Thursday, August 16, 2018
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren penned an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled Companies Shouldn’t Be Accountable Only to Shareholders: My new bill would require corporations to answer to employees and other stakeholders as well.
The article announced and promoted her Accountable Capitalism Act. With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, Warren’s bill almost certainly doesn’t stand a chance of passing in the short-term.
Yet, because the bill draws on benefit corporation governance, a main scholarly interest of mine, and because it may foreshadow moves by a Democrat-controlled Congress in the future, I decided to read the 28-page bill and report here briefly.
Portions of the bill summarized:
- As has been widely reported, the bill only applies to companies with more than $1 billion in revenue.
- The bill seeks to establish an “Office of United States Corporations” within the Department of Commerce, which will review, grant, and rescind charters for the large companies covered by the bill.
- The bill takes language from benefit corporation law and requires that U.S. Corporations must have a purpose to serve a “general public benefit” – “a material positive impact on society resulting from the business and operations of a United States corporation, when taken as a whole.” This purpose is in addition to any purpose in the company’s state filing.
- The governance requirements are a mix of the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation and Delaware version of benefit corporation law – requiring both that directors balance the “pecuniary interests of shareholders” with the "best interests of persons that are materially affected by the conduct of the United States corporation” (drawn from Delaware) and that directors consider a litany of stakeholders in their decisions (including shareholders, employees, customers, community, local and global environment - drawn from the Model). Only shareholders with 2%+ of the shares can sue derivatively.
- Employees must elect 40%+ of the board of directors.
- 75%+ of shareholders and 75%+ of directors must approve political spending of over $10,000 on a single candidate.
My brief thoughts:
- This is a lot of press for benefit corporations.
- The press may not be good for benefit corporation proponents who have been largely able to pitch to both sides of the political aisle in their state bills. B Lab co-founder Jay Coen Gilbert has already written an article trying to promote what he sees as the bipartisan nature of benefit corporations: Elizabeth Warren, Republicans, CEOs & BlackRock's Fink Unite Around 'Accountable Capitalism'
- I have noted in my scholarly work how the state benefit corporation laws fail to align the purported “general public benefit” corporate purpose with effective accountability mechanisms. This bill, however, takes one step toward aligning company purpose and accountability by requiring that employees elect 40%+ of the board. Of course, that still leaves out many other stakeholders that directors are supposed to consider, and shareholders are still the only stakeholders with the ability to sue derivatively. A better solution is to have stakeholder representatives who elect the entire board and also possess, collectively, the right to sue derivatively. This stakeholder representative framework, articulated in my 2017 American Business Law Journal article, has the benefit of keeping the board united on a common goal – instead of fighting on behalf of the single stakeholder group who elected them – while also being held to account by representatives of all major stakeholder groups, collectively.
- Suggesting that benefit corporation law become mandatory will likely not be popular among many conservatives. See, e.g., this early response in the National Review: Elizabeth Warren’s Batty Plan to Nationalize . . . Everything. Currently, a fair response to conservative critics of state benefit corporation laws is "if businesses do not like the benefit corporation framework, they can just choose to be a traditional corporation." This bill attempts to remove that choice for large companies.
(My co-blogger Joshua Fershee may be horrified to learn that the bill purports to apply not only to corporations, but also to LLCs, even though they use the term "U.S. Corporations" throughout).