Tuesday, July 18, 2017
The more I read about social enterprise entities, the less I like about them. In 2014, my colleague Elaine Wilson and I wrote March of the Benefit Corporation: So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well? We observed:
Regardless of jurisdiction, there may be value in having an entity that plainly states the entity’s benefit purpose, but in most instances, it does not seem necessary (and is perhaps even redundant). Furthermore, the existence of the benefit corporation opens the door to further scrutiny of the decisions of corporate directors who take into account public benefit as part of their business planning, which erodes director primacy, which limits director options, which can, ultimately, harm businesses by stifling innovation and creativity. In other words, this raises the question: does the existence of the benefit corporation as an alternative entity mean that traditional business corporations will be held to an even stricter, profit-maximization standard?
I am more firmly convinced this is the path we are on. The emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy threaten to greatly, and gravely, limit the scope of business decisions directors can make for traditional for-profit entities, threatening both social responsibility and economic growth. Recent Delaware cases, as well as other writings from Delaware judges, suggest that shareholder wealth maximization has become a more singular and narrow obligation of for-profit entities, and that other types of entities (such as non profits or benefit corporations) are the only proper entity forms for companies seeking to pursue paths beyond pure, and blatant, profit seeking. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.
I know there are some who believe that I see the sky falling when it's just a little rain. Perhaps. I would certainly concede that the problems I see can be addressed through law, if necessary. I am just not a big fan of passing some more laws and regulations, so we can pass more laws to fix the things we added. My view of entity purpose remains committed to the principle of director primacy. Directors are obligated to run the entity for the benefit of the shareholders, but, absent fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, the directors decide what actions are for the benefit of shareholders. Period, full stop.
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)
Monday, March 20, 2017
No. This is not a travelogue. Rather, it's a brief additional bit of background on a case that business associations law professors tend to enjoy teaching (or at least this one does).
In Ringling Bros. Inc. v. Ringling, 29 Del. Ch. 610 (Del. Ch. 1947), the Delaware Chancery Court addresses the validity of a voting agreement between two Ringling family members, Edith Conway Ringling (the plaintiff) and Aubrey B. Ringling Haley (the defendant). The fact statement in the court's opinion notes that John Ringling North is the third shareholder of the Ringling Brothers corporation.
I spent two days in Sarasota Florida at the end of Spring Break last week. While there, I spent a few hours at The Ringling Circus Museum. It was fascinating for many reasons. But today I will focus on just one. I noted this summary in one of the exhibits, that seems to directly relate to the Ringling case:
Interestingly, 1938 is the year in which the plaintiff and defendant in the Ringling case created their original voting trust (having earlier entered into a joint action agreement in 1934). The agreement at issue was entered into in 1941. Could it be that, perhaps, the two women entered into this arrangement as a reaction to John Ringling North's desire to acquire--or successful acquisition of--management control of the firm? I want to do some more digging here, if I can. But I admit that the related history raised some new questions in my mind. John Ringling North was all but forgotten in my memory and teaching of the case, until the other day . . . . The case takes on new interest in my mind (more broadly as a close corporation case) because of my museum visit and discovery.
[Postscript - March 21, 2017: Since posting this, I have been blessed by wonderful, helpful email messages offering general support, PowerPoint slides (thanks, Frank Snyder), a video link (thanks, Frances Fendler), and referrals to/copies of Mark Ramseyer's article on the Ringling case, Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows v. Ringling: Bad Appointments and Empty-Core Cycling at the Circus, which offers all the detail I could want (thanks, again, Frances, and thanks, Jim Hayes) to help fill in the gaps--while still creating a bit of mystery . . . . I am a much better informed instructor as a result of all this! Many thanks to all who wrote.]
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.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Prominent corporate governance, corporate finance and economics professors face off in opposing amici briefs filed in DFC Global Corp. v. Muirfield Value Partners LP, appeal pending before the Delaware Supreme Court. The Chancery Daily newsletter, described it, in perhaps my favorite phrasing of legal language ever: "By WWE standards it may be a cage match of flyweight proportions, but by Delaware corporate law standards, a can of cerebral whoopass is now deemed open."
Point #1: Master Class in Persuasive Legal Writing: Framing the Issue
Reversal Framing: "This appeal raises the question whether, in appraisal litigation challenging the acquisition price of a company, the Court of Chancery should defer to the transaction price when it was reached as a result of an arm’s-length auction process."
Affirmance Framing: "This appeal raises the question whether, in a judicial appraisal determining the fair value of dissenting stock, the Court of Chancery must automatically award the merger price where the transaction appeared to involve an arm’s length buyer in a public sale."
Point #2: Summary of Brief Supporting Fair Market Valuation: Why the Court of Chancery should defer to the deal price in an arm's length auction
- It would reduce litigation and simply the process.
- The Chancery Court Judges are ill-equipped for the sophisticated cash-flow analysis (ouch, that's a rough point to make).
- Appraisal does not properly incentivize the use of arm's length auctions if they are not sufficiently protected/respected.
- Appraisal seeks the false promise of THE right price, when price in this kind of market (low competition, unique goods) can best be thought of as a range. The inquiry should be whether the transaction price is within the range of a fair price. A subset of this argument (and the point of the whole brief) is that the auction process is the best evidence of fair price.
- Appraisal process is flawed because the court discounted the market price in its final valuation. The argument is that if the transaction price is not THE right price, then it should not be a factor in coming up with THE right price.
- Appraisal process is flawed because the final valuation relies upon expert opinions that are created in a litigation vacuum, sealed-off from market pressure of "real" valuations.
- The volatility in the appraisal market—the outcome of the litigation and the final price—distorts the auction process. Evidence of this is the creation of appraisal closing conditions.
Point #3: Summary of Brief Supporting Appraisal Actions: Why the Court of Chancery should reject a rule that the transaction price—in an arm's length auction—is conclusive evidence of fair price in appraisal proceedings.
- Statutory interpretation requires the result. Delaware Section 262 states that judges will "take into account all factors" in determining appraisal action prices. To require the deal price to be the "fair" price, eviscerates the statutory language and renders it null.
- The Delaware Legislature had an opportunity to revise Section 262—and did so in 2015, narrowing the scope of eligible appraisal transactions and remedies—but left intact the "all factors" language.
- The statutory appraisal remedy is separate from the common law/fiduciary obligations of directors in transactions so a transaction without a conflict of interest and even cured by shareholder vote could still contain fact-specific conditions that would make an appraisal remedy appropriate.
- There are appropriate judicial resources to handle the appraisal actions because of the expertise of the Court of Chancery, which is buttressed by the ability to appoint a neutral economic expert to assist with valuations and to adopt procedures and standards for expert valuations in appraisal cases.
- The threat of the appraisal action creates a powerful ex ante benefit to transaction price because it helps bolster and ensure that the transaction price is fair and without challenge.
- Appraisal actions serve as a proxy for setting a credible reserve in the auction price, which buyers and sellers may be prohibited from doing as a result of their fiduciary duties.
- Any distortion of the THE market by appraisal actions is a feature, not a bug. All legal institutions operate along side markets and exert influences, situations that are acceptable with fraud and torts. Any affect that appraisal actions create have social benefits and are an intended benefit.
- Let corporations organized/formed in Delaware enjoy the benefits of being a Delaware corporation by giving them full access to the process and expertise of the Delaware judiciary.
My thinking in the area more closely aligns with the "keep appraisal action full review" camp on the theory--both policy and economic. Also the language in the supporting/affirmance brief is excellent (they describe the transaction price argument as a judicial straight jacket!). I must admit, however, that I am sympathetic to the resources and procedural criticisms raised by the reversal brief. That there is no way for some corporate transactions, ex ante, to prevent a full scale appraisal action litigation—a process that is costly and time consuming—is a hard pill to swallow. I can imagine the frustration of the lawyers explaining to a BOD that there may be no way to foreclose this outcome. Although I hesitate to put it in these terms, my ultimate conclusion would require more thinking about whether the benefits of appraisal actions outlined in the affirmance brief outweigh the costs to the judiciary and to the parties as outlined in the reversal brief. These are all points that I invite readers to weigh in on the comments--especially those with experience litigating these cases.
I also want to note the rather nuanced observation in the affirmance brief about the distinction between statutory standards and common law/fiduciary duty. This important intellectual distinction about the source of the power and its intent is helpful in appraisal actions, but also in conflict of interest/safe harbor under Delaware law evaluations.
For the professors out there, if anyone covers appraisal actions in an upper-level course or has students writing on the topic-- these two briefs distill the relevant case law and competing theories with considerable force.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Spoiler alert: wrongful refusal of demand and bad faith standards are the same in recent Delaware Court of Chancery case: Andersen v. Mattel, Inc., C.A. No. 11816-VCMR (Del. Ch. Jan. 19, 2017, Op by VC Montgomery-Reeves).
But sometimes a reminder that the law is the same and can be clearly stated is worth a blog post in its own right. Professors can use this as a hypo or case note and those in the trenches can update case citations to a 2017 (and 2016) case.
In Andersen v. Mattel, Inc., VC Montgomery-Reeves dismissed a derivative suit, holding that plaintiff did not prove wrongful refusal of pre-suit demand. The derivative action claimed that the Mattel board of directors refused to bring suit to recover up to $11.5 million paid in severance/consulting fees to the former chairman and chief executive officer who left in the wake of a falling stock price. Plaintiff challenged disclosure discrepancies over whether Stockton resigned or was terminated and the resulting entitlement to severance payments. Mattel's board of directors unanimously rejected the demand after consultation with outside counsel, 24 witness interviews and a review of approximately 12,400 documents.
The relied upon case law is unchanged, but the clear recitation of the law is worth noting:
Where, as here, a plaintiff makes demand on the board of directors, the plaintiff concedes that the board is disinterested and independent for purposes of responding to the demand. The effect of such concession is that the decision to refuse demand is treated as any other disinterested and independent decision of the board—it is subject to the business judgment rule. Accordingly, the only issues the Court must examine in analyzing whether the board’s demand refusal was proper are “the good faith and reasonableness of its investigation. (internal citations omitted)
To successfully challenge the good faith and reasonableness of the board's investigation, Plaintiff's complaint was required to state particularized facts raising a reasonable doubt that:
(1) the board’s decision to deny the demand was consistent with its duty of care to act on an informed basis, that is, was not grossly negligent; or (2) the board acted in good faith, consistent with its duty of loyalty. Otherwise, the decision of the board is entitled to deference as a valid exercise of its business judgment.
First, Plaintiff challenged the board's demand refusal on the grounds that they did not disclose the investigation report or the supporting documents in conjunction with the demand refusal. The Court was unpersuaded given that Plaintiff had the right to seek the report and records through a Section 220 demand, but chose not to do so.
Second, Plaintiff challenged the board's demand refusal on the grounds that it failed to form a special committee. Absent any facts that the Mattel board considering the demand was not independent, there was no requirement for the board to form a special committee.
Third, and final, Plaintiff challenged the board's good faith in rejecting the demand on the grounds that Stockton's employment was not voluntarily terminated. The court cautioned that:
[T]he question is not whether the [b]oard’s conclusion was wrong; the question is whether the [b]oard intentionally acted in disregard of [Mattel’s] best interests in deciding not to pursue the litigation the Plaintiff demanded. [T]he fact that the [b]oard’s justifications for refusing [the] demand fall within ‘the bounds of reasonable judgment’ is fatal to [the] claim that the refusal was made in bad faith. (citing to Friedman v. Maffei, (Del. Ch. Apr. 13, 2016))
Francis Pileggi at the excellent Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog first brought this case to my attention. Practitioners and Professors alike should be certain to include his blog on your weekly round up. He is a sure source of concise and insightful summaries of the latest Delaware court developments.
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).
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
In July, Delaware Chancellor Andre Bouchard found that payday lender DFC Global Corp was sold too cheaply to private equity firm Lone Star Funds in 2014. Chancellor Bouchard held that four DFC shareholders were entitled to $10.21 a share at the time of the deal, or about 7 percent above the $9.50 per share deal price that was approved by a majority of DFC shareholders.
A Gibson Dunn filing related to the DFC case on appeal before the Delaware Supreme Court sheds light on the appraisal process in Delaware. The claim is the Chancellor Bouchard manipulated the calculations to reach the $10.21 prices. The full brief is available here, but this summary might provide easier reading. Reuters reports:
Bouchard made a single clerical error that led him to peg DFC’s fair value at $10.21 per share.
DFC’s lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher spotted the mistake and asked Chancellor Bouchard to fix the erroneous input. If he did, the firm said, he’d come up with a fair value for the company that was actually lower than the price Lone Star paid. The chancellor agreed to recalculate – but in addition to fixing the mistaken input, Bouchard adjusted DFC’s projected long-term growth rate way up, to a number even higher than the top of the range proposed by the plaintiffs’ expert. The offsetting changes brought the recalculated valuation back in line with Chancellor Bouchard’s original, mistaken analysis.
Gibson Dunn is now arguing at the Delaware Supreme Court that the chancellor’s tinkering shows just why appraisal litigation – in which shareholders dissatisfied with buyout prices ask Chancery Court to come up with a fair price for their stock – has become a big problem for companies trying to sell themselves.
Last week The Chancery Daily reported on a December 16th appraisal case, Merion Capital, where Chancellor Laster held that a fair price was paid. The questions remains what is the significance of deal price and what is the significance of expert opinion shifting these technical cases in or outside of fair value?
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
I have been thinking about the long-short term investment horizon debate, definitions, empirics and governance design consequences for some time now (see prior BLPB post here and also see Joshua Fershee's take on the topic). This has been on mind so much that I am now planning a June, 2017 conference on that very topic in conjunction with the Adolf A. Berle Jr. Center on Corporations, Law & Society (founded by Charles “Chuck” O’Kelley at Seattle University School of Law). In planning this interdisciplinary conference where the goal is to invite corporate governance folks, finance and economics scholars, and psychologists and neuroscientist, I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of out-of-discipline work and talking with the various authors. It has been an unexpected benefit of conference planning. I also want some industry voices represented so I have reached out to Aspen Institute, Conference Board and a new group, Focusing Capital on the Long Term (FCLT), which I learned about through this process.
I share this with BLPB readers for several reasons. The first is that the FCLT, is a nonprofit organization, a nonprofit organization for BUSINESS issues created and funded by BUSINESSES. In July 2016, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, McKinsey & Company together with BlackRock, The Dow Chemical Company and Tata Sons founded FCLT. Other asset managers, owners, corporations and professional services firms (approximately 20) have joined FCLT as members. Rather than the typical application of a chamber of commerce style organization or trade industry group, here the stated missing of FCLT is to “actively engage in research and public dialogue regarding the question of how to encourage long-term behaviors in business and investment decisions.”
Second, FCLT has access to otherwise proprietary information—like C-suite executive surveys---and is conducting original research and publishing white papers and research reports on the issues of management pressures, and governance designs that may promote a long-term time horizon.
I know for some folks reading, especially those strongly aligned with a shareholder rights camp, will view this with skepticism as a backdoor campaign to promote executive/management power and bolster the reputation of professional service firms hired by those managers.** For me, though the anecdotal experience is a valuable component to considering all sides to the debate. It also helps articulate why and how the feedback loop of short-term pressures—even if it is only perceived rather than structurally quanitifable—may exist.
Third, I found some of the materials, particularly the Rising to the Challenge of Short-termism, written by Dominic Barton, Jonathan Bailey, and Joshua Zoffer in 2016 to be a useful reading for my corporate governance seminar. It helped to explain the gap between the law and the pressure of short-termism. It also helped provide a window into at least some aspects of decision making and payoffs in the governance setting. It can be quite hard to give students a window in the C-suite and BOD dynamics that they are naturally curious about while in law school. Even if you ideologically or empirically disagree with the claim of short-termism when trying to structure balanced reading materials that provide an introduction to the full scope of measures, these are resources worth considering.
Rising to the Challenge of Short-termism, written by Dominic Barton, Jonathan Bailey, and Joshua Zoffer in 2016, draws upon a McKinsey survey of over 1,000 global C-Suite executives and board members. The report describes increasing pressures on executives to meet short-term financial performance metrics and that the window to meet those metrics was decreasing. The shortening time horizon shapes both operations decisions as well as strategic planning where the average plan has shrunk to 2 years or less. Culture matters. Firms with self-reported long-term cultures reported less willingness to take actions like cut discretionary spending or delay projects when faced with a likely failure to meet quarterly benchmarks compared with firms that didn’t self-report a long-term culture. Sources of the pressure are perceived to come from within the board and executives, but also cite to greater industry-wide competition, vocal activist investors, earning expectations and economic uncertainty. The article concludes with 10 elements of a long-term strategy as a mini action plan.
Straight talk for the long term: How to improve the investor-corporate dialogue published in March 2015.
Investing for the future: How institutional investors can reorient their portfolio strategies and investment management to focus capital on the long term, published in March 2015. The paper identifies 5 core action areas for institutional investors focusing on investment beliefs, risk appetite statement, bench-marking process, evaluations and incentives and investment mandates to evaluate investment horizons.
A roadmap for focusing capital on the long term: A summary of ideas for asset owners, asset managers, boards of directors, and corporate management to focus on long-term value creation, published March 2015.
Long-term value summit in 2015 with a published discussion report made available February 2016. “120 executives, investors, board members, and other leaders from around the world gathered in New York City for the Long-Term Value Summit. Their mandate: to identify the causes and mechanisms of the short-term thinking that has come to pervade our markets and profit-seeking institutions and, more importantly, to brainstorm actionable solutions”
**The initial board of directors, announced on September 28, 2016 at the first board meeting, include some well positioned folks within BlackRock (Mark Wiseman), McKinsey & Co. (Dominic Barton), Dow Chemical (Andrew Liveris), Unilever (Paul Polman) and more. The BOD will be advised by Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, as well.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
I am preparing to teach the doctrine on controlling shareholders in my corporations class tomorrow, and found the recent Delaware opinions on non-controlling shareholder cleansing votes and the BJR to be helpful illustrations of the law in this area.
In summer 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery dismissed two post-closing actions alleging a breach of fiduciary duty where there was no controlling shareholder in the public companies, where the stockholder cleaning vote was fully informed, and applied the 2015 Corwin business judgment rule standard. The cases are City of Miami General Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust v. Comstock, C.A. No. 9980-CB, (Del. Ch. Aug. 24, 2016) (Bouchard, C.) and Larkin v. Shah, C.A. No. 10918-VCS, (Del. Ch. Aug. 25, 2016) (Slights, V.C.), both of which relied upon Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings, LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015). (Fellow BLPB blogger Ann Lipton has written about Corwin here).
The Larkin case clarified that Corwin applies to duty of loyalty claims and will be subject to the deferential business judgment rule in post-closing actions challenging non-controller transactions where informed stockholders have approved the transaction. The Larkin opinion states that:
(1) when disinterested, fully informed, uncoerced stockholders approve a transaction absent a looming conflicted controller, the irrebuttable business judgment rule applies; (2) there was no looming conflicted controller in this case; and (3) the challenged merger was properly approved by disinterested, uncoerced Auspex stockholders. Under the circumstances, the business judgment rule, irrebuttable in this context, applies. ....The standard of review that guides the court’s determination of whether those duties have been violated defaults to a deferential standard, the business judgment rule, which directs the court to presume the board of directors “acted on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action was taken in the best interests of the company.” In circumstances where the business judgment rule applies, Delaware courts will not overturn a board’s decision unless that decision 'cannot be attributed to any rational business purpose.' This broadly permissive standard reflects Delaware’s traditional reluctance to second-guess the business judgment of disinterested fiduciaries absent some independent cause for doubt. Larkin at 21-22 (internal citations omitted).
Two-sided controller transactions (a freeze out merger where a controlling shareholder stands on both sides of the transaction) is covered by the 2014 Kahn v. M & F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635(Del. 2014) case, which I summarized in an earlier BLPB post here.
To refresh our readers, the controlling shareholder test is a stockholder who owns a majority of stock. Additionally, a stockholder may qualify as a controller if:
Under Delaware law, a stockholder owning less than half of a company’s outstanding shares may nonetheless be deemed a controller where 'the stockholder can exercise actual control over the corporation’s board.'This “actual control” test requires the court to undertake an analysis of whether, despite owning a minority of shares, the alleged controller wields “such formidable voting and managerial power that, as a practical matter, [it is] no differently situated than if [it] had majority voting control.'A controlling stockholder can exist as a sole actor or a control block of “shareholders, each of whom individually cannot exert control over the corporation . . . [but who] are connected in some legally significant way—e.g., by contract, common ownership agreement, or other arrangement—to work together toward a shared goal.' Larkin at 33-34 (internal citations omitted).
Excellent commentary on theLarkin and Comstock cases and their practical implications can be found on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, available here.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Last spring, in the wake of Justice Scalia's passing, I blogged about Justice Scalia's final business law case: Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Ltd. The oral argument signaled that the Court's preference for a formalistic, bright line test that asked whether the entity involved was an unincorporated entity, in which case the citizenship of its members controlled the question of diversity, or whether it was formed as an corporation, in which a different test would apply. The Supreme Court issued its unanimous (8-0) opinion in March, 2016 holding that the citizenship of an unincorporated entity depends on the citizenship of all of its members. Because Americold was organized as a real estate investment trust under Maryland law, its shareholders are its members and determine (in this case, preclude) diversity jurisdiction.
S.I. Strong, the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri, has a forthcoming article, Congress and Commercial Trusts: Dealing with Diversity Jurisdiction Post-Americold, forthcoming in Florida Law Review. The article addresses the corporate constitutional jurisprudential questions of how can and should the Supreme Court treat business entities. What is the appropriate role of substance and form in business law? Her article offers a decisive reply:
Commercial trusts are one of the United States’ most important types of business organizations, holding trillions of dollars of assets and operating nationally and internationally as a “mirror image” of the corporation. However, commercial trusts remain underappreciated and undertheorized in comparison to corporations, often as a result of the mistaken perception that commercial trusts are analogous to traditional intergenerational trusts or that corporations reflect the primary or paradigmatic form of business association.
The treatment of commercial trusts reached its nadir in early 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. that the citizenship of a commercial trust should be equated with that of its shareholder-beneficiaries for purposes of diversity jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the sheer number of shareholder-beneficiaries in most commercial trusts (often amounting to hundreds if not thousands of individuals) typically precludes the parties’ ability to establish complete diversity and thus eliminates the possibility of federal jurisdiction over most commercial trust disputes. As a result, virtually all commercial trust disputes will now be heard in state court, despite their complexity, their impact on matters of national public policy and their effect on the domestic and global economies.
Americold will also result in differential treatment of commercial trusts and corporations for purposes of federal jurisdiction, even though courts and commentators have long recognized the functional equivalence of the two types of business associations. Furthermore, as this research shows, there is no theoretical justification for this type of unequal treatment.
This Article therefore suggests, as a normative proposition, that Congress override Americold and provide commercial trusts with access to federal courts in a manner similar to that enjoyed by corporations. This recommendation is the result of a rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of both the jurisprudential and practical problems created by Americold as a matter of trust law, procedural law and the law of incorporated and unincorporated business associations. The Article identifies two possible Congressional responses to Americold, one involving reliance on minimal diversity, as in cases falling under 28 U.S.C. §§1332(d) and 1369, and the other involving a statutory definition of the citizenship of commercial trusts similar to that used for corporations under 28 U.S.C. §1332(c). In so doing, this Article hopes to place commercial trusts and corporations on an equal footing and avoid the numerous negative externalities generated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Americold.
A special thanks to Professor Strong who read the blog's coverage of Americold and shared her scholarship with me.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Stock pricing in the securities market responds to supply and demand. This is intuitive with regard to individual securities. We understand that if more people want to buy a stock (demand) than sell it (supply), then the price moves up. Conversely, the price decreases if more want to sell than buy. I wonder to what extent regulators have examined the role of retirement saving plans in flooding the market with demand to buy new securities and which can drive up stock prices overall. Consider this historical graph of the NYSE trading average. Observe the sharp rise beginning in the late 1980's with the introduction of individual retirement savings plan and the beginning of the defined contribution society.
chart source: Forecast Chart
New Department of Labor regulations open the door for state governments to sponsor retirement savings plans for non-government workers. See for example, California's proposed plans. The rules, proposed in 2015, became final on August 30, 2016. You can read a summary of the proposed plans published by The Brookings Institute and a DOL interpretive bulletin. Also being considered are proposed rules authorizing high-population cities to sponsor similar plans in states that don't create the non-government worker retirement savings plans. Collectively, these regulations are intended to facilitate the retirement savings of the estimated 55 million small business workers who do not currently have the option of participating in a retirement savings plan. This policy decision encourages retirement saving and promotes individual financial stability. It also means that more worker/saver/investors (a group I have called Citizen Shareholders in prior works) will be encouraged to invest in the private securities market. The demand cycle continues and can be sustained so long as there are as many or more worker/saver/investors as there are folks liquidating their retirement savings. In other words, a severely aging workforce/population could pose a demand/supply problem for the securities market.
Friday, September 2, 2016
In his article, Making It Easier for Directors to "Do the Right Thing?" 4 Harv. Bus. L. Rev. 235, 237–39 (2014), Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine wrote:
[E]ven if one accepts that those who manage public corporations may, outside of the corporate sales process, treat the best interests of other corporate constituencies as an end equal to the best interests of stockholders, and believes that stockholders should not be afforded additional influence over those managers, those premises do very little to actually change the managers’ incentives in a way that would encourage them to consider the interests of anyone other than stockholders. . . . even if corporate law supposedly grants directors the authority to give other constituencies equal consideration to stockholders outside of the sale context, it employs an unusual accountability structure to enable directors to act as neutral balancers of the diverse, and not always complementary, interests affected by corporate conduct. In that accountability structure, owners of equity securities are the only constituency given any rights. Stockholders get to elect directors. Stockholders get to vote on mergers and substantial asset sales. Stockholders get to inspect the books and records. Stockholders get the right to sue. No other constituency is given any of these rights. (emphasis added, citations omitted)
There has been a lot of anger and shock in the reporting over the price increases by EpiPen-maker Mylan. See, e.g., here, here, here, and here, but I think Chief Justice Strine's observation about the general accountability structure of corporate law is at least a partial explanation. (To be sure, there also appears to be an executive compensation story, though the executive compensation structure may be driven by the shareholder-centric accountability structure. That said, Mylan appears to be a Netherlands-incorporate company, and I know very little about the structure of its corporate law.)
The price for an EpiPen has increased a staggering amount since 2007 when pharmaceutical company Mylan acquired the product – wholesaling for $100 in 2007; $103.50 in 2009; $264.50 in 2013; $461 in 2015; $608.61 in 2016.
The general tone of the reporting in the mainstream media is one of outrage.
But isn't this to be expected? Granted, the business judgment rule provides a lot of leeway, and I would not argue that Mylan was "forced" to hike prices, even if Mylan were incorporated in Delaware. But if we give shareholders virtually all of the significant corporate governance tools, isn't it obvious that directors and officers will often seek shareholder interests even when it is harmful to communities? The bigger story here may be that certain norms and the fear of negative press have been able to keep plenty of other companies from following suit.
My article Adopting Stakeholder Advisory Boards, due out next semester in the American Business Law Journal, suggests giving some of the corporate governance accountability tools (such as certain voting rights) to a stakeholder advisory board made up of stakeholder representatives. The article argues that adoption of stakeholder advisory boards should be mandatory for large social enterprises (because they both chose a social entity form and have the resources) and should be voluntarily adopted by other serious socially-conscious companies. An accountability change of this sort might bring public expectations and the corporate law accountability structure into line.
Separately, are there certain industries - like the health care industry - that we want to be less profit-focused than others? For those industries, perhaps requiring (or making attractive through regulations/taxes) the choice of a social enterprise form (like benefit corporation) may make some sense. However, as noted in my article, the benefit corporation accountability structure is quite shareholder-centric, similar to the structure for traditional corporations. Granted, socially-motivated shareholders may exert some pressure on benefit corporations and the benefit corporation law may give them a somewhat better chance to do so, but if we want real change, I think the corporate accountability structure needs to be more completely redesigned.
Personal Note: When I was a child, my mom carried an EpiPen for me, following an incident involving plastic armor, a tennis racket, and whacking a big bee nest.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Although we review claims of insufficiency de novo, United States v. Harvey, 746 F.3d 87, 89 (2d Cir. 2014), it is well recognized that “a defendant mounting such a challenge bears a heavy burden” because “in assessing whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain a conviction, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, drawing all inferences in the government's favor and deferring to the jury's assessments of the witnesses' credibility.” . . .
[W]e reject Jasmin's challenge to her Hobbs Act conviction. The evidence presented at trial more than sufficiently describes the consideration received by Jasmin in exchange for her official actions as Mayor, including the $5,000 in cash from Stern, “advance” cash for their partnership, and shares in the limited liability corporation that would develop the community center.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
If it is true that “a good thing cannot last forever,” the recent turn of events concerning appraisal arbitrage in Delaware may be a proof point. A line of cases coming out of the Delaware Court of Chancery, namely In re Appraisal of Transkaryotic Therapies, Inc., No. CIV.A. 1554-CC (Del. Ch. May 2, 2007), In re Ancestry.Com, Inc., No. CV 8173-VCG (Del. Ch. Jan. 5, 2015), and Merion Capital LP v. BMC Software, Inc., No. CV 8900-VCG (Del. Ch. Jan. 5, 2015), have made one point clear: courts impose no affirmative evidence that each specific share of stock was not voted in favor of the merger—a “share-tracing” requirement. Despite this “green light” for hedge funds engaging in appraisal arbitrage, the latest case law and legislation identify some new limitations.
What Is Appraisal Arbitrage?
Under § 262 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), a shareholder in a corporation (usually privately-held) that disagrees with a proposed plan of merger can seek appraisal from the Court of Chancery for the fair value of their shares after approval of the merger by a majority of shareholders. The appraisal-seeking shareholder, however, must not have voted in favor of the merger. Section 262, nevertheless, has been used mainly by hedge funds in a popular practice called appraisal arbitrage, the purchasing of shares in a corporation after announcement of a merger for the sole purpose of bringing an appraisal suit against the corporation. Investors do this in hopes that the court determines a fair value of the shares that is a higher price than the merger price for shares.
In Using the Absurdity Principle & Other Strategies Against Appraisal Arbitrage by Hedge Funds, I outline how this practice is problematic for merging corporations. Not only can appraisal demands lead to 200–300% premiums for investors, assets in leveraged buyouts already tied up in financing the merger create an even heavier strain on liquidating assets for cash to fund appraisal demands. Additionally, if such restraints are too burdensome due to an unusually high demand of appraisal by arbitrageurs seeking investment returns, the merger can be completely terminated under “appraisal conditions”—a contractual countermeasure giving potential buyers a way out of the merger if a threshold percentage of shares seeking appraisal rights is exceeded. The article also identifies some creative solutions that can be effected by the judiciary or parties to and affected by a merger in absence of judicial and legislative action, and it evaluates the consequences of unobstructed appraisal arbitrage.
The Issue Is the “Fungible Bulk” of Modern Trading Practices
In the leading case, Transkaryotic, counsel for a defending corporation argued that compliance with § 262 required shareholders seeking appraisal prove that each of its specific shares was not voted in favor of the merger. The court pushed back against this share-tracing requirement and held that a plain language interpretation of § 262 requires no showing that specific shares were not voted in favor of the merger, but only requires that the current holder did not vote the shares in favor of the merger. The court noted that even if it imposed such a requirement, neither party could meet it because of the way modern trading practices occur.
August 17, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Case Law, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Private Equity, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, July 25, 2016
In a recent decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Keller v. Estate of Edward Stephen McRedmond, Tennessee adopted Delaware's direct-versus-derivative litigation analysis from Tooley v. Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette, Inc., 845 A.2d 1031 (Del. 2004), displacing a previously applicable test (that from Hadden v. City of Gatlinburg, 746 S.W.2d 687 (Tenn. 1988)). Although this is certainly significant, I also find the case interesting as an example of the way that a court treats different types of claims that can arise in typical corporate governance controversies (especially in small family and other closely held businesses). This post covers both matters briefly.
The Keller case involves a family business eventually organized as a for-profit corporation under Tennessee law ("MBI"). As is so often the case, after the children take over the business, a schism develops in the family that results in a deadlock under a pre-existing shareholders' agreement. A court-ordered dissolution follows, and after a bidding process in which each warring side of the family bids, the trustee contracts to sell the assets of MBI to members of one of the two family factions as the higher bidder. These acquiring family members organize their own corporation to hold the transferred MBI assets ("New MBI") and assign their rights under the MBI asset purchase agreement to New MBI
Prior to the closing, the losing bidder family member, Louie, then an officer and director of MBI who ran part of its business (its grease business), solicited customers and employees, starved the MBI grease business, diverted business opportunities from MBI's grease business to a corporation he already had established (on the MBI property) to compete with MBI in that business sector, and engaged in other behavior disloyal to MBI. Louie's actions were alleged to have contravened a court order enforcing covenants in the MBI asset purchase agreement. They also were allegedly disloyal and constituted a breach of his fiduciary duty of loyalty to MBI. Finally, they constituted an alleged interference with New MBI's business relations.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), Mary Barra (General Motors), Jeff Immet (GE), Larry Fink (Blackrock) and other executives think so and have published a set of "Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance" for public companies. There are more specifics in the Principles, but the key points cribbed from the front page of the new website are as follows:
Truly independent corporate boards are vital to effective governance, so no board should be beholden to the CEO or management. Every board should meet regularly without the CEO present, and every board should have active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level;
■ Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s also important to balance wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for fresh thinking and perspectives of new board members;
■ Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separate or combined; and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities;
■ Our financial markets have become too obsessed with quarterly earnings forecasts. Companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance — and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders;
■ A common accounting standard is critical for corporate transparency, so while companies may use non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) to explain and clarify their results, they never should do so in such a way as to obscure GAAP-reported results; and in particular, since stock- or options-based compensation is plainly a cost of doing business, it always should be reflected in non-GAAP measurements of earnings; and
■ Effective governance requires constructive engagement between a company and its shareholders. So the company’s institutional investors making decisions on proxy issues important to long-term value creation should have access to the company, its management and, in some circumstances, the board; similarly, a company, its management and board should have access to institutional investors’ ultimate decision makers on those issues.
I expect that shareholder activists, proxy advisory firms, and corporate governance nerds like myself will scrutinize the specifics against what the signatories’ companies are actually doing. Nonetheless, I commend these business leaders for at least starting a dialogue (even if a lot of the recommendations are basic common sense) and will be following this closely.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Two weeks ago, I blogged about the potential unintended consequences of (1) Dodd-Frank whistleblower awards to compliance officers and in-house counsel and (2) the Department of Justice’s Yates Memo, which requires companies to turn over individuals (even before they have determined they are legally culpable) in order to get any cooperation credit from the government.
Today at the International Legal Ethics Conference, I spoke about the intersection of state ethics laws, common law fiduciary duties, SOX §307 and §806, and the potential erosion of the attorney-client relationship. I posed the following questions regarding lawyer/whistleblowers and the Yates Memo at the end of my talk:
- How will this affect Upjohn warnings? (These are the corporate Miranda warnings and were hard enough for me to administer without me having to tell the employee that I might have to turn them over to the government after our conversation)
- Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ?
- Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ?
- Will companies turn people over to the government before proper investigations are completed just to save the company?
- Will executives cooperate in an investigation? Why should they?
- What’s the intersection with the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine (which Stephen Bainbridge has already criticized as "running amok")?
- Will there be more claims/denials for D & O coverage?
- Will individuals who cooperate get cooperation credit in their own cases?
- Will employees turn on their superiors without proper investigation?
- How will individuals/companies deal with parallel civil/criminal enforcement proceedings?
- What about indemnification clauses in employment contracts?
- Will there be more trials because there is little incentive for a corporation to plead guilty?
- What about data privacy restrictions for multinationals who operate in EU?
- How will this affect voluntary disclosure under the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizational Defendants, especially in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases?
- What ‘s the impact on joint defense agreements?
- As a lawyer for lawyers who want to be whistleblowers, can you ever advise them to take the chance of losing their license?
I didn’t have time to talk about the added complication of potential director liability under Caremark and its progeny. During my compliance officer days, I used Caremark’s name in vain to get more staff, budget, and board access so that I could train them on the basics on the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations. I explained to the Board that this line of cases required them to have some level of oversight over an effective compliance program. Among other things, Caremark required a program with “timely, accurate information sufficient to allow management and the board, each within its scope, to reach informed judgments concerning the [company’s] compliance with law and its business performance.”
I, like other compliance officers, often reviewed/re-tooled our compliance program after another company had negotiated a deferred or nonprosecution agreement with the government. These DPAs had an appendix with everything that the offending company had to do to avoid prosecution. Rarely, if ever, did the DPA mention an individual wrongdoer, and that’s been the main criticism and likely the genesis of the Yates Memo.
Boards will now likely have to take more of a proactive leadership role in demanding investigations at an early stage rather than relying on the GC or compliance officer to inform them of what has already occurred. Boards may need to hire their own counsel to advise on them on this and/or require the general counsel to have outside counsel conduct internal investigations at the outset. This leads to other interesting questions. For example, what happens if executives retain their own counsel and refuse to participate in an investigation that the Board requests? Should the Board designate a special committee (similar to an SLC in the shareholder derivative context) to make sure that there is no taint in the investigation or recommendations? At what point will the investigation become a reportable event for a public company? Will individual board members themselves lawyer up?
I will definitely have a lot to write about this Fall. If you have any thoughts leave them below or email me at email@example.com.
July 14, 2016 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Ethics, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Professor William Birdthistle at Chicago-Kent College of Law is publishing his new book, Empire of the Fund with Oxford University Press. A brief introductory video for the book (available here) demonstrates both Professor Birdthistle’s charming accent and talent for video productions (this is obviously not his first video rodeo). Professor Birdthistle has generously provided our readers with a window into the book’s thesis and highlights some of its lessons. I’ll run a second feature next week focusing on the process of writing a book—an aspiration/current project for many of us.
Empire of the Fund is segmented into four digestible parts: anatomy of a fund describing the history and function of mutual funds, diseases & disorders addressing fees, trading practices and disclosures, alternative remedies introducing readers to ETFs, target date funds and other savings vehicles, and cures where Birdthistle highlights his proposals. For the discussion of the Jones v. Harris case alone, I think I will assign this book to my corporate law seminar class for our “book club”. As other reviewers have noted, the book is funny and highly readable, especially as it sneaks in financial literacy. And now, from Professor Birdthistle:
Things that the audience might learn:
The SEC does practically zero enforcement on fees. [pp. 215-216] Even though every expert understands the importance of fees on mutual fund investing, the SEC has brought just one or only two cases in its entire history against advisors charging excessive fees. Section 36(b) gives the SEC and private plaintiffs a cause of action, but the SEC has basically ignored it; even prompting Justice Scalia to ask why during oral arguments in Jones v. Harris? Private plaintiffs, on the other hand, bring cases against the wrong defendants (big funds with deep pockets but relatively reasonable fees). So I urge the SEC to bring one of these cases to police the outer bounds of stratospheric fund fees.
The only justification for 12b-1 fees has been debunked. [pp. 81-83] Most investors don't know much about 12b-1 fees and are surprised by the notion that they should be paying to advertise funds in which they already invest to future possible investors. The industry's response is that spending 12b-1 fees will bring in more investors and thus lead to greater savings for all investors via economies of scale. The SEC's own financial economist, however, studied these claims and found (surprisingly unequivocally for a government official) that, yes, 12b-1 fees certainly are effective at bringing in new investment but, no, funds do not then pass along any savings to the funds' investors. I sketch this out in a dialogue on page 81 between a pair of imaginary nightclub denizens.
Target-date funds are more dangerous than most people realize. [pp. 172-174] Target-date funds are embraced by many as a panacea to our investing problem and have been extremely successful as such. But I point out some serious drawbacks with them. First, they are in large part an end-of-days solution in which we essentially give up on trying to educate investors and encourage them simply to set and forget their investments; that's a path to lowering financial literacy, not raising it (which may be a particularly acute issue if my second objection materializes). Second, TDFs rely entirely on the assumption that the bond market is the safety to which all investors should move as they age; but if we're heading for a historic bear market on bonds (as several intelligent and serious analysts have posited), we'll be in very large danger with a somnolent investing population