Friday, October 24, 2014

What do Jeremy Bentham and Norway’s Pension Fund Have in Common?

I used to joke that my alma mater Columbia University’s core curriculum, which required students to study the history of art, music, literature, and philosophy (among other things) was designed solely to make sure that graduates could distinguish a Manet from a Monet and not embarrass the university at cocktail parties for wealthy donors. I have since tortured my son by dragging him through museums and ruins all over the world pointing spouting what I remember about chiaroscuro and Doric columns. He’s now a freshman at San Francisco Art Institute, and I’m sure that my now-fond memories of class helped to spark a love of art in him. I must confess though that as a college freshman I was less fond of  Contemporary Civilization class, (“CC”) which took us through Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hume, Hegel, and all of the usual suspects. At the time I thought it was boring and too high level for a student who planned to work in the gritty city counseling abused children and rape survivors.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and my job as a Compliance and Ethics Officer for a Fortune 500 company immersed me in many of the principles we discussed in CC, although we never spoke in the lofty terms that our teaching assistant used when we looked at bribery, money- laundering, conflicts of interest, terrorism threats, data protection, SEC regulations, discrimination, and other issues that keep ethics officers awake at night. We did speak of values versus rules based ethics and how to motivate people to "do the right thing."

Now that I am in academia I have chosen to research on the issues I dealt with in private life. Although I am brand new to the field of normative business ethics, I was pleased to have my paper accepted for a November workshop at Wharton's Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. Each session has two presenters who listen to and respond to feedback from attendees, who have read their papers in advance. Dr. Wayne Buck, who teaches business ethics at Eastern Connecticut State University, presented two weeks ago. He entitled his paper “Naming Names,” and using a case study on the BP Oil spill argued that the role of business ethics is not merely to promulgate norms around conduct, but also to judge individual businesspeople on moral grounds. Professor John Hasnas of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business also presented his working paper “Why Don't Corporations Have the Right to Vote?” He argued that if we accept a theory of corporate moral agency, then that commits us to extending them the right to vote. (For the record, my understanding of his paper is that he doesn’t believe corporations should have the right.) Attendees from Johns Hopkins, the University of Connecticut, Pace and of course Wharton brought me right back to my days at Columbia with references to Rawls and Kant. My comments were probably less theoretical and more related to practical application, but that’s still my bent as a junior scholar.

In a few weeks, I present on my theory of the social contract as it relates to business and human rights. In brief, I argue that multinational corporations enter into social contracts with the states in which they operate (in large part to avoid regulation) and with stakeholders around them (the "social license to operate", as Professor John Ruggie describes it). Typically these contracts consist of the corporate social responsibility reports, voluntary codes of conduct, industry initiatives, and other public statements that dictate how they choose to act in society, such as the UN Global Compact. Many nations have voluntary and mandatory disclosure regimes, which have the side benefit of providing consumers and investors with the kinds of information that will help them determine whether the firm has “breached” the social contract by not living up to its promise. The majority of these proposals and disclosure regimes (such as Dodd-Frank conflict minerals) rest on the premise that armed with certain information, consumers and investors (other than socially responsible investors) will pressure corporations to change their behavior by either rewarding “ethical” behavior or by punishing firms who act unethically via a boycott or divestment.

I contend in my article that: (1) corporations generally respond to incentives and penalties, which can cause them to act “morally;” (2) states refuse to enter into a binding UN treaty on business and human rights and often do not uniformly enforce the laws, much less the social contracts; (3) consumers over-report their desire to buy goods and services from “ethical” companies; and (4) disclosure for the sake of transparency, without more, will not lead to meaningful change in the human rights arena. Instead, I prefer to focus on the kinds of questions that the board members, consumers, and investors who purport to care about these things should ask. I try to move past the fuzzy concept of corporate social responsibility to a stronger corporate accountability framework, at least where firms have the ability to directly or indirectly impact human rights.

As a compliance officer, I did not use terms like “deontological” and “teleological” principles, but some heavy hitters such as Norway's Government Pension Fund, with over five billion Kronos under management, do. The 2003 report that helped establish the Fund’s recommendations on ethical guidelines state in part:

One group of ethical theories asserts that we should primarily be concerned with the consequences of the choices we make. These theories are in other words forward-looking, focusing on the consequences of an action. The choice that is ethically correct influences the world in the best possible way, i.e. has the most favourable consequences. Every choice generates an infinite number of consequences and the decisive question is of course which of the consequences we should focus on. Again, a number of answers are possible. Some would assert that we should focus on individual welfare, and that the action that has the most favourable consequences for individual welfare is the best one. Others would claim that access to resources or the opportunities or rights of the individual are most important. However, common to all these answers is the view that the desire to influence the world in a favourable direction should govern our choices.

Another group of ethical theories focuses on avoiding breaching obligations by avoiding doing evil and fulfilling obligations by doing good. Whether the results are good or evil, and whether the cost of doing good is high, are in principle of no significance. This is often known as deontological ethics.

In relation to the Petroleum Fund, these two approaches will primarily influence choice in that deontological ethics will dictate that certain investments must be avoided under any circumstances, while teleological ethics will lead to the avoidance of investments that have less favourable consequences and the promotion of investments that have more favourable consequences.

Recently, NGOs have pressured firms to speak on out human rights abuses at mega-events and have published their responses. The US government has made a number of efforts, some unsuccessful, to push companies toward more proactive human rights initiatives. These issues are here to stay. As I formulate my recommendations, I am looking at the pension fund, some work by ethicists researching marketing principles, writings by political and business philosophers, and of course, my old friends Locke, Rousseau, Rawls and Kant for inspiration. If you have ideas of articles or authors I should consult, feel free to comment below or to email me at mnarine@stu.edu. And if you will be in Philadelphia on November 14th, register for the session at Wharton and give me your feedback in person.

 

 

 

 

October 24, 2014 in Books, Business School, Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Corporate Law Professors Comment on Proposed HHS Definition of "Eligible Organization" for Hobby Lobby Accommodation

In response to the Department of Health and Human Services' Proposed Regulation and Request for Comments regarding the definition of "eligible organization" (see earlier post here) at least two groups of law professors have weighed in on the issue.

The first comment letter, available here, was submitted by the U.C. Berkeley corporate law professors and encourages the Department to adopt a definition based upon the veil piercing theory.  "We ... propose that for purposes of defining an “[W]e ... suggest that shareholders of a corporation should have to certify that they and the corporation have a unity in identity and interests, and therefore the corporation should be viewed as the shareholders’ alter ego."  The comments argue that utilizing the veil-piercing theory avoids the consequences of a setting an arbitrary number of shareholders thus creating a rule that would be "seriously under-and-over-inclusive, capturing corporations that meet the numerical test but for which shareholders are not the alter egos of the corporation, as well as failing to capture corporations with a relatively large number of shareholders that are all united in their interests and are alter egos of one another."

The second comment letter on which I worked and was joined by some editors of this blog as signatories, is available here.  This comment letter, signed by 43 corporate law professors, was produced through the coordinating efforts of the The Public Rights / Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School headed by  Katherine Franke, and the project's executive director,  Kara Loewentheil.   This letter too encourages the HHS to adopt an approach that requires an "identity of interests."  These comments suggest a blueprint for establishing an identity of interest, namely a focus on "entities (1) with a limited number of equity holders/owners, (2) that demonstrate religious commitment, and (3) submit evidence of unanimous consent of equity holders to seek an accommodation on an annual basis."  The comments provide additional criteria under each of these three elements to operationalize the holding in Hobby Lobby.

-Anne Tucker

October 22, 2014 in Anne Tucker, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Comment from the Student Archives- the Real Housewives Make an Appearance in Business Associations

I plan to write a more traditional blog post later if I have time, but I am in the midst of midterm grading hell. I was amused today in class when a student compared the drama of the Francis v. United Jersey Bank case with the bankruptcy, bank, and mortgage fraud convictions of husband and wife Joe and Teresa Guidice from the reality TV hit the Real Housewives of New Jersey.

I had provided some color commentary courtesy of Reinier Kraakman and Jay Kesten’s The Story of Francis v. United Jersey Bank: When a Good Story Makes Bad Law, and apparently Mrs. Pritchard’s defenses reminded the student of Teresa Guidice’s pleas of ignorance. Other than being stories about New Jersey fraudsters, there aren’t a lot of similarities between the cases. Based on my quick skim of the indictment I don’t think that Teresa served on the board of any of the companies at issue--Joe apparently had an LLC and was the sole member, and the vast majority of the counts against the couple relate to their individual criminal conduct. In addition, Teresa is also going to jail, and no one suffered that fate in United Jersey. But luckily, she may see a big payday from a purported book deal and reality TV show spinoff after she’s out, possibly disproving the adage that crime doesn’t pay.

 

October 16, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Teaching, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Economics in Business Law: Regulatory Capture and The Nobel Laureate

To be clear, I'm not an economist. I do, however, have an interest in economics, economic theory, and especially behavioral economics.  I incorporate basic concepts of economics into my courses, especially Business Organizations and Energy Law.   This week's announcement of  Jean Tirole as the 2014 Nobel Laureate in economics thus caught my eye.  

I admit I did not much about Tirole before the announcement, and after just a little reading, it's clear to me that I need to know more.  A nice summary of Tirole's work (written by Tyler Cowen) can be found here. Cowen introduces the announcement and Tirole this way:

A theory prize!  A rigor prize!  I would say it is about principal-agent theory and the increasing mathematization of formal propositions as a way of understanding economics.  He has been a leading figure in formalizing propositions in many distinct areas of microeconomics, most of all industrial organization but also finance and financial regulation and behavioral economics and even some public choice too.  He is a broader economist than many of his fans realize.

Tirole is a Frenchman, he teaches at Toulouse, and his key papers start in the 1980s.  In industrial organization, you can think of him as extending the earlier work of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson with regard to opportunism and recontracting, but applying more sophisticated and more mathematical forms of game theory.  Tirole also has been a central figure in procurement theory and optimal contracts when there is asymmetric information about costs.  The idea of mechanism design runs throughout his papers in many different guises.  Many of his papers show “it’s complicated,” rather than presenting easily summarizable, intuitive solutions which make for good blog posts.  That is one reason why his ideas do not show up so often in blogs and the popular press, but they nonetheless have been extremely influential in the economics profession.  He has shown a remarkable breadth and depth over the course of the last thirty or so years.

Cowen then summarizes (or at least introduces) much of Tirole's work. I am now working my through a paper Tirole wrote with Jean-Jacques Laffont that discusses when regulatory capture is likely to happen. (Cowen notes, " I have yet to see the insights of this paper incorporated into the rest of the literature adequately.") 

The papers is called The Politics of Government Decision-Making: A Theory of Regulatory Capture. Two of my favorite lines:

  • "The assumption that Congress is a benevolent maximizer of a social welfare function is clearly an oversimplification, as its members are themselves subject to interest-group influence."
  • "In contrast with the conventional wisdom on interest-group politics, an interest group may be hurt by its own power."

Here's the abstract (paper available on JSTOR):

The paper develops an agency-theoretic approach to interest-group politics and shows the following: (1) the organizational response to the possibility of regulatory agency politics is to reduce the stakes interest groups have in regulation. (2) The threat of producer protection leads to low-powered incentive schemes for regulated firms. (3) Consumer politics may induce uniform pricing by a multiproduct firm. (4) An interest group has more power when its interest lies in inefficient rather than efficient regulation, where inefficiency is measured by the degree of informational asymmetry between the regulated industry and the political principal (Congress).

It's worth a read, even if the math part is a little beyond some of us. 

H/T: Geoffrey Manne

October 14, 2014 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Do the results justify the costs of compliance for Dodd-Frank conflict minerals?

The numbers are in on SEC Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings. According to a Tulane study, the average company spent over half a million dollars to comply. A review by law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel shows how meaningless (in my view), some of those filings were. Meanwhile, Canada failed to pass another conflict minerals bill and NGOs are pressuring the EU to step up to the plate for more rigorous regulation. I continue to believe that there has to be a better way to resolve a deadly human rights crisis, and that disclosure and due diligence in the supply chain are important but are not the solutions.

October 9, 2014 in Corporate Governance, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Alibaba Presents "Current Events" Illustration of Corporate Law Principles

Alibaba dominated the September business press coverage with its record-breaking IPO last month, and news of its stock price, trading at a 30% premium, continues to dominate coverage.  I have been using the headline-hogging IPO in my corporations class to discuss raising capital, which I am sure many of you are doing as well.  Here are a few creative uses for the class-friendly headlines:

  • I used coverage of the IPO and its short-lived halo effect on other tech IPO's as a companion to the E-bay stock spinning case (taught under director fiduciary duties).  

As we move into securities next week,

Please add to the list of uses in the comments section if you have any new ideas or suggestions.

-Anne Tucker

October 8, 2014 in Business Associations, Anne Tucker, Corporate Finance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Internal Affairs Doctrine, State Power, and Citizens United

Maryland State Senator and American University Washington College of Law professor Jamie B. Raskin recently wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post, A shareholder solution to ‘Citizens United’. In the piece, he explains that 

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United essentially invites a shareholder solution. The premise of the decision was that government cannot block corporate political spending because a corporation is simply an association of citizens with free-speech rights, “an association that has taken on the corporate form,” as Kennedy put it. But if that is true, it follows that corporate managers should not spend citizen-shareholders’ money on political campaigns without their consent.

Senator Raskin further notes that the Congress doesn't appear interested in moving forward with the Disclose Act, and the Securities and Exchange Commission has not pursued requiring campaign spending disclosures.  In response, the senator has a proposal:

Our best hope for change is with the state governments that regulate corporate entities throughout the year and receive regular filings from them. I am introducing legislation in January that will require managers of Maryland-registered corporations who wish to engage in political spending for their shareholders to post all political expenditures on company Web sites within 48 hours and confirm that any political spending fairly reflects the explicit preference of shareholders owning a majority interest in the company.

Further, if no “majority will” of the shareholders can form to spend money for political candidates — because most shares are owned by institutions forbidden to participate in partisan campaigns — then the corporation will be prohibited from using its resources on political campaigns.

Back in early 2010, as a guest blogger here, I wrote a post, Citizens United: States, where I noted my reaction to the case, which was that I wondered how states would react and that the case made the issue "an internal governance issue, which is a state-level issue." (Please click below to read more.)

Continue reading

October 7, 2014 in Business Associations, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What Would Business Associations Students Do If They Were Shareholders?

For the second time, I have assigned my BA students to write their own shareholder proposals so that they can better understand the mechanics and the substance behind Rule 14-a8. As samples, I provided a link to over 500 proposals for the 2014 proxy season. We also went through the Apple Proxy Statement as a way to review corporate governance, the roles of the committees, and some other concepts we had discussed. As I reviewed the proposals this morning, I noticed that the student proposals varied widely with most relating to human rights, genetically modified food, environmental protection, online privacy, and other social factors. A few related to cumulative voting, split of the chair and CEO, poison pills, political spending, pay ratio, equity plans, and other executive compensation factors.

After they take their midterm next week, I will show them how well these proposals tend to do in the real world. Environmental, social, and governance factors (political spending and lobbying are included) constituted almost 42% of proposals, up from 36% in 2013, according to Equilar. Of note, 45% of proposals calling for a declassified board passed, with an average of 89% support, while only two proposals for the separation of chair and CEO passed. Astonishingly, Proxy Monitor, which looked at the 250 largest publicly-traded American companies, reports that just three people and their family members filed one third of all proposals. Only 4% of shareholder proposals were supported by a majority of voting shareholders.  Only one of the 136 proposals related to social policy concerns in the Proxy Monitor data set passed, and that was an animal welfare proposal that the company actually supported.

I plan to use two of the student proposals verbatim on the final exam to test their ability to assess whether a company would be successful in an SEC No-Action letter process. Many of the students thought the exercise was helpful, although one of the students who was most meticulous with the assignment is now even more adamant that she does not want to do transactional law. Too bad, because she would make a great corporate lawyer. I have 7 weeks to convince her to change her mind. 

October 2, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 29, 2014

More on LLCs as Non-Signatories of Operating Agreements . . .

In recent blog posts, two of my favorite bloggers, Keith Paul Bishop and Steve Bainbridge, have highlighted for our attention Delaware and California statutes providing (differently in each case) that an LLC and, at least in Delaware, its managers and members, are bound by the LLC's operating agreement even if they do not sign that agreement.  Bishop notes in his post that the California "RULLCA creates an odd situation in which LLCs are bound by contracts that they did not execute and to which they seemingly are not parties."  In his post Bainbridge cites to the Bishop post and another post by Francis Pileggi.  Certainly, they all have a point.  For students of contract law, the conclusion that a non-party is bound by a contract does not seem to be an obvious result . . . .

The flap in the blogosphere has its genesis in a recent Delaware Chancery Court decision, Seaport Village Ltd. v. Seaport Village Operating Company, LLC, et al. C.A. No. 8841-VCL.  The limited liability company defendant in that case raised as its only defense that it was not a party to the limited liability company agreement and therefore was not bound.  Unsurprisingly in light of applicable Delaware law, Chancellor Laster found the defense wanting as a matter of law.

This issue has more history than my brother bloggers point out, some of which is included in the brief Seaport Village opinion.  I probably don't have all the details, but set forth below is some additional background information that may be useful in thinking about the binding nature of LLC operating agreements.  Others may care to fill in any missing information by leaving comments to this post.

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September 29, 2014 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joan Heminway, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

New Article-Worldwide Hedge Fund Activism: Dimensions and Legal Determinants.

Professor Dionysia Katelouzou of Kings College, London has written an interesting empirical article on hedge fund activisim. The abstract is below:

In recent years, activist hedge funds have spread from the United States to other countries in Europe and Asia, but not as a duplicate of the American practice. Rather, there is a considerable diversity in the incidence and the nature of activist hedge fund campaigns around the world. What remains unclear, however, is what dictates how commonplace and multifaceted hedge fund activism will be in a particular country.

The Article addresses this issue by pioneering a new approach to understanding the underpinnings and the role of hedge fund activism, in which an activist hedge fund first selects a target company that presents high-value opportunities for engagement (entry stage), accumulates a nontrivial stake (trading stage), then determines and employs its activist strategy (disciplining stage), and finally exits (exit stage). The Article then identifies legal parameters for each activist stage and empirically examines why the incidence, objectives and strategies of activist hedge fund campaigns differ across countries. The analysis is based on 432 activist hedge fund campaigns during the period of 2000-2010 across 25 countries.

The findings suggest that the extent to which legal parameters matter depends on the stage that hedge fund activism has reached. Mandatory disclosure and rights bestowed on shareholders by corporate law are found to dictate how commonplace hedge fund activism will be in a particular country (entry stage). Moreover, the examination of the activist ownership stakes reveals that ownership disclosure rules have important ramifications for the trading stage of an activist campaign. At the disciplining stage, however, there is little support that the activist objectives and the employed strategies are a reflection of the shareholder protection regime of the country in which the target company is located.

 

 

September 25, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, M&A, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Judge James T. Vaughn, Jr. Nominated to Delaware Supreme Court

President Judge James T. Vaughn, Jr. of the Delaware Superior Court has been nominated to the Delaware Supreme Court by Governor Jack Markell. Judge Vaughn has served on the Delaware Superior Court for 15 years.

News.Delaware.Gov has more here.

September 24, 2014 in Current Affairs, Delaware, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Frank Pasquale on “how masterful manipulation of the law has allowed tech and finance giants to grow incredibly fast”

Like many people I know, I am a huge fan of Frank Pasquale.  Thus, I was very excited to read his Balkanization interview (available here) discussing his forthcoming book, “The Black Box Society.”  The interview touches on a wide range of topics, so you should go read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt to tempt you in case you’re on the fence:

I think our academic culture is very good at analysis, but oft-adrift when it comes to synthesis. Specialization obscures the big picture. And law can succumb to this as easily [as] any other field. For example, in the case of internet companies, cyberlawyers too often confine themselves to saying: “Google and Facebook should win key copyright cases, and subsequent trademark cases, and antitrust cases, and get certain First Amendment immunities, and not be classified as a ‘consumer reporting agency’ under relevant privacy laws,” etc. They may well be correct in every particular case. But what happens when a critical mass of close cases combines with network effects to give a few firms incredible power over our information about (and even interpretation of) events?

 

Similarly, old banking laws may fit poorly with the new globalized financial landscape. Finance lawyers churn out position papers dismantling the logic of Dodd-Frank, Basel, Sarbanes-Oxley, etc. But if too-big-to-fail firms keep growing bigger, assured of state support, while everything else the government does is deemed contingent: what kind of social contract is that?

 

The lawyers of the Progressive Era and the New Deal dealt with similar challenges: massive firms that warped the fabric of economic, political, and even cultural life to their own advantage. They consulted the best of social science to recommend regulation—but they didn’t let some narrow field (like neoclassical economics) act as a straitjacket (as, say, antitrust lawyers of today are all too prone to do).

September 21, 2014 in Books, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Stefan J. Padfield, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Alibaba and the forty (not really) risk factors

Teaching the definition of a "security" to business associations students who: 1) want to be litigators; 2) are afraid of math, finance, and accounting; 3) don't know anything about business; 4) only take the class because it's required; and 5) aren't allowed to distract themselves with electronics in class is no small feat.

Thankfully, as we were discussing the definition and exemptions, we also touched on IPOs. Many of the students knew nothing about IPOs but were already Alibaba customers and going through some of the registration statement made them understand the many reasons companies want to avoid going public. Of course, now that we went through some of the risk factors, my students who seemed gung ho about the IPO after watching some videos about the hype were a little less excited about it (good thing because they probably couldn't buy anyway).  

Now if I can only figure out how to jazz up the corporate finance chapter next week.

 

September 18, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Crowdfunding and Medical Philanthropy

Crowdfunding site GoFundMe recently removed the funding page for a person looking to crowdfund her abortion.  Past crowdfunding campaigns have funded fertility treatmentsgender confirmation surgeries, organ transplants, and other medical procedures and treatments.  Watsi is an entire crowdfnding platform dedicated to financing medical care for patients through donations.  While I usually research and write about crowdfunding business entities and projects, the crowdfunding of medical procedures and treatments has gotten more and more traction with those needing or wanting financial assistance for expensive medical care.  It seemed like a good time to say something about it . . . .  But what to say?

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September 15, 2014 in Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hobby Lobby Redux: 7 Corporate Law/Theory Quotes

This coming Tuesday, I am scheduled to provide a brief overview of the corporate law/theory aspects of Hobby Lobby as part of the University of Akron’s Supreme Court Roundup.  What follows are the seven key quotes from the opinion that I plan to focus on (time permitting) in order to highlight what I see as the key relevant issues raised by the opinion. Comments are appreciated.

Issue 1: Did corporate theory play a role in Hobby Lobby?

While I believe the majority made a pitch for applying a pragmatic, anti-theoretical approach (“When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of … people.” Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2768 (2014)), the following quote strikes me as conveying an underlying aggregate view of corporations:

In holding that Conestoga, as a “secular, for-profit corporation,” lacks RFRA protection, the Third Circuit wrote as follows: “General business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion. They do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously-motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors.” 724 F.3d, at 385 (emphasis added). All of this is true—but quite beside the point. Corporations, “separate and apart from” the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all.

134 S. Ct. at 2768.

 

Continue reading

September 14, 2014 in Business Associations, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Religion, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Trip to the Bakken: Day 4

Today started in Williston, ND, and we then went to Mountrail County.  We vistied Tioga and Stanley, then headed south through New Town and Killdeer on the way back to Dickinson, where we stay tonight before flying out tomorrow morning (ridiculously early, I might add). 

We started the day at Williston State College, where we learned about the TrainND program and other degree programs.  TrainND works with companies to do OSHA and other safety training, and trained more than 16,000 people last, the vast majority of whom were employed.  The College also offers degree programs for those seeking to be Lease Operators and PLC-trained operators. Interesting for academics, the college had 38% turnover last summer.  The college has invested in campus housing for faculty, which can be part of the incentive package to bring people.  Apartments run from $2600/mo for 1 and 2 BR options, with home rentals over $3K.  Seventy percent of new faculty hires are moving into the new campus housing apartments (which looked nice from the outside). Just like the industry, the college is "catching up" with the whole thing. 

We saw more densely packed well sites, such at this 9-pack (nine wells on one well pad).  This is an advantage of hydraulic fracturing, in that one well pad can handle multiple wells, which leads to less land impact per well.   9pack

We also saw major traffic, including long lines of traffic coming over the
BridgetrafficFour Bears Bridge at Lake Sakakawea.   LakeWe didn't have a terrible time driving, and it was not the horror story that has been repeated at times, but it was striking to have open rolling hills with very few signs of people, other than wells, flares, and trucks. 

  Flare2

We saw two natural gas faciltities, aswell, today, which is encourging, as it's important to have facilities to take the natural gas that's coming out of the ground along with the oil.  

Also of interest was a waste water facility, which is critical to better oil production.  I have written many times that the biggest concern about hydraulic fracturing in not the fracking or drilling process; it's surface concerns about spills of things like the waste water coming back up the well.  (Drilling matters, too, but protecting ground water in that context is about good well casings, and the concerns are largely the same as conventional drilling.)  
WasteacctpedSuch facilities are important, as they have helped vastly reduce the use of impoundment pits used for waste water in the early Bakken experience.  

I heard for at least the third time today that the EPA is the biggest risk the industry faces. I continue to believe this is a red herring.  That is, the biggest risk the industry faces is a major disaster from careless activities.  It seems that many of the biggest concerns on that front are being handled well in North Dakota (better, in my sense, than in the Marcellus Shale).  It's not to say everything is right, but there does seem to be a commitment to getting the process done well. Economic incentives are largely aligned with that goal, too.  

The one thing that concerns me here, conceptually, is that people don't seem that concerned about water safety.  I know most of the industry is working hard to keep things clean, but a bad chemical spill, oil spill, or waste water spill in the lake (picture above) could be disastrous.  It's not that I have seen anything specific that makes me worry about the lake. I didn't.  It's just that I'd prefer to hear, "We're worried about water contamination,  but we're doing our best to prevent it."  Instead, " I have have heard repeatedly, "Water issues aren't really a concern." I think that means that major issues haven't arisen, and not that people don't care, but that doesn't mean issue can't or won't arise. 

Finally, as to the EPA, I don't think the EPA is poised to do much to slow hydraulic fracturing in oil country.  And I don't think they should. That said, a major disaster would open the door to EPA or other federal action. Such a disaster would invite a shut down, and I know the industry doesn't want that.  If the industry continues to improve, as it has since 2007, major disasters should be avoided. Here's hoping industry, regulators, and the people of the region continue to improve safety so that the benefits of heavy oil production increasingly outweigh the downsides. It can be done, and I sincerely hope it is.

September 11, 2014 in Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Joshua P. Fershee, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is it time to repeal the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule? Maybe, but not so fast

As I predicted in 2011 here and here, in 2012 here, in 2013 in amicus brief, and countless times on this blog, the SEC Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals law has had significant unintended consequences on the Congolese people and has been difficult to comply with. Apparently the Commerce Department, which has a role to play in determining which mines are controlled by rebels so that US issuers can stay away from them, can't actually figure it out either. In the past few days, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and other experts including seventy individuals and NGOS (some Congolese) who signed a memo, have called this misguided law into question.  In my view, without the "name and shame" aspect of the law, it is basically an extremely expensive, onerous due diligence requirement that only a few large companies can or have the incentive to do well or thoroughly. More important, and I as I expected, it has had little impact on the violence on the ground and has hurt the people it purported to help.

I had hoped to be wrong. The foundation that I work with helps medical practitioners, midwives, and traditional birth attendants in eastern Congo and many of their patients and neighbors are members of the artisanal mining community. I won’t go as far as Steve Bainbridge has in calling for the law’s repeal because I think that companies should do better due diligence of their supply chains, especially in conflict zones. This law, however, is not the right one for Congo and the SEC is not the right agency to address this human rights crisis. Frankly, I don’t know that the EU's voluntary certification is the right answer either. I hope that Canada, which is looking at a similar rule, pays close heed and doesn’t perpetuate the same mistake that the US Congress made and that the SEC exacerbated. In the meantime, I will stay tuned to see how and if the courts, Congress, and the SEC revisit the rule.

 

September 11, 2014 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Trip to the Bakken: Day 3

We covered a lot of ground today, driving up from Medora, ND, to Williston, ND, through Watford City.  The traffic was not terrible for us, though the truck traffic and the road construction was slow going for a while.  We're told we missed the worst of the traffic because our timing was good. It still felt like big city traffic in what is not a big city.  Traffic

Watford City has been a prime example of a place where the oil boom has caused significant growing pains. A recent article in The Atlantic asked, What If Your Small Town Suddenly Got Huge?, and explained: 

The Bakken oil boom has brought rapid growth to many towns and cities in western North Dakota, including Williston, north of the Missouri River, and Dickinson, alongside Interstate 94. But Watford City, where the population has jumped from just 1,400 people six years ago to more than 10,000 today, has experienced a particularly dramatic shift in character. 

There is dirt being moved everywhere: for roads, for housing, and, of course, for oil.  Driving this region you see very few homes, rolling hills, a few small buttes, and some abandoned farm homes. Oil wells blend in surprisingly well in many spots, as the sites are often small, and they look like small farms, without the farm house or barn.  The colors of the sites blend in with the landscape, and are often easy to miss if they are far from the road, other than the flicker (and sometimes blaze) of flared natural gas that comes up with the oil and has no where else to go.   Notfarm

It continues to be striking to me that here in oil country, that gas is burned rather than saved, when back in West Virginia and the rest of the Marcellus Shale play (and in Texas's Barnett Shale), millions of dollars are spent per well to pull that exact commondity from the ground.  Efforts to gather the gas here in North Dakota are underway, but it's not an easy undertaking.  There is little immediate need here for natural gas, as there is abundant electricity already available because of lignite coal, and even some wind and hydro power in the state. The crew camp we visited on Tuesday is completely electric (no natural gas)-- even for heat, because the prices are so low.  

Later in the day discussed traffic issues in the area with the state Department of Transportation, landowner issues with a landowner group, and air and water quality with a state health department official. I plan to write more on each of these issues in the next few weeks, so for now I'll just note that, as you'd expect, traffic is bad; landowners without mineral rights are sometimes not happy; and the health department has some challenges.

We also had the chance to speak with a geologist in the area, who explained the basics of the formation and how it works. It was interesting, but I'll leave that to the geology folks, as there are plenty of sources discussing that (PDF). The thing I wanted to note now was her explanation of the North Dakota's library of core samples. A recent Bismarck Tribune article explains:

In the early 1950s when the oil activity began, then-North Dakota State Geologist Wilson M. Laird, Ph.D., went to the legislature and lobbied to preserve the rocks of the producing zones and store them into a library. They bought Laird's concept, created a law based on the Model Act drafted by the Legal Committee of the Interstate Oil Compact Commission and the archives began.

This collection of rocks may be the most valuable rocks on the planet as they hold the secrets to the Bakken. Those secrets are being unlocked everyday as new technologies are created in response to the publicly-owned core samples of North Dakota.

Some states have adopted similar libraries, some have not. Looking across state lines at Montana where the Bakken crude also roams underfoot, less production is occurring. According to many in the industry, the historical shared data within the Wilson Laird library is one of the key reasons.

"In 2013, industry and academia examined 79,000 feet of core, an all-time record in the core library." Ed Burns, North Dakota State Geologist said. "More specifically, we had 28 companies and nine separate universities use the library."

In the past sharing data was not as common due to the large amounts of information, intellectually property rights and competition. North Dakota was the exception to that rule.

Apparently core samples are required about every 30 feet (horizontally or vertically) once the well gets below 8,000 feet vertically. (There are some exceptions when things get going quickly, but even then samples are needed about every 90 feet.) Because so much of North Dakota's information is publicly available, this information can help companies figure out what to look for in the drilling process, which can help maxmize production from wells. 

This kind of forced data sharing is rather remarkable in that it's not something we usually see among competitors.  That said, in an industry with a depleteable resource where virtually every state has a law outlawing "waste," it does makes some sense.  See, e.g., the North Dakota Century Code: 

43-02-03-06. Waste prohibited. All operators, contractors, drillers, carriers, gas distributors, service companies, pipe pulling and salvaging contractors, or other persons shall at all times conduct their operations in the drilling, equipping, operating, producing, plugging, and site reclamation of oil and gas wells in a manner that will prevent waste.

The industry would be well served to share such information and show a similar commitment to avoiding waste in all aspects of the process (not just oil and gas).  We'd probably see less water use, better environmental protection, and faster clean up where things go wrong.  There's some indication that at least the best of the industry are doing so, and I sincerely hope that continues. Stay tuned for Day 4.  

September 10, 2014 in Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Joshua P. Fershee, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Trip to the Bakken: Day 2

This experience has been rather remarkable, and I'm only two days in to the trip.  We covered a lot of miles today, and not all of it was related to the oil and gas business. I started the day with a run, at a misty 43 degrees, after a high of 85 yesterday.  This is not relevant, other than to saw I was a bit cold this morning.  

 Target Logistics Dunn County Lodge

A few visits of interest today: First:  Target Logistics Dunn County Lodge, which is a crew camp site.  These are often know as "man camps." They prefer "workforce housing." I'll stick with crew camps. 

It was was an impressive site for quickly built housing. The facility provides housing that does not take away from the local community, and deals with parking, water, and utility issues, as well as other resource issues.  The site has about 600 beds, and costs about $8-$10 million to build. They plan about a 20-month payoff for the build, which they met. Impressive. 

Prices are geared to be market competitive. The average is about $120 per night, which includes all food and utilities, though companies negotiate their own deals.  The people who work in the area tend to be transient -- two weeks on two weeks off. People who do hydraulic fracturing tend to do two weeks on, on week off.  Construction people do four weeks on, two weeks off. The people who service the facility (and are also not locals, because the market is tight) work six weeks on two weeks off, and they pay their own travel.  

There are mostly men on the site, but women are there.  They have their own rooms or share rooms with other women with a "jill and jill" bathroom share. People generally work within 45 miles or they find other facilities.  The site is zero tolerance -- no alcohol, no firearms, no visitors. The have on-site workout facilities, laundry, and food service.  It's clean, well organized, and safe.  It's the Cadillac of temporary housing.  And I'd try very hard not to ever, ever live there.  While I admit, it's better than some of my college housing, it lacks the sense of free will I had then. 

Bakken Oil Express

Next was a trip to Bakken Oil Express, an oil shipping facility.  It was impressive in its organization and its operation.  It was big, with oil tanks, a rail yard, and lots of trucks.  Oil there moves by unit train, which is 104 cars.  The site has several tanks, and they can store 640k gallons of oil.  Tanks are generally 90k or 105k gallons.  An average truck brings 225 barrels of oil. It takes 17 to 18 hours to load a train, and the site loads about 1.5 trains per day. That is about 685 gallons per car. 

A diesel refinery is supposed to come on line on the site to serve the region, which is expected in December.  The site has about 75 employees, with salaries at $27/hour and up.

The site is  working to upgrade safety, including fire suppression, which it doesn't have now. They are building foaming pipes to help if they have a problem. Right now, the plan in case of fire is to ship out what's possible, and let it burn out. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park 

This is a park you should see. I think I'd say that of all national parks, but I love this one.  The park is facing several challenges.  This includes protecting the "sound scape and sense of solitude," that made Teddy Roosevelt love the place so much. This is a challenge for a park that has major highways running through it and major mineral operations being sought in the nearby land parcels.

The park has done well working with companies, who have responded well to requests to keep noise and other issues away from the park when issues have been raised.  Bakken flaring (or natural gas) has been an issue, too, and the park is working to preserve the night sky.  The area has had (and continues to have ) amazing view of the stars and the night sky, and flaring can cause haze and horizon light that makes the sky less amazing.  They are working on it.  

There is no drilling in the park, but drilling near has impacts, too.  So far, industry, the park, and the community have done well to minimize impacts.  

Tomorrow, we visit more communities, which are widely known to have had even larger impacts than what I have seen so far. The oil boom has been good for the region in many ways, but it's been hard, too.  We're about to get a sense of how hard.  

September 9, 2014 in Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Jobs, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Trip to the Bakken: Day 1

Today marked the first day of several meeting with people from North Dakota to discuss the oil boom and how it has impacted the state.  I lived in the state, and I loved it, so I think I am a little more connected than many to what's happened here.  That said, I lived on the other side of the state from the oil boom, and I only spent five (largely great) years in North Dakota, so while I'm informed, I have hardly "lived the boom."  I've just been watching and trying to pay attention. 

A few things I was told tonight struck me as significant: 

1. Housing costs are still a huge issue. Building a new house in Dickinson can run upwards of $250 per square foot. A one-bedroom apartment can easily run $1300.

2. In 1997, there were 698 hotel rooms in the city, largely for tourism jumping off for the North Dakota Badlands.  By 2004, that number was 754.  As of 2013, that number has increased to 1632. (The number is true of 2014, too.) 

3. In 2005, the average daily rate for a hotel room was $53.96

By 2008: $68.95

2009: $75.57

2010: $87.59

2011: $109.52

2012 :$124.03

2013: $112.37 (280 rooms were added in 2013).

This does not likely mean that things are slowing down, thought perhaps they are stabilizing.  More permanent housing has also been going up at a significant rate, so the increased number of hotel rooms, combined with those leaving the temporary housing market, likely explains the (relatively) modest decrease in average daily rate.  

4. Traffic and road maintenance remain a big concern.  One person I met tonight said he'd had a paved road to his house for years, until the oil boom came, and it's now back to being a gravel road. 

5. I learned the term "Bakken charge," which I'm told refers to the premium one pays for goods and services in this region.  Examples given include $5 Little Caesar's Pizzas, which are $5.99 here (or 20% more) and flyers from big box stores with 20% ot 40% higher prices than the same flyers in other markets.

6. The idea of community action is less of a focus here than in other areas, like what we've seen in some spots in West Virginia.  It's not that people don't care, but they don't necessarily participate in community actions.  Once can opine on the reasons why, and I have my guesses, but as a lawyer, I'll stick to reporting what I've been told on this one: if you want support, you need to go to the people where they are.  (That seems like sound advice anywhere.) 

7. All those people asking for minimun wage at fast-food restaurants across the country "are really just asking to be paid like the they live in Dickinson, ND." 

8. A major biggest employment challenge is finding people "who can pass a drug test. Some employers say when that when potential applicants are asked that question, 'half the people just turn and walk out."" 

I learned a lot more than this after a good conversation with interesting people, but I'll leave it here for tonight. 

September 8, 2014 in Current Affairs, Jobs, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (1)