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.
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….
Saturday, November 30, 2013
- If you are looking for some books to help you better understand our economic history, try: Timothy Shenk on “The Long Shadow of Mont Pèlerin” – reviewing Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion (“[U]ncovering a history where the supposed founders of the American chapter of neoliberalism at the University of Chicago reprimand Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom for overdoing its indictment of the state while Keynes reports himself “in a deeply moved agreement” with the very same text.”).
- I thought I knew what it felt like to be scatterbrained and distracted, then I started spending time on Twitter. Let’s just say my belief that meditation is an integral part of work-life balance was reinvigorated. Relatedly, try: (1) bidushi on “The corporate world’s flirtation with meditation” and (2) “Free Video – ‘3-minute breathing space’ Guided Meditation” from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
- For the blogroll: Jennifer Taub’s "perpetual crisis" blog (“a blog on banking, corporate governance, and financial market reform”).
- Finally, you might be interested in Michael Pettis on “When Are Markets ‘Rational’?" (“To me, much of the argument about whether or not markets are efficient misses the point. There are conditions, it seems, under which markets seem to do a great job of managing risk, keeping the cost of capital reasonable, and allocating capital to its most productive use, and there are times when clearly this does not happen. The interesting question, in that case, becomes what are the conditions under which the former seems to occur.”).
Friday, November 29, 2013
In the movie Margin Call, which “[f]ollows the key people at an investment bank, over a 24-hour period, during the early stages of the financial crisis,” one of the main characters says: “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.” Given that only a few folks will be first or smarter, it may not be surprising that a “new report finds 53% of financial services executives say that adhering to ethical standards inhibits career progression at their firm.” In a piece over at The Guardian, Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street trader describes why. What follows is an excerpt from that piece, but you should go read the whole thing here.
After a few years on Wall Street it was clear to me: you could make money by gaming anyone and everything. The more clever you were, the more ingenious your ability to exploit a flaw in a law or regulation, the more lauded and celebrated you became. Nobody seemed to be getting called out. No move was too audacious. It was like driving past the speed limit at 79 MPH, and watching others pass by at 100, or 110, and never seeing anyone pulled over. Wall Street did nod and wave politely to regulators’ attempts to slow things down. Every employee had to complete a yearly compliance training, where he was updated on things like money laundering, collusion, insider trading, and selling our customers only financial products that were suitable to them. By the early 2000s that compliance training had descended into a once-a-year farce, designed to literally just check a box….
As Wall Street grew, fueled by that unchecked culture of risk taking, traders got more and more audacious, and corruption became more and more diffused through the system. By 2006 you could open up almost any major business, look at its inside workings, and find some wrongdoing. After the crash of 2008, regulators finally did exactly that. What has resulted is a wave of scandals with odd names; LIBOR fixing, FX collusion, ISDA Fix. To outsiders they sound like complex acronyms that occupy the darkest corners of Wall Street, easily dismissed as anomalies. They are not. LIBOR, FX, ISDA Fix are at the very center of finance ….
[So,] where is the real responsibility? … [T]he people who really should be held accountable have not. They are the bosses, the managers and CEOs of the businesses. They set the standard, they shaped the culture…. The managers knew what was going on. Ask anyone who works at a bank and they will tell you that. The excuse we have long accepted is ignorance: that these leaders couldn't have known what was happening. That doesn't suffice. If they didn't know, it's an even larger sin.
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?
Sunday, November 24, 2013
The CFA Institute, the Journal of Corporate Finance, and the Schulich School of Business are sponsoring a Conference on Financial Misconduct, April 3-4, 2014, in Toronto, Canada. Deadline for submissions is December 15, 2013. You can go here for all the information. What follows is the stated rationale, along with suggested research questions.
Financial market misconduct erodes investors trust, and in turn influences stock market liquidity and performance, and exacerbates volatility. Financial market misconduct includes but is not limited to fraud. Despite the widespread media attention on market misconduct, the causes and consequences of market misconduct are often misunderstood and under researched around the world. The evolving structure of markets gives rise to new work on topic
This international conference will provide a timely debate on financial market misconduct. The conference also encourages, but does not require, submission to the Journal of Corporate Finance. Papers submitted to the Journal of Corporate Finance would go through the normal review process.
Some research questions that contributors to the conference might address are:
- Is market misconduct more common in different countries or across different exchanges? If so, what types (earnings management, insider trading, market manipulation, dissemination of false and misleading information, other)?
- What are the causes of international differences in expected or detected misconduct?
- What are the consequences of market misconduct, and do they differ across countries or exchanges?
- Can regulation be designed to improve ethical standards and corporate governance?
- Does high frequency trading mitigate or exacerbate market misconduct?
- Does crowdfunding facilitate potential financial market misconduct, and how might such potential misconduct be mitigated through regulation?
- Do intermediaries such as lawyers, auditors, and investment bankers mitigate or exacerbate financial market misconduct?
- Is financial market misconduct exacerbated or mitigated under different types of ownership, such as government, institutional, or family ownership?
- How is market misconduct related to activist investors such as venture capital, private equity, and hedge fund investors?
- How is fraud risk and ethics priced in markets?
- How does the risk of market misconduct affect corporate valuation?
- To what extent has the failure of regulation and reporting standards exacerbated the incidence of market misconduct and the recent financial crisis?
- What encourages the adoption of ethical standards in public firms versus private firms?
- Related research questions on both publicly traded and privately held institutions are welcome.
Friday, November 22, 2013
Peter Turchin recently posted an interesting piece on Bloomberg entitled, “Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays.” Here is an excerpt:
The “great divergence” between the fortunes of the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent is much discussed, yet its implications for long-term political disorder are underappreciated…. Increasing inequality leads not only to the growth of top fortunes; it also results in greater numbers of wealth-holders…. There are many more millionaires, multimillionaires and billionaires today compared with 30 years ago, as a proportion of the population…. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. They support candidates who share their views and values; they sometimes run for office themselves. Yet the supply of political offices has stayed flat …. In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.” … [Another example:] Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. recently estimated that twice as many law graduates pass the bar exam as there are job openings for them…. Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state…. Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions…. History shows a real indeterminacy about the routes societies follow out of [such] instability waves. Some end with social revolutions, in which the rich and powerful are overthrown…. In other cases, recurrent civil wars result in a permanent fragmentation of the state and society…. In some cases, however, societies come through relatively unscathed, by adopting a series of judicious reforms, initiated by elites who understand that we are all in this boat together. This is precisely what happened in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Several legislative initiatives, which created the framework for cooperative relations among labor, employers and the government, were introduced during the Progressive Era and cemented in the New Deal. By introducing the Great Compression, these policies benefited society as a whole.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Last week, I had the pleasure of being part of the Second Annual Searle Center Conference on Federalism and Energy in the United States. (I had the good fortune to be part of the first one, too.) The conference covered a wide range of energy issues from electricity transmission siting to hydraulic fracturing to natural gas markets. One paper/presentation struck me as particularly interesting for markets generally (I am told an update version will be available soon at the same site: “The Evolution of the Market for Wholesale Power” by Daniel F. Spulber, Kellogg School of Management, Elinor Hobbs Distinguished Professor of International Business and Professor of Management Strategy & R. Andrew Butters, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.
Here is the conclusion:
A national market for wholesale electric power in the US has emerged following industry restructuring in 2000. Tests for correlation and Granger Causality between trading hubs support the presence of a national market. Going beyond pairwise analysis, we introduce an array of multivariate techniques capable of addressing the national market hypothesis, including the common trend test. Although there is strong evidence of integration between the series, the analysis suggests a division between the eastern and western parts of the market. We also find border connects of 300 miles between the three interconnects.
The absence of transmission between the interconnects and significant border effects suggests that the national market is not yet fully integrated, even within the one-month horizon. Construction of transmission facilities between the interconnects would complete the development of the US wholesale market for electric power. Our analysis suggests that transmission facilities connecting the three regions would result in substantial gains from trade.
This conclusion – that “[a] national market for wholesale electric power in the US has emerged following industry restructuring in 2000 – could have a profound effect for how we view (and FERC views) wholesale electricity markets. The study notably does not control for or otherwise address the price of renewable energy credits (RECs), which are required for compliance with renewable portfolio standards in a majority of states. This may not change the conclusion, but it would be interesting to see how if the RECs have any influence on the market operations.
In addition, it’s possible that more than just the 2000 market restructuring is at play here. Since that time, electricity generation from natural gas has grown dramatically, and there is every reason to believe that will continue. According to the Energy Information Administration, “Nearly 237 GW of natural gas-fired generation capacity was added between 2000 and 2010, representing 81% of total generation capacity additions over that period.” If natural gas really is a major driver in facilitating this market, it would mean that that recent shale gas boom is even broader reaching than some may have expected.
There’s more work to be done here to be certain a national market for electricity really is emerging and if more can be done to facilitate that market. If true, such a market could bode well for the consumers, especially those in higher cost regions. It could also be an indicator that the regulatory structure of the market, even if not ideal, it working efficiently. If so (as I am inclined to believe), it suggests that the Congress and FERC should leave the market-related regulations alone, and focus efforts on things that will further develop the market, such as the study’s finding “that transmission facilities connecting the three regions would result in substantial gains from trade.”
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.
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.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Last week, I posted a response to the New York Times article criticizing law reviews. A friend pointed me to a cover story from the Economist, How science goes wrong: Scientific research has changed the world. Now it needs to change itself. It's an interesting read. This paragraph jumped out at me:
In order to safeguard their exclusivity, the leading journals impose high rejection rates: in excess of 90% of submitted manuscripts. The most striking findings have the greatest chance of making it onto the page. Little wonder that one in three researchers knows of a colleague who has pepped up a paper by, say, excluding inconvenient data from results “based on a gut feeling”. And as more research teams around the world work on a problem, the odds shorten that at least one will fall prey to an honest confusion between the sweet signal of a genuine discovery and a freak of the statistical noise. Such spurious correlations are often recorded in journals eager for startling papers. If they touch on drinking wine, going senile or letting children play video games, they may well command the front pages of newspapers, too.
The article also calls for more acceptance of what it calls "humdrum" or "uninteresting" work that confirms or replicates other trials, a long-standing practice underappreciated by both journals and those who award grants.
Not all is lost. One interesting suggestion: "Peer review should be tightened—or perhaps dispensed with altogether, in favour of post-publication evaluation in the form of appended comments." The article notes that the areas of physics and mathematics have made progress using the latter method.
We do have some versions of the post-publication evaluation in the law review world, often published as responses to the work of others, or articles that build upon such work. Over at The Conglomerate the post, Bebchuk v. Lipton on Corporate Activism, provides a good example of two papers take opposite views, with David Zaring's post itself serving the role of post-publication evaluator (on a small, but I think important, scale):
Some of the studies cited are quite old, and not all of the journals are top-drawer. But others seem quite on point. Perhaps the disputants will next be able to identify some empirical propositions with which they agree, and others with which they do not (other than, you know, sample selection).
Many blogs do this (including, sometimes, the Business Law Prof Blog), and I think it is a important role. Perhaps it is one the should be more formalized so that the value of such commentary can be more clearly recognized as part of the scholarly realm. For example, perhaps law reviews and other journals should consider publishing updates, major citiations, or critiques from various sources made about articles the review/journal has previously published.
There are many ideas out there, and we should keep looking for ways to keep developing useful scholarship. And by useful, I mean complete, thoughtful, and careful work, including what some people might consider "not novel," if not "humdrum" or "uninteresting." We don’t always need the legal equivalent of studies about drinking wine and letting kids play video games, not that there's anything wrong with either of those things.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Jennifer Taub has published a new book, “Other People's Houses: How Decades of Bailouts, Captive Regulators, and Toxic Bankers Made Home Mortgages a Thrilling Business.” Here is an excerpt from the Yale University Press description:
Focusing new light on the similarities between the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s and the financial crisis in 2008, Taub reveals that in both cases the same reckless banks, operating under different names, received government bailouts, while the same lax regulators overlooked fraud and abuse. Furthermore, in 2013 the situation is essentially unchanged. The author asserts that the 2008 crisis was not just similar to the S&L scandal, it was a severe relapse of the same underlying disease. And despite modest regulatory reforms, the disease remains uncured: top banks remain too big to manage, too big to regulate, and too big to fail.
UPDATE: The book will be in bookstores in May, but can be pre-ordered now.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Bill Black takes down claims of a “victory for the government in its aggressive effort to hold banks accountable for their role in the housing crisis.” (HT: naked capitalism.) The full piece is available here, and I highly recommend you go read the whole thing. What follows is a brief excerpt:
The author of the most brilliantly comedic statement ever written about the crisis is Landon Thomas, Jr…. Everything worth reading is in the first sentence, and it should trigger belly laughs nationwide. “Bank of America, one of the nation’s largest banks, was found liable on Wednesday of having sold defective mortgages, a jury decision that will be seen as a victory for the government in its aggressive effort to hold banks accountable for their role in the housing crisis.” … Yes, we have not seen such an aggressive effort since Captain Renault told Rick in the movie Casablanca that he was “shocked” to discover that there was gambling going on (just before being handed his gambling “winnings” which were really a bribe)…. The jurors found that BoA (through its officers) committed an orgy of fraud in order to enrich those officers…. The journalist’s riff is so funny because he portrays DOJ’s refusal to prosecute frauds led by elite BoA officers as “aggressive.” Show the NYT article to friends you have who are Brits and who claim that Americans are incapable of irony…. I’m not sure whether the DOJ consciously deciding not to investigate, bring civil suits, or prosecute the most destructive frauds in history represents “aggressive” or “accountable” to the DOJ. We do know, however, the fantasy that caused DOJ to give these control frauds a free pass. Benjamin Wagner, a U.S. Attorney who is actively prosecuting mortgage fraud cases in Sacramento, Calif., points out that banks lose money when a loan turns out to be fraudulent. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that they would be deliberately defrauding themselves,” Wagner said. “They” refers to the CEO. “Themselves” refers to the bank. “They” are not “defrauding themselves.” … The game being played out in all the corporate settlements, like the JPMorgan deal, is that the controlling officers, even when they grew wealthy by looting the shareholders, use corporate funds to cut deals that protect them from being prosecuted or having to return their fraudulent proceeds. We all know who pays for this – the shareholders. Only a comic genius would have the mastery of irony necessary to call the ability of elite bankers to become wealthy through fraud with immunity “accountability.” … The self-congratulations that DOJ press flacks regularly issue to attempt to con journalists and the public into believing that DOJ is aggressively holding elite bankers accountable for their frauds make “Baghdad Bob” seem credible by comparison.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Now that juries and the DOJ have spoken, will boards be more active in shaping ethical culture in the C-Suite?
CEOs and executives just can’t get a break in the news lately. A jury found both former Countrywide executive Rebecca Mairone and Bank of America liable for fraud for Countrywide’s “Hustle” loans in 2007 and 2008 (see here). Martha Stewart has had to renegotiate her merchandising agreement with JC Penney to avoid hearing what a judge will say about that side deal in the lawsuit brought against her by Macy’s, with whom she purportedly had an exclusive merchandising deal (see here). JP Morgan Chase is in talks to pay $13 billion to settle with the Department of Justice over various compliance-related failures, but the company still faces billions in claims from angry shareholders. The company isn’t out of the woods yet in terms of potential criminal liability (see here). CEO Jamie Dimon isn’t personally accused of any wrongdoing, and in fact has been instrumental in achieving the proposed settlements. But in the past he has faced questions from institutional shareholders about his dual roles as chair of the board and CEO. Those questions may come up again in the 2014 proxy season.
The Bank of America verdict and the recent JP Morgan Chase settlement may herald a new age of prosecutions and settlements both for institutions and executives for compliance failures and criminal activity. With the recent announcement of a $14 million dollar award for an SEC whistleblower coupled with the SEC's pronouncements about getting its "swagger" back, we can expect more legal actions to come as employees feel incentivized to come forward to report wrongdoing.
So what is the role of the board in directing, managing, and shaping corporate culture? In my former life as a compliance officer this issue occupied much of my time. My peers and I scoured the newspapers looking for cautionary tales like the ones I recounted above so that we could remind our internal clients and board members of what could happen if they didn’t follow the laws and our policies.
Bryan Cave partner Scott Killingsworth has written a white paper on the importance of the board in monitoring the C-Suite. He examines the latest research in behavioral ethics citing Lynne Dallas, Lynn Stout, Krista Llewellyn, Maureen Muller-Kahle, Max Bazerman and Francesca Gino, among others. It’s definitely worth a read by board members in light of recent headlines. The abstract is below:
The C-suite is a unique environment peopled with extraordinary individuals and endowed with the potential to achieve enormous good – or, as recent history has vividly shown, to inflict devastating harm. Given that senior executives operate largely beyond the reach of traditional compliance program controls, a board that aspires to true stewardship must embrace a special responsibility to support and monitor ethics and compliance in the C-suite.
By themselves, the forces at large in the C-suite would challenge the ability of even the most conscientious and rational executives to make consistently irreproachable decisions. The C-suite environment is characterized by the presence of power, strong incentives and huge temptations (financial and other), high ambition, extreme pressure, a fast pace, complex problems and few effective external controls. The problem of C-suite ethics has a deeper dimension, though, than the mere impact of strong pressures upon rational decision-makers. Recent behavioral research brings the unwelcome news that the subversive effects of these pressures are magnified by systematic, predictable human failings that can prompt us to slip our moral moorings and overlook when others do so. We are just beginning to understand the insidious power that such factors as motivated blindness, attentional blindness, conflicts of interest, focused "business-only" framing, time pressure, irrational avoidance of loss, escalating commitment, overconfidence and in-group dynamics can exert below the plane of conscious thought, even over people who have good reason to consider themselves ethically strong. and behaviorally upright.
But we also know that organizational culture can
dramatically affect both ethical conduct and reporting of misconduct, by
establishing workplace norms, harnessing social identity and group loyalty and
increasing the salience of ethical values. How can these learnings inform the
board’s interaction with, and monitoring of, the C-suite? And how can the board
help forge a stronger connection between the C-Suite and the organization’s
compliance and ethics program? This paper suggests several key strategies for
dealing with different aspects of this complex problem.