Friday, April 17, 2015
At the end of next week, I will be at the University of Connecticut School of Business and the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center for their Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Conference.
Further information about the conference is available here, a portion of which is reproduced below:
In October 2014, Connecticut joined a growing number of states that empower for-profit corporations to expand their core missions to expressly include human rights, environmental sustainability, and other social objectives. As a new legal class of businesses, these benefit corporations join a growing range of social entrepreneurship and enterprise models that have the potential to have positive social impacts on communities in Connecticut and around the world. Designed to evaluate and enhance this potential, SE2 will feature a critical examination of the various aspects of social entrepreneurship, as well as practical guidance on the challenges and opportunities presented by the newly adopted Connecticut Benefit Corporation Act and other forms of social enterprise.
Presenters at the academic symposium on April 23 are:
- Mystica Alexander, Bentley University
- Norman Bishara, University of Michigan
- Kate Cooney, Yale University
- Lucien Dhooge, Georgia Institute of Technology
- Gwendolyn Gordon, University of Pennsylvania
- Gil Lan, Ryerson University
- Diana Leyden, University of Connecticut
- Haskell Murray, Belmont University
- Inara Scott, Oregon State University
Presenters at the practitioner conference on April 24 are:
- Gregg Haddad, State Representative, Connecticut General Assembly (D-Mansfield)
- Spencer Curry & Kieran Foran, FRESH Farm Aquaponics
- Sophie Faris, Community Development, B-Lab
- James W. McLaughlin, Associate, Murtha Cullina LLP
- Michelle Cote, Managing Director, Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
- Mike Brady, CEO, Greyston Bakery
- Jeff Brown, Executive Vice President, Newman’s Own Foundation
- Justin Nash, President, Veterans Construction Services, and Founder, Til Duty is Done
- Vishal Patel, CEO & Founder, Happy Life Coffee
- Anselm Doering, President & CEO, EcoLogic Solutions
- Dafna Alsheh, Production Operations Director, Ice Stone
- Tamara Brown, Director of Sustainable Development and Community Engagement, Praxair
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Regular readers know that I have blogged repeatedly about my opposition to the US Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which aims to stop the flow of funds to rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Briefly, the US law does not prohibit the use of conflict minerals, but instead requires certain companies to obtain an independent private sector third-party audit of reports of the facilities used to process the conflict minerals; conduct a reasonable country of origin inquiry; and describe the steps the company used to mitigate the risk, in order to improve its due diligence process. The business world and SEC are awaiting a First Amendment ruling from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on the “name and shame” portion of the law, which requires companies to indicate whether their products are DRC Conflict Free.” I have argued that it is a well-intentioned but likely ineffective corporate governance disclosure that depends on consumers to pressure corporations to change their behavior.
The proposed EU regulation establishes a voluntary process through which importers of certain minerals into the EU self-certify that they do not contribute to financing in “conflict-affected” or “high risk areas.” Unlike Dodd-Frank, it is not limited to Congo. Taking note of various stakeholder consultations and the US Dodd-Frank law, the EU had originally limited the scope to importers, and chose a voluntary mechanism to avoid any regional boycotts that hurt locals and did not stop armed conflict. Those importers who choose to certify would have to conduct due diligence in accordance with the OECD Guidance, and report their findings to the EU. The EU would then publish a list of “responsible smelters and refiners,” so that the public will hold importers and smelters accountable for conducting appropriate due diligence. The regulation also offers incentives, such as assistance with procurement contracts.
One of the problems with researching and writing on hot topics is that things change quickly. Two days after I submitted my most recent article to law reviews in March criticizing the use of disclosure to mitigate human rights impacts, the EU announced that it was considering a mandatory certification program for conflict minerals. That meant I had to change a whole section of my article. (I’ll blog on that article another time, but it will be out in the Winter issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review). Then just yesterday, in a reversal, the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee announced that it would stick with the original voluntary plan after all.The European Parliament votes on the proposal in May.
Reaction from the NGO community was swift. Global Witness explained:
Today the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA) wasted a ground-breaking opportunity to tackle the deadly trade in conflict minerals. […] Under this proposal, responsible sourcing by importers of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold would be entirely optional. The Commission’s proposed voluntary self-certification scheme would be open to approximately 300-400 companies—just 0.05% of companies using and trading these minerals in the EU, and would have virtually no impact on companies’ sourcing behaviour. The law must be strengthened to make responsible sourcing a legal requirement for all companies that place these minerals on the European market–in any form. This would put the European Union at the forefront of global efforts to create more transparent, responsible and sustainable business practices. It would also better align Europe with existing international standards on responsible sourcing, and complement mandatory requirements in the US and in twelve African countries.
I’m all for due diligence in the supply chain and for forcing companies to minimize their human rights impacts. Corporations should do more than respect human rights-- they must pay when they cause harm. I plan to spend part of my summer researching and writing in Latin America about stronger human rights protections for indigenous peoples and the deleterious actions of some multinationals.
But a mandatory certification scheme on due diligence is not the answer because it won’t solve deep, intractable problems that require much more widespread reform. To be clear, I don't think the EU has the right solution either. Reasonable people can disagree, but perhaps the members of the EU Parliament should look to Dodd-Frank. SEC Chair Mary Jo White disclosed last month that the agency had spent 2.75 million dollars, including legal fees, and 17,000 hours writing and implementing the conflict minerals rule. A number of scholars and activists have argued that the law has in fact harmed the Congolese it meant to help and news reports have attempted to dispel some of the myths that led to the passage of the law.
So let’s see what happens in May when the EU looks at conflict minerals again. Let’s see what happens in June when the second wave of Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings come in. As I indicated in my last blog post about Dodd-Frank referenced above, the first set of filings was particularly unhelpful. And let’s see what happens in December when parents start the holiday shopping—how many of them will check on the disclosures before buying electronics and toys for the members of their family? Most important, let's see if someone can actually tie the money and time spent on conflict minerals disclosure directly to lower rates of rape, child slavery, kidnapping, and forced labor-- the behaviors these laws intend to stop.
April 16, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." -- John Godfrey Saxe
This is a brief legislative update on the progress of Tennessee's current bills, introduced in the house (HB0767--amendment not yet filed) and senate (SB0972), to institute the benefit corporation as a distinct for-profit business corporation in the State of Tennessee. The links provided are to the current versions of the bill, which reflect a significant amendment, as described below.
As you may know from my prior posts (including here and here), I am a benefit corporation skeptic. Please read those posts for details. And within the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) Business Law Section Executive Council and Business Entity Study Committee (our state bar committee that vets changes to Tennessee business associations and other business laws), I am not alone. We have rejected bills of this kind several times over the past few years when the matter has been put to us for review by the TBA. This year was no different. We opposed the benefit corporation bills that were introduced in Tennessee this year, too.
What was different this time around, was that the folks at B Lab had gotten the attention of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tennessee, who appear(ed) to have some misunderstandings about the current state of Tennessee corporate governance law and came to push for adoption of the bill in committee in both houses of the legislature. Given that we were late to the party and that the members of our TBA Council and Committee are very busy lawyers, our efforts to re-educate members of the relevant committees were not as effective as we would have liked. But we ultimately were afforded two weeks to attempt to write an amended bill--one that better reflected Tennessee law and norms.
Now, any of you who have worked on a project like this before know that two weeks is not enough time to do a professionally responsible job in spotting and tracking down all of the issues that the introduction of a new business form routinely and naturally raises. Heck. We couldn't even get all the constituents around the table that we would want around the table to debate and review the legislation in two weeks! [It seems hardest to find a plaintiff's bar lawyer to sit in with us, but we found a great one for our recent work on the Tennessee Business Corporation Act (TBCA).] Our requests for more time to work on the proposed legislation were, however, rejected.
So, we set out to make a better sausage . . . .
Thursday, April 9, 2015
It’s that time of year again where I have my business associations students pretend to be shareholders and draft proposals. I blogged about this topic last semester here. Most of this semester’s proposals related to environmental, social and governance factors. In the real world, a record 433 ESG proposals have been filed this year, and the breakdown as of mid-February was as follows according to As You Sow:
Environment/Climate Change- 27%
Political Activity- 26%
Summaries of some of the student proposals are below (my apologies if my truncated descriptions make their proposals less clear):
1) Netflix-follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the core standards of the International Labour Organization
2) Luxottica- separate Chair and CEO
3) DineEquity- issue quarterly reports on efforts to combat childhood obesity and the links to financial risks to the company
4) Starbucks- provide additional disclosure of risks related to declines in consumer spending and decreases in wages
5) Chipotle- issue executive compensation/pay disparity report
6) Citrix Systems-add board diversity
7) Dunkin Donuts- eliminate the use of Styrofoam cups
8) Campbell Soup- issue sustainability report
9) Shake Shack- issue sustainability report
10) Starbucks- separate Chair and CEO
11) Hyatt Hotels- institute a tobacco-free workplace
12) Burger King- eliminate GMO in food
13) McDonalds- provide more transparency on menu changes
14) Google-disclose more on political expenditures
15) WWE- institute funding cap
One proposal that generated some discussion in class today related to a consumer products company. As I skimmed the first two lines of the proposal to end animal testing last night, I realized that one of my friends was in-house counsel at the company. I immediately reached out to her telling her that my students noted that the company used to be ”cruelty-free,” but now tested on animals in China. She responded that the Chinese government required animal testing on these products, and thus they were complying with applicable regulations. My students, however, believed that the company should, like their competitors, work with the Chinese government to change the law or should pull out of China. Are my students naïve? Do companies actually have the kind of leverage to cause the Chinese government to change their laws? Or would companies fail their shareholders by pulling out of a market with a billion potential customers? This led to a robust debate, which unfortunately we could not finish.
I look forward to Tuesday’s class when we will continue these discussions and I will show them the sobering statistics of how often these proposals tend to fail. Hopefully we can also touch on the Third Circuit decision, which may be out on the Wal-Mart/Trinity Church shareholder proposal issue.These are certainly exciting times to be teaching about business associations and corporate governance.
April 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
In December, 2014 the Second Circuit in US v. Newman addressed liability of remote tippees. In Newman, a lawyer told a friend who told a roommate information regarding the sale of SPSS Inc. to IBM that found its way into later trades by a cohort of analysts at hedge funds and investment firms. (Op. at 5-7). The Second Circuit in Newman vacated insider trading convictions and narrowed the standard for "improper benefit", reconsideration of which was denied last week, and thus stands pending review by the U.S. Supreme Court. To qualify as an improper benefit under Newman, there must be proof of a meaningfully close relationship, where the "the personal benefit received in exchange for confidential information must be of some consequence." (Op. at 22). Newman also made clear that liability standards are the same whether the tippee's liability arises under the classical or the misappropriate theories. (Op. at 11).
Judge Jed S. Rakoff, of Federal District Court in Manhattan, issued an order denying a motion to dismiss the SEC's civil charges against Daryl Payton and Benjamin Durrant III, defendants in Newman who received their information from the roommate of the friend of the lawyer. This is the first case to examine the impact of the Newman opinion in the civil context. Judge Rakoff wrote:
Significantly while a person is guilty of criminal insider trading only if that person committed the offense “willfully,” i.e., knowingly and purposely, a person may be civilly liable if that person committed the offense recklessly, that is, in heedless disregard of the probable consequences. (Op. at 2)
Judge Rakoff concluded that the SEC's "Amended Complaint more than sufficiently alleges that defendants knew or recklessly disregarded that Martin received a personal benefit in disclosing information to Conradt, and that Martin in doing so breached a duty of trust and confidence to the owner of the information. (Op. at 16).
Peter J. Henning, a professor at Wayne State University Law School, writes in his article in the DealB%k that:
Judge Rakoff’s analysis provides at least some guidance on how to assess the new landscape under the Newman opinion. Courts tend to apply securities law decisions interchangeably in criminal and civil cases, so the Justice Department can cite his opinion as a favorable precedent in other cases involving tippees.
This and other insider trading enforcement actions by the SEC can be tracked here.
Monday, April 6, 2015
Recently, I received the following conference announcement via e-mail:
Understanding the Modern Company
Organised by the Department of Law, Queen Mary University of London,
in cooperation with University College London
Saturday 9 May 2015, 09.00 to 17.00
Centre for Commercial Law Studies
Queen Mary University of London
67-69 Lincoln’s Inn Fields
London WC2A 3JB
From their origin in medieval times to their modern incarnation as transnational bodies that traverse nations, the company remains an important, yet highly misunderstood entity. It is perhaps not surprising then that understanding what a company is and to whom it is accountable remains a persistent and enduring debate across the globe.
Today, the company is viewed in a variety, and often contradictory, ways. Some see it as a public body; others view it as a system of private ordering, while still others see it as a hybrid between these two views. Companies have also been characterized as the property of their shareholders, a network, a team, and even akin to a natural person. Yet the precise nature of the company and its role in society remain a modern mystery.
This conference brings together a wealth of scholars from around the world to explore the nature and function of companies. By drawing from different backgrounds and perspectives, the aim of this conference is to develop a normative approach to understanding the modern company.
Professor William Bratton, University of Pennsylvania
Professor Christopher Bruner, Washington & Lee University
Professor Karin Buhmann, Roskilde University
Dr Barnali Choudhury, Queen Mary University of London
Professor Janet Dine, Queen Mary University of London
Professor Luca Enriques, University of Oxford
Professor Brandon Garrett, University of Virginia
Professor Martin Gelter, Fordham Law School
Professor Paddy Ireland, University of Bristol
Dr Dionysia Katelouzou, King’s College London
Professor Andrew Keay, University of Leeds
Professor Ian Lee, University of Toronto
Dr Marc Moore, University of Cambridge
Dr Martin Petrin, University College London
Professor Beate Sjåfjell, University of Oslo
Professor Lynn Stout, Cornell University
To register, please visit: www.bit.ly/QM-Modern-Company
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?
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Below is a call for papers and description of a weeklong project on business and human rights. If you are interested, please contact one of the organizers below. I plan to participate and may also be able to answer some questions.
Lat Crit Study Space Project in Guatemala
Corporations, the State, and the Rule of Law
We are excited to invite you to participate in an exciting Study Space Project in Guatemala. Study Space, a LatCrit, Inc. initiative, is a series of intensive workshops, held at diverse locations around the world. This 2015 Study Space project involves a 7 working day field visit to Guatemala between Saturday June 27 (arrival date) and Saturday July 4, 2015 (departure date). We are reaching out to you because we believe that your interests, scholarship, and service record align well with the proposed focus of our trip.
This call for papers proposes a trip to Guatemala to study more closely the phenomena of failed nations viewed from the perspective of the relationship of the state of Guatemala with corporations. With the recent surge of Central American unaccompanied minors and children fleeing with their mothers, the United States has had to confront the human face of children and women whose claim to asylum or other immigration relief is rooted in the dire reality that the countries from which they flee cannot or will not protect them. Largely, these fleeing migrants are escaping violence perpetuated by private actors, at times gang members or even their own parents or spouses. Their stories of flight cannot be disengaged from the broader context in which the violence occurs. Theirs is also the story of failed nations, characterized by ineptitude, weakness, and even worse, indifference or at times even complicity.
This story of failed nations applies beyond the reign of private “rogues” whom everyone agrees are bad actors (i.e., gangs, drug traffickers, violent criminals). The other side of the coin, invisible in this new wave of Central American refugees, is a more nuanced story about the failing role of some of these Central American nations in regulating the acts of corporations, whether owned by the oligarchy or operated by transnational actors. Corporations are entities with great potential to promote and further the public good, such as through job creation and economic development. Corporations, however, can also be the cause of social ills, particularly when left unregulated or at times even supported by the state to pursue private interests that conflict with the public good. In Guatemala, examples of deeply problematic unregulated arenas abound-- from the lack of antitrust legislation to the absence of meaningful environmental protections to protect even the most precious of natural resources, such as water. There is also the misuse of public institutions and laws to shield corporations from their public and fiscal responsibility or to aid them in capitalizing on public goods, including minerals or land. Ironically, here, the state apparatus functions quite effectively to exert its authority in the execution of laws. The failure, however, rests in the illegitimacy of law, not in its execution.
Guatemala is a nation that is experiencing tremendous social upheaval from the acts of corporations on issues that include mining, water uses, deforestation, genetically modified seeds, free-trade zones, and maquiladoras, to name a few. Caught between the state and corporations are the communities most deeply affected by both the absence and the presence of law in ways that appear to conflict with the public interest. The questions that arise include how law can and should restore the balance between the promotion of investment and economic development with the protection of the public interest and the preservation of the public good. These inquiries also involve issues related to the protection of rights, whether of individuals or communities in the collective, including the right to self-determination, the right to food and water, or the right to dignified work.
The purpose of this trip is not to single out Guatemala for scrutiny. The reality is that the bilateral and multilateral relations that Guatemala is forced to sustain with other more powerful nations aggravate many of its pressing problems. Questions about Guatemala’s regulation of corporations must also address the relationship between the powerful transnational forces of globalization and the domestic laws of Guatemala, including those related to trade liberalization and intellectual property. This inquiry must also acknowledge how the absence of accountability of transnational corporations operating in Guatemala in the corporation’s own nation-state – including the power these corporations have to influence law-making-- should lead us to a discussion of shared responsibility and a proposal for solutions that are transnational and international in character.
Should you decide to participate, you would be encouraged and welcomed to suggest specific topics (and field visits) you would like to be included as part of this project. While we are still working on a precise itinerary (which you can help us shape), our projected goals right now are to visit with government officials, non-profits, community groups and the private sector with a special focus on labor and environment. The trip would include time in Guatemala City but also time in key rural sectors. For example, we are planning to visit a transnational mining site and the free-trade zone where maquiladoras are concentrated in Guatemala. As part of the trip, we will include orientations and debriefings with the group so we can share knowledge, impressions, and insights as the trip progresses.
The cost of your participation (excluding flight) is $1,900. This fee will cover housing, food, in-country transportation, conference space, and other fees that we will pay such as to translators, community groups assisting with logistics, and a modest fee to Luis Mogollón (a Guatemalan lawyer with significant law school academic program development experience in Guatemala) who will spend countless hours making this trip safe and enjoyable for all of us. The flight to Guatemala from the United States should range between $600 to $800.
Our aim is to publish essays from this project as a book in Spanish and English. We hope to have between 15-20 contributions. While ideally participants will speak Spanish, we can accommodate non-Spanish speakers (or those who only speak “un poquito”) and will hire interpreters to work with you during the trip to Guatemala. Keep in mind that you may need to conduct some research in Spanish (at least for primary sources) depending on the focus on your project. We also hope to present papers about this project at several conferences upon the completion of our project, including at LatCrit, Inc. and ideally in Guatemala.
The organizing Committee is comprised of Raquel Aldana, Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; Steven Bender, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Seattle University School of Law; José R. Juárez, Professor of Law and Director of the Spanish for Lawyers Program at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law; Beth Lyon, Director of the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic and Professor of Law at Villanova University School of Law; Mario Mancilla, Technical Assistant of the Secretariat of Environmental Matters, CAFTA-DR; Luis Mogollón, Adjunct Professor and Consultant of the Inter-American Program from Pacific McGeorge; Rachael Salcido, Professor of Law at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; and Enrique Sánchez-Usera, Chair of the Inter-Disciplinary Studies at the University of Rafael Landívar Law School.
Please do not hesitate to contact any of us with questions. We do hope you decide to join us in this great project.
March 26, 2015 in Business Associations, Call for Papers, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Today marks my return to blogging after a brief (3 weeks) respite, and what better way to be welcomed back than with news of a mega-merger?!? Today, Kraft Foods, a publicly traded company, and H. J.Heinz, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian private equity firm 3G, signed a multi-billion dollar merger agreement to create what will become the third largest food company in North America.
Under the proposed merger Kraft shareholders will receive 49% of the stock in the newly merged company, plus a cash dividend of $16.50 per share, representing a reported 27% premium on Kraft's trading stock price as of Tuesday, March 24th which closed at around $61.33/share.
The stock market reacted positively to the news with Kraft stock opening around $81/share and climbing up to $87 and settling down in the low $80's (it was trading at $82/share around 2:00 pm). You can track the stock price here. The immediate bump in price casts some shadows on the Kraft stock premium agreed to in the deal.
Over at the Faculty Lounge, Kim Krawiec (Duke) is hosting an interesting mini-symposium on board diversity entitled “What’s The Return On Equality?”
The posts to date are linked to at the bottom of this recent post.
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.
The biggest recent news in the social enterprise world is that certified B corporation Etsy is going public.
Despite confusing press releases, Etsy is not legally formed as a benefit corporation, they are only certified by B Lab. (In one of the coolest comments I have received blogging, an Etsy representative admitted that they confused the "benefit corporation" and "certified B corporation" terms and corrected their public statements). If you are new to social enterprise, the differences between a "certified B corporation" and a "benefit corporation" are explained here.
Etsy, however, will face a dilemma as noted in this article sent to me by Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown). The B Lab terms for certified B corporations require Etsy to convert to a public benefit corporation (Delaware's version of the benefit corporation) within four years of the Delaware law becoming effective. Delaware's public benefit corporation law went effective August 1, 2013.
So, unless B Lab changes its terms, Etsy will lose its certified B corporation status if it does not convert to a public benefit corporation on or before August 1, 2017.
Given that converting to a public benefit corporation while publicly-traded would be extremely difficult--obtaining the necessary vote, paying dissenters' rights, etc.--I imagine Etsy will need to make this decision before it goes public. Perhaps, Etsy will postpone the decision, and hope that they can just quietly lose their certification in 2017 or that B Lab will make an exception for them. Etsy's CEO is on record promising social responsibility, but we will see whether that promise includes maintaining B Lab certification and making a legal entity change.
Many interesting issues would stem from a publicly-traded benefit corporation; I have added a number of items to my article ideas list this morning.
This Etsy story is one I hope to follow, so stay tuned.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Contrary to widespread belief, corporate directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders. This is reflected in the acceptance in nearly all jurisdictions of some version of the business judgment rule, under which disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be in the best long term interests of the company as a separate entity, even if this does not entail seeking to maximise short-term shareholder value. Where directors pursue the latter goal, it is usually a product not of legal obligation, but of the pressures imposed on them by financial markets, activist shareholders, the threat of a hostile takeover and/or stock-based compensation schemes.
Prof. Bainbridge is with Delaware Chief Justice Strine in that profit maximization is the only role (or at least only filter) for board members. As he asserts, “The relationship between the shareholder wealth maximization norm and the business judgment rule, . . . explains why the business judgment rule is consistent with the director's "legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders."
CJ Strine has noted that the eBay decision, which I have written about a lot, says that if “you remain incorporated in Delaware, your stockholders will be able to hold you accountable for putting their interests first.” I think this is right, but I remain convinced that absent self-dealing or a “pet project,” directors get to decide that what is in the shareholders best interests.
I have been criticized in some sectors for being too pro-business for my views on corporate governance, veil piercing law, and energy policy. In contrast, I have also been said to be a “leftist commentator,” in some contexts, and I have been cited by none other than Chief Justice Strine as supporting a “liberal” view of corporate norms for my views on the freedom of director choice.
When it comes to the Business Judgment Rule, I think it might be just that I believe in a more hands-off view of director primacy more than many of both my “liberal” and “conservative” colleagues. Frankly, I don’t get too exercised by many of the corporate decisions that seem to agitate one side or the other. I thought I’d try to reconcile my views on this in a short statement. I decided to use the model from This I Believe, based on the 1950s Edward R. Murrow radio show. (Using the Crash Davis model I started with was a lot less family friendly.) Here’s what I came up with [Author's note, I have since fixed a typo that was noted by Prof. Bainbridge]:
I believe in the theory of Director Primacy. I believe in the Business Judgment Rule as an abstention doctrine, and I believe that Corporate Social Responsibility is choice, not a mandate. I believe in long-term planning over short-term profits, but I believe that directors get to choose either one to be the focus of their companies. I believe that directors can choose to pursue profit through corporate philanthropy and good works in the community or through mergers and acquisitions with a plan to slash worker benefits and sell-off a business in pieces. I believe that a corporation can make religious-based decisions—such as closing on Sundays—and that a corporation can make worker-based decisions—such as providing top-quality health care and parental leave—but I believe both such bases for decisions must be rooted in the directors’ judgment such decisions will maximize the value of the business for shareholders for the decision to get the benefit of business judgment rule protection. I believe that directors, and not shareholders or judges, should make decisions about how a company should pursue profit and stability. I believe that public companies should be able to plan like private companies, and I believe the decision to expand or change a business model is the decision of the directors and only the directors. I believe that respect for directors’ business judgment allows for coexistence of companies of multiple views—from CVS Caremark and craigslist to Wal-Mart and Hobby Lobby—without necessarily violating any shareholder wealth maximization norms. Finally, I believe that the exercise of business judgment should not be run through a liberal or conservative filter because liberal and conservative business leaders have both been responsible for massive long-term wealth creation. This, I believe.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
As someone who likes to write from time to time on women on corporate boards, I sometimes feel like I am writing about last year's "news." In other words, not much seems to sound new. So, I am always in search of a novel problem to explore or a different vantage point through which fresh insights can be obtained.
My most recent contribution in this regard is a symposium piece that looks at women on boards through the lens of the literature on crowds--whether they be mad or wise. Boards can be crowds (albeit small ones), based on prevailing definitions. Moreover, crowd behaviors can be gendered. So, it seemed like a reasonable idea.
The fruit of this labor is my most recent article, Women in the Crowd of Corporate Directors: Following, Walking Alone, and Meaningfully Contributing. The substantive portion of the abstract is as follows:
With the thought that new perspectives often can be helpful in addressing long-standing unresolved questions, this article approaches an analysis of women’s roles on corporate boards of directors from the standpoint of crowd theory. Crowd theory — in reality, a group of theories — explains the behavior of people in crowds. Specifically, this article describes theories of the crowd from social psychology and applies them to the literature on female corporate directors, looking at the effects on both women as crowd members and boards as decision-making crowds.
Unfortunately, while the crowd theory perspective provides some insights, they are not altogether conclusive. Specifically, while women may bring distinct ideas and experience to boards of directors when they become board members, crowd theory does not provide a clear picture of the nature or extent of those differences or how they may contribute to productive, efficient board decision making. More work still is needed in this area. However, existing research does indicate that women encourage productive board development activities — activities that may include, for example, introducing the board to structures and policies that may promote board wisdom. This is a useful insight that should be further explored.
This is, as the abstract indicates, a preliminary exploratory piece. But it does at least represent a change from the current literature in the field, which focuses on (among other things) the search for an alternative to gender quotas (see, e.g., here and here).
I had the opportunity to present the paper at William & Mary a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the school was closed that morning as a result of a snow storm the day before. Since I was already in Williamsburg (but could not stay to present the paper later in the day), current and incoming editors of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law invited me to deliver the paper to them over breakfast in a local restaurant. The impromptu forum turned out to be a lovely way to discuss the paper with the students--a number of whom had read the piece carefully and had interesting questions and observations. I hope that some of you enjoy the article as much as those students did!
Friday, March 6, 2015
It’s always nice to be validated. Day two into torturing my business associations students with basic accounting and corporate finance, I was able to post the results of a recent study about what they were learning and why. "Torture" is a strong word-- I try to break up the lessons by showing up to the minute video clips about companies that they know to illustrate how their concepts apply to real life settings. But for some students it remains a foreign language no matter how many background YouTube videos I suggest, or how interesting the debate is about McDonalds and Shake Shack on CNBC.
My alma mater Harvard Law School surveyed a number of BigLaw graduates about the essential skills and coursework for both transactional and litigation practitioners. As I explained in an earlier post, most of my students will likely practice solo or in small firms. But I have always believed that the skills sets are inherently the same regardless of the size of the practice or resources of the client. My future litigators need to know what documents to ask for in discovery and what questions to ask during the deposition of a financial expert. My family law and trust and estates hopefuls must understand the basics of a business structure if they wish to advise on certain assets. My criminal law aficionados may have to defend or prosecute criminal enterprises that are as sophisticated as any multinational corporation. Those who want to be legislative aides or go into government must understand how to close loopholes in regulations.
What are the top courses students should take? The abstract is below:
We report the results of an online survey, conducted on behalf of Harvard Law School, of 124 practicing attorneys at major law firms. The survey had two main objectives: (1) to assist students in selecting courses by providing them with data about the relative importance of courses; and (2) to provide faculty with information about how to improve the curriculum and best advise students. The most salient result is that students were strongly advised to study accounting and financial statement analysis, as well as corporate finance. These subject areas were viewed as particularly valuable, not only for corporate/transactional lawyers, but also for litigators. Intriguingly, non-traditional courses and skills, such as business strategy and teamwork, are seen as more important than many traditional courses and skills.
Did you take these courses? Has your school started adding more of this type of coursework and does your faculty see the value? Do you agree with the results of this survey? Let me know in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 6, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The Fordham Journal of Corporate and Financial Law recently published a March 6, 2014, lecture from Former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, Continuity and Change in Delaware Corporate Law Jurisprudence (available on Westlaw, but fee may apply). As an aside, I'll note that it appears to have taken a full calendar year for this to get published (at least on Westlaw), which seems crazy to me. If there's any question why legal blogs can fill such a critical role in providing timely commentary on legal issues, this is a big part of the answer.
In the lecture, Chief Justice Steele discusses three main areas: (1) multi-forum jurisdiction, (2) shareholder activism, and (3) the Nevada, Delaware, and North Dakota Debate (a "competition for charters").
As to multi-forum jurisdiction, he makes the unsurprising point that Delaware courts are of the view that first impressions of the Delaware General Corporation Law or other "internal affairs doctrine" issues should be handled in Delaware courts. Of note, he explains that the Delaware constitution (art. IV, § 11(8)) now allows federal courts, the top court from any state, the SEC, and bankruptcy courts to certify questions directly to the Delaware Supreme Court. This option is one that lawyers litigating such cases in other forums won't want to miss.
With regard to shareholder activism, Chief Justice Steele states,
In my preferred system for the world, and I think in the minds of all Delaware judges, engaged if not antagonistic stockholders add positive value as a check on director authority and are a catalyst for corrective accountability, so long as their efforts focus on improved performance and not the advancement of political or personal agendas--a major caveat in my view. Delaware courts, it seems to me, will increasingly recognize the benefits that engaged investors bring to the table.
State corporate law provides a ready means for resolving any conflicts by, for example, dictating how a corporation can establish its governing structure. See, e.g., ibid; id., §3:2; Del. Code Ann., Tit. 8, §351 (2011) (providing that certificate of incorporation may provide how “the business of the corporation shall be managed”). Courts will turn to that structure and the underlying state law in resolving disputes.
The corporate form in which [an Delaware corporation] operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment. . . . Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, . . . directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
Thus, in Delaware a for-profit corporation cannot promote or practice the religious views of even a majority of directors or shareholders where such actions do not promote the value of the corporation for shareholders.
Finally, as to the Nevada, Delaware, North Dakota debate, Chief Justice Steele questions the value of Nevada allowing "charters to exculpate directors for breaches of duty of loyalty," because he thinks such a massive change in widely held views of fiduciary duty law could invite federal "meddling." I think he's exactly right on this. He notes with skepticism the North Dakota Publicly Traded Corporations Act because there are only two companies that have adopted the law, but the law's failure in the competition for charter does not raise the same concerns of a race to the bottom (my words) that Nevada's law provides.
I think Chief Justice Steele's article provides interesting and useful insight into the workings of the Delaware court system, and I recommend the sort read. I just wish I had seen it about nine months ago.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Last week, I posted about Walmart’s ballyhooed wage hike and asked whether boycotts and activism actually work. Apparently, the President was so impressed that he called the company’s CEO to thank him. Some Walmart workers, however, aren’t as pleased because without more hours, they still can’t make ends meet. Nonetheless, TJX, the parent company of retailers TJ Maxx and Home Goods announced yesterday that its employees would also receive a pay raise. Is this altruism? Have the retail giants caved to pressure?
As some commented on the blog last week and to me privately, it’s more likely that these megaretailers have implemented these “pro-employee” moves to reduce turnover, raise morale, and most important compete in a tightening job market. But one LinkedIn commenter from Australia believes that boycotts in general can work, stating:
My experience with having organised boycotts is that they work, but they take time. They create the conditions for public awareness of corporate activities, and put pressure on the company to change. They are effectively the 'bad cop' of civil society pressure. Consequently, they do not work on their own, requiring also the 'good cop' - civil society organisations and market conditions that allow the subject of the boycott to shift behaviour. Market conditions include a broader 'meta boycott' in which companies needing access to supply chains must change because supply chains have changed, only accepting product that is acceptable to CSOs (the 'good' CSOs, who have certification programmes, and other initiatives for the company to opt for. If you are looking for a case study of these conditions, I suggest you follow the Tasmanian forest industry debate in Australia. Here, an entire industry was worn down after years of boycotts, market campaigns, and demands from purchasers for FSC certified product only. The fascinating addendum to this case study is the state government (and the Federal government, unsuccessfully), are still advocating behaviours that not even the companies want. They want to sign the 'peace deal' and the government(s) are trying to prolong the 'war' - for political, election-related issues. All this indicates that boycotts do not work in isolation, and if they do they are less likely to work.
Investors too are putting pressure on companies. Just yesterday, a group of 60 investors with four trillion in assets under management called for companies to do more for workers' human rights, including wages. Because I study business and human rights with a special emphasis on labor issues, I will wait to see what happens with all of this pressure. I will also monitor the share price, shareholder proposals, and whether there is any evidence that consumers reward Walmart and TJX for their better treatment of workers.
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 (18)
Friday, February 20, 2015
I have just finished a draft of an article arguing that disclosures don’t work because consumers and investors don’t read them, can’t understand them, don't take any real action when they do pay attention to them, and fail to change corporate behavior when they do threaten boycott. I specifically pointed out the relative lack of success of consumer protests over the years. I also noted that Wal-Mart continues to get bad press for how it treats its employees despite the fact the Norwegian Pension Fund divested hundreds of millions of dollars due to the company’s labor practices, prompting other governments and cities to follow. My thesis—it takes a lot more than divestment and threats of boycott to change company behavior. But perhaps I’m wrong. Yesterday, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon announced a significant wage increase declaring:
We’re strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences… We will earn the trust of all Walmart stakeholders by operating great retail businesses, ensuring world-class compliance, and doing good in the world through social and environmental programs in our communities.
The letter to Wal-Mart associates is here. I don’t know which was more striking, the $1 billion dollar move to $9 and then eventually $10 per hour or the fact that he used the word “stakeholders.” Wal-Mart also announced changes that would affect health insurance and shift scheduling, but the main headline concerned the wage hike. Main Street may be happy but Wall Street was not, and the stock price fell after the announcement. Others pointed out that the pay raise is still not enough to pull workers out of poverty.
Does this move mean that boycotts and advocacy really do work and that we will see more of them? Do I have to edit my article or will this be an anomaly? Will other big retailers or fast food chains follow? Will socially responsible investors reinvest in Wal-Mart? Is Wal-Mart trying to pre-empt government regulation on the minimum wage? Is Wal-Mart signaling to regulators in foreign countries that it cares about workers so should be allowed to operate there more freely?
I will be teaching a course in transnational business and international human rights in the Fall and Wal-Mart will be a case study. A few years ago, I used the company’s CSR report in my corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility seminar. I asked the students to consider why Wal-Mart’s report looked and felt so different from Target’s, which essentially has many of the same labor issues. I wanted them to think about the marketing behind CSR from a reputational and regulatory perspective. I posited that Wal-Mart’s CSR report was written for regulators. Two weeks later, the company announced its massive and still ongoing bribery investigation. I’m happy for the workers but a bit curious as to what caused the company to make this announcement now. In the meantime, I will be watching the reaction from advocates, the markets, and other companies closely.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Only 23 women lead companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Yet at least a quarter of them have fallen into the cross hairs of activist investors.
The article references Patricia Sellers observations in Fortune last month regarding corporate raider Nelson Peltz and his targeted attacks on PepsiCo lead by Indra Nooyi and Mondelez International lead by CEO Irene Rosenfeld as well as his current demands on DuPont, with Ellen Kullman as chairman and CEO.
In the absence of correlating data about female CEO's and weaker company performance, the question lingers is there something besides performance that prompts the targeting of these companies? To explain the question the article references several studies that report perception differences in competence, risk and performance based solely on gender, with, women on the losing end of these perception biases.
As I think is a common tendency, I gravitate towards information that relates to what I am personally thinking about, experiencing or interested in at the moment. Earlier on this blog, I wrote about gender issues in the classroom. On my current reading list, is the book What Works for Women at Work written by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, that (1) reviews the existing literature about pervasive gender bias, (2) articulates how unconscious bias influences outcomes (acknowledging that for the most part society has moved past explicit and overt gender discrimination), (3) identifies four patterns where these biases consistently emerge based in part on her interviews with 127 "successful" women, and (4) discusses how the workplace (meaning men and women) can move beyond the limitations of these implicit biases. Several colleagues and friends are reading this book along with me as well. And the best part: not everyone reading the book is (and not everyone should be) a women.