Thursday, October 30, 2014
This paper investigates the voting patterns of shareholders on the recently enacted “Say-On-Pay” (SOP) for publicly traded corporations, and the efficacy of vote outcomes on rationalizing executive compensation. We find that small shareholders are more likely than large shareholders to use the non-binding SOP vote to govern their companies: small shareholders are more likely to vote for a more frequent annual SOP vote, and more likely to vote “against” SOP (i.e., to disapprove executive compensation). Further, we find that low support for management in the SOP vote is more likely to be followed by a decrease in excess compensation, and by a more reasonable selection of peer companies for determining compensation, when ownership is more concentrated. Hence, the non-binding SOP vote offers a convenient mechanism for small shareholders to voice their opinions, yet, larger shareholders must be present to compel the Board to take action. Thus, diffuse shareholders are able to coordinate on the SOP vote to employ the threat that large shareholders represent to management.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Many financial industry analysts are bearish on the oil industry right now. I'm not sure they're right, as I note below, but I also think it's important to recognize that financial market impact of oil price fluctuations is not the only impact U.S. oil production has on markets generally.
One thing I want to make clear at the outset, though, is that I am not a financial analyst, or an economist (as I have previously noted). My comments here are reactions to things analysts are saying based on my experience researching U.S. shale oil markets and activity, as well as the U.S. transportation sector in recent years. My thoughts are related to my expectations for how I think the companies and people in the industry are likely to react, and reflect my hope that financial market changes don't negatively impact other essential planning, in areas related to health, safety, and the environment, the industry desperately needs.
Back to the market predictions: Goldman Sachs and some other analysts see the oil sector as over saturated and anticipate continued supply gluts to keep prices down. According to a report from Goldman analysts, U.S. price indicator West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude will fall to $75 a barrel and Brent crude is expected to be at $85 a barrel in the first quarter of 2015. That would be a $15 per barrel discount from the last such report.
In accord is Jim Cramer, of MSNBC fame, who says, "This is uniquely a perfect storm against oil." Several others see an OPEC "price war" with some saying oil is teetering on the brink of collapse. I'm even less sure that's right, in part because of where Jim Cramer comes out on this. (I'm not a huge fan of his advice or style, but for those who don't know, I'll let Jon Stewart catch you up on that here.) I don't see a "perfect storm" or even much more than a "light shower" coming in the oil sector from pricing or demand problems.
I'm not alone. Others see this recent price dip as real, but short lived. Dan Dicker, president of money manager MercBloc, sees oil prices increasing within the next two years going up to $125 per barrel or even $140. Dicker called the pricing a "Mirage." (I think these predictions are a bit bold in the other direction, too, as I expect to some fluctuation but think prices will reside mostly north of $85-$90 barrel, then increase into the $100s. Again, though, remember this is a law professor's opinion.)
Though I am sure he is not alone, Jim Cramer is the one person I have seen suggesting that a U.S. oil slowdown is likely, at least if oil prices drop to $70 a barrel. Possible, but I still don't see it. As I have suggested elsewhere, I don't think the price of oil, which is largely a global price, will drop to a point where it is not profitable to oil companies. Obviously the price can (and will) fluctuate, and the reality is that oil demand increases and decreases, but it has a higher baseline than I think some people are appreciating.
For years we heard about Peak Oil and the end of oil, but what we were really seeing was the end of really cheap oil. As the recent shale boom has demonstrated, there's plenty of oil available at the right price. The current price dip, I think, just an indication that supply is more abundant than expected, but not that the oil market is about to crater. Thus, perhaps we will see a slowing of the rate of new drilling activity, but I don't see an actual slowdown in growth in the sector -- just in the rate of growth.
Historically, we've had other ways to deal with price drops, too. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Options And Futures, 2nd Edition, By Scott Barrie, repeats the old trader's adage, "the best cure for low prices is low prices," and "the best cure for high prices is high prices." Low oil prices in the 1990s helped lead the way for the boom of SUVs. Before that, in the 1970s, companies like Honda and Toyota made their way into the U.S. market with their fuel-efficient vehicles following the oil embargo and high gas prices. Unlike when those market changes occurred, though, we have a full complement of both SUV and hybrids available to take advantage of price changes in the relatively near term when gas prices change.
Ultimately, if stock price is why people care about oil prices and production in the United States, it's entirely possible the bears are right that company valuations will come down in the near term. In the mid to long term, though, oil production is going to at least stay steady. As such, regardless of the market impact of the oil boom, oil will continue to flow, which will mean it will continue to need transportation. Therefore, it's important that we assess safety risks for infrastructure improvements, such as oil and gas pipelines, that can improve safety in areas that like rail and trucking, which are currently being taxed by the current level of oil and gas development in the country. In addition, a potential slowing of growth rates does not mean that other environmental and social challenges will go away soon.
Of course it makes sense to plan for a financial future and predicting how oil will fare in the coming months is part of the analysis for some. But changes in market expectations don't quickly, or necessarily significantly, impact the real world experience for those in affected areas. Frankly, a slow down in growth rates likely would be welcome in many areas experiencing the oil boom, but a slow down doesn't mean the work necessary to maximize economic opportunity, minimize environmental harm, boost social conditions, and improve safety can come to an end. It might simply be a chance for impacted areas to catch up before the next boom begins (or this one continues). We shouldn't miss that chance.
Monday, October 27, 2014
On Friday, I participated in the 2014 Workshop for Corporate & Securities Litigation sponsored by the University of Richmond School of Law and the University of Illinois College of Law and held on the University of Richmond's campus. Thanks to Jessica Erickson and Verity Winship for hosting an amazing group of scholars presenting impressive, interesting papers. I attended the workshop to test an idea for a paper tentatively entitled: "Policy and International Securities Fraud Actions: A Matter of Investor and (or) Market Protection?"
The paper would address an important issue in U.S. federal securities law: the extraterritorial reach of the general anti-fraud protections in Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended, and Rule 10b-5 adopted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission under Section 10(b). In a world where securities transactions often cross borders—sometimes in non-transparent ways—securities regulators, issuers, investors, and intermediaries, as well as legal counsel and the judiciary, all need clarity on this matter in order to plan and engage in transactions, advocacy, and dispute resolution. Until four years ago, the rules in this area (fashioned more as a matter of jurisdiction than extraterritorial reach) were clear, but their use often generated unpredictable results.
In Morrison v. Nat’l Austl. Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “Section 10(b) reaches the use of a manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance only in connection with the purchase or sale of a security listed on an American stock exchange, and the purchase or sale of any other security in the United States.” This was a non-obvious analytical result (at least to me) that has generated significant criticism, debate, and discussion. The Court's struggle—and that of those who disagree with the holding or the Court's reasoning or both—has been to determine the purpose(s) of Section 10(b) as a federal securities law liability statute and assess the extraterritorial reach of Section 10(b) in light of that purpose or those purposes. This project extends my earlier work (originally written for and published as part of a French colloquium in 2012) and involves the engagement of a deep analysis of long-standing, albeit imperfectly articulated, federal securities regulation policy in the context of cross-border fraud and misstatement liability.
This will be a big undertaking, if I commit to a comprehensive approach. I got a lot of good feedback on my overall concept for the project--enough that I am rethinking the project in significant ways. One possible idea is to approach the underlying general policy articulation first, as a separate project, before undertaking the formidable task of rationalizing that policy at the intersection of the academic literature on class action litigation, Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5, and cross-border markets and cross-listings. The two-stage approach has significant appeal to me. I start from the notion that investor protection and the maintenance of market integrity under federal securities regulation both serve the foundational goal of promoting capital formation. But that is contestable . . . .
What are your thoughts regarding the most coherent articulation of the policies underlying Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 multinational securities regulation and the appropriateness of the Morrison test for extraterritoriality in light of that articulation?
Friday, October 24, 2014
I used to joke that my alma mater Columbia University’s core curriculum, which required students to study the history of art, music, literature, and philosophy (among other things) was designed solely to make sure that graduates could distinguish a Manet from a Monet and not embarrass the university at cocktail parties for wealthy donors. I have since tortured my son by dragging him through museums and ruins all over the world pointing spouting what I remember about chiaroscuro and Doric columns. He’s now a freshman at San Francisco Art Institute, and I’m sure that my now-fond memories of class helped to spark a love of art in him. I must confess though that as a college freshman I was less fond of Contemporary Civilization class, (“CC”) which took us through Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hume, Hegel, and all of the usual suspects. At the time I thought it was boring and too high level for a student who planned to work in the gritty city counseling abused children and rape survivors.
Fast forward twenty years or so, and my job as a Compliance and Ethics Officer for a Fortune 500 company immersed me in many of the principles we discussed in CC, although we never spoke in the lofty terms that our teaching assistant used when we looked at bribery, money- laundering, conflicts of interest, terrorism threats, data protection, SEC regulations, discrimination, and other issues that keep ethics officers awake at night. We did speak of values versus rules based ethics and how to motivate people to "do the right thing."
Now that I am in academia I have chosen to research on the issues I dealt with in private life. Although I am brand new to the field of normative business ethics, I was pleased to have my paper accepted for a November workshop at Wharton's Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. Each session has two presenters who listen to and respond to feedback from attendees, who have read their papers in advance. Dr. Wayne Buck, who teaches business ethics at Eastern Connecticut State University, presented two weeks ago. He entitled his paper “Naming Names,” and using a case study on the BP Oil spill argued that the role of business ethics is not merely to promulgate norms around conduct, but also to judge individual businesspeople on moral grounds. Professor John Hasnas of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business also presented his working paper “Why Don't Corporations Have the Right to Vote?” He argued that if we accept a theory of corporate moral agency, then that commits us to extending them the right to vote. (For the record, my understanding of his paper is that he doesn’t believe corporations should have the right.) Attendees from Johns Hopkins, the University of Connecticut, Pace and of course Wharton brought me right back to my days at Columbia with references to Rawls and Kant. My comments were probably less theoretical and more related to practical application, but that’s still my bent as a junior scholar.
In a few weeks, I present on my theory of the social contract as it relates to business and human rights. In brief, I argue that multinational corporations enter into social contracts with the states in which they operate (in large part to avoid regulation) and with stakeholders around them (the "social license to operate", as Professor John Ruggie describes it). Typically these contracts consist of the corporate social responsibility reports, voluntary codes of conduct, industry initiatives, and other public statements that dictate how they choose to act in society, such as the UN Global Compact. Many nations have voluntary and mandatory disclosure regimes, which have the side benefit of providing consumers and investors with the kinds of information that will help them determine whether the firm has “breached” the social contract by not living up to its promise. The majority of these proposals and disclosure regimes (such as Dodd-Frank conflict minerals) rest on the premise that armed with certain information, consumers and investors (other than socially responsible investors) will pressure corporations to change their behavior by either rewarding “ethical” behavior or by punishing firms who act unethically via a boycott or divestment.
I contend in my article that: (1) corporations generally respond to incentives and penalties, which can cause them to act “morally;” (2) states refuse to enter into a binding UN treaty on business and human rights and often do not uniformly enforce the laws, much less the social contracts; (3) consumers over-report their desire to buy goods and services from “ethical” companies; and (4) disclosure for the sake of transparency, without more, will not lead to meaningful change in the human rights arena. Instead, I prefer to focus on the kinds of questions that the board members, consumers, and investors who purport to care about these things should ask. I try to move past the fuzzy concept of corporate social responsibility to a stronger corporate accountability framework, at least where firms have the ability to directly or indirectly impact human rights.
As a compliance officer, I did not use terms like “deontological” and “teleological” principles, but some heavy hitters such as Norway's Government Pension Fund, with over five billion Kronos under management, do. The 2003 report that helped establish the Fund’s recommendations on ethical guidelines state in part:
One group of ethical theories asserts that we should primarily be concerned with the consequences of the choices we make. These theories are in other words forward-looking, focusing on the consequences of an action. The choice that is ethically correct influences the world in the best possible way, i.e. has the most favourable consequences. Every choice generates an infinite number of consequences and the decisive question is of course which of the consequences we should focus on. Again, a number of answers are possible. Some would assert that we should focus on individual welfare, and that the action that has the most favourable consequences for individual welfare is the best one. Others would claim that access to resources or the opportunities or rights of the individual are most important. However, common to all these answers is the view that the desire to influence the world in a favourable direction should govern our choices.
Another group of ethical theories focuses on avoiding breaching obligations by avoiding doing evil and fulfilling obligations by doing good. Whether the results are good or evil, and whether the cost of doing good is high, are in principle of no significance. This is often known as deontological ethics.
In relation to the Petroleum Fund, these two approaches will primarily influence choice in that deontological ethics will dictate that certain investments must be avoided under any circumstances, while teleological ethics will lead to the avoidance of investments that have less favourable consequences and the promotion of investments that have more favourable consequences.
Recently, NGOs have pressured firms to speak on out human rights abuses at mega-events and have published their responses. The US government has made a number of efforts, some unsuccessful, to push companies toward more proactive human rights initiatives. These issues are here to stay. As I formulate my recommendations, I am looking at the pension fund, some work by ethicists researching marketing principles, writings by political and business philosophers, and of course, my old friends Locke, Rousseau, Rawls and Kant for inspiration. If you have ideas of articles or authors I should consult, feel free to comment below or to email me at email@example.com. And if you will be in Philadelphia on November 14th, register for the session at Wharton and give me your feedback in person.
October 24, 2014 in Books, Business School, Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, October 9, 2014
The numbers are in on SEC Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings. According to a Tulane study, the average company spent over half a million dollars to comply. A review by law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel shows how meaningless (in my view), some of those filings were. Meanwhile, Canada failed to pass another conflict minerals bill and NGOs are pressuring the EU to step up to the plate for more rigorous regulation. I continue to believe that there has to be a better way to resolve a deadly human rights crisis, and that disclosure and due diligence in the supply chain are important but are not the solutions.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
For the second time, I have assigned my BA students to write their own shareholder proposals so that they can better understand the mechanics and the substance behind Rule 14-a8. As samples, I provided a link to over 500 proposals for the 2014 proxy season. We also went through the Apple Proxy Statement as a way to review corporate governance, the roles of the committees, and some other concepts we had discussed. As I reviewed the proposals this morning, I noticed that the student proposals varied widely with most relating to human rights, genetically modified food, environmental protection, online privacy, and other social factors. A few related to cumulative voting, split of the chair and CEO, poison pills, political spending, pay ratio, equity plans, and other executive compensation factors.
After they take their midterm next week, I will show them how well these proposals tend to do in the real world. Environmental, social, and governance factors (political spending and lobbying are included) constituted almost 42% of proposals, up from 36% in 2013, according to Equilar. Of note, 45% of proposals calling for a declassified board passed, with an average of 89% support, while only two proposals for the separation of chair and CEO passed. Astonishingly, Proxy Monitor, which looked at the 250 largest publicly-traded American companies, reports that just three people and their family members filed one third of all proposals. Only 4% of shareholder proposals were supported by a majority of voting shareholders. Only one of the 136 proposals related to social policy concerns in the Proxy Monitor data set passed, and that was an animal welfare proposal that the company actually supported.
I plan to use two of the student proposals verbatim on the final exam to test their ability to assess whether a company would be successful in an SEC No-Action letter process. Many of the students thought the exercise was helpful, although one of the students who was most meticulous with the assignment is now even more adamant that she does not want to do transactional law. Too bad, because she would make a great corporate lawyer. I have 7 weeks to convince her to change her mind.
October 2, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Professor Dionysia Katelouzou of Kings College, London has written an interesting empirical article on hedge fund activisim. The abstract is below:
In recent years, activist hedge funds have spread from the United States to other countries in Europe and Asia, but not as a duplicate of the American practice. Rather, there is a considerable diversity in the incidence and the nature of activist hedge fund campaigns around the world. What remains unclear, however, is what dictates how commonplace and multifaceted hedge fund activism will be in a particular country.
The Article addresses this issue by pioneering a new approach to understanding the underpinnings and the role of hedge fund activism, in which an activist hedge fund first selects a target company that presents high-value opportunities for engagement (entry stage), accumulates a nontrivial stake (trading stage), then determines and employs its activist strategy (disciplining stage), and finally exits (exit stage). The Article then identifies legal parameters for each activist stage and empirically examines why the incidence, objectives and strategies of activist hedge fund campaigns differ across countries. The analysis is based on 432 activist hedge fund campaigns during the period of 2000-2010 across 25 countries.
The findings suggest that the extent to which legal parameters matter depends on the stage that hedge fund activism has reached. Mandatory disclosure and rights bestowed on shareholders by corporate law are found to dictate how commonplace hedge fund activism will be in a particular country (entry stage). Moreover, the examination of the activist ownership stakes reveals that ownership disclosure rules have important ramifications for the trading stage of an activist campaign. At the disciplining stage, however, there is little support that the activist objectives and the employed strategies are a reflection of the shareholder protection regime of the country in which the target company is located.
September 25, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, M&A, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Frank Pasquale on “how masterful manipulation of the law has allowed tech and finance giants to grow incredibly fast”
Like many people I know, I am a huge fan of Frank Pasquale. Thus, I was very excited to read his Balkanization interview (available here) discussing his forthcoming book, “The Black Box Society.” The interview touches on a wide range of topics, so you should go read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt to tempt you in case you’re on the fence:
I think our academic culture is very good at analysis, but oft-adrift when it comes to synthesis. Specialization obscures the big picture. And law can succumb to this as easily [as] any other field. For example, in the case of internet companies, cyberlawyers too often confine themselves to saying: “Google and Facebook should win key copyright cases, and subsequent trademark cases, and antitrust cases, and get certain First Amendment immunities, and not be classified as a ‘consumer reporting agency’ under relevant privacy laws,” etc. They may well be correct in every particular case. But what happens when a critical mass of close cases combines with network effects to give a few firms incredible power over our information about (and even interpretation of) events?
Similarly, old banking laws may fit poorly with the new globalized financial landscape. Finance lawyers churn out position papers dismantling the logic of Dodd-Frank, Basel, Sarbanes-Oxley, etc. But if too-big-to-fail firms keep growing bigger, assured of state support, while everything else the government does is deemed contingent: what kind of social contract is that?
The lawyers of the Progressive Era and the New Deal dealt with similar challenges: massive firms that warped the fabric of economic, political, and even cultural life to their own advantage. They consulted the best of social science to recommend regulation—but they didn’t let some narrow field (like neoclassical economics) act as a straitjacket (as, say, antitrust lawyers of today are all too prone to do).
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Teaching the definition of a "security" to business associations students who: 1) want to be litigators; 2) are afraid of math, finance, and accounting; 3) don't know anything about business; 4) only take the class because it's required; and 5) aren't allowed to distract themselves with electronics in class is no small feat.
Thankfully, as we were discussing the definition and exemptions, we also touched on IPOs. Many of the students knew nothing about IPOs but were already Alibaba customers and going through some of the registration statement made them understand the many reasons companies want to avoid going public. Of course, now that we went through some of the risk factors, my students who seemed gung ho about the IPO after watching some videos about the hype were a little less excited about it (good thing because they probably couldn't buy anyway).
Now if I can only figure out how to jazz up the corporate finance chapter next week.
September 18, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2)
Thursday, September 11, 2014
As I predicted in 2011 here and here, in 2012 here, in 2013 in amicus brief, and countless times on this blog, the SEC Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals law has had significant unintended consequences on the Congolese people and has been difficult to comply with. Apparently the Commerce Department, which has a role to play in determining which mines are controlled by rebels so that US issuers can stay away from them, can't actually figure it out either. In the past few days, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and other experts including seventy individuals and NGOS (some Congolese) who signed a memo, have called this misguided law into question. In my view, without the "name and shame" aspect of the law, it is basically an extremely expensive, onerous due diligence requirement that only a few large companies can or have the incentive to do well or thoroughly. More important, and I as I expected, it has had little impact on the violence on the ground and has hurt the people it purported to help.
I had hoped to be wrong. The foundation that I work with helps medical practitioners, midwives, and traditional birth attendants in eastern Congo and many of their patients and neighbors are members of the artisanal mining community. I won’t go as far as Steve Bainbridge has in calling for the law’s repeal because I think that companies should do better due diligence of their supply chains, especially in conflict zones. This law, however, is not the right one for Congo and the SEC is not the right agency to address this human rights crisis. Frankly, I don’t know that the EU's voluntary certification is the right answer either. I hope that Canada, which is looking at a similar rule, pays close heed and doesn’t perpetuate the same mistake that the US Congress made and that the SEC exacerbated. In the meantime, I will stay tuned to see how and if the courts, Congress, and the SEC revisit the rule.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Behemoth proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services has released its 2015 Policy Survey. I have listed some of the questions below:
Which of the following statements best reflects your organization's view about the relationship between goalsetting and award values?
Is there a threshold at which you consider that the magnitude of a CEO’scompensation should warrant concern even if the company’s absolute and relative performance have been positive, for example, outperforming the peer group?
With respect to evaluating the say on pay advisory vote, how does your organization view disclosed positive changes to the pay program that will be implemented in the succeeding year(s) when a company demonstrates pay for performance misalignment or other concerns based on the year in review?
If you chose either the first or second answer in the question above, should shareholders expect disclosure of specific details of such future positive changes (e.g., metrics, performance goals, award values, effective dates) in order for the changes to be considered as a potential mitigator for pay for performance or other concerns for the year in review?
Where a board adopts without shareholder approval a material bylaw amendment that diminishes shareholders' rights, what approach should be used when evaluating board accountability?
Should directors be held accountable if shareholder unfriendly provisions were adopted prior to the company’s IPO?
In general, how does your organization consider gender diversity when evaluating boards?
As a general matter, what weight (relative out of 100%) would you view as appropriate for each of the categories indicated below (notwithstanding that some factors, such as repricing without shareholder approval, may be 100% unacceptable)?
How significant are the following factors when evaluating the board's role in risk oversight in your voting decision on directors (very significant, somewhat significant, not significant)?
In making informed voting decisions on the ratification of the outside auditor and the reelection of members of audit committees, how important (very important/somewhat important/not important) would the following disclosures be to you?
In your view, when is it appropriate for a company to utilize quantitative E&S (environmental and social) performance goals?
As someone who studies and consults on corporate governance issues, I look forward to seeing the results of this survey. However, the US Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Market Competitiveness, which has argued that ISS and other proxy advisory firms have conflicts of interest and lack transparency, has issued a response to ISS because:
The CCMC is concerned that the development of the Survey lacks a foundation based on empirical facts and creates a one-size-fits-all system that failure to take into account the different unique needs of companies and their investors. We believe that these flaws with the Survey can adversely affect advisory recommendations negatively impacting the decision making process for the clients of proxy advisory firms. The CCMC is also troubled that certain issues presented in the Survey, such as Pay for Performance, will be the subject of Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) rulemakings in the near future. While we have provided commentary to those portions of the Survey, we believe that their inclusion in the survey is premature pending the completion of those rulemakings….It is both surprising and very troublesome that the Survey does not contain a single reference to the paramount concern of investors and portfolio managers—public company efforts to maintain and enhance shareholder value—and seeks to elicit only abstract philosophies and opinions, completely eschewing any pretense of an interest in obtaining hard facts and empirically-significant data. This confirmation—that ISS’ policies and recommendations are based solely on a miniscule sampling of philosophical preferences, rather than empirical data—is itself a matter that requires, but does not yet receive, appropriate disclosure and disclaimers on ISS research reports.
The CCMC’s letter details concerns with each of ISS’ questions. Both the complete survey and the CCMC response are worth a read.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Two news articles about the Dodd-Frank whistleblower law caught my eye this week. The first was an Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which Joe Nocera profiled a Mass Mutual whistleblower, who received a $400,000 reward—the upper level of the 10-30% of financial recoveries to which Dodd-Frank whistleblowers are entitled.
Regular readers of this blog may know that I met with the SEC, regulators and testified before Congress before the law went into effect about what I thought might be unintended effects on compliance programs. I have blogged about my thoughts on the law here and here.
The Mass Mutual whistleblower, Bill Lloyd, complained internally and repeatedly to no avail. Like most whistleblowers, he went external because he felt that no one at his company took his reports seriously. He didn’t go to the SEC for the money. As I testified, people like him who try to do the right thing and try resolve issues within the company (if possible) deserve a reward if their claims have merit.
The second story had a different ending. The Wall Street Journal reported on the Second Circuit opinion supporting Siemens’ claim that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation protection did not extend to its foreign whistleblowing employees. In that case, everything-- the alleged wrongful conduct, the internal reporting, and the termination--happened abroad. The employee did disclose to the SEC, but only after he was terminated, and therefore his retaliation claim relates to his internal reports. The court's reasoning about the lack of extraterritorial jurisdiction was sound, but this ruling may be a victory for multinationals that may unintentionally undermine the efforts to bring certain claims to internal compliance officers.
I proudly serve as a “management representative” on the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee with union members, outside counsel, corporate representatives, and academics. Although Dodd-Frank is not in our purview, two dozen other laws, including Sarbanes-Oxley are, and we regularly hear from other agencies including the SEC. I will be thinking of these two news articles at our next meeting in September.
I will also explore these issues and others as the moderator of the ABA 8th Annual Section of Labor and Employment Law Conference, which will be held in Los Angeles, November 5-8, 2014. Panelists include Sean McKessey, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, Mike Delikat of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, and Jordan A. Thomas of Labaton Sucharow LLP.
The program is as follows:
Program Title: Whistleblower Rewards: Trends and Emerging Issues in Qui Tam Actions and IRS, SEC & CFTC Whistleblower Rewards Claims
Description: This session will explore the types of claims that qualify for rewards under the False Claims Act and the rewards programs administered by the Securities & Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Internal Revenue Service, the quantity and quality of evidence needed by the DOJ, IRS, SEC, and CFTC to investigate a case successfully, and current trends in the investigation and prosecution of whistleblower disclosures. The panel also will address, from the viewpoint of in-house counsel, the interplay between these reward claims and corporate compliance and reporting obligations.
If you can think of questions or issues I should raise at either the DOL meeting in DC next month or with our panelists in November, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comments below.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Alternative mutual funds, with assets under management reported from $300-500 billion, mimic riskier investment strategies employed by hedge funds such as investing in commodities, private debt, shorting assets and complex derivatives. The trading strategies, as you can guess, are funded through higher fees charged to investors. The funds are touted as a new way for mainstream investors to diversify their assets. Forbes ran a great, short piece back in February describing the investment advantages and disadvantages of alternative mutual funds.
These alternative mutual funds are now in the cross hairs of the SEC and FINRA, the self-regulatory branch of the securities industries. FINRA issued an Investor Alert on "alt" funds in June, available here. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the SEC will conduct a limited scope (15-20 funds) national sweep to identify fund oversight, ready assets, and disclosure of investment strategies. Included in the funds sweep are large investment firms such as BlackRock and AQR Capital Management, as well smaller firms that are new market entrants.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Kinder Morgan, a leading U.S. energy company, has proposed consolidating its Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) under its parent company. If it happens, it would be the second largest energy merger in history (the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1998, estimated to be $110.1 billion in 2014 dollars, is still the top dog).
Motley Fool details the deal this way:
Terms of the deal
The $71 billion deal is composed of $40 billion in Kinder Morgan Inc shares, $4 billion in cash, $27 billion in assumed debt.
Existing shareholders of Kinder Morgan's MLPs will receive the following premiums for their units (based on friday's closing price):
- Kinder Morgan Energy Partners: 12%
- Kinder Morgan Management: 16.5%
- El Paso Pipeline Partners: 15.4%Existing unit holders of Kinder Morgan Energy Partners and El Paso Pipeline Partners are allowed to choose to receive payment in both cash and Kinder Morgan Inc shares or all cash.
The most important man in the American Energy Boom wears brown slacks and a checkered shirt and sits in a modest corner office with unexceptional views of downtown Houston and some forgettable art on the wall. You would expect to at least see a big map showing pipelines stretching from coast to coast. Nope. “We don’t have sports tickets, we don’t have corporate jets,” growls Richard Kinder, 68, CEO of Kinder Morgan, America’s third-largest energy firm. “We don’t have stadiums named after us.”
August 12, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, M&A, Partnership, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, August 7, 2014
On June 5, 2014, SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher commemorated the agency’s 80th anniversary by, among other things, repeating the criticisms of the various nonfinancial disclosures that companies are compelled to make by law or asked to make through shareholder proposals. In his view, “companies’ disclosure documents are being cluttered with non-material information that can drown out or obscure the information that is at the core of a reasonable investor’s investment decision. The Commission is not spending nearly enough time making sure that our rules elicit focused, meaningful disclosures of material information.” I assume that he is referring to the various environmental, social and governance proposals (“ESG”) brought by socially responsible investors and others. I’m writing this blog post while taking a break from reviewing dozens of these proposals for an article that I am writing on how consumers and investors evaluate ESG disclosures and those required in other countries in the human rights context.
Citing Chair White’s quote about “information overload,” last week the US Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness released a list of relatively non-controversial recommendations on how the SEC can modernize the current disclosure regime so that it can better serve the investing public. For a great discussion of what led to this latest round of disclosure reform see here. Some of the recommendations concern items that technology can handle. Others concern repetition and relate to factors that the SEC does not require but are there to avoid litigation. The report, entitled “Corporate Disclosure Effectiveness: Ensuring a Balanced System that Informs and Protects Investors and Facilitates Capital Formation,” focuses on near-term improvements to Regulation S-K that the Chamber believes would likely garner widespread support. The report also discusses longer-term proposals, but does not discuss in any detail the kinds of issues that Chair Gallagher and others raise. You can also watch an entire webcast of the panel discussion releasing the report featuring, among others, two former SEC Commissioners, current SEC Director of the Division of Corporate Finance Keith Higgins, and issuers counsel, including my former colleague from Ryder, Flora Perez, here (start at minute 19:45).
Full disclosure-- I was part of the working group that reviewed some of the recommendations and gave comments before the report’s release, and while I also oppose the conflict minerals disclosure because I don’t think it should be within the SEC’s purview and didn’t take into account some of the realities of the modern supply chain, I don’t have a complete aversion to corporate disclosure of ESG or other risk factors to investors and the public. The who, what, why, how, where and when are the key questions.
Below is a list of all of the recommendations for reform taken directly from the Chamber’s one-pager:
Near Term Improvements:
The requirement to disclose in a company’s Form 10-K the “general development” of a business, including the nature and results of any bankruptcy, acquisition, or other significant development in the lifecycle of a business (Item 101(a)(1) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose financial information for different geographic areas in which a company operates (Item 101(d) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose whether investors can obtain a hard copy of a company’s filings free of charge or view them in the SEC’s Public Reference Room (Items 101(e)(2) and (e)(4) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to describe principal plants, mines, and other materially important physical properties (Item 102 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement that companies discuss material legal proceedings (Item 103 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose which public market a company’s shares are traded on and the high and low share prices for the preceding two years (Items 201(a)(1)(i), (ii), (iii), and (iv) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose the frequency and amount of dividends for a company’s stock during the preceding two years (Item 201(c) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to display a graph showing the company’s stock performance over a period of time (Item 201(e) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose any changes in and disagreements with accountants (Item 304 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose certain transactions with related parties (Item 404(a) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose the ratio between earnings and fixed charges (Item 503(d) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to file certain exhibits (Item 601 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose recent sales of unregistered securities and a description of the use of proceeds from registered sales (Item 701 of Regulation S-K)
Longer Term Improvements:
Compensation Discussion & Analysis (CD&A)
Management’s Discussion and Analysis (MD&A)
A Revised Delivery System
Take a look at the list, read the report which describes the Chamber's rationale, and if you have time watch the webcast, which provides some real-world context. What’s missing from the list? What shouldn’t be on the list? Have you seen anything in your practice or teaching that could inform the debate? I look forward to seeing your feedback on this site or via email at email@example.com
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Last week on this blog, I wrote about the revived trend of corporate inversions where, through a merger transaction a US company re-domiciles outside of the US for business reasons, including the desire to avoid paying US corporate taxes. Walgreens was rumored to be negotiating with Alliance Boots, a UK company in which the US drugstore chain already held 45%. The merger announcement today, in a deal valued at $5.27 billion for the other 55% of Alliance Boots will keep the merged company's headquarters in Chicago. Citing, in part to public reaction and the drug store's brand here in the US, "The company concluded it was not in the best long-term interest of our shareholders to attempt to re-domicile outside the U.S."
The full article in the DealBook is available here.
Monday, July 28, 2014
The new crowdfunding exemption in section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act will, once the SEC adopts the rules required to implement it, allow ordinary investors to invest in unregistered securities offerings. Will those unsophisticated investors go down in flames or will they be able to make rational investment choices?
Some proponents of crowdfunding argue that crowdfunding benefits from the so-called “wisdom of the crowd": that the collective, consensus choice that results from crowdfunding is better than what any individual could do alone, and often as good as expert choices. A recent study seems to support that view.
Two business professors—Ethan R. Mollick at the Wharton School and Ramana Nanda at Harvard—looked at crowdfunding campaigns for theater projects. They submitted those projects to people with expertise in evaluating theater funding applications and compared the expert evaluations to the actual crowdfunding results.
Mollick and Nanda found a strong positive correlation between the projects funded by the crowd and those rated highly by the experts. In other words, crowds were more likely to fund the campaigns the experts preferred. In addition, projects funded by the crowd that were not rated highly by the experts did just as well as the projects chosen by the experts.
Of course, theater projects aren’t the same as securities, but this study should certainly be of interest to those following the securities crowdfunding debate. The full study (44 pages) is available here. If you don’t have time to read the full study, a summary is available here.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
As many have celebrated or decried, Dodd-Frank turned four-years old this week. This is the law that Professor Stephen Bainbridge labeled "quack federal corporate governance round II" (round I was Sarbanes-Oxley, as labeled by Professor Roberta Romano). Some, like Professor Bainbridge, think the law has gone too far and has not only failed to meet its objectives but has actually caused more harm than good (see here, for example). Some think that the law has not gone far enough, or that the law as drafted will not prevent the next financial crisis (see here, for example). The Council on Foreign Relations discusses the law in an accessible manner with some good links here.
SEC Chair Mary Jo White has divided Dodd-Frank’s ninety-five mandates into eight categories. She released a statement last week touting the Volcker Rule, the new regulatory framework for municipal advisors, additional controls on broker-dealers that hold customer assets, reduced reliance on credit ratings, new rules for unregulated derivatives, additional executive compensation disclosures, and mechanisms to bar bad actors from securities offerings.
Notwithstanding all of these accomplishments, only a little over half of the law is actually in place. In fact, according to the monthly David Polk Dodd-Frank Progress Report:
As of July 18, 2014, a total of 280 Dodd-Frank rulemaking requirement deadlines have passed. Of these 280 passed deadlines, 127 (45.4%) have been missed and 153 (54.6%) have been met with finalized rules. In addition, 208 (52.3%) of the 398 total required rulemakings have been finalized, while 96 (24.1%) rulemaking requirements have not yet been proposed.
Many who were involved with the law’s passage or addressing the financial crisis bemoan the slow progress. The House Financial Services Committee wrote a 97-page report to call it a failure. So I have a few questions.
1) When Dodd-Frank turns five next year, how far behind will we still be, and will we have suffered another financial blip/setback/recession/crisis that supporters say could have been prevented by Dodd-Frank?
2) How will the results of the mid-term elections affect the funding of the agencies charged with implementing the law?
3) What will the SEC do to address the Dodd-Frank rules that have already been invalidated or rendered otherwise less effective after litigation from business groups such as §1502, Conflict Minerals Rule (see here for SEC response) or §1504, the Resource Extraction Rule (see here for court decision)?
4) Given the SEC's failure to appeal after the proxy access litigation and the success of the lawsuits mentioned above, will other Dodd-Frank mandates be vulnerable to legal challenge?
5) Will the whistleblower provision that provides 10-30% of any recovery over $1 million to qualified persons prevent the next Bernie Madoff scandal? I met with the SEC, members of Congress and testified about some of my concerns about that provision before entering academia, and I hope to be proved wrong.
Let's wait and see. I look forward to seeing how much Dodd-Frank has grown up this time next year.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
The WVU College of Law's Center for Energy and Sustainable Development is seeking a fellow for 2014-16, and the details are below. As I have written before, the Future of Business is the Future of Energy. Just today, the New York Times Dealbook has an article, Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund Ramps Up Investment Plans, which notes:
Norway’s giant sovereign wealth fund said on Tuesday that it would manage its $884 billion portfolio more aggressively over the next three years, taking larger stakes in companies and increasing its real estate portfolio.
. . . .
The fund’s investments have grown increasingly sophisticated under Yngve Slyngstad, the chief executive of Norges Bank Investment Management, who came to the fund in 1998 to build an equity portfolio and became C.E.O. in 2008. Since the end of 2007, equities have increased as a percentage of the portfolio to about 61 percent from 42 percent.
Mr. Slyngstad has also diversified the holdings into smaller companies and into emerging markets, but the stock investments remain concentrated in Europe and North America. The fund’s largest equity holdings are all companies based in Europe, including Nestlé, Novartis, HSBC Holdings, the Vodafone Groupand Royal Dutch Shell.
The fund has been under pressure from environmental groups and some political parties in Norway to shed investments in oil and natural gas and coal companies and to increase its green investments. The government has so far largely resisted. It created a panel of experts this year to study the issue.
Understanding the interplay between energy, finance, and the environment is becoming more and more critical to businesses (and their lawyers). Please share this opportunity with anyone you know who might have an interest in exploring this area.
ENERGY AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW
Accepting Applications Until June 30, 2014
West Virginia University College of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development is now accepting applications for a Fellowship in Energy and Sustainable Development. The fellowship combines the opportunity to work with attorneys, faculty and students at the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development with the opportunity to obtain the WVU Law LL.M. degree in Energy and Sustainable Development Law. The LL.M. program provides a uniquely deep and balanced curriculum in perhaps the nation’s richest natural resource region. The fellowship position involves policy and legal research and writing, and assisting with organizing projects such as conferences and workshops.
The Center for Energy and Sustainable Development
The Center is an energy and environmental public policy and research organization at the WVU College of Law. The Center conducts objective, unbiased research and policy analyses, and focuses on promoting practices that will balance the continuing demand for energy resources—and the associated economic benefits—alongside the need to reduce the environmental impacts of developing the earth’s natural resources. One mission of the Center is to train the next generation of energy and environmental attorneys. The Center benefits from being located on the campus of a major research institution, with expanded opportunities for inter-disciplinary research and an integral role for the Center in providing the policy, legal and regulatory analyses to support the technical research being conducted across the WVU campus.
LL.M. in Energy and Sustainable Development Law
The WVU College of Law LL.M. in Energy and Sustainable Development Law is the only LL.M. program in the United States that provides a balanced curriculum in both energy law and the law of sustainable development. Working with WVUCollege of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, LL.M. students will develop the expertise to advise clients and provide leadership on matters covering the full range of energy, environmental and sustainable development law. The LL.M. in Energy and Sustainable Development Law provides a broad and deep offering of courses, experiential learning opportunities, and practical training for every part of the energy sector. Our broad spectrum of courses allows our students to prepare to be lawyers serving energy companies, investors, environmental organizations, landowners, utilities, manufacturing companies, lawmakers, policymakers, regulators and land use professionals.
Energy and Sustainable Development Law Fellow
This fellowship is a part-time (at least twenty hours per week), two-year position from August 2014 through July 2016. The Fellow will receive an annual stipend of $20,000 and tuition remission for the LL.M. program. The Fellow would take 6-7 credits per semester allowing time for part-time work at the Center. The Fellow will further the work of the Center by pursuing research on issues relating to energy and sustainable development law and policy, under the direction of the Center’s Director and the WVU Law faculty associated with the Center. The Fellow will be expected to generate policy-oriented written work to be published through the Center and other venues such as law journals. The Fellow will also assist with projects relating to the Center’s programs, including organizing conferences and other events, and public education and outreach efforts. Efforts will be made to match project assignments with the Fellow’s interest.
Candidates should possess a J.D.; a strong academic record; excellent analytical and writing skills; a demonstrated interest and background in energy, sustainability or environmental law and policy; and admission to the LL.M. program at West Virginia University College of Law (application for LL.M. admission can occur concurrently with the fellowship application).
Applicants should apply to Samatha.Stefanov@mail.wvu.edu. Please submit a letter discussing qualifications and interests, a resume, a law school transcript, a recent writing sample and contact information for three references.
We are now accepting applications. The application deadline is June 30, 2014(concurrent with the deadline for admission to the LL.M. program) or until the post is filled.
Visit our website at http://energy.law.wvu.edu/ for more information about our programs.
West Virginia University College of Law is an equal opportunity employer and has a special interest in enriching its intellectual environment through further diversifying the range of perspectives represented by its faculty and teaching staff.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Regular readers of this blog have seen several posts discussing the materiality of various SEC disclosures. See here and here for recent examples. I have been vocal about my objection to the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which requires US issuers to disclose their use of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold deriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding nations, and describe the measures taken to conduct audits and due diligence of their supply chains. See this post and this law review article.
Last year SEC Chair Mary Jo White indicated that she has concerns about the amount and types of disclosures that companies put forth and whether or not they truly assist investors in making informed decisions. In fact, the agency is undergoing a review of corporate disclosures and has recently announced that rather than focusing on disclosure “overload” the agency wants to look at “effectiveness,” duplication, and “holes in the regulatory regime where additional disclosure may be good for investors.”
I’m glad that the SEC is looking at these issues and I urge lawmakers to consider this SEC focus when drafting additional disclosure regulation. One possible test case is the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2014 (H.R. 4842) by Representative Carolyn Maloney, which would require companies with over $100 million in gross revenues to publicly disclose the measures they take to prevent human trafficking, slavery and child labor in their supply chains as part of their annual reports.
The sentiment behind Representative Maloney’s bill is similar to what drove the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule (without the extensive audit requirements) and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act (CTSA). In her announcement she stated,
“Every day, Americans purchase products tainted by forced labor and this bill is a first step to end these inhumane practices. By requiring companies with more than $100 million in worldwide receipts to be transparent about their supply chain policies, American consumers can learn what is being done to stop horrific and illegal labor practices. This bill doesn’t tell companies what to do, it simply asks them to tell us what steps they are already taking. This transparency will empower consumers with more information that could impact their purchasing decisions.”
While the Conflict Minerals and CTSA are “name and shame” laws, which aim to change corporate behavior through disclosure, the proposed federal bill has a twist. It requires the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of State and other appropriate Federal and international agencies, independent labor evaluators, and human rights groups, to develop an annual list of the top 100 companies complying with supply chain labor standards.
I don’t have an issue with the basic premise of the proposed federal law because human trafficking is such a serious problem that the American Bar Association, the Department of Labor, and others have developed resources for corporations to tackle the problem within their supply chains. A number of states have also enacted laws, and in fact Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, hardly the poster child for liberals, announced his own legislation this week (although it focuses on relief for victims).
Further, to the extent that companies are using the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to develop due diligence processes for their supply chains, this disclosure should not be difficult. In fact, the proposed bill specifically mentions the Guiding Principles. I don’t know how expensive the law will be to comply with, and I’m sure that there will be lobbying and tweaks if the bill gets out of the House. But If Congress wants to add this to the list of required corporate disclosures, legislators should monitor the SEC disclosure review carefully so that if the human trafficking bill passes, the agency’s implementing regulations appropriately convey legislative intent.
I know that corporations are interested in this issue because I spoke to a reporter yesterday who was prompted by recent articles and news reports to write about what boards should know about human trafficking in supply chains. As I told the reporter, although I applaud the initiatives I remain skeptical about whether these kinds of environmental, social and governance disclosures really affect consumer behavior and whether these are the best ways to protect the intended constituencies. That’s what I will be writing about this summer.