Thursday, July 30, 2015
Last week I attended a panel discussion with angel investors and venture capitalists hosted by Refresh Miami. Almost two hundred entrepreneurs and tech professionals attended the summer startup series to learn the inside scoop on fundraising from panelists Ed Boland, Principal Scout Ventures; Stony Baptiste, Co-Founder & Principal, Urban.Us, Venture Fund; Brad Liff, Founder & CEO, Fitting Room Social, Private Equity Expert; and (the smartest person under 30 I have ever met) Herwig Konings, Co-Founder & CEO of Accredify, Crowd Funding Expert. Because I was typing so fast on my iPhone, I didn’t have time to attribute my notes to the speakers. Therefore, in no particular order, here are the nuggets I managed to glean from the panel.
1) In the seed stage, it’s more than an idea but less than a business. If it’s before true market validation you are in the seed round. At the early stage, there has been some form of validation, but the business is not yet sustainable. Everything else beyond that is the growth stage.
2) The friend and family round is typically the first $50-75,000. Angels come in the early stage and typically invest up to $500,000.
3) The seed rounds often overlap with angels and businesses can raise from $500,000 to $1,000,000. If you have a validated part of a business model but are not self funding then you are at Series A investment stage. You still need outside capital despite validation. The Series A round often nets between $3-5 million and then there are subsequent rounds for growth until the liquidity event which is either the IPO or acquisition.
4) Venture capitalists are investing their LPs' money and often the LP will co-invest with the VC. Their ultimate goal is for the company to get acquired or go public.
5) At the early stages some VCs will show a deal to other investors if it looks good. Later stage VCs will become more competitive and will keep the information and good deals to themselves.
6) It’s important to find a lead investor or lead angel to champion your idea.
7) Not all funding is helpful. Some panelists discussed the concepts of “fallen angels” or “devils,” which were once helpful but now are not providing value but still take up time and energy that could be better spent focusing on building the business. “False angels” are those who could never have been helpful in the first place.
8) You don’t want to be the first or the last check the angel is writing. You want to get references on the angel investor and see where they have invested and what their plan is for you.
9) There is smart money and dumb money. Smart money gives money and additional resources or value. Dumb money just gives money and nothing else. It’s passive and doesn’t jump into the business (note the panelists disagreed as to whether this was a good or bad thing). Another panelist noted the distinction between helpful and harmful money. Harmful people think they are helpful and give advice when they don’t have a lot to add but take up a lot of time. Sometimes helpful money just gives a check and then gets out of the way. It’s the people in between that can cause the problems.
10) VCs and angels invest in teams as well as ideas. They look for the right fit and a mix of veteran entrepreneurs, a team/product fit, a mix of technical and nontechnical people, professionals whose reputations and resumes can be verified. They want to know whether the people they are investing in have been in a competitive environment and have learned from success or failure.
11) Crowdfunding can be complicated because investors don’t meet the entrepreneurs. They see everything on the web so the reputation and the need for a good team is even more important.
12) Convertible notes are the “gold standard” according to one speaker and it’s the workhorse for funding. There was some discussion of safe notes, but most panelists didn't have a lot of experience with them and that was echoed this week by attorney David Salmon, who advises small businesses and holds his own monthly meetups. One panelist said that the sole purpose of safe notes was to avoid landmines that can blow up the company. Another panelist indicated that from an investor standpoint it’s like a blackhole because it’s so new and people don’t know what happens if something goes wrong.
13) The panelists indicated that businesses need to watch out for: the maturity date for their debt (how long is the runway); when can the investors call the note and possibly bankrupt the company; how will quirky covenants affect the next round of financing and where later investors will fall in line; and covenants that are easy to violate.
14) There was very little discussion of Regulation A+ but it did raise some interest and the possibility to raise even more funds from non-accredited investors. Only 3% of the eight million who can invest through crowdfunding actually do, so Reg A+ may help with that.
16) All of the panelists agreed that entities may start out as LLCs but they will have to convert to a C Corp to get any VC funding.
There was a lot more discussion but this post is already too long. Because I've never been an angel nor sought such funding, I don’t plan to provide any analysis on what I’ve typed above. My goal in attending this and the other monthly events like this was to learn from the questions that entrepreneurs ask and how the investors answer. Admittedly, most of my students won’t be dealing with these kind of issues, but I still introduce them to these concepts so they are at least familiar with the parlance if not all of the nuances.
July 30, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Financial Markets, International Business, Law School, Legislation, LLCs, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that President Obama has had an impact on this country. Tomorrow, I will be a panelist on the local public affairs show for the PBS affiliate to talk about the President’s accomplishments and/or failings. The producer asked the panelists to consider this article as a jumping off point. One of the panelists worked for the Obama campaign and another worked for Jeb Bush. Both are practicing lawyers. The other panelist is an educator and sustainability expert. And then there’s me.
I’ve been struggling all week with how to articulate my views because there’s a lot to discuss about this “lame duck” president. Full disclosure—I went to law school with Barack Obama. I was class of ’92 and he was class of ’91 but we weren’t close friends. I was too busy doing sit-ins outside of the dean’s house as a radical protester railing against the lack of women and minority faculty members. Barack Obama did his part for the movement to support departing Professor Derrick Bell by speaking (at minute 6:31) at one of the protests. I remember thinking then and during other times when Barack spoke publicly that he would run for higher office. At the time a black man being elected to the president of the Harvard Law Review actually made national news. I, like many students of all races, really respected that accomplishment particularly in light of the significant racial tensions on campus during our tenure.
During my stint in corporate America, I was responsible for our company’s political action committee. I still get more literature from Republican candidates than from any other due to my attendance at so many fundraisers. I met with members of Congress and the SEC on more than one occasion to discuss how a given piece of legislation could affect my company and our thousands of business customers. My background gives me what I hope will be a more balanced set of talking points than some of the other panelists. In addition to my thoughts about civil rights, gay marriage, gun control, immigration reform, Guantanamo, etc., I will be thinking of the following business-related points for tomorrow’s show:
1) Was the trade deal good or bad for American workers, businesses and/or those in the affected countries? A number of people have had concerns about human rights and IP issues that weren’t widely discussed in the popular press.
2) Dodd-Frank turns five next week. What did it accomplish? Did it go too far in some ways and not far enough in others? Lawmakers announced today that they are working on some fixes. Meanwhile, much of the bill hasn’t even been implemented yet. Will we face another financial crisis before the ink is dried on the final piece of implementing legislation? Should more people have gone to jail as a result of the last two financial crises?
3) Did the President waste his political capital by starting off with health care reform instead of focusing on jobs and infrastructure?
4) Did the President’s early rhetoric against the business community make it more difficult for him to get things done?
5) How will the changes in minimum wage for federal contractors and the proposed changes to the white collar exemptions under the FLSA affect job growth? Will relief in income inequality mean more consumers for the housing, auto and consumer goods markets? Or has too little been done?
6) Has the President done enough or too much as it relates to climate change? The business groups and environmentalists have very differing views on scope and constitutionality.
7) What will the lifting of sanctions on Cuba and Iran mean for business? Both countries were sworn mortal enemies and may now become trading partners unless Congress stands in the way.
8) Do we have the right people looking after the financial system? Is there too much regulatory capture? Has the President tried to change it or has he perpetuated the status quo?
9) What kind of Supreme Court nominee will he pick if he has the chance? The Roberts court has been helpful to him thus far. If he gets a pick it could affect business cases for a generation.
10) Although many complain that he has overused his executive order authority, is there more that he should do?
I don’t know if I will have answers to these questions by tomorrow but I certainly have a lot to think about before I go on air. If you have any thoughts before 8:30 am, please post below or feel free to email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 16, 2015 in Constitutional Law, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Television, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
CALL FOR PAPERS: A Workshop on Vulnerability at the Intersection of the Changing Firm and the Changing Family (October 16-17, 2015 in Atlanta, GA)
UPDATE: The deadline for submissions has been extended to July 21.
[The following is a copy of the official workshop announcement. I have moved the "Guiding Questions" to the top to highlight the business law aspects. Registration and submission details can be found after the break.]
A Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative Workshop at Emory Law
This workshop will use vulnerability theory to explore the implications of the changing structure of employment and business organizations in the new information age. In considering these changes, we ask:
• What kind of legal subject is the business organization?
• Are there relevant distinctions among business and corporate forms in regard to understanding both vulnerability and resilience?
• What, if any, should be the role of international and transnational organizations in a neoliberal era? What is their role in building both human and institutional resilience?
• Is corporate philanthropy an adequate response to the retraction of state regulation? What forms of resilience should be regulated and which should be left to the 'free market'?
• How might a conception of the vulnerable subject help our analysis of the changing nature of the firm? What relationships does it bring into relief?
• How have discussions about market vulnerability shifted over time?
• What forms of resilience are available for institutions to respond to new economic realities?
• How are business organizations vulnerable? How does this differ from the family?
• How does the changing structure of employment and business organization affect possibilities for transformation and reform of the family?
• What role should the responsive state take in directing shifting flows of capital and care?
• How does the changing relationship between employment and the family, and particularly the disappearance of the "sole breadwinner," affect our understanding of the family and its role in caretaking and dependency?
• How does the Supreme Court's willingness to assign rights to corporate persons (Citizen's United, Hobby Lobby), affect workers, customers and communities? The relationship between public and private arenas?
• Will Airbnb and Uber be the new model for the employment relationships of the future?
July 14, 2015 in Business Associations, Call for Papers, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, July 6, 2015
I have been reading Paul Mahoney’s brilliant new book, Wasting a Crisis: Why Securities Regulation Fails (University of Chicago Press 2015). You should too.
Mahoney attacks the traditional market failure rationale for our federal securities laws. He argues that contrary to the traditional narrative, market manipulation was not rampant prior to 1933 and the securities markets were operating reasonably well. Mahoney concludes that “‘lax’ regulation was not a substantial cause of the financial problems accompanying the Great Depression and . . . most (although not all) of the subsequent regulatory changes were largely ineffective and in some cases counterproductive.”
Mahoney looks at state blue sky laws, the Securities Act, the Exchange Act, the Public Utility Holding Company Act, and, regrettably only briefly, the Investment Company Act. He concludes by discussing the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Acts. He discusses the rationales for each regulation and whether those rationales are supported by the facts. Mahoney backs up his argument with a great deal of empirical research, some of which has appeared in earlier articles. Warning: Some of that discussion may be a little difficult for those without a background in regression analysis or financial economics, but you can follow Mahoney’s conclusions without understanding all of the analytical detail.
Mahoney’s work is a nice counterpoint to the narrative that prevails in most securities treatises and casebooks. Every law library should have a copy. Everyone interested in securities regulation policy, and certainly everyone who teaches a securities law course, should read this book. Whether or not you ultimately agree with Mahoney (as it happens, I generally do), his arguments must be dealt with.
Thursday, July 2, 2015
It's barely July and I have received a surprising number of emails from my incoming business association students about how they can learn more about business before class starts. To provide some context, I have about 70 students registered and most will go on to work for small firms and/or government. BA is required at my school. Very few of my graduates will work for BigLaw, although I have some interning at the SEC. I always do a survey monkey before the semester starts, which gives me an idea of how many students are "terrified" of the idea of business or numbers and how many have any actual experience in the field so my tips are geared to my specific student base. I also focus my class on the kinds of issues that I believe they may face after graduation dealing with small businesses and entrepreneurs and not solely on the bar tested subjects. After I admonished the students to ignore my email and to relax at the beach during the summer, I sent the following tips:
If you know absolutely NOTHING about business or you want to learn a little more, try some of the following tips to get more comfortable with the language of business:
1) Watch CNBC, Bloomberg Business, or Fox Business. Some shows are better than others. Once we get into publicly traded companies, we will start watching clips from CNBC at the beginning of every class in the "BA in the News" section. You will start to see how the vocabulary we are learning is used in real life.
2) Read/skim the Wall Street Journal, NY Times Business Section or Daily Business Review. You can also read the business section of the Miami Herald but the others are better. If you plan to stay local, the DBR is key, especially the law and real estate sections.
3) Subscribe to the Investopedia word of the day- it's free. You can also download the free app.
4) Watch Shark Tank or The Profit (both are a little unrealistic but helpful for when we talk about profit & loss, cash flow statement etc). The show American Greed won't teach you a lot about what we will deal with in BA but if you're going to work for the SEC, DOJ or be a defense lawyer dealing with securities fraud you will see these kinds of cases.
5) Listen to the first or second season of The Start Up podcast available on ITunes.
6) Watch Silicon Valley on HBO- it provides a view of the world of re venture capitalists and funding rounds for start ups.
7) Read anything by Michael Lewis related to business.
8) Watch anything on 60 Minutes or PBS' Frontline related to the financial crisis. We will not have a lot of time to cover the crisis but you need to know what led up to Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank.
9 Watch the Oscar-winning documentary "Inside Job," which is available on Netflix.
10) Listen to Planet Money on NPR on the weekends.
11) Listen to Marketplace on NPR (it's on weekday evenings around 6 pm).
12) Read Inc, Entrepreneur, or Fast Company magazines.
13) Follow certain companies that you care about (or hate) or government agencies on Twitter. Key agencies include the IRS, SEC, DOJ, FCC, FTC etc. If you have certain passions such as social enterprise try #socent; for corporate social responsibility try #csr, for human rights and business try #bizhumanrights. For entrepreneurs try #startups.
14) Join LinkedIn and find groups related to companies or business areas that interest you and monitor the discussions so you can keep current. Do the same with blogs.
As I have blogged before, I also send them selected YouTube videos and suggest CALI lessons throughout the year. Any other tips that I should suggest? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments section or at email@example.com.
Monday, June 8, 2015
I was reading an article on securities crowdfunding in China and came across this description of Chinese practice:
Generally, in China, equity-based crowdfunding capital-seekers rely on the strength of experienced, leading investors to advise “follow-up” investors in locating investment projects. Leading investors are usually professionals with rich experience in private offerings and label themselves as holding innovative techniques in investment strategies and possessing sound insights. On the contrary, follow-up investors usually do not have even basic financial skills, but they do ordinarily control certain financial resources for investment. When a leading investor selects a target investment project through an equity-based crowdfunding platform, the leading investor usually invests personal funds into the project. Crowdfunding capital- seekers then take advantage of the leading investor’s funds to market the project to follow-up investors.
(This is from a recent article by Tianlong Hu and Dong Yang, The People’s Funding of China: Legal Developments of Equity Crowdfunding-Progress, Proposals, and Prospects, 83 U. CIN. L. REV. 445 (2014).)
This is not unique to China. Private offerings to accredited investors in the United States often follow a similar path. Smaller investors are more likely to commit once a well-known, sophisticated investor has made a commitment. But the article made me wonder if we could use that structure to create a new securities offering exemption—one that responds to some of the policy concerns people have about the existing exemptions.
Most unregistered primary offerings of securities in the United States are pursuant to Rule 506 of Regulation D, the regulatory safe harbor for the private offering exemption in the Securities Act. Offerings pursuant to Rule 506, either by law [Rule 506(c)] or for practical reasons [Rule 506(b)], are limited to “accredited investors,” a defined term.
Many people have argued that the definition of accredited investor in Regulation D is too broad. Some of the investors covered by the definition are sophisticated institutional investors who clearly can fend for themselves. But the definition also includes many unsophisticated individuals who meet relatively low net worth and income requirements. Many of these investors, it is argued, cannot adequately evaluate the merits and risks of Rule 506 private offerings.
On the other hand, some people have complained that limiting these offerings to accredited investors privileges wealthy people at the expense of “ordinary” investors. Rich people have the opportunity to participate in these sometimes-lucrative offerings, but the rest of us cannot. That was one of the arguments for the not-yet-implemented section 4(a)(6) crowdfunding exemption added by the JOBS Act.
One way to resolve the tension between these two arguments, and deal with both concerns, would be to allow unsophisticated investors to invest in an offering only after a sophisticated investor has made a commitment. Ordinary investors might not be able to protect themselves, but they could free ride on the sophisticated investor’s evaluation of the offering.
We could create a new category of super-accredited investors, consisting only of institutions or individuals who clearly have the sophistication to protect themselves. Once one of those investors purchases a significant stake in an offering, other investors could purchase on the same terms.
For example, if Startup Corporation wanted to raise $50 million in an unregistered offering, it could first sell $10 million of the securities to a large venture capital firm. After that, it would be free to sell the remaining $40 million on the same terms to any investor, accredited or non-accredited, wealthy or not.
The lead investor’s evaluation of the offering wouldn’t completely protect the other investors. In particular, the lead investor’s tolerance for risk might be much higher than most ordinary investors’. But lead investor's evaluation would help protect against fraud and overreaching by the issuer.
The exemption would have to include some additional requirements to make sure that the other investors can reasonably rely on the lead investor’s decision to invest:
1. No conflicts of interest. The lead investor could not have a relationship to the issuer. Otherwise, the lead investor’s decision to invest might be due to that relationship, not because it believes the investment is a good one.
2. Minimum Investment. There should be a minimum investment requirement for the lead investor, to give the lead investor sufficient incentive to review the deal. To take an extreme example, a lead investor’s decision to invest $1 in a $50 million offering tells us little about the quality of the deal.
3. Same Terms. The lead investor must be investing on the same terms as the subsequent investors. The lead investor’s decision that an investment is worthwhile offers no protection at all to subsequent investors if those subsequent investors are getting a materially different deal.
4. Exit. If the lead investor’s decision to invest provides a signal to the other investors, so does the lead investor’s decision to exit the investment. At a minimum, the lead investor should have to disclose to the other investors when it sells. And, if the issuer is repurchasing the lead investor’s securities, we might want to impose a requirement that the issuer also offer to repurchase the securities of the other investors who purchased in the exempted offering.
This is just a sketch of what such an exemption would look like, about as far as one can go in a blog post. The proposed exemption would not be perfect. It wouldn’t guarantee that investors were getting a good deal, or even that the offering was not fraudulent. But even registration can’t do that. And I think the proposal is a nice compromise between investor protection and capital formation concerns.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
This week I have found myself reading the co-authored, empirical piece by C.N.V. Krishnan, Frank Partnoy, and Randall Thomas titled, Top Hedge Funds and Shareholder Activism. Through their sample they observe that top hedge funds have repetitional capital in that the market responds more positively to announcements by certain hedge funds with certain features, like a longer track record, larger assets under management and management participation through board of director seats. Its an interesting and insightful article on the role, and value, of hedge funds. The authors conclude that
The market appears to anticipate the superior performance of these top hedge funds even before announcement of intervention. Moreover, post-intervention target-firm operating performance associated with these top hedge funds is significantly superior to that of other hedge fund activists.
The focus on reputation reminded of Elisabeth de Fontenay's good work on reputation in private equity. Her article, Private Equity Firms as Gatekeepers, 33 Review of Banking & Financial Law 115-189 (2014). de Fontenay argues in her piece that:
private equity firms act as gatekeepers in the debt markets. As repeat players, private equity firms use their reputations with creditors to mitigate the problems of borrower adverse selection and moral hazard in the companies that they manage, thereby reducing creditors’ costs of lending to these companies. Private equity-owned companies are thus able to borrow money on more favorable terms than standalone companies, all else being equal. By acting as gatekeepers, private equity firms render the debt markets more efficient and provide their portfolio companies with an increasingly valuable borrowing advantage.
Updated to add: Frank Partnoy informed me that he and Elisabeth presented these 2 papers collaboratively to the Duke law faculty with each commenting on the other. This either proves once again that I have no original ideas OR this validates my insights about the overlapping observations in these papers.
Friday, May 22, 2015
I haven’t met Hollywood producer Edward Zwick, who brought the movie and the concept of Blood Diamonds to the world’s attention, but I have had the honor of meeting with medical rock star, and Nobel Prize nominee Dr. Denis Mukwege. Both Zwick and Mukwege had joined numerous NGOs in advocating for a mandatory conflict minerals law in the EU. I met the doctor when I visited Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011 on a fact finding trip for a nonprofit that focuses on maternal and infant health and mortality. Since Mukwege works with mass rape victims, my colleague and I were delighted to have dinner with him to discuss the nonprofit. I also wanted to get his reaction to the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals regulation, which was not yet in effect. I don’t remember him having as strong an opinion on the law as he does now, but I do remember that he adamantly wanted the US to do something to stop the bloodshed that he saw first hand every day.
The success of the Dodd-Frank law is debatable in terms of stemming the mass rape, use of child slaves, and violence against innocent civilians. Indeed, earlier this month, over 100 villagers were raped by armed militia. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report confirms that both rebels and the Congolese military continue to use rape as a weapon of war to deal with ethnic tensions. I know this issue well having co-authored a study on the use of sexual and gender-based violence in DRC with a medical anthropologist. With all due respect to Dr. Mukwege (who clearly know the situation better than I), that research on the causes of rape, but more important, my decade of experience in the supply chain industry have lead me to believe that the US Dodd-Frank law was misguided. The law aims to stem the violence by having US issuers perform due diligence on their supply chains. I have spoken to a number of companies that have told me that it would have been easier for the US to just ban the use of minerals from Congo because the compliance challenges are too high. Thus it was no surprise that last year’s SEC filings were generally vague and uninformative. It remains to be seen whether the filings due in a few weeks will be any better.
To me Dodd-Frank is a convenient way for the US government to outsource human rights enforcement to multinational corporations. Due diligence and clean supply chains are good, necessary, and in my view nonnegotiable, but they are not nearly enough to deal with the horrors in Congo. Nonetheless, in a surprise move, the EU Parliament voted this week to go even farther than the US law. According to the Parliament’s press release:
Parliament voted by 400 votes to 285, with 7 abstentions, to overturn the Commission's proposal as well as the one adopted by the international trade committee and requested mandatory compliance for "all Union importers" sourcing in conflict areas. In addition, "downstream" companies, that is, the 880, 000 potentially affected EU firms that use tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold in manufacturing consumer products, will be obliged to provide information on the steps they take to identify and address risks in their supply chains for the minerals and metals concerned… The regulation applies to all conflict-affected high risk areas in the world, of which the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes area are the most obvious example. The draft law defines 'conflict-affected and high-risk areas' as those in a state of armed conflict, with widespread violence, the collapse of civil infrastructure, fragile post-conflict areas and areas of weak or non-existent governance and security, characterised by "widespread and systematic violations of human rights".
(emphasis mine). I hope this proposed law works for the sake of the Congolese and all of those who live in conflict zones around the world. The EU member states have to sign off on it, so who knows what the final law will look like. Some criticize the law because the list of “conflict-affected areas” is constantly changing. Although that’s true, I don’t think that criticism should affect passage of the law. The bigger flaw in my view is that there are a number of natural resources from conflict-affected zones- palm oil comes to mind- that this regulation does not address. This law, like Dodd-Frank does both too much and not enough. In an upcoming book chapter, I propose that governments use procurement and other incentives and penalties related to executive compensation and clawbacks to drive human rights due diligence and third-party audits (sorry, I'm prohibited from posting a link to it but it's forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).
In the meantime, I will wait for the DC Circuit to rule on constitutional aspects of the Dodd-Frank bill. I will also be revising my most recent law review article on the defects of the disclosure regime to address the EU development. I will post the article next week from Havana, Cuba, where I will spend 10 days learning about the Cuban legal system and culture. Given my scholarship and the recent warming of relations between the US and Cuba, I may sneak a little research in as well, and in two weeks I will post my impressions on the challenges and opportunities that US companies will face in the Cuban market once the embargo is lifted. Adios!
May 22, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, May 4, 2015
In some European countries, bank interest rates have dropped below zero. (See here and here.) That’s right; it actually costs you to put your money in the bank. You put $1,000 in a savings account and the bank promises to pay you, say, $999, in a year.
I came of age in the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter years, when annual inflation rates were in the double digits. Whip Inflation Now! (Yes, children, I’m ancient.) I find it almost unbelievable that nominal interest rate (and bond yields) could drop below zero.
That hasn’t happened in the United States (yet), but what if it did? Set aside the huge macroeconomic issues, and let’s focus on a topic of greater interest to the readers of this blog—the effect on federal securities law, particularly the core notion of what constitutes a security.
The most important case in defining the scope of federal securities law is probably SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., 328 U.S. 293 (1946). Howey says that an investment is an investment contract, and therefore a security, if people invest money in a common enterprise with an expectation of profits coming from the efforts of others.
The “expectation of profits” part of the Howey test is the problem in a negative-interest-rate economy. Assume, for example, that an entrepreneur asks people for money to start a business and promises to return that money, without interest, in two years. In other words, you put in $1,000 and he’ll pay you back $1,000 in two years.
That investment would not ordinarily be treated as a security because there’s no profit. That’s how the Kiva crowdfunding site, which is based on no-interest lending, can avoid federal securities law. But, in a negative-interest world, a mere return of your principal is, in effect, profitable. Considering your opportunity cost, you come out ahead.
If we ever have negative interest rates and the courts hold that no-interest investments are securities, remember that you read it here first.
Friday, May 1, 2015
I’ve been thinking a lot about whistleblowers lately. I serve as a “management” representative to the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee and last week we presented the DOL with our recommendations for best practices for employers. We are charged with looking at almost two dozen whistleblower laws. I've previously blogged about whistleblower issues here.
Although we spend the bulk of our time on the WPAC discussing the very serious obstacles for those workers who want to report safety violations, at the last meeting we also discussed, among other things, the fact that I and others believed that there could be a rise in SOX claims from attorneys and auditors following the 2014 Lawson decision. In that case, the Supreme Court observed that: “Congress plainly recognized that outside professionals — accountants, law firms, contractors, agents, and the like — were complicit in, if not integral to, the shareholder fraud and subsequent cover-up [Enron] officers … perpetrated.” Thus, the Court ruled, those, including private contractors, who see the wrongdoing but may be too fearful of retaliation to report it should be entitled to SOX whistleblower protection.
We also discussed the SEC's April KBR decision, which is causing hundreds of companies to revise their codes of conduct, policies, NDAs, confidentiality and settlement agreements to ensure there is no language that explicitly or implicitly prevents employees from reporting wrongdoing to the government or seeking an award.
Two weeks ago, I spoke in front of a couple hundred internal auditors and certified fraud examiners about how various developments in whistleblower laws could affect their investigations, focusing mainly on Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Whistleblower. I felt right at home because in my former life as a compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I spent a lot of time with internal and external auditors. Before I joined academia, I testified before Congress on what I thought could be some flaws in the law as written. Specifically, I had some concerns about the facts that: culpable individuals could receive awards; individuals did not have to consider reporting wrongdoing internally even if there was a credible, functioning compliance program; and that those with fiduciary responsibilities were also eligible for awards without reporting first (if possible), which could lead to conflicts of interest. The SEC did make some changes to Dodd-Frank. The agency now weighs the whistleblower’s participation in the firm’s internal compliance program as a factor that may increase the whistleblower’s eventual award and considers interference with internal compliance programs to be a factor that may decrease any award. It also indicated that compliance or internal audit professionals should report internally first and then wait 120 days before going external.
Before I launched into my legal update, I gave the audience some sobering statistics about financial professionals:
- 23% have seen misconduct firsthand
- 29% believe they may have to engage in illegal or unethical conduct to be successful
- 24% would engage in insider trading if they could earn $10 million and get away with it
I also shared the following awards with them:
- $875,000 to two individuals for “tips and assistance” relating to fraud in the securities market;
- $400,000 to a whistleblower who reported fraud to the SEC after the employee’s company failed to address internally certain securities law violations;
- $300,000 to an employee who reported wrongdoing to the SEC after the company failed to take action when the employee reported it internally first;
- $14 million- tip about an alleged Chicago-based scheme to defraud foreign investors seeking U.S. residency; and
- More than $30 million to a tipster living in a foreign country, who would have received more if he hadn't delayed reporting
I also informed them about a number of legal developments that affect those that occupy a position of trust or confidence. These white-collar whistleblowers have received significant paydays recently. Last year the SEC paid $300,000 to an employee who performed “audit or compliance functions.” I predicted more of these awards, and then to prove me right, just last week, the SEC awarded its second bounty to an audit or compliance professional, this time for approximately 1.4 million.
I asked the auditors to consider how this would affect their working with their peers and their clients, and how companies might react. Will companies redouble their efforts to encourage internal reporting? Although statistics are clear that whistleblowers prefer to report internally if they can and don’t report because they want financial gain, will these awards embolden compliance, audit, and legal personnel to report to the government? Will we see more employees with fiduciary duties coming forward to report wrongdoing? Does this conflict with any ethical duties imposed upon lawyers or compliance officers with legal backgrounds? SOX 307 describes up the ladder reporting requirements, but what happens to the attorney who chooses to go external? Will companies consider self-reporting to get more favorable deferred and nonprosecution agreements to pre-empt the potential whistleblower?
I don’t have answers for any of these questions, but companies and boards should at a minimum look at their internal compliance programs and ensure that their reporting mechanisms allow for reports from outside counsel and auditors. In the meantime, it’s now entirely possible that an auditor, compliance officer, or lawyer could be the next Sherron Watkins.
And by the way, if you were in Busan, South Korea last Wednesday, you may have heard me on the morning show talking about whistleblowers. Drop me a line and let me know how I sounded.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Last week, the Deal Professor, Steven Davidoff Solomon, wrote an article titled, The Boardroom Strikes Back. In it, he recalls that shareholder activists won a number of surprising victories last year, and more were predicted for this year. That prediction made sense, as activists were able to elect directors 73% of the time in 2014. This year, though, despite some activist victories, boards are standing their grounds with more success.
I have no problem with shareholders seeking to impose their will on the board of the companies in which they hold stock. I don't see activist shareholder as an inherently bad thing. I do, however, think it's bad when boards succumb to the whims of activist shareholders just to make the problem go away. Boards are well served to review serious requests of all shareholders, but the board should be deciding how best to direct the company. It's why we call them directors.
As the Deal Professor notes, some heavy hitters are questioning the uptick in shareholder activism:
Some of the big institutional investors are starting to question the shareholder activism boom. Laurence D. Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, with $4 trillion, recently issued a well-publicized letter that criticized some of the strategies pushed by hedge funds, like share buybacks and dividends, as a “short-termist phenomenon.” T. Rowe Price, which has $750 billion under management, has also criticized shareholder activists’ strategies. They carry a big voice.
I am on record being critical of boards letting short-term planning be their primary filter, because I think it can hurt long-term value in many instances. I don't, however, think buybacks or dividends are inherently incorrect, either. Whether the idea comes from an activist shareholder or the board doesn't really matter to me. The board just needs to assess the idea and decide how to proceed.
[Please click below to read more.]
Monday, April 27, 2015
The following guest blog post on my recent article, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme, is available at Columbia's Blue Sky Blog discussing institutional investors' attitudes towards alternative business forms and similar issues raised by Etsy's IPO.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
In North Dakota, the state has seen drastically falling revenues due to low oil prices. Lower revenues makes it more challenging for the communities in that state that are still trying to provide the necessary infrastructure and services that remain a challenge due to the enormous growth over the last several years. The response from some in the North Dakota legislature? Cut taxes.
Oil companies always seek lower taxes because they are rational actors. Lower taxes means higher revenues. This was true with sky high oil prices and is even more true with lower prices. From a company perspective, the position makes sense. From a legislative perspective, the position should be more nuanced.
(Please click below to read more.)
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Regular readers know that I have blogged repeatedly about my opposition to the US Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which aims to stop the flow of funds to rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Briefly, the US law does not prohibit the use of conflict minerals, but instead requires certain companies to obtain an independent private sector third-party audit of reports of the facilities used to process the conflict minerals; conduct a reasonable country of origin inquiry; and describe the steps the company used to mitigate the risk, in order to improve its due diligence process. The business world and SEC are awaiting a First Amendment ruling from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on the “name and shame” portion of the law, which requires companies to indicate whether their products are DRC Conflict Free.” I have argued that it is a well-intentioned but likely ineffective corporate governance disclosure that depends on consumers to pressure corporations to change their behavior.
The proposed EU regulation establishes a voluntary process through which importers of certain minerals into the EU self-certify that they do not contribute to financing in “conflict-affected” or “high risk areas.” Unlike Dodd-Frank, it is not limited to Congo. Taking note of various stakeholder consultations and the US Dodd-Frank law, the EU had originally limited the scope to importers, and chose a voluntary mechanism to avoid any regional boycotts that hurt locals and did not stop armed conflict. Those importers who choose to certify would have to conduct due diligence in accordance with the OECD Guidance, and report their findings to the EU. The EU would then publish a list of “responsible smelters and refiners,” so that the public will hold importers and smelters accountable for conducting appropriate due diligence. The regulation also offers incentives, such as assistance with procurement contracts.
One of the problems with researching and writing on hot topics is that things change quickly. Two days after I submitted my most recent article to law reviews in March criticizing the use of disclosure to mitigate human rights impacts, the EU announced that it was considering a mandatory certification program for conflict minerals. That meant I had to change a whole section of my article. (I’ll blog on that article another time, but it will be out in the Winter issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review). Then just yesterday, in a reversal, the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee announced that it would stick with the original voluntary plan after all.The European Parliament votes on the proposal in May.
Reaction from the NGO community was swift. Global Witness explained:
Today the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA) wasted a ground-breaking opportunity to tackle the deadly trade in conflict minerals. […] Under this proposal, responsible sourcing by importers of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold would be entirely optional. The Commission’s proposed voluntary self-certification scheme would be open to approximately 300-400 companies—just 0.05% of companies using and trading these minerals in the EU, and would have virtually no impact on companies’ sourcing behaviour. The law must be strengthened to make responsible sourcing a legal requirement for all companies that place these minerals on the European market–in any form. This would put the European Union at the forefront of global efforts to create more transparent, responsible and sustainable business practices. It would also better align Europe with existing international standards on responsible sourcing, and complement mandatory requirements in the US and in twelve African countries.
I’m all for due diligence in the supply chain and for forcing companies to minimize their human rights impacts. Corporations should do more than respect human rights-- they must pay when they cause harm. I plan to spend part of my summer researching and writing in Latin America about stronger human rights protections for indigenous peoples and the deleterious actions of some multinationals.
But a mandatory certification scheme on due diligence is not the answer because it won’t solve deep, intractable problems that require much more widespread reform. To be clear, I don't think the EU has the right solution either. Reasonable people can disagree, but perhaps the members of the EU Parliament should look to Dodd-Frank. SEC Chair Mary Jo White disclosed last month that the agency had spent 2.75 million dollars, including legal fees, and 17,000 hours writing and implementing the conflict minerals rule. A number of scholars and activists have argued that the law has in fact harmed the Congolese it meant to help and news reports have attempted to dispel some of the myths that led to the passage of the law.
So let’s see what happens in May when the EU looks at conflict minerals again. Let’s see what happens in June when the second wave of Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings come in. As I indicated in my last blog post about Dodd-Frank referenced above, the first set of filings was particularly unhelpful. And let’s see what happens in December when parents start the holiday shopping—how many of them will check on the disclosures before buying electronics and toys for the members of their family? Most important, let's see if someone can actually tie the money and time spent on conflict minerals disclosure directly to lower rates of rape, child slavery, kidnapping, and forced labor-- the behaviors these laws intend to stop.
April 16, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
In an earlier BLPB post, I wrote about President Obama's call for greater regulation of retirement investment brokers. The proposed reforms focused on elevating the current standard that brokers' investment advice must be "suitable" to something closer to an enforceable fiduciary duty to counter financial incentives for some brokers to channel investors into higher-fee investment options.
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Labor released new proposed rules (Proposed Rule), which would classify brokers as "fiduciaries" under ERISA but allow them to continue to receive brokerage commissions and fees (a practice that would otherwise violate ERISA conflict-of-interest rules) so long as the brokers and customers enter into a "Best Interest Contract".
The exemption proposed in this notice (“the Best Interest Contract Exemption”) was developed to promote the provision of investment advice that is in the best interest of retail investors such as plan participants and beneficiaries, IRA owners, and small plans. Proposed Rule at 4.
In 1975, the DOL issued rules defining investment advice for purposes of triggering fiduciary status under ERISA and the attended duties and conflict-of-interest prohibitions. That 1975 definition is still in use, is narrow, and excludes much of paid-for investment advice, particularly that provided in the self-directed retirement space (i.e., 401(k) and IRA).
The narrowness of the 1975 regulation allows advisers, brokers, consultants and valuation firms to play a central role in shaping plan investments, without ensuring the accountability ... [and] allows many advisers to avoid fiduciary status.... As a consequence, under ERISA and the Code, these advisers can steer customers to investments based on their own self-interest, give imprudent advice, and engage in transactions that would otherwise be prohibited by ERISA and the Code. Proposed Rule at 12.
The proposed rule expands the definition of investment advise (see Proposed Rule at 13) making brokers "fiduciaries" under ERISA, but then creates an exemption (which allows for the continued collection of commissions and fees), requiring:
the adviser and financial institution to contractually acknowledge fiduciary status, commit to adhere to basic standards of impartial conduct, warrant that they have adopted policies and procedures reasonably designed to mitigate any harmful impact of conflicts of interest, and disclose basic information on their conflicts of interest and on the cost of their advice. The adviser and firm must commit to fundamental obligations of fair dealing and fiduciary conduct – to give advice that is in the customer’s best interest; avoid misleading statements; receive no more than reasonable compensation; and comply with applicable federal and state laws governing advice. Proposed Rule at 6.
Under the proposed exemption, all participating financial institutions must provide notice to the U.S. DOL of their participation, as well as collect and report certain data.
As justification for the proposed rules, the DOL asserted that:
In the absence of fiduciary status, the providers of investment advice are neither subject to ERISA’s fundamental fiduciary standards, nor accountable for imprudent, disloyal, or tainted advice under ERISA or the Code, no matter how egregious the misconduct or how substantial the losses. Retirement investors typically are not financial experts and consequently must rely on professional advice to make critical investment decisions. In the years since then, the significance of financial advice has become still greater with increased reliance on participant directed plans and IRAs for the provision of retirement benefits. Proposed Rule at 11.
Critics claim that these rules will limit small investors' access to sophisticated financial advice for investments, while proponents consider this a powerful tool against the eroding effects of high fees on long-term retirement savings.
I think this is a symbolically important change. It modernizes the regulatory framework to more closely reflect why many people invest in the stock market (as a tax incentivized alternative to pension plans), the purpose that these investments serves (long-term retirement savings) and the information asymmetries (born of financial illiteracy) confronting the average investor, as well as the changes to the financial services industry. The enforcement mechanism is placed on the individual investor, who will have limited monitoring resources and and other disincentives to fiercely serve that role, which is why my initial reaction that this is a good "symbolic" measure that has potential to fulfill a more meaningful role.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Energy is big business, and there is evidence that renewables are starting to play along with the more traditional big-time players. The Economist recently published the article, Renewable Energy: Not a Toy, which reports that renewable energy installations are continuing to increase even as subsidies fall because prices are continuing to drop. The energy sector is likely to continue to diversify, in part because diversification is good for resilience and for financial management. The Economist article notes:
Nearly half of last year’s investment was in developing countries, notably China, whose energy concerns have more to do with the near term than with future global warming. It worries about energy security, and it wants to clean up its cities’ air, made filthy partly by coal-burning power plants.
Sometimes lost in the discussion about cleaner energy is that climate concerns are not the only reasons to consider other resources. Cleaner air, more stable prices, and locally sourced energy can all be good reasons to consider renewable energy sources along side more traditional resources. Prices, are the big one, of course, but when it's close, other considerations can more easily be part of the analysis. It appears we're approaching that point, which means more opportunity, along with more upheaval. That's why some of us like the energy business so much. If nothing else, it's usually interesting,
Thursday, April 9, 2015
It’s that time of year again where I have my business associations students pretend to be shareholders and draft proposals. I blogged about this topic last semester here. Most of this semester’s proposals related to environmental, social and governance factors. In the real world, a record 433 ESG proposals have been filed this year, and the breakdown as of mid-February was as follows according to As You Sow:
Environment/Climate Change- 27%
Political Activity- 26%
Summaries of some of the student proposals are below (my apologies if my truncated descriptions make their proposals less clear):
1) Netflix-follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the core standards of the International Labour Organization
2) Luxottica- separate Chair and CEO
3) DineEquity- issue quarterly reports on efforts to combat childhood obesity and the links to financial risks to the company
4) Starbucks- provide additional disclosure of risks related to declines in consumer spending and decreases in wages
5) Chipotle- issue executive compensation/pay disparity report
6) Citrix Systems-add board diversity
7) Dunkin Donuts- eliminate the use of Styrofoam cups
8) Campbell Soup- issue sustainability report
9) Shake Shack- issue sustainability report
10) Starbucks- separate Chair and CEO
11) Hyatt Hotels- institute a tobacco-free workplace
12) Burger King- eliminate GMO in food
13) McDonalds- provide more transparency on menu changes
14) Google-disclose more on political expenditures
15) WWE- institute funding cap
One proposal that generated some discussion in class today related to a consumer products company. As I skimmed the first two lines of the proposal to end animal testing last night, I realized that one of my friends was in-house counsel at the company. I immediately reached out to her telling her that my students noted that the company used to be ”cruelty-free,” but now tested on animals in China. She responded that the Chinese government required animal testing on these products, and thus they were complying with applicable regulations. My students, however, believed that the company should, like their competitors, work with the Chinese government to change the law or should pull out of China. Are my students naïve? Do companies actually have the kind of leverage to cause the Chinese government to change their laws? Or would companies fail their shareholders by pulling out of a market with a billion potential customers? This led to a robust debate, which unfortunately we could not finish.
I look forward to Tuesday’s class when we will continue these discussions and I will show them the sobering statistics of how often these proposals tend to fail. Hopefully we can also touch on the Third Circuit decision, which may be out on the Wal-Mart/Trinity Church shareholder proposal issue.These are certainly exciting times to be teaching about business associations and corporate governance.
April 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Today marks my return to blogging after a brief (3 weeks) respite, and what better way to be welcomed back than with news of a mega-merger?!? Today, Kraft Foods, a publicly traded company, and H. J.Heinz, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian private equity firm 3G, signed a multi-billion dollar merger agreement to create what will become the third largest food company in North America.
Under the proposed merger Kraft shareholders will receive 49% of the stock in the newly merged company, plus a cash dividend of $16.50 per share, representing a reported 27% premium on Kraft's trading stock price as of Tuesday, March 24th which closed at around $61.33/share.
The stock market reacted positively to the news with Kraft stock opening around $81/share and climbing up to $87 and settling down in the low $80's (it was trading at $82/share around 2:00 pm). You can track the stock price here. The immediate bump in price casts some shadows on the Kraft stock premium agreed to in the deal.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Bernard Sharfman has posted a new article entitled “Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Long-Term Value Creators or Destroyers?" In the paper he makes the argument that hedge fund activism contributes to long-term value creation if it can be assumed that the typical board of a public company has an adequate amount of independence to act as an arbitrator between executive management and the activist hedge fund. He also discusses these funds’ focus on disinvestment and attempts to challenge those in the Marty Lipton camp, who view these funds less charitably. In fact, Lipton recently called 2014 “the year of the wolf pack.” The debate on the merits of activist hedge funds has been heating up. Last month Forbes magazine outlined “The Seven Deadly Sins of Activist Hedge Funds,” including their promotion of share buybacks, aka “corporate cocaine.” Forbes was responding to a more favorable view of these funds by The Economist in its February 7, 2015 cover story.
Whether you agree with Sharfman or Lipton, the article is clearly timely and worth a read. The abstract is below:
Numerous empirical studies have shown that hedge fund activism has led to enhanced returns to investors and increased firm performance. Nevertheless, leading figures in the corporate governance world have taken issue with these studies and have argued that hedge fund activism leads to long-term value destruction.
In this article, it is argued that an activist hedge fund creates long-term value by sending affirming signals to the board of directors (Board) that its executive management team may be making inefficient decisions and providing recommendations on how the company should proceed in light of these inefficiencies. These recommendations require the Board to review and question the direction executive management is taking the company and then choosing which path the company should take, the one recommended by executive management, the one recommended by the activist hedge fund or a combination of both. Critical to this argument is the existence of a Board that can act as an independent arbitrator in deciding whose recommendations should be followed.
In addition, an explanation is given for why activist hedge funds do not provide recommendations that involve long-term investment. There are two reasons for this. First, the cognitive limitations and skill sets of those individuals who participate as activist hedge funds. Second, and most importantly, the stock market signals provided by value investors voting with their feet are telling the rest of the stock market that a particular public company is poorly managed and that it either needs to be replaced or given less assets to manage. These are the kind of signals and information that activist hedge funds are responding to when buying significant amounts of company stock and then making their recommendations for change. Therefore, it is not surprising that the recommendations of activist hedge funds will focus on trying to reduce the amount of assets under current management.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Last week, I posted about Walmart’s ballyhooed wage hike and asked whether boycotts and activism actually work. Apparently, the President was so impressed that he called the company’s CEO to thank him. Some Walmart workers, however, aren’t as pleased because without more hours, they still can’t make ends meet. Nonetheless, TJX, the parent company of retailers TJ Maxx and Home Goods announced yesterday that its employees would also receive a pay raise. Is this altruism? Have the retail giants caved to pressure?
As some commented on the blog last week and to me privately, it’s more likely that these megaretailers have implemented these “pro-employee” moves to reduce turnover, raise morale, and most important compete in a tightening job market. But one LinkedIn commenter from Australia believes that boycotts in general can work, stating:
My experience with having organised boycotts is that they work, but they take time. They create the conditions for public awareness of corporate activities, and put pressure on the company to change. They are effectively the 'bad cop' of civil society pressure. Consequently, they do not work on their own, requiring also the 'good cop' - civil society organisations and market conditions that allow the subject of the boycott to shift behaviour. Market conditions include a broader 'meta boycott' in which companies needing access to supply chains must change because supply chains have changed, only accepting product that is acceptable to CSOs (the 'good' CSOs, who have certification programmes, and other initiatives for the company to opt for. If you are looking for a case study of these conditions, I suggest you follow the Tasmanian forest industry debate in Australia. Here, an entire industry was worn down after years of boycotts, market campaigns, and demands from purchasers for FSC certified product only. The fascinating addendum to this case study is the state government (and the Federal government, unsuccessfully), are still advocating behaviours that not even the companies want. They want to sign the 'peace deal' and the government(s) are trying to prolong the 'war' - for political, election-related issues. All this indicates that boycotts do not work in isolation, and if they do they are less likely to work.
Investors too are putting pressure on companies. Just yesterday, a group of 60 investors with four trillion in assets under management called for companies to do more for workers' human rights, including wages. Because I study business and human rights with a special emphasis on labor issues, I will wait to see what happens with all of this pressure. I will also monitor the share price, shareholder proposals, and whether there is any evidence that consumers reward Walmart and TJX for their better treatment of workers.