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.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
On Monday the White House released a report on The Effects of Conflicted Investment Advise on Retirement Savings which highlights the unique constraints of many retirement investors. The current "suitable" investment advise standard leaves room for financial service provides to channel retirement investors into investments with higher fees paid by the investor but higher commissions earned by the professional. Higher fees paid on investments can reduce the return on savings an average of 12% over the life of the retirement account. In other words, paying less in fees could mean that retirement savings could last an average of an additional 5 years. This has major implications for individual financial stability as well as our national retirement policy, which is increasingly dependent upon self-directed retirement savings in the form of 401(k)s and IRAs.
To reduce the conflict of interest and lessen the likelihood that retirement investors will "select" higher-fee investment vehicles based on the self-interested advise of financial services providers, the White House is asking the Department of Labor to impose a fiduciary duty standard requiring the advise provided to be consistent with the best interests of the investor. This is such an intuitive position that many investors think that financial advisers and brokers are already subject to this requirement. The proposal would bring the legal reality and enforceable duty in line with the public perspective. This is not to say that there won't be significant opposition from financial services providers who argue that the industry is already highly regulated.
The announcement and the focus on both retirement investors and the impact of fees on retirement savings is of particular interest to me. I have written three law review articles on related topics.
- Citizen Shareholders and Modernizing the Agency Paradigm (2012) articulates the ways in which retirement investors (I call them Citizen Shareholders) are different from traditional corporate law shareholders;
- The Retirement Revolution (2013) describes how the fundamental shift in the retirement landscape imposed additional risks onto the retirement investors; and
- The Outside Investor (2014) explores how the intersection of corporate law and ERISA standards leave many retirement investors exposed to additional market risks rather than intuitive guess that these investors would be more protected.
Friday, February 20, 2015
I have just finished a draft of an article arguing that disclosures don’t work because consumers and investors don’t read them, can’t understand them, don't take any real action when they do pay attention to them, and fail to change corporate behavior when they do threaten boycott. I specifically pointed out the relative lack of success of consumer protests over the years. I also noted that Wal-Mart continues to get bad press for how it treats its employees despite the fact the Norwegian Pension Fund divested hundreds of millions of dollars due to the company’s labor practices, prompting other governments and cities to follow. My thesis—it takes a lot more than divestment and threats of boycott to change company behavior. But perhaps I’m wrong. Yesterday, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon announced a significant wage increase declaring:
We’re strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences… We will earn the trust of all Walmart stakeholders by operating great retail businesses, ensuring world-class compliance, and doing good in the world through social and environmental programs in our communities.
The letter to Wal-Mart associates is here. I don’t know which was more striking, the $1 billion dollar move to $9 and then eventually $10 per hour or the fact that he used the word “stakeholders.” Wal-Mart also announced changes that would affect health insurance and shift scheduling, but the main headline concerned the wage hike. Main Street may be happy but Wall Street was not, and the stock price fell after the announcement. Others pointed out that the pay raise is still not enough to pull workers out of poverty.
Does this move mean that boycotts and advocacy really do work and that we will see more of them? Do I have to edit my article or will this be an anomaly? Will other big retailers or fast food chains follow? Will socially responsible investors reinvest in Wal-Mart? Is Wal-Mart trying to pre-empt government regulation on the minimum wage? Is Wal-Mart signaling to regulators in foreign countries that it cares about workers so should be allowed to operate there more freely?
I will be teaching a course in transnational business and international human rights in the Fall and Wal-Mart will be a case study. A few years ago, I used the company’s CSR report in my corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility seminar. I asked the students to consider why Wal-Mart’s report looked and felt so different from Target’s, which essentially has many of the same labor issues. I wanted them to think about the marketing behind CSR from a reputational and regulatory perspective. I posited that Wal-Mart’s CSR report was written for regulators. Two weeks later, the company announced its massive and still ongoing bribery investigation. I’m happy for the workers but a bit curious as to what caused the company to make this announcement now. In the meantime, I will be watching the reaction from advocates, the markets, and other companies closely.
Thursday, February 5, 2015
Many corporate governance professionals have been scratching their heads lately. In November, a federal judge in Delaware ruled that Wal-Mart had wrongfully excluded a shareholder proposal by Trinity Wall Street Church regarding the sale of guns and other products. Specifically, the proposal requested amendment of one of the Board Committee Charters to:
27. Provid[e] oversight concerning the formulation and implementation of, and the public reporting of the formulation and implementation of, policies and standards that determine whether or not the Company [i.e., Wal-Mart] should sell a product that:
1) especially endangers public safety and wellbeing;
2) has the substantial potential to impair the reputation of the Company; and/or
3) would reasonably be considered by many offensive to the family and community values integral to the Company's promotion of its brand.
Wal-Mart filed with the SEC under Rule 14a-8 indicating that it planned to exclude the proposal under the ordinary business operations exclusion. The SEC agreed that there was a basis for exclusion under 14a-8(i)(7), but the District Court thought otherwise because the proposal related to a “sufficiently significant social policy.” In mid-January Wal-Mart appealed to the Third Circuit arguing among other things that the district court should have deferred to the SEC’s precedents and guidance over the past forty years on these issues.
In an unrelated but relevant matter in December 2014, the SEC issued a no action letter to Whole Foods stating:
You represent that matters to be voted on at the upcoming stockholders' meeting include a proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market to amend Whole Foods Market's bylaws to allow any shareholder owning 9% or more of Whole Foods Market's common stock for five years to nominate candidates for election to the board and require Whole Foods Market to list such nominees with the board's nominees in Whole Foods Market's proxy statement. You indicate that the proposal and the proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market directly conflict. You also indicate that inclusion of both proposals would present alternative and conflicting decisions for the stockholders and would create the potential for inconsistent and ambiguous results. Accordingly, we will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if Whole Foods Market omits the proposal from its proxy materials in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(9).
In a startling turn of events, the SEC withdrew its no action letter on January 16, 2015 after a January 9th letter from the Council of Institutional Investors questioning the reasoning in the Whole Foods and similar no action letters. The withdrawal of the no action letter came on the same day as the release an official SEC statement declining “to express a view on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) during the current proxy season” due to questions about the scope and application of the rule.
This announcement, a contradictory departure from a decision made just weeks earlier, benefits neither issuers nor investors and introduces an additional layer of uncertainty into an already complicated set of rules. The CCMC believes this reversal underscores why corporate governance policies must provide certainty for all stakeholders, not just to advance the goals of a small minority of special interest activists….[t]he January 16 announcement places many issuers in an untenable position, and presents them with a series of questions for which there may be no good answers. For those issuers wishing to present their own alternative proposal to shareholders for consideration, do they exclude a shareholder proposal in favor of their own and face the heightened risk of litigation with the proponent or the Commission? Do they risk shareholder confusion by including both their own proposal and a competing one from a proponent? Do they incur the added expense and distraction to management of seeking declaratory relief in federal district court? Are shareholders deprived of their right to include a proposal that is omitted because of the absence of SEC action? Far from encouraging private ordering, the recent announcement will only serve to stymie it.
The CCMC also recommends a review of the entire 14a-8 process because, as the letter claims, “it is well-known that the shareholder proposal process has been dominated by a small group of special interest activists, including groups affiliated with organized labor, certain religious orders, social and public policy advocates, and a handful of serial activists. These special interests use the shareholder proposal process to pursue their own idiosyncratic agendas, often far removed from the mainstream, as evidenced by the overall low approval rates of many shareholder proposals that are put to a vote. Indeed, mainstream institutional investors account for only one percent of shareholder proposals at the Fortune 250.”
Reasonable people may disagree on how the CCMC characterizes the motives behind the shareholder proposals, but there can be no disagreement that the current SEC silence doesn't serve any constituency. Steve Bainbridge also has an informative post on this topic. Proxy season is coming up and shareholders and companies alike are awaiting a decision from the Third Circuit in the Wal-Mart action that could dramatically alter the landscape for shareholder proposals, possibly flooding the courts with expensive, protracted litigation. The timing couldn’t be worse for the SEC’s lack of action on no action letters.
February 5, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, January 29, 2015
I oppose the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which requires companies to conduct due diligence and report on their sourcing of certain minerals from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries. As I have written before repeatedly on this blog, a law review article, and an amicus brief, it is a flawed “name and shame law” that assumes that consumers and investors will change their purchasing decisions based upon a corporate disclosure, which they may not read, understand, or care about. The name and shame portion of the law was struck down on First Amendment grounds, and the business lobby, the SEC, and the NGO community are eagerly awaiting a decision by the full DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
A disclosure law that does not take into account the true causes for the violence that has killed millions is not the most effective way to have a meaningful impact for the Congolese people. The Democratic Republic of Congo needs outside governments to provide more aid on security sector, criminal justice, education, and judicial reform at the very least. Indeed, the Congolese government is still trying to defeat the rebels that this law was meant to weaken (see here for example). I have strong feelings about the law as a former supply chain professional and an advisory board member of an NGO that operates in eastern DRC.
I am currently working on an article about the defects in disclosure laws that attempt to address human rights impacts, and the conflict minerals rule is one of them. In that context, I was excited to read a recent draft article entitled The Conflict Minerals Experiment by Professor Jeff Schwartz. Although I don't agree with his conclusion that the best way to fix the law is, among other things, to employ a disclose or explain approach and greater transparency (which I also discuss in my article), I do agree that reform and not necessarily repeal is in order. Schwartz’ article is particularly useful because he provides empirical evidence of the relative uselessness of the first round of corporate disclosures. I look forward to citing it in my upcoming piece. The abstract is below:
In Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank, Congress instructed the SEC to draft rules that would require public companies to report annually on whether their products contain certain Congolese minerals. This unprecedented legislation and the SEC rulemaking that followed have inspired an impassioned and ongoing debate between those who view these efforts as a costly blunder and those who view them as a measured response to human-rights abuses committed by the armed groups that control many mines in the Congo.
This Article for the first time brings empirical evidence to bear on this controversy. I present data on the inaugural disclosures that companies submitted to the SEC. Based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of these submissions, I argue that Congress’s hope of supply-chain transparency goes unfulfilled, but amendments to the rules could yield useful information without increasing compliance costs. The SEC filings expose key loopholes in the regulatory structure and illustrate the importance of fledgling institutional initiatives that trace and verify corporate supply chains. This Article’s proposal would eliminate the loopholes and refocus the transparency mandate on disclosure of the supply-chain information that has come to exist thanks to these institutional efforts.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
One week after the SEC levied the largest dark pool trading violation fine against USB, a group of nine banks (including Fidelity, JP Morgan, BlackRock, etc.) introduced a new dark pool platform, an independent venture called Luminex Trading & Analytics. Dark trading pools are linked to the role of high frequency trading and the notion that certain buyers and sellers should not jump the queue and shouldn't be the first to buy or sell in the face of a large order. The financial backers of Luminex were quoted in a Bloomberg article describing it as a platform "where the original purpose of dark pools, letting investors buy and sell shares without showing their hand to others, will go on without interference."
The announcement raises public scrutiny about dark pools, but among financial circles (like those at ZeroHedge, it is being touted as a smart self-regulatory move by the major mutual funds to prevent the money leach to HFT's, which some seeing as the beginning of the end for HFTs.
If you are looking for more resources on dark pools and HFTs-- there are two brand new SSRN postings on the subject:
- Chris Brummer's Disruptive Technology and Securities Regulation
- Andreas M. Fleckner, Regulating Trading Practices
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Greetings from Dublin. Between the Guinness tour, the champagne afternoon tea, and the jet lag, I don’t have the mental energy to do the blog I planned to write with a deep analysis of the AALS conference in DC. I live tweeted for several days and here my top 25 tweets from the conference. I have also added some that I re-tweeted from sessions I did not attend. I apologize for any misspellings and for the potentially misleading title of this post:
Posner: judges ought to give reasons for rulings but shouldn't pretend they're interpreting intention of the statute drafters #AALS2015— Dalie Jimenez (@daliejimenez) January 5, 2015
Studies show that scholars are more productive if they write 15-30 minutes every day- more so if they are accountable for time #AALS2015— Marcia Narine (@mlnarine) January 4, 2015
#AALS2015 Judge Rosenthal-lots of questions are so practical re access to courts that academics haven't focused on them.— Marcia Narine (@mlnarine) January 3, 2015
Next week I will write about the reason I'm in Dublin.
January 15, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Environmental groups and other opponents of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) for oil and natural gas have roundly applauded Governor Cuomo’s decision to ban the process in the state of New York. The ban, which confirms New York’s more than five-year moratorium on the process, has been lauded as an environmental success and a model for other states. The ban is neither.
Oil and natural gas prices are at their lowest prices in years. Interest in expanding drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which is the geologic formation holding natural gas deposits under New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, is correspondingly low. That makes the fracking ban an easy decision because there is relatively limited interest in drilling in state.
There are those with interest in drilling in New York, of course, but as long as prices are low and there are other places to drill (like Pennsylvania and West Virginia), that interest will remain modest. The ban also raises the value of Pennsylvania and West Virginia mineral rights by reducing competition, so companies with interests in the entire region have little reason to weigh in forcefully.
In this environment, then, an outright ban was easier to put in place than real and stringent regulations to help ensure the fracking process is done with minimal risk and maximum gain. An outright ban is the easy road because it minimizes the potential fight. Companies engaging in hydraulic fracturing around the country would object to new regulations in New York, even if they don’t have interest in drilling in the state because they are afraid the states where they drill would follow New York’s lead. But no one will fight about a ban in a state where they don’t want to drill.
When natural gas prices rebound – and they will rebound – money will flow into the state to overturn the ban and allow access to the natural gas. The economic pressure will be enormous and when the financial potential reaches the point that large and diverse groups in the state see the possibility of significant gain, it’s highly likely the ban will be reversed through legislative or other political action. At that point, the debate will not be about the quality of regulations or enforcement – it will be about whether the state will allow fracking or not.
Done properly, the risks of hydraulic fracturing are comparable to traditional oil and gas exploration and to other common extractive and industrial processes. The better course of action now would have been to put in place stringent safeguards that would made New York the leader in environmental protection in hydraulic fracturing. Such rules could have banned the process in areas that could put New York City’s water supply at risk, and allowed in the southwestern part of the state, as was proposed in 2012 for Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga Counties. The rules could have required significant recycling and cradle-to-grave tracking of waste water created by the process, added the highest level well casing standards, and enacted stringent air and water quality standards.
Such a set of rules would be expensive for those seeking to drill in the state and would have served as a model for other states (and nations around the world) in how best to regulate hydraulic fracturing. The rules would be expensive enough for exploration companies that few, if any, would start drilling in the state. But when prices reach the level where the cost of compliance becomes economic, the state would have been ready with strong and enforceable rules.
Creating stringent rules would also have forced companies to seek to rollback specific environmental protections, which would mean discussing and explaining specific risks. Instead, the governor has taken the easy path, and in doing so he pushed the real debate down the road. Rather than talking about the risks inherent in this and any industrial process, and seeking to address those risks, the ban reduces the discourse to a simple “yes” or “no.” A “no” answer is easy when prices are low, but “yes” is likely to follow when prices are high.
The governor had a chance to be a leader on this issue, and instead chose to score easy political points. That’s his and his administration’s prerogative, but time will show that the outright ban was a mistake because it was a missed opportunity in New York and beyond.