Friday, December 19, 2014
This week I had nice conversations with Brad Edmondson (Author of Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s) and Michael Pirron (CEO of ImpactMakers, a certified benefit corporation).*
Both conversations turned to a topic that has been on my mind recently – that of social businesses that are acquired by large conglomerates that do not seem to have a similar mission.
A few of the parent/sub relationships that spring to mind (or that were discussed) include:
- Campbell Soup / Plum Organics
- Coca-Cola / Honest Tea
- Colgate-Palmolive / Tom’s of Maine
- Clorox / Burt’s Bees
- Group Danone / Stonyfield Farm
- Unilever / Ben & Jerry’s
I may update this list from time to time, so feel free to suggest additions in the comments.
At The Guardian, Kyle Westaway argues that Burt Bees worked from within Clorox to make the entire company more sustainable. Similarly, some argue that Unilever has become more sustainable after (and maybe because of) their acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s.
I have heard others argue that social businesses like Burt's Bees and Ben & Jerry’s “sold out,” and that the acquiring large conglomerates tend to cut many socially beneficial initiatives. The conglomerates, these folks argue, are only doing enough for society to keep the customer goodwill and the resulting profits.
While each acquisition is different, I imagine both sides of the argument can find some support in the facts.
As someone interested in corporate governance, I hope to explore the governance issues involved when a conglomerate owns a social subsidiary in future articles. In Ben & Jerry’s case, I know they put a number of interesting clauses into the acquisition agreement, such as restricting certain action by Unilever regarding employees and local operations (for a period of time) and establishing an independent (and I believe self-perpetuating) board of directors for Ben & Jerry’s. I am still investigating exactly how much power the Ben & Jerry’s board of directors has, and Unilever did eventually lay off some Ben & Jerry’s employees and close some local plants. In addition, Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s have not always agreed and have taken different, public stances on issues like GMO labeling. But Unilever has become a champion of sustainability among larger companies.
Personally, I am not sure whether social businesses will tend to have more impact as independent businesses or as social subsidiaries of larger companies – and it may be impossible to generalize – but I will continue to watch future acquisitions and development in this area with interest.
* My co-bloggers Joan Heminway and Marcia Narine may remember Michael Pirron from a Regent Law symposium they spoke at on social enterprise law. That was a fun conference and it was good to catch up with Micheal and hear how much his company has grown in the past year and a half.
Monday, December 15, 2014
. . . here's a relatively new Dodge Challenger commercial (part of a series) that you may find amusing. I saw it during Saturday Night Live the other night and just had to go find it on YouTube. It, together with the other commercials in the series, commemorate the Dodge brand's 100-year anniversary. "They believed in more than the assembly line . . . ." Indeed!
You also may enjoy (but may already have read) this engaging and useful essay written by Todd Henderson on the case. The essay provides significant background information about and commentary on the court's opinion. It is a great example of how an informed observer can use the facts of and underlying a transactional business case to help others better understand the law of the case and see broader connections to transactional business law generally. Great stuff.
On December 10, the press reported the Second Circuit's decision in the insider trading prosecution of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson (two of multiple defendants in the original case). In its opinion, the court reaffirms that tippee liability for insider trading is predicated on a breach of fiduciary duty based on the receipt of a personal benefit by the tipper and clarifies that insider trading liability will not result unless the tippee has knowledge of the facts constituting the breach (i.e., "knew that the insider disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit"). The court summarized its opinion, which addresses these matters in the context of the Newman case, a criminal case, as follows:
[W]e conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
In many companies, executives and employees alike will give a blank stare if you discuss “human rights.” They understand the terms “supply chain” and “labor” but don’t always make the leap to the potentially loaded term “human rights.” But business and human rights is all encompassing and leads to a number of uncomfortable questions for firms. When an extractive company wants to get to the coal, the minerals, or the oil, what rights do the indigenous peoples have to their land? If there is a human right to “water” or “food,” do Kellogg’s, Coca Cola, and General Mills have a special duty to protect the environment and safeguard the rights of women, children and human rights defenders? Oxfam’s Behind the Brands Campaign says yes, and provides a scorecard. How should companies operating in dangerous lands provide security for their property and personnel? Are they responsible if the host country’s security forces commit massacres while protecting their corporate property? What actions make companies complicit with state abuses and not merely bystanders? What about the digital domain and state surveillance? What rights should companies protect and how do they balance those with government requests for information?
The disconnect between “business” and “human rights” has been slowly eroding over the past few years, and especially since the 2011 release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Businesses, law firms, and financial institutions have started to pay attention in part because of the Principles but also because of NGO pressures to act. The Principles operationalize a "protect, respect, and remedy" framework, which indicates that: (i) states have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses; (ii) businesses have a responsibility to comply with applicable laws and respect human rights; and (iii) victims of human rights abuses should have access to judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms from both the state and businesses.
Many think that the states aren’t acting quickly enough in their obligations to create National Action Plans to address their duty to protect human rights, and that in fact businesses are doing most of the legwork (albeit very slowly themselves). The UK, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Denmark have already started and the US announced its intentions to create its Plan in September 2014. A number of other states announced that they too will work on National Action Plans at the recent UN Forum on Business and Human Rights that I attended in Geneva in early December. For a great blog post on the event see ICAR director Amol Mehra's Huffington Post piece.
What would a US National Action plan contain? Some believe that it would involve more disclosure regulation similar to the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, the Ending Trafficking in Government Contracting Act, Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Burma Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment, and others. Some hope that it will provide additional redress mechanisms after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel significantly limited access to US courts on jurisdictional grounds for foreign human rights litigants suing foreign companies for actions that took place outside of the United States.
But what about the role of business? Here are five observations from my trip to Geneva:
1) It's not all about large Western multinationals: As the Chair of the Forum Mo Ibrahim pointed out, it was fantastic to hear from the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, but the vast majority of people in China, Sudan and Latin American countries with human rights abuses don’t work for large multinationals. John Ruggie, the architect of the Principles reminded the audience that most of the largest companies in the world right now aren’t even from Western nations. These include Saudi Aromco (world’s largest oil company), Foxconn (largest electronics company), and India’s Tata Group (the UK’s largest manufacturing company).
2) It’s not all about maximization of shareholder value: Unilever CEO Paul Pollman gave an impassioned speech about the need for businesses to do their part to protect human rights. He was followed by the CEO of Nestle. (The opening session with both speeches as well as others from labor and civil society was approximately two hours long and is here). In separate sessions, representatives from Michelin, Chevron, Heinekin, Statoil, Rio Tinto, Barrick, and dozens of other businesses discussed how they are implementing human rights due diligence and practices into their operations and metrics, often working with the NGOs that in the past have been their largest critics such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. The US Council for International Business, USCIB, also played a prominent role speaking on behalf of US and international business interests.
3) Investors and lenders are watching: Calvert; the Office of Investment Policy at OPIC, the US government’s development finance institution; the Peruvian Financial Authority; the Supervision Office of the Banco Central do Brasil; the Vice Chair of the Banking Association of Colombia; the European Investment Bank; and Swedfund, among others discussed how and why financial institutions are scrutinizing human rights practices and monitoring them as contractual terms. This has real world impact as development institutions weigh choices about whether to lend to a company in a country that does not allow women to own land, but that will provide other economic opportunities to those women (the lender made the investment). OPIC, which has an 18 billion dollar portfolio in 100 countries, indicated that they see a large trend in impact investing.
4) Integrated reporting is here to stay: Among other things, Calvert, which manages 14 billion in 40 mutual funds, focused on their commitment to companies with solid track records on environmental, social, and governance factors and discussed the benefits of stand alone or integrated reporting. Lawyers from some of the largest law firms in the world indicated that they are working with their clients to prepare for additional non-financial reporting, in part because of countries like the UK that will mandate more in 2016, and an EU disclosure directive that will affect 6,000 firms.
5) Is an International Arbitration Tribunal on the way?: A number of prominent lawyers, retired judges and academics from around the world are working on a proposal for an international arbitration tribunal for human rights abuses. Spearheaded by lawyers for better business, this would either supplement or possibly replace in some people’s view a binding treaty on business and human rights. Having served as a compliance officer who dealt extensively with global supply chains, I have doubts as to how many suppliers will willingly contract to appear before an international tribunal when their workers or members of indigenous communities are harmed. I also wonder about the incentives for corporations, the governing law, the consent of third parties, and a host of other sticking points. Some raised valid concerns about whether privatizing remedies takes the pressure off of states to do their part. But it’s a start down an inevitable road as companies operate around the world and want some level of certainty as to their rights and obligations.
On another note, I attended several panels in which business executives, law firm partners, and members of NGOs decried the lack of training on business and human rights in law schools. Even though professors struggle to cover the required content, I see this area as akin to the compliance conversations that are happening now in law schools. There is legal work in this field and there will be more. I look forward to integrating some of this information into an upcoming seminar.
In the meantime, I tried to include some observations that might be of interest to this audience. If you want to learn more about the conference generally you can look to the twitter feed on #bizhumanrights or #unforumwatch, which has great links. I also recommend the newly released Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues Whitepaper.
December 11, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
The New York Times reports that LLCs have the ability to do things in New York politics that corporations cannot do:
For powerful politicians and the big businesses they court, getting around New York’s campaign donation limits is easy.
. . .
Corporations like Glenwood are permitted to make a total of no more than $5,000 a year in political donations. But New York’s “LLC loophole” treats limited-liability companies as people, not corporations, allowing them to donate up to $60,800 to a statewide candidate per election cycle. So when Mr. Cuomo’s campaign wanted to nail down what became a $1 million multiyear commitment — and suggested “breaking it down into biannual installments” — the company complied by dividing each payment into permissible amounts and contributing those through some of the many opaquely named limited-liability companies it controlled, like Tribeca North End LLC.
It may appear unseemly to allow LLCs to do things corporations cannot do, but (as usual) I bristle at the implication that LLCs should be treated like corporations just because they are limited-liability entities. Perhaps LLCs and corporations should be treated the same for campaign purposes (and I am inclined to think they should be), but there are lots of reasons to treat LLCs differently than corporations, and it is not inherently "a loophole" when they are treated differently.
A loophole is an ambiguity or inadequacy in the law. Here, the different treatment is not an ambiguity, though it is inadequate to limit funding in campaigns. However, it is not at all clear that the intent was to limit funding through LLCs. The law was likely passed so that the legislature could say it did something to reform finance. It did -- it closed the door for corporations and opened the door for LLCs. Playing entity favorites is permissible, even if it's not sensible.
LLCs and corporations are different entities, and different rules for different entities often makes a whole lot of sense. And even when it doesn't make sense, the idea that different entities should have different rules still does. Let's not conflate the two concepts, even when decrying the impact.
Monday, December 8, 2014
In the comments to my post last week on teaching fiduciary duty in Business Associations, Steve Diamond asked whether I had blogged about why we changed our four-credit-hour Business Associations course at The University of Tennessee College of Law to a three-credit-hour offering. In response, I suggested I might blog about that this week. So, here we are . . . .
Thursday, December 4, 2014
I had planned to blog about the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights this week, but my head is overflowing with information about export credits, development financing, a possible international arbitration tribunal, remarks by the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, and the polite rebuff to the remarks by the Ambassador of Qatar by a human rights activist in the plenary session. Next week, in between exam grading, I promise to blog about some of the new developments that will affect business lawyers and professors. FYI, I apparently was one of the top live tweeters of the Forum (#bizhumanrights #unforumwatch) and gained many valuable contacts and dozens of new followers.
In the meantime, I recommend reading this great piece from the Legal Skills Prof Blog. As I prepare to teach BA for the third time (which I hear is the charm), I plan to refine the techniques I already use and adopt others where appropriate. The link is below.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Okay, so limited liability is probably not going away, though it appears that some would have it that way. "Eroding" is probably a better term, but that's less provocative.
In a piece at Forbes.com Jay Adkisson has posted his take on the Greenhunter case (pdf here), which I wrote about here. Mr. Adiksson is a knowledgeable person, and he knows his stuff, but he seems okay with the recent development of LLC veil piercing law in a way that I am not. For me, many recent cases similar to Greenhunter are off the mark, philosophically, economically, and equitably, in part because they run contrary to the legislation that created things like single-member LLCs.
One of my continuing problems with this case (as is often my problem with veil piercing cases), is that there are often other grounds for seeking payment other than veil piercing. Conflating veil piercing with other theories makes veil piercing and other doctrines murkier. More important, they make planning hard. Neither of these outcomes is productive.
In Greehunter, Adkisson notes the court’s determination of the “circumstances favoring veil piercing.” To begin:
+ There was a considerable overlap of the LLC’s and Greenhunter’s ownership, membership (which is really the same thing), and management. Plus, they used the same mailing address for invoices, and their accounting departments were the same folks.
Okay, first, a shared mailing address is a ridiculous test if we're going to allow subisidiaries at all. Sharing an address or even sharing an accounting department shouldn't really matter for veil piercing. This is really more of an enterprise liability-type issue, though the vertical nature of the entity relationship admittedly makes that harder. However, because an LLC doesn't have to follow formalities this is an absurd test. These facts also don’t, in any way, harm the plaintiffs. Make an agency claim or some other type of guarantor/reliance argument if there is one.
+ The LLC didn’t have any employees of its own, but instead relied upon Greenhunter’s employees to actually do things, including to pay creditors.
So what? Would this be true of a joint venture between partnerships? How about if there were just two LLC members – two people who never worked as employees the entity? Should veil piercing be okay then? No. If there is an agency claim, make that. If there is a guarantor claim, make that one. But this is not enough.
+ The LLC really didn’t have any revenue separate from Greenhunter, since the LLC simply passed through all the revenue to Greenhunter, and Greenhunter only kicked back enough money to the LLC to pay particular bills.
So the LLC would not have any money at all but for that which was put into it by the corporation. This was the structure at the time of deal and the set up at all times. If the creditor plaintiff were concerned, they should have raised that issue (and taken appropriate measures) earlier.
+ Although the LLC contracted with Western to procure services for the benefit of the wind farm, it was Greenhunter that claimed a $884,092 deduction for that project on its tax return.
This is how pass-through tax entities work. If pass-through taxation should not be allowed or single-member LLCs should not be allowed, then fine, but that’s a policy question to be raised with the legislature.
+ Greenhunter manipulated the assets and liabilities of the LLC so that Greenhunter got all the rewards and benefits (including tax breaks), but the LLC was stuck with the losses and liabilities.
This implies something was improperly taken from the LLC, but that's not really explained. If there was an improper transfer of value out of the LLC that should have available for the creditors, then the corporation should have to put those funds (that value) back into the LLC for purposes of creditors. That’s not veil piercing. If there’s not some kind of value that could be transferred back, then the claim doesn’t make sense.
Mr. Adkisson continues:
If one looks a veil piercing law as fundamentally comprising two elements: (1) unity of ownership, and (2) the entity was used as a vehicle to commit some wrong, then the single-member LLC (and the sole shareholder corporation) starts out with one foot in the veil piercing grave.
This is exactly why single-member LLCs are fundamentally lousy asset protection vehicles, despite the gazillion ads appearing in sports pages and classifieds advertising “Form an LLC for Asset Protection!”
This doesn’t mean that single-member LLCs should never be used; to the contrary, they are frequently and properly used in a number of situations for reasons other than liability protection.
First, I suppose this would be right if the premise were accurate, but I don’t see it this way. I don't think a “unity of ownership” is the first element for veil piercing. The above explanation is thus incomplete, and if a court follows it, the court would be wrong because it would be skipping the actual first part of the veil-piercing test. The Greenhunter case explains the proper test:
The veil of a limited liability company may be pierced under exceptional circumstances when: (1) the limited liability company is not only owned, influenced and governed by its members, but the required separateness has ceased to exist due to misuse of the limited liability company; and (2) the facts are such that an adherence to the fiction of its separate existence would, under the particular circumstances, lead to injustice, fundamental unfairness, or inequity.
The Greenhunter court even quotes another recent Wyoming case in explaining the rule:
Before a corporation’s acts and obligations can be legally recognized as those of a particular person, and vice versa, it must be made to appear that the corporation is not only influenced and governed by that person, but that there is such a unity of interest and ownership that the individuality, or separateness, of such person and corporation has ceased, and that the facts are such that an adherence to the fiction of the separate existence of the corporation would, under the particular circumstances, sanction a fraud or promote injustice.
Ridgerunner, LLC v. Meisinger, 2013 WY 31, ¶ 14, 297 P.3d 110, 115 (Wyo. 2013) (quotation marks and citations omitted).
Thus, it is more than a unity of ownership. There needs to be no separate or individual nature for the entity to satisfy the first prong. It’s not in any way a simple ownership test.
Second, I agree that LLCs are hardly perfect for asset protection and I agree that LLCs or other separate entities can be useful for reasons other than liability protection. Still, I find the idea that an LLC – a limited liability company – should be used for something other than “liability protection” to be an odd assertion. One can more easily set up a general partnership or simply a division of an existing entity to accomplish goals of separateness, if that’s the only point. Thus, one may choose an LLC for more than just limited liability purposes, but there’s no reason limited-liability protection wouldn't be a reason to choose an LLC.
The outcome of this case is, frankly, far less concerning to me than the rationale being put forth both in the case and some of the following analysis. I have to admit much of Mr. Adkisson’s analysis is consistent with how many courts see it. I just continue to believe we can do better in the development of veil piercing doctrine, and if we did, we'd see less need for it.
Creditors working with limited liability entities need to treat those entities as such. Ask the parent entity (or an owner) for a guarantee, get a statement of guaranteed funding, or seek some other type of reassurance.
As for courts, if you plan to pierce the veil of an LLC, fine, but please justify the veil piercing using specific reasons through specific application of the facts to the law. It’s more than unity of ownership, and it’s more than an inability to pay. Steve Bainbridge once noted (citing Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Pepper Source, 941 F.2d 519, 524 (7th Cir. 1991):
As one court opined, “some ‘wrong’ beyond a creditor’s inability to collect” must be shown before the veil will be pierced.
At least, that’s supposed to be the rule. I hope it still is.
Monday, December 1, 2014
Well, here we are at the end of another semester. I just finished teaching my last class in our new, three-credit-hour, basic Business Associations offering. (Next semester, I take my first shot at teaching a two-credit-hour advanced version of Business Associations. More to come on that at a later date.) The basic Business Associations course is intended to be an introduction to the doctrine and norms of business associations law--it is broad-based and designed to provide a foundation for practice (of whatever kind). I hope I didn't make hash out of everything in cutting back the material covered from the predecessor four-credit-hour version of Business Associations . . . .
I find teaching fiduciary duty in the corporations part of the basic Business Associations course more than a bit humbling. There is a lot there to offer, and one can only cover so much (whether in a three-credit-hour or four-credit-hour course format). Every year, I steel myself for the inevitable questions--in class, on the class website (TWEN), and in the post-term review session (scheduled for today at 5 PM)--about the law of fiduciary duty as it applies to directors. This past weekend, I received a question in that category on the course website. In pertinent part, it read as follows (as edited for fluency in some places):
I am having problems with understanding the duty of loyalty for directors.
First, . . . I don't think I know which transactions are breaches of loyalty. Do they include interested director transactions, competition, officer's compensation, and not acting in good faith? Second, do care, good faith, and loyalty all require that the directors be grossly negligent? I think I am just confused on the standard to determine whether a director has breached the duty of loyalty and/or care.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
As regular readers know, I research and write on business and human rights. For this reason, I really enjoyed the post about corporate citizenship on Thanksgiving by Ann Lipton, and Haskell Murray’s post about the social enterprise and strategic considerations behind a “values” message for Whole Foods, in contrast to the low price mantra for Wal-Mart. Both posts garnered a number of insightful comments.
As I write this on Thanksgiving Day, I’m working on a law review article, refining final exam questions, and meeting with students who have finals starting next week (being on campus is a great way to avoid holiday cooking, by the way). Fortunately, I gladly do all of this without complaint, but many workers are in stores setting up for “door-buster” sales that now start at Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Best Buy, and Toys R Us shortly after families clear the table on Thanksgiving, if not before. As Ann pointed out, a number of protestors have targeted these purportedly “anti-family” businesses and touted the “values” of those businesses that plan to stick to the now “normal” crack of dawn opening time on Friday (which of course requires workers to arrive in the middle of the night). The United Auto Workers plans to hold a series of protests at Wal-Mart in solidarity with the workers, and more are planned around the country.
I’m not sure what effect these protests will have on the bottom line, and I hope that someone does some good empirical research on this issue. On the one hand, boycotts can be a powerful motivator for firms to change behavior. Consumer boycotts have become an American tradition, dating back to the Boston Tea Party. But while boycotts can garner attention, my initial research reveals that most boycotts fail to have any noticeable impact for companies, although admittedly the negative media coverage that boycotts generate often makes it harder for a companies to control the messages they send out to the public. In order for boycotts to succeed there needs to be widespread support and consumers must be passionate about the issue.
In this age of “hashtag activism” or “slacktivism,” I’m not sure that a large number of people will sustain these boycotts. Furthermore, even when consumers vocalize their passion, it has not always translated to impact to lower revenue. For example, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A’s comments on gay marriage triggered a consumer boycott that opened up a platform to further political and social goals, although it did little to hurt the company’s bottom line and in fact led proponents of the CEO’s views to develop a campaign to counteract the boycott.
Similarly, I’m also not sure of the effect that socially responsible investors can have as it relates to these labor issues. In 2006, the Norwegian Pension Fund divested its $400 million position (over 14 million shares in the US and Mexico operations) in Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart constitutes two of the three companies excluded for “serious of systematic” human rights violations. Pension funds in Sweden and the Netherlands followed the Fund’s lead after determining that Wal-Mart had not done enough to change after meetings on its labor practices. In a similar decision, Portland has become the first major city to divest its Wal-Mart holdings. City Commissioner Steve Novick cited the company’s labor, wage and hour practices, and recent bribery scandal as significant factors in the decision. Yet, the allegations about Wal-Mart’s labor practices persist, notwithstanding a strong corporate social responsibility campaign to blunt the effects of the bad publicity. Perhaps more important to the Walton family, the company is doing just fine financially, trading near its 52-week high as of the time of this writing.
I will be thinking of these issues as I head to Geneva on Saturday for the third annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which had over 1700 companies, NGOs, academics, state representatives, and civil society organizations in attendance last year. I am particularly interested in the sessions on the financial sector and human rights, where banking executives and others will discuss incorporation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into the human rights policies of major banks, as well as the role of the socially responsible investing community. Another panel that I will attend with interest relates to the human rights impacts in supply chains. A group of large law firm partners and professors will also present on a proposal for an international tribunal to adjudicate business and human rights issues. I will blog about these panels and others that may be of interest to the business community next Thursday. Until then enjoy your holiday and if you participate in or see any protests, send me a picture.
November 27, 2014 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
We want the best for both of our kids, and we are working to help them learn as much as they can about being good people and successful people. We're fortunate that we have a (relatively) stable life, we've had good health, and we're able to provide our children a lot of opportunities. For my daughter, as I have noted before, I do worry about institutional limits that are placed on her in many contexts.
She's in first grade, but expectations are already being set. On her homework last week: a little boy in her reading comprehension story builds a tower with sticks and bricks and stones. Next story: a little girl gets fancy bows in her hair instead of her usual ponytails. I wish I were making this up.
This is more pervasive than I think many people appreciate. Take, for example, the Barbie computer science book that had people raising their eyebrows (and cursing). NPR has a report explaining the basic issues here. The basics:
A book called Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer was originally published in 2010. Author and Disney screenwriter Pamela Ribon discovered the book at a friend's house and was initially excited at the book's prospects, she tells guest host Tess Vigeland.
But then she continued reading.
"It starts so promising; Barbie is designing a game to show kids how computers work," Ribon says. "She's going to make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks."
But then Barbie's friend Skipper asks if she can play it, and the book continues:
" 'I'm only creating the design ideas,' Barbie says, laughing. 'I'll need Steven's and Brian's help to turn it into a real game.' "
Harvard Business Review recently published a piece, Research: How Female CEOs Actually Get to the Top, that offers some insights. It's a good read, and is shows that success at the highest levels is often limited to women pursuing a different path and in companies with a particular culture. At a minimum, the article suggest that the advice we give women about how to get ahead may not be useful. (Not shocking given that the advice is often coming from men.) Here's an excerpt with my biggest takeaways, but I recommend the whole things (it's a short read):
The consistent theme in the data is that steady focus wins the day. The median long stint for these women CEOs is 23 years spent at a single company in one stretch before becoming the CEO. To understand whether this was the norm, we pulled a random sample of their male Fortune 500 CEO counterparts. For the men in the sample, the median long stint is 15 years. This means that for women, the long climb is over 50% longer than for their male peers. Moreover, 71% of the female CEOs were promoted as long-term insiders versus only 48% of the male CEOs. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for hopscotch early in women’s careers.
* * *
It may be that the playbook for advising young women with their sights set on leading large companies needs to be revised. Just as important, there is something inspiring for young women in the stories of these female CEOs: the notion that regardless of background, you can commit to a company, work hard, prove yourself in multiple roles, and ultimately ascend to top leadership. These female CEOs didn’t have to go to the best schools or get the most prestigious jobs. But they did have to find a good place to climb.
To be clear, I am thankful things have progressed to the point that my daughter really does have a legitimate shot at the same success as my son. Things are better than they were, and I see that. I'm just not satisfied that we're where we need to be, because her access to opportunities do not mean she has the same likelihood of success. We'll keep working on it, as I'd like to think we all should.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
The DC Circuit will once again rule on the conflicts minerals legislation. I have criticized the rule in an amicus brief, here, here, here, and here, and in other posts. I believe the rule is: (1) well-intentioned but inappropriate and impractical for the SEC to administer; (2) sets a bad example for other environmental, social, and governance disclosure legislation; and (3) has had little effect on the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indeed just two days ago, the UN warned of a human rights catastrophe in one of the most mineral-rich parts of the country, where more than 71,000 people have fled their homes in just the past three months.
The SEC and business groups will now argue before the court about the First Amendment ramifications of the “name and shame” rule that required (until the DC Circuit ruling earlier this year), that businesses state whether their products were “DRC-Conflict Free” based upon a lengthy and expensive due diligence process.
The court originally ruled that such a statement could force a company to proclaim that it has “blood on its hands.” Now, upon the request of the SEC and Amnesty International, the court will reconsider its ruling and seeks briefing on the following questions after its recent ruling in the American Meat case:
(1) What effect, if any, does this court’s ruling in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture … have on the First Amendment issue in this case regarding the conflict mineral disclosure requirement?
(2) What is the meaning of “purely factual and uncontroversial information” as used in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, … and American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture?
(3) Is the determination of what is “uncontroversial information” a question of fact?
Across the pond, the EU Parliament is facing increasing pressure from NGOs and some clergy in Congo to move away from voluntary self-certifications on conflict minerals, and began holding hearings earlier this month. Although the constitutional issues would not be relevant in the EU, legislators there have followed the developments of the US law with interest. I will report back on both the US case and the EU hearings.
In the meantime, I wonder how many parents shopping for video games for their kids over the holiday will take the time to read Nintendo's conflict minerals policy.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
In June 2014, the Supreme Court decided Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer holding that fiduciaries of a retirement plan with required company stock holdings (an ESOP) are not entitled to any prudence presumption when deciding not to dispose of the plan’s employer stock. The presumption in question was referred to as the Moench presumption and had been adopted in several circuits. You may have heard of these cases as the stock drop cases, as in the company stock price crashed and the employee/investors sue the retirement plan fiduciaries for not selling the stock. The Supreme Court opinion didn’t throw open the courthouse doors for all jilted retirement investors, and limited recovery to complaints (1) alleging that the mispricing was based on something more than publically available information, and also (2) identifying an alternative action that the fiduciary could have taken without violating insider trading laws and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it.
The Supreme Court in Fifth Third recognized the required interplay between ERISA and securities laws stating:
[W]here a complaint faults fiduciaries for failing to decide, based on negative inside information, to refrain from making additional stock purchases or for failing to publicly disclose that information so that the stock would no longer be overvalued, courts should consider the extent to which imposing an ERISA-based obligation either to refrain from making a planned trade or to disclose inside information to the public could conflict with the complex insider trading and corporate disclosure requirements set forth by the federal securities laws or with the objectives of those laws.
The Ninth Circuit decided Harris v. Amgen in October based upon the Fifth Third decision. In Harris, the plaintiffs’ claim alleged a breach of fiduciary duty based on the failure to stop buying additional stock in the ESOP based on non-public information. The Ninth Circuit found that plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to withstand a motion to dismiss that defendant fiduciaries were aware (1) of non-public information, which would have affected the market price of the company stock and (2) the stock price was inflated. These same facts supported a simultaneously-filed securities class action case.
To understand the interplay between securities laws and ERISA fiduciary rules, as established in Fifth Third, one ERISA consulting firm observed that
The Ninth Circuit appeared to reach the conclusion that, if ‘regular investors’ can bring an action under the securities laws based on the failure to disclose material information, then ‘ERISA investors’ in an ERISA-covered plan may, based on the same facts, bring an action under ERISA:
"If the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price ... were sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their duties under [applicable federal securities laws], the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price in this case are sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their more stringent duty of care under ERISA."
The Harris opinion invokes a sort of chicken and egg problem. If the plan had dumped the stock it would have signaled to the market and pushed the share prices lower. In addressing this concern, however, the Ninth Circuit stated that:
Based on the allegations in the complaint, it is at least plausible that defendants could have removed the Amgen Stock Fund from the list of investment options available to the plans without causing undue harm to plan participants.
. . . The efficient market hypothesis ordinarily applied in stock fraud cases suggests that the ultimate decline in price would have been no more than the amount by which the price was artificially inflated. Further, once the Fund was removed as an investment option, plan participants would have been protected from making additional purchases of the Fund while the price of Amgen shares remained artificially inflated. Finally, the defendants' fiduciary obligation to remove the Fund as an investment option was triggered as soon as they knew or should have known that Amgen's share price was artificially inflated. That is, defendants began violating their fiduciary duties under ERISA by continuing to authorize purchases of Amgen shares at more or less the same time some of the defendants began violating the federal securities laws.
The argument, in part, is that if Amgen had stopped the ESOP stock purchases it would have signaled to the market regarding price inflation and perhaps prevented the basis for the securities fraud violations harm alleged in the separate suit.
For those who follow securities litigation, there is a potential for investors purchasing in an ESOP to have a secondary and perhaps superior claim for fiduciary duty violations based upon the same facts giving rise to company stock mispricing arising under securities laws.
This raises the question, as one ERISA consulting firm noted,
Are an issuer/plan fiduciary's disclosure obligations to participants greater than its disclosure obligations to mere shareholders? Isn't that letting the ERISA-disclosure tail wag the securities law-disclosure dog – will it not result in the announcement of market-moving material information to plan participants first, before it is announced to securities buyers-and-sellers generally?
I have long been interested in how what happens in the defined contribution (DC) context intersects with what we think of traditional corporate law and how, as the pool of DC investors grows, there will be an ever increasing influence of the DC investor in the corporate law arena.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
I’m starting to think that courts are playing the role of Lucy to my Charlie Brown, and proper description of LLCs is the football. In follow up to my post last Friday, I went looking for a case that makes clear that an LLC’s status as a disregarded entity for IRS tax purposes is insufficient to support veil piercing. And I found one. The case explains:
Plaintiff . . . failed to provide any case law supporting his theory of attributing liability to Aegis LLC because of the existence of a pass-through tax structure of a disregarded entity. Pl.'s Opp'n. . Between 2006 and 2008, when 100% of Aegis LLC's shares were owned by Aegis UK, Aegis LLC was treated as a disregarded entity by the IRS and the taxable income earned by Aegis LLC was reflected in federal and District of Columbia tax returns filed by Aegis UK. Day Decl. Oct. 2012 [48–1] at ¶ 37. In the case of a limited liability corporation with only one owner, the limited liability corporation must be classified as a disregarded entity. 26 C.F.R. § 301.7701–2(c)(2). Instead of filing a separate tax return for the limited liability corporation, the owner would report the income of the disregarded entity directly on the owner's tax return. Id. Moreover, determining whether corporate formalities have been disregarded requires more than just recognizing the tax arrangements between a corporation and its shareholders. See United States v. Acambaro Mexican Restaurant, Inc., 631 F.3d 880, 883 (8th Cir.2011). Given the above analysis, the undersigned finds that there is no unity of ownership and interest between Aegis UK and Aegis LLC.
As Charlie Brown would say, "Aaugh!"
So the case makes clear, as I was hoping, that it is not appropriate to use pass-through tax status to find a unity of interest and ownership in a way that will support veil piercing. But the court then screws up the description of the very nature of LLCs. This is not a “case of a limited liability corporation!” It's a case of a limited liability company, which is a not a corporation.
Moreover, to use the court’s language, while it is true that “determining whether corporate formalities have been disregarded requires more than just recognizing the tax arrangements between a corporation and its shareholders,” the premise of the case has to do with an LLC’s status. Thus, the court should, at a minimum, make clear it knows the difference. The statement, then, would go something like this: "Determining whether LLC formalities have been disregarded requires more than just recognizing the tax arrangements between an LLC and its members.”
It’s worth noting the entity formalities for LLCs are significantly less that those of corporations, so the formalities portion of LLC veil piecing test should be minimal, but that's a different issue.
Anyway, like Charlie Brown, I will keep kicking at that football, expecting, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, that one day it will be there for me to kick. At least I don't have to go it alone.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
1) Difference between LLCs, corporations and partnerships
2) Del. and ULLCA coverage of fiduciary duties, and especially the issue of contractual waiver and default
19) No right to distributions, and no right to vote for distributions if manager-managed
20) No right to salary or employment
21) Taxable liability for LLC membership
22) Exit rights—voluntary withdrawals vs. restricted withdrawals, and whether or not that comes with the ability to force the return of an investment or a new status as a creditor of the LLC
23) Liability for improper distributions
24) Veil piercing, particularly given the lack of corporate formalities
I would love some feedback from practitioners as well. What do law students and practicing lawyers need to know about LLCs? What's missing from this list? What should I get rid of? Please feel free to comment below or to email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 13, 2014 in Business Associations, C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Law School, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Partnership, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, November 6, 2014
I have previously blogged about Institutional Shareholder Services’ policy survey and noted that a number of business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, had significant concerns. In case you haven’t read Steve Bainbridge’s posts on the matter, he’s not a fan either.
Calling the ISS consultation period “a decision in search of a process,” the Chamber released its comment letter to ISS last week, and it cited Bainbridge's comment letter liberally. Some quotable quotes from the Chamber include:
Under ISS’ revised policy, according to the Consultation, “any single factor that may have previously resulted in a ‘For’ or ‘Against’ recommendation may be mitigated by other positive or negative aspects, respectively.” Of course, there is no delineation of what these “other positive or negative aspects” may be, how they would be weighted, or how they would be applied. This leaves public companies as well as ISS’ clients at sea as to what prompted a determination that previously would have seen ISS oppose more of these proposals. This is a change that would, if enacted, fly in the face of explicit SEC Staff Guidance on the obligations to verify the accuracy and current nature of information utilized in formulating voting recommendations.
The proposed new policy—as yet undefined and undisclosed—is also lacking in any foundation of empirical support… Indeed, a number of studies confirm that there is no empirical support for or against the proposition ISS seems eager to adopt.
[Regarding equity plan scorecards] there is no clear indication on the part of ISS as to what weight it will assign to each category of assessment—cost of plan, plan features, and company grant practices… this approach benefits ISS (and in particular its’ consulting operations), but does nothing to advance either corporate or shareholder interests or benefits. The Consultation also makes clear that, for all ISS’ purported interest in creating a more “nuanced” approach, in fact the proposed policy fosters a one-size-fits-all system that fails to take into account the different unique needs of companies and their investors.
Proxy votes cast in reliance on proxy voting policies based upon this Consultation cannot—by definition—be reasonably designed to further shareholder values.
ISS had a number of other recommendations but they didn’t raise the ire of Bainbridge and the Chamber. For the record, Steve is angry about the independent chair shareholder proposals, but please read his well-documented posts and judge for yourself whether ISS missed the mark. The ISS’ 2015 US Proxy Voting Guidelines were released today. Personally, I plan to raise some of the Guidelines discussing fee-shifting bylaws and exclusive venue provisions in both my Civil Procedure and Business Associations classes.
Let’s see how the Guidelines affect the next proxy season—the recommendations from the two-week comment period go into effect in February.
November 6, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Back in 2010, Art Durnev published a short paper, The Real Effects of Political Uncertainty: Elections and Investment Sensitivity to Stock Prices, available here. The article studies the interaction between national elections and corporate investment. Today is not a national election -- we get two more years before we have to choose our next president -- but it's still seems like an apt day to think about the role of elections on corporate activity.
The most interesting part of the article, to me anyway, is the test of the relationship between political uncertainty and firm performance. As the article explains,
If prices reflect future profitability of investment projects, investment-to-price sensitivity can be interpreted as a measure of the quality of capital allocation. This is because if capital is allocated efficiently, capital is withdrawn from sectors with poor prospects and invested in profitable sectors. Thus, if political uncertainty reduces investment efficiency, firm performance is likely to suffer. Consistent with this argument, we show that firms that experience a drop in investment-to-price sensitivity during election years perform worse over the two years following elections.
The conclusion: this signifies that political uncertainty significantly impacts real economic outcomes. Therefore, "political uncertainty can deteriorate company performance because of inferior capital allocation."
So, it's election day. Please vote, regardless of your views. Voting is a right, a privilege, and duty. And if you're in charge of a firm's investment decisions, consider this study. As we approach the next national election, you might want to be wary of dropping your investment-to-price sensitivity leading up to the next election. If you do, odds are your firm will do worse in the two years following the election.
And, while we're talking presidential politics, here's another study worth considering: Effects of Election Results on Stock Price Performance: Evidence from 1980 to 2008. Here's the abstract (and, please, go vote!):
We analyze whether the results of the 1980 to 2008 U.S. presidential elections influence the stock market performance of eight industries and we examine factors that are expected to affect firms’ stock returns around these elections. Our empirical analysis reflects firms’ exposure to government policies in two ways. First, to determine whether investors presume any Democratic or Republican favoritism towards or biases against certain industries we perform an event study for each of the eight industries around the eight elections. Second, we include the firms’ marginal tax rate as proxy for the firms’ exposure to uncertainty about fiscal policy in a regression analysis. We do not find a consistent pattern in industry returns when comparing the effect of Democratic versus Republican victories. However, the extent of the reaction differs among industries. The victory of a Democratic candidate rather negatively influences overall stock returns, while the results are rather mixed for Republican victories. Furthermore, a change in presidency from either a Democratic to a Republican candidate or from a Republican to a Democratic candidate causes stronger stock market effects than re-election or the election of a president from the same party. We also find that the firms’ marginal tax rate is positively correlated with abnormal stock price returns around the election day. The results are relevant for academics, investors and policy makers alike because they provide insight on the question whether stock market participants respond to expected changes in policy making as a result of presidential elections.
Monday, November 3, 2014
On Monday, The University of Tennessee (UT) College of Law hosted Larry Cunningham to talk about his book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values, which he previewed with us here on the BLPB a few months ago in a series of posts (here, here, and here). As you may recall, the book focuses on corporate culture and succession planning at Berkshire Hathaway. Joining Larry at the book session was UT College of Law alumnus James L. (Jim) Clayton, Chairman and principal shareholder of Clayton Bank and the founder of Clayton Homes, one of the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries featured in the book. The impromptu conversation between Larry and Jim was an incredible part of the event (although Larry's prepared presentation on the book also was great).
As part of the event, Larry and Jim answered a variety of audience questions. Included among them was a question from UT College of Law Dean Doug Blaze on the role of lawyers in management, transactions, and entrepreneurialism. As part of Jim Clayton's response, he noted the value of preventative lawyering--advising businesses to keep them out of trouble. I was so glad, as a business law advisor, to hear him say that!
Following on that, given that (a) Larry's book focuses on the factors influencing succession planning, (b) I am teaching the Disney case to my Business Associations students this week, and (c) the Disney case is about . . . well . . . failed succession and executive compensation, I asked about management compensation in the context of succession planning at Berkshire Hathaway. Both Larry and Jim (whose son Kevin is President and Chief Executive Officer of Clayton Homes) were clear that Warren Buffett is an exacting manager, but that he believes in paying his portfolio company managers well. Of course, the precise nature of the compensation arrangements of those portfolio firm executives (unlike Michael Ovitz's compensation arrangements at issue in the Disney case) are not a matter of public record. But given the markedly different contexts, I assume the arrangements are very different . . . .
As I approach discussing the Disney case once again in the classroom, I am (as always) looking for new angles, new insights to share with the class (in addition to the core fiduciary duty doctrine). One I will share this year is Jim Clayton's advice about preventative lawyering. What could lawyers have done to reduce the likelihood of controversy and litigation? I have some thoughts and will develop others in the next 24 hours. Leave your thoughts here, if you have any . . . .
Thursday, October 30, 2014
This paper investigates the voting patterns of shareholders on the recently enacted “Say-On-Pay” (SOP) for publicly traded corporations, and the efficacy of vote outcomes on rationalizing executive compensation. We find that small shareholders are more likely than large shareholders to use the non-binding SOP vote to govern their companies: small shareholders are more likely to vote for a more frequent annual SOP vote, and more likely to vote “against” SOP (i.e., to disapprove executive compensation). Further, we find that low support for management in the SOP vote is more likely to be followed by a decrease in excess compensation, and by a more reasonable selection of peer companies for determining compensation, when ownership is more concentrated. Hence, the non-binding SOP vote offers a convenient mechanism for small shareholders to voice their opinions, yet, larger shareholders must be present to compel the Board to take action. Thus, diffuse shareholders are able to coordinate on the SOP vote to employ the threat that large shareholders represent to management.
Monday, October 27, 2014
In addition to the two letters Anne Tucker mentioned earlier, Lyman Johnson (Washington & Lee and University of St. Thomas) has now organized another group of legal scholars to respond to the HHS post-Hobby Lobby Rules. The Johnson letter is available here.
As Stephen Bainbridge (one of the authors) notes, Lyman Johnson brought together a group of scholars with diverse views for this letter. The letter is worth reading and the abstract is provide below.
In late August 2014, after suffering a defeat in the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision when the Court held that business corporations are "persons" that can "exercise religion," the Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") proposed new rules defining "eligible organizations." Purportedly designed to accommodate the Hobby Lobby ruling, the proposed rules do not comport with the reasoning of that important decision and they unjustifiably seek to permit only a small group of business corporations to be exempt from providing contraceptive coverage on religious grounds. This comment letter to the HHS about its proposed rules makes several theoretical and practical points about the Hobby Lobby holding and how the proposed rules fail to reflect the Court’s reasoning. The letter also addresses other approaches to avoid in the rulemaking process and argues for rules that, unlike what the HHS has proposed, align with the Supreme Court’s reasoning while being consonant with generally applicable precepts of state law and principles of federalism.