Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Bernie Sharfman's paper, A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs, was just published, and I think he has a point. In fact, as I read his argument, I think it is consistent with arguments I have made about the difference between restrictions or unconventional terms or practices that exist at purchase versus such changes that are added after one becomes a member or shareholder. Here's the abstract:
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.
Unless there are significant sunset provisions, a dual class share structure allows insiders to maintain voting control over a company even when, over time, there is both an ebbing of superior leadership skills and a significant decline in the insiders’ ownership of the company’s common stock. Yet, investors are willing to take that risk even to the point of investing in dual class shares where the shares have no voting rights and barely any sunset provisions, such as in the recent Snap Inc. IPO. Why they are willing to do so is a result of the wealth maximizing efficiency that results from the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements and the understanding that agency costs are not the only costs of governance that need to be minimized.
In this essay, Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s newly proposed “principal-cost theory,” “each firm’s optimal governance structure minimizes the sum of principal costs, produced when investors exercise control, and agent costs, produced when managers exercise control,” is used to argue that the use of dual class shares in IPOs is a value enhancing result of private ordering, making the movement’s renewed advocacy unwarranted.
The recommended citation is Bernard S. Sharfman, A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs, 63 Vill. L. Rev. 1 (2018).
I find his argument compelling, as I lean toward allowing contracting parties to enter into agreements as they so choose. I find this especially compelling at start-up or the IPO stage. I might take a more skeptical view of changes made after start-up. That is, if dual-class shares are voted created after an IPO by the majority insiders, there is a stronger bait-and-switch argument. Even in that case, if the ability to create dual-class shares by majority vote was allowed by the charter/bylaws, it might be reasonable to allow such a change, but I also see a self-dealing argument to do such a thing post-IPO. At the outset, though, if insiders make clear that, to the extent that a dual-class share structure is self-dealing, the offer to potential purchasers is, essentially, "if you want in on this company, these are our terms." I can work with that.
This is consistent with my view of other types of disclosure. For example, in my post: Embracing Freedom of Contract in the LLC: Linking the Lack of Duty of Loyalty to a Duty of Disclosure, I discussed the ability to waive the duty of loyalty in Delaware LLCs:
At formation . . . those creating an LLC would be allowed to do whatever they want to set their fiduciary duties, up to and including eliminating the consequences for breaches of the duty of loyalty. This is part of the bargain, and any member who does not agree to the terms need not become a member. Any member who joins the LLC after formation is then on notice (perhaps even with an affirmative disclosure requirement) that the duty of loyalty has been modified or eliminated.
It was my view, and remains my view, that there some concerns about such changes after one becomes a member that warrant either restrictions or at least some level of clear disclosures of the possibility of such a change after the fact, though even in that case, perhaps self-dealing protections in the form of the obligations of good faith and fair dealing would be sufficient.
Similarly, in my 2010 post, Philanthropy as a Business Model: Comparing Ford to craigslist, I explained:
I see the problem for Henry Ford to say, in essence, that his shareholders should be happy with what they get and that workers and others are more his important to him than the shareholders. However, it would have been quite another thing for Ford to say, “I, along with my board, run this company the way I always have: with an eye toward long-term growth and stability. That means we reinvest many of our profits and take a cautious approach to dividends because the health of the company comes first. It is our belief that is in the best interest of Ford and of Ford’s shareholders.”
For Ford, there seemed to be something of a change in the business model (and how the business was operated with regard to dividends) once the Dodge Brothers started thinking about competing. All of a sudden, Ford became concerned about community first. For craigslist, at least with regard to the concept of serving the community, the company changed nothing. And, in fact, it seems apparent that craiglist’s view of community is one reason, if not the reason, it still has its “perch atop the pile.”
Thus, while it is true craigslist never needed to accept eBay’s money, eBay also knew exactly how craigslist was operated when they invested. If they wanted to ensure they could change that, it seems to me they should have made sure they bought a majority share.
I understand some of the concern about dual-class shares and other mechanisms that facilitate insider control, but as long as the structure of the company is clear when the buyer is making the purchase decision, I'm okay with letting the market decide whether the structure is acceptable.