Monday, July 13, 2020
U.S. Securities Crowdfunding: A Way to Economic Inclusion for Low-Income Entrepreneurs in the Wake of COVID-19?
Earlier today, I submitted a book chapter with the same title as this blog post. The chapter, written for an international management resource on Digital Entrepreneurship and the Sharing Economy, represents part of a project on crowdfunding and poverty that I have been researching and thinking through for a bit over two years now. My chapter abstract follows:
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and created economic hardship all over the world. The United States is no exception. Among other things, the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis deepen pre-existing concerns about financing U.S. businesses formed and promoted by entrepreneurs of modest means.
In May 2016, a U.S. federal registration exemption for crowdfunded securities offerings came into existence (under the CROWDFUND Act) as a means of helping start-ups and small businesses obtain funding. In theory, this regime was an attempt to fill gaps in U.S. securities law that handicapped entrepreneurs and their promoters from obtaining equity, debt, and other financing through the sale of financial investment instruments over the Internet. The use of the Internet for business finance is particularly important to U.S. entrepreneurs who may not have access to funding because of their own limited financial and economic positions.
As the pandemic continues and the fifth year of effectiveness of the CROWDFUND Act progresses, observations can be made about the role securities crowdfunding has played and may play in sustaining and improving prospects for those limited means entrepreneurs. A preliminary examination indicates that, under current legal rules, securities crowdfunding is a promising, yet less-than-optimal, financing vehicle for these entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, there are ways in which U.S. securities crowdfunding may be used or modified to play a more positive role in promoting economic inclusion through capital raising for the innovative ventures of financially disadvantaged entrepreneurs and promoters.
I value the opportunity to contribute to this book with scholars from a number of research disciplines and countries. I have been looking for ways to concretize some of my ideas from this project in a series of shorter publications, and this project seems like a good fit. Nevertheless, I admit that I have been finding it challenging to segment out and organize my ideas about how securities crowdfunding may better serve entrepreneurs and investors, especially in the current economic downturn. As always, your ideas are welcomed.
Monday, July 6, 2020
The title of this post is the title of a panel discussion I organized for the 2019 Business Law Prof Blog symposium, held back in September of last year. (Readers may recall that I posted on this session back at the time, under the same title.) The panel experience was indescribably satisfying for me. It represented one of those moments in life where one just feels so lucky . . . .
Why? Because it fulfilled a dream, of sorts, that I have had for quite a while. Here's the story.
About ten years ago, I ended up in a conversation with two of my beloved Tennessee Law colleagues while we were grabbing afternoon beverages. One of these colleagues is a tax geek; the other is a property guy. Somehow, we got into a discussion about mergers and acquisitions. I was asked how I would define a merger as a matter of corporate law, and part of my answer (that mergers are magic) got these two folks all riled up (in a professional, academic, nerdy way). The conversation included some passionate exchanges. It was an exhilerating experience.
I have remembered that exchange for all of these years, vowing to myself that some day, I would work on publishing what was said. When the opportunity arose to hold a panel discussion to recreate our water-cooler chat at the symposium last fall, I jumped at the chance. I was tickled pink that my two colleagues consented to join me in the recreation exercise. They are good sports, wise lawyers, and excellent teachers.
My objective in convening the panel was two-fold.
First, I thought that students would find the conversation illuminating. "Aha," they might justifiably say. "Now I know why I am confused about what a merger is. It's because the term means different things to different lawyers, all of whom may have a role in advising on a business combination transaction. I have to understand the perspective from which the question is being asked, and the purpose of answering the question, before I can definitively say what a merger is." Overall, I was convinced that a recreation of the conversation through a panel discussion could be a solid teaching tool.
But that's not all. Faculty also can earn from our dialogue. It helped me in my teaching to know how my tax colleague (who teaches transactional tax planning and business taxation) and my property colleague (who teaches property and secured transactions) define the concept of a merger and what each had to say about his definition as it operates in practice. I like to think my two colleagues similarly benefitted from an understanding of my definition of a merger (even if neither believes in statutory magic) . . . .
Now, you and your students also can benefit from the panel. Although it is not quite as good as hearing us all talk about mergers and acquisitions in person (which one can do here), Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law, recently published an edited transcript of the panel discussion as part of the symposium proceedings. It also is titled "What is a Merger Anyway?" And you can find it here. (The entire volume of the journal that includes the symposium proceedings can be found here. Your friends from the BLPB are the featured authors!) I am sure that your joy in reading it cannot match my joy in contributing to the project, but I hope you find joy in reading it nonetheless.
Monday, March 9, 2020
Friend of the BLPB and fellow crowdfunding researcher Andrew Schwartz recently posted this article on SSRN: Mandatory Disclosure in Primary Markets, 2019 Utah L. Rev. 1069. I was provoked by the abstract, which reads as follows:
Mandatory disclosure—the idea that companies must be legally required to disclose certain, specified information to public investors—is the first principle of modern securities law. Despite the high costs it imposes, mandatory disclosure has been well defended by legal scholars on two theoretical grounds: ‘Agency costs’ and ‘information underproduction.’ While these two concepts are a good fit for secondary markets (where investors trade securities with one another), this Article shows that they are largely irrelevant in the context of primary markets (where companies offer securities directly to investors). The surprising result is that primary offerings—such as an IPO—may not require mandatory disclosure at all. This profound insight calls into question the fundamental premises of the Securities Act of 1933 and similar laws governing primary offerings around the world. Reform of these rules could lead to a new age of simplified, low-cost primary offerings to the public, something that is already happening in New Zealand through its equity crowdfunding market.
As someone who believes that federal law should provide an exemption for small crowdfunded offerings (although current rule-making proposals instead look to ratchet up the aggregate offering prices for the federal crowdfunding exemption) with lighter mandatory disclosure obligations than those provided for under Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and Regulation Crowdfunding, I found myself very curious about Andrew's paper. So, I skimmed it (since I do not have time to read it in full at the moment). I am glad to see that the article raises a distinction worth more exploration in the mandatory disclosure space--that between primary and secondary offerings. But I admit to some skepticism about the overall thesis as to the lack of value of mandatory disclosure in primary offerings. I hope a thorough review of the paper will provide important information and analyses.
As the abstract and a recent post on the article on The CLS Blue Sky Blog indicate, the paper highlights for attention two of the theoretical values of mandatory disclosure for examination: its positive effects on agency costs and on information underproduction. Given those ostensible focuses, here are a few things I will be looking for as I read:
- An articulation of the different types of agency costs associated with initial public offerings (IPOs) and other primary offerings (as evidenced in the literature) and their relationship to mandatory disclosure obligations, as well as observations on the effects of mandatory and voluntary disclosure on those agency costs;
- A rationale for why other theories supporting mandatory disclosure regulation are seemingly marginalized or omitted in the paper, including (1) standardization to facilitate investor comparisons and contrasts (which it seems is mentioned in a few footnotes) and (2) efficient capital market theory applications in the IPO disclosure context (including, perhaps, those impacting observed underpricing/overpricing market effects); and
- An explanation of the role, if any, of investor sophistication and information access (which, together with mandatory disclosure, have framed analyses of the value of mandatory disclosure since the Court's Ralston Purina decision more than 65 years ago) in the article's analyses and overall thesis.
By quick inspection, it appears that the agency costs addressed are restricted to those borne of a manager-shareholder relationship that relies on a somewhat legalistic, rather than economic, concept of agency that would arise only after investors in the market purchase shares of corporate stock in an offering and become shareholders. I wonder about the role of managers and others as promoters of the offering . . . . Standardization is at least mentioned in a few places. And as to the third bullet point, it looks like the answer the paper proffers is that institutional investors will drive significant voluntary disclosure to be made to all in a manner that gets information to the market efficiently. If that is the argument, I look forward to seeing the evidence.
So, I am curious, but I remain skeptical. I am reserving judgment until I read the article in its entirety! Regardless, this work has my attention, for sure. Let me know if you have read it and, if so, what your reactions are. Andrew also may want to comment.
Independent of the mandatory disclosure arguments, I know that I will enjoy reading about New Zealand's crowdfunding experience. I do find comparative regulatory work like this very enlightening. I appreciate Andrew adding that to the mix, too.
Monday, March 2, 2020
I recently had occasion to offer background to, and be interviewed by, a local television reporter about a publicly traded firm that owns several health care facilities in East Tennessee and has been financed significantly through loans from and corporate payments made by a member of its board of directors. The resulting article and news clip can be found here. Since the story was published, a Form 8-K was filed reporting that the director has resigned from the board and the firm is negotiating with him to cancel its indebtedness in exchange for preferred stock.
In reviewing published reports on the firm, Rennova Health, Inc., I learned that it had been delisted from NASDAQ back in 2018. The reason? The firm engaged in too many stock splits.
I also came across an article reporting that another health care firm, a middle Tennessee skilled nursing provider, Diversicare Healthcare Services, Inc., had been delisted in late 2019. The same article noted two additional middle Tennessee health care firms also were in danger of being delisted from stock exchanges. One was subsequently delisted.
Health care mergers and acquisitions also have been in the news here in Tennessee. A Tennessee/Virginia health care business combination finalized in 2018 is one of two under study by the Federal Trade Commission. The combining firms, Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System, avoided federal and state antitrust merger approvals and challenges through the receipt of a certificate of public advantage (COPA) under Tennessee law and a coordinated process in Virginia. The resulting firm, Ballad Health, is an effective health care monopoly in the region and has had well publicized challenges in meeting its commitment to provide cost-effective, quality patient care.
I can only assume that these health care corporate finance issues in Tennessee are a microcosm of what exists nationally.
All of this has made me interested in the U.S. healthcare industry as an engaging and useful lens through which one could teach and write about the legal aspects of corporate finance . . . . Many of the current business law issues in U.S. health care firms stem from well-known financial challenges in the industry and the related governmental responses (or lack thereof). With public debates--including in connection with this year's presidential caucuses, primaries, and election--over the extent to which the federal government should provide financial support to the health care industry under existing conditions and whether the health care industry has become too big to fail, health care examples and hypotheticals seem very salient now, in the same way that banking or telecomm examples and hypotheticals may have had pedagogical and scholarly traction in corporate finance in the past.
Some of the business law issues facing U.S. health care firms may be quite the same as they are for firms in any other industry. Yet, some also may be unique to the health care industry and worth further, individualized exploration in the classroom or in the research realm. For example, innovation and entrepreneurship--intricately tied to corporate finance--may be different in the health care space, as currently configured in the United States. This article makes arguments in that regard.
In all, it seems there is a synergy worth examining in the connections between the U.S. health care crisis and business law teaching and research. Unless and until something fundamental changes in the U.S. health care delivery system, corporate finance lawyers and professionals are likely to have important (if somewhat hidden) roles in ensuring that health care firms survive while providing cost-effective care to those who need it. Business law analyses and innovations are sure to play strong roles in this environment, making business law professors key potential contributors. Time for us to step up and take the challenge!
Monday, July 8, 2019
Avid BLPB readers may have noticed that I failed to post on Monday of last week. I was traveling from Portugal to Spain that day. I did plan to make this post then, but travel scrambles (thanks to the Porto metro) and delays (thanks to Ryanair) prevented me from getting to a computer with Internet access until late in the day. By then, I was too exhausted to post. So, you get last Monday's post this Monday! No harm done; this post is not time-sensitive.
Ever heard of Graham's port? The Graham's port lodge was founded by brothers William and John Graham back at the beginning of the 18th century. Fast-forward 150 years, and the Graham family sells the then-very-successful Graham's port business to another family. That second family still runs the Graham's business today.
But a Graham descendant still wanted to be in the port business. He thought he had a "better way." So, 11 years after the Graham family sold Graham's, John Graham (not the same one, obviously!) established the Churchill port lodge. Here's what the Churchill's website says about its formation as a business:
Churchill’s was founded in 1981 by John Graham, making it the first Port Wine Company to be established in 50 years. The Founder wanted to continue his family’s long Port tradition but at the same time create his own individual style of Port. He named the Company after his wife, Caroline Churchill.
I went to a port wine tasting at the Churchill's lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal last Monday with my husband and daughter. We tasted the uniqueness of the Churchill's product. (My daughter, who is not a port wine fan, actually enjoyed what she tasted at Churchill's.) The wine is less sweet than one would expect from a port wine. John Graham himself explains why:
My Ports are made with as much natural fermentation, and with as little fortification brandy, as possible. I like to make wines in the most natural way. Above all I look for balance. I believe I brought this balance to Churchill’s Ports. There is a consensus around the characteristics that define our house style which are easily identified.
While we were at the tasting, we took a tour and learned the basic facts I relate here.
I was enchanted by the business story! Headline: A Graham founds Churchill's after the Graham family sells Graham's. A bit confusing, but a great narrative involving family business, M&A (and corporate finance more generally), intellectual property, business formation, and more. We learned, for example, that the grapes are foot-treaded (stomped on by human feet). Imagine the interesting employment questions. (The shifts are twelve hours and there are stems and seeds in with the grapes . . . .) And the tasting is still done by John Graham himself, raising questions about key man insurance and business succession planning. (We were told that John Graham has chosen a successor taster--not a member of the family. But we did not ask about management.) Finally, a major real estate acquisition--buying a vineyard (Quinta da Gricha) with a special terroir--is part of the tale.
I am scheming to find ways to integrate what I learned into my teaching this year. I know I will find places to work aspects of the story in--particularly in Advanced Business Associations and Corporate Finance. Because I teach on a dry campus, no wine tasting will take place during the lessons. But maybe an optional out-of-class session could be planned. Hmmm . . . .
Friday, July 5, 2019
The dark side of entrepreneurial finance
Editors: Arvind Ashta, Olivier Toutain
Theme of the special issue
Whether we are talking about start-ups, more recently "grow up" or more broadly about company creation-takeover, entrepreneurial finance attracts a lot of attention, from the entrepreneurs' side and from the side of private and public financing organisations and the media. Entrepreneurial finance includes Founder's equity, Love Money, Business Angel, Venture Capital, LBO Funds, banks, IPOs and various alternative financing treated as shadow banking: micro-credit, loan sharking, leasing, crowdfunding, Initial Coin Offerings, among others (Block, Colombo, Cumming, & Vismara, 2018; Wright, Lumpkin, Zott, & Agarwal, 2016).
Financing is considered as an inherent dimension of the entrepreneurial development process (Panda, 2016; Yunus, 2003). Without financing, there is no investment and, therefore, little chance of starting a business with adequate production tools and an organization capable of absorbing the trials and tribulations of starting and developing entrepreneurial activities. Without funding, the risk of lack of legitimacy is also high: what does it mean in the entrepreneurial ecosystem not to have the support of one or more funding agencies? More so in the start-up world! Is that conceivable? Finally, can the entrepreneur now free himself from financial support, even if he does not really need it to start his business? If the reasoning is pursued further, does the entrepreneur have a choice? In other words, is it possible to create and develop your company without mobilizing the financial resources of the territory? Without entering into a financial system and ecosystem that regulates the creation and takeover of companies in a territory? Or a system that pushes the entrepreneur to finance so much that the system itself collapses by bringing forth a financial crisis (Boddy, 2011; Diamond & Rajan, 2009; Donaldson, 2012; Guérin, Labie, & Servet, 2015; Mishkin, 2011).
Applying for funding today is often considered as a difficult adventure: is it really a fighter's path given the particularly numerous mechanisms in France? But are they also numerous in Europe? In the world? Is the cost of financing transparent or hidden (Attuel-Mendes & Ashta, 2013)? In any case, to adventure is to walk and remove obstacles while following a guide... often at the funder's request... which is often called coaching or mentoring. Or following the guide, sometimes - or often, depending on the reader's appreciation – results in respecting rules, imposed steps, in short, to adopt a good conduct... to such an extent that the entrepreneur can lose track of his North Star, or at least part of his project, modified by "pitching" and integrating the comments, suggestions, strong suggestions of potential funders... In other words, if we push the reflection further, the accompanying logic proposed in the form of good intentions by the funders of an ecosystem, are they not likely, by force, to respond to external constraints, to generate effects opposite to expectations: inhibited entrepreneurs, whose project has lost its originality, vitality and excellence through the coaching or mentoring of initially imagined value creation (Collewaert, 2009)? Isn't the finance injected into the support systems finally a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of entrepreneurship? In other words, if it constitutes an unprecedented measure of support for entrepreneurial growth in the world, does it not at the same time generate "antipreneurial" effects? Normative and highly biased, do financial actors deserve such a place in the creative process? What is it that basically legitimizes their central place? (Bateman, 2010; Sinclair, 2012) What is the hidden face of entrepreneurial finance (Henderson & Pearson, 2011; Krohmer, Lauterbach, & Calanog, 2009; Toe, Hollandts, & Valiorgue, 2017)?
The purpose of this issue is to extract itself from the normative fields and discourses that highlight, in the vast majority of cases, the important role of finance in the development of entrepreneurship, whether purely economic, social or environmental. In other words, we are asking ourselves here about the secondary, even hidden, effects of finance on the emergence and development of new companies in France and around the world.
The proposals will address, among other things, the following topics:
- What place does finance occupy today in the feeling of success and accomplishment of an entrepreneurial activity?
- How do entrepreneurs interact with potential funders?
- How do funders dialogue with each other?
- How do funders make their investment decisions? Rationality, Short termism, information asymmetry....
- How do entrepreneurs and funders negotiate? On which elements of the project or company? Are there any losers? What is lost in the process?
- How does the relationship between entrepreneurs and funders change over time?
- Can finance harm the value creation produced by entrepreneurial activity? Can it affect entrepreneurial freedom?
- Is it possible to free oneself from financing circuits? How?
Finally, what is the dark side of entrepreneurial finance?
Submission of texts: By April 30, 2020 at the latest
Publication: March 2021
[I have omitted here the list of references supporting the text citations. Please contact me by email if you would like a .pdf copy of the call for papers that includes the list. There is more information after the jump.]
Monday, June 3, 2019
At the 2019 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting last week, Geeyoung Min presented her paper Governance by Dividends. In the paper, she focuses attention on stock dividends. Near the end of her presentation, Geeyoung trod over ground on which so many of us also have trod--relating to judicial standards of review in fiduciary duty actions. As familiar as the story was, she helped me to see something I had not seen before. Perhaps many of you already have identified this. If so, I am sorry to bore you with my new insight.
Essentially, what I came to realize during her talk--and develop with her and members of the audience in the ensuing discussion--was that Delaware's judiciary may have (and I may be quoting Geeyoung or someone else who was there, since I wrote this down long-form in my contemporaneous notes) muddied the waters by seeking clarity. What do I mean by that? Well, by addressing relatively clearly the circumstances in which the business judgment rule, on the one hand, or entire fairness, on the other, govern the judicial review of corporate fiduciary duty allegations, the Delaware judiciary has effectively made the interstitial space between the two--intermediate tier scrutiny--less clear.
As I reflected a bit more, I realized that an analogy could be made to the development of the substantive law of corporate fiduciary duties in Delaware. The overall story? Judicial refinement of the fiduciary duties of care and loyalty has left the duty of good faith somewhat more indeterminate.
I am not sure where all this goes from here, but there may be lessons in these musings for both judicial and legislative rule-makers, among others. As always, your thoughts are welcomed.
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
I recently received a copy of Citizen Capitalism: How a Universal Fund Can Provide Influence and Income to All from Sergio Gramitto. While I have not yet read the book, I didn’t want to let another blog post go by without passing along at least some of its highlights, as well as why I am particularly interested in its proposals.
In addition to Sergio, the authors of Citizen Capitalism include Tamara Belinfanti and the late Lynn Stout. Suffice it to say that Lynn was one of our true superstars, and I would hate to miss any presentation by either Sergio or Tamara. I’ve had the pleasure of engaging professionally with all of them in some capacity, and I hold them each in the highest regard.
Sergio and Lynn first discussed the idea of a Universal Fund in their article Corporate Governance as Privately-Ordered Public Policy: A Proposal, and then expanded on that idea with Tamara in Citizen Capitalism. The book has been reviewed in numerous places (see, for example, here and here). What follows is a descriptive excerpt from Cornell’s Clarke Program on Corporations & Society.
We offer a utopian-but feasible-proposal to better align the operations of business corporations with the interests of a broader range of humanity. The heart of the proposal is the creation of a Universal Fund into which individuals, corporations, and state entities could donate shares of public and private corporations. The Universal Fund would then distribute a proportionate interest in the Fund-a Universal Share-to all members of a class of eligible individuals (for example, all citizens over the age of 18), who would then become Universal Shareholders. Like a typical mutual fund, the Universal Fund would "pass through" to its Shareholders all income on its equity portfolio, including dividends and payments for involuntary share repurchases. Unlike a typical mutual fund, however, the Universal Fund would follow an "acquire and hold" strategy and could not sell or otherwise voluntarily dispose of its portfolio interests. Similarly, Universal Shareholders could not sell, bequeath, or hypothecate their Shares. Upon the death of a Universal Shareholder, that individual's Share would revert to the Fund.
Robert Ashford has been advocating for a similar proposal for years (see his SSRN page here) under the heading of binary economics (also known as “inclusive capitalism”). I’ve had the pleasure of working with Robert on a few related projects, and pass along the following excerpt from my article The Inclusive Capitalism Shareholder Proposal for whatever it may be worth.
When it comes to the long-term well being of our society, it is difficult to overstate the importance of addressing poverty and economic inequality. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty famously argued that growing economic inequality is inherent in capitalist systems because the return to capital inevitably exceeds the national growth rate. Proponents of “Inclusive Capitalism” can be understood to respond to this issue by advocating for broadening the distribution of the acquisition of capital with the earnings of capital. Obviously, distributing capital more widely should, all else being equal, help alleviate at least some poverty and close at least some of the economic inequality gap by providing poor-to-middle-class consumers capital (paid for by the earnings of that capital) that they did not have before. But why should corporations distribute the ownership of their capital more broadly? The answer is because broadening the distribution of capital should promote greater growth because low-to-middle-income consumers are understood by many to spend more than wealthy consumers. This increased demand may then be expected to produce gains sufficient to offset the costs incurred in the process of instituting the Inclusive Capitalism proposal presented herein.
Based on my initial overview, I believe one meaningful difference between the Citizen Capitalism proposal and Ashford’s binary economics / inclusive capitalism proposal is the source of funding. The Citizen Capitalism proposal relies on donations while the binary economics proposal relies on the self-interest of corporations in increasing consumer demand.
Regardless, there are good arguments to be made for capitalism being the least worst system for advancing the well-being of individuals, and proposals like the foregoing provide important pro-market alternatives for addressing inequality.
Monday, March 11, 2019
This "just in" from BLPB friends Beate Sjåfjell and Afra Afsharipour:
We are thrilled to co-organise a workshop at UC Davis School of Law on 26 April 2019, with the aim of facilitating an in-depth comparative analysis of the relationship between takeovers and value creation.
We invite submissions on themes concerning takeovers and value creation from any jurisdiction around the world as well as comparative contributions. Themes include but are not limited to:
What are the implications of a takeover on sustainability efforts?
What is the scope for using sustainability arguments as a defense by the target board in a takeover?
What should be the role of the bidder board?
What are the implications of large M&A transactions for building/growing a culture of sustainability at a firm?
Is there a distinct difference between planned mergers and uninvited takeovers?
How could takeovers be regulated to promote sustainable value creation?
We especially encourage female scholars and scholars from diverse backgrounds to submit abstracts. Participation at the workshop will be limited to the presenters, to facilitate in-depth discussions. Deadline for submission of abstracts: 27 March 2019!
Please feel free to send this call for papers on to colleagues who may be interested, and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions!
This looks like a great opportunity for those of us who work in the M&A space. But the deadline is fast upon us! Another thing to consider as a Spring Break activity . . . .
Friday, March 8, 2019
Received today from BLPB friends Beate Sjåfjell and María Jesús Muñoz Torres:
Happy International Women’s Day! We celebrate this day by issuing the call for papers for the 5th international workshop of Daughters of Themis: International Network of Female Business Scholars. The theme is Finance for Sustainability; a highly topical theme! The deadline is 26 March, and we hope that the brief window of opportunity will be large enough for all interested to respond.
We appreciate if you would circulate this call to any interested colleagues identifying as female business scholars, including junior scholars (PhD candidates) as well as colleagues in lower-income countries. Please note that we this year do have some, very limited, funds available so that we can contribute to the funding for one or two participants based on financial hardship.
Unfortunately, this workshop overlaps a bit with the Grunin Center's annual conference (which focuses in on "Legal Issues in Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Investing"). But if you are a business finance/law person who focuses on sustainability, you should be at one event or another!
Tuesday, March 5, 2019
Gregg D. Polsky, University of Georgia Law, recently posted his paper, Explaining Choice-of-Entity Decisions by Silicon Valley Start-Ups. It is an interesting read and worth a look. H/T Tax Prof Blog. Following the abstract, I have a few initial thoughts:
Perhaps the most fundamental role of a business lawyer is to recommend the optimal entity choice for nascent business enterprises. Nevertheless, even in 2018, the choice-of-entity analysis remains highly muddled. Most business lawyers across the United States consistently recommend flow-through entities, such as limited liability companies and S corporations, to their clients. In contrast, a discrete group of highly sophisticated business lawyers, those who advise start-ups in Silicon Valley and other hotbeds of start-up activity, prefer C corporations.
Prior commentary has described and tried to explain this paradox without finding an adequate explanation. These commentators have noted a host of superficially plausible explanations, all of which they ultimately conclude are not wholly persuasive. The puzzle therefore remains.
This Article attempts to finally solve the puzzle by examining two factors that have been either vastly underappreciated or completely ignored in the existing literature. First, while previous commentators have briefly noted that flow-through structures are more complex and administratively burdensome, they did not fully appreciate the source, nature, and extent of these problems. In the unique start-up context, the complications of flow-through structures are exponentially more problematic, to the point where widespread adoption of flow-through entities is completely impractical. Second, the literature has not appreciated the effect of perplexing, yet pervasive, tax asset valuation problems in the public company context. The conventional wisdom is that tax assets are ignored or severely undervalued in public company stock valuations. In theory, the most significant benefit of flow-through status for start-ups is that it can result in the creation of valuable tax assets upon exit. However, the conventional wisdom makes this moot when the exit is through an initial public offering or sale to a public company, which are the desired types of exits for start-ups. The result is that the most significant benefit of using a flow- through is eliminated because of the tax asset pricing problem. Accordingly, while the costs of flow-through structures are far higher than have been appreciated, the benefits of these structures are much smaller than they appear.
Before commenting, let me be clear: I am not an expert in tax or in start-up entities, so my take on this falls much more from the perspective of what Polsky calls "main street businesses." I am merely an interested reader, and this is my first take on his interesting paper.
To start, Polsky distinguishes "tax partnerships" from "C Corporations." I know this is the conventional wisdom, but I still dislike the entity dissonance this creates. Polsky explains:
Tax partnerships generally include all state law entities other than corporations. Thus, general and limited partnerships, LLCs, LLPs, and LLLPs are all partnerships for tax purposes. C corporations include state law corporations and other business entities that affirmatively elect corporate status. Typically, a new business will often need to choose between being a state-law LLC taxed as a partnership or a state-law corporation taxed as a C corporation. The state law consequences of each are nearly identical, but the tax distinctions are vast.
As I have written previously, I'd much rather see the state-level entity decoupled from the tax code, such that we would
have (1) entity taxation, called C Tax, where an entity chooses to pay tax at the entity level, which would be typical C Corp taxation; (2) pass-through taxation, called K Tax, which is what we usually think of as partnership tax; and (3) we get rid of S corps, which can now be LLCs, anyway, which would allow an entity to choose S Tax.
As Dinky Bosetti once said, "It's good to want things."
Anyway, as one who focuses on entity choice from (mostly) the non-tax side, I dispute the idea that "[t]he state law consequences of each [entity] are nearly identical, but the tax distinctions are vast." From governance to fiduciary duties to creditor relationships to basic operations, I think there are significant differences (and potential consequences) to entity choice beyond tax implications.
I will also quibble with Polsky's statement that "public companies are taxed as C corporations." He is right, of course, that the default rule is that "a publicly traded partnership shall be treated as a corporation." I.R.C. § 7704(a). But, in addition to Business Organizations, I teach Energy Law, where we encounter Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs), which are publicly traded pass-through entities. See id. § 7704(c)-(d).
Polsky notes that "while an initial choice of entity decision can in theory be changed, it is generally too costly from a tax perspective to convert from a corporation to a partnership after a start-up begins to show promise." This is why those of us not advising VC start-ups generally would choose the LLC, if it's a close call. If the entity needs to be taxed a C corp, we can convert. If it is better served as an LLC, and the entity has appreciated in value, converting from a C corp to an LLC is costly. Nonetheless, Polsky explains for companies planning to go public or be sold to a public entity, the LLC will convert before sale so that the LLC and C Corp end up in roughly the same place:
The differences are (1) the LLC’s pre-IPO losses flowed through to its owners while the corporation’s losses were trapped, but as discussed above this benefit is much smaller than it appears due to the presence of tax-indifferent ownership and the passive activity rules, (2) the LLC resulted in additional administrative, transactional, and compliance complexity (including the utilization of a blocker corporation in the ownership structure), and (3) the LLC required a restructuring on the eve of the IPO. All things considered, it is not surprising that corporate classification was the preferred approach for start-ups.
This is an interesting insight. My understanding is that the ability pass-through pre-IPO losses were significant to at least a notable portion of investors. Polsky's paper suggests this is not as significant as it seems, as many of the benefits are eroded for a variety of reasons in these start ups. In addition, he notes a variety of LLC complexities for the start-up world that are not as prevalent for main street businesses. As a general matter, for traditional businesses, the corporate form comes with more mandatory obligations and rules that make the LLC the less-intensive choice. Not so, it appears, for VC start-ups.
I need to spend some more time with it, and maybe I'll have some more thoughts after I do. If you're interested in this sort of thing, I recommend taking a look.
Monday, November 26, 2018
Entrepreneurship in the Sharing Economy: P2P Strategies, Models, and Innovation Paradigms - Call for Papers
From our friend and colleague, Djamchid Assadi at the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon, France:
SIG 03 - ENT - Entrepreneurship
With our theme Exploring the Future of Management: Facts, Fashion and Fado, we invite you to participate in the debate about how to explore the future of management.
We look forward to receiving your submissions.
T03_08 - Entrepreneurship in the sharing economy: P2P strategies, models, and innovation paradigms
Djamchid Assadi, Burgundy School of Business BSB; Asmae DIANI, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, Fez, Morocco; Urvashi Makkar, G.L. Bajaj Institute of Management and Research (GLBIMR), Greater Noida; Julienne Brabet, Université Paris-Est Créteil (UPEC); Arvind ASHTA, Arvind, CEREN, EA 7477, Burgundy School of Business - Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, France
Sharing of funds, files, accommodations, and other utilities and properties has become a vital part of the emerging social life and economy.
The traditional dyadic firm-to-customer transactions has given place to the depositional triadic of P2P platforms game changers which facilitate exchange between peer providers and peer recipients. As these P2P platforms disrupt conventional transactions, for example, P2P home exchange platforms like Airbnb thoroughly disorder the hotel industry, it is crucial that researchers consider conceptual refinement and empirical grounding for providing insights.
This track aims to bring together researchers with an interest in the sharing economy and, specifically, in P2P platforms.
While direct interactions among individuals have always existed, P2P sharing platforms have considerably facilitated and lowered transaction costs for P2P exchanges. The P2P platforms do not supply nor demand. They do not divide a fortune to distribute its portions among peers. The P2P platforms simplify, accelerate and facilitate interactions among peers on the two-sided markets without the intermediation of central hubs. They enable individuals to unlock their unused and underused assets and skills for non or for-profit exchanges among peers.
They have transformed the way individuals consume and generate income and make use of their disposable resources and time. Numerous P2P platforms have sprung up for enterprising (Kickstarter, Indiegogo), working (Carpooling, Airbnb), dating (eHarmony, Match), innovating (Mindmixer), funding (Kiva, Zopa, Prosper), searching (CrowdSearching), etc. Airbnb and Uber are currently valued at $30 and $72 billion respectively.
This track aims to bring together researchers to provide insights and actionable visions to the emerging social and economic paradigms of spontaneous interactions and transaction among peers. It welcomes contributions that examine how P2P platforms transform market, entrepreneurship, competition, strategy, government-industry relations, supply chains, innovation, and other processes.
The following is a non-comprehensive list of leading issues in the sharing economy area.
How does entrepreneurship change in the sphere of sharing resources and utilities?
How do paradigms change in the case of open innovation?
Are the strategies and business models of sharing and collaborative online platforms peculiar?
Why do peers collaborate, share and circulate?
How does the sharing economy impact customer behavior?
What are the relations between social ties and ecosystem on the two-sided markets of the sharing economy?
How do conventional businesses react and develop business models to compete and/or coexist with the increasing trend of sharing economy?
How is value created (income steams) and distributed (value appropriation) among stakeholders in the sharing economy? Who are winners and losers?
What is the role of institutions in the sharing economy?
How do technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented and virtual reality, and blockchains affect the functioning of sharing economy?
What are the effects of collaborative consumption on sustainability?
Is the possibility of evading ante-P2P regulations the dark side of the sharing economy?
Sharing and collaborative economy
Peer-to-peer and Two-sided market
Spontaneous order of P2P interactions and exchanges
Carpooling and Home-exchange
Optimization: Journal of Research in Management (Urvashi Makkar, proponent 2, is founding Editor-in-Chief of this journal. Djamchid Assadi, proponent 1, is member of the Editorial Board).
Innovative Marketing (Djamchid Assadi, proponent 1, is member of the Academic Advisory Board. He has exchanged for specific issues with Tatyana Kozmenko, Editorial Assistant).
The corresponding proponent, Djamchid Assadi, has exchanged with the individuals in charge within the books publishing companies. They have shown interest in considering proposals for collective books on the topic of sharing economy.
For more information contact:
Djamchid Assadi - email@example.com
- Conference: 26-28 June 2019
- Authors registration deadline: 25 April 2019 // Early birds registration deadline: 18 April 2019
- Notification of acceptance: 20 March 2019
- Deadline for paper submission: 15 January 2019 (2 pm Belgian time)
Monday, July 30, 2018
Hello to all from Tokyo, Japan (Honshu). I have been in Japan for almost a week to present at and attend the 20th General Congress of the International Academy of Comparative Law (IACL), which was held last week in Fukuoka, Japan (Kyushu). By the time you read this, I will be on my way home.
As it turns out, I was at the Congress with old business law friends Hannah Buxbaum (Indiana Maurer Law), Felix Chang (Cincinnati Law), and Frank Gevurtz (McGeorge Law), as well as erstwhile SEALS buddy Eugene Mazo (Rutgers Law). I also met super new academic friends from all over the world, including several from the United States. I attended all of the business law programs after my arrival (I missed the first day due to my travel schedule) and a number of sessions on general comparative and cross-border legal matters. All of that is too much to write about here, but I will give you a slice.
I spoke on the legal regulation of crowdfunding as the National Rapporteur for the United States. My written contribution to the project, which I am told will be part of a published volume, is on SSRN here. The entire project consists of eighteen papers from around the world, each of which responded to the same series of prompts conveyed to us by the General Rapporteur for the project (in our case, Caroline Kleiner from the University of Strasbourg). The General Rapporteur is charged with consolidating the information and observations from the national reports and synthesizing key take-aways. I do not envy her job! The importance of the U.S. law and market to the global phenomenon is well illustrated by this slide from Caroline's summary.
The Congress was different from other international crowdfunding events at which I have presented my work. The diversity of the audience--in terms of the number of countries and legal specialties represented--was significantly greater than in any other international academic forum at which I have presented. Our panel of National Rapporteurs also was a bit more diverse and different than what I have experienced elsewhere, including panelists hailing from from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Poland, and Singapore (in addition to me). At international conferences focusing on the microfinance aspects of crowdfunding, participants from India and Africa are more prominent. I expect to say more about the individual national reports on crowdfunding in later posts, as the need or desire arises.
A few outtakes on other sessions follow.
July 30, 2018 in Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Crowdfunding, Current Affairs, International Business, International Law, Joan Heminway, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, July 26, 2018
One of the business law academy's power couples, Amy and Bert Westbrook, recently posted an intriguing piece on SSRN that Bert and I have been communicating about a bit this summer. It is entitled Snapchat's Gift: Equity Culture in High-Tech Firms, and it is, indeed, a lovely gift--well conceived and packaged. It is a look at dual class common equity in technology firms--and equity more generally--that confronts and incorporates many perspectives from law, economics, and other social sciences.
Some of you, like me, teach basic corporate finance in a variety of courses. In those situations, it is important for instructors to have a handle on descriptions of the basic instruments of corporate finance--debt, equity, hybrid, and other. What is the package of rights each instrument represents that incentivizes investors to supply money or other valuable assets? In my classes, we ultimately discuss equity as a bundle of rights that includes potentials for financial gain and governance. Snapchat's Gift digs into the validity of these perceived rights in relevant part by focusing on recent changes in the primary public offering market for equity securities in the United States--in particular, the advent of highly publicized and fully subscribed initial public offerings of nonvoting common shares.
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.
Monday, June 4, 2018
It was great to see co-blogger Marcia Narine Weldon (albeit briefly) at the Sixth Biennial Conference: To Teach is to Learn Twice: Fostering Excellence in Transactional Law and Skills Education hosted by Emory Law's Center for Transactional Law and Practice. I had the opportunity to present and attend some of the presentations on Friday. I had to leave Saturday morning to teach Contract Law to ProMBA students in Knoxville Saturday afternoon, however, and missed hearing half the conference program as a result. Even on Friday, due to the number of super concurrent sessions, I had to forego a lot of great presentations. Consequently, I was delighted to read Marcia's post on Tina Stark's presentation. Great stuff.
At the conference, I offered insights on my document "treasure hunt" teaching method in a "try this" session on Friday afternoon. More specifically, I talked about and demonstrated a corporate finance treasure hunt. After laying a substantive and practical foundation, I sent the audience, some of whom are not corporate finance folks, on a search for blank check preferred stock provisions in Delaware corporate charters. Then, I called on them to share their search logic and make observations about what they found, relating their treasure to the example I had given them. They did so well with this exercise! Everyone found a blank check stock provision, and many in the audience were willing to talk about what they found.
I went to several other "try this" sessions on Friday (billed as forums "for individual presenters to demonstrate in-class activities"). They included:
The Creative Aspect of Transactional Lawyering: Structuring the Transaction and Drafting the Agreement to Resolve a Legal Issue
John F. Hilson
UCLA School of Law
Stephen L. Sepinuck
Gonzaga University School of Law
Teaching Contract Law, Terms, and Practice Skills Through Problems
Marquette University Law School
Teach the Basics of Contract Drafting, Corporate Governance & Transactional Law in One Sentence
Neil J. Wertleib
UCLA School of Law
Each session offered much to think about, a hallmark of this conference. I plan to consider over the course of the summer--and beyond--how I may use some of the demonstrated techniques in my teaching and writing. The proceedings of the conference will be published in principal part in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law, UT Law's business law journal, during the 2018-19 academic year. I will try to remember to let folks know when that volume of Transactions is available.
This week, I am off to New York and Toronto for two additional conferences (in New York, the Impact Investing Legal Working Group (IILWG)/Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship’s 2018 Conference on “Legal Issues in Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Investing–in the US and Beyond,” and in Toronto, the Law and Society Association Annual Meeting on "Law at the Crossroads: Le Droit à la Croisée des Chemins"). I am at the airport waiting for my first (delayed) flight as a type this. I expect to be able to report out on both next week.
Monday, May 21, 2018
Call for Papers
AALS Section on Transactional Law and Skills
Transactional Law and Finance: Challenges and Opportunities
for Teaching and Research
2019 AALS Annual Meeting
New Orleans, Louisiana
The AALS Section on Transactional Law and Skills is proud to announce a call for papers for its program, “Transactional Law and Finance: Challenges and Opportunities for Teaching and Research.” This session will examine the role of finance in business transactions from various perspectives with the goal of inspiring more deliberate consideration of finance in law school teaching and legal scholarship.From structured finance to real estate, from mergers & acquisitions to capital markets, finance plays an important and fundamental role in transactional law. The intersection of transactional law and finance is dynamic, providing academics, practitioners, and the judiciary with both challenges and opportunities. For example, financial product innovation and new funding sources for entrepreneurs continue to expand. Meanwhile, the significant growth in merger appraisal litigation has cast a new spotlight on the ability to critically analyze financial models (with a critical issue being whether a particular model is appropriate for expert use to determine fair value in appraisal proceedings). At the same time, activist investors are impacting company boards and the way in which companies do business. Although these are just a few examples, they demonstrate the breadth and significance of finance in transactional law.
The Section on Transactional Law and Skills invites submissions from any full-time faculty member of an AALS member school who has written an unpublished paper, is working on a paper, or who is interested in writing a paper on this topic to submit a 1 or 2-page proposal to the Chair of the Section by August 31, 2018. Papers accepted for publication as of August 31, 2018 that will not yet be published as of the 2019 meeting are also encouraged. The Executive Committee will review all submissions and select proposals for presentation as part of our AALS 2019 Section Meeting. Please note that presenters who are selected are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fees and travel expenses.
Please direct all submissions and questions to the Chair of the Section, Christina Sautter, at the following address:
Cynthia Felder Fayard Professor of Law
Byron R. Kantrow Professor of Law
Louisiana State University
Paul M. Hebert Law Center
1 East Campus Drive
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Tel: +1 225-578-1306
Monday, April 23, 2018
Call for Papers for the
Section on Business Associations Program on
Contractual Governance: the Role of Private Ordering
at the 2019 Association of American Law Schools Annual Meeting
The AALS Section on Business Associations is pleased to announce a Call for Papers from which up to two additional presenters will be selected for the section’s program to be held during the AALS 2019 Annual Meeting in New Orleans on Contractual Governance: the Role of Private Ordering. The program will explore the use of contracts to define and modify the governance structure of business entities, whether through corporate charters and bylaws, LLC operating agreements, or other private equity agreements. From venture capital preferred stock provisions, to shareholder involvement in approval procedures, to forum selection and arbitration, is the contract king in establishing the corporate governance contours of firms? In addition to paper presenters, the program will feature prominent panelists, including SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce and Professor Jill E. Fisch of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Our Section is proud to partner with the following co-sponsoring sections: Agency, Partnership, LLC's and Unincorporated Associations; Contracts; Securities Regulation; and Transactional Law & Skills.
Please submit an abstract or draft of an unpublished paper to Anne Tucker, firstname.lastname@example.org on or before August 1, 2018. Please remove the author’s name and identifying information from the submission. Please include the author’s name and contact information in the submission email.
Papers will be selected after review by members of the Executive Committee of the Section. Authors of selected papers will be notified by August 25, 2018. The Call for Papers presenters will be responsible for paying their registration fee, hotel, and travel expenses.
Any inquiries about the Call for Papers should be submitted to: Anne Tucker, Georgia State University College of Law, email@example.com or (404) 413.9179.
[Editorial note: As some may recall, the BLPB hosted a micro-symposium on aspects of this issue in the limited liability company context in anticipation of a program held at the 2016 AALS annual meeting. The initial post for that micro-symposium is here, and the wrap-up post is here. This area--especially as writ broadly in this proposal--remains a fascinating topic for study and commentary.]
April 23, 2018 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Call for Papers, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, LLCs, Nonprofits, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, April 13, 2018
Greetings from the ABA Business Law Meeting in sunny Orlando, Florida. Today, I attended an excellent program on Protecting Human Rights in Supply Chains; Moving from Policy to Action. I plan to blog more about the meeting next week, highlighting the work surrounding draft human rights clauses for supplier contracts. The project was spearheaded by David Snyder of American University and corporate lawyer Susan Maslow. In this post, I want to address one of the topics Susan Maslow discussed-- the recent spate of lawsuits brought by consumers who allege unfair trade practices based on what companies say (or don’t say) about their human rights records.
I’ve blogged (incessantly for the past five years) and written longer articles about the various ESG disclosure regimes. I’ve argued that in theory, disclosure is a good thing. But without meaningful financial penalties from regulators for violations, many corporations won’t do anything more than the bare minimum for human rights, even with the threat of (often short-lived) consumer boycotts. Further, most consumers suffer from disclosure overload or don’t understand or remember what they read.
The disclosure issue has now reached the courts. In 2015, a law firm filed cases in California under unfair competition and false advertising laws against the Hershey Company, Mars, and Nestle. The firm likely chose those causes of action because there’s no private right of action under the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act. The suits claimed, among other things that:
- in violation of California law, Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle failed to disclose that their suppliers in the Ivory Coast relied on child laborers and profitted from the child labor that supplies the chocolate sold to American consumers,
- the children subjected to the forced labor are victims of hazardous work involving dangerous tools, transport of heavy loads and exposure to toxic substances, and,
- “sometimes extremely poor people sell their own children into slavery for as little as $30. Children that are sometimes not even 10 years old carry huge sacks that are so big that they cause them serious physical harm. Much of the world’s chocolate is quite literally brought to us by the back-breaking labor of child slaves.”
Plaintiffs lost those cases because the court found that these companies had no legal duty to disclose on their labels that African child slaves might have been involved in manufacturing their cocoa. Had the plaintiffs won, I imagine that the First Amendment argument that prevailed in the Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals litigation would have played a prominent role in the appeal.
Fast forward a few years and the same law firm has now filed a similar class action lawsuit against Hershey in Massachusetts. This claim alleges unjust enrichment in violation of the state’s consumer protection law. According to plaintiffs, “much of the world’s chocolate is quite literally brought to us by the back-breaking labor of children, in many cases under conditions of slavery.” Moreover, they claim, “Hershey’s material omissions and failure to disclose at the point of sale [are] all the more appalling considering that Hershey’s Corporate Social Responsibility Report state[s] that ‘Hershey has zero tolerance for the worst forms of child labor in its supply chain.’ But Hershey does not live up to its own ideals.”
Hershey, like many companies, produces a CSR report showcasing its efforts and progress in accordance with the Global Reporting initiative, the gold standard for CSR. Companies like Hershey also report on their CSR initiatives in good faith with the knowledge that their statements are generally not legally binding, at least not in the United States. I’ll be following this case closely. If the court grants class certification, this could have a chilling effect on what companies say in their CSR reports, and that would be a shame.
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
I often use my space here to complain about courts and lawmakers being imprecise with regard to limited liability companies (LLCs). Today, I will focus on my home state of West Virginia, which recently passed a bill to support (and provide loans for cooperatives designed to provide) much-needed broadband development in the state. I applaud the effort, but the execution was not great.
Here's an example from the West Virginia Code:
12-6C-11. Legislative findings; loans for industrial development; availability of funds and interest rates.
. . . .
(f) The directors of the board shall bear no fiduciary responsibility with regard to any of the loans contemplated in this section.
This applies to a cooperative board that takes on loans for broadband projects. But it doesn't make sense. I think they used "fiduciary" when they meant "financial," as I assume they meant to say that the board members of the organization would not have “financial liability.” I am pretty sure they did not mean to remove fiduciary duties. Then again, who knows. Maybe they are fine with the directors using loans for personal vacations. (Just kidding. I am pretty sure they'd care.) I know that in finance, the term fiduciary can be used to describe money (meaning some that that relies on public trust for value), but that does not make sense here, either.
When the legislature returns for the next session, I plan to see if I can get this amended to track the LLC liability defaults. Maybe something like:
"(f) The directors of the board are not personally liable for any of the loans contemplated in this section."
I won't hold my breath, but it's worth a try.