Tuesday, June 13, 2017
I am such a fan of Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Levien, 280 A.2d 717 (Del. 1971), that I use the case in both Business Organizations and in Energy Law. The case does a great job of giving a basic overview of parent-subsidiary relationships, some of the basic fiduciary duties owed in such contexts, and it sets up the discussion of why companies use subsidiaries in the first place.
On fiduciary duties and when the intrinsic (entire) fairness test applies:
A parent does indeed owe a fiduciary duty to its subsidiary when there are parent-subsidiary dealings. However, this alone will not evoke the intrinsic fairness standard. This standard will be applied only when the fiduciary duty is accompanied by self-dealing — the situation when a parent is on both sides of a transaction with its subsidiary. Self-dealing occurs when the parent, by virtue of its domination of the subsidiary, causes the subsidiary to act in such a way that the parent receives something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of, and detriment to, the minority stockholders of the subsidiary
On what test to apply to parent-subsidiary dividends:
We do not accept the argument that the intrinsic fairness test can never be applied to a dividend declaration by a dominated board, although a dividend declaration by a dominated board will not inevitably demand the application of the intrinsic fairness standard. Moskowitz v. Bantrell, 41 Del.Ch. 177, 190 A.2d 749 (Del.Supr. 1963). If such a dividend is in essence self-dealing by the parent, then the intrinsic fairness standard is the proper standard. For example, suppose a parent dominates a subsidiary and its board of directors. The subsidiary has outstanding two classes of stock, X and Y. Class X is owned by the parent and Class Y is owned by minority stockholders of the subsidiary. If the subsidiary, at the direction of the parent, declares a dividend on its Class X stock only, this might well be self-dealing by the parent. It would be receiving something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of and detrimental to its minority stockholders. This self-dealing, coupled with the parent's fiduciary duty, would make intrinsic fairness the proper standard by which to evaluate the dividend payments.
. . . . The dividends resulted in great sums of money being transferred from Sinven to Sinclair. However, a proportionate share of this money was received by the minority shareholders of Sinven. Sinclair received nothing from Sinven to the exclusion of its  minority stockholders. As such, these dividends were not self-dealing. We hold therefore that the Chancellor erred in applying the intrinsic fairness test as to these dividend payments. The business judgment standard should have been applied.
On whether shareholder of one subsidiary should be allowed to participate in ventures pursued by other subsidiaries:
The plaintiff proved no business opportunities which came to Sinven independently and which Sinclair either took to itself or denied to Sinven. As a matter of fact, with two minor exceptions which resulted in losses, all of Sinven's operations have been conducted in Venezuela, and Sinclair had a policy of exploiting its oil properties located in different countries by subsidiaries located in the particular countries.
It makes sense for companies, often, to use subsidiaries to keep certain businesses well organized and to protect assets for shareholder. That is, I might only want to invest in a subsidiary doing business in Mexico because I trust that the assets there are secure. I may not want to participate in work in Venezuela, which I might deemed riskier. And it's not just shareholders who might feel that way. Creditors, too, may view such investments very differently and may only be willing to participate in ventures where the risks can be more easily assessed.
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
More than two years ago, I posted Shareholder Activists Can Add Value and Still Be Wrong, where I explained my view on shareholder proposals:
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.
Today, the Detroit Free Press reported that shareholders of automaker GM soundly defeated a proposal from billionaire investor David Einhorn that would have installed an alternate slate of board nominees and created two classes of stock. (All the proposals are available here.) Shareholders who voted were against the proposals by more than 91%. GM's board, in materials signed by Mary Barra, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer and Theodore Solso, Independent Lead Director, launched an aggressive campaign to maintain the existing board (PDF here) and the split shares proposal (PDF here). GM argued in the board maintenance piece:
Greenlight’s Dividend Shares proposal has the potential to disrupt our progress and undermine our performance. In our view, a vote for any of the Greenlight candidates would represent an endorsement of that high-risk proposal to the detriment of your GM investment.
Another shareholder proposal asking the board to separate the board chair and CEO positions was reported by the newspaper as follows: "A separate shareholder proposal that would have forced GM to separate the role of independent board chairman and CEO was defeated by shareholders." Not sure. Though the proposal was defeated, it's worth noting that the proposal would not have "forced" anything. The proposal was an "advisory shareholder proposal" requesting the separation of the functions. No mandate here, because such decisions must be made by the board, not the shareholders. The proposal stated:
Shareholders request our Board of Directors to adopt as policy, and amend our governing documents as necessary, to require the Chair of the Board of Directors, whenever possible, to be an independent member of the Board. The Board would have the discretion to phase in this policy for the next CEO transition, implemented so it did not violate any existing agreement. If the Board determines that a Chair who was independent when selected is no longer independent, the Board shall select a new Chair who satisfies the requirements of the policy within a reasonable amount of time. Compliance with this policy is waived if no independent director is available and willing to serve as Chair. This proposal requests that all the necessary steps be taken to accomplish the above.
GM argued against this proposal because the "policy advocated by this proposal would take away the Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure." Also not true. It the proposal were mandatory, then this would be true, but as a request, it cannot and could not take away anything. If the shareholders made such a request and the board declined to follow that request, there might be repercussions for doing so, but the proposal would have kept in place the "Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure."
These proposals appear to have been properly brought, properly considered, and properly rejected. As I suggested in 2015, shareholder activists can help improve long-term value, even when following the activists' proposals would not. That is just as true today and these proposals may well prime the pumpTM for future board or shareholder actions. That is, GM has conceded that its stock is undervalued and that change is needed. GM argues those changes are underway, and for now, most voting shareholder agree. But we'll see how this looks if the stock price has not noticeably improved next year. An alternative path forward on some key issues has been shared, and that puts pressure on this board to deliver. They can do it their own way, but they are on notice that there are alternatives. An shareholders now know that, too.
This knowledge underscores the value of shareholder proposals as a process. They can and should create accountability, and that is a good thing. I agree with GM that the board should keep control of how it structures the GM leadership team. But I agree with the shareholders that if this board doesn't perform, it may well be time for a change.
June 6, 2017 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, April 17, 2017
As Haskell earlier announced here at the BLPB, The first U.S. benefit corporation went public back in February--just before publication of my paper from last summer's 8th Annual Berle Symposium (about which I and other BLPB participants contemporaneously wrote here, here, and here). Although I was able to mark the closing of Laureate Education, Inc.'s public offering in last-minute footnotes, my paper for the symposium treats the publicly held benefit corporation as a future likelihood, rather than a reality. Now, the actual experiment has begun. It is time to test the "visioning" in this paper, which I recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract.
Benefit corporations have enjoyed legislative and, to a lesser extent, popular success over the past few years. This article anticipates what recently (at the eve of its publication) became a reality: the advent of a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation — a corporation with public equity holders that is organized under a specialized U.S. state statute requiring corporations to serve both shareholder wealth aims and social or environmental objectives. Specifically, the article undertakes to identify and comment on the structure and function of U.S. benefit corporations and the unique litigation risks to which a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation may be subject. In doing so, the article links the importance of a publicly held benefit corporation's public benefit purpose to litigation risk management from several perspectives. In sum, the distinctive features of the benefit corporation form, taken together with key attendant litigation risks for publicly held U.S. benefit corporations (in each case, as identified in this article), confirm and underscore the key role that corporate purpose plays in benefit corporation law.
Ultimately, this article brings together a number of things I wanted to think and write about, all in one paper. While many of the observations and conclusions may seem obvious, I found the exploration helpful to my thinking about benefit corporation law and litigation risk management. Perhaps you will, too . . . .
April 17, 2017 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Management, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 16, 2016
My favorite new (to me) podcast is NPR's How I Built This. They describe the podcast as "about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built. Each episode is a narrative journey marked by triumphs, failures, serendipity and insight — told by the founders of some of the world's best known companies and brands."
So far, I have listened to two of the episodes: one about the Sam Adams founder Jim Koch and one about the Clif Bar co-founder Gary Erickson.
On the Sam Adams episode, I liked Jim Koch's distinction between scary and dangerous -- repelling off a mountain with an expert guide is scary but not not necessarily dangerous; walking on a snow-covered, frozen lake on a sunny day is dangerous but not necessarily scary. Jim said that his comfortable job at Boston Consulting Group was not scary, but it was dangerous in luring him away from his true calling. However, founding his own company (Sam Adams) was scary, but not really as dangerous as working for BCG. Also, it was interesting to find out that Jim Koch is a Harvard JD/MBA.
On the Clif Bar episode, though I have eaten more than my share of Clif Bars, I was surprised to learn that the bars were named for Gary's father, Clif. The Clif Bar episode also gave great insight into the emotions that can come out when deciding whether to sell your business; Gary decided not to sell to Quaker Oats at the last minute and then needed to buy-out his partner. Separately, Gary talked about the need for corporate counsel (and how a "handshake deal" with a distributor almost cost him his business), but he also noted how many attorneys are simply too expensive for small businesses.
Both entrepreneurs drew on lessons they learned during their outdoor adventure experiences. And both entrepreneurs discussed some combination of lawsuits, contracts, and regulatory challenges.
Looking forward to listening to more episodes.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
I have been thinking about the long-short term investment horizon debate, definitions, empirics and governance design consequences for some time now (see prior BLPB post here and also see Joshua Fershee's take on the topic). This has been on mind so much that I am now planning a June, 2017 conference on that very topic in conjunction with the Adolf A. Berle Jr. Center on Corporations, Law & Society (founded by Charles “Chuck” O’Kelley at Seattle University School of Law). In planning this interdisciplinary conference where the goal is to invite corporate governance folks, finance and economics scholars, and psychologists and neuroscientist, I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of out-of-discipline work and talking with the various authors. It has been an unexpected benefit of conference planning. I also want some industry voices represented so I have reached out to Aspen Institute, Conference Board and a new group, Focusing Capital on the Long Term (FCLT), which I learned about through this process.
I share this with BLPB readers for several reasons. The first is that the FCLT, is a nonprofit organization, a nonprofit organization for BUSINESS issues created and funded by BUSINESSES. In July 2016, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, McKinsey & Company together with BlackRock, The Dow Chemical Company and Tata Sons founded FCLT. Other asset managers, owners, corporations and professional services firms (approximately 20) have joined FCLT as members. Rather than the typical application of a chamber of commerce style organization or trade industry group, here the stated missing of FCLT is to “actively engage in research and public dialogue regarding the question of how to encourage long-term behaviors in business and investment decisions.”
Second, FCLT has access to otherwise proprietary information—like C-suite executive surveys---and is conducting original research and publishing white papers and research reports on the issues of management pressures, and governance designs that may promote a long-term time horizon.
I know for some folks reading, especially those strongly aligned with a shareholder rights camp, will view this with skepticism as a backdoor campaign to promote executive/management power and bolster the reputation of professional service firms hired by those managers.** For me, though the anecdotal experience is a valuable component to considering all sides to the debate. It also helps articulate why and how the feedback loop of short-term pressures—even if it is only perceived rather than structurally quanitifable—may exist.
Third, I found some of the materials, particularly the Rising to the Challenge of Short-termism, written by Dominic Barton, Jonathan Bailey, and Joshua Zoffer in 2016 to be a useful reading for my corporate governance seminar. It helped to explain the gap between the law and the pressure of short-termism. It also helped provide a window into at least some aspects of decision making and payoffs in the governance setting. It can be quite hard to give students a window in the C-suite and BOD dynamics that they are naturally curious about while in law school. Even if you ideologically or empirically disagree with the claim of short-termism when trying to structure balanced reading materials that provide an introduction to the full scope of measures, these are resources worth considering.
Rising to the Challenge of Short-termism, written by Dominic Barton, Jonathan Bailey, and Joshua Zoffer in 2016, draws upon a McKinsey survey of over 1,000 global C-Suite executives and board members. The report describes increasing pressures on executives to meet short-term financial performance metrics and that the window to meet those metrics was decreasing. The shortening time horizon shapes both operations decisions as well as strategic planning where the average plan has shrunk to 2 years or less. Culture matters. Firms with self-reported long-term cultures reported less willingness to take actions like cut discretionary spending or delay projects when faced with a likely failure to meet quarterly benchmarks compared with firms that didn’t self-report a long-term culture. Sources of the pressure are perceived to come from within the board and executives, but also cite to greater industry-wide competition, vocal activist investors, earning expectations and economic uncertainty. The article concludes with 10 elements of a long-term strategy as a mini action plan.
Straight talk for the long term: How to improve the investor-corporate dialogue published in March 2015.
Investing for the future: How institutional investors can reorient their portfolio strategies and investment management to focus capital on the long term, published in March 2015. The paper identifies 5 core action areas for institutional investors focusing on investment beliefs, risk appetite statement, bench-marking process, evaluations and incentives and investment mandates to evaluate investment horizons.
A roadmap for focusing capital on the long term: A summary of ideas for asset owners, asset managers, boards of directors, and corporate management to focus on long-term value creation, published March 2015.
Long-term value summit in 2015 with a published discussion report made available February 2016. “120 executives, investors, board members, and other leaders from around the world gathered in New York City for the Long-Term Value Summit. Their mandate: to identify the causes and mechanisms of the short-term thinking that has come to pervade our markets and profit-seeking institutions and, more importantly, to brainstorm actionable solutions”
**The initial board of directors, announced on September 28, 2016 at the first board meeting, include some well positioned folks within BlackRock (Mark Wiseman), McKinsey & Co. (Dominic Barton), Dow Chemical (Andrew Liveris), Unilever (Paul Polman) and more. The BOD will be advised by Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, as well.
Friday, November 4, 2016
Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of posts exploring developments in this area of faith and business. I plan three additional posts, looking at faith and business (sometimes called, "faith and work") initiatives in (1) universities, (2) churches, and (3) businesses. My comments in this series will have a Christian focus, as that is my faith and is the area with which I am most familiar, but I welcome comments from any faith tradition.
Based on what I have seen around the country, many universities, churches, and businesses seem to be increasing their focus on the integration of faith and business. For some, this is a terrifying development. For others it is long overdue. I submit that both sides should attempt to engage in perspective-taking and nuanced discussion in an attempt to reach common ground.
As someone who prioritizes his faith, I also want to share my personal thoughts on the area of “faith and business” in this introductory post. First, some Christians, myself included, often lose sight of the fact that Jesus said that all the law hangs on loving God and loving others. Jesus cared for the societal outcasts (here, here, and here), while strongly (but lovingly) criticizing the spiritual leaders. He had and has followers with a diverse variety of political views. Jesus did things like healing people on the Sabbath that appeared to break religious law, but actually fulfilled the true, loving spirit of the law. Second, as Inside Edition correspondent Megan Alexander reminded Belmont University students and faculty last week, Christians should focus on doing high quality work, because the Christian scripture instructs for us to our work “heartily, as for the Lord.” This is a tough one for me, as I am often dissatisfied with my work product, but I think the call is to do the absolute best work you can do, with your talents and given your various responsibilities. Third, and finally, I think participants in the “faith and business” conversation have to realize that people of faith are unlikely to be able to leave their faith at home. There can be good conversations about how that faith can and should be expressed in business, but I don’t think it is realistic to think that serious people at faith can just turn off their beliefs while at work. While the discussions about the interplay of faith and business may be difficult, they are important discussions to have in this pluralistic society.
Friday, October 14, 2016
As a professor who moved from a law school to a business school, I remain amazed how little the two legal scholarly worlds overlap. I do, however, think the overlap is increasing somewhat, as more professors move between the two types of schools and the conferences and journals becoming a bit less segregated. That said, I imagine that many of our law professor readers may have missed legal studies professor Larry DiMatteo's (University of Florida, Warrington College of Business) 2010 American Business Law Journal article on strategic contracting. I had not read it until I moved to a business school and met Larry at a legal studies conference. Larry's article is proving useful in my current work, so I thought I would share it here with our readers. Abstract reproduced below:
This paper uses sources taken from the legal literature, as well as literature from strategy and human resource management. It explores Professor Gilson’s noted remark in the Yale Law Journal that “business lawyers serve as transaction cost engineers and this function has the potential for creating value.” This exploration focuses on the strategic use of contract law in gaining a competitive advantage and to create value. It begins by differentiating two frames of the contract paradigm. One is the internal frame in which contract law’s inherent flexibility allows for its use as a source of competitive advantage. The second frame is external since it focuses on the use of the contract paradigm in non-contractual contexts.
The paper examines the use of contract to create value and uses for examples, the commodification of information, licensing and IT outsourcing, and franchising. From there, the paper explores the use of contracts to sustain a competitive advantage (strategic contracting) and to create shared competitive advantages (strategic collaboration). It uses the creation and use of patent pools to illustrate both strategic uses of contract law. The next part focuses on the use of contracts to mitigate uncertainty in business transactions. It explores the strategic use of existing contract doctrines, the use contracts to insure performance and to deter opportunistic behavior, and the use of contracts to develop a preventive legal strategy. This is followed by the examination of contracting for innovation and contracts’ role in creating private governance structures, such as strategic joint venturing.
The final parts explore the use of contract as metaphor in nexus of contact theory in corporate law, psychological contract theory in employment law, and the potential abuse of the freedom of contract paradigm in limited liability company law. The paper then examines strategic responses to regulation by asking whether strategic avoidance or non-compliance to regulations has a place in a company’s legal strategy? The paper concludes by asking how does strategic contracting impact contract law? It answers the question by arguing that contract law change is inevitable due to a feedback loop.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), Mary Barra (General Motors), Jeff Immet (GE), Larry Fink (Blackrock) and other executives think so and have published a set of "Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance" for public companies. There are more specifics in the Principles, but the key points cribbed from the front page of the new website are as follows:
Truly independent corporate boards are vital to effective governance, so no board should be beholden to the CEO or management. Every board should meet regularly without the CEO present, and every board should have active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level;
■ Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s also important to balance wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for fresh thinking and perspectives of new board members;
■ Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separate or combined; and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities;
■ Our financial markets have become too obsessed with quarterly earnings forecasts. Companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance — and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders;
■ A common accounting standard is critical for corporate transparency, so while companies may use non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) to explain and clarify their results, they never should do so in such a way as to obscure GAAP-reported results; and in particular, since stock- or options-based compensation is plainly a cost of doing business, it always should be reflected in non-GAAP measurements of earnings; and
■ Effective governance requires constructive engagement between a company and its shareholders. So the company’s institutional investors making decisions on proxy issues important to long-term value creation should have access to the company, its management and, in some circumstances, the board; similarly, a company, its management and board should have access to institutional investors’ ultimate decision makers on those issues.
I expect that shareholder activists, proxy advisory firms, and corporate governance nerds like myself will scrutinize the specifics against what the signatories’ companies are actually doing. Nonetheless, I commend these business leaders for at least starting a dialogue (even if a lot of the recommendations are basic common sense) and will be following this closely.
Friday, May 20, 2016
As previously mentioned, last week I presented at the Center for Nonprofit Management's Bridge to Excellence Conference.
Below I share a few thoughts. Some of these thoughts I have shared before about other conferences, but I think they bear repeating.
- Value of Practitioner Conferences. As an academic, it is easy for me to stay mostly in the academic world. I do think, however, going to practitioner conferences can be quite useful. Maybe most important, these conferences can help you meet people who are in practice, especially in your local area. People I have met at practitioner conferences have served as guest speakers in my classes, provided individual advice to students, helped students find jobs, and provided ideas for blog posts and scholarship. Practitioner conferences can also be useful as they tend to address very practical problems and remind me that I want my scholarship to speak to not only academics, but also the bar, bench, and business people. Attending one practitioner conference can lead to more opportunities---other speaking engagements, board member openings, and consulting opportunities, and the like.
- Check Technology Before Speaking. I learned this early in my academic career, and I found the IT person well before my talk and made sure the technology worked well. We had no issues. In other sessions, however, there were a number of technology delays and hiccups. Especially, if you plan to use a video file, make sure that the file loads and that the sounds works beforehand. One of the speakers made the mistake of mocking PowerPoint before launching her Storify presentation, which would not load at all because of Internet issues. Thankfully, you did not let that slow her down and provided an engaging presentation. Checking technology beforehand is not always possible, and IT support is not always available, but it is a rare conference that doesn't have a technology issue at some point, so I think more planning is usually appropriate.
- Think-Pair-Share and Q&A. Think-Pair-Share is a well-known teaching technique that I often use in my classes. You pose a question. Allow some time for thought. Break the room into small groups to discuss. Then ask for volunteers to share thoughts. I tried this technique at the conference yesterday and thought it worked well. We did not have an incredible amount of time, so I did not allow much time for individual thought beforehand, but the audience seemed to enjoy the discussion and the thoughts shared were mostly quite useful. One benefit of this technique is that it gets the audience involved. Another benefit is that it allows the audience members to meet and talk with people they may not have had a chance to otherwise. I was able to leave a few minutes at the end of my presentation for Q&A, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. Personally, I often find the Q&A among the most valuable time, depending on the audience and the questions. I generally wish more speakers left more time for Q&A.
- Time Between Sessions. CNM provided significant time between sessions - always at least 20 minutes, I think. But, as always seems to happen at conferences, sessions run long, and that time gets squeezed. The networking time between sessions can be incredibly useful, and so I think it is important to get speakers to honor the time limitations and leave a good bit of time between sessions, knowing that there will be delays. Part of the responsibility of staying on track falls on the speaker. The conference organizers can help by starting on time and providing notice when time is short. CNM did quite a good job keeping things on track, but even so, I wished for a bit more time between sessions.
- Vendor "Passports" and Drawings. CNM included a vendor "passport" in our materials. You got an orange sticker for each vendor you spoke to and if you filled out the passport (which had blank boxes next to vendor names) you could be entered into a drawing for excellent prizes at the end of the day. This seemed to be a good way to get attendees to engage with the vendors (who are also usually conference sponsors), and it seemed to be a good way to keep the attendees at the conference until the end of the day.
- Speed Consulting. CNM had a speed consulting session where you could speak briefly with experts in finance, law, management, grant-writing, etc. I could see a session like this being used at academic conferences, where more senior faculty members would offer bits of advice to prospective professors or more junior professors. I imagine, however, that more in-depth questions would have to be scheduled for another time. It did seem to be a good time to get some very preliminary thoughts and meet experts.
- Mementos. Thoughts may vary on this, but I like conferences that provide attendees and/or speakers with unique takeaway items. Some may think too much money is wasted on these trinkets, and that can be the case if the item is quite generic, but I think mementos can be a nice touch. I keep a few such items from conferences on my office shelves and they are nice reminders of the conferences. At CNM's conference, they provided little elephants, because the theme was "elephants in the room." I especially liked this gift because both of my young children are crazy about elephants and it was nice to bring them something home from work. One of my table-mates gave me her elephant so I had one for each child.
Monday, May 9, 2016
Thought Josephine Sandler Nelson's recent Oxford Business Law Blog post on Volkswagen might be of interest to our readers. It is reposted here with permission.
Fumigating the Criminal Bug: The Insulation of Volkswagen’s Middle Management
New headlines each day reveal wide-spread misconduct and large-scale cheating at top international companies: Volkswagen’s emissions-defeat devices installed on over eleven million cars trace back to a manager’s PowerPoint from as early as 2006. Mitsubishi admits that it has been cheating on emissions standards for the eK and Dayz model cars for the past 25 years—even after a similar scandal almost wiped out the company 15 years ago. Takata’s $70 million fine for covering up its exploding air bags in Honda, Ford, and other car brands could soon jump to $200 million if a current Department of Justice probe discovers additional infractions. The government has ordered Takata’s recall of the air bags to more than double: one out of every five cars on American roads may be affected. Now Daimler is conducting an internal investigation into potential irregularities in its exhaust compliance.
A recent case study of the 2015-16 Volkswagen (‘VW’) scandal pioneers a new way to look at these scandals by focusing on their common element: the growing insulation and entrenchment of middle management to coordinate such large-scale wrongdoing. “The Criminal Bug: Volkswagen’s Middle Management” describes how VW’s top management put pressure on the rest of the company below it to achieve results without inquiring into the methods that the agents would use to achieve those results. The willing blindness of top executives to the methods of the agents below them is conscious and calculated. Despite disclosure-based regulation’s move to strict-liability prosecutions, the record of prosecutorial failure at trial against top executives in both the U.S. and Germany demonstrates that assertions of plausible deniability succeed in protecting top executives from accountability for the pressure that they put on agents to commit wrongdoing.
Agents inside VW receive the message loud and clear that they are to cheat to achieve results. As even the chairman of the VW board has admitted about the company, “[t]here was a tolerance for breaking the rules”. And, contrary to VW’s assertion, no one believes that merely a “small group of engineers” is responsible for the misconduct. Only middle management at the company had the longevity and seniority to shepherd at least three different emissions-control defeat devices through engine re-designs over ten years, to hide those devices despite heavily documented software, and to coordinate even across corporate forms with an outside supplier of VW’s software and on-board computer.
The reason why illegal activity can be coordinated and grow at the level of middle management over all these years is rooted in the failure of the law to impose individual accountability on agents at this level of the corporation. Additional work by the same author on the way in which patterns of illegal behavior in the 2007-08 financial crisis re-occur in the 2015-16 settlements for manipulations of LIBOR, foreign currency exchange rates, and other parts of the financial markets indicates that middle management is further protected from accountability by regulators’ emphasis on disclosure-based enforcement. In addition, U.S. law has lost the ability to tie together the behavior of individuals within a corporation through conspiracy or other types of prosecutions.
Previous research has shown that the more prominent the firm is, and the higher the expectations for performance, the more likely the firm is to engage in illegal behavior. Now we understand more about the link between the calculated pressure that top executives put on their companies and the protection of middle management that supports the patterns of long-term, large-scale wrongdoing that inflict enormous damage on the public. It is not solely VW that needs to fumigate this criminal bug: the VW case study suggests that we need to re-think the insulation from individual liability for middle management in all types of corporations.
This post originally appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog, May 5, 2016.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
In follow up to my post yesterday, my trusted and valued co-blogger Joan Heminway asked a good question (as usual) based one of my comments. My response became long enough that I thought it warranted a follow-up post (and it needed formatting). Joan commented:
you say: "there should be no problem if, for example, Delaware corporate law did not allow a for-profit entity to exercise religion for the sole sake of religion. I think that is the case right now: that’s not a proper corporate purpose under my read of existing law." Are you implying that a corporate purpose of that kind for a for-profit corporation organized in Delaware would be unlawful? Can you explain?
My response: I am suggesting exactly that, though I concede one might need a complaining shareholder first. My read of eBay, and Chief Justice Strine’s musing on the subject, suggest that an entity that is run for purposes of religion (not shareholder wealth maximization) first and foremost, is an improper use of the Delaware corporate form. (“I simply indicate that the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders.”) Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay:
The corporate form in which craigslist operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment.
I think this definition of philanthropic easily includes religious ends (or should).
Chancellor Chandler continued:
Jim and Craig opted to form craigslist, Inc. as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from eBay as part of a transaction whereby eBay became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the craigslist directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
I don’t see how this should play any differently if it applied to religion. Consider, for example, this possible spin:
Jane and Carrie opted to form Religion, Inc., as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from BigCo as part of a transaction whereby BigCo became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the Religion directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
Further to the point, Chancellor Chandler added:
I cannot accept as valid . . . a corporate policy that specifically, clearly, and admittedly seeks not to maximize the economic value of a for-profit Delaware corporation for the benefit of its stockholders—no matter whether those stockholders are individuals of modest means or a corporate titan of online commerce.
Thus, a for-profit business can be religious in nature—e.g., make religious books or products or sponsor religious seminars—but as a Delaware corporation, the purpose of the entity must be to “promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.”
This is the potential problem with the Hobby Lobby case as to Delaware law. There, the companies had a lot to lose:
If they and their companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences: about $475 million per year for Hobby Lobby, $33 million per year for Conestoga, and $15 million per year for Mardel. And if they drop coverage altogether, they could face penalties of roughly $26 million for Hobby Lobby, $1.8 million for Conestoga, and $800,000 for Mardel.
These losses were justified in that case as being necessary to exercise religion, and not to further a corporate purpose. Of course, they had to make that claim, because otherwise they couldn’t get the benefit of RFRA, which requires demonstrating “an honest conviction,” which could be problematic if the reason was couched in business terms, and not religious ones.
Incidentally, I think the business judgment rule should probably protect this decision, anyway, but I don’t know that Delaware law would support that view. In fact, it shouldn't based in recent case law, and I think plainly eBay says no on that one. The Supreme Court says RFRA protects the right to pursue religious ends. It doesn't mean Delaware law does. (Note: Hobby Lobby is not a Delaware entity, so the rules are admittedly different.)
Thus, my fix seek to balance these competing possible outcomes. Tell shareholders your plan, and they can’t question it later, even if that plan costs the company $475 million in losses. Where the law has evolved, I don't think it's fair to suggest it was part of the bargain for all companies, thought maybe investors in Hobby Lobby did know. But it doesn't matter. I thought craigslist’s long-standing business plan was sufficient notice, too. Chancellor Chandler disagreed.
Friday, March 4, 2016
Christopher Bruner recently posted a book chapter entitled The Corporation's Intrinsic Attributes. I try to read everything Christopher writes, including his excellent Cambridge University Press book, Corporate Governance in the Common Law World, and I am looking forward to reading this new book chapter over spring break next week. The book chapter's abstract is reproduced below for interested readers:
Numerous treatises, casebooks, and other resources commonly present concise lists of attributes said to be intrinsic to the modern corporation and/or essential to its economic utility. Such descriptions of the corporate form often constitute introductory matter, conditioning how students, professionals, and public officials alike approach corporate law by presenting a straightforward framework to distinguish the corporate form from other types of business entities. There are two significant problems with such frameworks, however, from a pedagogic perspective. First, these frameworks describe the corporation by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes, conflicting sharply with the flux and dynamism that have in fact characterized the history of corporate law. Second, these frameworks differ markedly from each other in how they characterize the corporation's attributes, each embodying a contestable perspective on the nature of the corporate form.
The diversity of perspectives that such inquiry reveals calls into question the degree to which we can validly deduce a single correct or optimal division of power between boards and shareholders, degree of regard for shareholder interests, and/or degree of liability exposure for boards and shareholders, based exclusively on premises purportedly intrinsic to corporate law itself - that is, without express appeal to external policy considerations and related regulatory fields. These matters map onto three core issues of corporate law and governance - power, purpose, and risk-taking, respectively - and the inability to resolve them by reference to the corporation's purportedly intrinsic features suggests that re-conceptualizing the corporate form might facilitate more effective assessment of its capabilities.
This chapter undertakes that project. Section I begins with an historical discussion of the corporation's emergence and early deployment for business in the United Kingdom and the United States. Section II turns to various contemporary descriptions of the corporation's intrinsic attributes presented in modern reference materials, exploring their commonalities, differences, and theoretical implications. Section III explores the impossibility of resolving core issues of power, purpose, and risk-taking by reference to such conceptions of the corporate form, providing three US examples that map onto these respective issues - the scope of shareholders' bylaw authority, the degree of board discretion to consider non-shareholder interests in hostile takeovers, and the regulation of financial risk-taking following the recent crisis. Each illustrates the necessity of resort to political discourse - a reality underscored through comparison with the United Kingdom, which reveals substantial divergence on such issues notwithstanding broad similarities between the US and UK corporate governance regimes.
The chapter concludes, in Section IV, by proposing that we refrain from describing the corporate form by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes. I argue that it would pay to re-conceptualize the modern corporation by reference to the tools it offers, and how those tools can be deployed - a series of governance "levers," I suggest, that can be adjusted and calibrated in various ways to pursue a broad range of governance-related goals.
Monday, February 22, 2016
Free Web Seminar: The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Cybersecurity and Data Privacy in Mergers and Acquisitions
One of my two former firms, King & Spalding, is hosting a free interactive web seminar on cybersecurity and M&A on February 25 at 12:30 p.m. Thought the web seminar might be of interest to some of our readers. The description is reproduced below.
An Interactive Web Seminar
The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Cybersecurity and Data Privacy in Mergers and Acquisitions
February 25, 2016
12:30 PM – 1:30 PM
Over the last several years, company after company has been rocked by cybersecurity incidents. Moreover, obligations relating to cybersecurity and data privacy are rapidly evolving, imposing on corporations a complex and challenging legal and regulatory environment. Cybersecurity and data privacy deficiencies, therefore, might pose potentially significant business, legal, and regulatory risks to an acquiring company. For this reason, cybersecurity and data privacy are becoming integral pre-transaction due diligence items.
This e-Learn will analyze the (1) special cybersecurity and data privacy dangers that come with corporate transactions; (2) strategies to mitigate those dangers; and (3) benefits of incorporating cybersecurity and data privacy into due diligence. The panel will zero in on these issues from the vantage point of practitioners in the deal trenches, and from the perspective of a former computer crime prosecutor and a former FBI agent who have dealt with a broad range of cyber risks to public and private corporations. This e-Learn is for managers and attorneys at all levels who are involved at any stage of the M&A process and at any stage of cyber literacy, from the beginner who is just starting to appreciate the complex nature of cyber risks to the expert who has addressed them for years. The discussion will leave you with a better understanding of this critical topic and concrete, practical suggestions to bring back to your M&A team.
Robert Leclerc, King & Spalding’s Corporate Practice Group and experienced deal counsel; Nick Oldham, King & Spalding, and Former Counsel for Cyber Investigations, DOJ's National Security Division; John Hauser, Ernst & Young, and former FBI Special Agent specializing in cyber investigations.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the U.S., wrote a letter to the CEO's of S&P 500 Companies urging reforms aimed at fostering long-term valuation creation and curbing a myopic focus on near-term profits. Fink has long been a public advocate of long-term valuation creation for the health of American companies and the wealth of society (for an example see this April 2015 letter on the "gambling nature" of the economy"). His message has been consistent: long term, long term, long term.
Citing to increased dividends and buyback programs as evidence of corrosive short-termism, Fink laid out a modest play for action. He asks every CEO to publish an annual strategic plan signed off on by the board. The CEO strategic plan should communicate the vision for the company and how such long-term growth can be achieved.
[P]erspective on the future, however, is what investors and all stakeholders truly need, including, for example, how the company is navigating the competitive landscape, how it is innovating, how it is adapting to technological disruption or geopolitical events, where it is investing and how it is developing its talent. As part of this effort, companies should work to develop financial metrics, suitable for each company and industry, that support a framework for long-term growth.
Fink wants companies to create these long-term vision statements as a routine part of governance and not just in the context of hedge-fund motivated proxy fights. The idea is that informing the investing public as to the long-term direction of the company and short-term obstacles frames the company message and dampens the "quarterly earnings hysteria". Also interesting to me as I approach a class on corporate social responsibility is Fink's encouragement of companies to pay more attention to social and environmental risks as increasingly difficult obstacles that must be addressed as part of a long term plan. Fink also called upon lawmakers to incentivize a long-term view by thinking beyond the next election cycle as would be needed to enact tax reform (specifically capital gains) and increased resources for infrastructure.
As readers of the blog know, I am in interested in the long-term/short-term debate and have written past posts about it. How controversial would such a CEO statement be? Venture capital/private equity funds investing in companies often require an annual CEO statement. If the language can be crafted to avoid liability for future statements, what are the downsides? Tipping off competitors and losing information advantages or first actor advantages? Letting lesser competitors free ride and adopt market leaders's plans a year or two later? Exposing the board of directors and officers to breached duty claims for failure to meet the objectives? (this last one seems very unlikely given the liability standards and exculpation provisions.)
The financial press and blogs are awash in stories on this. If you are interested in the related commentary, here are a few:
Friday, January 22, 2016
Two weeks ago I posted about whether small businesses, start ups, and entrepreneurs should consider corporate social responsibility as part of their business (outside of the benefit corporation context). Definitions of CSR vary but for the purpose of this post, I will adopt the US government’s description as:
entail[ing] conduct consistent with applicable laws and internationally recognised standards. Based on the idea that you can do well while doing no harm … a broad concept that focuses on two aspects of the business-society relationship: 1) the positive contribution businesses can make to economic, environmental, and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development, and 2) avoiding adverse impacts and addressing them when they do occur.
During my presentation at USASBE, I admitted my cynical thoughts about some aspects of CSR, discussed the halo effect, and pointed out some statistics from various sources about consumer attitudes. For example:
- Over 66% of people say they will pay more for products from a company with “good values”
- 66% of survey respondents indicated that their perception of company’s CEO affected their perception of the company
- 90% of US consumers would switch brands to one associated with a cause, assuming comparable price and quality
- 26% want more eco-friendly products
- 10% purchased eco-friendly products
- 45% are influenced by commitment to the environment
- 43% are influenced by commitment to social values and community
- Those with incomes of 20k or less are 5% more willing to pay more than those with incomes of $50k or more
- Consumers in developed markets are less willing to pay more for sustainable products than those in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The study’s author opined that those underdeveloped markets see the effects of poor labor and environmental practices first hand
- 75% of millennial respondents, 72% of generation Z (age 20 and younger) and 51% of Baby Boomers are willing to pay more for sustainable products
- More than one out of every six dollars under professional management in the United States—$6.57 trillion or more—is invested according to socially-responsible investment strategies.
- 64% of large companies increased corporate giving from between 2010 and 2013.
- Among large companies giving at least 10% more since 2010, median revenues increased by 11% while revenues fell 3% for all other companies
From marketing and recruiting perspectives, these are compelling statistics. But from a bottom line perspective, does a company with lean margins have the luxury to implement sustainable business practices? Next week I will post about CSR in larger companies and the role that small suppliers play in global value chains. This leaves some small businesses without a choice but to consider changing their practices. In addition, in some ways, using some CSR concepts factors into enterprise risk management, which companies of all size need to consider.
January 22, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Research/Scholarhip, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, December 25, 2015
I was a little rough on BigLaw last week, so I want to sing BigLaw’s praises this week. Granted, this post is scheduled for Christmas, so it may be even more lightly read than my previous post.
Students often ask me about BigLaw, and I tell them that if I had to do it over again, I would still start my career in BigLaw. Under the break, I explain why that is true.
Friday, December 18, 2015
My co-blogger Marcia Narine shared an article on social media this week entitled Lawyers have lowest health and wellbeing of all professionals, study finds. Sadly, this is not new news.
Those results, I am afraid, would be even worse if only members of the nation’s largest law firms (a/k/a “BigLaw”) were surveyed. Deborah Rhode (Stanford) talks about some of the problems in BigLaw, described in her book the Trouble with Lawyers.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this post, that the executive committee of a large law firm wants to improve employee welfare. What could the committee realistically do to improve employee wellbeing? Part of the low score for lawyers, I imagine, is just the nature of BigLaw, but under the break I make a few suggestions for consideration.