Thursday, November 10, 2016
I have been on hiatus for a few weeks, and had planned to post today about the compliance and corporate governance issues related to Wells Fargo. However, I have decided to delay posting on that topic in light of the unexpected election results and how it affects my research and work.
I am serving as a panelist and a moderator at the ABA's annual Labor and Employment meeting tomorrow. Our topic is Advising Clients in Whistleblower Investigations. In our discussions and emails prior to the conference, we never raised the election in part because, based on the polls, no one expected Donald Trump to win. Now, of course, we have to address this unexpected development in light of the President-elect's public statements that he plans to dismantle much of President Obama's legacy, including a number of his executive orders.
President-elect Trump's plan for his first 100 days includes, among other things: a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce though attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health); a requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated; renegotiation or withdrawal from NAFTA; withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; canceling "every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama; and a number of rules related to lobbyists and special interests.
Plaintiffs' lawyers I have spoken to at this conference so far are pessimistic that standards will become even more pro-business and thus more difficult to bring cases. That's probably true. However, I have the following broader business-law related questions:
- What will happen to Dodd-Frank? There are already a number of house bills pending to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank, but will President Trump actually try to repeal all of it, particularly the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule? How would that look optically? Former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, a prominent critic of Dodd-Frank and the whistleblower program in particular, is part of Trump's transition team on economic issues, so perhaps a revision, at a minumum, may not be out of the question.
2. What will happen with the two SEC commissioner vacancies? How will this president and Congress fund the agency?
3. Will SEC Chair Mary Jo White stay or go and how might that affect the work of the agency to look at disclosure reform?
4. How will the vow to freeze the federal workforce affect OSHA, which enforces Sarbanes-Oxley?
5. In addition to the issues that Trump has with TPP and NAFTA, how will his administration and the Congress deal with the Export-Import (Ex-IM) bank, which cannot function properly as it is due to resistance from some in Congress. Ex-Im provides financing, export credit insurance, loans, and other products to companies (including many small businesses) that wish to do business in politically-risky countries.
6. How will a more conservative Supreme Court deal with the business cases that will appear before it?
7. Who will be the Attorney General and how might that affect criminal prosecution of companies and individuals? Should we expect a new memo or revision of policies for Assistant US Attorneys that might undo some of the work of the Yates Memo, which focuses on corporate cooperation and culpable individuals?
8. What will happen with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the DC Circuit recently ruled was unconstitutional in terms of its structure and power?
9. What will happen with the Obama administration's executive orders on Cuba, which have chipped away at much of the embargo? The business community has lobbied hard on ending the embargo and eliminating restrictions, but Trump has pledged to require more from the Cuban government. Would he also cancel the executive orders as well?
10. What happens to the Public Company Accounting Board, which has had an interim director for several months?
11. Jeb Henserling, who has adamantly opposed Ex-Im, the CFPB, and Dodd-Frank is under consideration for Treasury Secretary. What does this say about President-elect Trump's economic vision?
Of course, there are many more questions and I have no answers but I will be interested to see how future announcements affect the world financial markets, which as of the time of this writing appear to have calmed down.
November 10, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
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.
Bainbridge take a contrary position, citing Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Strine, who says, "a clear-eyed look at the law of corporations in Delaware reveals that, within the limits of their discretion, directors must make stockholder welfare their sole end, and that other interests may be taken into consideration only as a means of promoting stockholder welfare." Strine further notes that "advocates for corporate social responsibility pretend that directors do not have to make stockholder welfare the sole end of corporate governance, within the limits of their legal discretion."
I read these positions as consistent, though I think the scope of what is permissible is certainly implicitly different. I agree that Strine is right to say that "directors must make stockholder welfare their sole end." But I also agree that "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." My read of the business judgment rule (BJR) is that, absent fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, courts should abstain from reviewing director decisions, meaning that the directors decide what"stockholder welfare" means and what ends to use in pursuit of that end. That is, I think it's wrong to say "directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders," but I do think directors usually get to decide what it means to "maximise profits."
I am a firm believer in director primacy, and I believe directors should have a lot of latitude in their choices, subject to the BJR requirements. Thus, if a plaintiff can show self dealing (like maybe via giving to a "pet charity" described in A.P. Smith v. Barlow), then the BJR might be rebutted (if the gift is inconsistent with state law and/or constituency statutes). But otherwise, it's the board's call. Furthermore, where a company builds its brand and acts consistently with its prior actions, that might expand the scope of permissible behavior for a company (i.e., not be evidence of self-dealing). Thus, companies like Tom's Shoes and Ben and Jerry's should be able to continue to operate as they always have when they bring in new directors, because what might look like self-dealing in another context, is consistent with the business model.
eBay v. Newmark (pdf here) is often used to rebut that notion, but I still maintain that case is really about self-dealing -- the actions taken by Jim and Craig were impermissible not because they were working toward "purely philanthropic ends," but because they took actions that benefited themselves to the detriment of their minority shareholder, such as use of poison pills).
Anyway, I am still a believer in the BJR as abstention doctrine. Show me some fraud, illegality, or self-dealing or I'm leaving the board's decision alone.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Each year, I rethink how I teach fiduciary duties in the corporate law context in my Business Associations course. My learning objectives for the students are both limited and involved. On the one hand, there's little room in my three-credit-hour course for a nuanced understanding of all of the contexts in which corporate fiduciary duty claims typically occur. In particular, I have determined to leave out the public company mergers and acquisitions context almost completely. On the other hand, I find myself juggling uncertain classifications of duty components, explanations of seemingly mismatched standards of conduct and liability, and judicial review standards in and outside the Delaware corporate law context. It's a handful. It's teaching complexity.
Of course, fiduciary duty is not the only complex matter that one must teach in Business Associations. But it is, for me, one of the topics I am least confident that I "get right" in my interactions with students in and outside the classroom. Accordingly, as I again head toward the end of the semester, I find myself wondering whether I could have done--or could do--more with the students in my Business Associations course this semester. This leads me to ask my fellow business law professors (that's you!) whether any of you have materials, teaching techniques, exercises (in-class or out-of-class), etc. that you find to be particularly effective in educating law students the basics and nuances of corporate fiduciary duties.
So, have at it! Share your corporate fiduciary duty teaching successes in the comments, if you would. I am all ears. I know that what you report will benefit me and others (including our students), and I hope that your comments will generate a continuing conversation . . . .
Sunday, October 23, 2016
The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Meeting will be held Tuesday, January 3 – Saturday, January 7, 2017, in San Francisco. Readers of this blog who may be interested in programs associated with the AALS Section on Socio-Economics & the Society of Socio-Economics should click on the following link for the complete relevant schedule:
Specifically, I'd like to highlight the following programs:
On Wednesday, Jan. 4:
9:50 - 10:50 AM Concurrent Sessions:
- The Future of Corporate Governance:
How Do We Get From Here to Where We Need to Go?
andre cummings (Indiana Tech) Steven Ramirez (Loyola - Chicago)
Lynne Dallas (San Diego) - Co-Moderator Janis Sarra (British Columbia)
Kent Greenfield (Boston College) Faith Stevelman (New York)
Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra) Kellye Testy (Dean, Washington)
Kristin Johnson (Seton Hall) Cheryl Wade (St. John’s ) Co-Moderator
Lyman Johnson (Washington and Lee)
- Socio-Economics and Whistle-Blowers
William Black (Missouri - KC) Benjamin Edwards (Barry)
June Carbone (Minnesota) - Moderator Marcia Narine (St. Thomas)
1:45 - 2:45 PM Concurrent Sessions:
1. What is a Corporation?
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Moderator Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Tamara Belinfanti (New York) Sabeel Rahman (Brooklyn)
Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra)
On Thursday, Jan. 5:
3:30 - 5:15 pm:
Section Programs for New Law Teachers
Principles of Socio-Economics
in Teaching, Scholarship, and Service
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Lynne Dallas (San Diego)
William Black (Missouri - Kansas City) Michael Malloy (McGeorge)
June Carbone (Minnesota) Stefan Padfield (Akron)
On Saturday, Jan. 7:
10:30 am - 12:15 pm:
Economics, Poverty, and Inclusive Capitalism
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Paul Davidson (Founding Editor Delos Putz (San Francisco)
Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics) Edward Rubin (Vanderbilt)
Richard Hattwick (Founding Editor,
Journal of Socio-Economics)
October 23, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Today's post continues the discussion started by Anne’s informative post regarding the law of controlling stockholders. Anne astutely notes that the MFW “enhanced ratification” framework was rendered in connection with a going private merger. Although I recognize the intuitive appeal, I wish to call into question the impact of MFW’s holding on other manners of controlling shareholder transactions.
Going private transactions differ from going concern transactions in that their successful completion wipes out the minority float. This distinction accelerates stockholders' divergent incentives and raises the possibility for minority stockholder abuse. An unscrupulous controller might structure the transaction in a manner that captures all unlocked value for later private consumption. Going private transactions allow controlling stockholders to shed the restrictions of the public market, thereby evading future retribution by minority stockholders. Policy considerations accordingly call for superior protection of minority stockholders participating in a going private transaction.
Since MFW establishes a procedure for achieving less intrusive judicial review for going private transactions, it stands to reason that this procedure should apply to all transactions involving a controlling stockholder. Indeed, without addressing the distinction between going private and going concern transactions in this context, a fairly recent Chancery Court decision has explicitly opined that the MFW framework applies to all controlling stockholder transactions (In re Ezcorp Inc. Consulting Agreement Derivative Litig., 2016 WL 301245, at *28 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2016)).
In a forthcoming article at the Delaware Journal of Corporate Law, I argue that the borders of "MFW-Land" are not as clear-cut as they appear. The Delaware Supreme Court decision does not create a universally-applicable safe harbor procedure for all manner of controlling stockholder transactions. Two main arguments form the basis of this contention.
The dual tenets of doctrinal clarity and cohesion underpin the first argument. A careful reading of the MFW decision fails to detect any mention of competing precedent or a general proclamation regarding its applicability to other types of controlling stockholder transactions. MFW is clearly situated on a path of doctrinal evolution of judicial inspection of going private transactions with controlling stockholders. Canons of judicial interpretation counsel against an indirect reversal or modification of established precedent.
Additionally, the theoretical justifications for the MFW decision hold significantly less weight in the going concern context. MFW's doctrinal shift is grounded on the twin pillars representing the competency of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders. Whatever the validity of these mechanisms in the freeze out context, the legal and financial scholarship does not validate an extension to going concern transactions. Serious flaws hamper the ability of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders to pass meaningful judgment on going concern transactions. In the final tally, MFW does not produce an all-encompassing framework for all controlling stockholder transactions.
Monday, October 17, 2016
Assume a state trial court issues an opinion in a particular case and the case is not appealed. Should a legal scholar using the opinion to support or refute a key point (in the text of a written work) characterize the weight or status of the opinion (e.g., noting that it is a trial court opinion and that is has not been appealed)? Justify your answer.
If the trial court at issue is the Delaware Chancery Court and the opinion addresses matters under the Delaware General Corporation Law, does that alter your answer? Why? Why not?
I am having fun considering these issues today in connection with my work on a symposium paper. I have not yet decided how to handle the specific matter that raises the questions. Accordingly, it seemed like a good idea at this juncture to share my questions and seek collaboration in answering them . . . .
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Today I used Wells Fargo as a teaching tool in Business Associations. Using this video from the end of September, I discussed the role of the independent directors, the New York Stock Exchange Listing Standards, the importance of the controversy over separate chair and CEO, 8Ks, and other governance principles. This video discussing ex-CEO Stumpf’s “retirement” allowed me to discuss the importance of succession planning, reputational issues, clawbacks and accountability, and potential SEC and DOJ investigations. This video lends itself nicely to a discussion of executive compensation. Finally, this video provides a preview for our discussion next week on whistleblowers, compliance, and the board’s Caremark duties.
Regular readers of this blog know that in my prior life I served as a deputy general counsel and compliance officer for a Fortune 500 Company. Next week when I am out from under all of the midterms I am grading, I will post a more substantive post on the Wells Fargo debacle. I have a lot to say and I imagine that there will be more fodder to come in the next few weeks. In the meantime, check out this related post by co-blogger Anne Tucker.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
I am preparing to teach the doctrine on controlling shareholders in my corporations class tomorrow, and found the recent Delaware opinions on non-controlling shareholder cleansing votes and the BJR to be helpful illustrations of the law in this area.
In summer 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery dismissed two post-closing actions alleging a breach of fiduciary duty where there was no controlling shareholder in the public companies, where the stockholder cleaning vote was fully informed, and applied the 2015 Corwin business judgment rule standard. The cases are City of Miami General Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust v. Comstock, C.A. No. 9980-CB, (Del. Ch. Aug. 24, 2016) (Bouchard, C.) and Larkin v. Shah, C.A. No. 10918-VCS, (Del. Ch. Aug. 25, 2016) (Slights, V.C.), both of which relied upon Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings, LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015). (Fellow BLPB blogger Ann Lipton has written about Corwin here).
The Larkin case clarified that Corwin applies to duty of loyalty claims and will be subject to the deferential business judgment rule in post-closing actions challenging non-controller transactions where informed stockholders have approved the transaction. The Larkin opinion states that:
(1) when disinterested, fully informed, uncoerced stockholders approve a transaction absent a looming conflicted controller, the irrebuttable business judgment rule applies; (2) there was no looming conflicted controller in this case; and (3) the challenged merger was properly approved by disinterested, uncoerced Auspex stockholders. Under the circumstances, the business judgment rule, irrebuttable in this context, applies. ....The standard of review that guides the court’s determination of whether those duties have been violated defaults to a deferential standard, the business judgment rule, which directs the court to presume the board of directors “acted on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action was taken in the best interests of the company.” In circumstances where the business judgment rule applies, Delaware courts will not overturn a board’s decision unless that decision 'cannot be attributed to any rational business purpose.' This broadly permissive standard reflects Delaware’s traditional reluctance to second-guess the business judgment of disinterested fiduciaries absent some independent cause for doubt. Larkin at 21-22 (internal citations omitted).
Two-sided controller transactions (a freeze out merger where a controlling shareholder stands on both sides of the transaction) is covered by the 2014 Kahn v. M & F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635(Del. 2014) case, which I summarized in an earlier BLPB post here.
To refresh our readers, the controlling shareholder test is a stockholder who owns a majority of stock. Additionally, a stockholder may qualify as a controller if:
Under Delaware law, a stockholder owning less than half of a company’s outstanding shares may nonetheless be deemed a controller where 'the stockholder can exercise actual control over the corporation’s board.'This “actual control” test requires the court to undertake an analysis of whether, despite owning a minority of shares, the alleged controller wields “such formidable voting and managerial power that, as a practical matter, [it is] no differently situated than if [it] had majority voting control.'A controlling stockholder can exist as a sole actor or a control block of “shareholders, each of whom individually cannot exert control over the corporation . . . [but who] are connected in some legally significant way—e.g., by contract, common ownership agreement, or other arrangement—to work together toward a shared goal.' Larkin at 33-34 (internal citations omitted).
Excellent commentary on theLarkin and Comstock cases and their practical implications can be found on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, available here.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
The Wells Fargo headlines--fresh from a congressional testimony, a spiraling stock price, and a CEO with $41M less dollars to his name-- raise the question of whether this is a case study of corporate governance effectiveness or inefficiency. That the wrong doing (opening an estimated 2M unauthorized customer accounts to manipulate sales figures) was eventually unearthed, employees fired and bonus pay revoked may give some folks confidence in the oversight and accountability structures set up by corporate governance. Michael Hiltzit at the LA Times writes a scathing review of the CEO and the Board of Directors failed oversight on this issue.
The implicit defense raised by Stumpf’s defenders is that the consumer ripoff at the center of the scandal was, in context, trivial — look at how much Wells Fargo has grown under this management. But that’s a reductionist argument. One reason that the scandal looks trivial is that no major executive has been disciplined; so how big could it be? This only underscores the downside of letting executives off scot-free — it makes major failings look minor. The answer is to start threatening the bosses with losing their jobs, or going to jail, and they’ll start to take things seriously.
Whats your vote? Is the call for resignation an empty symbolism or a necessary consequence of governance?
Monday, September 26, 2016
Fresh from the presidential debate,** I find myself writing about board room diversity.*** Over the 2016 summer, SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White signaled intent to revisit diversity in U.S. boardrooms. In 2009 the SEC adopted a diversity disclosure rule requiring companies to disclose how their nominating committees considered diversity and whether the company had a diversity policy. The full rule can be viewed here. The SEC did not define (nor did it mandate a singular definition of ) diversity, and companies have been left to define diversity individually, often without regard to gender, ethnic, racial or religious identities. The result, criticized by Chairwoman White, has been vague disclosures without apparent impact.
SEC diversity rule making (past and future) was the backdrop for a recent corporate governance seminar class where I asked students: Why should they care about board room diversity? And if the 2009 disclosure rule changes, how should it change? How do other countries approach the issue of boardroom diversity? Can it be a mandated or legislated endeavor? To guide our discussion we read Aaron A Dhir's brilliant and thorough: Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity: Corporate Law, Governance and Diversity and consulted Catalyst.org to understand the panoply of diversity choices from other jurisdictions.
Dhir's Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity was a helpful and powerful book, equipping students with facts and language to think about and discuss diversity. Dhir engaged in a qualitative, interview-based methodology to investigate, and ultimately compare the Norwegian quota system with the U.S. diversity disclosure experience. While noting the costs and the translation problems from Norway to the world writ-large, Dhir interpreted his results as follows:
"female directors, present in substantial numbers, may enhance the level of cognitive diversity and constructive conflict in the boardroom. They are more apt to critically analyze, test and challenge received wisdom. In doing so, they appear to have harnessed for their boards the value of dissent, a key driver of effective governance."
In focusing on the U.S. experience, however, Dhir found that U.S. firms defined diversity in terms of experience not identity, and that this initiative fell short of the goal of encouraging or promoting boardroom diversity. Dhir recommended that the SEC define diversity as containing socio-demographic components and encourage companies to incorporate such considerations in governance by imposing a comply or explain regime in the U.S. While some have lamented that the SEC's primary challenge is how to define what diversity means, Dhir, through his research and analysis has a pretty good staring point. Should someone send Chairwoman White a copy of this book?
More than even the careful methodology, the refreshing comparative perspective and thoughtful recommendations tied to data and observable trends, the book provides a common language to explain the phenomenon of why diversity, as an initiative, is even necessary in the first place. Chapter two engages with a nuanced set of issues, irrefutable fact and explanations of bias--implicit and explicit. Here I think, more so than even other parts of the book, students connected with the materials linking language to real experiences and observations in their own lives. The attack on the pool problem critique (there aren't enough qualified women and it variant: we hired the most qualified candidate from our pool) alone warrants my effusive praise for its persuasive presentation and ability to generate thoughtful student debate.
**The debate wasn't the impetus, rather writing this post is just an exercise in settling my nerves before trying to sleep.
Friday, September 16, 2016
Earlier this week the House Financial Services Committee voted to repeal the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, which I last wrote about here and in a law review article criticizing this kind of disclosure regime in general.
Under the proposed Financial Choice Act (with the catchy tagline of "Growth for All, Bailouts for None"), a number of Dodd-Frank provisions would go by the wayside, including conflict minerals because:
Title XV of the Dodd-Frank Act imposes a number of overly burdensome disclosure requirements related to conflict minerals, extractive industries, and mine safety that bear no rational relationship to the SEC’s statutory mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and promote capital formation. The Financial CHOICE Act repeals those requirements. There is overwhelming evidence that Dodd-Frank’s conflict minerals disclosure requirement has done far more harm than good to its intended beneficiaries – the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Central African countries. SEC Chair Mary Jo White, an Obama appointee, has conceded the Commission is not the appropriate agency to carry out humanitarian policy. The provisions of Title XV of the Dodd-Frank Act are a prime example of the increasing use of the federal securities laws as a cudgel to force public companies to disclose extraneous political, social, and environmental matters in their periodic filings.
The House report cites a number of scholars and others who raise some of the same issues that I addressed in an amicus brief when the case was litigated at the trial and appellate level years ago.
This weekend I am attending the Business and Human Rights Scholars Conference co-sponsored by the University of Washington School of Law, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the Rutgers Business School, the Rutgers Center for Corporate Law and Governance, and the Business and Human Rights Journal. I present on Cuba, human rights, and investor-state dispute resolution, but a number of papers concern conflict minerals and disclosure in general.
As I have argued in the past, I’m not sure that repeal is the answer. I do believe that the law should be re-examined and possibly reformed to ensure that the diligence and disclosure actually leads to tangible and sustained benefits for the Congolese people. In short, I want to see some evidence of linkages between this corporate governance disclosure and reductions in rape, violence, child slavery, pillaging of villages, and forced labor. I want to see proof that the individual ethical consumers who claim in surveys to care about human rights have actually changed their buying habits because of this name and shame campaign.
Although I do not agree with many of the proposals in the House report and I am not against all disclosure, I do not believe that the SEC is the appropriate agency to address these issues. The State Department and others can and should take the lead on the very serious security and justice reform issues that I witnessed firsthand in Goma and Bukavu when I went to the DRC to research this law five years ago. These issues and the violence perpetrated by rebel groups, police, and the military persist. I look forward to hearing how and if proponents of the conflict minerals rule address this report during the conference.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Last spring, in the wake of Justice Scalia's passing, I blogged about Justice Scalia's final business law case: Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Ltd. The oral argument signaled that the Court's preference for a formalistic, bright line test that asked whether the entity involved was an unincorporated entity, in which case the citizenship of its members controlled the question of diversity, or whether it was formed as an corporation, in which a different test would apply. The Supreme Court issued its unanimous (8-0) opinion in March, 2016 holding that the citizenship of an unincorporated entity depends on the citizenship of all of its members. Because Americold was organized as a real estate investment trust under Maryland law, its shareholders are its members and determine (in this case, preclude) diversity jurisdiction.
S.I. Strong, the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri, has a forthcoming article, Congress and Commercial Trusts: Dealing with Diversity Jurisdiction Post-Americold, forthcoming in Florida Law Review. The article addresses the corporate constitutional jurisprudential questions of how can and should the Supreme Court treat business entities. What is the appropriate role of substance and form in business law? Her article offers a decisive reply:
Commercial trusts are one of the United States’ most important types of business organizations, holding trillions of dollars of assets and operating nationally and internationally as a “mirror image” of the corporation. However, commercial trusts remain underappreciated and undertheorized in comparison to corporations, often as a result of the mistaken perception that commercial trusts are analogous to traditional intergenerational trusts or that corporations reflect the primary or paradigmatic form of business association.
The treatment of commercial trusts reached its nadir in early 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. that the citizenship of a commercial trust should be equated with that of its shareholder-beneficiaries for purposes of diversity jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the sheer number of shareholder-beneficiaries in most commercial trusts (often amounting to hundreds if not thousands of individuals) typically precludes the parties’ ability to establish complete diversity and thus eliminates the possibility of federal jurisdiction over most commercial trust disputes. As a result, virtually all commercial trust disputes will now be heard in state court, despite their complexity, their impact on matters of national public policy and their effect on the domestic and global economies.
Americold will also result in differential treatment of commercial trusts and corporations for purposes of federal jurisdiction, even though courts and commentators have long recognized the functional equivalence of the two types of business associations. Furthermore, as this research shows, there is no theoretical justification for this type of unequal treatment.
This Article therefore suggests, as a normative proposition, that Congress override Americold and provide commercial trusts with access to federal courts in a manner similar to that enjoyed by corporations. This recommendation is the result of a rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of both the jurisprudential and practical problems created by Americold as a matter of trust law, procedural law and the law of incorporated and unincorporated business associations. The Article identifies two possible Congressional responses to Americold, one involving reliance on minimal diversity, as in cases falling under 28 U.S.C. §§1332(d) and 1369, and the other involving a statutory definition of the citizenship of commercial trusts similar to that used for corporations under 28 U.S.C. §1332(c). In so doing, this Article hopes to place commercial trusts and corporations on an equal footing and avoid the numerous negative externalities generated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Americold.
A special thanks to Professor Strong who read the blog's coverage of Americold and shared her scholarship with me.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
I recently received the following information regarding two positions at The Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance. Many readers, I assume, will be familiar with their co-sponsored excellent blog, The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation.
The Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance invites applications for the position of Executive Director. Together with the Faculty Director and others, the Executive Director of the Program works on building, developing, and managing the full range of activities of the Program. Under the Faculty Director’s oversight, the Executive Director manages the wide range of the Program’s operations; collaborates with major corporations, law firms, investors, advisers, and other organizations; participates in developing and directing conferences and other events for the Program; and manages the administration and personnel of the program, including fellows, research assistants, and staff. The Executive Director also collaborates with constituent groups and other professionals; participates in fundraising activities; interacts with donors and visitors; and takes on other management roles within the Program as needed. The Executive Director is involved in overseeing the Program’s website and other media outreach efforts, as well as the Program’s blog, the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation.
Applications will be considered on a rolling basis. Candidates should have a J.D. or another graduate degree in law, policy, or social science, and 3+ years of experience in a relevant field of law or policy. This is a full-time term appointment.Start date is flexible. Additional information on the Executive Director position, as well as detailed instructions on how to apply, is available through ASPIRE.
The Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance invites applications for Post-Graduate Academic Fellows. Candidates should be interested in spending two or three years at Harvard Law School in preparation for a career in academia or policy research, and should have a J.D., LL.M. or S.J.D. from a U.S. law school (or expect to have completed most of the requirements for such a degree by the time they commence their fellowship). During the term of their appointment, Post-Graduate Academic Fellows work on research and corporate governance activities of the Program, depending on their interests and Program needs. Fellows may also work on their own research and publishing, and some former Fellows of the Program now teach in leading law schools in the U.S. and abroad.
Applications are considered on a rolling basis. Interested candidates should submit a CV, list of references, law school grades, and a writing sample and cover letter to the coordinator of the Program, Ms. Jordan Figueroa, firstname.lastname@example.org. The cover letter should describe the candidate’s experience, reasons for seeking the position, career plans, and the kinds of Program projects and activities in which they would like to be involved. The position includes Harvard University benefits and a competitive fellowship salary. Start date is flexible.
Friday, September 2, 2016
In his article, Making It Easier for Directors to "Do the Right Thing?" 4 Harv. Bus. L. Rev. 235, 237–39 (2014), Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine wrote:
[E]ven if one accepts that those who manage public corporations may, outside of the corporate sales process, treat the best interests of other corporate constituencies as an end equal to the best interests of stockholders, and believes that stockholders should not be afforded additional influence over those managers, those premises do very little to actually change the managers’ incentives in a way that would encourage them to consider the interests of anyone other than stockholders. . . . even if corporate law supposedly grants directors the authority to give other constituencies equal consideration to stockholders outside of the sale context, it employs an unusual accountability structure to enable directors to act as neutral balancers of the diverse, and not always complementary, interests affected by corporate conduct. In that accountability structure, owners of equity securities are the only constituency given any rights. Stockholders get to elect directors. Stockholders get to vote on mergers and substantial asset sales. Stockholders get to inspect the books and records. Stockholders get the right to sue. No other constituency is given any of these rights. (emphasis added, citations omitted)
There has been a lot of anger and shock in the reporting over the price increases by EpiPen-maker Mylan. See, e.g., here, here, here, and here, but I think Chief Justice Strine's observation about the general accountability structure of corporate law is at least a partial explanation. (To be sure, there also appears to be an executive compensation story, though the executive compensation structure may be driven by the shareholder-centric accountability structure. That said, Mylan appears to be a Netherlands-incorporate company, and I know very little about the structure of its corporate law.)
The price for an EpiPen has increased a staggering amount since 2007 when pharmaceutical company Mylan acquired the product – wholesaling for $100 in 2007; $103.50 in 2009; $264.50 in 2013; $461 in 2015; $608.61 in 2016.
The general tone of the reporting in the mainstream media is one of outrage.
But isn't this to be expected? Granted, the business judgment rule provides a lot of leeway, and I would not argue that Mylan was "forced" to hike prices, even if Mylan were incorporated in Delaware. But if we give shareholders virtually all of the significant corporate governance tools, isn't it obvious that directors and officers will often seek shareholder interests even when it is harmful to communities? The bigger story here may be that certain norms and the fear of negative press have been able to keep plenty of other companies from following suit.
My article Adopting Stakeholder Advisory Boards, due out next semester in the American Business Law Journal, suggests giving some of the corporate governance accountability tools (such as certain voting rights) to a stakeholder advisory board made up of stakeholder representatives. The article argues that adoption of stakeholder advisory boards should be mandatory for large social enterprises (because they both chose a social entity form and have the resources) and should be voluntarily adopted by other serious socially-conscious companies. An accountability change of this sort might bring public expectations and the corporate law accountability structure into line.
Separately, are there certain industries - like the health care industry - that we want to be less profit-focused than others? For those industries, perhaps requiring (or making attractive through regulations/taxes) the choice of a social enterprise form (like benefit corporation) may make some sense. However, as noted in my article, the benefit corporation accountability structure is quite shareholder-centric, similar to the structure for traditional corporations. Granted, socially-motivated shareholders may exert some pressure on benefit corporations and the benefit corporation law may give them a somewhat better chance to do so, but if we want real change, I think the corporate accountability structure needs to be more completely redesigned.
Personal Note: When I was a child, my mom carried an EpiPen for me, following an incident involving plastic armor, a tennis racket, and whacking a big bee nest.
I previously wrote on the Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance released by high profile investors and corporate titans such as Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffet. Others, such as Steve Bainbridge have also weighed in. Now proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis has spoken, stating in part:
While the Principles may disappoint investors expecting a more comprehensive and robust approach similar to that found in the UK and other countries, there are a few areas where the principles promote forward-thinking stances. For example, the Principles criticize dual class voting structures and state that companies should consider specific sunset provisions based upon time or a triggering event to eventually eliminate dual class structures. This is notwithstanding the dual class structure at signatory Warren Buffet’s company Berkshire Hathaway…
There are several areas the Principles do not address, including key anti-takeover defenses such as poison pills, supermajority vote requirements and classified boards. The Principles generally address some issues such as special meeting rights and term/age limits for directors but do not recommend specific thresholds or tenure limits…
Despite the Principles’ relatively narrow scope and high level, we believe they contain enough substance to spark a dialogue inside boardrooms, which could lead to increased shareholder engagement from boards that traditionally have relied on executives and investor relations departments to lead those efforts. In our view, direct engagement between investors and boards leads to greater transparency and fosters mutual understanding of the company and its strategy, promoting long-term value creation. As a result, the Principles could have a salutary effect on companies, shareholders and the market.
Given the concern expressed by some in the business community and Congress about the "undue influence" of proxy advisory firms, the Glass Lewis statement is worth a read.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
House Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, sent a formal request to a slew of federal agencies to share trading data collected in connection with the Volcker Rule. The Volcker Rule prohibits U.S. banks from engaging in proprietary trading (effective July 21, 2015), while permitting legitimate market-making and hedging activities. The Volcker Rule restricts commercial banks (and affiliates) from investing investing in certain hedge funds and private equity, and imposes enhanced prudential requirements on systemically identified non-bank institutions engaged in such activities.
Representative Maloney requested the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Securities and Exchange Commission to analyze seven quantitative trading metrics that regulators have been collecting since 2014 including: (1) risk and position limits and usage; (2) risk factor sensitivities; (3) value-at-risk (VaR) and stress VaR; (4) comprehensive profit and loss attribution; (5) inventory turnover; (6) inventory aging; and (7) customer facing trade ratios.
Representative Maloney requested the agencies analyze the data and respond to the following questions:
The extent to which the data showed significant changes in banks’ trading activities leading up to the July 21, 2015 effective date for the prohibition on proprietary trading. To the extent that the data did not show a significant change in the banks’ trading activities leading up to the July 21, 2015 effective date, whether the agencies believe this is attributable to the banks having ceased their proprietary trading activities prior to the start of the metrics reporting in July 2014.
Whether there are any meaningful differences in either overall risk levels or risk tolerances — as indicated by risk and position limits and usage, VaR and stress VaR, and risk factor sensitivities — for trading activities at different banks.
Whether the risk levels or risk tolerances of similar trading desks are comparable across banks reporting quantitative metrics. Similarly, whether the data show any particular types of trading desks (e.g., high-yield corporate bonds, asset-backed securities) that have exhibited unusually high levels of risk.
How examiners at the agencies have used the quantitative metrics to date.
How often the agencies review the quantitative metrics to determine compliance with the Volcker Rule, and what form the agencies’ reviews of the quantitative metrics take.
Whether the quantitative metrics have triggered further reviews by any of the agencies of a bank’s trading activities, and if so, the outcome of those reviews
Any changes to the quantitative metrics that the agencies have made, or are considering making, as a result of the agencies’ review of the data received as of September 30, 2015.
The agencies' response to the request may provide insight into Dodd-Frank/Volcker Rule, the role of big data in the rule-making process (and re-evaluation), and bigger issues such as whether systemic financial risk is definable by regulation and quantifiable in data collection. I will post regulatory responses, requested by October 30th, here on the BLPB.
August 31, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Investment Banking, Legislation, Private Equity, Securities Regulation, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
If it is true that “a good thing cannot last forever,” the recent turn of events concerning appraisal arbitrage in Delaware may be a proof point. A line of cases coming out of the Delaware Court of Chancery, namely In re Appraisal of Transkaryotic Therapies, Inc., No. CIV.A. 1554-CC (Del. Ch. May 2, 2007), In re Ancestry.Com, Inc., No. CV 8173-VCG (Del. Ch. Jan. 5, 2015), and Merion Capital LP v. BMC Software, Inc., No. CV 8900-VCG (Del. Ch. Jan. 5, 2015), have made one point clear: courts impose no affirmative evidence that each specific share of stock was not voted in favor of the merger—a “share-tracing” requirement. Despite this “green light” for hedge funds engaging in appraisal arbitrage, the latest case law and legislation identify some new limitations.
What Is Appraisal Arbitrage?
Under § 262 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), a shareholder in a corporation (usually privately-held) that disagrees with a proposed plan of merger can seek appraisal from the Court of Chancery for the fair value of their shares after approval of the merger by a majority of shareholders. The appraisal-seeking shareholder, however, must not have voted in favor of the merger. Section 262, nevertheless, has been used mainly by hedge funds in a popular practice called appraisal arbitrage, the purchasing of shares in a corporation after announcement of a merger for the sole purpose of bringing an appraisal suit against the corporation. Investors do this in hopes that the court determines a fair value of the shares that is a higher price than the merger price for shares.
In Using the Absurdity Principle & Other Strategies Against Appraisal Arbitrage by Hedge Funds, I outline how this practice is problematic for merging corporations. Not only can appraisal demands lead to 200–300% premiums for investors, assets in leveraged buyouts already tied up in financing the merger create an even heavier strain on liquidating assets for cash to fund appraisal demands. Additionally, if such restraints are too burdensome due to an unusually high demand of appraisal by arbitrageurs seeking investment returns, the merger can be completely terminated under “appraisal conditions”—a contractual countermeasure giving potential buyers a way out of the merger if a threshold percentage of shares seeking appraisal rights is exceeded. The article also identifies some creative solutions that can be effected by the judiciary or parties to and affected by a merger in absence of judicial and legislative action, and it evaluates the consequences of unobstructed appraisal arbitrage.
The Issue Is the “Fungible Bulk” of Modern Trading Practices
In the leading case, Transkaryotic, counsel for a defending corporation argued that compliance with § 262 required shareholders seeking appraisal prove that each of its specific shares was not voted in favor of the merger. The court pushed back against this share-tracing requirement and held that a plain language interpretation of § 262 requires no showing that specific shares were not voted in favor of the merger, but only requires that the current holder did not vote the shares in favor of the merger. The court noted that even if it imposed such a requirement, neither party could meet it because of the way modern trading practices occur.
August 17, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Case Law, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Private Equity, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), Mary Barra (General Motors), Jeff Immet (GE), Larry Fink (Blackrock) and other executives think so and have published a set of "Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance" for public companies. There are more specifics in the Principles, but the key points cribbed from the front page of the new website are as follows:
Truly independent corporate boards are vital to effective governance, so no board should be beholden to the CEO or management. Every board should meet regularly without the CEO present, and every board should have active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level;
■ Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s also important to balance wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for fresh thinking and perspectives of new board members;
■ Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separate or combined; and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities;
■ Our financial markets have become too obsessed with quarterly earnings forecasts. Companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance — and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders;
■ A common accounting standard is critical for corporate transparency, so while companies may use non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) to explain and clarify their results, they never should do so in such a way as to obscure GAAP-reported results; and in particular, since stock- or options-based compensation is plainly a cost of doing business, it always should be reflected in non-GAAP measurements of earnings; and
■ Effective governance requires constructive engagement between a company and its shareholders. So the company’s institutional investors making decisions on proxy issues important to long-term value creation should have access to the company, its management and, in some circumstances, the board; similarly, a company, its management and board should have access to institutional investors’ ultimate decision makers on those issues.
I expect that shareholder activists, proxy advisory firms, and corporate governance nerds like myself will scrutinize the specifics against what the signatories’ companies are actually doing. Nonetheless, I commend these business leaders for at least starting a dialogue (even if a lot of the recommendations are basic common sense) and will be following this closely.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Two weeks ago, I blogged about the potential unintended consequences of (1) Dodd-Frank whistleblower awards to compliance officers and in-house counsel and (2) the Department of Justice’s Yates Memo, which requires companies to turn over individuals (even before they have determined they are legally culpable) in order to get any cooperation credit from the government.
Today at the International Legal Ethics Conference, I spoke about the intersection of state ethics laws, common law fiduciary duties, SOX §307 and §806, and the potential erosion of the attorney-client relationship. I posed the following questions regarding lawyer/whistleblowers and the Yates Memo at the end of my talk:
- How will this affect Upjohn warnings? (These are the corporate Miranda warnings and were hard enough for me to administer without me having to tell the employee that I might have to turn them over to the government after our conversation)
- Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ?
- Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ?
- Will companies turn people over to the government before proper investigations are completed just to save the company?
- Will executives cooperate in an investigation? Why should they?
- What’s the intersection with the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine (which Stephen Bainbridge has already criticized as "running amok")?
- Will there be more claims/denials for D & O coverage?
- Will individuals who cooperate get cooperation credit in their own cases?
- Will employees turn on their superiors without proper investigation?
- How will individuals/companies deal with parallel civil/criminal enforcement proceedings?
- What about indemnification clauses in employment contracts?
- Will there be more trials because there is little incentive for a corporation to plead guilty?
- What about data privacy restrictions for multinationals who operate in EU?
- How will this affect voluntary disclosure under the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizational Defendants, especially in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases?
- What ‘s the impact on joint defense agreements?
- As a lawyer for lawyers who want to be whistleblowers, can you ever advise them to take the chance of losing their license?
I didn’t have time to talk about the added complication of potential director liability under Caremark and its progeny. During my compliance officer days, I used Caremark’s name in vain to get more staff, budget, and board access so that I could train them on the basics on the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations. I explained to the Board that this line of cases required them to have some level of oversight over an effective compliance program. Among other things, Caremark required a program with “timely, accurate information sufficient to allow management and the board, each within its scope, to reach informed judgments concerning the [company’s] compliance with law and its business performance.”
I, like other compliance officers, often reviewed/re-tooled our compliance program after another company had negotiated a deferred or nonprosecution agreement with the government. These DPAs had an appendix with everything that the offending company had to do to avoid prosecution. Rarely, if ever, did the DPA mention an individual wrongdoer, and that’s been the main criticism and likely the genesis of the Yates Memo.
Boards will now likely have to take more of a proactive leadership role in demanding investigations at an early stage rather than relying on the GC or compliance officer to inform them of what has already occurred. Boards may need to hire their own counsel to advise on them on this and/or require the general counsel to have outside counsel conduct internal investigations at the outset. This leads to other interesting questions. For example, what happens if executives retain their own counsel and refuse to participate in an investigation that the Board requests? Should the Board designate a special committee (similar to an SLC in the shareholder derivative context) to make sure that there is no taint in the investigation or recommendations? At what point will the investigation become a reportable event for a public company? Will individual board members themselves lawyer up?
I will definitely have a lot to write about this Fall. If you have any thoughts leave them below or email me at email@example.com.
July 14, 2016 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Ethics, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, July 7, 2016
SEC disclosures are meant to provide material information to investors. As I hope all of my business associations students know, “information is material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable investor would consider the information important in deciding how to vote or make an investment decision.”
Regulation S-K, the central repository for non-financial disclosure statements, has been in force without substantial revision for over thirty years. The SEC is taking comments until July 21st on on the rule however, it is not revising “other disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K, such as executive compensation and governance, or the required disclosures for foreign private issuers, business development companies, or other categories of registrants.” Specifically, as stated in its 341-page Comment Release, the SEC seeks input on:
- whether, and if so, how specific disclosures are important or useful to making investment and voting decisions and whether more, less or different information might be needed;
- whether, and if so how, we could revise our current requirements to enhance the information provided to investors while considering whether the action will promote efficiency, competition, and capital formation;
- whether, and if so how, we could revise our requirements to enhance the protection of investors;
- whether our current requirements appropriately balance the costs of disclosure with the benefits;
- whether, and if so how, we could lower the cost to registrants of providing information to investors, including considerations such as advancements in technology and communications;
- whether and if so, how we could increase the benefits to investors and facilitate investor access to disclosure by modernizing the methods used to present, aggregate and disseminate disclosure; and
- any challenges of our current disclosure requirements and those that may result from possible regulatory responses explored in this release or suggested by commenters.
As of this evening, thirty comments had been submitted including from Wachtell Lipton, which cautions against “overdisclosure” and urges more flexible means of communicating with investors; the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, which observes that 40% of 10-K disclosures on sustainability use boilerplate language and recommends a market standard for industry-specific disclosures (which SASB is developing); and the Pension Consulting Alliance, which agrees with SASB’s methodology and states that:
[our] clients increasingly request more ESG information related to their investments. Key PCA advisory services that are affected by ESG issues include:
- Investment beliefs and investment policy development
- Manager selection and monitoring
- Portfolio-wide exposure to material ESG risks
- Education and analysis on macro and micro issues
- Proxy voting and engagement
This is an interesting time for people like me who study disclosures. Last week the SEC released its revised rule on Dodd-Frank §1504 that had to be re-written after court challenges. That rule requires an issuer “to disclose payments made to the U.S. federal government or a foreign government if the issuer engages in the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals and is required to file annual reports with the Commission under the Securities Exchange Act.” Representative Bill Huizenga, the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade, introduced an amendment to the FY2017 Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations bill, H.R. 5485, to prohibit funding for enforcement for another governance disclosure--Dodd-Frank conflict minerals.
SEC Chair White has herself questioned the wisdom of the SEC requiring and monitoring certain disclosures, noting the potential for investor information overload. Nonetheless, she and the agency are committed to enforcement. Her fresh look at disclosures reflects a balanced approach. If you have some spare time this summer and think the SEC’s disclosure system needs improvement, now is the time to let the agency know.