Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Last Wednesday, I reported on a New York Times story that, prior to Alibaba's registered public offering this fall, a Chinese government agency secretly contacted Alibaba about allegedly illegal practices on its shopping web sites. Not surprisingly, the U.S. securities litigation industry has swung into action and filed a securities class action lawsuit against Alibaba. Details here. Welcome to America!
Monday, February 2, 2015
On December 22 and again on January 9, I posted the first two installments of a three-part series featuring the wit and wisdom of my former student, Brandon Whiteley, who successfully organized a student group to draft, propose, and instigate passage of Invest Tennessee, a state crowdfunding bill in Tennessee. The first post featured Brandon's observations on the legislative process, and the second post addressed key influences on the bill-that-became-law. This post, as earlier promised, includes Brandon's description of the important role that communication played in the Invest Tennessee endeavor. Here's what he related to me in that regard (as before, slightly edited for republication here).
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
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
I was watching the Michigan State-Iowa basketball game a couple weeks ago, and commentator Jay Bilas noted his view (which he has stated previously) that the lane violation rule is wrong. I am teaching Sports Law and an Energy Law Seminar this semester, so (naturally) I linked his comments to a broader framework.
So start, here's the current rule. Basketball for dummies explains:
Lane violation: This rule applies to both offense and defense. When a player attempts a free throw, none of the players lined up along the free throw lane may enter the lane until the ball leaves the shooter's hands. If a defensive player jumps into the lane early, the shooter receives another shot if his shot misses. An offensive player entering the lane too early nullifies the shot if it is made.
Bilas argues that a defensive lane violation should result in the ball being awarded to shooter's team instead of another attempt at the free throw for the shooter. His rationale is, "The advantage to be gained going in early is on the rebound, not the shot. Give the ball to the non-violating team." This is probably right, though a player might enter the lane early to distract the shooter, too. I suppose one could award a reshot for a lane violation if the ball is not live (e.g., the violation occurs on the first freethrow of a two-shot foul), and award the ball to the shooter's team on a missed live ball.
I think there is some merit to Bilas's argument, but I think there's a practical reason the rule remains as it is: the penalty is not too harsh, making it something referees are willing to call. A favorite quote of mine comes from Ben Franklin, who once warned, "Laws too gentle are seldom obeyed; too severe, seldom executed."
Here, I think Bilas is probably right on the penalty-incentive link, but the rule he proposes may prove too severe for lane violations to be called as willingly as they are today. In addition, practically speaking, if the shooter makes the free throw anyway, the shooter's team would still need to get the ball after a lane violation, if the punishment is really about discincentivizing cheating for a rebound. This could be the rule, and it might be right, too, but that would make the penalty even more severe, making referees even less likely to make the call. (You could, I suppose, give the shooter's team a choice -- the the point or the ball -- but that gets messy.)
I used the Ben Franklin quote in my article from a few years back, Choosing a Better Path: The Misguided Appeal of Increased Criminal Liability after Deepwater Horizon, which was published in the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review (available here). In the article, I argued that increased criminal liability for energy company employees was not likely to be any more effective in preventing disasters like the blowout of BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico because the likelihood of actually sending people to jail is highly unlikely.
I still believe this is true in a many contexts. It's not to say we should not have harsh penalties for certain behaviors, but we need to be sure the laws or rules are more than justifiable. We also need to be sure they will be executed in a manner that the laws or rules serve the actual purpose for which they were designed.
To be clear, we also need to be sure that the penalties are not so gentle that no one will follow the rule. In the energy and business sector, I am of the mind that we regularly err on both sides -- some rules are too gentle and others too severe. Sports can be that way, too, though we often don't even know the penalty for certain acts like, say, allegedly deflating a few footballs.
As for lane violations, though, I think the rule has the balance right, even if there is a justification for a harsher rule.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Every U.S. law school, or at least every law school I’m aware of, offers a securities regulation course. But those courses usually focus on the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. A typical securities regulation course covers the definition of security, materiality, the registration of securities offerings under the Securities Act, and liability issues under both the Securities Act and the Exchange Act. If the professor is ambitious, those courses may also cover the regulation of securities markets and broker-dealers.
Almost none of those basic securities regulation courses spends any significant time on the 1940 Acts—the Investment Company Act and the Investment Advisers Act. It’s not because those two statutes are unimportant. A good proportion of American investment is through mutual funds and other regulated investment companies, not to mention hedge funds which depend upon Investment Company Act exemptions. And the investment advisory business is booming. When I attend gatherings of securities lawyers, I’m always amazed at how many of the lawyers present are dealing with issues under the 1940 Acts.
The lack of coverage of the 1940 Acts in the basic securities law course would be acceptable if law schools offered separate, stand-alone courses dealing with those issues, but many of them do not. I began teaching a course on the 1940 Acts in 1997. (I subsequently expanded the course to include a segment on the regulation of brokers.) At that time, you could count the number of law schools offering 1940 Act courses on one hand. Since then, more law schools have begun to offer such courses, but many law schools still do not.
Why are law schools not offering such an important business law course? One problem may be staffing. Many schools, including my own, have only one securities law professor. That person often also has to teach Business Associations, Mergers and Acquisitions, and other such courses, leaving no time for a second securities course. I have been able to offer my course only by rotating it with Mergers and Acquisitions on a biennial basis.
The lack of 1940 Act courses may also be due to the backgrounds of people teaching securities law. Some (certainly not all) securities law professors come from the litigation side of practice. Securities litigation centers on the 1933 and 1934 Acts. Litigation is a less important part of practice under the 1940 Acts, so many securities litigators aren’t exposed to it much.
A third problem is a lack of teaching materials. There isn’t much available on the 1940 Acts. I was lucky when I began teaching the course to discover a set of materials put together by Larry Barnett at Widener University. Those materials, supplemented with my own handouts and problems, have worked well. Unfortunately, Larry just retired and will no longer be updating his materials, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do now. I suspect more people would teach the course if more books were available, but there’s a chicken-and-egg problem. The major publishers aren’t interested in offering materials for a course that few schools teach.
Whatever the reason, the lack of such courses is a serious deficiency at any school preparing students for a securities law practice.
I'm interested to hear from commenters: are there any other courses law schools aren't teaching that are crucial to business law practice?
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)
Friday, January 9, 2015
A few weeks ago, I described to you a really special extracurricular project undertaken by one of my students, Brandon Whiteley, now an alum, this past year. The project? Proposing and securing legislative passage of Invest Tennessee, a Tennessee state securities law exemption for intrastate offerings that incorporates key features of crowdfunding. The legislation became effective on January 1.
In that first post, I described the project and Brandon's observations on the legislative process. This post highlights his description of the influences on the bill that became law. Here they are, with a few slight edits (and hyperlink inserts) from me.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Effective as of January 1. 2015, Tennessee will allow Tennessee corporations to engage in intrastate offerings of securities to Tennessee residents over the internet without registration. The new law, adopted earlier this year, is the direct result of a law-student-led movement. The key student leader was one of my students, and he kept me informed about the effort as it moved along. (I was called upon for advice and commentary from time to time, but the bill is all their work.)
In my experience, this kind of effort--a student-initiated, non-credit, extracurricular engagement in business law reform--is almost unheard of. I was intrigued by the enterprise and impressed by its success. As a result, I asked the student leader, Brandon Whiteley, now an alumnus, to send me some of his perceptions about drafting and proposing the bill and getting it passed.
This is the first in a series of three posts that feature Brandon's observations on the legislative process, the key influences on the bill, and the importance of communication. This post highlights his commentary on the legislative process (which I have edited minimally with his consent). I think you'll agree that his wisdom and humor both shine through in this first installment (as well as the others). His organizational capabilities also are evident throughout.
Monday, December 15, 2014
On December 10, the press reported the Second Circuit's decision in the insider trading prosecution of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson (two of multiple defendants in the original case). In its opinion, the court reaffirms that tippee liability for insider trading is predicated on a breach of fiduciary duty based on the receipt of a personal benefit by the tipper and clarifies that insider trading liability will not result unless the tippee has knowledge of the facts constituting the breach (i.e., "knew that the insider disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit"). The court summarized its opinion, which addresses these matters in the context of the Newman case, a criminal case, as follows:
[W]e conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
In many companies, executives and employees alike will give a blank stare if you discuss “human rights.” They understand the terms “supply chain” and “labor” but don’t always make the leap to the potentially loaded term “human rights.” But business and human rights is all encompassing and leads to a number of uncomfortable questions for firms. When an extractive company wants to get to the coal, the minerals, or the oil, what rights do the indigenous peoples have to their land? If there is a human right to “water” or “food,” do Kellogg’s, Coca Cola, and General Mills have a special duty to protect the environment and safeguard the rights of women, children and human rights defenders? Oxfam’s Behind the Brands Campaign says yes, and provides a scorecard. How should companies operating in dangerous lands provide security for their property and personnel? Are they responsible if the host country’s security forces commit massacres while protecting their corporate property? What actions make companies complicit with state abuses and not merely bystanders? What about the digital domain and state surveillance? What rights should companies protect and how do they balance those with government requests for information?
The disconnect between “business” and “human rights” has been slowly eroding over the past few years, and especially since the 2011 release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Businesses, law firms, and financial institutions have started to pay attention in part because of the Principles but also because of NGO pressures to act. The Principles operationalize a "protect, respect, and remedy" framework, which indicates that: (i) states have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses; (ii) businesses have a responsibility to comply with applicable laws and respect human rights; and (iii) victims of human rights abuses should have access to judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms from both the state and businesses.
Many think that the states aren’t acting quickly enough in their obligations to create National Action Plans to address their duty to protect human rights, and that in fact businesses are doing most of the legwork (albeit very slowly themselves). The UK, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Denmark have already started and the US announced its intentions to create its Plan in September 2014. A number of other states announced that they too will work on National Action Plans at the recent UN Forum on Business and Human Rights that I attended in Geneva in early December. For a great blog post on the event see ICAR director Amol Mehra's Huffington Post piece.
What would a US National Action plan contain? Some believe that it would involve more disclosure regulation similar to the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, the Ending Trafficking in Government Contracting Act, Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Burma Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment, and others. Some hope that it will provide additional redress mechanisms after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel significantly limited access to US courts on jurisdictional grounds for foreign human rights litigants suing foreign companies for actions that took place outside of the United States.
But what about the role of business? Here are five observations from my trip to Geneva:
1) It's not all about large Western multinationals: As the Chair of the Forum Mo Ibrahim pointed out, it was fantastic to hear from the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, but the vast majority of people in China, Sudan and Latin American countries with human rights abuses don’t work for large multinationals. John Ruggie, the architect of the Principles reminded the audience that most of the largest companies in the world right now aren’t even from Western nations. These include Saudi Aromco (world’s largest oil company), Foxconn (largest electronics company), and India’s Tata Group (the UK’s largest manufacturing company).
2) It’s not all about maximization of shareholder value: Unilever CEO Paul Pollman gave an impassioned speech about the need for businesses to do their part to protect human rights. He was followed by the CEO of Nestle. (The opening session with both speeches as well as others from labor and civil society was approximately two hours long and is here). In separate sessions, representatives from Michelin, Chevron, Heinekin, Statoil, Rio Tinto, Barrick, and dozens of other businesses discussed how they are implementing human rights due diligence and practices into their operations and metrics, often working with the NGOs that in the past have been their largest critics such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. The US Council for International Business, USCIB, also played a prominent role speaking on behalf of US and international business interests.
3) Investors and lenders are watching: Calvert; the Office of Investment Policy at OPIC, the US government’s development finance institution; the Peruvian Financial Authority; the Supervision Office of the Banco Central do Brasil; the Vice Chair of the Banking Association of Colombia; the European Investment Bank; and Swedfund, among others discussed how and why financial institutions are scrutinizing human rights practices and monitoring them as contractual terms. This has real world impact as development institutions weigh choices about whether to lend to a company in a country that does not allow women to own land, but that will provide other economic opportunities to those women (the lender made the investment). OPIC, which has an 18 billion dollar portfolio in 100 countries, indicated that they see a large trend in impact investing.
4) Integrated reporting is here to stay: Among other things, Calvert, which manages 14 billion in 40 mutual funds, focused on their commitment to companies with solid track records on environmental, social, and governance factors and discussed the benefits of stand alone or integrated reporting. Lawyers from some of the largest law firms in the world indicated that they are working with their clients to prepare for additional non-financial reporting, in part because of countries like the UK that will mandate more in 2016, and an EU disclosure directive that will affect 6,000 firms.
5) Is an International Arbitration Tribunal on the way?: A number of prominent lawyers, retired judges and academics from around the world are working on a proposal for an international arbitration tribunal for human rights abuses. Spearheaded by lawyers for better business, this would either supplement or possibly replace in some people’s view a binding treaty on business and human rights. Having served as a compliance officer who dealt extensively with global supply chains, I have doubts as to how many suppliers will willingly contract to appear before an international tribunal when their workers or members of indigenous communities are harmed. I also wonder about the incentives for corporations, the governing law, the consent of third parties, and a host of other sticking points. Some raised valid concerns about whether privatizing remedies takes the pressure off of states to do their part. But it’s a start down an inevitable road as companies operate around the world and want some level of certainty as to their rights and obligations.
On another note, I attended several panels in which business executives, law firm partners, and members of NGOs decried the lack of training on business and human rights in law schools. Even though professors struggle to cover the required content, I see this area as akin to the compliance conversations that are happening now in law schools. There is legal work in this field and there will be more. I look forward to integrating some of this information into an upcoming seminar.
In the meantime, I tried to include some observations that might be of interest to this audience. If you want to learn more about the conference generally you can look to the twitter feed on #bizhumanrights or #unforumwatch, which has great links. I also recommend the newly released Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues Whitepaper.
December 11, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, December 8, 2014
Many of you may have seen this already, but this past week's news brought with it an update to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon's health situation--positive news on his cancer treatment results, for which we all can be grateful. I posted here about Dimon's earlier public disclosure that he was undergoing treatment for this cancer. Based on publicly available information, I give Dimon my (very unofficial) "Power T for Transparency" cheer for 2014. (The "Power T" is The University of Tennessee's key--and now almost exclusive--branding symbol. See my earlier posts on UT's related branding decisions regarding the Lady Volunteers here and here.)
As many of you know, I have written about securities law and corporate law disclosure issues relating to private facts about key executives (which include questions relating to the physical health of these important corporate officers). I do not plan to rehash all that here. But I will note that I think friend and Glom blogger David Zaring gets it just right in his brief report on the recent Dimon announcement (with one small typo corrected and a hyperlink omitted):
Not to pile on, but there's the slightly unsettling trend of CEOs talking, or not, about their health. Surely material information a real investor would want to know about when deciding whether to buy or sell a stock in these days of the imperial CEO. But deeply unprivate. . . . The stock is up 2% on the day. It will be interesting to see whether this email makes its way into a securities filing.
Love that post. Thanks, David.
Sadly, as I was drafting this post, I learned that Kansas City Chiefs safety and former Tennessee Volunteer football standout Eric Berry has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. This obviously is not a matter of public company business disclosure regulation (given that the Kansas City Chiefs franchise, while incorporated, apparently is privately held). But I know I join many in and outside Vol Country in wishing Eric the same success in his cancer treatment that Dimon appears to have had to date with his.
In the comments to my post last week on teaching fiduciary duty in Business Associations, Steve Diamond asked whether I had blogged about why we changed our four-credit-hour Business Associations course at The University of Tennessee College of Law to a three-credit-hour offering. In response, I suggested I might blog about that this week. So, here we are . . . .
Thursday, November 27, 2014
As regular readers know, I research and write on business and human rights. For this reason, I really enjoyed the post about corporate citizenship on Thanksgiving by Ann Lipton, and Haskell Murray’s post about the social enterprise and strategic considerations behind a “values” message for Whole Foods, in contrast to the low price mantra for Wal-Mart. Both posts garnered a number of insightful comments.
As I write this on Thanksgiving Day, I’m working on a law review article, refining final exam questions, and meeting with students who have finals starting next week (being on campus is a great way to avoid holiday cooking, by the way). Fortunately, I gladly do all of this without complaint, but many workers are in stores setting up for “door-buster” sales that now start at Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Best Buy, and Toys R Us shortly after families clear the table on Thanksgiving, if not before. As Ann pointed out, a number of protestors have targeted these purportedly “anti-family” businesses and touted the “values” of those businesses that plan to stick to the now “normal” crack of dawn opening time on Friday (which of course requires workers to arrive in the middle of the night). The United Auto Workers plans to hold a series of protests at Wal-Mart in solidarity with the workers, and more are planned around the country.
I’m not sure what effect these protests will have on the bottom line, and I hope that someone does some good empirical research on this issue. On the one hand, boycotts can be a powerful motivator for firms to change behavior. Consumer boycotts have become an American tradition, dating back to the Boston Tea Party. But while boycotts can garner attention, my initial research reveals that most boycotts fail to have any noticeable impact for companies, although admittedly the negative media coverage that boycotts generate often makes it harder for a companies to control the messages they send out to the public. In order for boycotts to succeed there needs to be widespread support and consumers must be passionate about the issue.
In this age of “hashtag activism” or “slacktivism,” I’m not sure that a large number of people will sustain these boycotts. Furthermore, even when consumers vocalize their passion, it has not always translated to impact to lower revenue. For example, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A’s comments on gay marriage triggered a consumer boycott that opened up a platform to further political and social goals, although it did little to hurt the company’s bottom line and in fact led proponents of the CEO’s views to develop a campaign to counteract the boycott.
Similarly, I’m also not sure of the effect that socially responsible investors can have as it relates to these labor issues. In 2006, the Norwegian Pension Fund divested its $400 million position (over 14 million shares in the US and Mexico operations) in Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart constitutes two of the three companies excluded for “serious of systematic” human rights violations. Pension funds in Sweden and the Netherlands followed the Fund’s lead after determining that Wal-Mart had not done enough to change after meetings on its labor practices. In a similar decision, Portland has become the first major city to divest its Wal-Mart holdings. City Commissioner Steve Novick cited the company’s labor, wage and hour practices, and recent bribery scandal as significant factors in the decision. Yet, the allegations about Wal-Mart’s labor practices persist, notwithstanding a strong corporate social responsibility campaign to blunt the effects of the bad publicity. Perhaps more important to the Walton family, the company is doing just fine financially, trading near its 52-week high as of the time of this writing.
I will be thinking of these issues as I head to Geneva on Saturday for the third annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which had over 1700 companies, NGOs, academics, state representatives, and civil society organizations in attendance last year. I am particularly interested in the sessions on the financial sector and human rights, where banking executives and others will discuss incorporation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into the human rights policies of major banks, as well as the role of the socially responsible investing community. Another panel that I will attend with interest relates to the human rights impacts in supply chains. A group of large law firm partners and professors will also present on a proposal for an international tribunal to adjudicate business and human rights issues. I will blog about these panels and others that may be of interest to the business community next Thursday. Until then enjoy your holiday and if you participate in or see any protests, send me a picture.
November 27, 2014 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, November 20, 2014
The DC Circuit will once again rule on the conflicts minerals legislation. I have criticized the rule in an amicus brief, here, here, here, and here, and in other posts. I believe the rule is: (1) well-intentioned but inappropriate and impractical for the SEC to administer; (2) sets a bad example for other environmental, social, and governance disclosure legislation; and (3) has had little effect on the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indeed just two days ago, the UN warned of a human rights catastrophe in one of the most mineral-rich parts of the country, where more than 71,000 people have fled their homes in just the past three months.
The SEC and business groups will now argue before the court about the First Amendment ramifications of the “name and shame” rule that required (until the DC Circuit ruling earlier this year), that businesses state whether their products were “DRC-Conflict Free” based upon a lengthy and expensive due diligence process.
The court originally ruled that such a statement could force a company to proclaim that it has “blood on its hands.” Now, upon the request of the SEC and Amnesty International, the court will reconsider its ruling and seeks briefing on the following questions after its recent ruling in the American Meat case:
(1) What effect, if any, does this court’s ruling in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture … have on the First Amendment issue in this case regarding the conflict mineral disclosure requirement?
(2) What is the meaning of “purely factual and uncontroversial information” as used in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, … and American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture?
(3) Is the determination of what is “uncontroversial information” a question of fact?
Across the pond, the EU Parliament is facing increasing pressure from NGOs and some clergy in Congo to move away from voluntary self-certifications on conflict minerals, and began holding hearings earlier this month. Although the constitutional issues would not be relevant in the EU, legislators there have followed the developments of the US law with interest. I will report back on both the US case and the EU hearings.
In the meantime, I wonder how many parents shopping for video games for their kids over the holiday will take the time to read Nintendo's conflict minerals policy.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
In June 2014, the Supreme Court decided Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer holding that fiduciaries of a retirement plan with required company stock holdings (an ESOP) are not entitled to any prudence presumption when deciding not to dispose of the plan’s employer stock. The presumption in question was referred to as the Moench presumption and had been adopted in several circuits. You may have heard of these cases as the stock drop cases, as in the company stock price crashed and the employee/investors sue the retirement plan fiduciaries for not selling the stock. The Supreme Court opinion didn’t throw open the courthouse doors for all jilted retirement investors, and limited recovery to complaints (1) alleging that the mispricing was based on something more than publically available information, and also (2) identifying an alternative action that the fiduciary could have taken without violating insider trading laws and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it.
The Supreme Court in Fifth Third recognized the required interplay between ERISA and securities laws stating:
[W]here a complaint faults fiduciaries for failing to decide, based on negative inside information, to refrain from making additional stock purchases or for failing to publicly disclose that information so that the stock would no longer be overvalued, courts should consider the extent to which imposing an ERISA-based obligation either to refrain from making a planned trade or to disclose inside information to the public could conflict with the complex insider trading and corporate disclosure requirements set forth by the federal securities laws or with the objectives of those laws.
The Ninth Circuit decided Harris v. Amgen in October based upon the Fifth Third decision. In Harris, the plaintiffs’ claim alleged a breach of fiduciary duty based on the failure to stop buying additional stock in the ESOP based on non-public information. The Ninth Circuit found that plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to withstand a motion to dismiss that defendant fiduciaries were aware (1) of non-public information, which would have affected the market price of the company stock and (2) the stock price was inflated. These same facts supported a simultaneously-filed securities class action case.
To understand the interplay between securities laws and ERISA fiduciary rules, as established in Fifth Third, one ERISA consulting firm observed that
The Ninth Circuit appeared to reach the conclusion that, if ‘regular investors’ can bring an action under the securities laws based on the failure to disclose material information, then ‘ERISA investors’ in an ERISA-covered plan may, based on the same facts, bring an action under ERISA:
"If the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price ... were sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their duties under [applicable federal securities laws], the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price in this case are sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their more stringent duty of care under ERISA."
The Harris opinion invokes a sort of chicken and egg problem. If the plan had dumped the stock it would have signaled to the market and pushed the share prices lower. In addressing this concern, however, the Ninth Circuit stated that:
Based on the allegations in the complaint, it is at least plausible that defendants could have removed the Amgen Stock Fund from the list of investment options available to the plans without causing undue harm to plan participants.
. . . The efficient market hypothesis ordinarily applied in stock fraud cases suggests that the ultimate decline in price would have been no more than the amount by which the price was artificially inflated. Further, once the Fund was removed as an investment option, plan participants would have been protected from making additional purchases of the Fund while the price of Amgen shares remained artificially inflated. Finally, the defendants' fiduciary obligation to remove the Fund as an investment option was triggered as soon as they knew or should have known that Amgen's share price was artificially inflated. That is, defendants began violating their fiduciary duties under ERISA by continuing to authorize purchases of Amgen shares at more or less the same time some of the defendants began violating the federal securities laws.
The argument, in part, is that if Amgen had stopped the ESOP stock purchases it would have signaled to the market regarding price inflation and perhaps prevented the basis for the securities fraud violations harm alleged in the separate suit.
For those who follow securities litigation, there is a potential for investors purchasing in an ESOP to have a secondary and perhaps superior claim for fiduciary duty violations based upon the same facts giving rise to company stock mispricing arising under securities laws.
This raises the question, as one ERISA consulting firm noted,
Are an issuer/plan fiduciary's disclosure obligations to participants greater than its disclosure obligations to mere shareholders? Isn't that letting the ERISA-disclosure tail wag the securities law-disclosure dog – will it not result in the announcement of market-moving material information to plan participants first, before it is announced to securities buyers-and-sellers generally?
I have long been interested in how what happens in the defined contribution (DC) context intersects with what we think of traditional corporate law and how, as the pool of DC investors grows, there will be an ever increasing influence of the DC investor in the corporate law arena.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Regular readers of this column know that I’m a strong supporter of a federal crowdfunding exemption, which would allow companies to sell securities online to ordinary investors without registration.
The SEC’s Foot-Dragging
The JOBS Act, passed in April 2012, included a crowdfunding exemption, but, 956 days later, the SEC still has not adopted rules to implement it. Last month, I complained about the SEC’s failure to adopt those rules. Now, I’m not so sure I want that to happen.
A Little Legislative History
Why have I changed my mind? First, a little legislative history. The House originally passed a crowdfunding bill, sponsored by Representative Patrick McHenry, that was much less regulatory than the final law. Unfortunately, the Senate amended the JOBS Act to substitute the version that was eventually enacted into law. That final version is much more regulatory than Congressman McHenry’s version, and is riddled with errors and ambiguities. The House accepted that Senate substitution, probably because fighting would have risked everything else in the JOBS Act.
As I wrote shortly after the JOBS Act passed, the exemption that came out of the Senate is flawed and unlikely to be effective. If so, it’s not the SEC’s fault. The SEC has limited discretion to fix the problems in the statute.
A Better Way
Things have changed since my last post on crowdfunding. No, the SEC still has not acted. Things have changed in other ways.
The Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and the Republican-controlled Congress will undoubtedly be friendlier to small business and more concerned about the regulatory costs involved in raising capital. The new Congress is dominated by people like Congressman McHenry.
It might be better at this point to start over, instead of waiting for the SEC to finish its exercise in regulatory futility. And, this time, Congress shouldn’t wait for SEC action. It should put the final exemption in the statute itself, with SEC input. The SEC certainly can’t argue that they need more time to study the issue.
President Obama might threaten a veto and argue that we should wait to see if the existing provisions work. But keep in mind that the Obama administration endorsed the original House bill. Was that original endorsement mere political grandstanding, or does President Obama really want to provide an effective exemption?
Congress is unlikely to override a presidential veto, so if that happens, we’ll probably have to wait for a new President to get a workable crowdfunding exemption.
Friday, November 14, 2014
In a 2012 article on securities crowdfunding, I warned about the U.S. securities law issues raised by foreign crowdfunding sites selling securities to U.S. investors. I pointed out that “some of those foreign sites also sell to U.S. investors, and some of the investments they sell would almost certainly qualify as securities under U.S. law.”
A recent SEC consent order involving Eureeca Capital shows that the SEC is well aware of the issue and willing to go after foreign sites that sell to U.S. investors.
According to the consent order, Eureeca, based in the Cayman Islands, operates a global crowdfunding platform that connects non-U.S. issuers with investors interested in buying equity securities. Eureeca had a disclaimer on its website that the securities were not being offered to U.S. residents, but it nevertheless allowed U.S. residents to invest in some of the offerings. Eureeca apparently knew these investors were Americans; they provided copies of their passports and proof of U.S. addresses before investing.
The consent order finds that these unregistered sales of securities violated section 5 of the Securities Act and also that Eureeca was acting as an unregistered broker, in violation of section 15 of the Exchange Act. Eureeca is required to pay a $25,000 fine (a fairly significant fine considering that the total amount sold to the U.S. investors, according to the order, was only $20,000).
Given the plethora of international crowdfunding platforms, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more actions like this in the future.
Thursday, November 6, 2014
I have previously blogged about Institutional Shareholder Services’ policy survey and noted that a number of business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, had significant concerns. In case you haven’t read Steve Bainbridge’s posts on the matter, he’s not a fan either.
Calling the ISS consultation period “a decision in search of a process,” the Chamber released its comment letter to ISS last week, and it cited Bainbridge's comment letter liberally. Some quotable quotes from the Chamber include:
Under ISS’ revised policy, according to the Consultation, “any single factor that may have previously resulted in a ‘For’ or ‘Against’ recommendation may be mitigated by other positive or negative aspects, respectively.” Of course, there is no delineation of what these “other positive or negative aspects” may be, how they would be weighted, or how they would be applied. This leaves public companies as well as ISS’ clients at sea as to what prompted a determination that previously would have seen ISS oppose more of these proposals. This is a change that would, if enacted, fly in the face of explicit SEC Staff Guidance on the obligations to verify the accuracy and current nature of information utilized in formulating voting recommendations.
The proposed new policy—as yet undefined and undisclosed—is also lacking in any foundation of empirical support… Indeed, a number of studies confirm that there is no empirical support for or against the proposition ISS seems eager to adopt.
[Regarding equity plan scorecards] there is no clear indication on the part of ISS as to what weight it will assign to each category of assessment—cost of plan, plan features, and company grant practices… this approach benefits ISS (and in particular its’ consulting operations), but does nothing to advance either corporate or shareholder interests or benefits. The Consultation also makes clear that, for all ISS’ purported interest in creating a more “nuanced” approach, in fact the proposed policy fosters a one-size-fits-all system that fails to take into account the different unique needs of companies and their investors.
Proxy votes cast in reliance on proxy voting policies based upon this Consultation cannot—by definition—be reasonably designed to further shareholder values.
ISS had a number of other recommendations but they didn’t raise the ire of Bainbridge and the Chamber. For the record, Steve is angry about the independent chair shareholder proposals, but please read his well-documented posts and judge for yourself whether ISS missed the mark. The ISS’ 2015 US Proxy Voting Guidelines were released today. Personally, I plan to raise some of the Guidelines discussing fee-shifting bylaws and exclusive venue provisions in both my Civil Procedure and Business Associations classes.
Let’s see how the Guidelines affect the next proxy season—the recommendations from the two-week comment period go into effect in February.
November 6, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, October 31, 2014
Daniel Fisher at Forbes has posted an interesting story about Columbia Law Professor Robert Jackson's attempt to obtain information about investment advisors from the SEC. The SEC first denied they had the information, then said it would be too burdensome to produce the information. The kicker: an SEC economist has published a study using that very data. Fisher provides copies of Professor Jackson's persistent FOIA requests and the SEC's responses.
It's a fascinating study in bureaucratic favoritism and stubbornness. Not particularly surprising, but fascinating.