Monday, December 15, 2014
. . . here's a relatively new Dodge Challenger commercial (part of a series) that you may find amusing. I saw it during Saturday Night Live the other night and just had to go find it on YouTube. It, together with the other commercials in the series, commemorate the Dodge brand's 100-year anniversary. "They believed in more than the assembly line . . . ." Indeed!
You also may enjoy (but may already have read) this engaging and useful essay written by Todd Henderson on the case. The essay provides significant background information about and commentary on the court's opinion. It is a great example of how an informed observer can use the facts of and underlying a transactional business case to help others better understand the law of the case and see broader connections to transactional business law generally. Great stuff.
On December 10, the press reported the Second Circuit's decision in the insider trading prosecution of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson (two of multiple defendants in the original case). In its opinion, the court reaffirms that tippee liability for insider trading is predicated on a breach of fiduciary duty based on the receipt of a personal benefit by the tipper and clarifies that insider trading liability will not result unless the tippee has knowledge of the facts constituting the breach (i.e., "knew that the insider disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit"). The court summarized its opinion, which addresses these matters in the context of the Newman case, a criminal case, as follows:
[W]e conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.
Many people have been talking about the four teams chosen for the inaugural college football playoff. I, good business law blogger that I am, have been thinking about conflicts of interest on the selection committee.
If you’re a football fan, you know that this year, for the first time, the national champion in NCAA major college football will be chosen through a four-team playoff. The four teams selected—Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State—will participate in two semifinal games, with the two winners to play for the championship. (Yes, Art Briles, Baylor should be one of the four, but, no, Ohio State is not the team that shouldn’t be there.)
The four participating schools are chosen by a thirteen-person selection committee, although one of the members, Archie Manning, has taken a leave of absence this year for health reasons. The committee includes several people with current relationships to schools that play major college football, including the following athletic directors: Jeff Long, Arkansas; Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin; Pat Haden, USC; Oliver Luck, West Virginia; and Dan Radakovich, Clemson.
The selection committee adopted a recusal policy that requires committee members to recuse themselves if the committee member or an immediate family member “(a) is compensated by a school, (b) provides professional services for a school, or (c) is on the coaching staff or administrative staff at a school or is a football student-athlete at a school.” A recused committee member may not participate in any votes involving that team or be present during any deliberations involving that team’s selection or seeding.
Under this policy, all of the athletic directors recused themselves from voting involving their schools. Others connected to particular schools also recused themselves: Condoleeza Rice, because she’s a professor at Stanford; Tom Osborne, because he’s still receiving payments as a former coach and athletic director at Nebraska; Mike Gould because he’s the Superintendent at Air Force.
As it turned out, none of the committee members were recused as to the six schools seriously considered for the final four—the four chosen, plus Baylor and TCU. But should they have been?
Consider Barry Alvarez, the athletic director at Wisconsin, a member of the Big Ten. The Big Ten schools share bowl revenues with other members of the conference. Thus, when Ohio State was chosen for the fourth spot over Baylor and TCU, Wisconsin became entitled to part of the $6 million paid to participants in the semifinal game (and additional money if Ohio State wins the semifinal and plays in the championship game). A vote for Ohio State directly benefitted the Wisconsin athletic department Alvarez heads.
The problem is not unique to Coach Alvarez. Other conferences also share bowl revenue, so Pat Haden (PAC-12), Jeff Long (SEC), and Dan Radakovich (ACC) also benefited when the representatives from their respective conferences were chosen. But those choices, unlike the choice of Ohio State over Baylor or TCU, were relatively uncontroversial. (The choice of Florida State over any of those schools should have been controversial, in my opinion, but it wasn’t.) Oliver Luck (Big 12) also had a financial incentive to vote for either Baylor or TCU, but, unfortunately for him and for his athletic department, neither of them was selected.
This conflict of interest may have been intentional. The committee appointments were carefully apportioned among the Power 5 conferences, and the expectation may have been that each of these athletic directors would vote for representatives of their respective conferences. (We don’t know if they actually did.) But no one is even talking about this clear conflict of interest, not even Art Briles, and that’s a little surprising.
Friday, December 12, 2014
The Delaware Court of Chancery recently denied a motion to dismiss in In re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litigation. In this case, the plaintiff claimed bad faith by the board of directors that approved an allegedly unreasonable termination fee in a merger agreement. Transactional attorneys and professors who teach M&A will want to read this case.
I am deep into grading my business associations exams, so I will outsource to a nice client alert on the case by Steven Haas at Hunton & Williams. A bit of the alert is below, and you can access the entire alert here.
The court then found that the termination fees of 5.55% of equity value (or 5.2% of enterprise value) during the go-shop period and 7% of equity value (or 6.6% enterprise value) after the go-shop period “test the limits of what this Court has found to be within a reasonable range for termination fees.” The court also analyzed the termination fee in connection with the convertible note held by the buyer in connection with the bridge financing. The plaintiff alleged that the conversion feature in the note, which allowed the buyer to purchase common stock at a price below the merger consideration, would significantly increase the cost to a topping bidder of acquiring the company. Factoring in that cost to the existing termination fee, the plaintiff argued, would result in a total payment equal to 11.6% of the deal’s equity value during the go-shop period and 13.1% of the deal’s equity value after the go-shop period.
The court concluded that, for purposes of surviving a motion to dismiss, it was “reasonably conceivable that the Convertible Notes theoretically could have worked in tandem with the termination fees effectively to prevent a topping bid” from a buyer that might otherwise offer greater value to the company’s stockholders. Perhaps more importantly, the court found that the plaintiff adequately alleged that the board of directors acted in bad faith in approving these terms....
Despite the amount of litigation challenging M&A transactions, there are not many Delaware rulings that have upheld challenges to deal protections such as termination fees, matching rights, and no-shop provisions. This is because the Delaware courts have generally created a body of precedent that provides helpful guidance to buyers and sellers and also recognized the value of such terms. In Comverge, the parties appear to have deviated from this precedent, but more importantly, the court looked to the bridge loan to view the aggregate effect of the various terms on the ability of a third party to make a topping bid.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
In many companies, executives and employees alike will give a blank stare if you discuss “human rights.” They understand the terms “supply chain” and “labor” but don’t always make the leap to the potentially loaded term “human rights.” But business and human rights is all encompassing and leads to a number of uncomfortable questions for firms. When an extractive company wants to get to the coal, the minerals, or the oil, what rights do the indigenous peoples have to their land? If there is a human right to “water” or “food,” do Kellogg’s, Coca Cola, and General Mills have a special duty to protect the environment and safeguard the rights of women, children and human rights defenders? Oxfam’s Behind the Brands Campaign says yes, and provides a scorecard. How should companies operating in dangerous lands provide security for their property and personnel? Are they responsible if the host country’s security forces commit massacres while protecting their corporate property? What actions make companies complicit with state abuses and not merely bystanders? What about the digital domain and state surveillance? What rights should companies protect and how do they balance those with government requests for information?
The disconnect between “business” and “human rights” has been slowly eroding over the past few years, and especially since the 2011 release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Businesses, law firms, and financial institutions have started to pay attention in part because of the Principles but also because of NGO pressures to act. The Principles operationalize a "protect, respect, and remedy" framework, which indicates that: (i) states have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses; (ii) businesses have a responsibility to comply with applicable laws and respect human rights; and (iii) victims of human rights abuses should have access to judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms from both the state and businesses.
Many think that the states aren’t acting quickly enough in their obligations to create National Action Plans to address their duty to protect human rights, and that in fact businesses are doing most of the legwork (albeit very slowly themselves). The UK, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Denmark have already started and the US announced its intentions to create its Plan in September 2014. A number of other states announced that they too will work on National Action Plans at the recent UN Forum on Business and Human Rights that I attended in Geneva in early December. For a great blog post on the event see ICAR director Amol Mehra's Huffington Post piece.
What would a US National Action plan contain? Some believe that it would involve more disclosure regulation similar to the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, the Ending Trafficking in Government Contracting Act, Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Burma Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment, and others. Some hope that it will provide additional redress mechanisms after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel significantly limited access to US courts on jurisdictional grounds for foreign human rights litigants suing foreign companies for actions that took place outside of the United States.
But what about the role of business? Here are five observations from my trip to Geneva:
1) It's not all about large Western multinationals: As the Chair of the Forum Mo Ibrahim pointed out, it was fantastic to hear from the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, but the vast majority of people in China, Sudan and Latin American countries with human rights abuses don’t work for large multinationals. John Ruggie, the architect of the Principles reminded the audience that most of the largest companies in the world right now aren’t even from Western nations. These include Saudi Aromco (world’s largest oil company), Foxconn (largest electronics company), and India’s Tata Group (the UK’s largest manufacturing company).
2) It’s not all about maximization of shareholder value: Unilever CEO Paul Pollman gave an impassioned speech about the need for businesses to do their part to protect human rights. He was followed by the CEO of Nestle. (The opening session with both speeches as well as others from labor and civil society was approximately two hours long and is here). In separate sessions, representatives from Michelin, Chevron, Heinekin, Statoil, Rio Tinto, Barrick, and dozens of other businesses discussed how they are implementing human rights due diligence and practices into their operations and metrics, often working with the NGOs that in the past have been their largest critics such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. The US Council for International Business, USCIB, also played a prominent role speaking on behalf of US and international business interests.
3) Investors and lenders are watching: Calvert; the Office of Investment Policy at OPIC, the US government’s development finance institution; the Peruvian Financial Authority; the Supervision Office of the Banco Central do Brasil; the Vice Chair of the Banking Association of Colombia; the European Investment Bank; and Swedfund, among others discussed how and why financial institutions are scrutinizing human rights practices and monitoring them as contractual terms. This has real world impact as development institutions weigh choices about whether to lend to a company in a country that does not allow women to own land, but that will provide other economic opportunities to those women (the lender made the investment). OPIC, which has an 18 billion dollar portfolio in 100 countries, indicated that they see a large trend in impact investing.
4) Integrated reporting is here to stay: Among other things, Calvert, which manages 14 billion in 40 mutual funds, focused on their commitment to companies with solid track records on environmental, social, and governance factors and discussed the benefits of stand alone or integrated reporting. Lawyers from some of the largest law firms in the world indicated that they are working with their clients to prepare for additional non-financial reporting, in part because of countries like the UK that will mandate more in 2016, and an EU disclosure directive that will affect 6,000 firms.
5) Is an International Arbitration Tribunal on the way?: A number of prominent lawyers, retired judges and academics from around the world are working on a proposal for an international arbitration tribunal for human rights abuses. Spearheaded by lawyers for better business, this would either supplement or possibly replace in some people’s view a binding treaty on business and human rights. Having served as a compliance officer who dealt extensively with global supply chains, I have doubts as to how many suppliers will willingly contract to appear before an international tribunal when their workers or members of indigenous communities are harmed. I also wonder about the incentives for corporations, the governing law, the consent of third parties, and a host of other sticking points. Some raised valid concerns about whether privatizing remedies takes the pressure off of states to do their part. But it’s a start down an inevitable road as companies operate around the world and want some level of certainty as to their rights and obligations.
On another note, I attended several panels in which business executives, law firm partners, and members of NGOs decried the lack of training on business and human rights in law schools. Even though professors struggle to cover the required content, I see this area as akin to the compliance conversations that are happening now in law schools. There is legal work in this field and there will be more. I look forward to integrating some of this information into an upcoming seminar.
In the meantime, I tried to include some observations that might be of interest to this audience. If you want to learn more about the conference generally you can look to the twitter feed on #bizhumanrights or #unforumwatch, which has great links. I also recommend the newly released Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues Whitepaper.
December 11, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, December 8, 2014
In the comments to my post last week on teaching fiduciary duty in Business Associations, Steve Diamond asked whether I had blogged about why we changed our four-credit-hour Business Associations course at The University of Tennessee College of Law to a three-credit-hour offering. In response, I suggested I might blog about that this week. So, here we are . . . .
Thursday, December 4, 2014
I had planned to blog about the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights this week, but my head is overflowing with information about export credits, development financing, a possible international arbitration tribunal, remarks by the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, and the polite rebuff to the remarks by the Ambassador of Qatar by a human rights activist in the plenary session. Next week, in between exam grading, I promise to blog about some of the new developments that will affect business lawyers and professors. FYI, I apparently was one of the top live tweeters of the Forum (#bizhumanrights #unforumwatch) and gained many valuable contacts and dozens of new followers.
In the meantime, I recommend reading this great piece from the Legal Skills Prof Blog. As I prepare to teach BA for the third time (which I hear is the charm), I plan to refine the techniques I already use and adopt others where appropriate. The link is below.
Monday, December 1, 2014
Well, here we are at the end of another semester. I just finished teaching my last class in our new, three-credit-hour, basic Business Associations offering. (Next semester, I take my first shot at teaching a two-credit-hour advanced version of Business Associations. More to come on that at a later date.) The basic Business Associations course is intended to be an introduction to the doctrine and norms of business associations law--it is broad-based and designed to provide a foundation for practice (of whatever kind). I hope I didn't make hash out of everything in cutting back the material covered from the predecessor four-credit-hour version of Business Associations . . . .
I find teaching fiduciary duty in the corporations part of the basic Business Associations course more than a bit humbling. There is a lot there to offer, and one can only cover so much (whether in a three-credit-hour or four-credit-hour course format). Every year, I steel myself for the inevitable questions--in class, on the class website (TWEN), and in the post-term review session (scheduled for today at 5 PM)--about the law of fiduciary duty as it applies to directors. This past weekend, I received a question in that category on the course website. In pertinent part, it read as follows (as edited for fluency in some places):
I am having problems with understanding the duty of loyalty for directors.
First, . . . I don't think I know which transactions are breaches of loyalty. Do they include interested director transactions, competition, officer's compensation, and not acting in good faith? Second, do care, good faith, and loyalty all require that the directors be grossly negligent? I think I am just confused on the standard to determine whether a director has breached the duty of loyalty and/or care.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
As regular readers know, I research and write on business and human rights. For this reason, I really enjoyed the post about corporate citizenship on Thanksgiving by Ann Lipton, and Haskell Murray’s post about the social enterprise and strategic considerations behind a “values” message for Whole Foods, in contrast to the low price mantra for Wal-Mart. Both posts garnered a number of insightful comments.
As I write this on Thanksgiving Day, I’m working on a law review article, refining final exam questions, and meeting with students who have finals starting next week (being on campus is a great way to avoid holiday cooking, by the way). Fortunately, I gladly do all of this without complaint, but many workers are in stores setting up for “door-buster” sales that now start at Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Best Buy, and Toys R Us shortly after families clear the table on Thanksgiving, if not before. As Ann pointed out, a number of protestors have targeted these purportedly “anti-family” businesses and touted the “values” of those businesses that plan to stick to the now “normal” crack of dawn opening time on Friday (which of course requires workers to arrive in the middle of the night). The United Auto Workers plans to hold a series of protests at Wal-Mart in solidarity with the workers, and more are planned around the country.
I’m not sure what effect these protests will have on the bottom line, and I hope that someone does some good empirical research on this issue. On the one hand, boycotts can be a powerful motivator for firms to change behavior. Consumer boycotts have become an American tradition, dating back to the Boston Tea Party. But while boycotts can garner attention, my initial research reveals that most boycotts fail to have any noticeable impact for companies, although admittedly the negative media coverage that boycotts generate often makes it harder for a companies to control the messages they send out to the public. In order for boycotts to succeed there needs to be widespread support and consumers must be passionate about the issue.
In this age of “hashtag activism” or “slacktivism,” I’m not sure that a large number of people will sustain these boycotts. Furthermore, even when consumers vocalize their passion, it has not always translated to impact to lower revenue. For example, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A’s comments on gay marriage triggered a consumer boycott that opened up a platform to further political and social goals, although it did little to hurt the company’s bottom line and in fact led proponents of the CEO’s views to develop a campaign to counteract the boycott.
Similarly, I’m also not sure of the effect that socially responsible investors can have as it relates to these labor issues. In 2006, the Norwegian Pension Fund divested its $400 million position (over 14 million shares in the US and Mexico operations) in Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart constitutes two of the three companies excluded for “serious of systematic” human rights violations. Pension funds in Sweden and the Netherlands followed the Fund’s lead after determining that Wal-Mart had not done enough to change after meetings on its labor practices. In a similar decision, Portland has become the first major city to divest its Wal-Mart holdings. City Commissioner Steve Novick cited the company’s labor, wage and hour practices, and recent bribery scandal as significant factors in the decision. Yet, the allegations about Wal-Mart’s labor practices persist, notwithstanding a strong corporate social responsibility campaign to blunt the effects of the bad publicity. Perhaps more important to the Walton family, the company is doing just fine financially, trading near its 52-week high as of the time of this writing.
I will be thinking of these issues as I head to Geneva on Saturday for the third annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which had over 1700 companies, NGOs, academics, state representatives, and civil society organizations in attendance last year. I am particularly interested in the sessions on the financial sector and human rights, where banking executives and others will discuss incorporation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into the human rights policies of major banks, as well as the role of the socially responsible investing community. Another panel that I will attend with interest relates to the human rights impacts in supply chains. A group of large law firm partners and professors will also present on a proposal for an international tribunal to adjudicate business and human rights issues. I will blog about these panels and others that may be of interest to the business community next Thursday. Until then enjoy your holiday and if you participate in or see any protests, send me a picture.
November 27, 2014 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, November 20, 2014
The DC Circuit will once again rule on the conflicts minerals legislation. I have criticized the rule in an amicus brief, here, here, here, and here, and in other posts. I believe the rule is: (1) well-intentioned but inappropriate and impractical for the SEC to administer; (2) sets a bad example for other environmental, social, and governance disclosure legislation; and (3) has had little effect on the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indeed just two days ago, the UN warned of a human rights catastrophe in one of the most mineral-rich parts of the country, where more than 71,000 people have fled their homes in just the past three months.
The SEC and business groups will now argue before the court about the First Amendment ramifications of the “name and shame” rule that required (until the DC Circuit ruling earlier this year), that businesses state whether their products were “DRC-Conflict Free” based upon a lengthy and expensive due diligence process.
The court originally ruled that such a statement could force a company to proclaim that it has “blood on its hands.” Now, upon the request of the SEC and Amnesty International, the court will reconsider its ruling and seeks briefing on the following questions after its recent ruling in the American Meat case:
(1) What effect, if any, does this court’s ruling in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture … have on the First Amendment issue in this case regarding the conflict mineral disclosure requirement?
(2) What is the meaning of “purely factual and uncontroversial information” as used in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, … and American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture?
(3) Is the determination of what is “uncontroversial information” a question of fact?
Across the pond, the EU Parliament is facing increasing pressure from NGOs and some clergy in Congo to move away from voluntary self-certifications on conflict minerals, and began holding hearings earlier this month. Although the constitutional issues would not be relevant in the EU, legislators there have followed the developments of the US law with interest. I will report back on both the US case and the EU hearings.
In the meantime, I wonder how many parents shopping for video games for their kids over the holiday will take the time to read Nintendo's conflict minerals policy.
Thursday, November 6, 2014
I have previously blogged about Institutional Shareholder Services’ policy survey and noted that a number of business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, had significant concerns. In case you haven’t read Steve Bainbridge’s posts on the matter, he’s not a fan either.
Calling the ISS consultation period “a decision in search of a process,” the Chamber released its comment letter to ISS last week, and it cited Bainbridge's comment letter liberally. Some quotable quotes from the Chamber include:
Under ISS’ revised policy, according to the Consultation, “any single factor that may have previously resulted in a ‘For’ or ‘Against’ recommendation may be mitigated by other positive or negative aspects, respectively.” Of course, there is no delineation of what these “other positive or negative aspects” may be, how they would be weighted, or how they would be applied. This leaves public companies as well as ISS’ clients at sea as to what prompted a determination that previously would have seen ISS oppose more of these proposals. This is a change that would, if enacted, fly in the face of explicit SEC Staff Guidance on the obligations to verify the accuracy and current nature of information utilized in formulating voting recommendations.
The proposed new policy—as yet undefined and undisclosed—is also lacking in any foundation of empirical support… Indeed, a number of studies confirm that there is no empirical support for or against the proposition ISS seems eager to adopt.
[Regarding equity plan scorecards] there is no clear indication on the part of ISS as to what weight it will assign to each category of assessment—cost of plan, plan features, and company grant practices… this approach benefits ISS (and in particular its’ consulting operations), but does nothing to advance either corporate or shareholder interests or benefits. The Consultation also makes clear that, for all ISS’ purported interest in creating a more “nuanced” approach, in fact the proposed policy fosters a one-size-fits-all system that fails to take into account the different unique needs of companies and their investors.
Proxy votes cast in reliance on proxy voting policies based upon this Consultation cannot—by definition—be reasonably designed to further shareholder values.
ISS had a number of other recommendations but they didn’t raise the ire of Bainbridge and the Chamber. For the record, Steve is angry about the independent chair shareholder proposals, but please read his well-documented posts and judge for yourself whether ISS missed the mark. The ISS’ 2015 US Proxy Voting Guidelines were released today. Personally, I plan to raise some of the Guidelines discussing fee-shifting bylaws and exclusive venue provisions in both my Civil Procedure and Business Associations classes.
Let’s see how the Guidelines affect the next proxy season—the recommendations from the two-week comment period go into effect in February.
November 6, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, November 3, 2014
On Monday, The University of Tennessee (UT) College of Law hosted Larry Cunningham to talk about his book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values, which he previewed with us here on the BLPB a few months ago in a series of posts (here, here, and here). As you may recall, the book focuses on corporate culture and succession planning at Berkshire Hathaway. Joining Larry at the book session was UT College of Law alumnus James L. (Jim) Clayton, Chairman and principal shareholder of Clayton Bank and the founder of Clayton Homes, one of the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries featured in the book. The impromptu conversation between Larry and Jim was an incredible part of the event (although Larry's prepared presentation on the book also was great).
As part of the event, Larry and Jim answered a variety of audience questions. Included among them was a question from UT College of Law Dean Doug Blaze on the role of lawyers in management, transactions, and entrepreneurialism. As part of Jim Clayton's response, he noted the value of preventative lawyering--advising businesses to keep them out of trouble. I was so glad, as a business law advisor, to hear him say that!
Following on that, given that (a) Larry's book focuses on the factors influencing succession planning, (b) I am teaching the Disney case to my Business Associations students this week, and (c) the Disney case is about . . . well . . . failed succession and executive compensation, I asked about management compensation in the context of succession planning at Berkshire Hathaway. Both Larry and Jim (whose son Kevin is President and Chief Executive Officer of Clayton Homes) were clear that Warren Buffett is an exacting manager, but that he believes in paying his portfolio company managers well. Of course, the precise nature of the compensation arrangements of those portfolio firm executives (unlike Michael Ovitz's compensation arrangements at issue in the Disney case) are not a matter of public record. But given the markedly different contexts, I assume the arrangements are very different . . . .
As I approach discussing the Disney case once again in the classroom, I am (as always) looking for new angles, new insights to share with the class (in addition to the core fiduciary duty doctrine). One I will share this year is Jim Clayton's advice about preventative lawyering. What could lawyers have done to reduce the likelihood of controversy and litigation? I have some thoughts and will develop others in the next 24 hours. Leave your thoughts here, if you have any . . . .
Thursday, October 30, 2014
This paper investigates the voting patterns of shareholders on the recently enacted “Say-On-Pay” (SOP) for publicly traded corporations, and the efficacy of vote outcomes on rationalizing executive compensation. We find that small shareholders are more likely than large shareholders to use the non-binding SOP vote to govern their companies: small shareholders are more likely to vote for a more frequent annual SOP vote, and more likely to vote “against” SOP (i.e., to disapprove executive compensation). Further, we find that low support for management in the SOP vote is more likely to be followed by a decrease in excess compensation, and by a more reasonable selection of peer companies for determining compensation, when ownership is more concentrated. Hence, the non-binding SOP vote offers a convenient mechanism for small shareholders to voice their opinions, yet, larger shareholders must be present to compel the Board to take action. Thus, diffuse shareholders are able to coordinate on the SOP vote to employ the threat that large shareholders represent to management.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Ello is a Delaware public benefit corporation. The social enterprise terminology is proving difficult, even for sophisticated authors at the New York Times Dealbook. The article calls Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s public benefit corporations. Patagonia, however, is a California benefit corporation. I wrote about the differences between public benefit corporations and benefit corporations here. Ben & Jerry’s is a certified B corporation, but, as far as I know, Ben & Jerry’s has not yet made the legal change to convert to any of the social enterprise forms. I wrote about the differences between benefit corporations and certified B corporations here and here. Just as my co-blogger Joshua Fershee remains vigilant at pointing out the differences between LLCs and corporations, so I will remain vigilant on the social enterprise distinctions.
Besides my nitpicking on the use of social enterprise terminology, there are a few other things I want to say about this article.
First, Ello raised $5.5 million dollars, which is not that much money in the financial world, but puts Ello in pretty rare company in the U.S. social enterprise world. The vast majority of U.S. social enterprises are owned by a single individual or family; some social enterprises have raised outside capital, but not many. The increasing presence of outside investors in social enterprise means two main things to me: (1) the social enterprise concept is starting to gain some traction with previously skeptical investors, and (2) we may see a shareholder derivative lawsuit in the near future, which would give us all more to write about.
Second, Ello included a clause in its charter that “forbids the company from using ads or selling user data to make money.” This provision seems a direct response to the eBay v. Newmark case. The business judgment rule provides significant protection to directors and, at least theoretically, should calm many of the fears of social entrepreneurs. But risk adverse individuals may seek additional layers of protection.
Third, Ello claims that their charter provision “basically means no investor can force us to take a really good financial deal if it forces us to take advertising.” This seems overstated. Charters can be amended, but at least the charter puts outside investors on notice. This provision in the charter does not, however, protect against a change of heart by the founders and a selling of the company (such as in the case of Ben & Jerry’s sale to Unilever).
Fourth, this October 4, 2014 article claims that Ello is pre-revenue. The NYT Dealbook article notes that “[u]sers will eventually be able to download widgets and modifications, paying a few dollars for each purchase.” (emphasis added). Ello seems to be one of the growing number of technology companies that are being valued by number of users rather than by revenues or profits. Ello “grew from an initial 90 users on Aug. 7 to over a million now, with a waiting list of about 3 million.”
Fifth, even if traditional investors are (somewhat) warming up to social enterprises, social entrepreneurs still seem to be a bit skeptical of traditional investors. When raising money, Ello "drew the attention of the usual giants in the venture capital world. . . . But Mr. Budnitz said he instead turned to investors whom he could trust to back the start-up’s mission, including the Foundry Group, whom he came to know when he lived in the firm’s hometown, Boulder, Colo.” There are increasing sources of capital for social enterprises from investors who also have a stated social goal (See, e.g., JP Morgan’s May 2014 survey of impact investors).
Some in the academic world have wondered if social enterprise is just a fad. While I am confident that the space will and must continue to evolve, if it is a fad, it has already been a long-running one. The names and details of the statutes may change, but I see a growing interest in marrying profit and social purpose, and I think that interest is likely to continue in some form.
Cross-posted at SocEntLaw.
I used to joke that my alma mater Columbia University’s core curriculum, which required students to study the history of art, music, literature, and philosophy (among other things) was designed solely to make sure that graduates could distinguish a Manet from a Monet and not embarrass the university at cocktail parties for wealthy donors. I have since tortured my son by dragging him through museums and ruins all over the world pointing spouting what I remember about chiaroscuro and Doric columns. He’s now a freshman at San Francisco Art Institute, and I’m sure that my now-fond memories of class helped to spark a love of art in him. I must confess though that as a college freshman I was less fond of Contemporary Civilization class, (“CC”) which took us through Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hume, Hegel, and all of the usual suspects. At the time I thought it was boring and too high level for a student who planned to work in the gritty city counseling abused children and rape survivors.
Fast forward twenty years or so, and my job as a Compliance and Ethics Officer for a Fortune 500 company immersed me in many of the principles we discussed in CC, although we never spoke in the lofty terms that our teaching assistant used when we looked at bribery, money- laundering, conflicts of interest, terrorism threats, data protection, SEC regulations, discrimination, and other issues that keep ethics officers awake at night. We did speak of values versus rules based ethics and how to motivate people to "do the right thing."
Now that I am in academia I have chosen to research on the issues I dealt with in private life. Although I am brand new to the field of normative business ethics, I was pleased to have my paper accepted for a November workshop at Wharton's Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. Each session has two presenters who listen to and respond to feedback from attendees, who have read their papers in advance. Dr. Wayne Buck, who teaches business ethics at Eastern Connecticut State University, presented two weeks ago. He entitled his paper “Naming Names,” and using a case study on the BP Oil spill argued that the role of business ethics is not merely to promulgate norms around conduct, but also to judge individual businesspeople on moral grounds. Professor John Hasnas of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business also presented his working paper “Why Don't Corporations Have the Right to Vote?” He argued that if we accept a theory of corporate moral agency, then that commits us to extending them the right to vote. (For the record, my understanding of his paper is that he doesn’t believe corporations should have the right.) Attendees from Johns Hopkins, the University of Connecticut, Pace and of course Wharton brought me right back to my days at Columbia with references to Rawls and Kant. My comments were probably less theoretical and more related to practical application, but that’s still my bent as a junior scholar.
In a few weeks, I present on my theory of the social contract as it relates to business and human rights. In brief, I argue that multinational corporations enter into social contracts with the states in which they operate (in large part to avoid regulation) and with stakeholders around them (the "social license to operate", as Professor John Ruggie describes it). Typically these contracts consist of the corporate social responsibility reports, voluntary codes of conduct, industry initiatives, and other public statements that dictate how they choose to act in society, such as the UN Global Compact. Many nations have voluntary and mandatory disclosure regimes, which have the side benefit of providing consumers and investors with the kinds of information that will help them determine whether the firm has “breached” the social contract by not living up to its promise. The majority of these proposals and disclosure regimes (such as Dodd-Frank conflict minerals) rest on the premise that armed with certain information, consumers and investors (other than socially responsible investors) will pressure corporations to change their behavior by either rewarding “ethical” behavior or by punishing firms who act unethically via a boycott or divestment.
I contend in my article that: (1) corporations generally respond to incentives and penalties, which can cause them to act “morally;” (2) states refuse to enter into a binding UN treaty on business and human rights and often do not uniformly enforce the laws, much less the social contracts; (3) consumers over-report their desire to buy goods and services from “ethical” companies; and (4) disclosure for the sake of transparency, without more, will not lead to meaningful change in the human rights arena. Instead, I prefer to focus on the kinds of questions that the board members, consumers, and investors who purport to care about these things should ask. I try to move past the fuzzy concept of corporate social responsibility to a stronger corporate accountability framework, at least where firms have the ability to directly or indirectly impact human rights.
As a compliance officer, I did not use terms like “deontological” and “teleological” principles, but some heavy hitters such as Norway's Government Pension Fund, with over five billion Kronos under management, do. The 2003 report that helped establish the Fund’s recommendations on ethical guidelines state in part:
One group of ethical theories asserts that we should primarily be concerned with the consequences of the choices we make. These theories are in other words forward-looking, focusing on the consequences of an action. The choice that is ethically correct influences the world in the best possible way, i.e. has the most favourable consequences. Every choice generates an infinite number of consequences and the decisive question is of course which of the consequences we should focus on. Again, a number of answers are possible. Some would assert that we should focus on individual welfare, and that the action that has the most favourable consequences for individual welfare is the best one. Others would claim that access to resources or the opportunities or rights of the individual are most important. However, common to all these answers is the view that the desire to influence the world in a favourable direction should govern our choices.
Another group of ethical theories focuses on avoiding breaching obligations by avoiding doing evil and fulfilling obligations by doing good. Whether the results are good or evil, and whether the cost of doing good is high, are in principle of no significance. This is often known as deontological ethics.
In relation to the Petroleum Fund, these two approaches will primarily influence choice in that deontological ethics will dictate that certain investments must be avoided under any circumstances, while teleological ethics will lead to the avoidance of investments that have less favourable consequences and the promotion of investments that have more favourable consequences.
Recently, NGOs have pressured firms to speak on out human rights abuses at mega-events and have published their responses. The US government has made a number of efforts, some unsuccessful, to push companies toward more proactive human rights initiatives. These issues are here to stay. As I formulate my recommendations, I am looking at the pension fund, some work by ethicists researching marketing principles, writings by political and business philosophers, and of course, my old friends Locke, Rousseau, Rawls and Kant for inspiration. If you have ideas of articles or authors I should consult, feel free to comment below or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you will be in Philadelphia on November 14th, register for the session at Wharton and give me your feedback in person.
October 24, 2014 in Books, Business School, Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
The abstract reads:
Nearly thirty years ago, in Revlon, Inc. v. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc., the Delaware Supreme Court famously dictated that in certain transactions involving a “sale or change in control,” the fiduciary obligation of a corporation’s board of directors is simply to “get the best price for the stockholders.” Applying a novel remedial perspective to this iconic doctrine, in The Dwindling of Revlon, Professor Lyman Johnson and Robert Ricca argue that Revlon is today of diminishing significance. In the three decades since, the coauthors observe, corporate law has evolved around Revlon, dramatically limiting the remedial clout of the doctrine. In this Essay, I show how two recent Delaware Chancery Court decisions — Chen v. Howard-Andersen and In re Rural Metro — underscore the expansive reach of Revlon and, therefore, the limits of Johnson and Ricca’s thesis. Instead, I suggest the dwindling of Revlon, if it is indeed dwindling, may be best observed from what is happening outside the pressed edges of corporate law, where other competing bodies of business law have emerged rejecting Revlon’s fiduciary mandate.
The article is a nice response to a thoughtful article by Lyman Johnson and Rob Ricca entitled The Dwindling of Revlon.
Both articles are highly recommended.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Corporate Law Professors Comment on Proposed HHS Definition of "Eligible Organization" for Hobby Lobby Accommodation
In response to the Department of Health and Human Services' Proposed Regulation and Request for Comments regarding the definition of "eligible organization" (see earlier post here) at least two groups of law professors have weighed in on the issue.
The first comment letter, available here, was submitted by the U.C. Berkeley corporate law professors and encourages the Department to adopt a definition based upon the veil piercing theory. "We ... propose that for purposes of defining an “[W]e ... suggest that shareholders of a corporation should have to certify that they and the corporation have a unity in identity and interests, and therefore the corporation should be viewed as the shareholders’ alter ego." The comments argue that utilizing the veil-piercing theory avoids the consequences of a setting an arbitrary number of shareholders thus creating a rule that would be "seriously under-and-over-inclusive, capturing corporations that meet the numerical test but for which shareholders are not the alter egos of the corporation, as well as failing to capture corporations with a relatively large number of shareholders that are all united in their interests and are alter egos of one another."
The second comment letter on which I worked and was joined by some editors of this blog as signatories, is available here. This comment letter, signed by 43 corporate law professors, was produced through the coordinating efforts of the The Public Rights / Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School headed by Katherine Franke, and the project's executive director, Kara Loewentheil. This letter too encourages the HHS to adopt an approach that requires an "identity of interests." These comments suggest a blueprint for establishing an identity of interest, namely a focus on "entities (1) with a limited number of equity holders/owners, (2) that demonstrate religious commitment, and (3) submit evidence of unanimous consent of equity holders to seek an accommodation on an annual basis." The comments provide additional criteria under each of these three elements to operationalize the holding in Hobby Lobby.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
The numbers are in on SEC Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings. According to a Tulane study, the average company spent over half a million dollars to comply. A review by law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel shows how meaningless (in my view), some of those filings were. Meanwhile, Canada failed to pass another conflict minerals bill and NGOs are pressuring the EU to step up to the plate for more rigorous regulation. I continue to believe that there has to be a better way to resolve a deadly human rights crisis, and that disclosure and due diligence in the supply chain are important but are not the solutions.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Maryland State Senator and American University Washington College of Law professor Jamie B. Raskin recently wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post, A shareholder solution to ‘Citizens United’. In the piece, he explains that
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United essentially invites a shareholder solution. The premise of the decision was that government cannot block corporate political spending because a corporation is simply an association of citizens with free-speech rights, “an association that has taken on the corporate form,” as Kennedy put it. But if that is true, it follows that corporate managers should not spend citizen-shareholders’ money on political campaigns without their consent.
Senator Raskin further notes that the Congress doesn't appear interested in moving forward with the Disclose Act, and the Securities and Exchange Commission has not pursued requiring campaign spending disclosures. In response, the senator has a proposal:
Our best hope for change is with the state governments that regulate corporate entities throughout the year and receive regular filings from them. I am introducing legislation in January that will require managers of Maryland-registered corporations who wish to engage in political spending for their shareholders to post all political expenditures on company Web sites within 48 hours and confirm that any political spending fairly reflects the explicit preference of shareholders owning a majority interest in the company.
Further, if no “majority will” of the shareholders can form to spend money for political candidates — because most shares are owned by institutions forbidden to participate in partisan campaigns — then the corporation will be prohibited from using its resources on political campaigns.
Back in early 2010, as a guest blogger here, I wrote a post, Citizens United: States, where I noted my reaction to the case, which was that I wondered how states would react and that the case made the issue "an internal governance issue, which is a state-level issue." (Please click below to read more.)
Thursday, October 2, 2014
For the second time, I have assigned my BA students to write their own shareholder proposals so that they can better understand the mechanics and the substance behind Rule 14-a8. As samples, I provided a link to over 500 proposals for the 2014 proxy season. We also went through the Apple Proxy Statement as a way to review corporate governance, the roles of the committees, and some other concepts we had discussed. As I reviewed the proposals this morning, I noticed that the student proposals varied widely with most relating to human rights, genetically modified food, environmental protection, online privacy, and other social factors. A few related to cumulative voting, split of the chair and CEO, poison pills, political spending, pay ratio, equity plans, and other executive compensation factors.
After they take their midterm next week, I will show them how well these proposals tend to do in the real world. Environmental, social, and governance factors (political spending and lobbying are included) constituted almost 42% of proposals, up from 36% in 2013, according to Equilar. Of note, 45% of proposals calling for a declassified board passed, with an average of 89% support, while only two proposals for the separation of chair and CEO passed. Astonishingly, Proxy Monitor, which looked at the 250 largest publicly-traded American companies, reports that just three people and their family members filed one third of all proposals. Only 4% of shareholder proposals were supported by a majority of voting shareholders. Only one of the 136 proposals related to social policy concerns in the Proxy Monitor data set passed, and that was an animal welfare proposal that the company actually supported.
I plan to use two of the student proposals verbatim on the final exam to test their ability to assess whether a company would be successful in an SEC No-Action letter process. Many of the students thought the exercise was helpful, although one of the students who was most meticulous with the assignment is now even more adamant that she does not want to do transactional law. Too bad, because she would make a great corporate lawyer. I have 7 weeks to convince her to change her mind.
October 2, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)