Friday, October 24, 2014
I used to joke that my alma mater Columbia University’s core curriculum, which required students to study the history of art, music, literature, and philosophy (among other things) was designed solely to make sure that graduates could distinguish a Manet from a Monet and not embarrass the university at cocktail parties for wealthy donors. I have since tortured my son by dragging him through museums and ruins all over the world pointing spouting what I remember about chiaroscuro and Doric columns. He’s now a freshman at San Francisco Art Institute, and I’m sure that my now-fond memories of class helped to spark a love of art in him. I must confess though that as a college freshman I was less fond of Contemporary Civilization class, (“CC”) which took us through Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hume, Hegel, and all of the usual suspects. At the time I thought it was boring and too high level for a student who planned to work in the gritty city counseling abused children and rape survivors.
Fast forward twenty years or so, and my job as a Compliance and Ethics Officer for a Fortune 500 company immersed me in many of the principles we discussed in CC, although we never spoke in the lofty terms that our teaching assistant used when we looked at bribery, money- laundering, conflicts of interest, terrorism threats, data protection, SEC regulations, discrimination, and other issues that keep ethics officers awake at night. We did speak of values versus rules based ethics and how to motivate people to "do the right thing."
Now that I am in academia I have chosen to research on the issues I dealt with in private life. Although I am brand new to the field of normative business ethics, I was pleased to have my paper accepted for a November workshop at Wharton's Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. Each session has two presenters who listen to and respond to feedback from attendees, who have read their papers in advance. Dr. Wayne Buck, who teaches business ethics at Eastern Connecticut State University, presented two weeks ago. He entitled his paper “Naming Names,” and using a case study on the BP Oil spill argued that the role of business ethics is not merely to promulgate norms around conduct, but also to judge individual businesspeople on moral grounds. Professor John Hasnas of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business also presented his working paper “Why Don't Corporations Have the Right to Vote?” He argued that if we accept a theory of corporate moral agency, then that commits us to extending them the right to vote. (For the record, my understanding of his paper is that he doesn’t believe corporations should have the right.) Attendees from Johns Hopkins, the University of Connecticut, Pace and of course Wharton brought me right back to my days at Columbia with references to Rawls and Kant. My comments were probably less theoretical and more related to practical application, but that’s still my bent as a junior scholar.
In a few weeks, I present on my theory of the social contract as it relates to business and human rights. In brief, I argue that multinational corporations enter into social contracts with the states in which they operate (in large part to avoid regulation) and with stakeholders around them (the "social license to operate", as Professor John Ruggie describes it). Typically these contracts consist of the corporate social responsibility reports, voluntary codes of conduct, industry initiatives, and other public statements that dictate how they choose to act in society, such as the UN Global Compact. Many nations have voluntary and mandatory disclosure regimes, which have the side benefit of providing consumers and investors with the kinds of information that will help them determine whether the firm has “breached” the social contract by not living up to its promise. The majority of these proposals and disclosure regimes (such as Dodd-Frank conflict minerals) rest on the premise that armed with certain information, consumers and investors (other than socially responsible investors) will pressure corporations to change their behavior by either rewarding “ethical” behavior or by punishing firms who act unethically via a boycott or divestment.
I contend in my article that: (1) corporations generally respond to incentives and penalties, which can cause them to act “morally;” (2) states refuse to enter into a binding UN treaty on business and human rights and often do not uniformly enforce the laws, much less the social contracts; (3) consumers over-report their desire to buy goods and services from “ethical” companies; and (4) disclosure for the sake of transparency, without more, will not lead to meaningful change in the human rights arena. Instead, I prefer to focus on the kinds of questions that the board members, consumers, and investors who purport to care about these things should ask. I try to move past the fuzzy concept of corporate social responsibility to a stronger corporate accountability framework, at least where firms have the ability to directly or indirectly impact human rights.
As a compliance officer, I did not use terms like “deontological” and “teleological” principles, but some heavy hitters such as Norway's Government Pension Fund, with over five billion Kronos under management, do. The 2003 report that helped establish the Fund’s recommendations on ethical guidelines state in part:
One group of ethical theories asserts that we should primarily be concerned with the consequences of the choices we make. These theories are in other words forward-looking, focusing on the consequences of an action. The choice that is ethically correct influences the world in the best possible way, i.e. has the most favourable consequences. Every choice generates an infinite number of consequences and the decisive question is of course which of the consequences we should focus on. Again, a number of answers are possible. Some would assert that we should focus on individual welfare, and that the action that has the most favourable consequences for individual welfare is the best one. Others would claim that access to resources or the opportunities or rights of the individual are most important. However, common to all these answers is the view that the desire to influence the world in a favourable direction should govern our choices.
Another group of ethical theories focuses on avoiding breaching obligations by avoiding doing evil and fulfilling obligations by doing good. Whether the results are good or evil, and whether the cost of doing good is high, are in principle of no significance. This is often known as deontological ethics.
In relation to the Petroleum Fund, these two approaches will primarily influence choice in that deontological ethics will dictate that certain investments must be avoided under any circumstances, while teleological ethics will lead to the avoidance of investments that have less favourable consequences and the promotion of investments that have more favourable consequences.
Recently, NGOs have pressured firms to speak on out human rights abuses at mega-events and have published their responses. The US government has made a number of efforts, some unsuccessful, to push companies toward more proactive human rights initiatives. These issues are here to stay. As I formulate my recommendations, I am looking at the pension fund, some work by ethicists researching marketing principles, writings by political and business philosophers, and of course, my old friends Locke, Rousseau, Rawls and Kant for inspiration. If you have ideas of articles or authors I should consult, feel free to comment below or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you will be in Philadelphia on November 14th, register for the session at Wharton and give me your feedback in person.
October 24, 2014 in Books, Business School, Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Whether you are teaching insider trading as part of a corporations or a securities regulation course, you practice in the area, or you like these cases because they contain some of the most interesting fact patterns..... I have a couple of gems for you.
First, the on line edition of the New Yorker features two great stories on insider trading. The first story, The Empire of Edge written by Patrick Radden Keefe, focuses on the conviction of a trader at S.A.C. capital for trades made 10 days before the release of results from clinical trials on an alzheimer's medication. The hedge fund reversed its $.785B position in two companies testing the drug and took a short position against the companies earning the fund $275M. In classic long-form journalism at its best, the story is riveting as it unfolds. The second story, A Dirty Business by George Packer, tells the story of Raj Rajaratnam, head of the Galleon hedge fund at the heart of the 2009 informant ring scandal, the prosecution and the SEC's stance on enforcement.
For those of you who are interested, the SEC posted a running list of insider trading enforcement actions here.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
To be clear, I'm not an economist. I do, however, have an interest in economics, economic theory, and especially behavioral economics. I incorporate basic concepts of economics into my courses, especially Business Organizations and Energy Law. This week's announcement of Jean Tirole as the 2014 Nobel Laureate in economics thus caught my eye.
I admit I did not much about Tirole before the announcement, and after just a little reading, it's clear to me that I need to know more. A nice summary of Tirole's work (written by Tyler Cowen) can be found here. Cowen introduces the announcement and Tirole this way:
A theory prize! A rigor prize! I would say it is about principal-agent theory and the increasing mathematization of formal propositions as a way of understanding economics. He has been a leading figure in formalizing propositions in many distinct areas of microeconomics, most of all industrial organization but also finance and financial regulation and behavioral economics and even some public choice too. He is a broader economist than many of his fans realize.
Tirole is a Frenchman, he teaches at Toulouse, and his key papers start in the 1980s. In industrial organization, you can think of him as extending the earlier work of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson with regard to opportunism and recontracting, but applying more sophisticated and more mathematical forms of game theory. Tirole also has been a central figure in procurement theory and optimal contracts when there is asymmetric information about costs. The idea of mechanism design runs throughout his papers in many different guises. Many of his papers show “it’s complicated,” rather than presenting easily summarizable, intuitive solutions which make for good blog posts. That is one reason why his ideas do not show up so often in blogs and the popular press, but they nonetheless have been extremely influential in the economics profession. He has shown a remarkable breadth and depth over the course of the last thirty or so years.
Cowen then summarizes (or at least introduces) much of Tirole's work. I am now working my through a paper Tirole wrote with Jean-Jacques Laffont that discusses when regulatory capture is likely to happen. (Cowen notes, " I have yet to see the insights of this paper incorporated into the rest of the literature adequately.")
The papers is called The Politics of Government Decision-Making: A Theory of Regulatory Capture. Two of my favorite lines:
- "The assumption that Congress is a benevolent maximizer of a social welfare function is clearly an oversimplification, as its members are themselves subject to interest-group influence."
- "In contrast with the conventional wisdom on interest-group politics, an interest group may be hurt by its own power."
Here's the abstract (paper available on JSTOR):
The paper develops an agency-theoretic approach to interest-group politics and shows the following: (1) the organizational response to the possibility of regulatory agency politics is to reduce the stakes interest groups have in regulation. (2) The threat of producer protection leads to low-powered incentive schemes for regulated firms. (3) Consumer politics may induce uniform pricing by a multiproduct firm. (4) An interest group has more power when its interest lies in inefficient rather than efficient regulation, where inefficiency is measured by the degree of informational asymmetry between the regulated industry and the political principal (Congress).
It's worth a read, even if the math part is a little beyond some of us.
H/T: Geoffrey Manne
Thursday, October 9, 2014
The numbers are in on SEC Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings. According to a Tulane study, the average company spent over half a million dollars to comply. A review by law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel shows how meaningless (in my view), some of those filings were. Meanwhile, Canada failed to pass another conflict minerals bill and NGOs are pressuring the EU to step up to the plate for more rigorous regulation. I continue to believe that there has to be a better way to resolve a deadly human rights crisis, and that disclosure and due diligence in the supply chain are important but are not the solutions.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Alibaba dominated the September business press coverage with its record-breaking IPO last month, and news of its stock price, trading at a 30% premium, continues to dominate coverage. I have been using the headline-hogging IPO in my corporations class to discuss raising capital, which I am sure many of you are doing as well. Here are a few creative uses for the class-friendly headlines:
- I used coverage of the IPO and its short-lived halo effect on other tech IPO's as a companion to the E-bay stock spinning case (taught under director fiduciary duties).
As we move into securities next week,
- Students will examine Alibaba's registration statement as we look at section 11 liability.
- Students will review portions of a 2012 10b(5) lawsuit against Yahoo alleging that Yahoo! made materially false and misleading statements regarding its holdings in Alibaba.
Please add to the list of uses in the comments section if you have any new ideas or suggestions.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
For the second time, I have assigned my BA students to write their own shareholder proposals so that they can better understand the mechanics and the substance behind Rule 14-a8. As samples, I provided a link to over 500 proposals for the 2014 proxy season. We also went through the Apple Proxy Statement as a way to review corporate governance, the roles of the committees, and some other concepts we had discussed. As I reviewed the proposals this morning, I noticed that the student proposals varied widely with most relating to human rights, genetically modified food, environmental protection, online privacy, and other social factors. A few related to cumulative voting, split of the chair and CEO, poison pills, political spending, pay ratio, equity plans, and other executive compensation factors.
After they take their midterm next week, I will show them how well these proposals tend to do in the real world. Environmental, social, and governance factors (political spending and lobbying are included) constituted almost 42% of proposals, up from 36% in 2013, according to Equilar. Of note, 45% of proposals calling for a declassified board passed, with an average of 89% support, while only two proposals for the separation of chair and CEO passed. Astonishingly, Proxy Monitor, which looked at the 250 largest publicly-traded American companies, reports that just three people and their family members filed one third of all proposals. Only 4% of shareholder proposals were supported by a majority of voting shareholders. Only one of the 136 proposals related to social policy concerns in the Proxy Monitor data set passed, and that was an animal welfare proposal that the company actually supported.
I plan to use two of the student proposals verbatim on the final exam to test their ability to assess whether a company would be successful in an SEC No-Action letter process. Many of the students thought the exercise was helpful, although one of the students who was most meticulous with the assignment is now even more adamant that she does not want to do transactional law. Too bad, because she would make a great corporate lawyer. I have 7 weeks to convince her to change her mind.
October 2, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Professor Dionysia Katelouzou of Kings College, London has written an interesting empirical article on hedge fund activisim. The abstract is below:
In recent years, activist hedge funds have spread from the United States to other countries in Europe and Asia, but not as a duplicate of the American practice. Rather, there is a considerable diversity in the incidence and the nature of activist hedge fund campaigns around the world. What remains unclear, however, is what dictates how commonplace and multifaceted hedge fund activism will be in a particular country.
The Article addresses this issue by pioneering a new approach to understanding the underpinnings and the role of hedge fund activism, in which an activist hedge fund first selects a target company that presents high-value opportunities for engagement (entry stage), accumulates a nontrivial stake (trading stage), then determines and employs its activist strategy (disciplining stage), and finally exits (exit stage). The Article then identifies legal parameters for each activist stage and empirically examines why the incidence, objectives and strategies of activist hedge fund campaigns differ across countries. The analysis is based on 432 activist hedge fund campaigns during the period of 2000-2010 across 25 countries.
The findings suggest that the extent to which legal parameters matter depends on the stage that hedge fund activism has reached. Mandatory disclosure and rights bestowed on shareholders by corporate law are found to dictate how commonplace hedge fund activism will be in a particular country (entry stage). Moreover, the examination of the activist ownership stakes reveals that ownership disclosure rules have important ramifications for the trading stage of an activist campaign. At the disciplining stage, however, there is little support that the activist objectives and the employed strategies are a reflection of the shareholder protection regime of the country in which the target company is located.
September 25, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, M&A, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Teaching the definition of a "security" to business associations students who: 1) want to be litigators; 2) are afraid of math, finance, and accounting; 3) don't know anything about business; 4) only take the class because it's required; and 5) aren't allowed to distract themselves with electronics in class is no small feat.
Thankfully, as we were discussing the definition and exemptions, we also touched on IPOs. Many of the students knew nothing about IPOs but were already Alibaba customers and going through some of the registration statement made them understand the many reasons companies want to avoid going public. Of course, now that we went through some of the risk factors, my students who seemed gung ho about the IPO after watching some videos about the hype were a little less excited about it (good thing because they probably couldn't buy anyway).
Now if I can only figure out how to jazz up the corporate finance chapter next week.
September 18, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Practitioners and academics alike should be interested in yesterday's announcement by that the SEC that it is bringing an insider trading enforcement action against a law firm IT employee for allegedly trading based on the firm's merger work for clients. The employee allegedly made over $300,000 in a several year scheme of trading based upon client information. The U.S. Attorney's Office filed related criminal charges against the employee.
Donna Nagy at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, in her article, Insider Trading and the Gradual Demise of Fiduciary Principles, explains the theory of liability which extends the insider trading scope to law firm employees:
Under the alternative “misappropriation” theory endorsed by the Court in United States v. O’Hagan, persons “outside” the issuing corporation can likewise violate Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5. Such a violation occurs when a fiduciary personally profits from a securities transaction through undisclosed use of a principal’s material nonpublic information. Thus, as the Court explained, whereas the classical theory “premis[es] liability on a fiduciary relationship between company insider and purchaser or seller of the company’s stock, the misappropriation theory premises liability on a fiduciary-turned-trader’s deception of those who entrusted him with access to confidential information.”
The SEC, in its release cautioned that "Insider trading by employees of law firms and other professional organizations is an important enforcement focus for us."
Thursday, September 11, 2014
As I predicted in 2011 here and here, in 2012 here, in 2013 in amicus brief, and countless times on this blog, the SEC Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals law has had significant unintended consequences on the Congolese people and has been difficult to comply with. Apparently the Commerce Department, which has a role to play in determining which mines are controlled by rebels so that US issuers can stay away from them, can't actually figure it out either. In the past few days, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and other experts including seventy individuals and NGOS (some Congolese) who signed a memo, have called this misguided law into question. In my view, without the "name and shame" aspect of the law, it is basically an extremely expensive, onerous due diligence requirement that only a few large companies can or have the incentive to do well or thoroughly. More important, and I as I expected, it has had little impact on the violence on the ground and has hurt the people it purported to help.
I had hoped to be wrong. The foundation that I work with helps medical practitioners, midwives, and traditional birth attendants in eastern Congo and many of their patients and neighbors are members of the artisanal mining community. I won’t go as far as Steve Bainbridge has in calling for the law’s repeal because I think that companies should do better due diligence of their supply chains, especially in conflict zones. This law, however, is not the right one for Congo and the SEC is not the right agency to address this human rights crisis. Frankly, I don’t know that the EU's voluntary certification is the right answer either. I hope that Canada, which is looking at a similar rule, pays close heed and doesn’t perpetuate the same mistake that the US Congress made and that the SEC exacerbated. In the meantime, I will stay tuned to see how and if the courts, Congress, and the SEC revisit the rule.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Behemoth proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services has released its 2015 Policy Survey. I have listed some of the questions below:
Which of the following statements best reflects your organization's view about the relationship between goalsetting and award values?
Is there a threshold at which you consider that the magnitude of a CEO’scompensation should warrant concern even if the company’s absolute and relative performance have been positive, for example, outperforming the peer group?
With respect to evaluating the say on pay advisory vote, how does your organization view disclosed positive changes to the pay program that will be implemented in the succeeding year(s) when a company demonstrates pay for performance misalignment or other concerns based on the year in review?
If you chose either the first or second answer in the question above, should shareholders expect disclosure of specific details of such future positive changes (e.g., metrics, performance goals, award values, effective dates) in order for the changes to be considered as a potential mitigator for pay for performance or other concerns for the year in review?
Where a board adopts without shareholder approval a material bylaw amendment that diminishes shareholders' rights, what approach should be used when evaluating board accountability?
Should directors be held accountable if shareholder unfriendly provisions were adopted prior to the company’s IPO?
In general, how does your organization consider gender diversity when evaluating boards?
As a general matter, what weight (relative out of 100%) would you view as appropriate for each of the categories indicated below (notwithstanding that some factors, such as repricing without shareholder approval, may be 100% unacceptable)?
How significant are the following factors when evaluating the board's role in risk oversight in your voting decision on directors (very significant, somewhat significant, not significant)?
In making informed voting decisions on the ratification of the outside auditor and the reelection of members of audit committees, how important (very important/somewhat important/not important) would the following disclosures be to you?
In your view, when is it appropriate for a company to utilize quantitative E&S (environmental and social) performance goals?
As someone who studies and consults on corporate governance issues, I look forward to seeing the results of this survey. However, the US Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Market Competitiveness, which has argued that ISS and other proxy advisory firms have conflicts of interest and lack transparency, has issued a response to ISS because:
The CCMC is concerned that the development of the Survey lacks a foundation based on empirical facts and creates a one-size-fits-all system that failure to take into account the different unique needs of companies and their investors. We believe that these flaws with the Survey can adversely affect advisory recommendations negatively impacting the decision making process for the clients of proxy advisory firms. The CCMC is also troubled that certain issues presented in the Survey, such as Pay for Performance, will be the subject of Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) rulemakings in the near future. While we have provided commentary to those portions of the Survey, we believe that their inclusion in the survey is premature pending the completion of those rulemakings….It is both surprising and very troublesome that the Survey does not contain a single reference to the paramount concern of investors and portfolio managers—public company efforts to maintain and enhance shareholder value—and seeks to elicit only abstract philosophies and opinions, completely eschewing any pretense of an interest in obtaining hard facts and empirically-significant data. This confirmation—that ISS’ policies and recommendations are based solely on a miniscule sampling of philosophical preferences, rather than empirical data—is itself a matter that requires, but does not yet receive, appropriate disclosure and disclaimers on ISS research reports.
The CCMC’s letter details concerns with each of ISS’ questions. Both the complete survey and the CCMC response are worth a read.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Thanks for your informative post, Anne. I started drafting this post as a comment to yours, and then I realized it was its own post. [sigh]
It seems to me that the U.S. Department of HHS and any commentators must grapple with what has been a difficult, fact-based question in determining how to define “closely held” to effectuate the Supreme Court’s intent in as expressed in the Hobby Lobby opinion. That question? What "control" means in this context.
The Court said in the Hobby Lobby opinion: “The companies in the cases before us are closely held corporations, each owned and controlled by members of a single family, and no one has disputed the sincerity of their religious beliefs.” More specifically, the Court notes that the Hahns (owners of shares in Conestoga) “control its board of directors and hold all of its voting shares” and notes that Hobby Lobby and Mardel “remain closely held, and David, Barbara, and their children retain exclusive control of both companies.” [Emphasis has been added by me in each quote.]
The definition of “control” primarily has been a question of fact in business law, making the task of defining it here somewhat difficult. Some questions and considerations to grapple with are set forth below the fold. I am sure that others can come up with more. I am posting these as a way of getting the collective juices flowing.
Monday, August 25, 2014
This follows on Ann's post yesterday on Gender and Crowdfunding. Ann, so glad you've joined me and Steve Bradford as securities crowdfunding watchers! Delighted to have you in that informal, somewhat disgruntled "club."
I have been interested in whether securities crowdfunding will democratize business finance. (I note here that Steve Bradford's comment to Ann's post raises the broader question of crowdfunding's ability to better engage underrepresented populations in general.) My interest has, however, been more on the investor (backer) side of the crowdfunding equation than on the business (entrepreneur) side.
As Ann notes, given the delay in the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rulemaking under Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, the information on gender and crowdfunding that we have so far comes from other types of crowdfunding. This information may or may not map well to markets in securities crowdfunding. But it's still worth reviewing the information that we do have.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Two news articles about the Dodd-Frank whistleblower law caught my eye this week. The first was an Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which Joe Nocera profiled a Mass Mutual whistleblower, who received a $400,000 reward—the upper level of the 10-30% of financial recoveries to which Dodd-Frank whistleblowers are entitled.
Regular readers of this blog may know that I met with the SEC, regulators and testified before Congress before the law went into effect about what I thought might be unintended effects on compliance programs. I have blogged about my thoughts on the law here and here.
The Mass Mutual whistleblower, Bill Lloyd, complained internally and repeatedly to no avail. Like most whistleblowers, he went external because he felt that no one at his company took his reports seriously. He didn’t go to the SEC for the money. As I testified, people like him who try to do the right thing and try resolve issues within the company (if possible) deserve a reward if their claims have merit.
The second story had a different ending. The Wall Street Journal reported on the Second Circuit opinion supporting Siemens’ claim that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation protection did not extend to its foreign whistleblowing employees. In that case, everything-- the alleged wrongful conduct, the internal reporting, and the termination--happened abroad. The employee did disclose to the SEC, but only after he was terminated, and therefore his retaliation claim relates to his internal reports. The court's reasoning about the lack of extraterritorial jurisdiction was sound, but this ruling may be a victory for multinationals that may unintentionally undermine the efforts to bring certain claims to internal compliance officers.
I proudly serve as a “management representative” on the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee with union members, outside counsel, corporate representatives, and academics. Although Dodd-Frank is not in our purview, two dozen other laws, including Sarbanes-Oxley are, and we regularly hear from other agencies including the SEC. I will be thinking of these two news articles at our next meeting in September.
I will also explore these issues and others as the moderator of the ABA 8th Annual Section of Labor and Employment Law Conference, which will be held in Los Angeles, November 5-8, 2014. Panelists include Sean McKessey, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, Mike Delikat of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, and Jordan A. Thomas of Labaton Sucharow LLP.
The program is as follows:
Program Title: Whistleblower Rewards: Trends and Emerging Issues in Qui Tam Actions and IRS, SEC & CFTC Whistleblower Rewards Claims
Description: This session will explore the types of claims that qualify for rewards under the False Claims Act and the rewards programs administered by the Securities & Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Internal Revenue Service, the quantity and quality of evidence needed by the DOJ, IRS, SEC, and CFTC to investigate a case successfully, and current trends in the investigation and prosecution of whistleblower disclosures. The panel also will address, from the viewpoint of in-house counsel, the interplay between these reward claims and corporate compliance and reporting obligations.
If you can think of questions or issues I should raise at either the DOL meeting in DC next month or with our panelists in November, please email me at email@example.com or leave your comments below.
Monday, August 18, 2014
OK. So, I am stretching a bit here. But yoga may be considered a sport, athletic clothing is a kind of fashion, and securities fraud prohibitions and corporate director fiduciary duty involve law. So, I stand by my blog title in the face of any criticism that may follow this post.
I do yoga four times a week when I am not traveling. I also work out, sometimes on days when I am not doing yoga. So, I have a fair number of pieces of yoga wear and other athletic clothing. This means that I get regular mail and email solicitations from the firms that purvey these clothing items.
I recently received a catalog from one of my favorite athletic clothing brands, Sweaty Betty, which I discovered originally when I was teaching in Cambridge, England in one of our study abroad programs a few years ago. I noticed, with some amusement, that the new catalog harps on the opacity of the firm's yoga bottoms or trousers (as the British like to call them). The website does the same--"100% opaque" labels abound. As an astute consumer and securities lawyer, I immediately jumped to the conclusion, whether right or wrong, that this yoga-bottoms advertising campaign is a reaction to the see-through yoga pants debacle of one of Sweaty Betty's competitors, Lululemon (another of my favorite brands).
What does business law have to do with this (apart from the many standard legal angles on the recall of products generally)? As my securities regulation students from last spring well know (since it was the subject of part of their final exam), stockholders of Lululemon brought a securities fraud class action suit against Lululemon, after the recall of the see-through pants, based on alleged misrepresentations of material fact in public disclosures touting the high quality of its yoga pants. Predictably (at least imho), the District Court dismissed the action back in April. The court's opinion and order resulted in a few interesting online law firm commentaries with colorful titles (including posts from, e.g., Orrick and Weil). The public fallout also includes (as most would guess) allegations of breaches of fiduciary duty and observations about insider trading and Rule 10b5-1 plans because of some well-timed trades by Lululemon's founder and then-CEO.
As we think about the new semester (ours starts on Wednesday), the Sweaty Betty catalog reminded me to bring the Lululemon matter to the attention of our law faculty readers. The facts and public reactions make for a nice case study of risk management in the context of securities regulation and fiduciary duty law. A Stanford "Closer Look" piece, as well as many news reports, make the use of the case reasonably easy. And for those of you who want to take a peak at my exam question, just ask . . . .
Thursday, August 14, 2014
A brief ten-question survey is one of the most effective tools I have used in my three years as an academic. I first used one when teaching professional responsibility and then used it for my employment law, corporate governance seminar, and business associations courses. I’m using it for the first time with my civil procedure students. I count class participation in all of my classes for a portion of their grade, and responding to the survey link by the first day of class is their first “A” or first “F” of the semester.
I use survey monkey but other services would work as well. The survey serves a number of uses. First, I will get an idea of how many students actually read my emails before next Tuesday’s first day of class—interestingly as of Thursday morning, 62% of my incoming 1Ls have completed their survey, while 42% of the BA students have done theirs. Second, my BA students work in mini law firms for a number of drafting exercises and simulations. The students can pick their own firms, but I designate a “financial expert” to each firm based upon the survey responses. I remind them that they should never leave the classroom thinking they are “experts” in the real world-- they are just experts compared to the "terrified." I use this tactic to avoid having all of the MBAs and bitcoin owners (yes, I had some last year) sit together and unintentionally intimidate the other firms with their perceived advantage.
Third, I get an idea of how students have learned about business prior to BA and what news sources they use. Fourth, I tailor my remarks and hypotheticals (when appropriate) to reach the litigators or those who plan to specialize in nontransactional work. I want them to know how BA will relate to the practice areas they think they will enter. I tell them on the first day that I went to Columbia for college because it didn’t have a math requirement and I planned to do public interest work, went to law school because the LSAT was the only graduate school entrance exam that had no math on it (ok- my professor Jack Greenberg at Columbia also said I should go). I tell them that I became a litigator to avoid business and spent my first years as a non-corporate person having to learn about FASB and the definition of a "security" because I was a big-firm commercial litigator. I tell them that when I went in-house I had to take accounting for lawyers and although I don’t love the accounting, we will discuss some basics because they never know where they will end up. Many of them mat even represent entrepreneurs. My first day speech is meant to reach the 79% of my students (as of this morning) who say they want to be litigators.
Finally, I feel as though I’m not walking in on the first day completely ignorant of my students. I often use the names or storylines from popular shows or movies in class when I can. The show Suits, by the way, is the runaway favorite for my 1Ls and I know my BA students watch it as well. My BA survey questions are below. If you are interested in seeing my Civ Pro questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Please enter your first and last name. If your name is hard to pronounce, please provide a phonetic spelling as well (rhymes with ___ or NUH-RHINE for Narine).
2. Have you had any experience working in a legal setting (firm, court, agency, clinic, other) BEFORE coming to law school or DURING law school? Please answer yes or no and then describe the experience if you answered "yes".
a) Yes- please complete comment box
Other (please specify)
3. Which type of practice appeals to you more?
a) Planning (e.g. transactional)
b) Dispute resolution (e.g. litigation)
c) I do not plan to practice law after graduation
Other (please specify)
4. Have you or a close family member ever owned a business?
Yes, and I have been completely involved in management and/or business discussions
Yes, and I have been somewhat or occasionally involved in management and/or business discussions
Yes, but I have had no involvement in management and/or business discussions
5. Do you own any stocks, bonds, other types of securities (individually or through a mutual fund or trust) or bitcoin?
6. Choose up to THREE fields of law in which you would most prefer to practice
b) civil rights/constitutional law
c) corporate and securities law (including business planning)
d) criminal law (prosecution)
e) criminal law (defense)
f) labor and employment law
g) trusts and estates
h) family law
i) health law
k) intellectual property
l) real estate/land use
m) litigation (plaintiff side)
n) litigation (defense side)
o) sports and entertainment
q) other, please describe
Other (please specify)
7. Do you have an MBA, business, finance, accounting, or economics degree?
8. Do you read any business related newspapers, magazines or blogs? Do you watch any business-related television shows or listen to podcasts or radio shows? If so, please name them.
9. Other than to pass the class, what are your learning goals for this course? Are there particular topics that interest or frighten you?
10. Please describe your level of familiarity with business, finance and/or accounting.
I am an expert and could teach this class
I have some experience, but could use a refresher
I have no experience, but am willing to learn
I am completely terrified
My goals this year: help my students think like business people so that they can add value, help them pass the bar, and most important, help them realize that business isn't so terrifying. Now I just have to get my Civ Pro students to realize that the show Franklin and Bash is probably not the best way to learn about legal practice.
August 14, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching, Television | Permalink | Comments (3)
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Alternative mutual funds, with assets under management reported from $300-500 billion, mimic riskier investment strategies employed by hedge funds such as investing in commodities, private debt, shorting assets and complex derivatives. The trading strategies, as you can guess, are funded through higher fees charged to investors. The funds are touted as a new way for mainstream investors to diversify their assets. Forbes ran a great, short piece back in February describing the investment advantages and disadvantages of alternative mutual funds.
These alternative mutual funds are now in the cross hairs of the SEC and FINRA, the self-regulatory branch of the securities industries. FINRA issued an Investor Alert on "alt" funds in June, available here. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the SEC will conduct a limited scope (15-20 funds) national sweep to identify fund oversight, ready assets, and disclosure of investment strategies. Included in the funds sweep are large investment firms such as BlackRock and AQR Capital Management, as well smaller firms that are new market entrants.
Monday, August 11, 2014
Ah, yes . . . . The public/private divide . . . . My co-blogger Ann Lipton fairly begged me to write about this topic today, given that she had to miss the discussion session on the subject (entitled "Does The Public/Private Divide In Federal Securities Regulation Make Sense?") convened by me and Michael Guttentag at last week's Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) annual conference. Arm-twisting aside, however, this is a topic of current interest (and actively engaged scholarship) for me.
The discussion session allowed a bunch of our corporate and securities law colleagues to explore historical, present, and projected future distinctions between public and private offerings and public and private companies/firms. The discussion ranged widely, as did the short papers submitted by the participants. Some topics of conversation were oriented in part toward corporate governance concerns--comments from Lisa Fairfax on linkages to shareholder empowerment and from Jill Fisch on executive compensation in the post-Dodd-Frank public environment come to mind in this regard. Other discussion topics engaged securities regulation more centrally, including by, e.g., questioning the coherence of the rationale underlying the Section 12(g) and 15(d) reporting thresholds (with interesting commentary from Amanda Rose and Usha Rodrigues); offering historical observations about the difference between public offerings and private placements and how that history does, should, and may play out in offering markets (Dale Oesterle and Wulf Kaal); expressing concern about accredited investor status in the wake of the new Rule 506(c) under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (Jonathan Glater); and analyzing the CROWDFUND Act at the public/private offering and company divides (me).
Different notions of "publicness" and "privateness" were offered up, dissected, and used in the discussion. Many pointed to the formative work of Hillary Sale (The New 'Public' Corporation, Public Governance, and J.P. Morgan: An Anatomy of Corporate Publicness) and Don Langevoort and Bob Thompson (Redrawing the Public-Private Boundaries in Entrepreneurial Capital-Raising and 'Publicness' in Contemporary Securities Regulation after the JOBS Act) as important touchstones. Both sets of papers address issues involving the publicness of firms. The Langevoort and Thompson Redrawing article also addresses public and private offerings of securities on a detailed level.
Yet, not everyone anchored their ideas to these existing works. One participant (Ben Means) provocatively suggested, for example, analyzing public disclosure rules using the bumpy-versus-smooth taxonomy for legal rules described in Adam Kolber's recent California Law Review article. I was not familiar with this piece. I now plan to read it.
Many discussants denied the continued existence or salience of a public/private divide in securities regulation, believing instead that there is a sliding scale or continuum between public and private. Although this argument has more traction after the JOBS Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, evidence of an indistinct line both in finance and entity law predates those legislative initiatives. Some of us were uncomfortable in declaring the death of the public/private divide--or in letting go of the analytical distinction between publicness and privateness because of the role that it serves in scholarship and teaching. The public/private divide has been a heuristic in securities regulation that people find hard to abandon . . . .
My paper, which is founded on the works of Professors Langevoort, Sale, and Thompson, is forthcoming in the University of Cincinnati Law Review. Although the draft is not "ready for Prime Time" yet, I am happy to share it with anyone who may be interested in it. Other papers submitted for the discussion group may or may not be precursors to works in process. But you can contact any discussion group participant (or ask me to contact one or more participants on your behalf) if you want to explore their ideas further.
Although I am not yet fully ready to step back into the classroom to teach next week, I am better prepared for the experience (and for the research and writing I am doing) thanks to the SEALS conference. And now, to finish that syllabus . . . .
Thursday, August 7, 2014
On June 5, 2014, SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher commemorated the agency’s 80th anniversary by, among other things, repeating the criticisms of the various nonfinancial disclosures that companies are compelled to make by law or asked to make through shareholder proposals. In his view, “companies’ disclosure documents are being cluttered with non-material information that can drown out or obscure the information that is at the core of a reasonable investor’s investment decision. The Commission is not spending nearly enough time making sure that our rules elicit focused, meaningful disclosures of material information.” I assume that he is referring to the various environmental, social and governance proposals (“ESG”) brought by socially responsible investors and others. I’m writing this blog post while taking a break from reviewing dozens of these proposals for an article that I am writing on how consumers and investors evaluate ESG disclosures and those required in other countries in the human rights context.
Citing Chair White’s quote about “information overload,” last week the US Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness released a list of relatively non-controversial recommendations on how the SEC can modernize the current disclosure regime so that it can better serve the investing public. For a great discussion of what led to this latest round of disclosure reform see here. Some of the recommendations concern items that technology can handle. Others concern repetition and relate to factors that the SEC does not require but are there to avoid litigation. The report, entitled “Corporate Disclosure Effectiveness: Ensuring a Balanced System that Informs and Protects Investors and Facilitates Capital Formation,” focuses on near-term improvements to Regulation S-K that the Chamber believes would likely garner widespread support. The report also discusses longer-term proposals, but does not discuss in any detail the kinds of issues that Chair Gallagher and others raise. You can also watch an entire webcast of the panel discussion releasing the report featuring, among others, two former SEC Commissioners, current SEC Director of the Division of Corporate Finance Keith Higgins, and issuers counsel, including my former colleague from Ryder, Flora Perez, here (start at minute 19:45).
Full disclosure-- I was part of the working group that reviewed some of the recommendations and gave comments before the report’s release, and while I also oppose the conflict minerals disclosure because I don’t think it should be within the SEC’s purview and didn’t take into account some of the realities of the modern supply chain, I don’t have a complete aversion to corporate disclosure of ESG or other risk factors to investors and the public. The who, what, why, how, where and when are the key questions.
Below is a list of all of the recommendations for reform taken directly from the Chamber’s one-pager:
Near Term Improvements:
The requirement to disclose in a company’s Form 10-K the “general development” of a business, including the nature and results of any bankruptcy, acquisition, or other significant development in the lifecycle of a business (Item 101(a)(1) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose financial information for different geographic areas in which a company operates (Item 101(d) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose whether investors can obtain a hard copy of a company’s filings free of charge or view them in the SEC’s Public Reference Room (Items 101(e)(2) and (e)(4) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to describe principal plants, mines, and other materially important physical properties (Item 102 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement that companies discuss material legal proceedings (Item 103 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose which public market a company’s shares are traded on and the high and low share prices for the preceding two years (Items 201(a)(1)(i), (ii), (iii), and (iv) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose the frequency and amount of dividends for a company’s stock during the preceding two years (Item 201(c) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to display a graph showing the company’s stock performance over a period of time (Item 201(e) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose any changes in and disagreements with accountants (Item 304 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose certain transactions with related parties (Item 404(a) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose the ratio between earnings and fixed charges (Item 503(d) of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to file certain exhibits (Item 601 of Regulation S-K)
The requirement to disclose recent sales of unregistered securities and a description of the use of proceeds from registered sales (Item 701 of Regulation S-K)
Longer Term Improvements:
Compensation Discussion & Analysis (CD&A)
Management’s Discussion and Analysis (MD&A)
A Revised Delivery System
Take a look at the list, read the report which describes the Chamber's rationale, and if you have time watch the webcast, which provides some real-world context. What’s missing from the list? What shouldn’t be on the list? Have you seen anything in your practice or teaching that could inform the debate? I look forward to seeing your feedback on this site or via email at email@example.com
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Warning- do not click on the first link if you do not want to see nudity.
Dov Charney founded retailer American Apparel in 1998 and it became an instant sensation with its 20-something year old consumer base. He mixed a "made in America- sweatshop free" CSR focus with a very sexy/sexual set of ads (hence the warning- - when I first created the link, the slideshow went from a topless “Eugenia in disco pants in menthe” (seriously) to a shot of adorable children’s clothing in about 10 seconds). No wonder my 18-year old son, who leaves for art school in two weeks, appreciates the ad campaigns. Most of his friends do too- both the males and females. In fact, he indicated that although they all know about the “sweatshop free” ethos, because “it’s in your face when you walk in the stores,” that’s not what draws them to the clothes. As a person who blogs and writes about human rights and supply chains, I almost wish he had lied to me. But he’s no different than many consumers who over-report their interest in ethical sourcing, but then tend to buy based on quality, price and convenience. I am still researching this issue for my upcoming article on CSR, disclosure regimes and human rights but see here, here, here and here for some sources I have used in the past. My son’s friends--the retailer’s target demographic-- appreciate that the clothes are “sweatshop free” but don’t make their buying decisions because of it. They buy because of the clothes and to a lesser extent, the ads.
The first time I ever really thought about the store was after a 2005 20/20 expose about Charney, who was accused of, among other things, sexually harassing and intimidating numerous employees. At the time I was a management-side employment lawyer and corporate compliance officer and thought to myself “what a nightmare for whomever has to defend him.” It’s pretty hard to shock an employment lawyer, but the allegations, which continued until his ouster last month, were pretty egregious. After over 10 years of lawsuits, the company terminated him for breaching his fiduciary duty, violating company policy, and misusing corporate assets.
Recently, American Apparel’s employment practices liability insurance rose from $350,000 to $1 million, I can only assume, because of his actions and not due to the other 10,000 company employees. The company has been sued repeatedly by the EEOC and not just for sexual allegations. Purportedly, the company, which has never traded above $7.00 a share and today is a steal at $.97, could not get financing from some sources as long as Charney was at the helm.
My son and his friends did not know about the termination or the harassment allegations over the years, but he says that the nature of the allegations could have caused some of his friends to stop and think about whether they wanted to patronize the stores. I have some 30-something friends who refuse to shop there. Could this be why the store chose to add a female director? As I explained to a reporter last week, the company shouldn’t need a female perspective to realize that the founder is, to put it mildly, a risk. And in fact, as studies cited by my co-blogger Josh Fershee noted earlier this week, being the “woman’s voice” may minimize her perceived effectiveness. Yes, it’s true that American Apparel took more decisive action than the NFL last week, as Joan Heminway observed, but what took them so long? Is it too little too late? Where was the general counsel when Charney allegedly refused to take his sexual harassment training, which is required by law in California every two years? Where were the other board members who allowed the settlement of case after case involving Charney? I have often found that some of the most vigilant supporters of women in the workplace, especially in harassment matters, are older males who have daughters and wives and who know what it’s like for them. When did the board worry about whether the CEO's well-publicized alleged attacks on employees contradicted the heavy corporate responsibility branding? Did the board meet its Caremark duties?
Ironically, the company’s 10-K filed two months before his termination indicated that, “In particular, we believe we have benefited substantially from the leadership and strategic guidance of Dov Charney. The loss of Dov Charney would be particularly harmful as he is considered intimately connected to our brand identity and is the principal driving force behind our core concepts, designs and growth strategy.”
So at what point between April and June did Charney’s actions go off the scale on the enterprise risk management heat map? COSO, the standard bearer for ERM, encourages boards to focus on: what the firm is willing to accept as it pursues shareholder value; a knowledge of management’s risk management processes that have identified and assessed the most significant enterprise-wide risks; a review of the risk portfolio compared to the risk appetite; and whether management is properly responding to the most significant risks and apprising the board of those risks. Could such an objective risk assessment have even occurred with Charney (the risk) in the room? How could the company have the right tone at the top when the founder/CEO failed to comply with Code of Ethics Rule #2 --“service to the Company never should be subordinated to personal gain and advantage”? The stock price has been falling for years and the company has been struggling. Did the high rates to insure Charney’s conduct finally become too hot to handle? On the other hand, would the directors have made the same decision if the shares were trading at $97 instead of .97? Some shareholders are raising concerns too about why any of the original board members remain given the appalling financial performance.
The board now has a “suitability committee,” which will review the results of an independent investigation into Charney’s actions. Even if the report clears Charney and he’s brought back, the new independent directors will have a lot of questions to answer. The question of whether there is a woman on the board seems to be almost irrelevant given the history. For the record, even though the literature is mixed on the financial benefits of gender and racial diversity, I am a strong proponent of the diversity of viewpoints, particularly those that the underrepresented can bring to the table.
But this board needs to re-establish trust among its investors and funders and then focus on what any retailer should- potential supply chain disruptions, the impact of any immigration reform, currency fluctuations, and keeping their customer base happy and out of competitors H & M and Forever 21. The last thing they need to worry about is how to pay off the victims of their founder’s latest escapades.