Friday, April 29, 2016

B Lab and HB2

Earlier this month, B Lab, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that oversees the certification of B corps, announced that it will move its October 2016 retreat from North Carolina because of North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 (“HB2”).

In an April 12 e-mail to “Friends of the B Corp Community,” the B Lab team wrote:

Standing for inclusion, the global B Corp community has decided to relocate the 2016 B Corp Champions Retreat and related events from North Carolina in light of the newly-enacted State law HB2 which limits anti-discrimination protections, particularly for members of the LGBT community.

Immediately, B Lab will work with the North Carolina B Corp community and others to get HB2 off the books and make North Carolina more inclusive and business-friendly.

B Lab also linked to this longer statement in that e-mail.

The Model Benefit Corporation Legislation and the laws following the Model require that a third-party standard be used by benefit corporations to measure their social and environmental impact. B Lab’s standard is currently the most popular standard, but it is not required or even mentioned by the benefit corporation statutes. Allowing for various third-party standards helps prevent the benefit corporation law from being overly political. I do wonder, however, if B Lab’s public stand on this issue will make the benefit corporation laws harder to pass in more conservative states, because of B Lab’s large role in cultivating both the certified B corp and benefit corporation communities.

Further, this situation leads to a question I asked in 2012 --- would B Lab exercise their veto power and deny certification to Chick-fil-A, if Chick-fil-A applied for certification and managed the required social score? As I wrote in 2012, I don’t see anything in the benefit corporation laws that would prevent Chick-fil-A from becoming a benefit corporation, but I am less sure if Chick-fil-A would be successful in obtaining certification from B Lab. B Corp certification is separate from the entity formation process, and the certification is under the control of B Lab rather than the government. 

Also, I am not a nonprofit expert, but I wonder whether B Lab is flirting with the lobbying restrictions for 501(c)(3)s, especially when it promises to “work with the North Carolina B Corp community and others to get HB2 off the books.” They also seem to be involved in the attempts to pass benefit corporation laws in states across the country. (Thoughts from nonprofit lawyers or professors welcomed in the comments or by e-mail...I am told that 501(c)(3)s are allowed to do an "insubstantial" amount of lobbying).

In any event, in seems that non-profits, social enterprises, and traditional for-profits are becoming more and more active in social and political debates. And these organizations are often powerful, influential players. 

April 29, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Current Affairs, Ethics, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Can Consumer or Investor Pressure Make a Difference on Corporate Actions? The Carnival Conundrum

Today in my Business and Human Rights class I thought about Ann's recent post where she noted that socially responsible investor Calpers was rethinking its decision to divest from tobacco stocks. My class has recently been discussing the human rights impacts of mega sporting events and whether companies such as Rio Tinto (the medal makers), Omega (the time keepers), Coca Cola (sponsor), McDonalds (sponsor), FIFA (a nonprofit that runs worldwide soccer) and the International Olympic Committee (another corporation) are in any way complicit with state actions including the displacement of indigenous peoples in Brazil, the use of slavery in Qatar, human trafficking, and environmental degradation. I asked my students the tough question of whether they would stop eating McDonalds food or wearing Nike shoes because they were sponsors of these events. I required them to consider a number of factors to decide whether corporate sponsors should continue their relationships with FIFA and the IOC. I also asked whether the US should refuse to send athletes to compete in countries with significant human rights violations. 

Because we are in Miami, we also discussed the topic du jour, Carnival Cruise line's controversial decision to follow Cuban law, which prohibits certain Cuban-born citizens from traveling back to Cuba on sea vessels, while permitting them to return to the island by air. Here in Miami, this is big news with the Mayor calling it a human rights violation by Carnival, a County contractor. A class action lawsuit has been filed  seeking injunctive relief. This afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in saying Carnival should not discriminate and calling upon Cuba to change its rules. 

So back to Ann's post. In an informal poll in which I told all students to assume they would cruise, only one of my Business and Human Rights students said they would definitely boycott Carnival because of its compliance with Cuban law. Many, who are foreign born, saw it as an issue of sovereignty of a foreign government. About 25% of my Civil Procedure students would boycott (note that more of them are of Cuban descent, but many of the non-Cuban students would also boycott). These numbers didn't surprise me because as I have written before, I think that consumers focus on convenience, price, and quality- or in this case, whether they really like the cruise itinerary rather than the ethics of the product or service. 

Tomorrow morning (Friday), I will be speaking on a panel with Jennifer Diaz of Diaz Trade Law, two members of the US government, and Cortney Morgan of Husch Blackwell discussing Cuba at the ABA International Law Section Spring Meeting in New York. If you're at the meeting and you read this before 9 am, pass by our session because I will be polling our audience members too. And stay tuned to the Cuba issue. I'm not sure that the Carnival case will disprove my thesis about the ineffectiveness of consumer pressure because if the Secretary of State has weighed in and the Communist Party of Cuba is already meeting next week, it's possible that change could happen that gets Carnival off the hook and the consumer clamor may have just been background noise. In the meantime, Carnival declared a 17% dividend hike earlier today and its stock was only down 11 cents in the midst of this public relations imbroglio. Notably, after hours, the stock was trading up.

April 14, 2016 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Law, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A CEO Goes to Jail- Is This the Start of A Trend?

Five years ago I blogged about Massey Energy, one of most tragic mining disasters in US history. Just a few minutes ago its CEO Donald Blankenship was sentenced to the maximum one year in prison. The prison term is unusual for a corporate executive, but should it be?

The Department of Justice under Eric Holder came under fire for prosecuting thousands of low level mortgage brokers and analysts but no C-Suite individuals after the financial crisis. Perhaps in response to that, the DOJ released the Yates Memo, which I blogged about in September. There are already some interesting takeaways on the Memo, which you can read about here or you can hear about when I present if you attend the International Legal Ethics Conference in New York in July.  

I'm not sure whether the Yates memo will prevent corporate crime or get the "right" people to go to jail. Actually, I am pretty sure that it won't. According to news reports, the Massey CEO was unusually involved in daily operations, which made convicting him easier (that along with hours of taped conversations). I do believe that the Yates Memo (if it's even constitutional) will fundamentally change the relationship between attorneys, compliance officers, and their internal clients. I will blog more about that in coming months. In the meantime, I hope that today's sentencing provides some measure of comfort to the families of the fallen miners.

April 6, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Six Years and $20B Later: Revisiting BP and the Role of Government

AP reported yesterday:

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge in New Orleans granted final approval Monday to an estimated $20 billion settlement over the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, resolving years of litigation over the worst offshore spill in the nation's history.

The settlement, first announced in July, includes $5.5 billion in civil Clean Water Act penalties and billions more to cover environmental damage and other claims by the five Gulf states and local governments. The money is to be paid out over roughly 16 years. The U.S. Justice Department has estimated that the settlement will cost the oil giant as much as $20.8 billion, the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history as well as the largest-ever civil settlement with a single entity.

The settlement with the government (private claims remain) reminds me of a post I made almost six years ago, where I argued that it was not the federal government's job to avoid the harm of such an oil spill, and it was neither advisable nor reasonable to expect that the government could handle such an event.  I explained my thinking

Just imagine what would have happened six months [before the oil spill] if the President had suggested a new agency that would be trained and funded to clean up disasters like this, granted the authority to take over an oil well at the first sign of trouble, and this agency would be funded by a large tax on oil companies. You can be sure that the response would have been that the government shouldn’t be in this business because the oil companies are better trained, better prepared, and better able to respond to such problems. I guarantee it.

Yes, perhaps the federal government could have been swifter than it has been, especially with regard to protecting the coast. However, in this situation, President Obama’s primary mistake was likely listening to BP when they said they could, and would, handle the problem. I find it curious that many of the same people who often argue that government should stay out of the way of big businesses now want to lay blame at the feet of a president who did just that.

In this political era where candidates suggest that the government should be in business of building big walls (funded, and perhaps also built, by other governments) and free college tuition, I think it's worth taking another close look at what we really should expect of government.  (For the record, of the two ideas proposed above, I hate the first idea, and I am skeptical of the second. I appreciate the sentiment behind the free college tuition idea, but highly question the wisdom or feasibility in practice, even if I would prefer that someone else pay my law school loans.) 

The reality is that, where we allow highly specialized industrial activity, we cannot ensure there will be no harm.  We can try create protections, and we can enact penalties for failures to follow the rules and remediate harm. This is not to say everything was done correctly leading up to the Deepwater Horizon spill.  There were significant regulatory failures to accompany BP's failures. But when we look for solutions, we still need to be realistic about what role the government can and should take. About one thing I am confident: it is still not a good use of government funding to put a fleet of government-funded, oil-well plugging submarines at the ready. 

April 5, 2016 in Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 25, 2016

Will a Change in Executive Compensation Lead to Safer Food? A Chipotle Shareholder Thinks So

I feel badly for Chipotle. When I have taught Business Associations, I have used the chain’s Form 10-K to explain some basic governance and securities law principles. The students can relate to Chipotle and Shake Shack (another example I use) and they therefore remain engaged as we go through the filings. Chipotle has recently been embroiled in a public relations nightmare after a spate of food poisonings occurred last fall and winter, a risk it pointed out in its February 2015 10-K filings. The stock price has fluctuated from $750 a share in October to as low as $400 in January and then back to the mid $500 range. After some disappointing earnings news the stock is now trading at around $471.

Clean Yield Group, concerned that the company will focus only on bringing its stock back to “pre-crisis levels,” filed a shareholder proposal March 17th asking the company to link executive compensation with sustainability efforts. The proposal claims that the CEO was overpaid by $40 million in 2014 and states in part:

A number of studies demonstrate a firm link between superior corporate sustainability performance and financial outperformance relative to peers. Firms with superior sustainability performance were more likely to tie top executive incentives to sustainability metrics.

Leading companies are increasingly taking up this practice. A 2013 study conducted by the Investor Responsibility Research Institute and the Sustainable Investments Institute found that 43.4% of the S&P 500 had linked executive pay to environmental, social and/or ethical issues. These companies traverse industry sectors and include Pepsi, Alcoa, Walmart, Unilever, National Grid, Intel and many others…

Investor groups focusing on sustainable governance such as Ceres, the UN Global Compact, and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (which represents investors with a collective $59 trillion AUM) have endorsed the establishment of linkages between executive compensation and sustainability performance.

Even with the adjustments to executive pay incentives announced this week in reaction to Chipotle’s ongoing food-borne illness crisis, Chipotle shareholders have consistently approved excessively large pay packages to our company’s co-chief executives that dangerously elide accountability for sustainability-related risks. This proposal provides the opportunity to rectify this situation.

If shareholders approve the compensation package on our company’s 2016 proxy ballot, by year-end, Mr. Ells and Mr. Moran will have pocketed nearly $211 million for their services since 2011. Shareholders have not insisted upon direct oversight of sustainability matters as a condition of employment or compensation, and the present crisis illustrates the probable error in that thinking.

This week, the Compensation Committee of the Board announced that it would withhold 2015 bonuses for executive officers. It has also announced that executive officers’ 2016 performance bonuses will be solely tied to bringing CMG stock back, over a three-year period, to its pre-crisis level.

This is a shortsighted approach that skirts the underlying issues that may have contributed to the E. coli and norovirus outbreaks that have left hundreds of people sickened, injured sales, led to ongoing investigations by health authorities and the federal government, damaged our company’s reputation, and will likely lead to expensive litigation. For years, Chipotle has resisted calls by shareholders to implement robust and transparent management and reporting systems to handle a range of environmental, social and governance issues that present both risks to operations as well as opportunities. While no one can know for certain whether a more rigorous management approach to food safety might have averted the current crisis, moving forward, shareholders can insist upon a proactive approach to the management of sustainability issues by altering top executives’ compensation packages to incentivize it.

The last sentence of the paragraph above stuck out to me. The shareholder does not know whether more rigorous sustainability practices would have prevented the food poisonings but believes that compensation changes incentivizing more transparency is vital. I’m not sure that there is a connection between the two, although there is some evidence that requiring more disclosure on environmental, social, and governance factors can lead to companies uncovering operational issues that they may not have noticed before. Corporate people are fond of saying that “what gets measured gets treasured.” Let’s see what Chipotle’s shareholders treasure at the next annual meeting.

March 25, 2016 in Business Associations, Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Olympics, Rule 40, Law, and Social Media

I usually look forward to the Olympics for months, if not years, before they start.

This year, however, all of the doping news, and buzz around Rule 40 has left me less enthusiastic.

For now, I am going to leave the doping news to one side, and focus on Rule 40.

From July 27 to August 24, 2016, Rule 40, prohibits Non-Olympic Commercial Partners from using the word "Olympics" and (depending on context) "Olympic-related terms," including:

  • 2016
  • Rio/Rio de Janeiro
  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Bronze
  • Medal
  • Effort
  • Performance
  • Challenge
  • Summer
  • Games
  • Sponsors
  • Victory
  • Olympian

Now, I understand why the International Olympic Committee ("IOC") and the U.S. Olympic Committee ("USOC") might want these restrictions (given the large sums of money official sponsors pay), and from what I understand from experts in this specific area, the IOC & USOC may have a defensible legal stance.

This, however, seems one of the many areas where (1) the law has not kept up with advances in technology, namely social media, and (2) even if the IOC & USOC are right on the law, they may lose in the court of public opinion. Here, it seems, there is a good bit of difference between a company running a detailed TV-ad noting that it sponsors an Olympian and simply wishing an athlete "Good luck in Rio" on Twitter. Also, even if the law treats social media the same as other forms of advertising, I could see the public (including me) judging the IOC & USOC harshly if it punishes brands and/or their athletes for minor violations. Outside of the most popular Olympic athletes, significant sponsorships are difficult to secure and outlawing short displays of appreciation on social media seems like overreaching. Adding to the problem, I think, is that this rule makes the IOC & USOC look like single bottom line, money-hungry organizations, when most of us would like to associate the Olympics with a broader, higher purpose.      

March 25, 2016 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Judge Merrick Garland Opinions on "Business" Law

Legal commentators and the media have been abuzz with news of President Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  If there was ever reason to be abuzz, in the world of legal news, this is it.  Try to find a summary of Judge Garland's record in dealing with business law issues, however, and you are met with a silent, dark internet.  Aside from mentions of Judge Garland having taught anti-trust at Harvard there is little discussion of his business jurisprudence.  The D.C. Circuit court hears an administratively heavy caseload, but Judge Garland has been on the bench for nearly 20 years! I set out to uncover his business law barometer.   My initial searches produced  19 opinions that he authored on business law matters, which are mostly securities cases but also include a piercing the corporate veil and contracts claims among others.  While I am no online search wizard and am positive that I have missed some relevant cases, this is what I produced after such wide-net casting as "business law", "corporations", "partnership", "board of directors", "shareholders" etc.  You get the idea, I ran several undeniably broad searches.  The initial case list is provided below, and was generated (along with annotations) through WestLaw.  Please comment if you have relevant cases to add.  I may add commentary on the cases in a future post if there is interest... (and time).

Securities Law Cases 

  1. Horning v. S.E.C., 570 F.3d 337 (D.C. Cir. 2009)

SECURITIES REGULATION - Brokers and Dealers. Mid-trial correction of sanction the SEC sought did not deprive broker-dealer firm’s former director of due process.

  1. Graham v. S.E.C., 222 F.3d 994 (D.C. Cir. 2000)

SECURITIES REGULATION - Fraud. Registered representative aided and abetted customer’s fraud.

  1. Katz v. S.E.C., 647 F.3d 1156 (D.C. Cir. 2011)

SECURITIES REGULATION - Brokers and Dealers. Former registered representation made unsuitable investment recommendations for her customers.

Continue reading

March 22, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Constitutional Law, Corporations, Current Affairs, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Lisa Fairfax SEC Commissioner Nominee

Being near to celebrity, even academic celebrity, can be exciting.  I feel unjustifiable pride and exhilaration in the nomination of George Washington Law School professor Lisa Fairfax to be a SEC commissioner. The White House announced her nomination last October, and the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs held hearings yesterday for Lisa Fairfax (democratic nominee) and Hester Peirce (republican nominee).  Professor Fairfax is being heralded as having "written extensively in favor of shareholder rights, shareholder activism, and gender and racial diversity on corporate boards."  Her scholarship is available on her SSRN page. Hester Peirce, another academic of sorts, is a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University researching financial markets and an adjunct professor.  The Mercatus Center is a "university-based research center... advanc[ing] knowledge about how markets work to improve people’s lives by training graduate students, conducting research, and applying economics to offer solutions to society’s most pressing problems." Her writing is available here.

The hearing process was reported by the WSJ as "tough" for both nominees. The confirmation process is by no means a given in the current political climate. A video of the hearing is available for viewing.  Additionally, each nominee submitted a statement and financial records as a part of the confirmation process.    Download FairfaxStatement   Download FairfaxFinancialDisclosure  Download PeirceStatement   Download PeirceFinancialDisclosure  

Lisa Fairfax summarized her credentials to be a Commissioner: 

As a law professor, over the last fifteen years I have had the privilege of teaching Corporations and Securities Law to the next generation of practitioners, judges, and regulators, so that they can understand the increasingly complex world in which companies must operate, markets must perform, and regulators must monitor. My teaching, along with my research and writing in these areas, have given me a deep understanding of the issues confronting the SEC, as well as a strong desire to help tackle those issues head on.

Fairfax's statement also stated her view of the SEC:

[I] believe deeply in the SEC’s three part mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation. ... I believe that the SEC’s three-part mission statement is more than a statement; it is a set of guiding principles that should shape every aspect of the agency’s activities. ...I believe the SEC’s work must be aimed at ensuring that investors are protected at all times, and that investors have confidence in the markets and the financial system.

The SEC also has a responsibility to facilitate access to needed capital for all participants in the market, from the corporation and small business owner in need of cash and credit, to the individual investing to support a family, finance a child’s education, or ensure a comfortable retirement.

Hester Peirce, who previously worked with the SEC’s Division of Investment Management, Commissioner Paul Atkins, and the SEC Investor Advisory Committee wrote:

My desire to serve at the SEC is motivated by the conviction that the capital markets help unlock people’s potential. Investors build their retirement nest eggs, their down payments, and their children’s college funds. Vibrant capital markets find and fund individuals and companies with brilliant ideas that can enhance people’s lives and the nation’s prosperity.

My belief in the capital markets’ ability to enrich our communities is built on lessons I have learned at the Peirce family dinner table, in classrooms at Case Western Reserve and Yale, and from mentors and colleagues throughout my career.

I am academically (and personally) interested in the role of retirement investors in capital markets so I noted with interest that both nominees spoke of the relevance of capital markets and the SEC to individual (retirement) investors.

The Committee is expected to vote on April 7, 2016.

-Anne Tucker

March 16, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Sharapova, Sponsors, and Morals Clauses

If you follow sports related news, you know that tennis star Maria Sharapova recently tested positive for a banned performance enhancing drug called Meldonium. Details here and here and here.  According to one source, over 60 athletes have tested positive for Meldonium this year; the drug was just recently added the banned substances list. Sharapova claims she was unaware that she was taking a banned substance. 

A number of Sharapova's biggest sponsors have suspended or ended their relationship with her and/or delayed planned events. These sponsors include, Nike, Porsche, and TAG Heuer. Head and Evian appear to be sticking with her. Head chairman Johan Eliasch claimed that Sharapova simply made an "honest mistake."

The companies that have cut ties with Sharapova have likely been able to do so through what is often called a morals clause or a morality clause in the endorsement contract. Some background on morals clauses can be found here and here and here. And here is an interesting contract law question from Eric Goldman that involves morals clauses

March 11, 2016 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Does the bar exam test students on the skills and subjects they need to be effective lawyers?

Some of our December graduates haven just taken the Florida bar exam. As always, I asked them about the business associations questions. Florida drastically changed its LLC rules in 2014, but still hasn’t asked any questions about LLCs, focusing instead on partnerships and corporations (at least according to the students). From a review of the released questions, the bar didn’t ask about LLCs before the amendments either.

I teach BA again next year and I’m struggling with what to emphasize. Business Associations is not required in many Florida law schools, but it is at St. Thomas, and many students enter the class with trepidation. Most will only take the one required course and won’t go on to advanced classes in securities regulation, corporate taxation, or other drafting courses. I try to focus the required BA class on skills that graduates will need in the workplace in addition to preparing them for the bar by using released test questions. Now I wonder how to balance the tension between the rise of LLCs and the many changes in laws related to securities regulation with the bar’s continued focus on partnerships and traditional corporations.

Yesterday the Obama administration added Miami to the list of tech hire jurisdictions. The Kauffman Index ranks Miami as second in the country for startups. Last month, a blogger highlighted my city’s proximity to Latin America and our emerging tech scene. With these realities in mind, should I add even more to what I already teach about legal issues that entrepreneurs and startups face even if that’s not what the Florida bar tests? I never want to “teach to the test” but I also want to make sure that I am responsible in my pedagogy, which for me includes marking up operating agreements, spending time demystifying IPO filings, and introducing them to hybrid entities that entrepreneurs ask about.

Unlike 20 other states, Florida has not adopted the Uniform Bar Exam, but I believe that any test that asks students to do the kind of critical analysis they would have to do in practice is a good thing. This week the Florida bar established a new committee to consider the issue, but I don’t have high hopes for a quick change to the bar exam. Lawyers here recently killed a proposal for reciprocity, and some see the UBE as a back door effort to flood Florida with out of staters.

So I have a conflict. How do other professors tackle the coverage issue? Comment below or feel free to email me at mnarine@stu.edu.

March 11, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, March 4, 2016

What do Donald Trump and Al Sharpton Have in Common? The Failed Boycott Movement

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he never plans to eat Oreo cookies again because the Nabisco plant is closing and moving to Mexico. Trump, who has starred in an Oreo commercial in the past, is actually wrong about the nature of Nabisco’s move, and it’s unlikely that he will affect Nabisco’s sales notwithstanding his tremendous popularity among some in the electorate right now. Mr. Trump has also urged a boycott of Apple over how that company has handled the FBI’s request over the San Bernardino terrorist’s cell phone.

Strangely, I haven’t heard a call for a boycott of Apple products following shareholders’ rejection of a proposal to diversify the board last week. I would think that Reverend and former candidate Al Sharpton, who called for the boycott of the Oscars due to lack of diversity would call for a boycott of all things Apple. But alas, for now Trump seems to be the lone voice calling for such a move (and not because of diversity). In fact, I’ve never walked past an Apple Store without thinking that there must be a 50% off sale on the merchandise. There are times when the lines are literally out the door. Similarly, despite the #Oscarssowhite controversy and claims from many that the boycott worked because the Oscars had historically low ratings, viewership among black film enthusiasts was only down 2% this year.

So why do people constantly call for boycotts? According to a Freakonomics podcast from January, they don’t actually work. Historians and economists made it clear in interviews that they only succeed as part of an established social movement. In some cases they can backfire leading to a "buycott," as it did for Chik Fil A. The podcast also put into context much of what we believe are the boycott “success stories,” including the Montgomery Bus Boycott with Rosa Parks and the sit in movement related to apartheid in the 1980s.

I have spent much of my time looking at disclosure legislation that is based in part on the theory that informed consumers and socially-responsible investors will boycott or divest holdings (see here, here, and here). In particular, I have focused on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals corporate governance disclosure and why I don’t think that using name and shame laws work—namely because consumers talk a good game in surveys but actually don’t purchase based on social criteria nearly as much as NGOs and legislators believe.

The SEC was supposed to decide whether to file a cert petition to the Supreme Court on the part of the conflict minerals legislation that was struck down on First Amendment grounds by March 9th but they now have an extension until April. Since I wrote an amicus brief in the case at the lower level, I have a particular interest in this filing. I had planned my business and human rights class on disclosures and boycotts around that cert. filing to make it even more relevant to my students, who will do a role play simulation drafted by Professor Erika George representing civil society (NGOs, investors, and other stakeholders), the electronics industry, the US government (state department, Congress, and SEC), Congolese militia, the Congolese government, and the Congolese people. The only group they won’t represent is US consumers, even though that’s the target group of the Dodd-Frank disclosure. I did tweak Professor George’s materials but purposely chose not to add in the US consumer group. After my students step out of their roles, we will have the honest discussions about their own views and buying habits. I’ll try not to burst any boycott bubbles.

March 4, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Law School, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Binging on Billions

Next week is our Spring Break and I plan to catch up on some television and movie watching. Many of my former business associations students have raved about the show Billions, described online as follows:

Wealth, influence and corruption collide in this drama set in New York. Shrewd U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades is embroiled in a high-stakes game of predator vs. prey with the ambitious hedge-fund king, Bobby Axelrod. To date, Rhoades has never lost an insider trading case -- he's 81-0 -- but when criminal evidence turns up against Axelrod, he proceeds cautiously in building the case against Axelrod, who employs Rhoades' wife, psychiatrist Wendy, as a performance coach for his company. Wendy, who has been in her position longer than Chuck has been in his, refuses to give up her career for her husband's legal crusade against Axelrod. Both men use their intelligence, power and influence to outmaneuver the other in this battle over billions.

Now that my students are watching it, I feel compelled to do so as well, and not just because Australian papers play up the copious amounts of money and sex depicted in the series. I’m glad that my students are watching any television show that deals with the financial industry but even more gratified that they are emailing me telling me that now they understand some of the concepts that they see in this show and others such as HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Are there any other television shows or movies I should catch up on during Spring Break in between grading, writing, and watching Suits (for my Civil Procedure students)? I like to keep up with what my students watch because I use some of the story lines for in class hypos and exam questions. I also ask students to write reflection papers applying what they have learned in class and analyzing what Hollywood got wrong. I look forward to your suggestions.

February 25, 2016 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Film, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Walch on Bitcoin Blockchain as Financial Market Infrastructure

I was fortunate to hear Angela Walch (St. Mary's) present on this paper at SEALS last summer. Her article, The Bitcoin Blockchain as Financial Market Infrastructure: A Consideration of Operational Risk, has now been published in the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy and is available on SSRN. The abstract is reproduced below:

----------------

“Blockchain” is the word on the street these days, with every significant financial institution, from Goldman Sachs to Nasdaq, experimenting with this new technology. Many say that this remarkable innovation could radically transform our financial system, eliminating the costs and inefficiencies that plague our existing financial infrastructures, such as payment, settlement, and clearing systems. Venture capital investments are pouring into blockchain startups, which are scrambling to disrupt the “quadrillion” dollar markets represented by existing financial market infrastructures. A debate rages over whether public, “permissionless” blockchains (like Bitcoin’s) or private, “permissioned” blockchains (like those being designed at many large banks) are more desirable.

Amidst this flurry of innovation and investment, this paper enquires into the suitability of the Bitcoin blockchain to serve as the backbone of financial market infrastructure, and evaluates whether it is robust enough to serve as the foundation of major payment, settlement, clearing, or trading systems.

Positing a scenario in which the Bitcoin blockchain does serve as the technology enabling significant financial market infrastructures, this paper highlights the vital importance of functioning financial market infrastructure to global financial stability, and describes relevant principles that global financial regulators have adopted to help maintain this stability, focusing particularly on governance, risk management, and operational risk.

The paper then moves to explicate the operational risks generated by the most fundamental features of Bitcoin: its status as decentralized, open-source software. Illuminating the inevitable operational risks of software, such as its vulnerability to bugs and hacking (as well as Bitcoin’s unique 51% Attack vulnerability), uneven adoption of new releases, and its opaque nature to all except coders, the paper argues that these technology risks are exacerbated by the governance risks generated by Bitcoin’s ambiguous governance structure. The paper then teases out the operational risks spawned by decentralized, open-source governance, including that no one is responsible for resolving a crisis with the software; no one can legitimately serve as “the voice” of the software; code maintenance and repair may be delayed or imperfect because not enough time is devoted to the code by volunteer software developers (or, if the coders are paid by private companies, the code development may be influenced by conflicts of interest); consensus on important changes to the code may be difficult or impossible to achieve, leading to splits in the blockchain; and the software developers who “run” the Bitcoin blockchain seem to have backgrounds in software coding rather than in policy-making or risk-management for financial market infrastructure.

The paper concludes that these operational risks, generated by Bitcoin’s most fundamental, presumably inalterable, structures, significantly undermine the Bitcoin blockchain’s suitability to serve as financial market infrastructure.

February 22, 2016 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, Private Equity, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Strine as Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States?

Strine

I haven't seen his name on any of the short lists to replace Justice Scalia, but I would love to see the current Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, Leo Strine, get the nomination.

The benefits of nominating Chief Justice Strine include:

  • Promise of an entertaining nomination process. With all that he has said and written, there would be a lot of fodder, but he would be sure to hold his own. 
  • A nominee whose wit and writing style could rival Justice Scalia's.
  • Diversity. Chief Justice Strine went to Penn for law school, not Harvard or Yale. (Granted, he does teach at Harvard).
  • Serious corporate law knowledge, and, at least on this blog, we know the Supreme Court of the United States needs help in this area.
  • Extremely bright, curious, and widely read. He likely has knowledge of and an opinion on most areas of law, well outside of just corporate law.

Anyway, I am sure President Obama will go with a more conventional pick, but I do hope to see a Supreme Court justice with corporate law expertise on the court eventually.

February 19, 2016 in Business Associations, Constitutional Law, Current Affairs, Delaware, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, February 12, 2016

Running, The Olympic Trials for the Marathon, and the Practice of Law

Even though I have never participated in a single Yoga class, I enjoyed my co-editor Joan Heminway’s Yoga Analogy Post from a couple weeks ago. Her post inspired this analogy post about running and the law.

While I am not the most consistent runner among the BLPB editors---that title goes to Josh Fershee---I have been running 3+ times a week consistently for the last 6 months or so, following a few very inconsistent years.

Below the break, I discuss some parallels between running (particular long-distance running) and the practice of law. Due to these parallels, as a hiring partner, I believe I would look favorably on an applicant who was a distance runner.

Also about distance running, is anyone else really excited about watching the Olympic Trials for the Marathon on NBC tomorrow? Not a great spectator sport, to be sure, but I love that so many people with normal jobs are running. Nashville-area elementary school teacher Scott Wietecha qualified for the Trials (though he has chosen not to run, due, at least in part, the some health issues). Scott has details and predictions here; after reading his long post, I can quickly see that he is even much more excited about watching the race than I am. 

Continue reading

February 12, 2016 in Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Lawyering | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Joseph Slights Nominated for Delaware Court of Chancery

This week, Delaware Governor Jack Markell nominated Joseph R. Slights, III for the position held by retiring Vice Chancellor John Noble on the Delaware Court of Chancery.

Judge Slights previously served a 12-year term on the Delaware Superior Court. Immediately prior to his nomination, Judge Slights was a commercial litigation partner at the firm of Morris, James, Hitchens & Williams LLP.

Once Vice Chancellor Noble retires, Vice Chancellor Laster will become the judge with the most experience serving on the Delaware Court of Chancery. Vice Chancellor Laster was sworn into his position in October of 2009. It has been a quick 6+ years; it seems like that was just yesterday.

I outsource the details of Joseph Slights' nomination below:

February 10, 2016 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Litigation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Legislated Discrimination Is Terrible for Business

My home state in West Virginia is struggling.  The economy is struggling because two of the state's main industries -- coal and natural gas -- are facing falling production (coal) and low prices (gas). Severance taxes for the state account for approximately 13% of the budget, and both are down dramatically. Tax revenues for the state were down $9.8 million in January from the prior year and came up $11.5 million short of estimates.  For the year-to-date, the state collected $2.29 billion, which is $169.5 million below estimates. Oddly enough, state sales and income taxes for January both exceeded estimates, but not enough to offset other stagnation in the state.  

The state has long been known as a coal state, and that industry has dominated the legal and political landscape.  West Virginia has been criticized for having a legal system that is "anti-business," with the United States Chamber of Commerce finding stating that West Virginia is the 50th ranked state in terms of the fairness of its litigation. (See PDF here.) CNBC (with input from the National Association of Manufacturers) also ranked West Virginia last in terms of business competitiveness, so the starting point is not good.  

Now, the West Virginia legislature is considering the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which many (including me) see as about legalizing specific forms of discrimination, and not promoting or supporting religion.  And some religious groups agree.  As the Catholic Committee of Appalachia’s West Virginia Chapter explains: 

We appreciate the background of 1993 federal act with the same name, and the history leading up to it, with its pertinence to protecting Native American sacred lands and religious practices from governmental infringement. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that RFRA would only be applicable to federal actions, we can recognize, also, the value of an argument for versions of a law to be passed at the local level. However, the primary motivation behind West Virginia’s bill #4012, and others like it, seems not to be the protection of legitimate religious exercises, but securing the ability of religious groups to discriminate against marginalized populations on the basis of religious convictions.

Just as important for purposes of this post, many West Virginia businesses oppose the bill.  Local Embassy Suites and Marriott hotels representatives spoke out against the bill, and the Charleston (WV) Regional Chamber of Commerce and Generation West Virginia, along with several city mayors, have opposed the bill, as well.  They have good reason.  When the state of Indiana passed a similar bill, Indianapolis promptly lost as many as twelve conventions and estimates around $60 million.  Ouch. As one mayor said, West Virginia legislators need to "Get out of the way." 

Morgantown, home to my institution, was the state’s second city to pass an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in February 2014. West Virginia University’s faculty senate also unanimously yesterday approved a resolution condemning the bill. And there was a chance to make clear the intent of the bill was not intended to be used as a way to discriminate against someone based sexual orientation through a proposed amendment making that clear. Unfortunately, the amendment was deemed “not germane.”

Beyond coal, natural gas, chemicals, and timber, tourism is one of our state's main industries. It's also a great one. From whitewater rafting to skiing to hiking, the state is a great place for outdoor activities.  Craft breweries and a few great local restaurants are helping make the state a destination.  Unfortunately, the debate about this bill, especially in the wake of the backlash in Indiana, is hurting the state's ability to make build up it's tourism industry by making many people feel unwelcome.  

It's really too bad as a local restaurant, Atomic Grill, made international news for how they responded to comments about their waitresses and has been lauded for their response to other intolerance in their restaurant.  

I don't like this bill because, to me, it's either a tautology or an attempt to discriminate through legislation.  But beyond that, it's stupid, terrible way to promote business in the state.  We spend enough time trying to get people to come visit -- and when people do, they almost always like it. It really is a great place in so many ways.  At a time when the entire state is looking at 4% budget cuts across the board -- when we need to be building bridges to broader audiences -- the state's legislature is screwing around with bills that have zero economic upside and reinforce stereotypes about the people of our state.   

Being pro-business means being pro-consumer, which really means being pro-people.  This bill is none of those.  We need to do better, and it's disappointing our time and our money are being wasted like this.  

February 9, 2016 in Current Affairs, Jobs, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Religion | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, February 5, 2016

University Billboards, Local Grants, and Super Bowl Ads

I have been on the road a good bit over the past few months. Like Stephen Bainbridge, I greatly prefer driving to flying. On these road trips, I have noticed an increasing number of billboard advertisements for universities (my university included).

When I was in high school, I cannot remember any respectable 4-year universities or graduate schools using billboards to advertise. Maybe they did, and I just did not notice; but I do remember for-profit and community colleges using them. Today, however, I have seen billboard advertisements for schools ranked as high as the top-25 universities in the country, not to mention many solid public (including state flagship) and private universities. The Ivy League schools and their chief competitors seem to still be avoiding billboards, though even some them resort to billboards for their executive programs. (The for-profit schools still use billboards, but have also moved on to things like buying stadium naming rights).

I do wonder what accounts for the shift towards university billboard advertising, if there has been a shift. I also wonder about the costs and benefits of billboard advertising for universities. And I wonder about the comparative costs and benefits of alternative marketing.

Super Bowl ads – costing a record high $5 million for a 30-second spot – are likely a much more significant investment than your average billboard ad, but I imagine most companies that are advertising during the Super Bowl have decided that the costs outweigh the benefits. A few years ago, however, Pepsi decided to withdraw from the Super Bowl advertising frenzy for the first time in 23 years. Instead, Pepsi made more than $20 million in local grants, in the amount of $5,000 to $250,000 each. The local grants included things like buying uniforms for a high school's band. I imagine the local grants were powerful, relatively narrow in impact, and perhaps difficult to tie directly to sales. This year, it looks like Pepsi is back advertising during the Super Bowl where the advertising is much broader, if shallower. (Hat tip to the Coursera and University of Illinois digital marketing course for the link to the Pepsi story).

So maybe the decision for universities to use billboards is similar to the decision of multinational corporations to advertise during the Super Bowl: the ad might not be as personally powerful as something more individualized like local grants, but the ad will reach many more people. While I think the broader reach makes some sense, I do wonder if that will continue to hold true with social media; I imagine some of Pepsi’s local grants, for example, could “go viral” when shared on social media and could possibly rival the reach of a Super Bowl ad. 

February 5, 2016 in Business School, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Law School, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The thorny relationship between business and human rights

For the past four weeks I have been experimenting with a new class called Transnational Business and Human Rights. My students include law students, graduate students, journalists, and accountants. Only half have taken a business class and the other half have never taken a human rights class. This is a challenge, albeit, a fun one. During our first week, we discussed CSR, starting off with Milton Friedman. We then used a business school case study from Copenhagen and the students acted as the public relations executive for a Danish company that learned that its medical product was being used in the death penalty cocktail in the United States. This required students to consider the company’s corporate responsibility profile and commitments and provide advice to the CEO based on a number of factors that many hadn’t considered- the role of investors, consumer reactions, the pressure from NGOs, and the potential effect on the stock price for the Danish company based on its decisions. During the first three weeks the students have focused on the corporate perspective learning the language of the supply chain and enterprise risk management world.

This week they are playing the role of the state and critiquing and developing the National Action Plans that require states to develop incentives and penalties for corporations to minimize human rights impacts. Examining the NAPs, dictated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, requires students to think through the consultation process that countries, including the United States, undertake with a number of stakeholders such as unions, academics, NGOs and businesses. To many of those in the human rights LLM program and even some of the traditional law students, this is all a foreign language and they are struggling with these different stakeholder perspectives.

Over the rest of the semester they will read and role play on up to the minute issues such as: 1) the recent Tech Terror Summit and the potential adverse effects of the right to privacy; 2) access to justice and forum non conveniens, arguing an appeal from a Canadian court’s decision related to Guatemalan protestors shot by security forces hired by a company incorporated in Canada with US headquarters; 3) the difficulties that even best in class companies such as Nestle have complying with their own commitments and certain disclosure laws when their supply chain uses both child labor and slaves; 4) the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals debate in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the EU, where students will play the role of the State Department, major companies such as Apple and Intel, the NGO community, and socially-responsible investors debating some key corporate governance and human rights issues; 5) corporate codes of conduct and the ethical, governance, and compliance aspects of entering the Cuban market, given the concerns about human rights and confiscated property; 6) corporate culpability for the human rights impacts of mega sporting events such as the Super Bowl, World Cup, and the Olympics; 7) human trafficking (I’m proud to have a speaker from my former company Ryder, a sponsor of Truckers Against Traffickers); 8) development finance, SEC disclosures, bilateral investment treaties, investor rights and the grievance mechanisms for people harmed by financed projects (the World Bank, IMF, and Ex-Im bank will be case studies); 9) the race to the bottom for companies trying to reduce labor expenses in supply chains using the garment industry as an example; and 10) a debate in which each student will represent the actual countries currently arguing for or against a binding treaty on business and human rights.

Of course, on a daily basis, business and human rights stories pop up in the news if you know where to look and that makes teaching this so much fun. We are focusing a critical lens on the United States as well as the rest of the world, and it's great to hear perspectives from those who have lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. It's a whole new world for many of the LLM and international students, but as I tell them if they want to go after the corporations and effect change, they need to understand the pressure points. Using business school case studies has provided them with insights that most of my students have never considered. Most important, regardless of whether the students embark on a human rights career, they will now have more experience seeing and arguing controversial issues from another vantage point. That’s an invaluable skill set for any advocate.

February 4, 2016 in Business Associations, Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Investment Banking, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 22, 2016

CSR and Small Business-Part 2

Two weeks ago I posted about whether small businesses, start ups, and entrepreneurs should consider corporate social responsibility as part of their business (outside of the benefit corporation context). Definitions of CSR vary but for the purpose of this post, I will adopt the US government’s description as:

entail[ing] conduct consistent with applicable laws and internationally recognised standards. Based on the idea that you can do well while doing no harm … a broad concept that focuses on two aspects of the business-society relationship: 1) the positive contribution businesses can make to economic, environmental, and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development, and 2) avoiding adverse impacts and addressing them when they do occur.

During my presentation at USASBE, I admitted my cynical thoughts about some aspects of CSR, discussed the halo effect, and pointed out some statistics from various sources about consumer attitudes. For example:

  • Over 66% of people say they will pay more for products from a company with “good values”
  • 66% of survey respondents indicated that their perception of company’s CEO affected their perception of the company
  • 90% of US consumers would switch brands to one associated with a cause, assuming comparable price and quality
  • 26% want more eco-friendly products
  • 10% purchased eco-friendly products
  • 45% are influenced by commitment to the environment
  • 43% are influenced by commitment to social values and community
  • Those with incomes of 20k or less are 5% more willing to pay more than those with incomes of $50k or more
  • Consumers in developed markets are less willing to pay more for sustainable products than those in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The study’s author opined that those underdeveloped markets see the effects of poor labor and environmental practices first hand
  • 75% of millennial respondents, 72% of generation Z (age 20 and younger) and 51% of Baby Boomers are willing to pay more for sustainable products
  • More than one out of every six dollars under professional management in the United States—$6.57 trillion or more—is invested according to socially-responsible investment strategies.
  • 64% of large companies increased corporate giving from between 2010 and 2013.
  • Among large companies giving at least 10% more since 2010, median revenues increased by 11% while revenues fell 3% for all other companies

From marketing and recruiting perspectives, these are compelling statistics. But from a bottom line perspective, does a company with lean margins have the luxury to implement sustainable business practices? Next week I will post about CSR in larger companies and the role that small suppliers play in global value chains. This leaves some small businesses without a choice but to consider changing their practices. In addition, in some ways, using some CSR concepts factors into enterprise risk management, which companies of all size need to consider.

January 22, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Management, Marcia Narine, Nonprofits, Research/Scholarhip, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)