Tuesday, December 10, 2013
A recent study, Who Owns West Virginia? (full report pdf), gives a glimpse into the land ownership in the state. The report finds that much of the state’s private land is "owned by large, mainly absentee corporations, [but] the list of top owners – once dominated by energy, land holding and paper companies – now includes major timber management concerns."
As reported by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette, the report finds that "[n]one of the state's top 10 private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia." Although it is accurate that the top ten owners are not indivdual owners, I will note that not all of the top ten owners are "corporations." There is at least one master limited partnership and one limited liability company (LLC). That may not mean much in the sense of absentee ownership, but it is a doctrinal distinction I maintain is still important.
It's not shocking that these entity owners would be out of state, especially because that was true back in 1974, too, when the last study was done. There are relatively few large entities chartered or headquartered in West Virginia, and it appears that many of the state chartered companies that were around in 1974 have since been acquired by larger, out-of-state entities. Absentee ownership is hardly a new, or even modern, phenomenon in the state. The report notes: "By 1810, as much as 93 percent of land in present day West Virginia was held by absentee owners, more than any other state in the region and likely any other state in the Union." Much of the ownership is still based in the region, though, as many of the large companies holding West Virginia land are based in Virginia.
Although the purchase of West Virginia’s land by timber management companies is perhaps the most interesting finding by investigators for this report, researchers also found:
The top 25 private owners own 17.6 percent of the state’s approximately 13 million private acres.
In six counties, the top ten landowners own at least 50 percent of private land. Of the six, five are located in the southern coalfields – Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone. Wyoming County has the highest concentration of ownership of any county.
Not one of the state’s top ten private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia.
Many of the counties – including Harrison, Barbour, Mineral, Lincoln, and Putnam – that had high concentrations of absentee corporate ownership (over 50%) in Miller’s 1974 study did not in this analysis.
Only three corporations that were among the state’s top ten landowners in 1974 remained on that list in 2011. If the sale of MeadWestvaco properties to Plum Creek Timber is completed, only two of the 1974 top owners will still be on the list.
Nationally timberland management concerns control about half of the nation’s timberlands that had been managed by industrial timber companies until the 1980s.
Finally, another potentially important finding is different level of entity ownership by region as related to the minerals beneath the land -- coal and natural gas. The study found:
There are also large geographical disparities in the share of large private landowners in the state. All but one of the counties where the top ten landowners owned at least 50 percent of the private land is in the southern coalfield coalfields - Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone. In the Marcellus gas field counties of the northeast and north-central part of the state, the private land ownership is less concentrated and tends to be owned more by individuals than large out-of-state corporations.
The study looked only at surface ownership, and not mineral rights ownership, so it's hard to tell if this gives an accurate look at the level of entity ownership in the Marcellus Shale. Moreover, mineral estates may be owned by private individuals who have leased their rights to entities, so it may be that even more of the state's property rights are effectively controlled by entities. The report indicates more study would be useful here, and I concur.
The takeaway: This report has the potential to be a good starting point for considering how to move the state forward in trying times. As the study notes: "[S]tudying patterns of land ownership in West Virginia through the lens of the 2011 tax data can help us understand our history, make wise policies in the present and better map the future of the state."
I think that's right. To me, a big cavaet is to ensure that the report be used to react to what is and to plan for what could be, rather then getting bogged down in what was or could have been. If people spend their time lamenting that outside corporations own land in the state, they will be missing the opportunity to do something positive for the future, like figuring out what can be done to promote sustainable development in the state by working with the current landowners. I hope the focus is primarily on the latter. There have already been enough missed opportunities.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Schragger & Schwartzman argue that “debates about the ontological status of group or corporate entities are largely irrelevant.”
Richard Schragger & Micah Schwartzman have posted “Some Realism about Corporate Rights” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Can we meaningfully speak of a church’s right to conscience or a corporation’s right to religious liberty? One way to approach this question is by inquiring into the nature of churches and corporations, asking whether these are the kinds of entities that can or should have rights. We have recently seen this kind of reasoning in public debates over whether corporations have free speech rights, and, relatedly, in arguments about the religious free exercise rights of churches, non-profits, and for-profit corporations. Those in favor of such rights sometimes argue that corporations and churches are moral agents, capable of exercising rights separate and apart from the rights and interests of their members; whereas, those opposed tend to argue that churches, corporations or groups are mere aggregations of individuals, or else artificial persons created or recognized by the state to advance the interests of those who compose them.
In this paper, we argue that this form of argument is mistaken and that debates about the ontological status of group or corporate entities are largely irrelevant. One does not need a particular theory of a corporation, organization, or group’s metaphysical status in order to determine its legal rights. To defend this claim, we first consider and reject H.L.A. Hart's semantic critique of corporate personality theories. Instead we follow John Dewey's realist argument against corporate metaphysics. We develop that argument and apply it to current litigation over whether for-profit corporations can assert rights of religious free exercise against the requirement that they provide health insurance coverage for contraception.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
Eric Chiappinelli has posted “The Underappreciated Importance of Personal Jurisdiction in Delaware's Success” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The judges of the Delaware Court of Chancery are aggressively trying to stop stockholder/plaintiffs from filing corporate law cases outside of Delaware. Delaware believes that its position as the center of corporate litigation is in danger because cases are no longer filed exclusively there. If litigation continues to flow away from Delaware, it would jeopardize Delaware’s prominence in corporate law and the large revenues Delaware receives from out of state businesses that are incorporated there.
I argue that scholars and the Delaware judges underappreciate the vital importance of personal jurisdiction over corporate directors in Delaware’s quest to become and remain the center of corporate litigation. I show that Delaware’s dominance in litigation in large part stemmed from, and is now dependent upon, its unique system of personal jurisdiction.
None of Delaware’s attempts to stop cases from flowing out of Delaware will be enduringly successful without addressing the weaknesses in its current personal jurisdiction statute. I argue that Delaware should adopt a new statute that both will remedy the current flaws and will be effective in encouraging stockholder/plaintiffs to litigate in Delaware.
Friday, December 6, 2013
There's an interesting slide show available on Forbes, 10 Terms You Must Know Before Raising Venture Capital.
It's interesting, but it overlooks the most important thing entrepreneurs should know before raising venture capital: the need to hire an experienced lawyer. Learning the terminology won't substitute for representation by someone who knows what he or she is doing.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Yesterday was the last day of a fantastic three-day conference at the UN in Geneva on business and human rights, and I will blog about it next week after I fully absorb all that I have heard. As I type this (Wednesday), I am sitting in a session on corporate governance and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights moderated by a representative from Rio Tinto. The multi-stakeholder panel consists of representatives from Caux Roundtable Japan (focused on moral capitalism), the Norwegian National Contact Point (the governmental entity responsible for responding to claims between aggrieved parties and companies), Aviva Public Limited (insurance, pensions UK), Cividep (a civil society organization in India), and Petrobas (energy company in Brazil).
If you want to learn more about the conference, I have been tweeting for the past two days at @mlnarine, and you can follow the others who have been posting at #UNForumWatch #unforumwatch or #businessforum. 1700 businesspeople, lawyers, academics, NGOs, state delegates and members of civil society are here. Economist Joseph Stiglitz presented a fiery keynote address. Some of the biggest names in business such as Microsoft, Unilever, Total, Vale and others have represented corporate interests.
Depending on where you are, by the time you read this, I will be in Oslo attending a conference on climate change and global company law and will be speaking on the US perspective on Friday. I will blog on that conference on my Thursday spot in two weeks.
On a completely unrelated note, with Bitcoin appreciating over 5000% in the past year (see here) and reaching $1000 last week, I thought readers would be interested in this article, “Whack-A-Mole: Why Prosecuting Digital Currency Exchanges Won’t Stop Online Money Laundering”by Catherine Martin Christopher. Au revoir from Geneva. Hallo from Norway.
The abstract is below.
Law enforcement efforts to combat money laundering are increasingly misplaced. As money laundering and other underlying crimes shift into cyberspace, U.S. law enforcement focuses on prosecuting financial institutions’ regulatory violations to prevent crime, rather than going after criminals themselves. This article will describe current U.S. anti-money laundering laws, with particular criticism of how attenuated prosecution has become from crime. The article will then describe the use of Bitcoin as a money-laundering vehicle, and analyze the difficulties for law enforcement officials who attempt to choke off Bitcoin transactions in lieu of prosecuting underlying criminal activity. The article concludes with recommendations that law enforcement should look to digital currency exchangers not as criminals, but instead as partners in the effort to eradicate money laundering and — more importantly — the crimes underlying the laundering.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Earlier this week the SEC released its 2014 rulemaking agenda and excluded from the list is a proposal for public companies to disclose political spending. In 2011, the Committee on Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending, comprised of 10 leading corporate and securities academics, petitioned the SEC to adopt a political spending disclosure rule. This petition has received a historic number of comments—over 640,000—which can be found here.
The Washington Post reported that after the petition was filed,
A groundswell of support followed, with retail investors, union pension funds and elected officials at the state and federal levels writing to the agency in favor of such a requirement. The idea attracted more than 600,000 mostly favorable written comments from the public — a record response for the agency.
Omitting corporate political spending from the 2014 agenda has received steep criticism from the NYT editorial board in an opinion piece written yesterday declaring the decision unwise “even though the case for disclosure is undeniable.” Proponents of corporate political spending disclosure like Public Citizen are “appalled” and “shocked” by the SEC’s decision, while the Chamber of Commerce declares the SEC’s omission a coup that appropriately avoids campaign finance reform.
Included in the 2014 agenda are Dodd-Frank and JOBS Act measures, as well as a proposal to enhance the fiduciary duties owed by broker-dealers. More on the agenda in future posts….
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Here in West Virginia, it's exam time for our law students. For my Business Organizations students, tomorrow is the day. For students getting ready to take exams, and for any lawyers out there who might need a refresher, the Kentucky Supreme Court provides a good reminder that LLCs are separate from their owners, even if there is only one owner.
Here's a basic rundown of the case, Turner v. Andrew, 2011-SC-000614-DG, 2013 WL 6134372 (Ky. Nov. 21, 2013) (available here): In 2007, an employee of M&W Milling was driving a feed-truck owned by his employer. A movable auger mounted on the feed-truck swung into oncoming traffic and struck and seriously damaged a dump truck owned by Billy Andrew, the sole member of Billy Andrew, Jr. Trucking, LLC, which owned the damaged truck. Andrew filed suit against the employee and M & W Milling claiming personal property damage to the truck and the loss of income derived from the use of damaged truck. Notably, the LLC was not a named plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Hey issue spotters: check out the last line of the prior paragraph. (Also: a bit of an odd twist is the Andrew chose not to respond to discovery requests, though that was not critical to the issue of whether the LLC had to be named for Andrew to recover.)
A limited liability company is a “hybrid business entity having attributes of both a corporation and a partnership.” Patmon v. Hobbs, 280 S.W.3d 589, 593 (Ky.App.2009). As this Court stated in Spurlock v. Begley, 308 S.W.3d 657, 659 (Ky.2010), “limited liability companies are creatures of statute” controlled by Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) Chapter 275. KRS 275.010(2) states unequivocally that “a limited liability company is a legal entity distinct from its members.” Moreover, KRS 275.155, entitled “Proper parties to proceedings,” states:
A member of a limited liability company shall not be a proper party to a proceeding by or against a limited liability company, solely by reason of being a member of the limited liability company, except if the object of the proceeding is to enforce a member's right against or liability to the limited liability company or as otherwise provided in an operating agreement.
Not surprisingly, courts across the country addressing limited liability statutes similar to our own have uniformly recognized the separateness of a limited liability company from its members even where there is only one member.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
- Matteo Tonello on “The Separation of Ownership from Ownership”
The increase in institutional ownership of corporate stock has led to questions about the role of financial intermediaries in the corporate governance process. This post focuses on the issues associated with the so-called “separation of ownership from ownership,” arising from the growth of three types of institutional investors, pensions, mutual funds, and hedge funds.
- Frank Reynolds: “Delaware must fix state takeover law now, law professor warns”
Originally, the anti-takeover law passed its court challenges because the judges accepted faulty data that showed investors could acquire at least 85 percent of the target corporation and satisfy the Williams Act, Subramanian said. But none of the cases used to support the anti-takeover law actually allowed hostile suitors to acquire a controlling 85 percent of a target company, he said, and plaintiffs using research from new studies would be able to convince a judge that the statute is unconstitutionally restrictive.
- Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: “Let’s Listen to Pope Francis on Economics”
For me, the financial crisis was an eye-opening moment. I’ve long believed in free market economics and believed that the Church would do a lot of good in the world if it embraced it. And I still believe those things. But what the financial crisis has laid bare is that the most conventional version of free market economics was actually dead wrong.
- Martin Lipton: “Some Thoughts for Boards of Directors in 2014”
In many respects, the relentless drive to adopt corporate governance mandates seems to have reached a plateau: essentially all of the prescribed “best practices”—including say-on-pay, the dismantling of takeover defenses, majority voting in the election of directors and the declassification of board structures—have been codified in rules and regulations or voluntarily adopted by a majority of S&P 500 companies…. In other respects, however, the corporate governance landscape continues to evolve in meaningful ways.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
On Saturday evening I leave for Geneva to attend the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights with 1,000 of my closest friends including NGOs, Fortune 250 Companies, government entities, academics and other stakeholders. I plan to blog from the conference next week. I am excited about the substance but have been dreading the expense because the last time I was in Switzerland everything from the cab fare to the fondue was obscenely expensive, and I remember thinking that everyone in the country must make a very good living. Apparently, according to the New York Times, the Swiss, whom I thought were superrich, "scorn the Superrich," and last March a two-thirds majority voted to ban bonuses, golden handshakes and to require firms to consult with their shareholders on executive compensation. Nonetheless, last week, 65% of voters rejected a measure to limit executive pay to 12 times the lowest paid employee at their company. According to press reports many Swiss supported the measure in principle but did not agree with the government imposing caps on pay.
Meanwhile stateside, next week the SEC closes its comment period on its own pay ratio proposal under Section 953(b) of the Dodd-Frank Act. Among other things, the SEC rule requires companies to disclose: the median of the annual total compensation of all its employees except the CEO; the annual total compensation of its CEO; and the ratio of the two amounts. It does not specify a methodology for calculation but does require the calculation to include all employees (including full-time, part-time, temporary, seasonal and non-U.S. employees), those employed by the company or any of its subsidiaries, and those employed as of the last day of the company’s prior fiscal year. A number of bloggers have criticized the rule (see here for example), business groups generally oppose it, and the agency has been flooded with tens of thousands of comment letters already.
The SEC must take some action because Congress has dictated a mandate through Dodd-Frank. It can’t just listen to the will of the people (many of whom support the rule) like the Swiss government did. It will be interesting to see what the agency does. After all two of the commissioners voted against the rule, and one has publicly spoken out against it. But the SEC does have some discretion. The question is how will it exercise that discretion and will the agency once again face litigation as it has with other Dodd-Frank measures where business groups have challenged its actions (proxy access, resource extraction and conflict minerals, for example). More important, will it achieve the right results? Will investors armed with more information change their nonbinding say-on-pay votes or switch out directors who overpay underperforming or unscrupulous executives? If not, then will this be another well-intentioned rule that does nothing to stop the next financial crisis?
Thursday, November 21, 2013
When teaching on entity formation, my students often ask why so many companies choose Delaware. Numerous academics have attempted to answer that question, and now the Official Website of the First State [Delaware] lists reasons why it thinks businesses choose Delaware.
The listed reasons are:
- The statute
- The courts
- The case law
- The legal tradition
- The Delaware Secretary of State
No new claims here, but interesting to see how the state sees (or promotes) its advantages.
The webpage also includes a blog, entitled "Delaware Corporate and Legal Services Blog," which only has a few posts so far, but may be worth tracking.
H/T: Francis Pileggi
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
I was recently asked to evaluate a corporation’s obligation to indemnify a director named in a derivative suit initiated by the corporation alleging that the director usurped corporate opportunities. The MBCA establishes a standard framework for optional and mandatory indemnification of directors and officers, sets the appropriate boundary of indemnification obligations (i.e,. no reimbursement of derivative suit settlements or intentional misconduct), establishes the procedures for indemnification and advancement of expenses, and provides mechanisms for directors to enforce their indemnification rights through court orders. The standard procedures for indemnification require the corporation to authorize the indemnification and make a determination that the conduct at issue qualifies for indemnification.
MBCA § 8.55 Determination and Authorization of Indemnification
(a) A corporation may not indemnify a director ….[until after] a determination has been made that indemnification is permissible ..[and].. director has met the relevant standard of conduct ….
(b) The determination shall be made:
(1)…. a majority vote of all the qualified directors…., or by a majority of the members of a committee;
(2) by special legal counsel ….or
(3) by the shareholders, but shares owned by or voted under the control of a director who at the time is not a qualified director may not be voted on the determination.
(c) Authorization of indemnification shall be made in the same manner as the determination that indemnification is permissible…..
The determination is tricky for advanced expenses because the determination is made before the adjudication and with limited facts. Yet, as the comments to the MBCA reflect, access to advance funds is often necessary to provide directors/officers with full protection because few individuals have personal resources to finance potentially complex and protracted litigation. Some states, like Georgia OCGA § 14-2-856 and Delaware § 145, broaden the indemnification provisions established in the MBCA by providing procedures for shareholder agreements to expand the scope of corporate indemnification obligations and avoid the “determination” of complying conduct required under the MBCA. A writing mandating an advance of expenses creates a vested right that cannot be unilaterally terminated. More importantly, statutes that recognize a vested right to advanced expenses avoids the requirement of a determination regarding the advance, which will often constitute a self-dealing transaction (director named in suit and seeking advance, also votes on determination of conduct qualification for indemnification) and therefore requires the entire fairness evaluation.
The expanded indemnification statutes raise all sorts of interesting questions about the scope of indemnification (the Georgia statute for example is intended to expand the scope to possibly include derivative suit settlements and fines), the process required for the mandatory advances (i.e., whether a shareholder vote approving the obligation can later be attacked because a defendant, who is now conflicted, voted shares in favor of the obligation), and whether these provisions violate public policy. If you know of cases addressing these issues or litigating these expanded indemnification statutes in other jurisdictions, please respond in the comments.
Friday, November 15, 2013
I have posted an updated draft of my latest paper Rehabilitating Concession Theory, which is forthcoming in the Oklahoma Law Review, on SSRN. I have made only minor changes to the the prior draft, but I thought I’d post the abstract and link to the paper here in case any blog readers haven’t seen the paper before and might be interested in the content.
In Citizens United v. FEC, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled that, “the Government cannot restrict political speech based on the speaker's corporate identity.” The decision remains controversial, with many arguing that the Court effectively overturned over 100 years of precedent. I have previously argued that this decision turned on competing conceptions of the corporation, with the majority adopting a contractarian view while the dissent advanced a state concession view. However, the majority was silent on the issue of corporate theory, and the dissent went so far as to expressly disavow any role for corporate theory at all. At least as far as the dissent is concerned, this avoidance of corporate theory may have been motivated at least in part by the fact that concession theory has been marginalized to the point where anyone advancing it as a serious theory risks mockery at the hands of some of the most esteemed experts in corporate law. For example, one highly-regarded commentator criticized the dissent by saying: “It has been over half-a-century since corporate legal theory, of any political or economic stripe, took the concession theory seriously.” In this Essay I consider whether this marginalization of concession theory is justified. I conclude that the reports of concession theory’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and that there remains a serious role for the theory in discussions concerning the place of corporations in society. This is important because without a vibrant concession theory we are primarily left with aggregate theory and real entity theory, two theories of the corporation that both defer to private ordering over government regulation.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
This week two articles caught my eye. The New York Times’ Room for Debate feature presented conflicting views on the need to “prosecute executives for Wall Street crime.” My former colleague at UMKC Law School, Bill Black, has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute executives for their actions during the most recent financial crisis, and recommended bolstering regulators to build cases that they can win. Professor Ellen Podgor argued that the laws have overcriminalized behavior in a business context, and that the “line between criminal activities and acceptable business judgments can be fuzzy.” She cited the thousands of criminal statutes and regulations and compared them to what she deems to be overbroad statutes such as RICO, mail and wire fraud, and penalties for making false statements. She worried about the potential for prosecutors to abuse their powers when individuals may not understand when they are breaking the law.
Charles Ferguson, director of the film “Inside Job,” likened the activity of some major financial executives to that of mobsters and argued that they have actually done more damage to the economy. He questioned why the government hadn’t used RICO to pursue more criminal cases. Former prosecutor and now private lawyer Allen Goelman pointed out rather bluntly that prosecutors aren’t cozy with Wall Street—they just won’t bring a case when the evidence won’t allow them to win. He also reminded us that greed and stupidity, which he claimed was the cause of the “overwhelming majority of the risky and irresponsible behavior by Wall Street,” are not crimes. Professor Lawrence Friedman wrote that the law “announces the community’s conceptions of right and wrong,” and if we now treat corporations like people under Citizens United then we should likewise make the executives who run them the objects of the community’s condemnation of wrongdoing.
Finally, Senator Elizabeth Warren concluded that if corporations know that they can break the law, pay a large settlement, and not admit any guilt or have any individual prosecuted, they won’t have any incentive to follow the law. She also argued for public disclosure of these settlements including whether there were tax deductions or releases of liability.
This brings me to the second interesting article. Former SEC enforcement chief and now Kirkland & Ellis partner Robert Khuzami recently said, “I didn’t think there was much doubt in most cases that a defendant engaged in wrongdoing when you had a 20-page complaint, you had them writing a big check, you may well have prosecuted an individual in the wrongdoing.” While not endorsing or rejecting current SEC Chair Mary Jo White’s position to require certain companies to admit wrongdoing in settlements, he raised a concern about whether this change in policy would place undue strain on the agency’s limited resources by forcing more cases to go to trial. He also raised a valid point about the legitimate fear that firms should have in that admitting guilt could expose them to lawsuits, criminal prosecution, and potential business losses. Chair White did not set out specific guidelines for the new protocol, but so far this year 22 companies have benefitted from the no admit/no deny policy and have paid $14 million in sanctions. But we don’t know how many executives from these companies lost their jobs. On the other hand, would these same companies have settled if they had to admit liability or would they have demanded their day in court?
Should the desire to preserve agency resources trump the need to protect the investing public—the stated purpose of the SEC? If neither the company nor the executive faces true accountability, what will be the incentive to change? In a post-Citizens United world, will Congressmen strengthen the laws or bolster the power and resources of the regulators to go after the corporations that help fund their campaigns? Have we, as Dostoyevsky asserted, become “used” to the current state of affairs where drug dealers and murderers go to jail, but there aren’t enough resources to pursue financial miscreants?
What will make companies and executives “do the right thing”? Dostoyevksy also wrote “intelligence alone is not nearly enough when it comes to acting wisely,” and he was right. Perhaps the fear of the punishment for clearly enumerated and understood crimes, and the fear of the admission of wrongdoing with the attendant collateral damage that causes will lead to a change in individual and corporate behavior. I agree with Professor Podgor that there is clearly room for prosecutorial abuse of power and that the myriad of laws can lead to a no-mans land for the unwary executive forced to increase margins and earnings per share (while possibly getting a healthy bonus). While I have argued in the past for an affirmative defense for certain kinds of corporate crimial liability, I also agree with Professor Black and Senator Warren. At some point, people and the corporations (made up of people) need more than “intelligence” to act “wisely.” They need the punishment to fit the crime.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
We live in a world where most working individuals have some retirement savings invested in the stock market. The stock market funds, in part, college educations, and serve as the primary wealth accumulator for post-baby boom generations. My parents—an elementary school teacher and a furniture salesman—lived in Midwestern frugality and invested their savings from the mid-80’s until 2006 when they pulled out of the market. They retired early, comfortably (so I believe), and largely because of consistent gains in the stock market over a 30 year period. The question is whether this story is repeatable as a viable outcome for working investors now.
The Wall Street Journal ran a story on Monday “Stocks Regain Appeal” documenting the number of dollars flowing into markets from retail investors as well as the anecdotal confidence of investors. The WSJ reports that:
“U.S. stock mutual funds have attracted more cash this year than they have in any year since 2004, according to fund-tracker Lipper. Investors have sent $76 billion into U.S. stock funds in 2013. From 2006 through 2012, they withdrew $451 billion.”
This seems indisputably good right? Maybe. The real question for me is why is more money flowing into the markets and confidence high? Is this behavior driven by information, emotion, or herd mentality? Robert Shiller, recent Nobel Prize winner and author of Irrational Exuberance, wrote in March in a column for the NYT that investors were confident, but who knows why. Shiller’s conclusions were based on data from the cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio, CAPE, of 23 suggesting that the market was priced high, which is interesting when compared with his data that 74% of individual investors did not think that the market was overpriced. Shiller strengthened his cautionary stance on the market last month when the CAPE held at 23.7, and Shiller warned that stocks were the “most expensive relative to earnings in more than five years.”
This is business law blog, not a market blog, yet the role of the market interests me greatly. As corporate law scholars, we teach students and write about the legal limits, obligations and assumptions that establish the market and dictate how individuals and institutions interact with the market and corresponding corporate-level controls. In 2007 the market collapsed (self-corrected if we want to use the economists’ terms) and what was the result? Dodd-Frank and a series of legislation aimed at policing the market. If we are interested in the laws that govern the market, surely some attention must be paid to how and why the market works the way that it does.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Today is November 12, 2013, or 11/12/13. (It also happens to be my 43rd birthday. Yay me.)
In honor of the unique date, I decided to take a look at some business cases from the most recent prior 11/12/13. I found a couple of interesting passages. One case, Cotten v. Tyson, 89 A. 113, 116 (Md. Nov. 12, 1913), provides a good overview of some basic corporate principals:
 The principle is elementary that a stockholder, as such, is not an owner of any portion of the property of the corporation and, apart from his stock, has no interest in its assets which is capable of being assigned. [citing cases]
 Where one person is the owner of all the capital stock of a corporation, it has been held bound by his acts in reference to its property. [citing cases]
 But it is entirely clear upon reason and authority that a stockholder of a corporation, while retaining his stock ownership, cannot assign the interest represented by his stock in any particular class of the corporate assets. Such an attempted alienation would not only be incompatible with the retention of title to the stock in the assignor but its enforcement would be altogether impracticable. The stockholder himself could not require the corporation to segregate and distribute a specific portion of its property, and certainly he could not create and confer such a right by assignment.
 . . .Even if a stockholder could effectively assign an interest in the choses in action of his corporation, such a result could obviously not be accomplished by a mere assignment of his interest in the assets of its debtors.
Another, and in contrast, Smith v. Pullum, 63 So. 965 (Ala. Nov. 12, 1913), provides a sound example of terrible legal jargon:
The bill . . . alleges that it was agreed between the three parties, viz., G.W. Smith, William Pullum, and W.K. Pullum, that upon the purchase of the property for the above sum a corporation was to be formed, with a paid in capital of $4,500; that $1,650 of the said capital stock was to be the property of W.K. Pullum, $600 of said capital stock was to be the property of said Wm. Pullum, and $2,250 of said capital stock was to be the property of said G.W. Smith.
The case uses the term "said" seventy-five times. It's a four-page case.
Here's hoping we can dispense with said practice posthaste.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Martin Gelter & Geneviève Helleringer posted “Constituency Directors and Corporate Fiduciary Duties” on SSRN a few weeks ago, and I’m finally getting around to passing on the abstract:
In this chapter, we identify a fundamental contradiction in the law of fiduciary duty of corporate directors across jurisdictions, namely the tension between the uniformity of directors’ duties and the heterogeneity of directors themselves. Directors are often formally or informally selected by specific shareholders (such as a venture capitalist or an important shareholder) or other stakeholders of the corporation (such as creditors or employees), or they are elected to represent specific types of shareholders (e.g. minority investors). In many jurisdictions, the law thus requires or facilitates the nomination of what has been called “constituency” directors. Legal rules tend nevertheless to treat directors as a homogeneous group that is expected to pursue a uniform goal. We explore this tension and suggest that it almost seems to rise to the level of hypocrisy: Why do some jurisdictions require employee representatives that are then seemingly not allowed to strongly advocate employee interests? Looking at US, UK, German and French law, our chapter explores this tension from the perspective of economic and behavioral theory.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
As Marc O. DeGirolami notes here: "In an extensive decision, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has enjoined the enforcement of the HHS contraception mandate against several for-profit corporations as well as the individual owners of those corporations.” I have not had a chance to read the entire decision (which you can find here), but I did do a quick search for “corporation” and pass on the following excerpts I found interesting.
The plaintiffs are two Catholic families and their closely held corporations—one a construction company in Illinois and the other a manufacturing firm in Indiana. The businesses are secular and for profit, but they operate in conformity with the faith commitments of the families that own and manage them…. These cases—two among many currently pending in courts around the country—raise important questions about whether business owners and their closely held corporations may assert a religious objection to the contraception mandate and whether forcing them to provide this coverage substantially burdens their religious-exercise rights. We hold that the plaintiffs—the business owners and their companies—may challenge the mandate. We further hold that compelling them to cover these services substantially burdens their religious exercise rights…. Nothing in RFRA [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] suggests that the Dictionary Act’s definition of “person” is a “poor fit” with the statutory scheme. To use the Supreme Court’s colloquialism, including corporations in the universe of “persons” with rights under RFRA is not like “forcing a square peg into a round hole.” [Rowland, 506 US 194, 200 (1993).] A corporation is just a special form of organizational association. No one doubts that organizational associations can engage in religious practice…. It’s common ground that nonprofit religious corporations exercise religion in the sense that their activities are religiously motivated. So unless there is something disabling about mixing profit-seeking and religious practice, it follows that a faith-based, for-profit corporation can claim free-exercise protection to the extent that an aspect of its conduct is religiously motivated.
The quote I focus on above is: “A corporation is just a special form of organizational association.” I have argued previously that when courts render decisions like the Seventh Circuit did here, they seem to be giving mere lip service to the word “special” in that sentence. For more on that, you can go here.
Friday, November 8, 2013
The Economist has an interesting piece on how “[a] mutation in the way companies are financed and managed will change the distribution of the wealth they create.” You can read the entire article here. A brief excerpt follows.
The new popularity of the [Master Limited Partnership] is part of a larger shift in the way businesses structure themselves that is changing how American capitalism works…. Collectively, distorporations such as the MLPs have a valuation on American markets in excess of $1 trillion. They represent 9% of the number of listed companies and in 2012 they paid out 10% of the dividends; but they took in 28% of the equity raised…. [The] beneficiaries, though, are a select class. Quirks in various investment and tax laws block or limit investing in pass-through structures by ordinary mutual funds, including the benchmark broad index funds, and by many institutions. The result is confusion and the exclusion of a large swathe of Americans from owning the companies hungriest for the capital the markets can provide, and thus from getting the best returns on offer….
Another booming pass-through structure is that of the “business development company” (BDC). These firms raise public equity and debt much like a leveraged fund.… What they all share is an ability to do bank-like business—lending to companies which need money—without bank-like regulatory compliance costs….
Andrew Morriss, of the University of Alabama law school, sees the shift as an entrepreneurial response to a century’s worth of governmental distortions made through taxation and regulation. At the heart of those actions were the ideas set down in “The Modern Corporation and Private Property”, a landmark 1932 study by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means. As Berle, a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s “brain trust”, would later write, the shift of “two-thirds of the industrial wealth of the country from individual ownership to ownership by the large, publicly financed corporations vitally changes the lives of property owners, the lives of workers and …almost necessarily involves a new form of economic organisation of society.” … Several minor retreats notwithstanding, the government’s role in the publicly listed company has expanded relentlessly ever since.
November 8, 2013 in Business Associations, Books, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, LLCs, Partnership, Securities Regulation, Stefan J. Padfield, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, November 7, 2013
In 2011, I met with members of the SEC and Congressional staffers as part of a coalition of business people and lawyers raising concerns about the proposed Dodd-Frank whistleblower provision. Ten days after leaving my compliance officer position and prior to joining academia, I testified before a Congressional committee about the potential unintended consequences of the law. The so-called “bounty-hunter” law establishes that whistleblowers who provide original information to the SEC related to securities fraud or violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act are eligible for ten to thirty percent of the amount of the recovery in any action in which the SEC levies sanctions in excess of $1 million dollars. The legislation also contains an anti-retaliation clause that expands the reach of Sarbanes-Oxley. Congress enacted the legislation to respond to the Bernard Madoff scandal. The SEC recently awarded $14 million dollars to one whistleblower. To learn more about the program, click here.
I argued, among other things, that the legislation assumed that all companies operate at the lowest levels of ethical behavior and instead provided incentives to bypass existing compliance programs when there are effective incentive structures within the existing Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations. Although they are no longer binding, judges use the Guidelines to sentence corporations that plead guilty or are so adjudicated after trial. Prosecutors use them as guideposts when making deals with companies that enter into nonprosecution and deferred prosecution agreements. I recommended: (1) that there be a presumption that whistleblowers report internally first unless there is no viable, credible internal option; (2) that the SEC inform the company that an anonymous report has been made unless there is legitimate reason not to do so and (3) that those with a fiduciary duty to report be excluded from the bounty provisions of the bill and be required to report upward internally before reporting externally.
Fortunately, the final legislation does make it more difficult for certain people to report externally without first trying to use the compliance program, if one exists. Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that a growing number of compliance personnel are blowing the whistle on their own companies, notwithstanding the fact that they must wait 120 days under the rules after reporting internally to go to the SEC. One of the attorneys interviewed in the WSJ article, Gregory Keating, is a shareholder Littler Mendelsohn, a firm that exclusively represents management in labor matters. His firm and others are seeing more claims brought by compliance officers.
This development leads to a number of questions. What about compliance officers who are also lawyers, as I was? NY state has answered the question by excluding lawyers from the awards, and I am sure that many other states are considering it or will now start after reading yesterday’s article. What does this mean for those forward thinking law schools that are training law students to consider careers in compliance? I believe that this is a viable career choice in an oversaturated legal market because the compliance field is exploding, while the world of BigLaw is contracting. Do we advise students considering the compliance field to forego their bar licenses after graduation because one day they could be a whistleblower and face a conflict of interest? I think that’s unwise. What about compliance personnel in foreign countries? Courts have already provided conflicting rulings about their eligibility for whistleblower status under the law.
Most significantly, in many companies compliance officers make at least an annual report to the board on the activities of the compliance program in part to ensure that the board fulfills its Caremark responsibilities. These reports generally do and should involve detailed, frank discussions about current and future risks. Will and should board members become less candid if they worry that their compliance officer may blow the whistle?
Could the Sentencing Commission have avoided the need for compliance officers to blow the whistle externally by recommending that compliance officers report directly to the board as the heads of internal audit typically do? This option was considered and rejected during the last round of revisions to the Sentencing Guidelines in 2010. Compliance officers who do not report to general counsels or others in the C-Suite but have direct access to board members might feel less of a need to report to external agencies. This is why, perhaps, in almost every corporate integrity agreement or deferred prosecution agreement, the government requires the chief compliance officer to report to the board or at least to someone outside of the legal department.
To be clear, I am not opposed to the legislation in principle. And for a compliance officer to report on his or her own organization, the situation internally was probably pretty dire. Gregory Keating and I sit on the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee, which will examine almost two dozen anti-retaliation laws in the airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities fields. During our two-year term we will work with academics, lawyers, government officials, organized labor and members of the public to make the whistleblower laws more effective for both labor and management.
State bars, government agencies, boards, general counsels, plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense lawyers need to watch these developments of the compliance officer as whistleblower closely. I will be watching as well, both as a former compliance officer and for material for a future article.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
As noted over at the Family Law Prof Blog, Stanford Graduate School of Business recently issued a report, "Separation Anxiety: The Impact of CEO Divorce on Shareholders” (pdf), in which a study considered the impact CEO divorces have on the CEO's corporation. The report indicates that recent events "suggest that shareholders should pay attention to matters involving the personal lives of CEOs and take this information into account when making investment decisions."
The study found that a CEO's divorce has the potential to impact the corporation and shareholders in three primary ways. First, is a possible reduction in influence or control if a CEO as to sell or transfer stock in the company as part of the divorce settlement. Second, divorce can negatively impact "the productivity, concentration, and energy levels of the CEO" or even result in premature retirement. Third, the sudden change in wealth because of the divorce could lead to a change in the CEO's appetite for risk, making the CEO either more risk averse or more willing to take risks.
The report argues that this matters because:
1. Divorce can impact the control, productivity, and economic incentives of an executive—and therefore corporate value. Should shareholders and boards be concerned when a CEO and spouse separate?
2. Rigorous research demonstrates a relation between the size and mix of a CEO’s equity exposure and risk taking. Should the board “make whole” the CEO in order to get incentives back to where they originally intended? Would this decision be a “cost” to shareholders because it represents supplemental pay that could have been used to fund profitable investments, or a “benefit” because it realigns incentives and risk taking?
3. Companies do not always disclose when a CEO gets divorced. Reports only come out much later when shares are sold to satisfy the terms of the settlement. Is divorce a private matter, or should companies disclose this information to shareholders? If so, how detailed should this disclosure be? (citation omitted)
While I think this is somewhat interesting, I am not sure how much it helps shareholders or boards in their consideration of CEOs or their companies. Any major life problems or events -- divorce, death of a close family member, major losses in other investments, addiction, etc. -- could (in varying degrees) have a negative impact on control, performance, and risk tolerance.
In addition, the study cites two high-profile examples: Harold Hamm and Rupert Murdoch. Both such divorces are likely to touch on all the issues the study raises. Still, for both men, their recent divorces are not their first divorces. I'd be curious to know if there is any correlation between the performance of companies with CEOs who have been divorced at least once versus those who have not.
Clearly, a major life event can have a negative impact on the CEO and the company, at least in the short term. But I can't help but wonder how much value this adds as a general matter. That is, it may matter on a case-by-case basis, but I don't think I would want to see it become some kind of Sabmematric analysis of CEO potential. It seems to me risky for a company to look at the likelihood of divorce of a CEO as a determining factor in hiring. Or for a company to encourage a CEO to stay married (or single). And I doubt it's wise to go dumping stock in a company just because the CEO has a wandering eye (or their spouse does).
Perhaps there's more to this, but it seems to me this just confirms that a divorce is an awful experience for everyone. Still, for the companies and their shareholders, just as it is for the people directly involved, divorce may be the best available option.