Friday, March 25, 2016

Will a Change in Executive Compensation Lead to Safer Food? A Chipotle Shareholder Thinks So

I feel badly for Chipotle. When I have taught Business Associations, I have used the chain’s Form 10-K to explain some basic governance and securities law principles. The students can relate to Chipotle and Shake Shack (another example I use) and they therefore remain engaged as we go through the filings. Chipotle has recently been embroiled in a public relations nightmare after a spate of food poisonings occurred last fall and winter, a risk it pointed out in its February 2015 10-K filings. The stock price has fluctuated from $750 a share in October to as low as $400 in January and then back to the mid $500 range. After some disappointing earnings news the stock is now trading at around $471.

Clean Yield Group, concerned that the company will focus only on bringing its stock back to “pre-crisis levels,” filed a shareholder proposal March 17th asking the company to link executive compensation with sustainability efforts. The proposal claims that the CEO was overpaid by $40 million in 2014 and states in part:

A number of studies demonstrate a firm link between superior corporate sustainability performance and financial outperformance relative to peers. Firms with superior sustainability performance were more likely to tie top executive incentives to sustainability metrics.

Leading companies are increasingly taking up this practice. A 2013 study conducted by the Investor Responsibility Research Institute and the Sustainable Investments Institute found that 43.4% of the S&P 500 had linked executive pay to environmental, social and/or ethical issues. These companies traverse industry sectors and include Pepsi, Alcoa, Walmart, Unilever, National Grid, Intel and many others…

Investor groups focusing on sustainable governance such as Ceres, the UN Global Compact, and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (which represents investors with a collective $59 trillion AUM) have endorsed the establishment of linkages between executive compensation and sustainability performance.

Even with the adjustments to executive pay incentives announced this week in reaction to Chipotle’s ongoing food-borne illness crisis, Chipotle shareholders have consistently approved excessively large pay packages to our company’s co-chief executives that dangerously elide accountability for sustainability-related risks. This proposal provides the opportunity to rectify this situation.

If shareholders approve the compensation package on our company’s 2016 proxy ballot, by year-end, Mr. Ells and Mr. Moran will have pocketed nearly $211 million for their services since 2011. Shareholders have not insisted upon direct oversight of sustainability matters as a condition of employment or compensation, and the present crisis illustrates the probable error in that thinking.

This week, the Compensation Committee of the Board announced that it would withhold 2015 bonuses for executive officers. It has also announced that executive officers’ 2016 performance bonuses will be solely tied to bringing CMG stock back, over a three-year period, to its pre-crisis level.

This is a shortsighted approach that skirts the underlying issues that may have contributed to the E. coli and norovirus outbreaks that have left hundreds of people sickened, injured sales, led to ongoing investigations by health authorities and the federal government, damaged our company’s reputation, and will likely lead to expensive litigation. For years, Chipotle has resisted calls by shareholders to implement robust and transparent management and reporting systems to handle a range of environmental, social and governance issues that present both risks to operations as well as opportunities. While no one can know for certain whether a more rigorous management approach to food safety might have averted the current crisis, moving forward, shareholders can insist upon a proactive approach to the management of sustainability issues by altering top executives’ compensation packages to incentivize it.

The last sentence of the paragraph above stuck out to me. The shareholder does not know whether more rigorous sustainability practices would have prevented the food poisonings but believes that compensation changes incentivizing more transparency is vital. I’m not sure that there is a connection between the two, although there is some evidence that requiring more disclosure on environmental, social, and governance factors can lead to companies uncovering operational issues that they may not have noticed before. Corporate people are fond of saying that “what gets measured gets treasured.” Let’s see what Chipotle’s shareholders treasure at the next annual meeting.

March 25, 2016 in Business Associations, Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Judge Merrick Garland Opinions on "Business" Law

Legal commentators and the media have been abuzz with news of President Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  If there was ever reason to be abuzz, in the world of legal news, this is it.  Try to find a summary of Judge Garland's record in dealing with business law issues, however, and you are met with a silent, dark internet.  Aside from mentions of Judge Garland having taught anti-trust at Harvard there is little discussion of his business jurisprudence.  The D.C. Circuit court hears an administratively heavy caseload, but Judge Garland has been on the bench for nearly 20 years! I set out to uncover his business law barometer.   My initial searches produced  19 opinions that he authored on business law matters, which are mostly securities cases but also include a piercing the corporate veil and contracts claims among others.  While I am no online search wizard and am positive that I have missed some relevant cases, this is what I produced after such wide-net casting as "business law", "corporations", "partnership", "board of directors", "shareholders" etc.  You get the idea, I ran several undeniably broad searches.  The initial case list is provided below, and was generated (along with annotations) through WestLaw.  Please comment if you have relevant cases to add.  I may add commentary on the cases in a future post if there is interest... (and time).

Securities Law Cases 

  1. Horning v. S.E.C., 570 F.3d 337 (D.C. Cir. 2009)

SECURITIES REGULATION - Brokers and Dealers. Mid-trial correction of sanction the SEC sought did not deprive broker-dealer firm’s former director of due process.

  1. Graham v. S.E.C., 222 F.3d 994 (D.C. Cir. 2000)

SECURITIES REGULATION - Fraud. Registered representative aided and abetted customer’s fraud.

  1. Katz v. S.E.C., 647 F.3d 1156 (D.C. Cir. 2011)

SECURITIES REGULATION - Brokers and Dealers. Former registered representation made unsuitable investment recommendations for her customers.

Continue reading

March 22, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Constitutional Law, Corporations, Current Affairs, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Lisa Fairfax SEC Commissioner Nominee

Being near to celebrity, even academic celebrity, can be exciting.  I feel unjustifiable pride and exhilaration in the nomination of George Washington Law School professor Lisa Fairfax to be a SEC commissioner. The White House announced her nomination last October, and the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs held hearings yesterday for Lisa Fairfax (democratic nominee) and Hester Peirce (republican nominee).  Professor Fairfax is being heralded as having "written extensively in favor of shareholder rights, shareholder activism, and gender and racial diversity on corporate boards."  Her scholarship is available on her SSRN page. Hester Peirce, another academic of sorts, is a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University researching financial markets and an adjunct professor.  The Mercatus Center is a "university-based research center... advanc[ing] knowledge about how markets work to improve people’s lives by training graduate students, conducting research, and applying economics to offer solutions to society’s most pressing problems." Her writing is available here.

The hearing process was reported by the WSJ as "tough" for both nominees. The confirmation process is by no means a given in the current political climate. A video of the hearing is available for viewing.  Additionally, each nominee submitted a statement and financial records as a part of the confirmation process.    Download FairfaxStatement   Download FairfaxFinancialDisclosure  Download PeirceStatement   Download PeirceFinancialDisclosure  

Lisa Fairfax summarized her credentials to be a Commissioner: 

As a law professor, over the last fifteen years I have had the privilege of teaching Corporations and Securities Law to the next generation of practitioners, judges, and regulators, so that they can understand the increasingly complex world in which companies must operate, markets must perform, and regulators must monitor. My teaching, along with my research and writing in these areas, have given me a deep understanding of the issues confronting the SEC, as well as a strong desire to help tackle those issues head on.

Fairfax's statement also stated her view of the SEC:

[I] believe deeply in the SEC’s three part mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation. ... I believe that the SEC’s three-part mission statement is more than a statement; it is a set of guiding principles that should shape every aspect of the agency’s activities. ...I believe the SEC’s work must be aimed at ensuring that investors are protected at all times, and that investors have confidence in the markets and the financial system.

The SEC also has a responsibility to facilitate access to needed capital for all participants in the market, from the corporation and small business owner in need of cash and credit, to the individual investing to support a family, finance a child’s education, or ensure a comfortable retirement.

Hester Peirce, who previously worked with the SEC’s Division of Investment Management, Commissioner Paul Atkins, and the SEC Investor Advisory Committee wrote:

My desire to serve at the SEC is motivated by the conviction that the capital markets help unlock people’s potential. Investors build their retirement nest eggs, their down payments, and their children’s college funds. Vibrant capital markets find and fund individuals and companies with brilliant ideas that can enhance people’s lives and the nation’s prosperity.

My belief in the capital markets’ ability to enrich our communities is built on lessons I have learned at the Peirce family dinner table, in classrooms at Case Western Reserve and Yale, and from mentors and colleagues throughout my career.

I am academically (and personally) interested in the role of retirement investors in capital markets so I noted with interest that both nominees spoke of the relevance of capital markets and the SEC to individual (retirement) investors.

The Committee is expected to vote on April 7, 2016.

-Anne Tucker

March 16, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 4, 2016

What do Donald Trump and Al Sharpton Have in Common? The Failed Boycott Movement

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he never plans to eat Oreo cookies again because the Nabisco plant is closing and moving to Mexico. Trump, who has starred in an Oreo commercial in the past, is actually wrong about the nature of Nabisco’s move, and it’s unlikely that he will affect Nabisco’s sales notwithstanding his tremendous popularity among some in the electorate right now. Mr. Trump has also urged a boycott of Apple over how that company has handled the FBI’s request over the San Bernardino terrorist’s cell phone.

Strangely, I haven’t heard a call for a boycott of Apple products following shareholders’ rejection of a proposal to diversify the board last week. I would think that Reverend and former candidate Al Sharpton, who called for the boycott of the Oscars due to lack of diversity would call for a boycott of all things Apple. But alas, for now Trump seems to be the lone voice calling for such a move (and not because of diversity). In fact, I’ve never walked past an Apple Store without thinking that there must be a 50% off sale on the merchandise. There are times when the lines are literally out the door. Similarly, despite the #Oscarssowhite controversy and claims from many that the boycott worked because the Oscars had historically low ratings, viewership among black film enthusiasts was only down 2% this year.

So why do people constantly call for boycotts? According to a Freakonomics podcast from January, they don’t actually work. Historians and economists made it clear in interviews that they only succeed as part of an established social movement. In some cases they can backfire leading to a "buycott," as it did for Chik Fil A. The podcast also put into context much of what we believe are the boycott “success stories,” including the Montgomery Bus Boycott with Rosa Parks and the sit in movement related to apartheid in the 1980s.

I have spent much of my time looking at disclosure legislation that is based in part on the theory that informed consumers and socially-responsible investors will boycott or divest holdings (see here, here, and here). In particular, I have focused on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals corporate governance disclosure and why I don’t think that using name and shame laws work—namely because consumers talk a good game in surveys but actually don’t purchase based on social criteria nearly as much as NGOs and legislators believe.

The SEC was supposed to decide whether to file a cert petition to the Supreme Court on the part of the conflict minerals legislation that was struck down on First Amendment grounds by March 9th but they now have an extension until April. Since I wrote an amicus brief in the case at the lower level, I have a particular interest in this filing. I had planned my business and human rights class on disclosures and boycotts around that cert. filing to make it even more relevant to my students, who will do a role play simulation drafted by Professor Erika George representing civil society (NGOs, investors, and other stakeholders), the electronics industry, the US government (state department, Congress, and SEC), Congolese militia, the Congolese government, and the Congolese people. The only group they won’t represent is US consumers, even though that’s the target group of the Dodd-Frank disclosure. I did tweak Professor George’s materials but purposely chose not to add in the US consumer group. After my students step out of their roles, we will have the honest discussions about their own views and buying habits. I’ll try not to burst any boycott bubbles.

March 4, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Law School, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 29, 2016

Why Haven’t Conservative States Tried to Roll Back State Securities Laws?

Federal and state securities regulation is the personification of what conservatives refer to pejoratively as “big government.” Businesses can’t raise money unless they first get permission from the government and, in many states, that permission turns on a regulator’s determination of whether the offer is fair. The cost of compliance is a serious drag on capital formation, especially small business capital formation. Federal and state securities laws also generate a tremendous amount of plaintiff’s litigation, another conservative bugaboo.

We’ve seen conservative efforts at the federal level to limit securities regulation and litigation—for example, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act and the JOBS Act. But, unless things are going on at the state level that I’m not aware of, there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding effort at the state level.

That’s surprising, because the Republicans have greater control at the state level than they do at the federal level. There are 31 Republican governors and the Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature in 30 states, plus Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. Republicans control both the governorship and the state legislature in 24 states.

Why hasn’t there been a push to change state securities regulation? Are Republicans satisfied with state regulation? If so, that’s surprising because Rutheford Campbell and others have pointed to state securities regulation as a major drag on small business capital formation. Are politicians at the state level not as anti-government? Or is there something else going on that I’m missing?

I’m not arguing that state securities laws should be limited (at least, not in this post). I’m just curious why it hasn’t happened.

February 29, 2016 in C. Steven Bradford, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2016 Proxy Season Corporate Governance Watch List & Additional Resources

Having just taught a corporate governance seminar class on the proxy process (from a company's perspective), proxy advisory services, and institutional voting, I have the upcoming proxy season on my mind.  There are a great collection of resources available for those interested for academic or practice-related reasons.  My students found many of these summaries to be a good distillation of the issues and introduction to the nuts and bolts of proxy access.  I have provided my list of resources below, in addition to a quick summary of the major governance issues likely to be on the table in 2016.

Major Governance Issues:

2016 Proxy Season Resources:

Continue reading

February 24, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Does Anyone Dare Take the Securities Act Literally?

“[T]he effective date of a registration statement shall be the twentieth day after the filing thereof.” That statement, in section 8(a) of the Securities Act of 1933,  makes the process seem so reassuringly quick and simple. If I want to offer securities to the public, I file a registration statement with the SEC and, less than three weeks later, I’m ready to go. But, as every securities lawyer knows, it isn’t really that easy.

It can take months for the registration statement in an IPO to become effective. The statutory deadline is circumvented through the use of a delaying amendment, a statement in the registration statement that automatically extends the 20-day period until the SEC has finished its review. See Securities Act Rule 473, 17 C.F.R. § 230.473.

But wouldn’t it be so much more conducive to capital formation if there really was a hard 20-day deadline? I understand that the SEC doesn’t have the staff to complete a full review in that time frame, but it would force them to focus on the important disclosure issues rather than some of the trivialities one sees in the current comment letters.

I’d like to see someone test that automatic 20-day effectiveness—file a complete registration statement without the delaying amendment and wait to see what happens. The issuer would, of course, be stuck with a price set 20 days before sale, because section 8(a) provides that amending the registration statement resets the 20-day clock. But that’s not the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that the SEC would undoubtedly seek a stop order under section 8(d) of the Act. It’s only supposed to do that if it appears the registration statement contains a materially false statement or omits a material fact required to be included or necessary to keep the registration statement from being misleading. But I have no doubt that the SEC staff would argue that something in the registration statement was materially misleading, no matter how complete and carefully crafted it was.

Still, it would be nice to see someone try, just to see the SEC scramble to deal with such an unprecedented lack of obeisance. Unfortunately, no one would risk it—unless . . . Mr. Cuban?

February 22, 2016 in C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Finance, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Scholarship on Hedge Fund Activism Urges Courts to Adopt Enhanced Scrutiny of Boards' Defensive Actions

Bernard Sharfman, in his new article on SSRN, The Tension Between hedge Fund Activism and Corporate Law, argues that hedge fund activism for control of a publicly traded corporation is a positive corrective measure in corporate governance.  After asserting that hedge fund activism should be permitted, Sharfman, argues, controversially, that courts should depart from traditional deference to a corporate board's decision making authority under the business judgment rule.  Alternatively, Sharfman urges courts to adopt a heightened standard of scrutiny when reviewing defensive board actions against hedge funds.

[Hedge Fund Activism] has a role to play as a corrective mechanism in corporate governance and it is up to the courts to find a way to make sure it continues to have a significant impact despite the courts’ inclination to yield to Board authority. In practice, this means that when the plaintiff is an activist hedge fund and the standard of review is the Unocal test because issues of control are present, a less permissive approach needs to be applied, requiring the courts to exercise restraint in interpreting the actions of activist hedge funds as an attempt to gain control. 

If there are no issues of control, then Board independence and reasonable investigation still needs to be the focus. That is, before the business judgment rule can be applied, the courts need to utilize an enhanced level of scrutiny in determining whether the Board is truly independent of executive management or any other insider such as a fellow Board member. As previously discussed, Board independence is critical to maximizing the value of HFA. Moreover, reasonable investigation of the activist hedge fund’s recommendations should be required to justify Board action taken to mute the fund’s influence. Like the Unocal test, the burden of proof for establishing independence and reasonable investigation needs to be put on the Board. In sum, what is required in the court’s review of Board actions to mute the influence of an activist hedge fund is something similar to the first prong of the Unocal test except independence and reasonable investigation is now focused on the Board’s evaluation of the fund’s recommendations, not the threat to corporate policy and effectiveness.

Sharfman uses Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht, the 2014 Delaware case invovling Sotheby's poison pill, to illustrate how the traditional (deference) standard of review leads to boards being able to defeat hedge fund activists.

An interesting comment published in the Yale Law Journal by Yale Law Student Carmen X.W. Lu, Unpacking Wolf Packs, offers an alternative view of the Third Point case emphasizing the coalition of hedge funds acting in that case and the court's skepticism of wolf pack activist investors. 

-Anne Tucker

 

February 10, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Litigation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The thorny relationship between business and human rights

For the past four weeks I have been experimenting with a new class called Transnational Business and Human Rights. My students include law students, graduate students, journalists, and accountants. Only half have taken a business class and the other half have never taken a human rights class. This is a challenge, albeit, a fun one. During our first week, we discussed CSR, starting off with Milton Friedman. We then used a business school case study from Copenhagen and the students acted as the public relations executive for a Danish company that learned that its medical product was being used in the death penalty cocktail in the United States. This required students to consider the company’s corporate responsibility profile and commitments and provide advice to the CEO based on a number of factors that many hadn’t considered- the role of investors, consumer reactions, the pressure from NGOs, and the potential effect on the stock price for the Danish company based on its decisions. During the first three weeks the students have focused on the corporate perspective learning the language of the supply chain and enterprise risk management world.

This week they are playing the role of the state and critiquing and developing the National Action Plans that require states to develop incentives and penalties for corporations to minimize human rights impacts. Examining the NAPs, dictated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, requires students to think through the consultation process that countries, including the United States, undertake with a number of stakeholders such as unions, academics, NGOs and businesses. To many of those in the human rights LLM program and even some of the traditional law students, this is all a foreign language and they are struggling with these different stakeholder perspectives.

Over the rest of the semester they will read and role play on up to the minute issues such as: 1) the recent Tech Terror Summit and the potential adverse effects of the right to privacy; 2) access to justice and forum non conveniens, arguing an appeal from a Canadian court’s decision related to Guatemalan protestors shot by security forces hired by a company incorporated in Canada with US headquarters; 3) the difficulties that even best in class companies such as Nestle have complying with their own commitments and certain disclosure laws when their supply chain uses both child labor and slaves; 4) the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals debate in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the EU, where students will play the role of the State Department, major companies such as Apple and Intel, the NGO community, and socially-responsible investors debating some key corporate governance and human rights issues; 5) corporate codes of conduct and the ethical, governance, and compliance aspects of entering the Cuban market, given the concerns about human rights and confiscated property; 6) corporate culpability for the human rights impacts of mega sporting events such as the Super Bowl, World Cup, and the Olympics; 7) human trafficking (I’m proud to have a speaker from my former company Ryder, a sponsor of Truckers Against Traffickers); 8) development finance, SEC disclosures, bilateral investment treaties, investor rights and the grievance mechanisms for people harmed by financed projects (the World Bank, IMF, and Ex-Im bank will be case studies); 9) the race to the bottom for companies trying to reduce labor expenses in supply chains using the garment industry as an example; and 10) a debate in which each student will represent the actual countries currently arguing for or against a binding treaty on business and human rights.

Of course, on a daily basis, business and human rights stories pop up in the news if you know where to look and that makes teaching this so much fun. We are focusing a critical lens on the United States as well as the rest of the world, and it's great to hear perspectives from those who have lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. It's a whole new world for many of the LLM and international students, but as I tell them if they want to go after the corporations and effect change, they need to understand the pressure points. Using business school case studies has provided them with insights that most of my students have never considered. Most important, regardless of whether the students embark on a human rights career, they will now have more experience seeing and arguing controversial issues from another vantage point. That’s an invaluable skill set for any advocate.

February 4, 2016 in Business Associations, Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Investment Banking, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mindfulness and Legal Drafting for Business Lawyers (A Yoga Analogy)

As many of you know, I teach both traditional doctrinal and experiential learning courses in business law.  I bring experiential learning to the doctrinal courses, and I bring doctrine to the experiential learning courses.  I see the difference between doctrinal and experiential learning courses as a matter of emphasis.  Among other things, this post explores the intersection between traditional classroom-based law teaching and experiential law teaching by analogizing business law drafting to yoga practice principles.  This turned out to be harder than it "felt" when I first started to write it.  So, the post may be wholly or partially unsuccessful.  But I persevere . . . .

I begin by noting that we are, to some extent, in the midst of a critical juncture with respect to experiential learning in legal education.  Some observers, including both legal practitioners and faculty, criticize the lack of experiential learning, noting that legal education is too theoretical and policy-oriented, resulting in the graduation of students who are ill-prepared for legal practice.  Yet, other commentators note that too great an emphasis on experiential learning leaves students without the skills in theory and policy that they need to make useful interpretive judgments and novel arguments for their clients and to participate meaningfully in law reform efforts.  Of course, different law schools have different programs of legal education (something not noted well enough, or at all, in many treatments of legal education).  But even without taking that into account, many in and outside legal education (including, for example, in articles here and here) advise a law school curriculum that merges the two.  I think about and struggle with constructively effectuating this all merger the time.

Now, about the yoga . . . .  Most of you likely do not know that, in addition to teaching law, being a wife and mom, and other stuff, I enjoy an active yoga practice.  As I finished a yoga class on Sunday afternoon, I realized that yoga has something to say about integrating doctrinal and experiential learning, especially when it comes to instruction on legal drafting in the business law area.  Set forth below are the parallels that I observe between yoga and business law drafting.  They are not perfect analogs, but they are, in my view, instructive in a number of ways important to the teaching mission in business law.  The first two bullet points are, as I see it, especially important as expressions of the idea that law teaching is more complete and valuable when it holistically integrates doctrine, policy, theory, and skills.  The rest of the bullets principally offer other insights.

Continue reading

January 27, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Finance, Joan Heminway, Law School, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Good Exams and Excellent Exams: Conveying Uncertainty

I was going to blog today about Usha Rodrigues’s article on section 12(g) of the Exchange Act, but my co-blogger Ann Lipton stole my thunder over the weekend. If you’re interested in securities law and you haven’t read Ann’s excellent post on section 12(g), you should. Ann discusses Usha Rodrigues’s article on the history and policy of section 12(g); if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s available here. (Even if you’re not interested in reading about section 12(g), I highly recommend Usha’s scholarship in general. I’ve read several of her articles and blog posts over the last few years; she has become one of the leading commentators on securities and corporate law. She blogs at The Conglomerate.)

Instead of discussing section 12(g), I’m going to talk about exams. I finished grading my fall exams about a month ago and I’ve had time to reflect on them. The main reason students don’t do well on exams is that they don’t know or understand the material. But I’ve been reflecting on the difference between exams that are pretty good and exams that are excellent. Those students all know the material, so that’s not the difference.

One of the major differences between a good exam and an excellent exam is in how well students indicate the level of uncertainty in the law.
Sometimes, the law is clear and the answers to issues are certain. Sometimes, the answer is a little fuzzy, but the available authorities point strongly in a particular direction. Sometimes, the answer is completely unclear.

The best exam answers differentiate among those different possibilities and indicate the certainty of the author’s conclusion as to each issue. Bad answers don’t do that. They provide a definite “yes” or “no” to an issue when an unqualified answer is unwarranted. Or they go through a long list of arguments (“on the one hand, . . . ; on the other hand, . . . ) without reaching a conclusion or even indicating which side has the better argument and why.

I can always tell from reading exams which students I would want to consult as attorneys, and this is one of the clues.

January 25, 2016 in Ann Lipton, C. Steven Bradford, Law School, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, January 4, 2016

Insider Trading on Information with No Expected Return?

Assume you acquire some nonpublic information about a company that will have no predictable effect on the company’s stock price, but will affect the volatility of that stock price. Is that information material nonpublic information for purposes of the prohibition on insider trading?

That’s one of the issues addressed in an interesting article written by Lars Klöhn, a professor at Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich, Germany. The article, Inside Information without an Incentive to Trade?, is available here. His answer (under European law)? It depends.

Here’s the scenario: one company is going to make a bid to acquire another company. The evidence shows that, on average, the shareholders of bidders earn no abnormal returns when the bid is announced. There’s a significant variation in returns across bids: some companies earn positive abnormal returns and some companies earn negative abnormal returns. But the average is zero. Of course, the identity of the target might affect the expected return, but to pose the problem in its most complex form, let’s assume that you don’t know the target, just that the bidder is planning to make a bid for some other company.

In that situation, the stock is just as likely to go down as to go up if you buy it. Because of that, Professor Klöhn argues that the information should not be considered material to anyone buying or selling the stock.

However, the information about the bid will make the bidder’s stock price more volatile. The average expected gain is zero, but either large gains or large losses are possible, increasing the risk of the stock. Professor Klöhn argues that, since this risk can be diversified away, it should not affect the bidder’s stock price. However, the increased volatility would allow a trader to profit trading in derivatives based on the bidder’s stock. In other words, the information should affect the value of derivatives. Therefore, the information should be considered material in that context, and anyone using the nonpublic information to trade in derivatives should fall within the prohibition on insider trading.

It’s an interesting article, not very long and definitely worth reading. Professor Klöhn’s focus is on European securities law, but American readers should have no trouble following the discussion.

January 4, 2016 in C. Steven Bradford, Comparative Law, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Andrew Schwartz on "The Digital Shareholder"

Andrew Schwartz, a professor at the University of Colorado, has recently published an interesting article discussing how crowdfunding deals with the fundamental problems of startup finance: uncertainty, information asymmetry, and agency costs. His article, The Digital Shareholder, 100 MINN. L. REV. 609 (2015), is available here.

Here’s the abstract:

Crowdfunding, a new Internet-based securities market, was recently authorized by federal and state law in order to create a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive system of entrepreneurial finance. But will people really send their money to strangers on the Internet in exchange for unregistered securities in speculative startups? Many are doubtful, but this Article looks to first principles and finds reason for optimism.

Well-established theory teaches that all forms of startup finance must confront and overcome three fundamental challenges: uncertainty, information asymmetry, and agency costs. This Article systematically examines this “trio of problems” and potential solutions in the context of crowdfunding. It begins by considering whether known solutions used in traditional forms of entrepreneurial finance—venture capital, angel investing, and public companies—can be borrowed by crowdfunding. Unfortunately, these methods, especially the most powerful among them, will not translate well to crowdfunding.

Finding traditional solutions inert, this Article presents five novel solutions that respond directly to crowdfunding’s distinctive digital context: (1) wisdom of the crowd; (2) crowdsourced investment analysis; (3) online reputation; (4) securities-based compensation; and (5) digital monitoring. Collectively, these solutions provide a sound basis for crowdfunding to overcome the three fundamental challenges and fulfill its compelling vision.

Andrew was kind enough to share a draft of this article with me earlier this year, and I’ve been waiting for him to make it publicly available so I could bring it to your attention. I’m not quite as optimistic as Andrew that crowdfunding will solve the problems he identifies, but it’s a good piece and worth reading.

December 28, 2015 in C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Finance, Crowdfunding, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Policy of Crowdfunding Regulation: Germany vs. the United States

I mentioned back in October that I spoke in Munich on Regulating Investment Crowdfunding: Small Business Capital Formation and Investor Protection. I discussed how crowdfunding should be regulated, using the U.S. and German regulations as examples.

If you’re interested, that talk is now available here. I expect this to be the top-rated Christmas video on iTunes.

If you want to know more about how Germany regulates crowdfunding, I strongly suggest this article: Lars Klöhn, Lars Hornuf, and Tobias Schilling, The Regulation of Crowdfunding in the German Small Investor Protection Act: Content, Consequences, Critique, Suggestions (June 2, 2015).

December 21, 2015 in C. Steven Bradford, Comparative Law, Corporate Finance, Crowdfunding, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Securities Law Symposium

If you're interested in securities law, there's a new law review symposium issue worth reading. The SMU Law Review has posted an issue honoring the late securities law scholar Alan Bromberg. The symposium includes a number of interesting essays written by leading securities law scholars, including a piece by my co-blogger Joan Heminway. (I also have an article in the issue, so there's also at least one non-interesting article by a non-leading scholar.). Here's a copy of the cover, listing all of the articles:

SMU Cover

Here's  a PDF copy of the cover, if you can't see the image.

December 21, 2015 in C. Steven Bradford, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2015

A New Exemption for Reselling Securities

You may have missed the most recent amendments to federal securities law. They were tucked into the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (H.R. 22), which President Obama signed into law on December 4.  Where else would you put securities law amendments?

The full Act, which includes a number of changes to securities law, is available here. I don't recommend wading through it, unless you're really into surface transportation. Today, I want to talk about one particular provision, a new exemption for the resale of securities.

As you may know, the Securities Act’s convoluted definition of “underwriter” makes it difficult to know when one may safely resell securities purchased in an unregistered offering (or when an affiliate of the issuer may safely resell any securities, registered or not). The SEC has enacted a couple of safe harbors, Rule 144 and Rule 144A. Rule 144A limits sales to large institutional buyers, so most ordinary resales are structured to meet the requirements of Rule 144. Sellers now have another option.

H.R. 22 adds a new section 4(a)(7) exemption to the Securities Act, as well as new subsections 4(d) and 4(e) to define that exemption.

Section 4(a)(7) exempts resales to accredited investors, as defined in Regulation D. The securities may not be offered or sold through general solicitation or general advertising. And, if the issuer of the securities is not a reporting company, certain information must be made available to the purchaser. There are some other restrictions, including a bad-actor disqualification, but the new exemption gives purchasers of unregistered securities an alternative to Rule 144.

Here’s the full text of sections 4(a)(7), 4(d), and 4(e):


Sec. 4. (a) The provisions of section 5 shall not apply to---

***

(7) transactions meeting the requirements of subsection (d)

***

(d) Certain accredited investor transactions.—The transactions referred to in subsection (a)(7) are transactions meeting the following requirements:

(1) ACCREDITED INVESTOR REQUIREMENT.—Each purchaser is an accredited investor, as that term is defined in section 230.501(a) of title 17, Code of Federal Regulations (or any successor regulation).

(2) PROHIBITION ON GENERAL SOLICITATION OR ADVERTISING.—Neither the seller, nor any person acting on the seller’s behalf, offers or sells securities by any form of general solicitation or general advertising.

(3) INFORMATION REQUIREMENT.—In the case of a transaction involving the securities of an issuer that is neither subject to section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934), nor exempt from reporting pursuant to section 240.12g3–2(b) of title 17, Code of Federal Regulations, nor a foreign government (as defined in section 230.405 of title 17, Code of Federal Regulations) eligible to register securities under Schedule B, the seller and a prospective purchaser designated by the seller obtain from the issuer, upon request of the seller, and the seller in all cases makes available to a prospective purchaser, the following information (which shall be reasonably current in relation to the date of resale under this section):

(A) The exact name of the issuer and the issuer’s predecessor (if any).
(B) The address of the issuer’s principal executive offices.
(C) The exact title and class of the security.
(D) The par or stated value of the security.
(E) The number of shares or total amount of the securities outstanding as of the end of the issuer’s most recent fiscal year.
(F) The name and address of the transfer agent, corporate secretary, or other person responsible for transferring shares and stock certificates.
(G) A statement of the nature of the business of the issuer and the products and services it offers, which shall be presumed reasonably current if the statement is as of 12 months before the transaction date.
(H) The names of the officers and directors of the issuer.
(I) The names of any persons registered as a broker, dealer, or agent that shall be paid or given, directly or indirectly, any commission or remuneration for such person's participation in the offer or sale of the securities.
(J) The issuer’s most recent balance sheet and profit and loss statement and similar financial statements, which shall—


(i) be for such part of the 2 preceding fiscal years as the issuer has been in operation;
(ii) be prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles or, in the case of a foreign private issuer, be prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles or the International Financial Reporting Standards issued by the International Accounting Standards Board;
(iii) be presumed reasonably current if—


(I) with respect to the balance sheet, the balance sheet is as of a date less than 16 months before the transaction date; and
(II) with respect to the profit and loss statement, such statement is for the 12 months preceding the date of the issuer’s balance sheet; and

(iv) if the balance sheet is not as of a date less than 6 months before the transaction date, be accompanied by additional statements of profit and loss for the period from the date of such balance sheet to a date less than 6 months before the transaction date.

(K) To the extent that the seller is a control person with respect to the issuer, a brief statement regarding the nature of the affiliation, and a statement certified by such seller that they have no reasonable grounds to believe that the issuer is in violation of the securities laws or regulations.

(4) ISSUERS DISQUALIFIED.—The transaction is not for the sale of a security where the seller is an issuer or a subsidiary, either directly or indirectly, of the issuer.

(5) BAD ACTOR PROHIBITION.—Neither the seller, nor any person that has been or will be paid (directly or indirectly) remuneration or a commission for their participation in the offer or sale of the securities, including solicitation of purchasers for the seller is subject to an event that would disqualify an issuer or other covered person under Rule 506(d)(1) of Regulation D (17 CFR 230.506(d)(1)) or is subject to a statutory disqualification described under section 3(a)(39) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

(6) BUSINESS REQUIREMENT.—The issuer is engaged in business, is not in the organizational stage or in bankruptcy or receivership, and is not a blank check, blind pool, or shell company that has no specific business plan or purpose or has indicated that the issuer’s primary business plan is to engage in a merger or combination of the business with, or an acquisition of, an unidentified person.

(7) UNDERWRITER PROHIBITION.—The transaction is not with respect to a security that constitutes the whole or part of an unsold allotment to, or a subscription or participation by, a broker or dealer as an underwriter of the security or a redistribution.

(8) OUTSTANDING CLASS REQUIREMENT.—The transaction is with respect to a security of a class that has been authorized and outstanding for at least 90 days prior to the date of the transaction.

(e) Additional requirements.—

(1) IN GENERAL.—With respect to an exempted transaction described under subsection (a)(7):

(A) Securities acquired in such transaction shall be deemed to have been acquired in a transaction not involving any public offering.
(B) Such transaction shall be deemed not to be a distribution for purposes of section 2(a)(11).
(C) Securities involved in such transaction shall be deemed to be restricted securities within the meaning of Rule 144 (17 CFR 230.144).

(2) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION.—The exemption provided by subsection (a)(7) shall not be the exclusive means for establishing an exemption from the registration requirements of section 5.

 

December 14, 2015 in C. Steven Bradford, Legislation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Disclosing Disclosure's Defects

Earlier this month, the DC Circuit denied a petition for rehearing on the conflict minerals disclosure, meaning the SEC needs to appeal to the Supreme Court or the case goes back to the District Court for further proceedings. At issue is whether the Dodd-Frank requirement that issuers who source minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo label their products as “DRC-conflict free” (or not) violates the First Amendment. I have argued in various blog posts and an amicus brief that this corporate governance disclosure is problematic for other reasons, including the fact that it won’t work and that the requirement would hurt the miners that it’s meant to protect. Congress, thankfully, recently held hearings on the law.

I’ve written more extensively on conflict minerals and the failure of disclosures in general in two recent publications. The first is my chapter entitled, Living in a material world – from naming and shaming to knowing and showing: will new disclosure regimes finally drive corporate accountability for human rights? in a new book that we launched two weeks ago at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. You’ll have to buy the book The Business and Human Rights Landscape: Moving Forward and Looking Back to read it.

My article, Disclosing Disclosure’s Defects: Addressing Corporate Irresponsibility for Human Rights Impacts, will be published shortly by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review and is available for on SSRN. The abstract is below:

Although many people believe that the role of business is to maximize shareholder value, corporate executives and board members can no longer ignore their companies’ human rights impacts on other stakeholders. Over the past four years, the role and responsibility of non-state actors such as multinationals has come under increased scrutiny. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the “UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” which outline the State duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and both the State and corporations’ duties to provide remedies to parties. The Guiding Principles do not bind corporations, but dozens of countries, including the United States, are now working on National Action Plans to comply with their own duties, which include drafting regulations and incentives for companies. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution to begin the process of developing a binding treaty on business and human rights. Separately, in an effort to address information asymmetries, lawmakers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and California have passed human rights disclosure legislation. Finally, dozens of stock exchanges have imposed either mandatory or voluntary non-financial disclosure requirements, in sync with the UN Principles.

Despite various forms of disclosure mandates, these efforts do not work. The conflict lies within the flawed premise that, armed with specific information addressing human rights, consumers and investors will either reward “ethical” corporate behavior, or punish firms with poor human rights records. However, evidence shows that disclosures generally fail to change behavior because: (1) there are too many of them; (2) stakeholders suffer from disclosure overload; and (3) not enough consumers or investors penalize companies by boycotting products or divesting. In this Article, I examine corporate social contract theory, normative business ethics, and the failure of stakeholders to utilize disclosures to punish those firms that breach the social contract. I propose that both stakeholders and companies view corporate actions through an ethical lens, and offer an eight-factor test to provide guidance using current disclosures or stakeholder-specific inquiries. I conclude that disclosure for the sake of transparency, without more, will not lead to meaningful change regarding human rights impacts.

 

December 3, 2015 in Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 16, 2015

State Crowdfunding Exemptions and Rule 147: Time for Amendment?

One final post on the SEC’s proposed changes to Rule 147 and I promise I’m finished—for now. Today’s topic is the effect the proposed changes will have on state crowdfunding exemptions. If the SEC adopts the proposed changes to Rule 147, many state legislatures will have to (or at least want to) amend their state crowdfunding legislation.

As I explained in my earlier posts here and here, the SEC has proposed amendments to Rule 147, currently a safe harbor for the intrastate offering exemption in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act. If the proposed amendments are adopted, Rule 147 would become a stand-alone exemption rather than a safe harbor for section 3(a)(11). There would no longer be a safe harbor for intrastate offerings.

That creates some issues for the states. Many states have adopted state registration exemptions for crowdfunded securities offerings that piggyback on the federal intrastate offering exemption. That makes sense, because, if the offering isn’t also exempted at the federal level, the state crowdfunding exemption is practically worthless. (An offering pursuant to the federal crowdfunding exemption is automatically exempted from state registration requirements, but these state crowdfunding exemptions provide an alternative way to sell securities through crowdfunding.)

The SEC’s proposed amendments would actually make it easier for a crowdfunded offering to fit within Rule 147. (In fact, the SEC release says that’s one of the purposes of the amendments.) Most importantly, the SEC proposes to eliminate the requirement that all offerees be residents of the state. That change would facilitate publicly accessible crowdfunding sites which, almost by definition, are making offers to everyone everywhere. The securities would still have to be sold only to state residents, but it’s much easier to screen purchasers than to limit offerees.

Problem No. 1: Dual Compliance Requirements

Unfortunately, many state crowdfunding exemptions require that the crowdfunded offering comply with both section 3(a)(11) and Rule 147 in order to be eligible for the state exemption. Here, for example, is the relevant language in the Nebraska state crowdfunding exemption: “The transaction . . . [must meet] . . . the requirements of the federal exemption for intrastate offerings in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act of 1933 . . . and Rule 147 under the Securities Act of 1933.” (emphasis added).

Currently, that double requirement doesn’t matter. An offering that complies with the Rule 147 safe harbor by definition complies with section 3(a)(11). That would no longer true if the SEC adopts the proposed changes. Since Rule 147 would no longer be a safe harbor, an issuer that complied with Rule 147 would still have to independently determine if its offering complied with section 3(a)(11). Because of the uncertainty in the case law under 3(a)(11), that determination would be risky. (But see my argument here.) The leniency the SEC proposes to grant in the amendments to Rule 147 would not be helpful unless state legislators amended their crowdfunding exemptions to eliminate the requirement that offerings also comply with section 3(a)(11).

Problem No. 2: State-of-Incorporation/Organization Requirements

There’s another potential issue. Many state crowdfunding exemptions include an independent requirement that the issuer be incorporated or organized in that particular state. That’s inconvenient, and reduces the value of the state crowdfunding exemption, because corporations and LLCs are often incorporated or organized outside their home states. But, until now, that state requirement hasn’t mattered because both section 3(a)(11) and Rule 147 also impose such a requirement.

The SEC proposes to eliminate that requirement from Rule 147, so it now matters whether the state crowdfunding exemption independently imposes such a requirement. Issuers won’t be able to take full advantage of the proposed changes to Rule 147 unless states eliminate the state-of-incorporation/organization requirements from their state crowdfunding exemptions as well.

On to More Important Things

That’s the end of my Rule 147 discussion for now. I promise! Now, we can turn to more important questions, such as why your favorite team belongs in the college football playoff. (I know for sure that my college football team won't be there. I would be happy just to have my college football team in a bowl game.)

November 16, 2015 in C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Finance, Crowdfunding, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rule 147: Can the SEC Ever Successfully Revoke a Safe Harbor?

Once the SEC has created a safe harbor for a statutory exemption, can it ever really get rid of it? That’s one of the issues raised by the SEC’s proposed changes to Rule 147, which I considered in detail last week.

Rule 147 is currently a safe harbor for the intrastate offering exemption in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act. Section 3(a)(11) exempts from the Securities Act registration requirement

“Any security which is a part of an issue offered and sold only to persons resident within a single State or Territory, where the issuer of such security is a person resident and doing business within or, if a corporation, incorporated by and doing business within, such State or Territory.”

Rule 147 currently provides that an offering

“made in accordance with all of the terms and conditions of this rule shall be deemed to be part of an issue offered and sold only to persons resident within a single state or territory where the issuer is a person resident and doing business within such state or territory, within the meaning of section 3(a)(11) of the Act.”

In other words, if you meet the requirements of Rule 147, you are within the section 3(a)(11) exemption.

However, as I wrote in my post last week,  the SEC is proposing to decouple Rule 147 from section 3(a)(11) and make Rule 147 an independent exemption. As a result, section 3(a)(11) would no longer have a safe harbor. Issuers could still use the section 3(a)(11) exemption, but they would be relegated to the uncertain case law that prevailed under section 3(a)(11) before Rule 147 was adopted.

Or would they?

Consider the nature of a safe harbor. The SEC is saying that, if you comply with the current requirements of Rule 147, you have met the requirements of section 3(a)(11). The SEC is not creating a new exemption or redefining the requirements of section 3(a)(11), merely saying that a particular class of offerings (those that meet all of Rule 147’s requirements) falls within the exemption defined by Congress in section 3(a)(11).

But, if that’s the case, the elimination of the safe harbor should have no effect on offerings that meet the old requirements. If those offerings fell within the exemption created by Congress the day before the safe harbor was eliminated, they should still fall within the congressional requirements the day after the safe harbor is eliminated.

After Rule 147’s amendment, an issuer who meets the old requirements should still fall within the section 3(a)(11) exemption. Why? Because the SEC said an offering like that falls within section 3(a)(11) and, unless the Commission was wrong in the first place, that conclusion should still hold even after the formal rule is eliminated.

November 9, 2015 in C. Steven Bradford, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

DOL Warms to ESG Investments by ERISA-governed Funds

The Department of Labor issued new interpretive guidelines for pension investments governed by ERISA.  A thorny issue has been to what extent can ERISA fiduciaries invest in environmental, social and governance-focused (ESG) investments?  The DOL previously issued several guiding statements on this topic, the most recent one in 2008, IB 2001-01, and the acceptance of such investment has been lukewarm. The DOL previously cautioned that such investments were permissible if all other things (like risk and return) are equal.  In other words, ESG factors could be a tiebreaker but couldn't be a stand alone consideration. 

What was the consequence of this tepid reception for ESG investments?  Over $8.4 trillion in defined benefit and defined contribution plans covered by ERISA have been kept out of ESG investments, where non-ERISA investments in the space have exploded from "$202 billion in 2007 to $4.3 trillion in 2014.

In an effort to correct the misperceptions that have followed publication of IB 2008-01, the Department announced that it is withdrawing IB 2008-01 and is replacing it with IB 2015-01

The new guidance admits that previous interpretations may have

"unduly discouraged fiduciaries from considering ETIs and ESG factors. In particular, the Department is concerned that the 2008 guidance may be dissuading fiduciaries from (1) pursuing investment strategies that consider environmental, social, and governance factors, even where they are used solely to evaluate the economic benefits of investments and identify economically superior investments, and (2) investing in ETIs even where economically equivalent."

Under the new interpretive guidelines, the DOL takes a much more permissive stance regarding the economic value of ESG factors.

"Environmental, social, and governance issues may have a direct relationship to the economic value of the plan's investment. In these instances, such issues are not merely collateral considerations or tie-breakers, but rather are proper components of the fiduciary's primary analysis of the economic merits of competing investment choices. Similarly, if a fiduciary prudently determines that an investment is appropriate based solely on economic considerations, including those that may derive from environmental, social and governance factors, the fiduciary may make the investment without regard to any collateral benefits the investment may also promote. Fiduciaries need not treat commercially reasonable investments as inherently suspect or in need of special scrutiny merely because they take into consideration environmental, social, or other such factors."

In other words, ESG factors may be economic factors and such investments are not automatically suspect under ERISA fiduciary duty obligations.

-Anne Tucker

November 4, 2015 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Finance, CSR, Current Affairs, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (2)