Tuesday, June 28, 2016
SEC Chair Mary Jo White yesterday presented the keynote address, for the International Corporate Governance Network Annual Conference, "Focusing the Lens of Disclosure to Set the Path Forward on Board Diversity, Non-GAAP, and Sustainability." The full speech is available here.
In reading the speech, I found that I was talking to myself at various spots (I do that from time to time), so I thought I'd turn those thoughts into an annotated version of the speech. In the excerpt below, I have added my comments in brackets and italics. These are my initial thoughts to the speech, and I will continue to think these ideas through to see if my impression evolves. Overall, as is often the case with financial and other regulation, I found myself agreeing with many of the goals, but questioning whether the proposed methods were the right way to achieve the goals. Here's my initial take:
June 28, 2016 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, June 24, 2016
Recently, I came across this discussion on Poverty Inc. by Bill Easterly (NYU Economics) and the film's creators (Michael Matheson Miller and Mark Weber). I posted on one of Bill Easterly's books here.
In the discussion at NYU, I especially liked this quote from Michael Matheson Miller: "We tend to treat poor people as objects--as objects of our charity, objects of our pity, objects of our compassion.--instead of subjects...Poor people are not objects; they are subjects and they should be the protagonists in their own stories of development." The personal story Mark Weber tells of his trip while he was studying at Notre Dame was moving, but you will have to watch the discussion to hear it, as it would be tough to summarize. Some of the audience questions are a bit long-winded, but I think the panel does a nice job deciphering and answering.
The film's trailer, the discussion, and the Q&A with the audience are all worth watching.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
The Cuba Conundrum: Corporate Governance and Compliance Challenges for U.S. Publicly-Traded Companies
My latest article on Cuba and the US is out. Here I explore corporate governance and compliance issues for US companies. In May, I made my third trip to Cuba in a year to do further research on rule of law and investor concerns for my current work in progress.
In the meantime, please feel free to email me your comments or thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org on my latest piece
The abstract is below:
The list of companies exploring business opportunities in Cuba reads like a who’s who of household names- Starwood Hotels, Netflix, Jet Blue, Carnival, Google, and AirBnB are either conducting business or have publicly announced plans to do so now that the Obama administration has normalized relations with Cuba. The 1962 embargo and the 1996 Helm-Burton Act remain in place, but companies are preparing for or have already been taking advantage of the new legal exemptions that ban business with Cuba. Many firms, however, may not be focusing on the corporate governance and compliance challenges of doing business in Cuba. This Essay will briefly discuss the pitfalls related to doing business with state-owned enterprises like those in Cuba; the particular complexity of doing business in Cuba; and the challenges of complying with US anti-bribery and whistleblower laws in the totalitarian country. I will also raise the possibility that Cuba will return to a state of corporatism and the potential impact that could have on compliance and governance programs. I conclude that board members have a fiduciary duty to ensure that their companies comply with existing US law despite these challenges and recommend a code of conduct that can be used for Cuba or any emerging markets which may pose similar difficulties.
June 23, 2016 in Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Research/Scholarhip | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, June 17, 2016
By now, I am sure all readers are aware of the horrific, hateful mass shooting that occurred in Orlando earlier this week.
If your social media feeds are anything like mine, it did not take long for politicians, pundits, and friends to politicize this tragedy. The tragedy was quickly used, by people all along the political spectrum, as evidence supporting their views on guns, religion, sexuality, and immigration. There is certainly a time and need for solutions, but there needs to be space to mourn. Orin Kerr (George Washington Law) summarized my thoughts well when he tweeted:
It's impressive how national tragedies prove to everyone that they were right all along.— Orin Kerr (@OrinKerr) June 13, 2016
What could and should be done immediately after a tragedy? I am not entirely sure, but those who took steps to donate blood and financial resources should be commended.
Some local businesses also attempted to help. For example, it was reported that Chick-fil-A, which is famously closed on Sundays, cooked and gave away food to those waiting in line to donate blood. This is an admittedly small gesture, but at a time when our nation often seems hopelessly divided, I am thankful for the gesture. Chick-fil-A and its conservative Christian COO Dan Cathy were, of course, at the center of controversy regarding views on marriage. I have seen no indications that Dan Cathy has changed his views on marriage, though Chick-fil-A does appear to have made changes in its donations. In any event, I am so glad to see a business looking past differing views and caring for human beings in the aftermath of tragedy.
[Disclosure: While no company is perfect, my family and I are Chick-fil-A fans, and I have friends, including a former roommate, who work for the company.]
On Wednesday, the EU finally outlined its position on conflict minerals. The proposed rule will affect approximately 900,000 businesses. As I have discussed here, these “name and shame” disclosure rules are premised on the theories that: 1) companies have duty to respect human rights by conducting due diligence in their supply chains; 2) companies that source minerals from conflict zones contribute financially to rebels or others that perpetuate human rights abuses; and 3) if consumers and other stakeholders know that companies source certain minerals from conflict zones they will change their buying habits or pressure companies to source elsewhere.
As stated in earlier blog posts, the US Dodd- Frank rule has been entangled in court battles for years and the legal wranglings are not over yet. Dodd-Frank Form SD filings were due on May 31st and it is too soon to tell whether there has been improvement over last year’s disclosures in which many companies indicated that the due diligence process posed significant difficulties.
I am skeptical about most human rights disclosure rules in general because they are a misguided effort to solve the root problem of business’ complicity with human rights abuses and assume that consumers care more about ethical sourcing than they report in surveys. Further, there are conflicting views on the efficacy of Dodd-Frank in particular. Some, like me, argue that it has little effect on the Congolese people it was designed to help. Others such as the law’s main proponent Enough, assert that the law has had a measurable impact.
The EU's position on conflict minerals is a compromise and many NGOs such as Amnesty International, an organization I greatly respect, are not satisfied. Like its US counterpart, the EU rule requires reporting on tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, which are used in everything from laptops, cameras, jewelry, light bulbs and component parts. Unlike Dodd-Frank, the rule only applies to large importers, smelters, and refiners but it does apply to a wider zone than the Democratic Republic of Congo and the adjoining countries. The EU rule applies to all “conflict zones” around the world.
Regular readers of my blog posts know that I teach and research on business and human rights, and I have focused on corporate accountability measures. I have spent time in both Democratic Republic of Congo and Guatemala looking at the effect of extractive industries on local communities through the lens of an academic and as a former supply chain executive for a Fortune 500 company. I continue to oppose these disclosure rules because they take governments off the hook for drafting tough, substantive legislation. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing what lessons if any that the EU has learned from the US when the member states finally implement and enforce the new rule. In coming weeks I will blog on recent Form SD disclosures and the progress of the drafting of the final EU rule.
June 17, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
The New York Times ran the article How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions last weekend. It's an interesting piece that provides a look at Donald Trump's east coast casino experience. The article is, as one might expect, critical of his dealings and notes that Trump made money even when his ventures when bankrupt.
Though I will not defend any of Trump's dealings, there are few issues raised that I think are worthy of a some discussion and clarification.1 The post that follows suggests how to consider Trump's business history and place that history in a political context.
Friday, June 10, 2016
I have been following Professor Angela Duckworth's work on grit for well over a year, so I was eager to read her new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In fact, I can't remember the last time I bought and read a book within a few weeks of it being published.
The book is an easy read, written for a for a popular audience, and I was able to finish it in three relatively short sittings.
Below, I reflect on the book, hopefully in a balanced way.
Thesis. As may be evident from previous posts of mine, I like Duckworth's thesis - essentially, that passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals are important in achieving success. Duckworth is careful to caveat her thesis, noting at hard work and passion are important, but are not the only factors that matter in achieving success. With this caveat, her thesis seems rather obvious and uninteresting.
Grit Scale. The Grit Scale Duckworth created for her studies seems easy to fake, and to her credit, she admits that it can be faked, like most self-reporting measures. Given the ability to fake the Grit Scale, I am not sure that it would be of much use in practical settings where the stakes are high (such as admissions or hiring). In one of the more interesting studies, Duckworth discusses how they gave the Grit Scale to West Point cadets before going through Beast Barracks (described as the toughest part of the four years). Supposedly, Grit scores did a nice job predicting who would stay and who would drop out. Given that the scale is easy to fake, maybe the interesting finding is not "those who actually have more grit perform better" but rather "those who think they have more grit (or are willing to lie that they have more grit) perform better.
Parenting and Teaching. As a parent, I appreciated her chapter on parenting for Grit (though she admits that these are just her thoughts, and unlike other parts of the book, the parenting chapter is lacking directly applicable scientific studies). In particular, she notes the importance of being both supportive and demanding. This is also fairly obvious, but easy to forget, hard to consistently apply, and important to remember. This instruction applies to teachers as well -- make clear that you have high expectations, but also communicate you are there to help and believe the students can meet the expectations with work. For a skeptics view, at least on the point of whether grit can be taught, see here.
Creativity, Talent, Structural Barriers: While Duckworth admits that there are other factors that contribute to success, I didn't think she made a strong case for grit being more important than creativity or talent. In fact, most of the gritty people she mentioned had certain natural advantages over many others. While grit may be needed to get things done, it seems like creativity and talent and access are all necessary and may be even more important than grit in some cases.
Anecdotes. There are a number of anecdotes in the book. The stories are less convincing than the academic studies, but the stories help illustrate her points. I especially liked the sports stories, including the ones about the UNC women's soccer team and the Seattle Seahawks. The coach of the UNC soccer team, for example, had his team memorize passages related to each team core value, and then also integrated the values into practices and games. Much better than a meaningless organization vision statement.
All in all, I think the book was worth reading, if only to stay current on some of the theories that are likely to be talked about by educators at all levels, and to inspire more passion and perseverance in general.
For a fair and thoughtful critique of Grit see here.
Friday, June 3, 2016
Next week, I will post some reflections on the contents of the book, but for now, I would like to discuss professors publishing for a popular audience. Tongue-twisting alliteration unintended.
I am thankful that Duckworth wrote this book for a popular audience rather than in a way that would target a narrow slice of academia. Even as a professor myself, I find books written for popular audience easier to digest, especially if in a different discipline. While popular press books often oversimplify, I would rather a professor author a popular press book on her studies (and studies in her field) than have a journalist attempt to explain them. Also, while a popular press book may oversimplify, professors tend to be intentional about avoiding claims that are too sweeping. Note that in this interview, like the book, Duckworth is careful to state that grit is not the only thing that contributes to success. Finally, especially when the professor has done the background academic work first, as Duckworth did in many peer-reviewed journal articles, a popular press book can reach more people and inspire change and may eventually lead to broader engagement with the underlying academic articles.
Grit, as a popular press book, has already reached a large audience. Grit was published by Scribner: An Imprint of Simon & Schuster (not a university press) and jumped into the top-5 of The New York Times best-seller list for hardcover non-fiction. Duckworth had already reached well over a million people with her TED talk, and the book allowed her to be much more nuanced than she could be in a 6 minute speech. The TED talk was a gateway to her popular press book and perhaps her popular press book with be a gateway to the academic research she cites.
One problem with engaging a large, popular audience is that the professor may lose control of her message, and people may misinterpret the findings. Duckworth looks like she is staying engaged in the conversation, however, and has, for example, written to argue against grading schools on grit.
In short, there are certainly potential problems when writing about academic topics for a popular audience, but I am glad Duckworth took on the challenge and spread her research in this way. That said, as I will discuss next week, Grit does have weaknesses, in addition to its strengths.
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Donald Trump was in my home state of West Virginia recently, and he promised to bring back coal jobs:
And West Virginia. And we’re going to get those miners back to work. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to get those miners back to work . . .
Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.
How he plans to do this is not clear, but part of it will be to attack the EPA's Clean Power Plan. Okay, but that's a relatively recent development, and was certainly not the cause of the decline in coal production since the last production peak in 2008. The primary cause: cheap and abundant natural gas from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
In my former home state of North Dakota, Trump was telling voters he would rescind President Obama’s climate change rules and work to make the Keystone XL pipeline a reality to ship petroleum from Canada’s oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Further, Trump has stated that he would relax regulations that limit coal leases on federal lands and reduce hydraulic fracturing regulations on federal lands.
It appears, then, that his plan to support the coal, oil, and natural gas industries will be to lower costs. That should increase supply, right? The problem for each industry, though, is that excess supply has lowered prices so much that all three areas are cutting back on activity (and jobs). Reducing governmental restrictions would lower costs even more, which is not likely to increase jobs or production in the current climate. Any such change might increase margins for existing activities, but it would not likely incentivize a change in behavior that would lead toward the state goals of increased employment. As the Financial Times recently explained:
One of the factors behind that [oil market] collapse was Saudi Arabia’s strategy of continuing to produce at high levels above 10m barrels per day, rather than cutting output to ease the glut of oil.
More oil (or gas or coal) equals lower prices. Lower taxes and regulations equals lower cost of exploration and production, which leads to? More oil (or gas or coal) and lower prices. Even worse, low prices tend to encourage automation, which is particularly not good for jobs.
One can debate whether there is value in reducing these kinds of regulations, but one needs to explain how greater supply and lower prices is going to help any of these industries in the way the policies are purporting to (or another justification is needed). But then, Trump has not explained how he intends to implement any of his promises or how any of his proposals would work.
Newsflash: Just saying something, no matter how confidently and assertively it is said, doesn't make it true. I sure hope a majority of voters recognize this come November.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Today, I received notice of a web seminar on corporate political activity to be hosted by one of my former firms, King & Spalding.
Interested readers can register for the free web seminar here.
More information, from the notice I received, is reproduced below.
Election 2016: What Every Corporate Counsel Must Know About Corporate Political Activity
Thursday, May 26, 2016, 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM ET
In this election year, corporations and their employees will be faced with historic opportunities to engage in the political arena. Deciding whether and how to do so, however, must be made carefully and based on a thorough understanding of the relevant law. In this presentation, King & Spalding experts will address this timely and important area of the law and provide the guidance that corporate counsel need when engaging in the political process.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Breaking academic news:
Elsevier, a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services, announced today the acquisition of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN)....SSRN will be further developed alongside Mendeley, a London-based free reference manager and scholarly collaboration network owned by Elsevier....
Elsevier provides web-based, digital solutions - among themScienceDirect, Scopus, Elsevier Research Intelligence and ClinicalKey - and publishes over 2,500 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and more than 33,000 book titles, including a number of iconic reference works. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a world-leading provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries. http://www.elsevier.com
What does this change mean for publishing authors and researchers? Content will remain free to post and download. Elsevier acquired Mendeley in 2013 creating controversy over Mendeley's continued "trustworthiness" as a part of a for-profit enterprise. Since the acquisition, Mendeley doubled its subscribers from 2.5 to 5 million. Elsevier's interest in SSRN, a profitable site for over 13 years, is primarily in its potential for generating user data and analytics. Integrating SSRN and Mendeley services is predicted to strengthen
"connections between SSRN author pages and Mendeley professional profiles, and workflow connections that allow Mendeley collaborative groups to submit papers for distribution and perhaps eventually review and publication. There will also be other opportunities to strengthen SSRN for its authors, with plans to link preprints on SSRN with Scopus, bringing analytics about article “performance” to SSRN authors, and to bring improved links between working papers and preprints with their eventual published versions."
Would it be too much to hope for a cosmetic overhaul of the website too?
The acquisition raises some interesting questions for those in academics whose scholarly productivity, national reputation and other outputs are increasingly measured with data points provided from sites like SSRN. Changes to the substance of the website may change how those metrics are generated and what they mean. The creation of new metrics available to authors (and schools) may provide for more reportable data points for our annual faculty reports with the questions remaining how useful are those metrics and what do they tell us about the value of ideas?
Monday, May 9, 2016
[Please keep in mind as you read this post that my daughter is a Starbucks partner. Any pro-Starbucks bias in this post is unintended. But you should factor in my affiliation accordingly.]
Maybe it's just me, but the publicity around the recent suit against Starbucks for putting too much ice in their iced beverages made me think of Goldilocks and her reactions to that porridge, those chairs, and those beds. First it was McDonald's, where the coffee was too hot. Now it's Starbucks, where the coffee is too cold--or, more truthfully, is too watered down from frozen water . . . . (And apparently I missed a Starbucks suit earlier this year on under-filing lattes . . . .)
Different types of tort suits, I know. I always felt bad about the injury to the woman in the McDonald's case, although the fault issue was truly questionable. The recent Starbucks case just seems wrong in so many ways, however. This is a consumer dispute that is best addressed by other means. I admit to believing this most recent suit is actually an abuse of our court system.
How might a customer who is truly concerned about a substandard beverage attempt to remedy the wrong?
Thought Josephine Sandler Nelson's recent Oxford Business Law Blog post on Volkswagen might be of interest to our readers. It is reposted here with permission.
Fumigating the Criminal Bug: The Insulation of Volkswagen’s Middle Management
New headlines each day reveal wide-spread misconduct and large-scale cheating at top international companies: Volkswagen’s emissions-defeat devices installed on over eleven million cars trace back to a manager’s PowerPoint from as early as 2006. Mitsubishi admits that it has been cheating on emissions standards for the eK and Dayz model cars for the past 25 years—even after a similar scandal almost wiped out the company 15 years ago. Takata’s $70 million fine for covering up its exploding air bags in Honda, Ford, and other car brands could soon jump to $200 million if a current Department of Justice probe discovers additional infractions. The government has ordered Takata’s recall of the air bags to more than double: one out of every five cars on American roads may be affected. Now Daimler is conducting an internal investigation into potential irregularities in its exhaust compliance.
A recent case study of the 2015-16 Volkswagen (‘VW’) scandal pioneers a new way to look at these scandals by focusing on their common element: the growing insulation and entrenchment of middle management to coordinate such large-scale wrongdoing. “The Criminal Bug: Volkswagen’s Middle Management” describes how VW’s top management put pressure on the rest of the company below it to achieve results without inquiring into the methods that the agents would use to achieve those results. The willing blindness of top executives to the methods of the agents below them is conscious and calculated. Despite disclosure-based regulation’s move to strict-liability prosecutions, the record of prosecutorial failure at trial against top executives in both the U.S. and Germany demonstrates that assertions of plausible deniability succeed in protecting top executives from accountability for the pressure that they put on agents to commit wrongdoing.
Agents inside VW receive the message loud and clear that they are to cheat to achieve results. As even the chairman of the VW board has admitted about the company, “[t]here was a tolerance for breaking the rules”. And, contrary to VW’s assertion, no one believes that merely a “small group of engineers” is responsible for the misconduct. Only middle management at the company had the longevity and seniority to shepherd at least three different emissions-control defeat devices through engine re-designs over ten years, to hide those devices despite heavily documented software, and to coordinate even across corporate forms with an outside supplier of VW’s software and on-board computer.
The reason why illegal activity can be coordinated and grow at the level of middle management over all these years is rooted in the failure of the law to impose individual accountability on agents at this level of the corporation. Additional work by the same author on the way in which patterns of illegal behavior in the 2007-08 financial crisis re-occur in the 2015-16 settlements for manipulations of LIBOR, foreign currency exchange rates, and other parts of the financial markets indicates that middle management is further protected from accountability by regulators’ emphasis on disclosure-based enforcement. In addition, U.S. law has lost the ability to tie together the behavior of individuals within a corporation through conspiracy or other types of prosecutions.
Previous research has shown that the more prominent the firm is, and the higher the expectations for performance, the more likely the firm is to engage in illegal behavior. Now we understand more about the link between the calculated pressure that top executives put on their companies and the protection of middle management that supports the patterns of long-term, large-scale wrongdoing that inflict enormous damage on the public. It is not solely VW that needs to fumigate this criminal bug: the VW case study suggests that we need to re-think the insulation from individual liability for middle management in all types of corporations.
This post originally appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog, May 5, 2016.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Last week, Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, announced a 10% company stock grant to all company employees. Chobani joined the ranks of high profile stock grants including Whole Foods, Starbucks, Apple and Twitter. Stock grants, while more common in tech industries, are a part of hybrid corporate law-employment law conversation on shared ownership. Employee ownership in companies can occur in several different forms such as ERISA-governed benefit plans where the company stock issued or bought as a part of a retirement saving plan. Alternatively, a stock grant may be structured as a bonus plan, a standard compensation, or a vesting employee benefit eligible after threshold years and types of service. All of these plans fall under the rubric of shared ownership. In 2015, the National Center for Employee Benefits estimated that over 9000 companies participated in some form of shared ownership.
In a similar vein, actors in the hit (and record-breaking with 16 Tony Nominations) musical Hamilton have entered into a profit-sharing agreement with producers. The deal is different for these actors, but the sentiment is the same in sharing profits, aligning interests, and promoting employee loyalty.
Shared ownership plans, especially the ERISA-governed ones can have specific tax and financing benefits for companies. Creating a shared ownership plan, however is often focused on creating certain firm-specific benefits such as recruiting and retaining talent, and improving firm performance by aligning interests between employees and the company. The recruitment and retention aspect can be especially valuable to start-up firms that struggle to compete with mature firms on salary and reputation. Empirical studies have found improved workplace performance, on average, for firms with shared capitalism plans, with positive effects observed most strongly when combined with policies such as low supervision, decision-making participation, and competitive pay.
I note these stories with particular interest for several reasons. The first is that I am routinely embarrassed by how little play I give employees in my corporation class . I seem all too happy to ignore this very important piece of the corporate power puzzle, engine for the machine, etc., etc. Second, I have been looking at shared ownership in the context of a recent research project, so look for more on that topic in a separate post once the project progresses. Third, my sense is that social enterprise movement will bring with it greater demands for shared ownership as a means to address social factors such as retirement security, employee autonomy and wage inequality. Look for more of these stories in the headlines and an emphasis on it in scholarship.
Friday, April 29, 2016
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.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
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
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.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
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.
Friday, March 25, 2016
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)
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:
- Rio/Rio de Janeiro
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.