Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Last year, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on law and entrepreneurship hosted at the University of North Carolina. Although I had to Skype in for my presentation from Little Rock, Arkansas (where I had just given a separate, unrelated CLE presentation), the panel to which I was assigned was fabulous. Great scholars, with great ideas.
For my contribution to the symposium, I chose to reflect on the unfulfilled promise of the potentially mutually beneficial relationship between an entrepreneur and a business finance lawyer. I recently posted the published work memorializing my thoughts on the topic, featured this spring with several other articles from the symposium in a dedicated edition of the North Carolina Law Review. The brief abstract for my article follows:
Entrepreneurs have the capacity to add value to the economy and the community. Business lawyers—including business finance lawyers—want to help entrepreneurs achieve their objectives. Despite incentives to a symbiotic relationship, however, entrepreneurs and business finance lawyers are not always the best of friends. This Article offers several approaches to bridging this gap between entrepreneurs and business finance lawyers.
My hope in writing this article was to infuse some energy into conversations about the role of business finance and business finance lawyers in the start-up and small business environment. Too many principals of emergent businesses with whom I interact think that business entity choice and formation are divorced--wholly or in major part--from finance. Of course, governance and tax matters (as well as, e.g., intellectual property and employment law concerns) are key. But my personal view is that entrepreneurs and promoters of new businesses should map out their plan for financing firms from the start and take that plan into account in choosing the form of legal entity for those businesses. I may be fighting an uphill battle on this (for a variety of reasons, mostly relating to the limited resource environment in which start-ups and small businesses exist), but I hope the article gives both clients and lawyers in this space something to consider, at the very least.
Friday, July 7, 2017
Bernard Sharfman has written another interesting article on shareholder empowerment. I wish I had read A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs before I discussed the Snap IPO last semester in business associations.
The abstract is below:
The shareholder empowerment movement (movement) has renewed its effort to eliminate, restrict or at the very least discourage the use of dual class share structures in initial public offerings (IPOs). This renewed effort was triggered by the recent Snap Inc. IPO that utilized non-voting stock. Such advocacy, if successful, would not be trivial, as many of our most valuable and dynamic companies, including Alphabet (Google) and Facebook, have gone public by offering shares with unequal voting rights.
This Article utilizes Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s “principal-cost theory” to argue that the use of the dual class share structure in IPOs is a value enhancing result of the bargaining that takes place in the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements, making the movement’s renewed advocacy unwarranted.
As he has concluded:
It is important to understand that while excellent arguments can be made that the private ordering of dual class share structures must incorporate certain provisions, such as sunset provisions, it is an overreach for academics and shareholder activists to dictate to sophisticated capital market participants, the ones who actually take the financial risk of investing in IPOs, including those with dual class share structures, how to structure corporate governance arrangements. Obviously, all the sophisticated players in the capital markets who participate in an IPO with dual class shares can read the latest academic articles on dual class share structures, including the excellent new article by Lucian Bebchuk and Kobi Kastiel, and incorporate that information in the bargaining process without being dictated to by parties who are not involved in the process. If, as a result of this bargaining, the dual class share structure has no sunset provision and perhaps even no voting rights in the shares offered, then we must conclude that these terms were what the parties required in order to get the deal done, with the risks of the structure being well understood.… capital markets paternalism is not required when it comes to IPOs with dual class share structures.
Please be sure to share your comments with Bernard below.
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
More than two years ago, I posted Shareholder Activists Can Add Value and Still Be Wrong, where I explained my view on shareholder proposals:
I have no problem with shareholders seeking to impose their will on the board of the companies in which they hold stock. I don't see activist shareholder as an inherently bad thing. I do, however, think it's bad when boards succumb to the whims of activist shareholders just to make the problem go away. Boards are well served to review serious requests of all shareholders, but the board should be deciding how best to direct the company. It's why we call them directors.
Today, the Detroit Free Press reported that shareholders of automaker GM soundly defeated a proposal from billionaire investor David Einhorn that would have installed an alternate slate of board nominees and created two classes of stock. (All the proposals are available here.) Shareholders who voted were against the proposals by more than 91%. GM's board, in materials signed by Mary Barra, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer and Theodore Solso, Independent Lead Director, launched an aggressive campaign to maintain the existing board (PDF here) and the split shares proposal (PDF here). GM argued in the board maintenance piece:
Greenlight’s Dividend Shares proposal has the potential to disrupt our progress and undermine our performance. In our view, a vote for any of the Greenlight candidates would represent an endorsement of that high-risk proposal to the detriment of your GM investment.
Another shareholder proposal asking the board to separate the board chair and CEO positions was reported by the newspaper as follows: "A separate shareholder proposal that would have forced GM to separate the role of independent board chairman and CEO was defeated by shareholders." Not sure. Though the proposal was defeated, it's worth noting that the proposal would not have "forced" anything. The proposal was an "advisory shareholder proposal" requesting the separation of the functions. No mandate here, because such decisions must be made by the board, not the shareholders. The proposal stated:
Shareholders request our Board of Directors to adopt as policy, and amend our governing documents as necessary, to require the Chair of the Board of Directors, whenever possible, to be an independent member of the Board. The Board would have the discretion to phase in this policy for the next CEO transition, implemented so it did not violate any existing agreement. If the Board determines that a Chair who was independent when selected is no longer independent, the Board shall select a new Chair who satisfies the requirements of the policy within a reasonable amount of time. Compliance with this policy is waived if no independent director is available and willing to serve as Chair. This proposal requests that all the necessary steps be taken to accomplish the above.
GM argued against this proposal because the "policy advocated by this proposal would take away the Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure." Also not true. It the proposal were mandatory, then this would be true, but as a request, it cannot and could not take away anything. If the shareholders made such a request and the board declined to follow that request, there might be repercussions for doing so, but the proposal would have kept in place the "Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure."
These proposals appear to have been properly brought, properly considered, and properly rejected. As I suggested in 2015, shareholder activists can help improve long-term value, even when following the activists' proposals would not. That is just as true today and these proposals may well prime the pumpTM for future board or shareholder actions. That is, GM has conceded that its stock is undervalued and that change is needed. GM argues those changes are underway, and for now, most voting shareholder agree. But we'll see how this looks if the stock price has not noticeably improved next year. An alternative path forward on some key issues has been shared, and that puts pressure on this board to deliver. They can do it their own way, but they are on notice that there are alternatives. An shareholders now know that, too.
This knowledge underscores the value of shareholder proposals as a process. They can and should create accountability, and that is a good thing. I agree with GM that the board should keep control of how it structures the GM leadership team. But I agree with the shareholders that if this board doesn't perform, it may well be time for a change.
June 6, 2017 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, May 20, 2017
Loyalty has been in the news lately. The POTUS, according to some reports, asked former Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") Director James Comey to pledge his loyalty. Assuming the basic veracity of those reports, was the POTUS referring to loyalty to the country or to him personally? Perhaps both and perhaps, as Peter Beinart avers in The Atlantic, the POTUS and others fail to recognize a distinction between the two. Yet, identifying the object of a duty can be important.
I have observed that the duty of government officials is not well understood in the public realm. Donna Nagy's fine work on this issue in connection with the proposal of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge ("STOCK") Act, later adopted by Congress, outlines a number of ways in which Congressmen and Senators, among others, may owe fiduciary duties to others. If you have not yet been introduced to this scholarship, I highly recommend it. If we believe that government officials are entrusted with information, among other things, in their capacity as public servants, they owe duties to the government and its citizens to use that information in authorized ways for the benefit of that government and those citizens. In fact, Professor Nagy's congressional testimony as part of the hearings on the STOCK Act includes the following in this regard:
Given the Constitution's repeated reference to public offices being “of trust,” and Members’ oath of office to “faithfully discharge” their duties, I would predict that a court would be highly likely to find that Representatives and Senators owe fiduciary-like duties of trust and confidence to a host of parties who may be regarded as the source of material nonpublic congressional knowledge. Such duties of trust and confidence may be owed to, among others:
- the citizen-investors they serve;
- the United States;
- the general public;
- Congress, as well as the Senate or the House;
- other Members of Congress; and
- federal officials outside of Congress who rely on a Member’s loyalty and integrity.
There is precious little in federal statutes, regulations, and case law on the nature--no less the object--of any fiduciary the Director of the FBI may have. The authorizing statute and regulations provide little illumination. Federal court opinions give us little more. See, e.g., Banks v. Francis, No. 2:15-CV-1400, 2015 WL 9694627, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2015), report and recommendation adopted, No. CV 15-1400, 2016 WL 110020 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2016) ("Plaintiff does not identify any specific, mandatory duty that the federal officials — Defendants Hornak, Brennan, and the FBI Director— violated; he merely refers to an overly broad duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution and to see justice done."). Accordingly, any applicable fiduciary duty likely would arise out of agency or other common law. Section 8.01 of the Restatement (Third) of Agency provides "An agent has a fiduciary duty to act loyally for the principal's benefit in all matters connect with the agency relationship."
But who is the principal in any divined agency relationship involving the FBI Director?
Monday, May 1, 2017
A bit more than a year ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on corporate criminal liability at the Stetson University College of Law. The short papers from the conference were published in a subsequent issue of the Stetson Law Review. This was the second time that Ellen Podgor, a friend and white collar crime scholar on the Stetson Law faculty, invited me to produce a short work on corporate criminal liability for publication in a dedicated edition of the Stetson Law Review. (The first piece I published in the Stetson Law Review reflected on corporate personhood in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen's United opinion. It has been downloaded and cited a surprising number of times. So, I welcomed the opportunity to publish with the law review a second time.)
For the 2016 conference, I chose to focus on the reckless conduct of employees and its capacity to generate corporate criminal insider trading liability for the employer. The abstract for the resulting paper, (Not) Holding Firms Criminally Responsible for the Reckless Insider Trading of their Employees (recently posted to SSRN), is as follows:
Criminal enforcement of the insider trading prohibitions under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b–5 is the root of corporate criminal liability for insider trading in the United States. In the wake of assertions that S.A.C. Capital Advisors, L.P. actively encouraged the unlawful use of material nonpublic information in the conduct of its business, the line between employer and employee criminal liability for insider trading becomes both tenuous and salient. An essential question emerges: when do we criminally prosecute the firm for the unlawful conduct of its employees?
The possibility that reckless employee conduct may result in the employer's willful violation of Section 10(b) and Rule 10b–5 (and, therefore, criminal liability for that employer firm) motivates this article. The article first reviews the basis for criminal enforcement of the insider trading prohibitions established in Section 10(b) and Rule 10b–5 and describes the basis and rationale for corporate criminal liability (a liability that derives from the activities of agents undertaken in the course of the firm’s business). Then, it reflects on that basis and rationale by identifying the potential for corporate criminal liability for the reckless insider trading violations of employees under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b–5, arguing against that liability, and suggesting ways to eliminate it.
I was not the only conference participant concerned about the criminal liability of an employer for the insider trading conduct of an employee. John Anderson, who co-led an insider trading discussion group with me at the 2017 Association of American Law Schools annual meeting back in January and also enjoys exploring criminal insider trading issues, contributed his research on the overcriminalization of insider trading at the conference. His paper, When Does Corporate Criminal Liability for Insider Trading Make Sense?, identifies the same overall problem as my article does (employer criminal liability for insider trading based on employee conduct). However, he views both the problem and the potential solutions more broadly.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Last week, a reporter interviewed me regarding conflict minerals.The reporter specifically asked whether I believed there would be more litigation on conflict minerals and whether the SEC's lack of enforcement would cause companies to stop doing due diligence. I am not sure which, if any, of my remarks will appear in print so I am posting some of my comments below:
Just today, the GAO issued a report on conflict minerals. Dodd-Frank requires an annual report on the effectiveness of the rule "in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries." Of note, the report explained that:
After conducting due diligence, an estimated 39 percent of the companies reported in 2016 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 23 percent in 2015. Almost all of the companies that reported conducting due diligence in 2016 reported that they could not determine whether the conflict minerals financed or benefited armed groups, as in 2015 and 2014. (emphasis added).
The Trump Administration, some SEC commissioners, and many in Congress have already voiced their concerns about this legislation. I didn't have the benefit of the GAO report during my interview, but it will likely provide another nail in the coffin of the conflict minerals rule.
April 26, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, April 24, 2017
As a business lawyer in private practice, I found it very frustrating when the principals of business entity clients acted in contravention of my advice. This didn't happen too often in my 15 years of practice. But when it did, I always wondered whether I could have stopped the madness by doing something differently in my representation of the client.
Thanks to friend and Wayne State University Law School law professor Peter Henning, who often writes on insider trading and other white collar crime issues for the New York Times DealBook (see, e.g., this recent piece), I had the opportunity to revisit this issue through my research and present that research at a symposium at Wayne Law back in the fall of 2015. The law review recently published the resulting short article, which I have posted to SSRN. The abstract is set forth below.
Sometimes, business entity clients and their principals do not seek, accept, or heed the advice of their lawyers. In fact, sometimes, they expressly disregard a lawyer’s instructions on how to proceed. In certain cases, the client expressly rejects the lawyer’s advice. However, some business constituents who take action contrary to the advice of legal counsel may fall out of compliance incrementally over time or signal compliance and yet (paradoxically) act in a noncompliant manner. These seemingly ineffectual varieties of the lawyer/client relationship are frustrating to the lawyer.
This short article aims to explain why representatives of business entities who consider themselves law-abiding and ethical may nevertheless act in contravention of the business’s legal counsel and offers preliminary means of addressing the proffered reasons for these compliance failures. The article does not address willful noncompliance or even willful blindness. Rather, it makes observations about behavior that falls squarely into what the law typically recognizes as recklessness. An apocryphal lawyer-client story relating to insider trading compliance provides foundational context.
The exemplar story derives from things I witnessed in law practice. Perhaps some of you also have experienced clients or business entity client principals which/who act contrary to your advice in similar ways. Regardless, you may find this short piece of interest.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
What does the EU know that the U.S. Doesn’t About the Effectiveness of Conflict Minerals Legislation?
Earlier this month, the EU announced plans to implement its version of conflict minerals legislation, which covers all “conflict-affected and high-risk areas” around the world. Once approved by the Council of the EU, the law will apply to all importers into the EU of minerals or metals containing or consisting of tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold (with some exceptions). Compliance and reporting will begin in January 2021. Importers must use OECD due diligence standards, report on their progress to suppliers and the public, and use independent third-party auditors. President Trump has not yet issued an executive order on Dodd-Frank §1502, aka conflict minerals, but based on a leaked memo, observers believe that it's just a matter of time before that law is repealed here in the U.S. So why is there a difference in approach?
In response to a request for comments from the SEC, the U.S Chamber of Commerce, which led the legal battle against §1502, claimed, “substantial evidence shows that the conflict minerals rule has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo…The reports public companies are mandated to file also contribute to ―information overload and create further disincentives for businesses to go public or remain public companies. Accordingly, the Chamber strongly supports Congressional repeal of Section 1502 due to its all-advised and fundamentally flawed approach to solving a geopolitical crisis, and the substantial burden it imposes upon public companies and their shareholders.”
The Enough Project, which spearheaded the passage of §1502, submitted an eight-page statement to the SEC last month stating, among other things, that they “strongly oppose any suspension, weakening, or repeal of the current Conflict Minerals Rule, and urge the SEC to increase enforcement of the Rule….The Rule has led to improvements in the rule of law in the mining sectors of Congo, Rwanda, and other Great Lakes countries, contributed to improvements in humanitarian conditions in Congo and a weakening of key insurgent groups, and resulted in tangible benefits for U.S. corporations and their supply chains.”
I agree that the Rule has led to increased transparency and efficiency in supply chains (although some would differ), and less armed control of mines. But I’m not sure that the overall human rights conditions have improved as significantly as §1502’s advocates (and I) would have liked.
As Amnesty International’s 2016/2017 report on DRC explains in graphic detail, “armed groups committed a wide range of abuses including: summary executions; abductions; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; rape and other sexual violence; and the looting of civilian property... various ... armed groups (local and community-based militias) were among those responsible for abuses against civilians. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continued to be active and commit abuses in areas bordering South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In… North Kivu, civilians were massacred, usually by machetes, hoes and axes. On the night of 13 August, 46 people were killed … by suspected members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group from Uganda that maintains bases in eastern DRC…Hundreds of women and girls were subjected to sexual violence in conflict-affected areas. Perpetrators included soldiers and other state agents, as well as combatants of armed groups…Hundreds of children were recruited by armed groups...”
Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report isn’t any better. According to HRW, “dozens of armed groups remained active in eastern Congo. Many of their commanders have been implicated in war crimes, including ethnic massacres, killing of civilians, rape, forced recruitment of children, and pillage. In … North Kivu, unidentified fighters continued to commit large-scale attacks on civilians, killing more than 150 people in 2016 … At least 680 people have been killed since the beginning of the series of massacres in October 2014. There are credible reports that elements of the Congolese army were involved in the planning and execution of some of these killings. Intercommunal violence increased as fighters … carried out ethnically based attacks on civilians, killing at least 170 people and burning at least 2,200 homes.
Finally, according to a February 17, 2017 statement from the Trump Administration, “the United States is deeply concerned by video footage that appears to show elements of the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo summarily executing civilians, including women and children. Such extrajudicial killing, if confirmed, would constitute gross violations of human rights and threatens to incite widespread violence and instability in an already fragile country. We call upon the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to launch an immediate and thorough investigation, in collaboration with international organizations responsible for monitoring human rights, to identify those who perpetrated such heinous abuses, and to hold accountable any individual proven to have been involved.”
Most Americans have no idea of the atrocities occurring in DRC or other conflict zones around the world. I have spent the past few years researching business and human rights, particularly in conflict zones in Latin America and Africa. I filed an amicus brief in 2013 and have written and blogged about the failure of disclosure regimes a dozen times because I don’t believe that name and shame laws stop the murder, rape, conscription of child soldiers, and the degradation of innocent people. I applaud the EU and all of the NGOs that have attempted to solve this intractable problem. But it doesn't seem that enough has changed since my visit to DRC in 2011 where I personally saw 5 massacre victims in the road on the way to visit a mine, and met with rape survivors, village chiefs, doctors, members of the clergy and others who pleaded for help from the U.S. Unfortunately, I don’t think this legislation has worked. Ironically, the U.S. and EU legislation go too far and not far enough. I hope that if the U.S. and EU focus on a more holistic, well-reasoned geopolitical solution with NGOS, stakeholders, and business.
Monday, March 13, 2017
As you may know, I have had an abiding curiosity about the line between the U.S private and public securities markets in large part because of my work on crowdfunding. Almost three years ago, I published a post on the topic here at the BLPB. I posted on the referenced paper here. That paper recently was republished in a slightly updated form by The Texas Journal of Business Law, the official publication of the Business Law Section of the State Bar of Texas (available here).
As a result of this work, my interest was (perhaps unsurprisingly) piqued by a this paper by Amy and Bert Westbrook. Enticingly titled "Unicorns, Guardians, and the Concentration of the U.S. Equity Markets," the article documents concentrations in both private and public equity markets in the United States and makes a number of interesting observations. I was especially intrigued by the article's identification of a potential resulting peril of this market concentration: the aggregation of both corporate management and ownership in the hands of the few.
[W]ealth has concentrated and private equity markets have emerged that serve as alternatives to the public equity market. At the same time, the public equity market has become dominated by highly concentrated shareholding, in the form of institutional investors, especially index funds, and the occasional founder. Both developments have resulted in concentrations of capital that mirror the concentration of management that concerned Berle and Means. For Berle and Means, the concern was concentrated management and dispersed ownership. The concern now is that both management and ownership are concentrated in the hands of very few people.
Very interesting . . . . And this is only one of the conclusions that the authors draw. As a foundation for its assertions, the article documents the concentration of ownership in both private and public markets, tying current participation in both markets back to salient economic and social data and trends. The full abstract from SSRN is set forth below, for your convenience.
Developments in the private and public equity markets are changing the role equity investment plays in the United States, and therefore what "stock market" means as a matter of political economy. During the 20th century, securities and other laws did much to tame the "animal spirits" of industrial capitalism, epitomized by the "Robber Barons." In order to raise large sums, businesses offered stock to the public, thereby subjecting themselves to the securities laws. Compliance required not only disclosure, transparency, but more subtly, that the firms themselves undergo a process of Weberian rationalization. A relatively broad middle class was comfortable investing in such corporations, and the governance of firms and thus much of the economy was understood to be answerable to this class. Citizens understood such arrangements as theirs, part of "the American way."
In recent years, in conjunction with rising inequality in the United States, there has been a decisive shift from broad-based ownership of firms to much more concentrated forms of ownership in both private and public markets. Private equity markets are concentrated by legal definition: relatively few people are qualified to participate directly. Yet private equity has become the preferred method of capital formation, epitomized by "unicorns," firms valued at over $1 billion without being publicly traded. Public equity markets are dominated by funds with trillions of dollars under management, and small staffs, who are in effect "guardians" for the portfolios that ensure long-term stability for individuals and institutions, notably through retirement and endowments. The governance of the U.S. economy has to a surprising degree become a matter of grace: the nation now relies on a small elite to make good decisions on its behalf about the allocation of capital, the governance of firms, and the preservation of portfolio value. This consolidation of ownership rivals that of the late 19th century, and may challenge the law to address the equity markets in new ways.
I think you'll enjoy this one. At the very least, it's a great read for those of you who, like me, are interested in analyses of the U.S securities markets. But perhaps more broadly, with contentious changes in federal business regulation in the offing under the current administration in Washington, this work should contribute meaningfully to the debate.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the first time sought public comment on whether financial disclosure reform should address indicators of firms’ sustainability risks and practices. Securities disclosure reform now appears poised to take a deregulatory turn, and innovations at the intersection of sustainability and finance appear unlikely in the face of new policy priorities. Whether the SEC should take any steps to improve how sustainability-related information is disclosed to investors is also deeply contested.
This Article argues that the SEC nonetheless faces a sustainability imperative, first to address this issue in the near term as part of its ongoing review of the reporting framework for financial disclosure, and second, to promote disclosure of material sustainability information within financial reports in furtherance of its core statutory mandate. This conclusion rests on evidence that the current state of sustainability disclosure is inadequate for investment analysis and that these deficiencies are largely problems of comparability and quality, which cannot readily be addressed by private ordering, nor by deference to policymaking at the state level. This Article highlights the costs of agency inaction that have been largely ignored in the debate over the future of financial reporting and concludes by weighing potential avenues for disclosure reform and their alternatives.
Monday, March 6, 2017
Most of us editors here at the Business Law Prof Blog obsess and blog in one way or another about disclosure issues. Marcia has written passionately about conflict minerals disclosure (see a recent post here) and the SEC's efforts to revamp--or at least reconsider--Regulation S-K (including here). Anne also wrote about the Regulation S-K revision efforts here. Ann wrote about mining industry disclosures here and focuses ongoing attention on securities litigation issues in the disclosure realm (including, e.g. here). Josh wrote about the intersection of corporate governance and disclosure regulation in this post. I have written about "disclosure creep" here and most of my research and writing has a disclosure bent to it, one way or another . . . .
Last summer, at the National Business Law Scholars Conference at The University of Chicago Law School, I listened with some fascination to the presentation of an early-stage project by Todd Henderson (whose work always makes me think--and this was no exception). His thesis¹ was a deceptively simple one: that the age-old disclosure debate could best be solved by creating a contextual market for disclosure (rather than by, e.g., continuing its the current system of "federal government mandates and issuer pays" or leaving market participants to their own devices as to what to disclose and punishing malfeasance merely through fraud and misstatement liability or state sanctions). The paper resulting from that presentation, coauthored by Todd and Kevin Haeberle from the University of South Carolina School of Law (but moving to William & Mary Law School in July), has recently been released on SSRN. The title of the piece is Making a Market for Corporate Disclosure, and here's the abstract:
One of the core problems that law seeks to address relates to the sub-optimal production and sharing of information. The problem manifests itself throughout the law — from the basic contracts, torts, and constitutional law settings through that of food and drug, national security, and intellectual property law. Debates as to how to best ameliorate these problems are often contentious, with those on one end of the political spectrum preferring strong government intervention and those on the other calling for market forces to be left alone to work.
When it comes to the generation and release of the information with the most value for the economy (public-company information), those in favor of the command-and-control approach have long had their way. Exhibit A comes in the form of the mandatory-disclosure regime around which so much of corporate and securities law centers. But this approach merely leaves those who value corporate information with the government’s best guess as to what they want. A number of fixes have been offered, ranging from more of the same (adding to the 100-plus-page list of what firms must disclose based on the latest Washington fad), to the radical (dump the federal regime and its fraud and insider-trading overlays altogether in favor of state-level regulation). This Article, however, offers an innovative approach that falls in middle of the traditional spectrum: Make relatively small changes to the law to allow a market for tiered access to disclosures, thereby allowing firm supply and information-consumer demand to interact in a way that would motivate better disclosure. Thus, we propose a market for corporate disclosure — and explains its appeal.
I have skimmed the article and am looking forward to reading it in full over my spring break in a week's time. I write here to encourage you to make time in your day/week/month to read it too--and to consider both the critiques of federally mandated disclosure and the article's response to those critiques. I am confident that the thinking it will make me do (again) will sharpen my teaching and scholarship; it might just do the same for you . . . .
¹ After publishing this post, I learned that the paper actually was drafted by Kevin well before Todd presented it last summer. My apologies to Kevin for leaving him out of this part of the story! :>)
Thursday, February 23, 2017
Christopher Bruner has posted Center-Left Politics and Corporate Governance: What Is the 'Progressive' Agenda? on SSRN. You can download the paper here. Here is the abstract:
For as long as corporations have existed, debates have persisted among scholars, judges, and policymakers regarding how best to describe their form and function as a positive matter, and how best to organize relations among their various stakeholders as a normative matter. This is hardly surprising given the economic and political stakes involved with control over vast and growing "corporate" resources, and it has become commonplace to speak of various approaches to corporate law in decidedly political terms. In particular, on the fundamental normative issue of the aims to which corporate decision-making ought to be directed, shareholder-centric conceptions of the corporation have long been described as politically right-leaning while stakeholder-oriented conceptions have conversely been described as politically left-leaning. When the frame of reference for this normative debate shifts away from state corporate law, however, a curious reversal occurs. Notably, when the debate shifts to federal political and judicial contexts, one often finds actors associated with the political left championing expansion of shareholders' corporate governance powers, and those associated with the political right advancing more stakeholder-centric conceptions of the corporation.
The aim of this article is to explain this disconnect and explore its implications for the development of U.S. corporate governance, with particular reference to the varied and evolving corporate governance views of the political left - the side of the spectrum where, I argue, the more dramatic and illuminating shifts have occurred over recent decades, and where the state/federal divide is more difficult to explain. A widespread and fundamental reorientation of the Democratic Party toward decidedly centrist national politics fundamentally altered the role of corporate governance and related issues in the project of assembling a competitive coalition capable of appealing to working- and middle-class voters. Grappling with the legal, regulatory, and institutional frameworks - as well as the economic and cultural trends - that conditioned and incentivized this shift will prove critical to understanding the state/federal divide regarding what the "progressive" corporate governance agenda ought to be and how the situation might change as the Democratic Party formulates responses to the November 2016 election.
I begin with a brief terminological discussion, examining how various labels associated with the political left tend to be employed in relevant contexts, as well as varying ways of defining the field of "corporate governance" itself. I then provide an overview of "progressive" thinking about corporate governance in the context of state corporate law, contrasting those views with the very different perspectives associated with center-left political actors at the federal level.
Based on this descriptive account, I then examine various legal, regulatory, and institutional frameworks, as well as important economic and cultural trends, that have played consequential roles in prompting and/or exacerbating the state/federal divide. These include fundamental distinctions between state corporate law and federal securities regulation; the differing postures of lawmakers in Delaware and Washington, DC; the rise of institutional investors; the evolution of organized labor interests; certain unintended consequences of extra-corporate regulation; and the Democratic Party's sharp rightward shift since the late 1980s. The article closes with a brief discussion of the prospects for state/federal convergence, concluding that the U.S. corporate governance system will likely remain theoretically incoherent for the foreseeable future due to the extraordinary range of relevant actors and the fundamentally divergent forces at work in the very different legal and political settings they inhabit.
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Shortly after the election in November, I blogged about Eleven Corporate Governance and Compliance Questions for the President-Elect. Those questions (in italics) and my updates are below:
- What will happen to Dodd-Frank? There are already a number of house bills pending to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank, but will President Trump actually try to repeal all of it, particularly the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule? How would that look optically? Former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, a prominent critic of Dodd-Frank and the whistleblower program in particular, is part of Trump's transition team on economic issues, so perhaps a revision, at a minimum, may not be out of the question.
Last week, via Executive Order, President Trump made it clear (without naming the law) that portions of Dodd-Frank are on the chopping block and asked for a 120-day review. Prior to signing the order, the President explained, “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank…I have so many people, friends of mine, with nice businesses, they can’t borrow money, because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations and Dodd-Frank.” An executive order cannot repeal Dodd-Frank, however. That would require a vote of 60 votes in the Senate. To repeal or modify portions, the Senate only requires a majority vote.
Some portions of Dodd-Frank are already gone including the transparency provision, §1504, which NGOs had touted because it forced US issuers in the extractive industries to disclose certain payments made to foreign governments. I think this was a mistake. By the time you read this post, the controversial conflict minerals rule, which requires companies to determine and disclose whether tin, tungsten, tantalum, or gold come from the Democratic Republic of Congo or surrounding countries, may also be history. The President may issue another executive order this week that may spell the demise of the rule, especially because others in Congress have already introduced bills to repeal it. I agree with the repeal, as I have written about here, because I don’t think that the SEC is the right agency to address the devastating human rights crisis in Congo.
As for the whistleblower provisions, it is too soon to tell. See #7 below.
Based on an earlier Executive Order meant to cut regulations in general and the President’s reliance on corporate raider/activist Carl Icahn as regulation czar, we can assume that the financial sector will experience fewer and not more regulations under Trump.
- What will happen with the two SEC commissioner vacancies? How will this president and Congress fund the agency? 3. Will SEC Chair Mary Jo White stay or go and how might that affect the work of the agency to look at disclosure reform?
President Trump has nominated Jay Clayton, a lawyer who has represented Goldman Sachs and Alibaba to replace former prosecutor Mary Jo White. Based on his background and past representations, we may see less enforcement of the FCPA and more focus on capital formation and disclosure reform. Observers are divided on the FCPA enforcement because 2016 had some record-breaking fines. As for the other SEC vacancies, I will continue to monitor this.
- How will the vow to freeze the federal workforce affect OSHA, which enforces Sarbanes-Oxley?
The Department of Labor enforces OSHA, and the current nominee for Secretary, Andy Pudzer, is a fast food CEO with some labor issues of his own. His pro-business stance and his opposition to increases in the minimum wage and the DOL white-collar exemption changes don’t necessarily predict how he would enforce SOX, but we can assume that it won’t be as much of a priority as rolling back regulations he has already publicly opposed.
- In addition to the issues that Trump has with TPP and NAFTA, how will his administration and the Congress deal with the Export-Import (Ex-IM) bank, which cannot function properly as it is due to resistance from some in Congress. Ex-Im provides financing, export credit insurance, loans, and other products to companies (including many small businesses) that wish to do business in politically-risky countries.
- How will a more conservative Supreme Court deal with the business cases that will appear before it?
I will comment on this after the confirmation hearings of nominee Neil Gorsuch. Others have already predicted that he will be pro-business.
- Who will be the Attorney General and how might that affect criminal prosecution of companies and individuals? Should we expect a new memo or revision of policies for Assistant US Attorneys that might undo some of the work of the Yates Memo, which focuses on corporate cooperation and culpable individuals?
Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed yesterday after a contentious hearing. During his hearing, he indicated that he supported whistleblower provisions related to the False Claims Act, and many believe that he will retain retain the Yates Memo. Ironically, prior to that confirmation, President Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, for refusing to defend the President’s executive order on refugees and travel.
- What will happen with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the DC Circuit recently ruled was unconstitutional in terms of its structure and power?
Despite, running on a populist theme, Trump has targeted a number of institutions meant to protect consumers. Based on reports, we will likely see some major restrictions on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the rules related to disclosure and interest rates. Trump will likely replace the head, Richard Cordray, whom many criticize for his perceived unfettered power and the ability to set his own budget. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established to address large, failing firms without the need for a bailout, is also at risk. The Volker Rule, which restricts banks from certain proprietary investments and limits ownership of covered funds, may also see revisions.
- What will happen with the Obama administration's executive orders on Cuba, which have chipped away at much of the embargo? The business community has lobbied hard on ending the embargo and eliminating restrictions, but Trump has pledged to require more from the Cuban government. Would he also cancel the executive orders as well?
I will comment on this in a separate post.
- What happens to the Public Company Accounting Board, which has had an interim director for several months?
The PCAOB is not directly covered by the February 3rd Executive Order described in #1, and many believe that the Executive Order related to paring back regulations will not affect the agency either, although the agency is already conducting its own review of regulations. In December, the agency received a budget increase.
- Jeb Henserling, who has adamantly opposed Ex-Im, the CFPB, and Dodd-Frank is under consideration for Treasury Secretary. What does this say about President-elect Trump's economic vision?
President Trump has tapped ex-Goldman Sachs veteran Steve Mnuchin, and some believe that he will be good for both Wall Street and Main Street. More to come on this in the future.
I will continue to update this list over the coming months. I will post separately today updating last week’s post on the effects of consumer boycotts and how public sentiment has affected Superbowl commercials, litigation, and the First Daughter all in the past few days.
February 9, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, February 4, 2017
As readers may recall, I posted on broker fiduciary duties back at the end of December, focusing on a WaPo op ed written by friend-of-the-BLPB, Ben Edwards (currently at Barry, but lateraling later this year to UNLV). He has a new op ed out today in the WaPo that says everything I could and would say regarding the POTUS's recent executive order on this topic (referenced by Ann in her post earlier today), and more. I commend it to your reading.
It's important to remember as you read and consider this issue what Ben's op ed focuses in on at the end: the rule the POTUS executive order blocks is a narrow one, since it only applies to activities relating to retirement investments. A broader fiduciary duty rule for brokers has not yet been adopted. Suitability is still the standard of conduct for brokers outside the application of any applicable fiduciary duty rule. The central question at issue is whether a broker must recommend investments in retirement planning that are in the best interest of the client investor or whether, e.g., a broker can recommend a suitable investment to a retirement investor that makes the broker more money/costs the client more money.
I have had to answer friends-and-family questions on this issue in the last 24 hours. Perhaps you have, too. Here's an article that may be helpful if you are in the same boat I am in on this in having to help inform folks in your circle of influence about what this means for them.
Monday, January 30, 2017
Although it may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle of the POTUS's first ten days in office, the nomination of Representative Tom Price for the post of Secretary of Health and Human Services has received some negative attention in the press. In short, as reported by a variety of news outlets (e.g., here and here and here), some personal stock trading transactions have raised questions about whether Representative Price may have inappropriately used information or his position to profit personally from securities trading activities, in violation of applicable ethical or legal rules. This post offers some preliminary insights about the nature of the concerns, which are set forth in major part in this New York Times editorial from January 18, and joins others in calling for reform.
Concerns about legislators' securities trading activities are not new. As you may recall, a 2011 study (using data from 1985-2001) found that members of the U.S. House of Representatives do make abnormal returns on stock trades. A 60 Minutes exposé, "Insiders," then followed, which helped catalyze the adoption in 2012 of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge ("STOCK") Act. A recently released paper catalogues this history and effects on those abnormal returns. The findings in this paper, which focuses on Senate trading transactions, are summarized below.
Before “Insiders” aired, the market-value weighted hedged portfolio earns an annualized abnormal return of 8.8%. This abnormal return comes entirely from the sell-side of the portfolio, which earns an annualized 16.77% abnormal return. Post-60 Minutes, we find no evidence of continued outperformance in our market-value weighted portfolios. On average, abnormal returns to the market-value weighted sell portfolio are 24% lower post-60 Minutes, relative to the pre-60 Minutes sample. Taken together, our evidence suggests that, Senators, on the whole, outperformed the market pre-60 Minutes, and this systematic outperformance did not survive the attention paid to Senators’ investments surrounding the broadcast of “Insiders” and subsequent passage of the Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
"The corporate governance heads at seven of the 10 largest institutional investors in stocks are now women, according to data compiled by The New York Times. Those investors oversee $14 trillion in assets."
Mutual and pension funds are some of the largest stock block holders casting crucial votes in director elections and on shareholder resolutions that will span the gamut from environmental policy to political spending to supply chain transparency. While ISS and other proxy advisory firms have a firm hand shaping proxy votesFN1 (and have released new guidelines for the 2017 proxy season), that $14 trillion in assets are voted at the behest of women is new and noteworthy. As the spring proxy season approaches-- it's like New York fashion week, for corporate law nerds, but strewn out over months and with less interesting pictures--these asset managers are likely to vote with management. FN2 Still, there is growing consensus that institutional investors' corporate governance leaders are "working quietly behind the scenes to advocate for greater shareholder rights" fighting against dual class stock and fighting for gender equality on corporate boards, to name a few.
I now how a new ambition in life: get invited to the Women in Governance lunch.
FN1: See Choi et al, Voting Through Agents: How Mutual Funds Vote on Director Elections (2011)
FN2: Gregor Matvos & Michael Ostrovsky, Heterogeneity and Peer Effects in Mutual Fund Voting, 98 J. of Fin. Econ. 90 (2010).
Friday, January 13, 2017
On Friday, I will present as part of the American Society of International Law’s two-day conference entitled Controlling Corruption: Possibilities, Practical Suggestions & Best Practices. The ASIL Conference is co-sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business Administration, the Business Ethics Program of the University of Miami School of Business Administration, UM Ethics Programs & the Arsht Initiatives, the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, Bentley University, and University of Richmond School of Law.
I am particularly excited for this conference because it brings law, business, and ethics professors together with practitioners from around the world. My panel includes:
Marcia Narine Weldon, St. Thomas University School of Law, “The Conflicted Gatekeeper: The Changing Role of In-House Counsel and Compliance Officers in the Age of Whistle Blowing and Anticorruption Compliance”
Todd Haugh, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University, “The Ethics of Intercorporate Behavioral Ethics”
Shirleen Chin, Institute for Environmental Security, Netherlands, “Reducing the Size of the Loopholes Caused by the Veil of Incorporation May lead to Better Transparency”
Edwin Broecker, Quarles &Brady LLP, Indiana,& Fernanda Beraldi Cummins, Inc, Indiana, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Possible Unintended Consequences of Enforcing Supply Chain Transparency”
Stuart Deming, Deming PLLC, Michigan, “Internal Controls and Compliance Programs”
John W. Fanning, Kroll Compliance, “Lessons from ‘Sully’: Parallels of Flight 1549 and the Path to Compliance and Organizational Excellence”
I will discuss some of the same themes that I blogged about here last July related to how the Department of Justice Yates Memo (requiring companies to turn over culpable individuals in order to get cooperation credit) and to a lesser extent the SEC Dodd-Frank Whistleblower program may alter the delicate balance of trust in the attorney-client relationship. Additionally, I will address how President-elect Trump’s nomination of Jay Clayton may change the SEC’s FCPA enforcement priorities from pursuing companies to pursuing individuals, and how that will change corporate investigations. If you’re in Miami on Friday the 13th and Saturday the 14th, please consider attending the conference.
January 13, 2017 in Behavioral Economics, Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
The late December announcement of Carl Icahn as a special advisor overseeing regulation piqued my professional interest and raises interesting tension points for both sides of the aisle, as well as for corporate governance folks.
Icahn's deregulatory agenda has the SEC in his sights. Deregulation, especially of business, is a relatively safe space in conservative ideology. Several groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable may be pro-deregulation in most areas, but, and this is an important caveat-- be at odds with Icahn when it comes to certain corporate governance regulations. Consider the universal proxy access rules, which the SEC proposed in October, 2016. The proposed rules would require companies to provide one proxy card with both parties' nominees--here we don't mean donkeys and elephants but incumbent management and challengers' nominees. Including both nominees on a single proxy card would allow shareholders to "vote" a split ticket---picking and choosing between the two slates. The split ticket was previously an option only available to shareholders attending the in-person meeting, which means a very limited pool of shareholders. "Universal" proxy access-- a move applauded by Icahn--is opposed by House Republicans, who passed an appropriations bill – H.R. 5485 –that would eliminate SEC funding for implementing the universal proxy system. On January 9th, both the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce submitted comment letters in opposition to the rules. The Chamber of Commerce cautions that the proposed rules "[f]avor activist investors over rank-and-file shareholders and other corporate constituencies." The Business Roundtable echos the same concerns calling the move a "disenfranchisement" of regular shareholders due to likely confusion. This is a variation of the influence of big-business narrative. Here, we have pitted big business against big business. The question is who is the bigger Goliath--the companies or the investors?
President-elect Trump's cabinet and administrative choices have generated an Olympic-level sport of hand wringing, moral shock and catastrophizing. I personally feel gorged on the feast of terribles, but realize that many may not share my view. Icahn's informal role in cabinet selections (such as Scott Pruitt for EPA which favors Icahn's investments in oil and gas companies) and formal role in a deregulatory agenda foreshadows no end in sight to this royal feast. On this particular pick, both sides of the aisle may be invited to the feast. My only question is, who's hungry?
Monday, January 9, 2017
The members of Friday's AALS discussion group about which I wrote last week came to an inescapable--if unsurprising--overall conclusion: the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in the Salman case does little to address major unresolved questions under U.S. insider trading law. That having been said, we had a wide-ranging and sometimes exciting discussion about the Court's opinion in Salman and what might or should come next. I found the discussion very stimulating; a great way to start a new semester--especially one in which I am teaching Securities Regulation and Advanced Business Associations, both of which deal with insider trading law. I will offer brief outtakes from the proceedings here for your consideration and (as desired) comment.
John Anderson and I framed three questions around which we structured the formal part of the discussion session (which commenced after brief introductory comments from each participant).
- What, if anything, does the Court's Salman opinion say by its silence?
- What, if anything, is left of the Second Circuit opinion in the Newman case after Salman?
- Is law reform needed after Salman, and if so, should we continue to permit it to occur through further, incremental judicial developments or should reform be undertaken through legislation or regulatory rule-making or guidance?
The questions drew both divergent and overlapping responses. It would take too long to try to capture it all, but a recording of the discussion will be available, if all went well with the technology, etc., on the AALS website in the coming months.
I want to pass on here, however, two key reading recommendations that Don Langevoort made to all of us that offer a basis for responding to all three questions--and more. First, Don recommended that we all read the Solicitor General's Brief for the United States in the Salman case. From this, he suggested (among other things), we can review issues not addressed in Salman and get an idea of how the U.S. government--at least at present--is processing those issues as across the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Second, he recommended reading the First Circuit opinions in the Parisian and McPhail cases--two criminal prosecutions alleging insider trading violations (tipping and trading) by members of a golf group. These opinions also address important issues not taken up by Salman--including how the "knew or should have known" language from the Court's Dirks opinion relates to both the mens rea requirement in criminal insider trading actions (which require proof of a "willful" violation under Section 32(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended) and misappropriation actions--and may offer windows on future judicial decision making.
No doubt, insider trading law in the United States remains a bit of an open book in many respects after Salman. Given that, I may report on more from this AALS discussion session in future posts. But I will leave the matter here, for now, having posed a few questions for your consideration and passed on some good advice from a trusted colleague who has followed U.S. insider trading law for many years . . . .
Monday, January 2, 2017
Last week, friend of the BLPB Steve Bainbridge published a great hypothetical raising insider trading tipper issues post-Salman. He invited comments. So, I sent him one! He has started posting comments in a mini-symposium. Mine is here. Andrew Verstein's is here. There may be more to come . . . . I will try to remember to come back and edit this post to add any new links. Prompt me, if you see one before I get to it . . . .
Postscript (January 5, 2017): James Park also has responded to Steve's call for comments. His responsive post is here.
Postscript (January 9, 2017, as amended): Mark Ramseyer has weighed in here. And then Sung Hui Kim and Adam Pritchard added their commentary, here and here, respectively. Steve collects the posts here.