Friday, April 29, 2016
Earlier this month, B Lab, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that oversees the certification of B corps, announced that it will move its October 2016 retreat from North Carolina because of North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 (“HB2”).
In an April 12 e-mail to “Friends of the B Corp Community,” the B Lab team wrote:
Standing for inclusion, the global B Corp community has decided to relocate the 2016 B Corp Champions Retreat and related events from North Carolina in light of the newly-enacted State law HB2 which limits anti-discrimination protections, particularly for members of the LGBT community.
Immediately, B Lab will work with the North Carolina B Corp community and others to get HB2 off the books and make North Carolina more inclusive and business-friendly.
B Lab also linked to this longer statement in that e-mail.
The Model Benefit Corporation Legislation and the laws following the Model require that a third-party standard be used by benefit corporations to measure their social and environmental impact. B Lab’s standard is currently the most popular standard, but it is not required or even mentioned by the benefit corporation statutes. Allowing for various third-party standards helps prevent the benefit corporation law from being overly political. I do wonder, however, if B Lab’s public stand on this issue will make the benefit corporation laws harder to pass in more conservative states, because of B Lab’s large role in cultivating both the certified B corp and benefit corporation communities.
Further, this situation leads to a question I asked in 2012 --- would B Lab exercise their veto power and deny certification to Chick-fil-A, if Chick-fil-A applied for certification and managed the required social score? As I wrote in 2012, I don’t see anything in the benefit corporation laws that would prevent Chick-fil-A from becoming a benefit corporation, but I am less sure if Chick-fil-A would be successful in obtaining certification from B Lab. B Corp certification is separate from the entity formation process, and the certification is under the control of B Lab rather than the government.
Also, I am not a nonprofit expert, but I wonder whether B Lab is flirting with the lobbying restrictions for 501(c)(3)s, especially when it promises to “work with the North Carolina B Corp community and others to get HB2 off the books.” They also seem to be involved in the attempts to pass benefit corporation laws in states across the country. (Thoughts from nonprofit lawyers or professors welcomed in the comments or by e-mail...I am told that 501(c)(3)s are allowed to do an "insubstantial" amount of lobbying).
In any event, in seems that non-profits, social enterprises, and traditional for-profits are becoming more and more active in social and political debates. And these organizations are often powerful, influential players.
Friday, April 15, 2016
I'm at the MALSB Conference in Chicago, but saw Anita Krug's recently posted book chapter entitled Toward Better Mutual Fund Governance. Worth reading. Abstract below.
This chapter evaluates the implications of an emerging model of mutual fund governance for effective oversight and regulation. As in the traditional model, in which a board of directors or trustees serves as the board of multiple discrete funds managed by a single investment adviser, this alternative model similarly contemplates the creation of multiple funds, but it eschews a single investment adviser charged with managing each fund’s assets. Rather, there are numerous advisers, each managing one or a small number of funds within the group. Although the new model may portend an improvement over the traditional model in some respects, questions arise as to whether it introduces concerns of its own and whether those concerns are more or less manageable than those to which the traditional model gives rise. The chapter contends that, although the new model produces risks not associated with the traditional model, there are reasons to believe, at least preliminarily, that it is at least as effective as the traditional model.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Today in my Business and Human Rights class I thought about Ann's recent post where she noted that socially responsible investor Calpers was rethinking its decision to divest from tobacco stocks. My class has recently been discussing the human rights impacts of mega sporting events and whether companies such as Rio Tinto (the medal makers), Omega (the time keepers), Coca Cola (sponsor), McDonalds (sponsor), FIFA (a nonprofit that runs worldwide soccer) and the International Olympic Committee (another corporation) are in any way complicit with state actions including the displacement of indigenous peoples in Brazil, the use of slavery in Qatar, human trafficking, and environmental degradation. I asked my students the tough question of whether they would stop eating McDonalds food or wearing Nike shoes because they were sponsors of these events. I required them to consider a number of factors to decide whether corporate sponsors should continue their relationships with FIFA and the IOC. I also asked whether the US should refuse to send athletes to compete in countries with significant human rights violations.
Because we are in Miami, we also discussed the topic du jour, Carnival Cruise line's controversial decision to follow Cuban law, which prohibits certain Cuban-born citizens from traveling back to Cuba on sea vessels, while permitting them to return to the island by air. Here in Miami, this is big news with the Mayor calling it a human rights violation by Carnival, a County contractor. A class action lawsuit has been filed seeking injunctive relief. This afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in saying Carnival should not discriminate and calling upon Cuba to change its rules.
So back to Ann's post. In an informal poll in which I told all students to assume they would cruise, only one of my Business and Human Rights students said they would definitely boycott Carnival because of its compliance with Cuban law. Many, who are foreign born, saw it as an issue of sovereignty of a foreign government. About 25% of my Civil Procedure students would boycott (note that more of them are of Cuban descent, but many of the non-Cuban students would also boycott). These numbers didn't surprise me because as I have written before, I think that consumers focus on convenience, price, and quality- or in this case, whether they really like the cruise itinerary rather than the ethics of the product or service.
Tomorrow morning (Friday), I will be speaking on a panel with Jennifer Diaz of Diaz Trade Law, two members of the US government, and Cortney Morgan of Husch Blackwell discussing Cuba at the ABA International Law Section Spring Meeting in New York. If you're at the meeting and you read this before 9 am, pass by our session because I will be polling our audience members too. And stay tuned to the Cuba issue. I'm not sure that the Carnival case will disprove my thesis about the ineffectiveness of consumer pressure because if the Secretary of State has weighed in and the Communist Party of Cuba is already meeting next week, it's possible that change could happen that gets Carnival off the hook and the consumer clamor may have just been background noise. In the meantime, Carnival declared a 17% dividend hike earlier today and its stock was only down 11 cents in the midst of this public relations imbroglio. Notably, after hours, the stock was trading up.
April 14, 2016 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Law, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
SEC Concept Release on Financial Disclosures in form S-K: Risk, Reporting Frequency and Sustainability
Today (April 13, 2016), the SEC made public a much anticipated concept release regarding financial disclosures in form S-K. The release seeks public comment on "modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K." The comment period is open for the next 90 days.
The release is 341 pages, so needless to say, I haven't gotten through the document. In it's entirety at least. By my initial count there are over 35 substantive issues in the release and many more technical/procedures ones. I've highlighted 3 issues that are relevant to prior BLPB discussions: Risk, Reporting Frequency and Sustainability.
Risk management and risk reporting in item 503(c) and 305 are addressed starting on page 146.
"[W]e consider whether requiring additional disclosure of management’s approach to risk and risk management and consolidating risk-related disclosure would, on balance, be beneficial to investors and registrants. We also seek to better understand how our disclosure requirements could be updated to enhance investors’ ability to evaluate a registrant’s risk exposures. We are especially interested in feedback on how we can improve the content and readability of the risk factors included in a filing as well as the potential advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to risk-related disclosure."
Reporting frequency as a component of the investor time horizons (aka short/long term investment) are discussed on page 280. The Commission questioned the frequency of financial reporting noting the adoption of semi-annual reporting in 1955 and quarterly reporting in 1970. Summarizing the current debate on quarterly reporting, the Commission states:
"The value of quarterly financial reporting has been the subject of debate. Opponents of quarterly reporting argue that frequent financial reporting may lead management to focus on short-term results to meet or beat earnings targets rather than on long-term strategies. Consequently, some have argued that quarterly reports should be discontinued or made voluntary in the United States.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Five years ago I blogged about Massey Energy, one of most tragic mining disasters in US history. Just a few minutes ago its CEO Donald Blankenship was sentenced to the maximum one year in prison. The prison term is unusual for a corporate executive, but should it be?
The Department of Justice under Eric Holder came under fire for prosecuting thousands of low level mortgage brokers and analysts but no C-Suite individuals after the financial crisis. Perhaps in response to that, the DOJ released the Yates Memo, which I blogged about in September. There are already some interesting takeaways on the Memo, which you can read about here or you can hear about when I present if you attend the International Legal Ethics Conference in New York in July.
I'm not sure whether the Yates memo will prevent corporate crime or get the "right" people to go to jail. Actually, I am pretty sure that it won't. According to news reports, the Massey CEO was unusually involved in daily operations, which made convicting him easier (that along with hours of taped conversations). I do believe that the Yates Memo (if it's even constitutional) will fundamentally change the relationship between attorneys, compliance officers, and their internal clients. I will blog more about that in coming months. In the meantime, I hope that today's sentencing provides some measure of comfort to the families of the fallen miners.
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
The Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University seeks to hire a resident academic fellow to begin in September or October 2016 for a 12-month or one-academic-year term, with the possibility of renewal for a second year. The fellow will pursue his or her own independent research, as well as work closely with Stanford Law School faculty on a range of projects related to corporate governance, securities regulation, vehicles for public and private investment, and financial market reform. The ideal candidate has excellent academic credentials and experience in relevant fields of practice. The position is particularly well suited to a practicing attorney, with either a litigation or transactional background, seeking a transition to academia, or a post-doctoral economics or finance student with interests in corporate governance. More information can be found at https://stanfordcareers.stanford.edu/job-search?jobId=70496.
Friday, March 25, 2016
I feel badly for Chipotle. When I have taught Business Associations, I have used the chain’s Form 10-K to explain some basic governance and securities law principles. The students can relate to Chipotle and Shake Shack (another example I use) and they therefore remain engaged as we go through the filings. Chipotle has recently been embroiled in a public relations nightmare after a spate of food poisonings occurred last fall and winter, a risk it pointed out in its February 2015 10-K filings. The stock price has fluctuated from $750 a share in October to as low as $400 in January and then back to the mid $500 range. After some disappointing earnings news the stock is now trading at around $471.
Clean Yield Group, concerned that the company will focus only on bringing its stock back to “pre-crisis levels,” filed a shareholder proposal March 17th asking the company to link executive compensation with sustainability efforts. The proposal claims that the CEO was overpaid by $40 million in 2014 and states in part:
A number of studies demonstrate a firm link between superior corporate sustainability performance and financial outperformance relative to peers. Firms with superior sustainability performance were more likely to tie top executive incentives to sustainability metrics.
Leading companies are increasingly taking up this practice. A 2013 study conducted by the Investor Responsibility Research Institute and the Sustainable Investments Institute found that 43.4% of the S&P 500 had linked executive pay to environmental, social and/or ethical issues. These companies traverse industry sectors and include Pepsi, Alcoa, Walmart, Unilever, National Grid, Intel and many others…
Investor groups focusing on sustainable governance such as Ceres, the UN Global Compact, and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (which represents investors with a collective $59 trillion AUM) have endorsed the establishment of linkages between executive compensation and sustainability performance.
Even with the adjustments to executive pay incentives announced this week in reaction to Chipotle’s ongoing food-borne illness crisis, Chipotle shareholders have consistently approved excessively large pay packages to our company’s co-chief executives that dangerously elide accountability for sustainability-related risks. This proposal provides the opportunity to rectify this situation.
If shareholders approve the compensation package on our company’s 2016 proxy ballot, by year-end, Mr. Ells and Mr. Moran will have pocketed nearly $211 million for their services since 2011. Shareholders have not insisted upon direct oversight of sustainability matters as a condition of employment or compensation, and the present crisis illustrates the probable error in that thinking.
This week, the Compensation Committee of the Board announced that it would withhold 2015 bonuses for executive officers. It has also announced that executive officers’ 2016 performance bonuses will be solely tied to bringing CMG stock back, over a three-year period, to its pre-crisis level.
This is a shortsighted approach that skirts the underlying issues that may have contributed to the E. coli and norovirus outbreaks that have left hundreds of people sickened, injured sales, led to ongoing investigations by health authorities and the federal government, damaged our company’s reputation, and will likely lead to expensive litigation. For years, Chipotle has resisted calls by shareholders to implement robust and transparent management and reporting systems to handle a range of environmental, social and governance issues that present both risks to operations as well as opportunities. While no one can know for certain whether a more rigorous management approach to food safety might have averted the current crisis, moving forward, shareholders can insist upon a proactive approach to the management of sustainability issues by altering top executives’ compensation packages to incentivize it.
The last sentence of the paragraph above stuck out to me. The shareholder does not know whether more rigorous sustainability practices would have prevented the food poisonings but believes that compensation changes incentivizing more transparency is vital. I’m not sure that there is a connection between the two, although there is some evidence that requiring more disclosure on environmental, social, and governance factors can lead to companies uncovering operational issues that they may not have noticed before. Corporate people are fond of saying that “what gets measured gets treasured.” Let’s see what Chipotle’s shareholders treasure at the next annual meeting.
March 25, 2016 in Business Associations, Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
The BLPB editors have been nice enough to let me pen a quick post concerning an idea I floated way back in May. In my role as that month’s guest blogger, I offered my thoughts on how rationalizing—that very powerful, and very human, psychological process that allows us to view ourselves positively (say, as an upstanding citizen, family man, etc.), while taking actions inconsistent with that view according to society’s standards (say, by passing a stock tip to a friend, misrepresenting a company’s financials, etc.)—helps explain corporate wrongdoing. I also offered a thesis for how overcriminalization, particularly in the white collar area, might be fostering rationalizations, and thus undermining crime control efforts. In a bit of a cliffhanger (not quite Game of Thrones quality, but a cliffhanger nonetheless), I promised a final post discussing how these ideas impact corporate compliance. Well, almost a year later, I’ve finally finished an article on the topic. Let me know what you think (and also if John Snow is really dead.)
Corporate compliance is becoming increasingly “criminalized.” What began as a means of industry self-regulation has morphed into a multi-billion dollar effort to avoid government intervention in business, specifically criminal and quasi-criminal investigations and prosecutions. In order to avoid application of the criminal law, companies have adopted compliance programs that are motivated by and mimic that law, using the precepts of criminal legislation, enforcement, and adjudication to advance their compliance goals. This approach to compliance is inherently flawed, however—it can never be fully effective in abating corporate wrongdoing. Explaining why that is forms this Article’s main contribution. Criminalized compliance regimes are inherently ineffective because they impose unintended behavioral consequences on corporate employees. Employees subject to criminalized compliance have greater opportunities to rationalize their future unethical or illegal behavior. Rationalizations are a key component in the psychological process necessary for the commission of corporate crime—they allow offenders to square their self-perception as “good people” with the illegal behavior they are contemplating, thereby allowing the behavior to go forward. Criminalized compliance regimes fuel these rationalizations, and in turn bad corporate conduct. By importing into the corporation many of the criminal law’s delegitimatizing features, criminalized compliance creates space for rationalizations, facilitating the necessary precursors to the commission of white collar and corporate crime. The result is that many compliance programs, by mimicking the criminal law in hopes of reducing employee misconduct, are actually fostering it. This insight, which offers a new way of conceptualizing corporate compliance, explains the ineffectiveness of many compliance programs and also suggests how companies might go about fixing them.
Friday, March 4, 2016
For those of you who talk about the recent problems at Volkswagen in your classes, this recently posted article may be useful. I connected with Charles Elson briefly when I lived in Delaware, and he is certainly an authority on corporate governance. The article is available here and the abstract is posted below.
Although the primary cause of the emissions scandal at Volkswagen appears to have been misfeasance and malfeasance on a corporate-wide scale, we argue that such a problematic culture existed at Volkswagen because of the composition of the board itself in combination with the unique governance structure known as “co-determination,” that defines many German companies, including VW. There are three major problems from a corporate governance standpoint with the Volkswagen board. First, is the interest-conflicting nature of the dual-class stock held by the dominant shareholding Porsche and Piech families. Second, is the presence of a government as a major shareholder. And third is the organization of its characteristically German “two-tier” board around the principle of co-determination, which mandated significant labor representation. We argue that each of these elements of the VW ownership and governance structure contributed in varying degrees to the board failure of oversight that led to the management decision to evade emissions regulations.
Christopher Bruner recently posted a book chapter entitled The Corporation's Intrinsic Attributes. I try to read everything Christopher writes, including his excellent Cambridge University Press book, Corporate Governance in the Common Law World, and I am looking forward to reading this new book chapter over spring break next week. The book chapter's abstract is reproduced below for interested readers:
Numerous treatises, casebooks, and other resources commonly present concise lists of attributes said to be intrinsic to the modern corporation and/or essential to its economic utility. Such descriptions of the corporate form often constitute introductory matter, conditioning how students, professionals, and public officials alike approach corporate law by presenting a straightforward framework to distinguish the corporate form from other types of business entities. There are two significant problems with such frameworks, however, from a pedagogic perspective. First, these frameworks describe the corporation by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes, conflicting sharply with the flux and dynamism that have in fact characterized the history of corporate law. Second, these frameworks differ markedly from each other in how they characterize the corporation's attributes, each embodying a contestable perspective on the nature of the corporate form.
The diversity of perspectives that such inquiry reveals calls into question the degree to which we can validly deduce a single correct or optimal division of power between boards and shareholders, degree of regard for shareholder interests, and/or degree of liability exposure for boards and shareholders, based exclusively on premises purportedly intrinsic to corporate law itself - that is, without express appeal to external policy considerations and related regulatory fields. These matters map onto three core issues of corporate law and governance - power, purpose, and risk-taking, respectively - and the inability to resolve them by reference to the corporation's purportedly intrinsic features suggests that re-conceptualizing the corporate form might facilitate more effective assessment of its capabilities.
This chapter undertakes that project. Section I begins with an historical discussion of the corporation's emergence and early deployment for business in the United Kingdom and the United States. Section II turns to various contemporary descriptions of the corporation's intrinsic attributes presented in modern reference materials, exploring their commonalities, differences, and theoretical implications. Section III explores the impossibility of resolving core issues of power, purpose, and risk-taking by reference to such conceptions of the corporate form, providing three US examples that map onto these respective issues - the scope of shareholders' bylaw authority, the degree of board discretion to consider non-shareholder interests in hostile takeovers, and the regulation of financial risk-taking following the recent crisis. Each illustrates the necessity of resort to political discourse - a reality underscored through comparison with the United Kingdom, which reveals substantial divergence on such issues notwithstanding broad similarities between the US and UK corporate governance regimes.
The chapter concludes, in Section IV, by proposing that we refrain from describing the corporate form by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes. I argue that it would pay to re-conceptualize the modern corporation by reference to the tools it offers, and how those tools can be deployed - a series of governance "levers," I suggest, that can be adjusted and calibrated in various ways to pursue a broad range of governance-related goals.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he never plans to eat Oreo cookies again because the Nabisco plant is closing and moving to Mexico. Trump, who has starred in an Oreo commercial in the past, is actually wrong about the nature of Nabisco’s move, and it’s unlikely that he will affect Nabisco’s sales notwithstanding his tremendous popularity among some in the electorate right now. Mr. Trump has also urged a boycott of Apple over how that company has handled the FBI’s request over the San Bernardino terrorist’s cell phone.
Strangely, I haven’t heard a call for a boycott of Apple products following shareholders’ rejection of a proposal to diversify the board last week. I would think that Reverend and former candidate Al Sharpton, who called for the boycott of the Oscars due to lack of diversity would call for a boycott of all things Apple. But alas, for now Trump seems to be the lone voice calling for such a move (and not because of diversity). In fact, I’ve never walked past an Apple Store without thinking that there must be a 50% off sale on the merchandise. There are times when the lines are literally out the door. Similarly, despite the #Oscarssowhite controversy and claims from many that the boycott worked because the Oscars had historically low ratings, viewership among black film enthusiasts was only down 2% this year.
So why do people constantly call for boycotts? According to a Freakonomics podcast from January, they don’t actually work. Historians and economists made it clear in interviews that they only succeed as part of an established social movement. In some cases they can backfire leading to a "buycott," as it did for Chik Fil A. The podcast also put into context much of what we believe are the boycott “success stories,” including the Montgomery Bus Boycott with Rosa Parks and the sit in movement related to apartheid in the 1980s.
I have spent much of my time looking at disclosure legislation that is based in part on the theory that informed consumers and socially-responsible investors will boycott or divest holdings (see here, here, and here). In particular, I have focused on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals corporate governance disclosure and why I don’t think that using name and shame laws work—namely because consumers talk a good game in surveys but actually don’t purchase based on social criteria nearly as much as NGOs and legislators believe.
The SEC was supposed to decide whether to file a cert petition to the Supreme Court on the part of the conflict minerals legislation that was struck down on First Amendment grounds by March 9th but they now have an extension until April. Since I wrote an amicus brief in the case at the lower level, I have a particular interest in this filing. I had planned my business and human rights class on disclosures and boycotts around that cert. filing to make it even more relevant to my students, who will do a role play simulation drafted by Professor Erika George representing civil society (NGOs, investors, and other stakeholders), the electronics industry, the US government (state department, Congress, and SEC), Congolese militia, the Congolese government, and the Congolese people. The only group they won’t represent is US consumers, even though that’s the target group of the Dodd-Frank disclosure. I did tweak Professor George’s materials but purposely chose not to add in the US consumer group. After my students step out of their roles, we will have the honest discussions about their own views and buying habits. I’ll try not to burst any boycott bubbles.
March 4, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Law School, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Having just taught a corporate governance seminar class on the proxy process (from a company's perspective), proxy advisory services, and institutional voting, I have the upcoming proxy season on my mind. There are a great collection of resources available for those interested for academic or practice-related reasons. My students found many of these summaries to be a good distillation of the issues and introduction to the nuts and bolts of proxy access. I have provided my list of resources below, in addition to a quick summary of the major governance issues likely to be on the table in 2016.
Major Governance Issues:
- Dodd Frank pay ratio disclosure
- Say on Pay majority voting
- Executive compensation disclosures subject to new SEC interpretations
- Proxy Access Bylaws (see New York campaign)
- Audit Committee Disclosures
- Independent Chair proposals
2016 Proxy Season Resources:
Monday, February 22, 2016
University of Cincinnati College of Law │ The 29th Annual Corporate Law Center Symposium │Corporate Social Responsibility and the Modern Enterprise │ Cincinnati, OH │ March 18, 2016
I am looking forward to presenting at this conference next month. Looks like a great group of academics and practitioners.
University of Cincinnati College of Law
The 29th Annual Corporate Law Center Symposium - Corporate Social Responsibility and the Modern Enterprise
March 18, 2016
8:45 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Hilton Netherland Plaza
This event is free. CLE: 5.0 hours, pending approval.
Presented by the University of Cincinnati College of Law’s Corporate Law Center and Law Review.
Symposium materials will be available on March 14 at: law.uc.edu/corporate-law-center/2016-symposium
Please register by contacting Lori Strait: email Lori.Stait@uc.edu; fax 513-556-1236; or phone 513-556-0117
Introduction, 8:45 a.m.
Keynote, 9:00 a.m.
Clare Iery, The Procter & Gamble Company
Social Enterprises and Changing Legal Forms, 9:30 a.m.
Mark Loewenstein, University of Colorado Law School
William H. Clark, Jr., Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP
Haskell Murray, Belmont University College of Business
Russell Menyhart, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP
Sourcing Dilemmas in a Globalized World, 11:00 a.m.
Steve Slezak, University of Cincinnati College of Business
Marsha A. Dickson, University of Delaware Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies
Tianlong Hu, Renmin University of China Law School
Anita Ramasastry, University of Washington School of Law
CSR and the Closely Held Company, 1:15 p.m.
Eric Chaffee, The University of Toledo College of Law
Michael Petrucci, FirstGroup America, Inc.
Lisa Wintersheimer Michel, Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL
Sourcing From the Enterprise Perspective, 2:30 p.m.
Christopher Bedell, The David J. Joseph Company
Walter Spiegel, Standard Textile Co. Inc.
Martha Cutright Sarra, The Kroger Co.
Conclusion, 3:30 p.m.
February 22, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Human Rights, Law School, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Free Web Seminar: The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Cybersecurity and Data Privacy in Mergers and Acquisitions
One of my two former firms, King & Spalding, is hosting a free interactive web seminar on cybersecurity and M&A on February 25 at 12:30 p.m. Thought the web seminar might be of interest to some of our readers. The description is reproduced below.
An Interactive Web Seminar
The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Cybersecurity and Data Privacy in Mergers and Acquisitions
February 25, 2016
12:30 PM – 1:30 PM
Over the last several years, company after company has been rocked by cybersecurity incidents. Moreover, obligations relating to cybersecurity and data privacy are rapidly evolving, imposing on corporations a complex and challenging legal and regulatory environment. Cybersecurity and data privacy deficiencies, therefore, might pose potentially significant business, legal, and regulatory risks to an acquiring company. For this reason, cybersecurity and data privacy are becoming integral pre-transaction due diligence items.
This e-Learn will analyze the (1) special cybersecurity and data privacy dangers that come with corporate transactions; (2) strategies to mitigate those dangers; and (3) benefits of incorporating cybersecurity and data privacy into due diligence. The panel will zero in on these issues from the vantage point of practitioners in the deal trenches, and from the perspective of a former computer crime prosecutor and a former FBI agent who have dealt with a broad range of cyber risks to public and private corporations. This e-Learn is for managers and attorneys at all levels who are involved at any stage of the M&A process and at any stage of cyber literacy, from the beginner who is just starting to appreciate the complex nature of cyber risks to the expert who has addressed them for years. The discussion will leave you with a better understanding of this critical topic and concrete, practical suggestions to bring back to your M&A team.
Robert Leclerc, King & Spalding’s Corporate Practice Group and experienced deal counsel; Nick Oldham, King & Spalding, and Former Counsel for Cyber Investigations, DOJ's National Security Division; John Hauser, Ernst & Young, and former FBI Special Agent specializing in cyber investigations.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Justice Scalia’s sudden passing has generated a tidal wave of media and academic attention on the future of the Supreme Court. As a corporate law scholar, I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy to be seemingly outside of this controversy, the hand wringing, and the political equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons that has ensued as people examine the various maneuverers available to our elected politicians and those vying-to be elected.
My solution? I searched for pending corporate cases hanging in the balance of the new, and indeterminate, vacancy on the Supreme Court. I wanted to know if there were any cases pending that would likely be decided differently in a post-Scalia court, or at least hang in a 4-4 split and thus uphold the lower court ruling. There isn’t a big juicy corporate law case pending, or at least one that I readily identified.
Not to be deterred, however, there is a case worth highlighting. Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., was argued on January 19th before the Supreme Court (transcript available here). The issue before the Supreme Court in Americold was how to establish the citizenship of a real estate trust for purposes of diversity citizenship. Is the trust's citizenship dependent upon the citizenship of the controlling trustees (as argued by Americold)? Or is it dependent upon the citizenship of the trust beneficiaries (argued by ConAgra Foods), or some combination? Locating citizenship with trustees narrows the potential states and ensures diversity citizenship whereas citizenship with the beneficiaries, of which there are thousands, implicates most states and thus frustrates federal jurisdiction.
At the heart of the oral argument was the 1990 ruling Carden v. Arkoma Associates, which established a bright line between the citizenship of corporations (located in the state of incorporation) and the citizenship of all other artificial business entities (located in the states of the beneficial owners of the business).
In Carden, the Supreme Court wrote:
In 1958 it revised the rule established in Letson, providing that a corporation shall be deemed a citizen not only of its State of incorporation but also "of the State where it has its principal place of business." 28 U.S.C. 1332(c). No provision was made for the treatment of artificial entities other than corporations, although the existence of many new, post-Letson forms of commercial enterprises, including at least the sort of joint stock company ..., the sort of limited partnership association ..., and the sort of Massachusetts business trust ... We have long since decided that, having established special treatment for corporations, we will leave the rest to Congress; we adhere to that decision.
Drawing on the Carden precedent, the question became whether the REIT as issue in Americold was organized as a traditional corporation or not.
Ronald Mann writing for the SCOTUS Blog summarized Justice Scalia’s role in oral argument on this issue with the following:
Justice Antonin Scalia early on asked, “[w]ho owns these assets under Maryland law? Is it . . . this new corporation-type entity? That’s the entity that can sue.” That conclusion led him to dismiss out of hand Americold’s contention that the citizenship of the trust managers should be decisive: “[T]he trustees are sort of in the position of managers, just as though you hired a CEO.”
Scalia's skepticism about the REIT functioning like a corporation was shared by the other Justices despite the fact that modern REITs, in many ways, resemble corporations more so than other unincorporated business entities. REITs have dispersed and diffused shareholders, often with shares traded on public exchanges. This position was articulated by an amicus brief filed by National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts (NAREIT). The Justices however signaled a truly formalistic approach asking if the entity was indeed formed as a corporation (not did it function as one or was it capitalized as one). Only if so would the state of incorporation rule prevail.
A Justice Scalia-influenced Supreme Court's last word on corporate jurisprudence may very likely be one of pure form over substance. Merely asking which entity form was used without looking at the distinguishing features of a corporation and the justifications for why corporations were treated differently beginning in 1958 produces a corporate law legacy of flimsy jurisprudence. Failing to take into account the market realities and relying upon strict categorical distinctions without reference to function would create a bright line, but not necessarily a bright result.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
New Scholarship on Hedge Fund Activism Urges Courts to Adopt Enhanced Scrutiny of Boards' Defensive Actions
Bernard Sharfman, in his new article on SSRN, The Tension Between hedge Fund Activism and Corporate Law, argues that hedge fund activism for control of a publicly traded corporation is a positive corrective measure in corporate governance. After asserting that hedge fund activism should be permitted, Sharfman, argues, controversially, that courts should depart from traditional deference to a corporate board's decision making authority under the business judgment rule. Alternatively, Sharfman urges courts to adopt a heightened standard of scrutiny when reviewing defensive board actions against hedge funds.
[Hedge Fund Activism] has a role to play as a corrective mechanism in corporate governance and it is up to the courts to find a way to make sure it continues to have a significant impact despite the courts’ inclination to yield to Board authority. In practice, this means that when the plaintiff is an activist hedge fund and the standard of review is the Unocal test because issues of control are present, a less permissive approach needs to be applied, requiring the courts to exercise restraint in interpreting the actions of activist hedge funds as an attempt to gain control.
If there are no issues of control, then Board independence and reasonable investigation still needs to be the focus. That is, before the business judgment rule can be applied, the courts need to utilize an enhanced level of scrutiny in determining whether the Board is truly independent of executive management or any other insider such as a fellow Board member. As previously discussed, Board independence is critical to maximizing the value of HFA. Moreover, reasonable investigation of the activist hedge fund’s recommendations should be required to justify Board action taken to mute the fund’s influence. Like the Unocal test, the burden of proof for establishing independence and reasonable investigation needs to be put on the Board. In sum, what is required in the court’s review of Board actions to mute the influence of an activist hedge fund is something similar to the first prong of the Unocal test except independence and reasonable investigation is now focused on the Board’s evaluation of the fund’s recommendations, not the threat to corporate policy and effectiveness.
Sharfman uses Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht, the 2014 Delaware case invovling Sotheby's poison pill, to illustrate how the traditional (deference) standard of review leads to boards being able to defeat hedge fund activists.
An interesting comment published in the Yale Law Journal by Yale Law Student Carmen X.W. Lu, Unpacking Wolf Packs, offers an alternative view of the Third Point case emphasizing the coalition of hedge funds acting in that case and the court's skepticism of wolf pack activist investors.
Friday, February 5, 2016
Starting on the first day of my Advanced Business Associations course, I attempt to tease out the policy underpinnings and theoretical conceptions of entity law and, in particular, corporate law. This turns out to be a somewhat difficult task, since most students in the course, to the extent that they remember anything at all from their experience in the foundational Business Associations course, are more focused on what a corporation is and does than why we might have one in the first place. As the semester proceeds and the readings unfold, the students get more comfortable talking about the rationale for certain aspects of the corporate form and why corporate law structures and operating rules promise to achieve the goals of those organizing a firm as a corporation. But it's a slow process.
I have to believe that some of my fellow law professors face similar challenges with their students. I also believe that instructors in other educational settings face analogous difficulties when they incorporate abstract notions into the teaching of more "black letter" (for want of a better term at this point in my day) concepts. My approach has been to assign readings of primary and secondary material and use classroom discussion time and projects to reveal things about why the corporation exists, why venturers form them (as opposed to conducting business as sole proprietors or using another business form), and what issues we observe and might expect to observe as among corporate constituents as time unfolds. So, I plan to cover everything from the general role of entity law in fostering the conduct of business (by offering off-the-shelf rules for use by venturers in structuring and operating businesses) to notions of corporate personhood and the role of the corporation in society.
I am wondering if there is an alternative to my approach that any of you use in a similar course, or whether there is a particularly good set of foundational readings that you use to approach this set of issues in a business law offering. At the end of this semester, I will have taught this course in this general format twice, and I will be taking stock to shore it up to make sure the third time's a charm. [FYI, I start the semester with Bebchuk and Bainbridge, take a tour through the public company using the Disney case and its corporate documents, then move on to compare/contrast the publicly held firm with closely held corporations and unincorporated business associations before moving into some depth topics (M&A, complex business litigation, corporate social responsibility and the benefit corporation, etc.). It is a two-hour course.] Suggestions and other thoughts in comments or by email are welcomed.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
For the past four weeks I have been experimenting with a new class called Transnational Business and Human Rights. My students include law students, graduate students, journalists, and accountants. Only half have taken a business class and the other half have never taken a human rights class. This is a challenge, albeit, a fun one. During our first week, we discussed CSR, starting off with Milton Friedman. We then used a business school case study from Copenhagen and the students acted as the public relations executive for a Danish company that learned that its medical product was being used in the death penalty cocktail in the United States. This required students to consider the company’s corporate responsibility profile and commitments and provide advice to the CEO based on a number of factors that many hadn’t considered- the role of investors, consumer reactions, the pressure from NGOs, and the potential effect on the stock price for the Danish company based on its decisions. During the first three weeks the students have focused on the corporate perspective learning the language of the supply chain and enterprise risk management world.
This week they are playing the role of the state and critiquing and developing the National Action Plans that require states to develop incentives and penalties for corporations to minimize human rights impacts. Examining the NAPs, dictated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, requires students to think through the consultation process that countries, including the United States, undertake with a number of stakeholders such as unions, academics, NGOs and businesses. To many of those in the human rights LLM program and even some of the traditional law students, this is all a foreign language and they are struggling with these different stakeholder perspectives.
Over the rest of the semester they will read and role play on up to the minute issues such as: 1) the recent Tech Terror Summit and the potential adverse effects of the right to privacy; 2) access to justice and forum non conveniens, arguing an appeal from a Canadian court’s decision related to Guatemalan protestors shot by security forces hired by a company incorporated in Canada with US headquarters; 3) the difficulties that even best in class companies such as Nestle have complying with their own commitments and certain disclosure laws when their supply chain uses both child labor and slaves; 4) the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals debate in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the EU, where students will play the role of the State Department, major companies such as Apple and Intel, the NGO community, and socially-responsible investors debating some key corporate governance and human rights issues; 5) corporate codes of conduct and the ethical, governance, and compliance aspects of entering the Cuban market, given the concerns about human rights and confiscated property; 6) corporate culpability for the human rights impacts of mega sporting events such as the Super Bowl, World Cup, and the Olympics; 7) human trafficking (I’m proud to have a speaker from my former company Ryder, a sponsor of Truckers Against Traffickers); 8) development finance, SEC disclosures, bilateral investment treaties, investor rights and the grievance mechanisms for people harmed by financed projects (the World Bank, IMF, and Ex-Im bank will be case studies); 9) the race to the bottom for companies trying to reduce labor expenses in supply chains using the garment industry as an example; and 10) a debate in which each student will represent the actual countries currently arguing for or against a binding treaty on business and human rights.
Of course, on a daily basis, business and human rights stories pop up in the news if you know where to look and that makes teaching this so much fun. We are focusing a critical lens on the United States as well as the rest of the world, and it's great to hear perspectives from those who have lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. It's a whole new world for many of the LLM and international students, but as I tell them if they want to go after the corporations and effect change, they need to understand the pressure points. Using business school case studies has provided them with insights that most of my students have never considered. Most important, regardless of whether the students embark on a human rights career, they will now have more experience seeing and arguing controversial issues from another vantage point. That’s an invaluable skill set for any advocate.
February 4, 2016 in Business Associations, Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Investment Banking, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the U.S., wrote a letter to the CEO's of S&P 500 Companies urging reforms aimed at fostering long-term valuation creation and curbing a myopic focus on near-term profits. Fink has long been a public advocate of long-term valuation creation for the health of American companies and the wealth of society (for an example see this April 2015 letter on the "gambling nature" of the economy"). His message has been consistent: long term, long term, long term.
Citing to increased dividends and buyback programs as evidence of corrosive short-termism, Fink laid out a modest play for action. He asks every CEO to publish an annual strategic plan signed off on by the board. The CEO strategic plan should communicate the vision for the company and how such long-term growth can be achieved.
[P]erspective on the future, however, is what investors and all stakeholders truly need, including, for example, how the company is navigating the competitive landscape, how it is innovating, how it is adapting to technological disruption or geopolitical events, where it is investing and how it is developing its talent. As part of this effort, companies should work to develop financial metrics, suitable for each company and industry, that support a framework for long-term growth.
Fink wants companies to create these long-term vision statements as a routine part of governance and not just in the context of hedge-fund motivated proxy fights. The idea is that informing the investing public as to the long-term direction of the company and short-term obstacles frames the company message and dampens the "quarterly earnings hysteria". Also interesting to me as I approach a class on corporate social responsibility is Fink's encouragement of companies to pay more attention to social and environmental risks as increasingly difficult obstacles that must be addressed as part of a long term plan. Fink also called upon lawmakers to incentivize a long-term view by thinking beyond the next election cycle as would be needed to enact tax reform (specifically capital gains) and increased resources for infrastructure.
As readers of the blog know, I am in interested in the long-term/short-term debate and have written past posts about it. How controversial would such a CEO statement be? Venture capital/private equity funds investing in companies often require an annual CEO statement. If the language can be crafted to avoid liability for future statements, what are the downsides? Tipping off competitors and losing information advantages or first actor advantages? Letting lesser competitors free ride and adopt market leaders's plans a year or two later? Exposing the board of directors and officers to breached duty claims for failure to meet the objectives? (this last one seems very unlikely given the liability standards and exculpation provisions.)
The financial press and blogs are awash in stories on this. If you are interested in the related commentary, here are a few:
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
In December, 2015, Dow Chemicals Co. and DuPont announced a proposed merger between their two companies. Under the proposed deal, and with the approval of stockholders and regulators, the two agro/chemical giants will merger their companies in 2016 to create DowDuPont, with an estimated $130 billion value. Within 18-24 months of closing, DowDuPont will be split into three independent, publicly traded companies .
The proposed "merger of equals" is structured to share power equally between Dow and DuPont and its leadership in the new company. Dow and DuPont stockholders will each own roughly half of DowDuPont. There will be 16 members on the new DowDuPont board of directors: 8 from each company. The roles of Chairman and CEO will be split with Andrew Liveris (Dow) serving as Chairman and Edward Breen (DuPont) as CEO.
Questions of equality and perceived power imbalance arise when we examine the relationships between (1) corporate boards and activist investors; (2) various shareholders (hedge funds vs. institutional investors vs. retail investors, etc.), and (3) possibly, CEO's.
Let's tackle the first (and tangentially the second) imbalance by talking about hedge funds. Last year, Trian hedge fund targeted DuPont in a very expensive, public and close proxy contest. DuPont defeated Trian, even with ISS recommendations to vote with Trian. The DuPont defense was widely regarded as a model proxy contest defense strategy (see here, e.g.,) and even more enthusiastically as
"a victory not only for DuPont and its chief executive, Ellen Kullman, but for others in corporate America concerned that activist investors’ influence has grown too strong and that companies have capitulated to their demands too readily." WSJ May 13, 2015
By October, Ellen Kullman, the trimphant CEO of DuPont, however stepped down. By December DuPont announced the mega-merger with Dow. DuPont's role in the mega-merger with Dow is being cast as a reaction to and attempt to seek protection from activist investors, which are increasingly garnering ISS and institutional investor support. DuPont's success against Trian rested largely on their ability to convince its three largest shareholders—Vanguard Group, BlackRock Inc. and State Street Corp.—which all manage index funds to vote with it (and against ISS recommendations). The inference here is that DuPont didn't want to roll the dice again and risk losing control in a future contest with Trian or another activist.
Dow Chemicals hasn't been immune to the hedge fund threat. Third Point LLC, Dan Loeb's hedge fund, has a 2% position in Dow and nearly pursued a proxy fight in 2015. Third Point has been making noise about the continued roll of Andrew Liveris in DowDuPont demonstrating that the hall monitor is still on duty.
The gaining strength of hedge fund campaigns in 2015 and the increasingly alignment of hedge funds and indexed funds has many boards running scared. The DealBook Deal Professor, Steven Davidoff Solomon, writes of the mega-merger:
The proposed combination of Dow Chemical and DuPont shows that in today’s markets, financial engineering prevails and that only activist shareholders matter....
This plan is one easily understood by a hedge fund activist or investment banker in a cubicle in Manhattan with an Excel spreadsheet. To them, it makes perfect sense to merge a company and then almost immediately split it in three.
Merger and acquisition volume was at a record high (too soon to say peak) in 2015 as companies sought, in part, to achieve paper returns and cost efficiencies in a slow-growth economy. When large (and voting) shareholders are index and mutual funds with pressures to earn returns for their investors, it can produce corresponding pressure on operating companies for tactics, if not actions to produce those returns. In the DuPont proxy fight, the large block of retail investors in the old-guard public company was a big barrier to Trian, but in companies with less percentage held by retail investors (e.g., newer companies), the hedge fund agenda can drive the company.
Finally, it is interesting to note the rise and fall of DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman in this story. She successfully warded off a proxy contest and seemed to have fended off hedge fund advances, but ultimately her fate and DuPont's were largely driven by Trian's agenda. Reading about this merger reminded me of the spate of stories last year about how hedge funds disproportionately target companies with female CEO's. This is an issue that as a female law professor, I am particularly sensitive to, but that bias not withstanding, the story received quite a bit of play in the financial press last year: DealBook, Bloomberg, and here, and here.