Tuesday, March 31, 2015

More Beliefs: Director Primacy and Public and Private Companies

Yesterday, Prof. Bainbridge annotated my "creed" on corporate governance, and I appreciated his take. In fact, many of his chosen sources would have been mine.

In a later footnote, he noted that he was not sure what I meant by my statement: "I believe that public companies should be able to plan like private companies . . . ." I thought I'd try to explain. 

My intent there was to address my perception that there is a prevailing view that private companies and public companies must be run differently.  Although there are different disclosure laws and other regulations for such entities that can impact operations, I'm speaking here about the relationship between shareholders and directors when I'm referencing how public and private companies plan. 

Public companies generally have far more shareholders than private companies, so the goals and expectations of those shareholders will likely be more diverse than in a private entity. Therefore, a public entity may need to keep multiple constituencies happy in a way many private companies do not.  However, that is still about shareholder wishes, and not the public or private nature of the entity itself.  A private company with twenty shareholders could crate similar tensions for a board of directors.

As an example, consider Investopedia's description of Advantages of Privatization in an article called "Why Public Companies Go Private" (emphasis added):

Private-equity firms have varying exit time lines for their investments depending on what they have conveyed to their investors, but holding periods are typically between four and eight years. This horizon frees up management's prioritization on meeting quarterly earnings expectations and allows them to focus on activities that can create and build long-term shareholder wealth. Management typically lays out its business plan to the prospective shareholders and agrees on a go-forward plan. 

This is often a practical reality, but I disagree (or at least believe it should not be the case) that a company must be private to "free up management's prioritization on meeting quarterly earnings expectations and allows them to focus on activities that can create and build long-term shareholder wealth."  

This, I think, connects with Prof. Bainbridge's point in his footnote annotation 4, where he says, "I think too many hedge funds are pressing too many boards to pursue short-term gains at the expense of sustainable long-run shareholder wealth maximization and, accordingly, that boards need more insulation from shareholder pressure." I agree completely with his point there, and that's the kind of issue facing public companies that I was intending to address in my assertion.  

Ultimately, director primacy means ensuring a large measure of director autonomy (or insulation). This works in both directions, whether it relates to short- versus long-term planning or providing workplace benefits (or not). Ensuring a robust business judgment rule as an abstention doctrine preserves director primacy, and in the long run, will benefit corporate governance and shareholder choice.  

March 31, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Commissioner Dan Gallagher on Twitter

Plenty of valuable information was shared today at Vanderbilt's 17th annual law & business conference, including remarks from Elisse Walter (former-SEC Chairman), Jim Cox (Duke), Bob Thompson (Georgetown)Amanda Rose (Vanderbilt), and others.

The most immediately useful information, however, might be the fact that SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher, our luncheon speaker, is on Twitter. In academic and other circles, Commissioner Gallagher garnered a great deal of attention due to his controversial article co-authored with Joseph Grundfest (Stanford) entitled "Did Harvard Violate Federal Securities Law? The Campaign Against Classified Boards of Directors."

Below is a recent Tweet from Commissioner Gallagher for those who would like to follow him.

March 27, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporations, Haskell Murray, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Developing Areas of Capital Market and Federal Securities Regulation at Vanderbilt Law School

Vanderbilt

After teaching my early morning classes, I will spend the rest of the day at Vanderbilt Law School for their Developing Areas of Capital Market and Federal Securities Regulation Conference.

This is Vanderbilt's 17th Annual Law and Business Conference and they have quite the impressive lineup, including Commissioner Daniel Gallagher, Jr. of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. 

I am grateful to the Vanderbilt faculty members who invited me to this event and others like it. Vanderbilt is only about 1 mile from Belmont and I have truly enjoyed getting to know some of the Vanderbilt faculty members and their guest speakers.

March 27, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporations, Haskell Murray, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Corporations, the State, and the Rule of Law- Call for Papers

Below is a call for papers and description of a weeklong project on business and human rights. If you are interested, please contact one of the organizers below. I plan to participate and may also be able to answer some questions.

Lat Crit Study Space Project in Guatemala

Corporations, the State, and the Rule of Law

We are excited to invite you to participate in an exciting Study Space Project in Guatemala. Study Space, a LatCrit, Inc. initiative, is a series of intensive workshops, held at diverse locations around the world. This 2015 Study Space project involves a 7 working day field visit to Guatemala between Saturday June 27 (arrival date) and Saturday July 4, 2015 (departure date).  We are reaching out to you because we believe that your interests, scholarship, and service record align well with the proposed focus of our trip.

This call for papers proposes a trip to Guatemala to study more closely the phenomena of failed nations viewed from the perspective of the relationship of the state of Guatemala with corporations. With the recent surge of Central American unaccompanied minors and children fleeing with their mothers, the United States has had to confront the human face of children and women whose claim to asylum or other immigration relief is rooted in the dire reality that the countries from which they flee cannot or will not protect them. Largely, these fleeing migrants are escaping violence perpetuated by private actors, at times gang members or even their own parents or spouses. Their stories of flight cannot be disengaged from the broader context in which the violence occurs. Theirs is also the story of failed nations, characterized by ineptitude, weakness, and even worse, indifference or at times even complicity.

This story of failed nations applies beyond the reign of private “rogues” whom everyone agrees are bad actors (i.e., gangs, drug traffickers, violent criminals). The other side of the coin, invisible in this new wave of Central American refugees, is a more nuanced story about the failing role of some of these Central American nations in regulating the acts of corporations, whether owned by the oligarchy or operated by transnational actors. Corporations are entities with great potential to promote and further the public good, such as through job creation and economic development. Corporations, however, can also be the cause of social ills, particularly when left unregulated or at times even supported by the state to pursue private interests that conflict with the public good. In Guatemala, examples of deeply problematic unregulated arenas abound-- from the lack of antitrust legislation to the absence of meaningful environmental protections to protect even the most precious of natural resources, such as water. There is also the misuse of public institutions and laws to shield corporations from their public and fiscal responsibility or to aid them in capitalizing on public goods, including minerals or land. Ironically, here, the state apparatus functions quite effectively to exert its authority in the execution of laws. The failure, however, rests in the illegitimacy of law, not in its execution.

Guatemala is a nation that is experiencing tremendous social upheaval from the acts of corporations on issues that include mining, water uses, deforestation, genetically modified seeds, free-trade zones, and maquiladoras, to name a few. Caught between the state and corporations are the communities most deeply affected by both the absence and the presence of law in ways that appear to conflict with the public interest. The questions that arise include how law can and should restore the balance between the promotion of investment and economic development with the protection of the public interest and the preservation of the public good. These inquiries also involve issues related to the protection of rights, whether of individuals or communities in the collective, including the right to self-determination, the right to food and water, or the right to dignified work.

The purpose of this trip is not to single out Guatemala for scrutiny. The reality is that the bilateral and multilateral relations that Guatemala is forced to sustain with other more powerful nations aggravate many of its pressing problems. Questions about Guatemala’s regulation of corporations must also address the relationship between the powerful transnational forces of globalization and the domestic laws of Guatemala, including those related to trade liberalization and intellectual property. This inquiry must also acknowledge how the absence of accountability of transnational corporations operating in Guatemala in the corporation’s own nation-state – including the power these corporations have to influence law-making-- should lead us to a discussion of shared responsibility and a proposal for solutions that are transnational and international in character.

Should you decide to participate, you would be encouraged and welcomed to suggest specific topics (and field visits) you would like to be included as part of this project. While we are still working on a precise itinerary (which you can help us shape), our projected goals right now are to visit with government officials, non-profits, community groups and the private sector with a special focus on labor and environment. The trip would include time in Guatemala City but also time in key rural sectors. For example, we are planning to visit a transnational mining site and the free-trade zone where maquiladoras are concentrated in Guatemala. As part of the trip, we will include orientations and debriefings with the group so we can share knowledge, impressions, and insights as the trip progresses. 

The cost of your participation (excluding flight) is $1,900.  This fee will cover housing, food, in-country transportation, conference space, and other fees that we will pay such as to translators, community groups assisting with logistics, and a modest fee to Luis Mogollón (a Guatemalan lawyer with significant law school academic program development experience in Guatemala) who will spend countless hours making this trip safe and enjoyable for all of us.  The flight to Guatemala from the United States should range between $600 to $800. 

Our aim is to publish essays from this project as a book in Spanish and English. We hope to have between 15-20 contributions. While ideally participants will speak Spanish, we can accommodate non-Spanish speakers (or those who only speak “un poquito”) and will hire interpreters to work with you during the trip to Guatemala.  Keep in mind that you may need to conduct some research in Spanish (at least for primary sources) depending on the focus on your project. We also hope to present papers about this project at several conferences upon the completion of our project, including at LatCrit, Inc. and ideally in Guatemala.

The organizing Committee is comprised of Raquel Aldana, Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; Steven Bender, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Seattle University School of Law; José R. Juárez, Professor of Law and Director of the Spanish for Lawyers Program at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law; Beth Lyon, Director of the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic and Professor of Law at Villanova University School of Law; Mario Mancilla, Technical Assistant of the Secretariat of Environmental Matters, CAFTA-DR; Luis Mogollón, Adjunct Professor and Consultant of the Inter-American Program from Pacific McGeorge; Rachael Salcido, Professor of Law at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; and Enrique Sánchez-Usera, Chair of the Inter-Disciplinary Studies at the University of Rafael Landívar Law School.

Please do not hesitate to contact any of us with questions. We do hope you decide to join us in this great project.

 

 

March 26, 2015 in Business Associations, Law Reviews, Call for Papers, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Marcia Narine, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Macaroni & Cheers!

Today marks my return to blogging after a brief (3 weeks) respite, and what better way to be welcomed back than with news of a mega-merger?!?  Today, Kraft Foods, a publicly traded company, and H. J.Heinz, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian private equity firm 3G, signed a multi-billion dollar merger agreement to create what will become the third largest food company in North America. 

Under the proposed merger Kraft shareholders will receive 49% of the stock in the newly merged company, plus a cash dividend of $16.50 per share, representing a reported 27% premium on Kraft's trading stock price as of Tuesday, March 24th which closed at around $61.33/share.  

The stock market reacted positively to the news with Kraft stock opening around $81/share and climbing up to $87 and settling down in the low $80's (it was trading at $82/share around 2:00 pm). You can track the stock price here.  The immediate bump in price casts some shadows on the Kraft stock premium agreed to in the deal.

Among the possible legal hurdles are antitrust concerns, but the deal doesn't raise red flags on its face given the little overlap between the two companies.
 
The bigger, and more interesting corporate governance question will be the Kraft shareholder approval process requiring a proxy statement.  Kraft Foods is a Virginia corporation (see Articles of Incorporation), and thus the merger and Kraft's shareholders' rights are governed by the Virginia Corporation Act.  Because Kraft is a public corporation, shareholders will not have appraisal rights under Va. Code Ann. § 13.1-730 (West) and those rights have not be altered in the Articles of Incorporation.  So the legal challenges, if any and given the size of the deal are likely, will have to assert that the transaction itself is flawed (either under duty of care or loyalty) or that the proxy process was defective in failing to disclose material information.  
-Anne Tucker
 
 

March 25, 2015 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Financial Markets | Permalink | Comments (0)

Faculty Lounge Mini-Symposium on Board Diversity

Over at the Faculty Lounge, Kim Krawiec (Duke) is hosting an interesting mini-symposium on board diversity entitled “What’s The Return On Equality?”

The posts to date are linked to at the bottom of this recent post.

March 25, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wolf Packs, Corporate Cocaine, and Activist Hedge Funds- Sharfman adds his view

Bernard Sharfman has posted a new article entitled “Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Long-Term Value Creators or Destroyers?" In the paper he makes the argument that hedge fund activism contributes to long-term value creation if it can be assumed that the typical board of a public company has an adequate amount of independence to act as an arbitrator between executive management and the activist hedge fund. He also discusses these funds’ focus on disinvestment and attempts to challenge those in the Marty Lipton camp, who view these funds less charitably. In fact, Lipton recently called 2014 “the year of the wolf pack.” The debate on the merits of activist hedge funds has been heating up. Last month Forbes magazine outlined “The Seven Deadly Sins of Activist Hedge Funds,” including their promotion of share buybacks, aka “corporate cocaine.” Forbes was responding to a more favorable view of these funds by The Economist in its February 7, 2015 cover story.

Whether you agree with Sharfman or Lipton, the article is clearly timely and worth a read. The abstract is below:

Numerous empirical studies have shown that hedge fund activism has led to enhanced returns to investors and increased firm performance. Nevertheless, leading figures in the corporate governance world have taken issue with these studies and have argued that hedge fund activism leads to long-term value destruction.

In this article, it is argued that an activist hedge fund creates long-term value by sending affirming signals to the board of directors (Board) that its executive management team may be making inefficient decisions and providing recommendations on how the company should proceed in light of these inefficiencies. These recommendations require the Board to review and question the direction executive management is taking the company and then choosing which path the company should take, the one recommended by executive management, the one recommended by the activist hedge fund or a combination of both. Critical to this argument is the existence of a Board that can act as an independent arbitrator in deciding whose recommendations should be followed.

In addition, an explanation is given for why activist hedge funds do not provide recommendations that involve long-term investment. There are two reasons for this. First, the cognitive limitations and skill sets of those individuals who participate as activist hedge funds. Second, and most importantly, the stock market signals provided by value investors voting with their feet are telling the rest of the stock market that a particular public company is poorly managed and that it either needs to be replaced or given less assets to manage. These are the kind of signals and information that activist hedge funds are responding to when buying significant amounts of company stock and then making their recommendations for change. Therefore, it is not surprising that the recommendations of activist hedge funds will focus on trying to reduce the amount of assets under current management.

 

 

 

 

 

March 20, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, M&A, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

This I Believe: On Corporate Purpose and the Business Judgment Rule

Prof. Bainbridge yesterday posted about The Modern Corporation Statement on Company Law.  The statement has ten fundamental rules, of which number ten is:

Contrary to widespread belief, corporate directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders. This is reflected in the acceptance in nearly all jurisdictions of some version of the business judgment rule, under which disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be in the best long term interests of the company as a separate entity, even if this does not entail seeking to maximise short-term shareholder value. Where directors pursue the latter goal, it is usually a product not of legal obligation, but of the pressures imposed on them by financial markets, activist shareholders, the threat of a hostile takeover and/or stock-based compensation schemes.

Prof. Bainbridge is with Delaware Chief Justice Strine in that profit maximization is the only role (or at least only filter) for board members.  As he asserts, “The relationship between the shareholder wealth maximization norm and the business judgment rule, . . . explains why the business judgment rule is consistent with the director's  "legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders." 

CJ Strine has noted that the eBay decision, which I have written about a lot, says that if “you remain incorporated in Delaware, your stockholders will be able to hold you accountable for putting their interests first.”  I think this is right, but I remain convinced that absent self-dealing or a “pet project,” directors get to decide that what is in the shareholders best interests.

I have been criticized in some sectors for being too pro-business for my views on corporate governance, veil piercing law, and energy policy.  In contrast, I have also been said to be a “leftist commentator,” in some contexts, and I have been cited by none other than Chief Justice Strine as supporting a “liberal” view of corporate norms for my views on the freedom of director choice. 

When it comes to the Business Judgment Rule, I think it might be just that I believe in a more hands-off view of director primacy more than many of both my “liberal” and “conservative” colleagues. Frankly, I don’t get too exercised by many of the corporate decisions that seem to agitate one side or the other.  I thought I’d try to reconcile my views on this in a short statement. I decided to use the model from This I Believe, based on the 1950s Edward R. Murrow radio show.  (Using the Crash Davis model I started with was a lot less family friendly.) Here’s what I came up with [Author's note, I have since fixed a typo that was noted by Prof. Bainbridge]:   

I believe in the theory of Director Primacy.  I believe in the Business Judgment Rule as an abstention doctrine, and I believe that Corporate Social Responsibility is choice, not a mandate. I believe in long-term planning over short-term profits, but I believe that directors get to choose either one to be the focus of their companies.  I believe that directors can choose to pursue profit through corporate philanthropy and good works in the community or through mergers and acquisitions with a plan to slash worker benefits and sell-off a business in pieces. I believe that a corporation can make religious-based decisions—such as closing on Sundays—and that a corporation can make worker-based decisions—such as providing top-quality health care and parental leave—but I believe both such bases for decisions must be rooted in the directors’ judgment such decisions will maximize the value of the business for shareholders for the decision to get the benefit of business judgment rule protection. I believe that directors, and not shareholders or judges, should make decisions about how a company should pursue profit and stability.  I believe that public companies should be able to plan like private companies, and I believe the decision to expand or change a business model is the decision of the directors and only the directors. I believe that respect for directors’ business judgment allows for coexistence of companies of multiple views—from CVS Caremark and craigslist to Wal-Mart and Hobby Lobby—without necessarily violating any shareholder wealth maximization norms. Finally, I believe that the exercise of business judgment should not be run through a liberal or conservative filter because liberal and conservative business leaders have both been responsible for massive long-term wealth creation.  This, I believe.      

March 19, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, M&A, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How to Get in Your Own Way: Tesla Shut Out of West Virginia

West Virginia (like Michigan and New Jersey, among others) has decided to follow other states in limiting options for Tesla sales.  As the Charleston Gazette reports: 

On the floor later Friday evening, the House put an amendment in a bill designed to shore up car dealers’ legal standings in dealings with auto manufacturers that effectively blocks innovative electric car manufacturer Tesla from doing business in the state.

The floor debate is best left forgotten: Several delegates played the crony capitalism card, talking about how their local car dealers are generous in sponsoring Little League teams and community events (not to mention campaign contributions), while other sneered about the company being owned by California billionaire Elon Musk (some called him “Monk,” but fortunately no one referred to him as “Elton”), and claiming the company relies on federal subsidies.

Never mind that it was stated that fewer than a dozen West Virginians own Teslas, or that a boom in demand for electric-powered cars might just be a good thing for a state that provides coal for electric power plants.

If you're about a free (or at least more free) markets, why stop a competitor from competing?  Sorry, but the federal subsidy argument for the auto industry went out the window when the government bailed out GM and Chrysler.  

Beyond that, for the life of me, I can't understand why coal friendly constituencies seem so often to be hostile to electric vehicles. (In fairness, Kentucky just added a Tesla charging station.)  If it uses electricity, you should be all for it. Why is running a car on electricity any different than leaving the lights on all night?  If you're for consumption, who cares who does it? 

There is some debate about whether electric cars are better for the environment than gasoline powered cars.  This remains an open question.  But there's little doubt that increased demand for electricity is generally good for the coal industry.  

More important, though, if consumers want to buy a Tesla, why not let them?  What's the value in blocking consumers from buying the vehicles they want?  Oh yeah, rent seeking and cronyism.  By the way, the West Virginia legislature knows we can buy cars in other states, right? 

March 17, 2015 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Women on Board(s): New Perspectives from Crowd Theory?

As someone who likes to write from time to time on women on corporate boards, I sometimes feel like I am writing about last year's "news."  In other words, not much seems to sound new.  So, I am always in search of a novel problem to explore or a different vantage point through which fresh insights can be obtained.

My most recent contribution in this regard is a symposium piece that looks at women on boards through the lens of the literature on crowds--whether they be mad or wise.  Boards can be crowds (albeit small ones), based on prevailing definitions.  Moreover, crowd behaviors can be gendered.  So, it seemed like a reasonable idea.

The fruit of this labor is my most recent article, Women in the Crowd of Corporate Directors: Following, Walking Alone, and Meaningfully Contributing.  The substantive portion of the abstract is as follows:

With the thought that new perspectives often can be helpful in addressing long-standing unresolved questions, this article approaches an analysis of women’s roles on corporate boards of directors from the standpoint of crowd theory. Crowd theory — in reality, a group of theories — explains the behavior of people in crowds. Specifically, this article describes theories of the crowd from social psychology and applies them to the literature on female corporate directors, looking at the effects on both women as crowd members and boards as decision-making crowds.

Unfortunately, while the crowd theory perspective provides some insights, they are not altogether conclusive. Specifically, while women may bring distinct ideas and experience to boards of directors when they become board members, crowd theory does not provide a clear picture of the nature or extent of those differences or how they may contribute to productive, efficient board decision making. More work still is needed in this area. However, existing research does indicate that women encourage productive board development activities — activities that may include, for example, introducing the board to structures and policies that may promote board wisdom. This is a useful insight that should be further explored.

This is, as the abstract indicates, a preliminary exploratory piece.  But it does at least represent a change from the current literature in the field, which focuses on (among other things) the search for an alternative to gender quotas (see, e.g., here and here).

I had the opportunity to present the paper at William & Mary a few weeks ago.  Unfortunately, the school was closed that morning as a result of a snow storm the day before.  Since I was already in Williamsburg (but could not stay to present the paper later in the day), current and incoming editors of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law invited me to deliver the paper to them over breakfast in a local restaurant.  The impromptu forum turned out to be a lovely way to discuss the paper with the students--a number of whom had read the piece carefully and had interesting questions and observations.  I hope that some of you enjoy the article as much as those students did!

March 11, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Preparing today's students for the legal market

It’s always nice to be validated. Day two into torturing my business associations students with basic accounting and corporate finance, I was able to post the results of a recent study about what they were learning and why. "Torture" is a strong word-- I try to break up the lessons by showing up to the minute video clips about companies that they know to illustrate how their concepts apply to real life settings. But for some students it remains a foreign language no matter how many background YouTube videos I suggest, or how interesting the debate is about McDonalds and Shake Shack on CNBC.

My alma mater Harvard Law School surveyed a number of BigLaw graduates about the essential skills and coursework for both transactional and litigation practitioners. As I explained in an earlier post, most of my students will likely practice solo or in small firms. But I have always believed that the skills sets are inherently the same regardless of the size of the practice or resources of the client. My future litigators need to know what documents to ask for in discovery and what questions to ask during the deposition of a financial expert. My family law and trust and estates hopefuls must understand the basics of a business structure if they wish to advise on certain assets. My criminal law aficionados may have to defend or prosecute criminal enterprises that are as sophisticated as any multinational corporation. Those who want to be legislative aides or go into government must understand how to close loopholes in regulations.

What are the top courses students should take? The abstract is below:

We report the results of an online survey, conducted on behalf of Harvard Law School, of 124 practicing attorneys at major law firms. The survey had two main objectives: (1) to assist students in selecting courses by providing them with data about the relative importance of courses; and (2) to provide faculty with information about how to improve the curriculum and best advise students. The most salient result is that students were strongly advised to study accounting and financial statement analysis, as well as corporate finance. These subject areas were viewed as particularly valuable, not only for corporate/transactional lawyers, but also for litigators. Intriguingly, non-traditional courses and skills, such as business strategy and teamwork, are seen as more important than many traditional courses and skills.

Did you take these courses? Has your school started adding more of this type of coursework and does your faculty see the value? Do you agree with the results of this survey? Let me know in the comments or email me at mnarine@stu.edu.

March 6, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Delaware Law Insider: A Nexus between Shareholder Activism & Hobby Lobby?

The Fordham Journal of Corporate and Financial Law recently published a March 6, 2014, lecture from Former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, Continuity and Change in Delaware Corporate Law Jurisprudence (available on Westlaw, but fee may apply).  As an aside, I'll note that it appears to have taken a full calendar year for this to get published (at least on Westlaw), which seems crazy to me.  If there's any question why legal blogs can fill such a critical role in providing timely commentary on legal issues, this is a big part of the answer.

In the lecture, Chief Justice Steele discusses three main areas: (1) multi-forum jurisdiction, (2) shareholder activism, and (3) the Nevada, Delaware, and North Dakota Debate (a "competition for charters"). 

As to multi-forum jurisdiction, he makes the unsurprising point that Delaware courts are of the view that first impressions of the Delaware General Corporation Law or other "internal affairs doctrine" issues should be handled in Delaware courts.  Of note, he explains that the Delaware constitution (art. IV, § 11(8)) now allows federal courts, the top court from any state, the SEC, and bankruptcy courts to certify questions directly to the Delaware Supreme Court.  This option is one that lawyers litigating such cases in other forums won't want to miss.    

With regard to shareholder activism, Chief Justice Steele states, 

In my preferred system for the world, and I think in the minds of all Delaware judges, engaged if not antagonistic stockholders add positive value as a check on director authority and are a catalyst for corrective accountability, so long as their efforts focus on improved performance and not the advancement of political or personal agendas--a major caveat in my view. Delaware courts, it seems to me, will increasingly recognize the benefits that engaged investors bring to the table.

This is an interesting take, and it seems consistent with my read of most Delaware law. I am of the view that shareholders should have a lot of latitude to engage and even agitate, if they wish, as long as they follow the rules they agreed to in the corporate charter and bylaws (and applicable state law, of course).  There is concern that a court might determine an action to be political or personal in nature if it something with which the court does not agree, but that could happen on the political left or right, and judgment is always a risk at some point.  Delaware courts are usually up to the task.
 
Chief Justice Steele's view on this lends further credence to a view I have held since the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision came out: Delaware corporations cannot use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to justify their business decisions.  That is, RFRA applies in Delaware, but RFRA does not pre-empt Delaware corporations law, so RFRA cannot be used as a rationale for decision making, at least where a shareholder objects. In Hobby Lobby, Justice Alito wrote:
State corporate law provides a ready means for resolving any conflicts by, for example, dictating how a corporation can establish its governing structure. See, e.g.ibid; id., §3:2; Del. Code Ann., Tit. 8, §351 (2011) (providing that certificate of incorporation may provide how “the business of the corporation shall be managed”). Courts will turn to that structure and the underlying state law in resolving disputes.
Combine this with Chief Justice Steele's warning against company governance for the "advancement of political or personal agendas" and recent cases requiring Delaware corporation to seek profit, it seems Delaware courts are skeptical of non-profit-seeking rationales for shareholder or director action.  As Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay v. Newmark (more here):

The corporate form in which [an Delaware corporation] operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment. . . . Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, . . . directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.

Thus, in Delaware a for-profit corporation cannot promote or practice the religious views of even a majority of directors or shareholders where such actions do not promote the value of the corporation for shareholders. 

Finally, as to the Nevada, Delaware, North Dakota debate, Chief Justice Steele questions the value of Nevada allowing "charters to exculpate directors for breaches of duty of loyalty," because he thinks such a massive change in widely held views of fiduciary duty law could invite federal "meddling."  I think he's exactly right on this.  He notes with skepticism the North Dakota Publicly Traded Corporations Act because there are only two companies that have adopted the law, but the law's failure in the competition for charter does not raise the same concerns of a race to the bottom (my words) that Nevada's law provides.

I think Chief Justice Steele's article provides interesting and useful insight into the workings of the Delaware court system, and I recommend the sort read.  I just wish I had seen it about nine months ago.  

March 3, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Markets and Boycotts Part 2

Last week, I posted about Walmart’s ballyhooed wage hike and asked whether boycotts and activism actually work. Apparently, the President was so impressed that he called the company’s CEO to thank him. Some Walmart workers, however, aren’t as pleased because without more hours, they still can’t make ends meet. Nonetheless, TJX, the parent company of retailers TJ Maxx and Home Goods announced yesterday that its employees would also receive a pay raise. Is this altruism? Have the retail giants caved to pressure?

As some commented on the blog last week and to me privately, it’s more likely that these megaretailers have implemented these “pro-employee” moves to reduce turnover, raise morale, and most important compete in a tightening job market. But one LinkedIn commenter from Australia believes that boycotts in general can work, stating:

My experience with having organised boycotts is that they work, but they take time. They create the conditions for public awareness of corporate activities, and put pressure on the company to change. They are effectively the 'bad cop' of civil society pressure. Consequently, they do not work on their own, requiring also the 'good cop' - civil society organisations and market conditions that allow the subject of the boycott to shift behaviour. Market conditions include a broader 'meta boycott' in which companies needing access to supply chains must change because supply chains have changed, only accepting product that is acceptable to CSOs (the 'good' CSOs, who have certification programmes, and other initiatives for the company to opt for. If you are looking for a case study of these conditions, I suggest you follow the Tasmanian forest industry debate in Australia. Here, an entire industry was worn down after years of boycotts, market campaigns, and demands from purchasers for FSC certified product only. The fascinating addendum to this case study is the state government (and the Federal government, unsuccessfully), are still advocating behaviours that not even the companies want. They want to sign the 'peace deal' and the government(s) are trying to prolong the 'war' - for political, election-related issues. All this indicates that boycotts do not work in isolation, and if they do they are less likely to work. 

Investors too are putting pressure on companies. Just yesterday, a group of 60 investors with four trillion in assets under management called for companies to do more for workers' human rights, including wages. Because I study business and human rights with a special emphasis on labor issues, I will wait to see what happens with all of this pressure. I will also monitor the share price, shareholder proposals, and whether there is any evidence that consumers reward Walmart and TJX for their better treatment of workers.  

February 26, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Proposed Fiduciary Duties for Retirement Investment Advisers and Brokers

On Monday the White House released a report on The Effects of Conflicted Investment Advise on Retirement Savings which highlights the unique constraints of many retirement investors.  The current "suitable" investment advise standard leaves room for financial service provides to channel retirement investors into investments with higher fees paid by the investor but higher commissions earned by the professional.  Higher fees paid on investments can reduce the return on savings an average of 12% over the life of the retirement account.  In other words, paying less in fees could mean that retirement savings could last an average of an additional 5 years.  This has major implications for individual financial stability as well as our national retirement policy, which is increasingly dependent upon self-directed retirement savings in the form of 401(k)s and IRAs.

To reduce the conflict of interest and lessen the likelihood that retirement investors will "select" higher-fee investment vehicles based on the self-interested advise of financial services providers, the White House is asking the Department of Labor to impose a fiduciary duty standard requiring the advise provided to be consistent with the best interests of the investor.  This is such an intuitive position that many investors think that financial advisers and brokers are already subject to this requirement.  The proposal would bring the legal reality and enforceable duty in line with the public perspective.  This is not to say that there won't be significant opposition from financial services providers who argue that the industry is already highly regulated.

The announcement and the focus on both retirement investors and the impact of fees on retirement savings is of particular interest to me.  I have written three law review articles on related topics.  

  • Citizen Shareholders and Modernizing the Agency Paradigm (2012) articulates the ways in which retirement investors (I call them Citizen Shareholders) are different from traditional corporate law shareholders;
  • The Retirement Revolution (2013) describes how the fundamental shift in the retirement landscape imposed additional risks onto the retirement investors; and 
  • The Outside Investor (2014) explores how the intersection of corporate law and ERISA standards leave many retirement investors exposed to additional market risks rather than intuitive guess that these investors would be more protected.

-Anne Tucker

February 24, 2015 in Business Associations, Anne Tucker, Corporations, Financial Markets | Permalink | Comments (0)

Breaking News: Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

President Obama just vetoed the bill approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.  The President has said the veto is not about the value of the pipeline, but that it represents the President's view the pipeline should not go around the State Department evaluation process. 

The veto comes at a time when oil transportation is a increasingly an area of concern, especially in light of recent rail accidents in Quebec and West Virginia.  I was recently part of a news story discussing the rail safety concerns in my part of country -- here -- and pipeline transportation tends to be much safer for human safety, though it raises other environmental concerns.

It's not clear whether Keystone XL would be built any time soon, in light of low oil prices, but the veto will certainly keep people talking.  More on this soon.  

February 24, 2015 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Benefit Corporations: What am I Missing--Seriously?

I serve on the Tennessee Bar Association Business Entity Study Committee (BESC) and Business Law Section Executive Committee (mouthfuls, but accurately descriptive).  The BESC was originated to vet proposed changes to business entity statutes in Tennessee.  It was initially populated by members of the Business Law Section and the Tax Law Section, although it's evolved to mostly include members of the former with help from the latter.  The Executive Committee of the Business Law Section reviews the work of the BESC before Tennessee Bar Association leadership takes action.

Just about every legislative session of late, these committees of the Tennessee Bar Association have been asked to review proposed legislation on benefit corporations (termed variously depending on the sponsors).  A review request for a bill proposed for adoption for this session recently came in.  Since I serve on both committees, I get to see these proposed bills all the time.  So far, the proposals have pretty much tracked the B Lab model from a substantive perspective, as tailored to Tennessee law.  To date, we have advised the Tennessee Bar Association that we do not favor this proposed legislation.  Set forth below is a summary of the rationale I usually give.

Continue reading

February 23, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (18)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Did Wal-Mart Prove Me Wrong? Do Boycotts Work?

I have just finished a draft of an article arguing that disclosures don’t work because consumers and investors don’t read them, can’t understand them, don't take any real action when they do pay attention to them, and fail to change corporate behavior when they do threaten boycott. I specifically pointed out the relative lack of success of consumer protests over the years. I also noted that Wal-Mart continues to get bad press for how it treats its employees despite the fact the Norwegian Pension Fund divested hundreds of millions of dollars due to the company’s labor practices, prompting other governments and cities to follow. My thesis—it takes a lot more than divestment and threats of boycott to change company behavior. But perhaps I’m wrong. Yesterday, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon announced a significant wage increase declaring:

We’re strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences… We will earn the trust of all Walmart stakeholders by operating great retail businesses, ensuring world-class compliance, and doing good in the world through social and environmental programs in our communities.

The letter to Wal-Mart associates is here. I don’t know which was more striking, the $1 billion dollar move to $9 and then eventually $10 per hour or the fact that he used the word “stakeholders.” Wal-Mart also announced changes that would affect health insurance and shift scheduling, but the main headline concerned the wage hike. Main Street may be happy but Wall Street was not, and the stock price fell after the announcement. Others pointed out that the pay raise is still not enough to pull workers out of poverty.

Does this move mean that boycotts and advocacy really do work and that we will see more of them? Do I have to edit my article or will this be an anomaly? Will other big retailers or fast food chains follow? Will socially responsible investors reinvest in Wal-Mart? Is Wal-Mart trying to pre-empt government regulation on the minimum wage? Is Wal-Mart signaling to regulators in foreign countries that it cares about workers so should be allowed to operate there more freely? 

I will be teaching a course in transnational business and international human rights in the Fall and Wal-Mart will be a case study. A few years ago, I used the company’s CSR report in my corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility seminar.  I asked the students to consider why Wal-Mart’s report looked and felt so different from Target’s, which essentially has many of the same labor issues. I wanted them to think about the marketing behind CSR from a reputational and regulatory perspective. I posited that Wal-Mart’s CSR report was written for regulators. Two weeks later, the company announced its massive and still ongoing bribery investigation. I’m happy for the workers but a bit curious as to what caused the company to make this announcement now. In the meantime, I will be watching the reaction from advocates, the markets, and other companies closely.  

February 20, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

“We Just Can’t Get Enough of Business Associations”

My seventy business associations students work in law firms on group projects. Law students, unlike business students, don’t particularly like group work at first, even though it requires them to use the skills they will need most as lawyers—the abilities to negotiate, influence, listen, and compromise. Today, as they were doing their group work on buy-sell agreements for an LLC, I started drafting today’s blog post in which I intended to comment on co-blogger Joan Heminway’s post earlier this week about our presentation at Emory on teaching transactional law.

While I was drafting the post, I saw, ironically, an article featuring Professor Michelle Harner, the author of the very exercise that my students were working on. The article discussed various law school programs that were attempting to instill business skills in today’s law students. Most of the schools were training “practice ready” lawyers for big law firms and corporations. I have a different goal. My students will be like most US law school graduates and will work in firms of ten lawyers or less. If they do transactional work, it will likely be for small businesses.  Accordingly, despite my BigLaw and in-house background, I try to focus a lot of the class discussion and group work on what they will see in their real world.

I realized midway through the time allotted in today’s class that the students were spending so much time parsing through the Delaware LLC statute and arguing about proposed changes to the operating agreement in the exercise that they would never finish in time. I announced to the class that they could leave 10 minutes early because they would need to spend at least another hour over the next day finishing their work. Instead most of the class stayed well past the end of class time arguing about provisions, thinking about negotiation tactics with the various members of the LLC, and figuring out which rules were mandatory and which were default. When I told them that they actually needed to vacate the room so another class could enter, a student said, “we just can’t get enough of business associations.” While this comment was meant to be a joke, I couldn’t help but be gratified by the passion that the students displayed while doing this in-class project.  I have always believed that students learn best by doing something related to the statutes rather than reading the dry words crafted by legislators.  My civil procedure students have told me that they feel “advanced” now that they have drafted complaints, answers, and client memos about Rule 15 amendments.

I am certainly no expert on how to engage law students, but I do recommend reading the article that Joan posted, and indeed the whole journal (15 Transactions: Tenn. J. Bus. L. 547 (2014). Finally, please share any ideas you have on keeping students interested in the classroom and prepared for the clients that await them. 

 

February 12, 2015 in Business Associations, Business School, Conferences, Corporations, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Law School, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Negotiation, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Proxy Season: A Gendered View & A Book Recommendation

Andrew Ross Sorkin at the DealBook in his column, Do Activist Investors Target Women C.E.O.'s?, asked earlier this week  if the gender of the CEO influences the target of activist shareholders.  

Only 23 women lead companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Yet at least a quarter of them have fallen into the cross hairs of activist investors.

The article references Patricia Sellers observations in Fortune last month regarding corporate raider Nelson Peltz and his targeted attacks on PepsiCo lead by Indra Nooyi and Mondelez International lead by CEO Irene Rosenfeld as well as his current demands on DuPont, with Ellen Kullman as chairman and CEO.

In the absence of correlating data about female CEO's and weaker company performance, the question lingers is there something besides performance that prompts the targeting of these companies?  To explain the question the article references several studies that report perception differences in competence, risk and performance based solely on gender, with, women on the losing end of these perception biases.

As I think is a common tendency, I gravitate towards information that relates to what I am personally thinking about, experiencing or interested in at the moment.  Earlier on this blog, I wrote about gender issues in the classroom.  On my current reading list, is the book What Works for Women at Work written by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, that (1) reviews the existing literature about pervasive gender bias, (2) articulates how unconscious bias influences outcomes (acknowledging that for the most part society has moved past explicit and overt gender discrimination), (3) identifies four patterns where these biases consistently emerge based in part on her interviews with 127 "successful" women, and (4) discusses how the workplace (meaning men and women) can move beyond the limitations of these implicit biases.  Several colleagues and friends are reading this book along with me as well.  And the best part:  not everyone reading the book is (and not everyone should be) a women.  

-Anne Tucker

February 11, 2015 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Hot Off the Press: Heminway and Narine on Teaching Business Law!

With Marcia's blessing, I am promoting a recently published transcript of a conference panel on which she and I presented last spring.  The title of the published transcript?  "Representing Entities: The Value of Teaching Students How to Draft Board Resolutions and Other Similar Documentation."  Here's the top line from the SSRN abstract:

This edited transcript comprises a panel presentation and related Q&A at "Educating the Transactional Lawyer of Tomorrow," Emory University School of Law's biennial transactional law conference held June 6-7, 2014. The transcript includes Professor Heminway's talk and a separate presentation by Professor Marcia Narine on "How to Make Transactional Law Less Terrifying and a Bit More Interesting." The panel, "Transactional Drafting: Beyond Contracts," features approaches to teaching transactional business law courses. 

Enjoy!

February 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Marcia Narine | Permalink | Comments (0)