaks to the document, and vey few people have employment contracts in any event. But it did have good information about equity grants.
7) Convertible Promissory Note Purchase Agreement- here's where the audience members probably all said, "I need an attorney" and can't do this from some online form generator or service like Legal Zoom or Rocket Lawyer.
8) Stock Purchase Agreement- the sample dealt with Series AA preferred stock.
9) IRS 83(b) form- for those who worry that they may have to pay taxes on "phantom income" if the value of their stock rises.
10) A detailed checklist dealing with basic incorporation, personnel/employee matters, intellectual property, and tax/finance/administration with a list of whether the responsible party should be the founders, attorney, officers, insurance agent, accountant, or other outside personnel.
What’s missing in your view? The speakers warned repeatedly that business people should not cut and paste from these forms, but we know that many will. So my final question- how do we train future lawyers so that these form generators and workshops don't make attorneys obsolete to potential business clients?
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
On March 25, 2015, the SEC Commissioners unanimously adopted final rules amending Regulation A, effective in 60 days, extending an existing exemptions for smaller issues as required under Title IV of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. SEC information on the new regulations are available here and commentary is available here.
The SEC Release states that:
The updated exemption will enable smaller companies to offer and sell up to $50 million of securities in a 12-month period, subject to eligibility, disclosure and reporting requirements.
The final rules, often referred to as Regulation A+, provide for two tiers of offerings: Tier 1, for offerings of securities of up to $20 million in a 12-month period, with not more than $6 million in offers by selling security-holders that are affiliates of the issuer; and Tier 2, for offerings of securities of up to $50 million in a 12-month period, with not more than $15 million in offers by selling security-holders that are affiliates of the issuer. Both Tiers are subject to certain basic requirements while Tier 2 offerings are also subject to additional disclosure and ongoing reporting requirements.
The final rules pre-empt states from reviewing and approving Tier 2 offerings to "qualified purchasers." For a further discussion on merit review and preemption, see The SEC's New 'Regulation A+' and the States' 'M' Word, posted on JDSupra.
Supporters have commended the change as decreasing reliance on costly gate keepers to capital such as investment bankers, and facilitating an easier path to raise capital by allowing qualifying companies to offer their stock directly to the public. Initial reaction quotes in the alternative finance world are available here.
Friday, March 27, 2015
After teaching my early morning classes, I will spend the rest of the day at Vanderbilt Law School for their Developing Areas of Capital Market and Federal Securities Regulation Conference.
This is Vanderbilt's 17th Annual Law and Business Conference and they have quite the impressive lineup, including Commissioner Daniel Gallagher, Jr. of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
I am grateful to the Vanderbilt faculty members who invited me to this event and others like it. Vanderbilt is only about 1 mile from Belmont and I have truly enjoyed getting to know some of the Vanderbilt faculty members and their guest speakers.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Today, part of the assignment for my Securities Regulation students was to read a chapter in our casebook and, as assigned by me, come to class prepared to teach in a three-to-five-minute segment a part of the assigned reading. The casebook is Securities Regulation: Cases and Materials by Jim Cox, Bob Hillman, and Don Langevoort. The chapter (Chapter 7, entitled "Recapitalization, Reorganizations, and Acquisitions") covers the way in which various typical corporate finance transactions are, are not, or may be offers or sales of securities that trigger registration under Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the "1933 Act"). I have used this technique for teaching this material before (and also use a student teaching method for part of my Corporate Finance course), and I really enjoy the class each time.
I find that the students understand the assigned material well (having already been through a lot of registration and exemption material in the preceding weeks) and embrace the responsibility of teaching me and each other. I am convinced that they learn the material better and are more engaged with it because they have had to read it with a different intent driven by a distinct objective. For their brief teaching experience, each student needs to understand both the transaction at issue and the way in which it implicates, does not implicate, or may implicate 1933 Act registration requirements. They do not disappoint in either respect, and I admit to being interested in their presentations and proud of them.
I also find that changing my role principally to that of a listener and questioner refreshes me. I organize and orchestrate the general structure of the class meeting and come to class prepared with the knowledge of what needs to be brought out during the session. But since I cannot control exactly what is said, I must listen and react and help create logical transitions and other links between the topics covered. In addition, I can create visuals on the board to illustrate aspects of the "mini-lectures" (as I did today when a student was explaining a spin-off transaction). I honestly have a lot of fun teaching this way.
There are, no doubt, many ways in which we can engage students in teaching course material in the classroom that may have similar benefits. What are yours? When and how do you use them to make them most effective? Teach me! :>)
Monday, March 23, 2015
The JOBS Act requires the SEC to create an exemption for small, crowdfunded offerings of securities. That exemption, if the SEC ever enacts it, will allow issuers to raise up to $1 million a year in sales of securities to the general public. (Don’t confuse this exemption with Rule 506(c) sales to accredited investors, which is sometimes called crowdfunding, but really isn’t.)
The crowdfunding exemption restricts resales of the crowdfunded securities. Crowdfunding purchasers may not, with limited exceptions, resell the securities they purchase for a year. Securities Act sec. 4A(e); Proposed Rule 501, in SEC, Crowdfunding, Securities Act Release No. 9470 (Oct. 23, 2013). Unlike the resale restrictions in some of the other federal registration exemptions, the crowdfunding resale restriction serves no useful purpose. All it does is to increase the risk of what is already a very risky investment by reducing the liquidity of that investment.
Enforcing the “Come to Rest” Idea
Some of the resale restrictions in other exemptions are designed to enforce the requirement that the securities sold “come to rest” in the hands of purchasers who qualify for the exemption.
Rule 147, the safe harbor for the intrastate offering exemption in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act, is a good example. To qualify for the intrastate offering exemption, the securities must be offered and sold only to purchasers who reside in the same state as the issuer. Securities Act sec. 3(a)(11); Rule 147(d). This requirement would be totally illusory if an issuer could sell to a resident of its state and that resident could immediately resell outside the state. Therefore, Rule 147(e) prohibits resales outside the state for nine months.
The resale restrictions applicable to the Rule 505 and 506 exemptions have a similar effect. Rule 506 only allows sales to accredited investors or, in the case of Rule 506(b), non-accredited, sophisticated investors. Rules 506(b)(2)(ii), 506(c)(2)(i). These requirements would be eviscerated if an accredited or sophisticated purchaser could immediately resell to someone who does not qualify.
Rule 505 does not limit who may purchase but, like Rule 506, it does limit the number of non-accredited investors to 35. Rules 505(b)(2)(ii), 501(e)(1)(iv). If an issuer could sell to a single purchaser who immediately resold to dozens of others, the 35-purchaser limitation would be meaningless.
To enforce the requirements of the Rule 505 and 506 exemptions, Rule 502(d) restricts resales in both types of offering.
Preventing an Information-less Resale Market
Rule 504 also includes a resale restriction, Rule 502(d), even though it does not impose any restrictions on the nature or number of purchasers. A resale would not, therefore, be inconsistent with any restrictions imposed on the issuer’s offering.
However, Rule 504 does not impose any disclosure requirements on issuers. See Rule 502(b)(1). Because of that, people purchasing in a resale market would not have ready access to information about the issuer. But the Rule 504 resale restriction does not apply if the offering is registered in states that require the public filing and delivery to investors of a disclosure document. Rules 502(d), 504(b)(1). In that case, information about the issuer is publicly available and there’s no need to restrict resales. People purchasing in the resale market would have access to information to inform their purchases.
The resale restrictions in Rule 505 and 506 offerings could also be justified in part on this basis. If issuers sell only to accredited investors in those offerings, there is no disclosure requirement. If they sell to non-accredited investors, disclosure is mandated, but even then there’s no obligation to make that disclosure public. See Rule 502(b). People purchasing in the resale market therefore would not have ready access to public information about the issuer.
This lack-of-information justification is consistent with the lack of resale restrictions in Regulation A. To use the Regulation A exemption, an issuer must file with the SEC and furnish to investors a detailed disclosure document. Rules 251(d), 252. Because of that, information about the issuer and the security will be publicly available to purchasers in the resale market.
The Crowdfunding Exemption
Neither of these justifications for resale restrictions applies to offerings pursuant to the forthcoming (some day?) crowdfunding exemption.
The come-to-rest rationale does not apply. The crowdfunding exemption does not limit the type or number of purchasers. An issuer may offer and sell to anyone, anywhere, so no resale restriction is necessary to avoid circumvention of the requirements of the exemption.
The information argument also does not apply. A crowdfunding issuer is required to provide a great deal of disclosure about the company and the offering—as I have argued elsewhere, probably too much to make the exemption viable. See Securities Act sec. 4A(b)(1); Proposed Rule 201 and Form C. The issuer is also obligated to file annual reports with updated information. Securities Act sec. 4A(b)(4); Proposed Rule 202. All of that information will be publicly available. Even if one contends that the information required to be disclosed is inadequate, it will be no more adequate a year after the offering, when crowdfunding purchasers are free to resell. Securities Act sec. 4A(e); Proposed Rule 501.
Some people, including Tom Hazen and my co-blogger Joan Heminway, have argued that resale restrictions may be necessary to avoid a repeat of the pump-and-dump frauds that occurred under Rule 504 when Rule 504 was not subject to any resale restrictions. As I have explained, Rule 504, which requires no public disclosure of information, fits within the information rationale. Such fraud is much less likely where detailed disclosure is required. There will undoubtedly be some fraud in the resale market no matter what the rules are, but public crowdfunding will be much less susceptible to such fraud than the private Rule 504 sales in which the pump-and-dump frauds occurred.
The resale restrictions are consistent with neither the come-to-rest rationale nor the information rationale for resale restrictions Forcing crowdfunding purchasers to wait a year before reselling therefore serves no real purpose. The only real effect of those resale restrictions is to make an already-risky investment even riskier by reducing liquidity.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Bernard Sharfman has posted a new article entitled “Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Long-Term Value Creators or Destroyers?" In the paper he makes the argument that hedge fund activism contributes to long-term value creation if it can be assumed that the typical board of a public company has an adequate amount of independence to act as an arbitrator between executive management and the activist hedge fund. He also discusses these funds’ focus on disinvestment and attempts to challenge those in the Marty Lipton camp, who view these funds less charitably. In fact, Lipton recently called 2014 “the year of the wolf pack.” The debate on the merits of activist hedge funds has been heating up. Last month Forbes magazine outlined “The Seven Deadly Sins of Activist Hedge Funds,” including their promotion of share buybacks, aka “corporate cocaine.” Forbes was responding to a more favorable view of these funds by The Economist in its February 7, 2015 cover story.
Whether you agree with Sharfman or Lipton, the article is clearly timely and worth a read. The abstract is below:
Numerous empirical studies have shown that hedge fund activism has led to enhanced returns to investors and increased firm performance. Nevertheless, leading figures in the corporate governance world have taken issue with these studies and have argued that hedge fund activism leads to long-term value destruction.
In this article, it is argued that an activist hedge fund creates long-term value by sending affirming signals to the board of directors (Board) that its executive management team may be making inefficient decisions and providing recommendations on how the company should proceed in light of these inefficiencies. These recommendations require the Board to review and question the direction executive management is taking the company and then choosing which path the company should take, the one recommended by executive management, the one recommended by the activist hedge fund or a combination of both. Critical to this argument is the existence of a Board that can act as an independent arbitrator in deciding whose recommendations should be followed.
In addition, an explanation is given for why activist hedge funds do not provide recommendations that involve long-term investment. There are two reasons for this. First, the cognitive limitations and skill sets of those individuals who participate as activist hedge funds. Second, and most importantly, the stock market signals provided by value investors voting with their feet are telling the rest of the stock market that a particular public company is poorly managed and that it either needs to be replaced or given less assets to manage. These are the kind of signals and information that activist hedge funds are responding to when buying significant amounts of company stock and then making their recommendations for change. Therefore, it is not surprising that the recommendations of activist hedge funds will focus on trying to reduce the amount of assets under current management.