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, 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?
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
Ethics has been a recurrent news headline from questions of President-elect Trump's business holdings to the Republican House's "secret" vote on ethics oversight on Monday.
I want to share research from a seminar student's paper on financial regulation and the role of ethics. She made a compelling argument about the role of ethics to be a gap filler in the regulatory framework. Financial regulation, as many like Stephen Bainbridge have argued, is reactionary and reminds one of a game of whack-a-mole. Once the the regulation has been acted to target the specific bad act, that bad act has been jettisoned and new ones undertaken. Her research brought to my attention something that I find hopeful and uplifting in a mental space where I am hungry for such morsels.
In 2015, in response to a perceived moral failing that contributed to the financial crisis, the Netherlands required all bankers to take an ethics oath. The oath states: “I swear that I will endeavor to maintain and promote confidence in the financial sector, so help me God.” The full oath is available here. Moreover, “by taking and signing this oath, bank employees declare that they agree with the content of the statement, and promise that they will act honorable and will weigh interests properly . . . [by] ‘focusing on clients’ interests.’” The oath is supported by a code of conduct and disciplinary rules including fines, suspensions or blacklisting.
Georgia State University College of Law student Tosha Dunn described the role of the oath as follows:
An oath is thought of as a psychological contract: “the oath has always been the highest form of commitment, and as a social function it creates or strengthens trust between people.” However, psychological contracts are completely subjective; the meaning attached to the contract is wholly open to the interpretation of the individual involved. Social cues like rituals and public displays may impart meaning or responsibility... the very idea behind the oath is to restore confidence in the Dutch banking system: “we are renewing the way we do business, from the top of the bank to the bottom” and “a violation of the oath becomes more than simply a legally culpable act; it is, in addition, an ethical issue.”
And isn't that a lovely way to think of an oath and the ability of a social contract to elevate our behavior and promote our higher selves?
Citations from the student paper and further scholarly discussion are available with the following sources: Tom Loonen & Mark R. Rutgers, Swearing To Be A Good Banker: Perceptions of The Obligatory Banker’s Oath in the Netherlands, 15 J. Banking & Reg. 1, 3 (2016) & Denise M. Rousseau & Judi McLean Parks, The Contracts of Individuals and Organizations, 15 Research in Org. Behavior 1, 18-19 (1993).
Happy New Year BLPB readers-- here's to an ethical and enlightened 2017.
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, December 14, 2016
UC Irvine law professor, David Min, has a new article titled, Corporate Political Activity and Non-Shareholder Agency Costs, in theYale Journal on Regulation. Professor Min examines corporate constitutional law in recent examples such as Citizens United, through the lens of nonshareholder dissenters.
The courts have never considered the problem of dissenting nonshareholders in assessing regulatory restrictions on corporate political activity. This Article argues that they should. It is the first to explore the potential agency costs that corporate political activity creates for nonshareholders, and in so doing, it lays out two main arguments. First, these agency costs may be significant, as I illustrate through several case studies. Second, neither corporate law nor private ordering provides solutions to this agency problem. Indeed, because the theoretical arguments for shareholder primacy in corporate law are largely inapplicable for corporate political activity, corporate law may actually serve to exacerbate the agency problems that such activity creates for non-shareholders. Private ordering, which could take the form of contractual covenants restricting corporate political activity, also seems unlikely to solve this problem, due to the large economic frictions facing such covenants. These findings have potentially significant ramifications for the Court’s corporate political speech jurisprudence, particularly as laid out in Bellotti and Citizens United. One logical conclusion is that these decisions, regardless of their constitutional merit, make for very bad public policy, insofar as they preempt much-needed regulatory solutions for reducing non-shareholder agency costs, and thus may have the effect of inhibiting efficient corporate ordering and capital formation. Another outgrowth of this analysis is that nonshareholder agency costs may provide an important rationale for government regulation of corporate political activity.
In examining corporate political activity, Professor Min, expertly blends and connects agency theory to corporate theories of the firm. He rebuts traditional arguments against nonshareholder constituents such as residual interest holders (shareholders), the role of private ordering and provides 3 detailed case studies illustrating the costs of CPA on nonshareholder constituents. Among the proposals and options explored to mitigate these agency costs, Professor Min suggests that the existence of agency costs to nonshareholders--an area heretofore unexamined in corporate law--could justify a regulatory intervention.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Do you love charts? Do you need/want a break from grading/procrastinating/writing frantically on a deadline real or self-imposed? All of these things at once? Welcome to the month of December-- the time of year that should be a break from our schedules, but which always (and I mean ALWAYS) is my busiest time when I try to fit 6 weeks of work into 2.
My December gift to you? The Investment Company Factbook. The Investment Company Institute (ICI), is an association of regulated funds that collects and distributes data from its members. The full text of the Factbook (an annual publication) is available here, and the charts (and underlying data) are available here. I wept when I first discovered this source while writing years ago. ICI information is widely used in legal research. A quick search produced 3,265 law reviews and journal articles. For critiques of ICI's information and framing, see John C. Bogle, Mutual Funds at the Millennium: Fund Directors and Fund Myths, at http://www.vanguard.com/bogle_site/may152000.html (May 15, 2000); John P. Freeman & Stewart L. Brown, Mutual Fund Advisory Fees: The Cost of Conflicts of Interest, 26 J. Corp. L. 609, 625/26 (2001); and yours truly in Anne M. Tucker, Locked in: The Competitive Disadvantage of Citizen Shareholders, 125 Yale L.J. Forum 163 (2015).
Now back to writing/grading/procrastinating!
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Wharton’s Legal Studies & Business Ethics Department invites submissions for its inaugural Conference on Business Law and Ethics, to take place March 31-April 1, 2017.
This is the first meeting of what will be a recurring conference: we aim to gather together each year the most cutting-edge work on law, ethics and business. Papers are invited from scholars both senior and junior, and from diverse disciplines, on the theme of “The Ethical Lives of Corporations.” Submit an abstract of an unpublished paper to Phil Nichols ([email protected] ) and Gwendolyn Gordon ([email protected]). The deadline for abstract submissions is January 6th, 2017.
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, November 16, 2016
Last week on the eve of the election, I shared a series of predictions regarding the market's response to a Trump or Clinton presidential election victory. Almost all of the predictions were for a swift and negative reaction to a Trump victory. Immediate market predictions, like polling predictions, were, in a word: WRONG.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Stocks were mixed on Friday, taking a pause to end an eventful week that pushed the Dow industrials to their best week since 2011.
The Dow climbed 0.2% on Friday to 0.2%, pushing the index up 5.4% for the week to 18847.66.
The S&P 500 dipped 0.1% on Friday to 2164.45, while the Nasdaq Composite jumped 0.5% to 5237.11.
I find myself so disorientated in this post-election reality.
Monday, November 7, 2016
As we gear up for the final show down and hopefully the end of the 2016 election (please, please, please let it end) I write today about the relationship between the markets and politics. It is apparently THE business angle in the news cycle this week. This is an admitted punt on substantive work and am instead providing you with a host of hyperlinks to nervously check and re-check in between nervously checking and re-checking polling estimates and vote counts. Please note, I am passing along a compilation of articles, a list that I have not editted to reflect a certain viewpoint.
Historical Accounts of the Relationship between politics and the markets
Merrill Lynch, How Presidential Elections Affect the Markets
Predictions regarding market reactions to the outcome of the 2016 election
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
General Electric (GE) and Baker Hughes (BHI) announced on Monday, October 31st, a proposed merger to combine their oil and gas operations. GE and Baker Hughes will form a partnership, which will own a publicly-traded company. GE shareholders will own 62.5% of the "new" partnership, while Baker Hughes shareholders will own 37.5% and receive a one-time cash dividend of $17.50 per share. The new company will have 9 board of director seats: 5 from GE and 4 from Baker Hughes. GE CEO Jeff Immelt will be the chairman of the new company and Lorenzo Simonelli, CEO of GE Oil & Gas, will be CEO. Baker Hughes CEO Martin Craighead will be vice chairman.
Reuters is describing the business synergies between the two companies as leveraging GE's oilfield equipment manufacturing ("supplying blowout preventers, pumps and compressors used in exploration and production") and data process services with Baker Hughes' expertise in " horizontal drilling, chemicals used to frack and other services key to oil production."
Baker Hughes had previously proposed a merger with Halliburton (HAL), which failed in May, 2016, after the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit to block the merger. Early analysis suggests that the proposed GE & Baker Hughes will pass regulatory scrutiny because of the limited business overlap of GE and Baker Hughes.
As I plan to tell my corporations students later today: this is real life! A high-profile, late-semester merger of two public companies is a wonderful gift. The proposed GE/Baker Hughes merger illustrates, in real life, concepts we have been discussing (or will be soon) like partnerships, the proxy process, special shareholder meetings, SEC filings, abstain or disclose rules, and, of course, mergers.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Fresh on the heels of reading several Dean search announcements come across email the last several days, the following ABA article on the rise of female Law Deans caught my eye: Cynthia L. Cooper, Women Ascend in Deanships as Law Schools Undergo Dramatic Change, ABA Perspectives Summer 2016.
The list of current deanship openings is available at The Faculty Lounge, as well as a run down of of positions filled last year.
Sorry folks...sick little one on my hands today!
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Today's post continues the discussion started by Anne’s informative post regarding the law of controlling stockholders. Anne astutely notes that the MFW “enhanced ratification” framework was rendered in connection with a going private merger. Although I recognize the intuitive appeal, I wish to call into question the impact of MFW’s holding on other manners of controlling shareholder transactions.
Going private transactions differ from going concern transactions in that their successful completion wipes out the minority float. This distinction accelerates stockholders' divergent incentives and raises the possibility for minority stockholder abuse. An unscrupulous controller might structure the transaction in a manner that captures all unlocked value for later private consumption. Going private transactions allow controlling stockholders to shed the restrictions of the public market, thereby evading future retribution by minority stockholders. Policy considerations accordingly call for superior protection of minority stockholders participating in a going private transaction.
Since MFW establishes a procedure for achieving less intrusive judicial review for going private transactions, it stands to reason that this procedure should apply to all transactions involving a controlling stockholder. Indeed, without addressing the distinction between going private and going concern transactions in this context, a fairly recent Chancery Court decision has explicitly opined that the MFW framework applies to all controlling stockholder transactions (In re Ezcorp Inc. Consulting Agreement Derivative Litig., 2016 WL 301245, at *28 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2016)).
In a forthcoming article at the Delaware Journal of Corporate Law, I argue that the borders of "MFW-Land" are not as clear-cut as they appear. The Delaware Supreme Court decision does not create a universally-applicable safe harbor procedure for all manner of controlling stockholder transactions. Two main arguments form the basis of this contention.
The dual tenets of doctrinal clarity and cohesion underpin the first argument. A careful reading of the MFW decision fails to detect any mention of competing precedent or a general proclamation regarding its applicability to other types of controlling stockholder transactions. MFW is clearly situated on a path of doctrinal evolution of judicial inspection of going private transactions with controlling stockholders. Canons of judicial interpretation counsel against an indirect reversal or modification of established precedent.
Additionally, the theoretical justifications for the MFW decision hold significantly less weight in the going concern context. MFW's doctrinal shift is grounded on the twin pillars representing the competency of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders. Whatever the validity of these mechanisms in the freeze out context, the legal and financial scholarship does not validate an extension to going concern transactions. Serious flaws hamper the ability of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders to pass meaningful judgment on going concern transactions. In the final tally, MFW does not produce an all-encompassing framework for all controlling stockholder transactions.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Today I used Wells Fargo as a teaching tool in Business Associations. Using this video from the end of September, I discussed the role of the independent directors, the New York Stock Exchange Listing Standards, the importance of the controversy over separate chair and CEO, 8Ks, and other governance principles. This video discussing ex-CEO Stumpf’s “retirement” allowed me to discuss the importance of succession planning, reputational issues, clawbacks and accountability, and potential SEC and DOJ investigations. This video lends itself nicely to a discussion of executive compensation. Finally, this video provides a preview for our discussion next week on whistleblowers, compliance, and the board’s Caremark duties.
Regular readers of this blog know that in my prior life I served as a deputy general counsel and compliance officer for a Fortune 500 Company. Next week when I am out from under all of the midterms I am grading, I will post a more substantive post on the Wells Fargo debacle. I have a lot to say and I imagine that there will be more fodder to come in the next few weeks. In the meantime, check out this related post by co-blogger Anne Tucker.
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, October 5, 2016
The Wells Fargo headlines--fresh from a congressional testimony, a spiraling stock price, and a CEO with $41M less dollars to his name-- raise the question of whether this is a case study of corporate governance effectiveness or inefficiency. That the wrong doing (opening an estimated 2M unauthorized customer accounts to manipulate sales figures) was eventually unearthed, employees fired and bonus pay revoked may give some folks confidence in the oversight and accountability structures set up by corporate governance. Michael Hiltzit at the LA Times writes a scathing review of the CEO and the Board of Directors failed oversight on this issue.
The implicit defense raised by Stumpf’s defenders is that the consumer ripoff at the center of the scandal was, in context, trivial — look at how much Wells Fargo has grown under this management. But that’s a reductionist argument. One reason that the scandal looks trivial is that no major executive has been disciplined; so how big could it be? This only underscores the downside of letting executives off scot-free — it makes major failings look minor. The answer is to start threatening the bosses with losing their jobs, or going to jail, and they’ll start to take things seriously.
Whats your vote? Is the call for resignation an empty symbolism or a necessary consequence of governance?
Monday, September 26, 2016
In recent weeks, co-bloggers Ann Lipton and Anne Tucker both have posted on issues relating to the upcoming Supreme Court oral argument in Salman v. U.S. Indeed, this is an important case for the reason they each cite: resolution of the debate about whether the receipt of a personal benefit should be a condition to tippee liability for insider trading (under Section 10(b) of/Rule 10b-5 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended), when the tipper and tippee are close family members. Certainly, many of us who teach and litigate insider trading cases will be watching the oral argument and waiting for the Court's opinion to see whether, and if so, how, the law evolves.
Having noted that common interest (as among many) in the Salman case, as I earlier indicated, I have a broader interest in the Salman case because of a current project I am working on relating to family relationships and friendships in insider trading--both as a matter of tipper-tippee liability (as in Salman) and as a matter of the duty of trust and confidence necessary to misappropriation liability. The project was borne in part of a feeling that I had, based on reported investigations and cases I continued to encounter, that expert network and friends-and-family insider trading cases were two very common insider trading scenarios that implicate uncertain insider trading doctrine under U.S. law.
While I have been distracted by other things, my research assistant has begun to gather and reflect on the data we are assembling about publicly reported friends and family insider trading acting between 2000 and today. Here are some preliminary outtakes that may be of interest based on the first 40 cases we have identified.
- 16 of the cases involve friendships;
- 7 cases involve marital relationships;
- 7 cases involve romantic relationships outside marriage (e.g., lover, mistress, boyfriend);
- 5 cases involving siblings;
- 3 cases involve a parent/child relationship; and
- 3 cases on involve in-laws.
Those categories capture the vast majority of cases we have identified so far. The cases represented in the list are primarily from 2011-2016. Some cases involve more than one type of relationship. So, the number of observations in the list above exceeds 40.
Another key observation is that most initial tippers in these cases are men. Notable exceptions are SEC v. Hawk and SEC v. Chen, described in this 2014 internet case summary. Six cases found and analyzed to date involve female tippees.
Theories in the cases derive from both classical and misappropriation scenarios. I will say more on that in a subsequent post. For now, however, perhaps the most important take-away is that my intuition that there are many cases involving exchanges of material nonpublic information in family relationships and friendships appears to be solid. Hopefully, the Court will help resolve unanswered questions about insider trading doctrine as applied in these cases, starting with the personal benefit question raised in Salman.
Fresh from the presidential debate,** I find myself writing about board room diversity.*** Over the 2016 summer, SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White signaled intent to revisit diversity in U.S. boardrooms. In 2009 the SEC adopted a diversity disclosure rule requiring companies to disclose how their nominating committees considered diversity and whether the company had a diversity policy. The full rule can be viewed here. The SEC did not define (nor did it mandate a singular definition of ) diversity, and companies have been left to define diversity individually, often without regard to gender, ethnic, racial or religious identities. The result, criticized by Chairwoman White, has been vague disclosures without apparent impact.
SEC diversity rule making (past and future) was the backdrop for a recent corporate governance seminar class where I asked students: Why should they care about board room diversity? And if the 2009 disclosure rule changes, how should it change? How do other countries approach the issue of boardroom diversity? Can it be a mandated or legislated endeavor? To guide our discussion we read Aaron A Dhir's brilliant and thorough: Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity: Corporate Law, Governance and Diversity and consulted Catalyst.org to understand the panoply of diversity choices from other jurisdictions.
Dhir's Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity was a helpful and powerful book, equipping students with facts and language to think about and discuss diversity. Dhir engaged in a qualitative, interview-based methodology to investigate, and ultimately compare the Norwegian quota system with the U.S. diversity disclosure experience. While noting the costs and the translation problems from Norway to the world writ-large, Dhir interpreted his results as follows:
"female directors, present in substantial numbers, may enhance the level of cognitive diversity and constructive conflict in the boardroom. They are more apt to critically analyze, test and challenge received wisdom. In doing so, they appear to have harnessed for their boards the value of dissent, a key driver of effective governance."
In focusing on the U.S. experience, however, Dhir found that U.S. firms defined diversity in terms of experience not identity, and that this initiative fell short of the goal of encouraging or promoting boardroom diversity. Dhir recommended that the SEC define diversity as containing socio-demographic components and encourage companies to incorporate such considerations in governance by imposing a comply or explain regime in the U.S. While some have lamented that the SEC's primary challenge is how to define what diversity means, Dhir, through his research and analysis has a pretty good staring point. Should someone send Chairwoman White a copy of this book?
More than even the careful methodology, the refreshing comparative perspective and thoughtful recommendations tied to data and observable trends, the book provides a common language to explain the phenomenon of why diversity, as an initiative, is even necessary in the first place. Chapter two engages with a nuanced set of issues, irrefutable fact and explanations of bias--implicit and explicit. Here I think, more so than even other parts of the book, students connected with the materials linking language to real experiences and observations in their own lives. The attack on the pool problem critique (there aren't enough qualified women and it variant: we hired the most qualified candidate from our pool) alone warrants my effusive praise for its persuasive presentation and ability to generate thoughtful student debate.
**The debate wasn't the impetus, rather writing this post is just an exercise in settling my nerves before trying to sleep.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
The enticing facts of insider trading have me writing about the topic again (see an earlier post here) as the US Supreme Court prepares to hear oral argument in Salman v. US on October 5th. In Salman, the Supreme Court is asked to draw some careful lines in the questions: what benefit counts and how to prove such a benefit under Dirks v. SEC.
Recall that in Dirks, the Supreme Court focused the test on whether an insider benefitted—either by trading or by tipping in exchange for a benefit from the person to whom she tipped material nonpublic information. After Dirks, the 10b inquiry is whether the insider breached a duty by conveying the information for the insider’s personal benefit, and whether the tippee knows or at least should know of the breach. The Court explained that even in a case against a tippee who trades "Absent some personal gain [by the insider], there has been no breach of duty to stockholders. And absent a breach by the insider, there is no derivative breach [by the tippee]."
The Salman case highlights a circuit split: the Second Circuit case United States v. Newman and the Ninth Circuit's ruling in Salman. In Salman, the question is whether prosecutors had to prove that the brother-in-law, Maher Kara, disclosed nonpublic securities information in exchange for a personal benefit. Is it enough that the insider and the tippee shared a close family relationship or must there be direct evidence as required in Newman?
The Ninth Circuit framed the benefit requirement inquiry, established in Dirks, as a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or a friend. The prosecution offered direct evidence of nonpublic information as a gift. The Ninth Circuit, and the Government, relied upon this passage in Dirks:
There may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the particular recipient. The elements of fiduciary duty and exploitation of nonpublic information also exist when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend. The tip and trade resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient.
The Second Circuit read the Dirks benefit test more narrowly, saying it required “proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”
So what is the right answer? The Government lamented the Newman decision as "dramatically limit[ing] the Government’s ability to prosecute some of the most common, culpable, and market-threatening forms of insider trading.” Whereas others (see here) have criticized the Government's position in Newman and the subsequent basis of the Salman ruling as reviving the “parity of information” standard rejected by Supreme Court in both Chiarella and Dirks. Focusing on friendship and defining it broadly weakens the benefit test advanced in Dirks.
As someone who teaches insider trading and has followed the fascinating case facts for years, I am looking forward to oral argument and see the next step in the evolution of insider trading. Co-blogger Ann Lipton tee'd up the Salman case in her post earlier this week with her usual whit and charm.