Thursday, July 21, 2016
Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), Mary Barra (General Motors), Jeff Immet (GE), Larry Fink (Blackrock) and other executives think so and have published a set of "Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance" for public companies. There are more specifics in the Principles, but the key points cribbed from the front page of the new website are as follows:
Truly independent corporate boards are vital to effective governance, so no board should be beholden to the CEO or management. Every board should meet regularly without the CEO present, and every board should have active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level;
■ Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s also important to balance wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for fresh thinking and perspectives of new board members;
■ Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separate or combined; and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities;
■ Our financial markets have become too obsessed with quarterly earnings forecasts. Companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance — and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders;
■ A common accounting standard is critical for corporate transparency, so while companies may use non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) to explain and clarify their results, they never should do so in such a way as to obscure GAAP-reported results; and in particular, since stock- or options-based compensation is plainly a cost of doing business, it always should be reflected in non-GAAP measurements of earnings; and
■ Effective governance requires constructive engagement between a company and its shareholders. So the company’s institutional investors making decisions on proxy issues important to long-term value creation should have access to the company, its management and, in some circumstances, the board; similarly, a company, its management and board should have access to institutional investors’ ultimate decision makers on those issues.
I expect that shareholder activists, proxy advisory firms, and corporate governance nerds like myself will scrutinize the specifics against what the signatories’ companies are actually doing. Nonetheless, I commend these business leaders for at least starting a dialogue (even if a lot of the recommendations are basic common sense) and will be following this closely.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Professor William Birdthistle at Chicago-Kent College of Law is publishing his new book, Empire of the Fund with Oxford University Press. A brief introductory video for the book (available here) demonstrates both Professor Birdthistle’s charming accent and talent for video productions (this is obviously not his first video rodeo). Professor Birdthistle has generously provided our readers with a window into the book’s thesis and highlights some of its lessons. I’ll run a second feature next week focusing on the process of writing a book—an aspiration/current project for many of us.
Empire of the Fund is segmented into four digestible parts: anatomy of a fund describing the history and function of mutual funds, diseases & disorders addressing fees, trading practices and disclosures, alternative remedies introducing readers to ETFs, target date funds and other savings vehicles, and cures where Birdthistle highlights his proposals. For the discussion of the Jones v. Harris case alone, I think I will assign this book to my corporate law seminar class for our “book club”. As other reviewers have noted, the book is funny and highly readable, especially as it sneaks in financial literacy. And now, from Professor Birdthistle:
Things that the audience might learn:
The SEC does practically zero enforcement on fees. [pp. 215-216] Even though every expert understands the importance of fees on mutual fund investing, the SEC has brought just one or only two cases in its entire history against advisors charging excessive fees. Section 36(b) gives the SEC and private plaintiffs a cause of action, but the SEC has basically ignored it; even prompting Justice Scalia to ask why during oral arguments in Jones v. Harris? Private plaintiffs, on the other hand, bring cases against the wrong defendants (big funds with deep pockets but relatively reasonable fees). So I urge the SEC to bring one of these cases to police the outer bounds of stratospheric fund fees.
The only justification for 12b-1 fees has been debunked. [pp. 81-83] Most investors don't know much about 12b-1 fees and are surprised by the notion that they should be paying to advertise funds in which they already invest to future possible investors. The industry's response is that spending 12b-1 fees will bring in more investors and thus lead to greater savings for all investors via economies of scale. The SEC's own financial economist, however, studied these claims and found (surprisingly unequivocally for a government official) that, yes, 12b-1 fees certainly are effective at bringing in new investment but, no, funds do not then pass along any savings to the funds' investors. I sketch this out in a dialogue on page 81 between a pair of imaginary nightclub denizens.
Target-date funds are more dangerous than most people realize. [pp. 172-174] Target-date funds are embraced by many as a panacea to our investing problem and have been extremely successful as such. But I point out some serious drawbacks with them. First, they are in large part an end-of-days solution in which we essentially give up on trying to educate investors and encourage them simply to set and forget their investments; that's a path to lowering financial literacy, not raising it (which may be a particularly acute issue if my second objection materializes). Second, TDFs rely entirely on the assumption that the bond market is the safety to which all investors should move as they age; but if we're heading for a historic bear market on bonds (as several intelligent and serious analysts have posited), we'll be in very large danger with a somnolent investing population
Thursday, July 7, 2016
SEC disclosures are meant to provide material information to investors. As I hope all of my business associations students know, “information is material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable investor would consider the information important in deciding how to vote or make an investment decision.”
Regulation S-K, the central repository for non-financial disclosure statements, has been in force without substantial revision for over thirty years. The SEC is taking comments until July 21st on on the rule however, it is not revising “other disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K, such as executive compensation and governance, or the required disclosures for foreign private issuers, business development companies, or other categories of registrants.” Specifically, as stated in its 341-page Comment Release, the SEC seeks input on:
- whether, and if so, how specific disclosures are important or useful to making investment and voting decisions and whether more, less or different information might be needed;
- whether, and if so how, we could revise our current requirements to enhance the information provided to investors while considering whether the action will promote efficiency, competition, and capital formation;
- whether, and if so how, we could revise our requirements to enhance the protection of investors;
- whether our current requirements appropriately balance the costs of disclosure with the benefits;
- whether, and if so how, we could lower the cost to registrants of providing information to investors, including considerations such as advancements in technology and communications;
- whether and if so, how we could increase the benefits to investors and facilitate investor access to disclosure by modernizing the methods used to present, aggregate and disseminate disclosure; and
- any challenges of our current disclosure requirements and those that may result from possible regulatory responses explored in this release or suggested by commenters.
As of this evening, thirty comments had been submitted including from Wachtell Lipton, which cautions against “overdisclosure” and urges more flexible means of communicating with investors; the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, which observes that 40% of 10-K disclosures on sustainability use boilerplate language and recommends a market standard for industry-specific disclosures (which SASB is developing); and the Pension Consulting Alliance, which agrees with SASB’s methodology and states that:
[our] clients increasingly request more ESG information related to their investments. Key PCA advisory services that are affected by ESG issues include:
- Investment beliefs and investment policy development
- Manager selection and monitoring
- Portfolio-wide exposure to material ESG risks
- Education and analysis on macro and micro issues
- Proxy voting and engagement
This is an interesting time for people like me who study disclosures. Last week the SEC released its revised rule on Dodd-Frank §1504 that had to be re-written after court challenges. That rule requires an issuer “to disclose payments made to the U.S. federal government or a foreign government if the issuer engages in the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals and is required to file annual reports with the Commission under the Securities Exchange Act.” Representative Bill Huizenga, the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade, introduced an amendment to the FY2017 Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations bill, H.R. 5485, to prohibit funding for enforcement for another governance disclosure--Dodd-Frank conflict minerals.
SEC Chair White has herself questioned the wisdom of the SEC requiring and monitoring certain disclosures, noting the potential for investor information overload. Nonetheless, she and the agency are committed to enforcement. Her fresh look at disclosures reflects a balanced approach. If you have some spare time this summer and think the SEC’s disclosure system needs improvement, now is the time to let the agency know.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
The University of Akron Law Review recently published its Symposium on Law and SocioEconomics. You can find a full list of the contributions here (Volume 49, Issue 2). As one of the organizers of the symposium, I had the honor of writing a conclusion to the issue, titled Socio-Economics: Challenging Mainstream Economic Models and Policies. I provide the abstract below, and you can read the entire piece here.
At a time when many people are questioning the ability of our current system to provide economic justice, the Socio-Economic perspective is particularly relevant to finding new solutions and ways forward. In this relatively short conclusion to the Akron Law Review’s publication, Law and Socio-Economics: A Symposium, I have separated the Symposium articles into three groups for review: (1) those that can be read as challenging mainstream economic models, (2) those that can be read as challenging mainstream policy conclusions, and (3) those that provide a good example of both. My reviews essentially take the form of providing a short excerpt from the relevant article that will give the reader a sense of what the piece is about and hopefully encourage those who have not yet done so to read the entire article.
Friday, July 1, 2016
Today a number of athletes will compete in various track & field events in the Olympic Trials.
One of those events is the qualifying round of the 800m, and one of the 800m runners, Boris Berian, was recently caught in a legal dispute with his old shoe sponsor (Nike) because of his attempt to sign with a new shoe sponsor (New Balance). The story of the dispute even made The Wall Street Journal.
As I understand the timeline from the reporting and legal filings:
- After the 2012 season, Boris dropped out of his division II college (Adams State) to pursue pro-running.
- For a couple of years, Boris struggled to find world class success, and he worked at McDonald's.
- Boris didn't have a real breakthrough until mid-2015, when he ran the fastest time for an American that year.
- On June 17, 2015, shortly after his breakthrough race, Boris signed a short-term exclusive sponsorship deal with Nike (chosen from among many suitors).
- On December 31, 2015, the Nike-Boris contract expired, though the contract gave Nike the right to match any competitor's bona fide offer within 180 days of 12/31/15.
- On January 20, 2016, Boris' agent notified Nike than New Balance had made Boris a 3 year, $375,000 offer ($125,000 per year guaranteed).
- Nike's response to New Balance offer is disputed and at the center of a breach of contract lawsuit that Nike filed on April 29.
- Nike supposedly served Boris with notice of the lawsuit at a track meet.
- In short, Boris claimed that New Balance's $375,000 offer was guaranteed, while Nike's "match" was full of potential reductions. Nike claims that the contract they sent was simply a standard form. Nike claimed that guaranteed money is unusual in track contracts and Boris' agent had not shown proof of the lack of reductions in New Balance's offer, and that if the lack of reductions was proven, Nike would have matched those terms within the deadline.
- On June 7, a judge granted Nike's TRO, restraining Boris from competing in non-Nike gear until June 21.
- On June 22, a judge declined to extend the TRO and stated that he would rule on June 29.
- On June 23, Nike dropped its lawsuit (without prejudice), claiming that they wanted to "eliminate this distraction for Boris" given the upcoming Olympic Trials.
- On June 30, Boris Berian signed with New Balance.
In the fall of 2014, Robert Bird (UConn) and David Orozco (Florida State) published a nice short article in the MIT Sloan Management Review entitled Finding the Right Corporate Legal Strategy. This has been a key article in the growing Law & Strategy area. The article notes five main legal strategies; "The five, in order of least to greatest strategic impact, are: (1) avoidance, (2) compliance, (3) prevention, (4) value and (5) transformation."
This Nike v. Boris Berian situation, in my opinion, is an interesting example of the use of corporate legal strategy. In particular, Nike appears to be using litigation as a move for firm-wide value (#4 on the Bird & Orozco list).
Why did Nike sue? In my opinion, Nike likely sued not just because they believed Boris breached the contract, but also to send a message to its other athletes that Nike "plays hardball." This message may have been especially important given Kara Goucher's doping allegation against the Nike Oregon Project and its coach; a number of prized Nike athletes may have been watching Boris' situation and may have defected (right before the Olympics!) if Boris was treated with a light touch. Also, especially given that Boris claimed that he would rather sit out that run for Nike, perhaps Nike was simply trying to distract what could soon be a potential star for its competitor New Balance. While Nike has a number of track athletes with the star power of Boris, New Balance has a shallow bench of star track athletes and a good bit would ride on Boris' performance for NB. If Boris medals, especially with his McDonald's to track star story, that could be a huge deal for New Balance. Nike, on the other hand, has a absurd number of track stars with good stories and a high likelihood of medaling.
Why did Nike drop its lawsuit? I think the press was getting worse for Nike than Nike originally imagined. Also, perhaps the case was not resolving as quickly as Nike had guessed, and if Nike pursued the lawsuit into the Olympic Trials, the negative coverage may have exploded. That said, Nike must have known the coverage was going to be negative, so I imagine that factored into their original calculation, to some degree. Their lawyers might have gotten the impression that the judge was not going to rule in their favor when he decided against extending the TRO, so maybe Nike decided to try to win back some fans by dropping the lawsuit voluntarily. I agree with this author, eliminating the distraction for Boris was likely not Nike's main motivation, if so, they would have not sued him during the Olympic Trials build-up. As any runner knows, the months before a meet are much more important than the week before (at least as a physical matter). More likely, and perhaps unanticipated at the filing of the lawsuit, 19-year old Donavan Brazier of Texas A&M announced that he was turning pro just a few days before Nike dropped its lawsuit. Brazier, who had recently won the NCAA championships in the 800m in record time, was probably even a bigger signing target for Nike than Boris. By dropping the lawsuit, Nike may have been able to come off as altruistic to Brazier (saying something like - we had legal grounds to pursue the Boris lawsuit, but we want to do what is best for our current and former athletes). A few days after Nike dropped the lawsuit, Brazier signed with Nike. In addition, around the same time, Nike also signed another 800m star, Clayton Murphy. Both Braizer and Murphy were underclassmen and it was uncertain, until recently, whether they would turn pro. Not only did dropping the lawsuit against Boris likely help Nike in pursuing these two young athletes, but the recent strength of these athletes in the 800m made it possible that Boris would not even make the team, much less medal in Rio.
Personally, I think Boris is going to race well today (we will know in a few hours) and over the next few days, but maybe the stress of the legal battle took a toll. Brazier and Murphy and the entire field will both be tough, but the field will be a bit more open given that two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds scratched from the 800m Olympic Trials field with an injured ankle. Boris has the best qualifying time (1:43:34 v. 1:43:55), but Brazier has the best time this season (1:43:55 v. 1:44.20). Should be exciting to watch and now you know the legal background.
Finally, perhaps of interest to some readers, Boris Berian was using crowdfunding to pay for his legal defense. Boris even got this shout-out from Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter: "Nike earned 30 billion in 2015. Berian was flipping burgers at McDonalds two years ago. Isn't one bully in American public life enough?"
Update #1: In one of the biggest surprises of the Trials, Donavan Brazier was knocked out in the first round of the 800m, running roughly 5 big seconds slower than he did in the NCAA Championships. Boris Berian won his heat. Nike was diversified with Clayton Murphy who won his heat, and Nike also had four others who qualified for the next round in the 800.
Update #2: Boris Berian led his 800m semi-final from start to finish. Looked strong. Clayton Murphy won the second semi-final race, in a bit slower race, but he also looked strong. Finals are Monday.
Update #3: In the finals, Boris Berian grabbed the lead around 400m and held on until the final 10m or so. He placed second to Clayton Murphy (Nike) who out-kicked him. Charles Jock (Nike OTC) finished third. Those top three finishers will represent the US in Rio in the 800m.
This post concerns the rights and responsibilities of whistleblowers. I sit on the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee. These views are solely my own.
Within a week of my last day as a Deputy General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer for a Fortune 500 company and shortly before starting my VAP in academia, I testified before the House Financial Services Committee on the potential unintended consequences of the proposed Dodd-Frank whistleblower law on compliance programs. I blogged here about my testimony and the rule, which allows whistleblowers who provide original information to the SEC related to securities fraud or violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to receive 10 to 30 percent of the amount of the recovery in any action in which the Commission levies sanctions in excess of $1 million dollars. During my testimony in 2011, I explained to some skeptical members of Congress that:
…the legislation as written has a loophole that could allow legal, compliance, audit, and other fiduciaries to collect the bounty although they are already professionally obligated to address these issues. While the whistleblower community believes that these fiduciaries are in the best position to report to the SEC on wrongdoing, as a former in house counsel and compliance officer, I believe that those with a fiduciary duty should be excluded and have an “up before out” requirement to inform the general counsel, compliance officer or board of the substantive allegation or any inadequacy in the compliance program before reporting externally.
Thankfully, the final rule does have some limitations, in part, I believe because of my testimony and the urgings of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the American Bar Association and others. In a section of the SEC press release on the program discussing unintended consequences released a few weeks after the testimony, the agency stated:
However, in certain circumstances, compliance and internal audit personnel as well as public accountants could become whistleblowers when:
- The whistleblower believes disclosure may prevent substantial injury to the financial interest or property of the entity or investors.
- The whistleblower believes that the entity is engaging in conduct that will impede an investigation.
- At least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower reported the information to his or her supervisor or the entity’s audit committee, chief legal officer, chief compliance officer – or at least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower received the information, if the whistleblower received it under circumstances indicating that these people are already aware of the information.
At least two compliance officers or internal audit personnel have in fact received awards—one for $300,000 and another for $1,500,000. When I served on a panel a couple of years ago with Sean McKessy, Chief of the Office of the Whistleblower, he made it clear that he expected lawyers, auditors, and compliance officers to step forward and would not hesitate to award them.
Compliance officers have even more incentive to be diligent (or become whistleblowers) because of the DOJ Yates Memo, which requires companies to serve up a high ranking employee in order for the company to get cooperation credit in a criminal investigation. I blogged about my concerns about the Memo’s effect on the attorney-client relationship here, stating:
The Yates memo raises a lot of questions. What does this mean in practice for compliance officers and in house counsel? How will this development change in-house investigations? Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ? Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ? What impact will this memo have on attorney-client privilege? How will the relationship between compliance officers and their in-house clients change? Compliance officers are already entitled to whistleblower awards from the SEC provided they meet certain criteria. Will the Yates memo further complicate that relationship between the compliance officer and the company if the compliance personnel believe that the company is trying to shield a high profile executive during an investigation?
The US Chamber of Commerce shares my concerns and issued a report last month that echoes the thoughts of a number of defense attorneys I know. I will be discussing these themes and the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower aspect at the International Legal Ethics Conference on July 14th at Fordham described below:
Current Trends in Prosecutorial Ethics and Regulation
Ellen Yaroshefsky, Cardozo School of Law (US) (Moderator); Tamara Lave, University of Miami Law School (US); Marcia Narine, St. Thomas University School of Law (US);Lawrence Hellman, Oklahoma City University School of Law (US); Lissa Griffin, Pace University Law School (US); Kellie Toole, Adelaide Law School (Australia); and Eric Fish,Yale Law School (US)
Nationally and internationally, prosecutors' offices face new, as well as ongoing, challenges and their exercise of discretion significantly affects individuals and entities. This panel will explore a wide range of issues confronting the modern prosecutor. This will include certain ethical obligations in handling cases, organizational responsibility for wrongful convictions, the impact of the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in whistleblower cases, and the cultural shifts in prosecutors' offices.
To be clear, I believe that more corporate employees must go to jail to punish if not deter abuses. But I think that these mechanisms are the wrong way to accomplish that goal and may have a chilling effect on the internal investigations that are vital to rooting out wrongdoing. If you have any thoughts about these topics, please leave them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My talk and eventual paper will also address the relationship between Sarbanes-Oxley, the state ethical rules, and the Catch-22 that in house counsel face because of the conflicting rules and the realities of modern day corporate life.
July 1, 2016 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)
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 (1)
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 email@example.com 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.