Friday, January 7, 2022

AALS Annual Meeting 2022 Discussion Group on "A Very Online Economy"

We just wrapped up a fascinating discussion group titled "A Very Online Economy: Meme Trading, Bitcoin, and the Crisis of Trust and Value(s)--How Should the Law Respond?" as part of the AALS 2022 Annual Meeting. I co-moderated the group with Professor Martin Edwards (Belmont University School of Law). Here's the description:

Emergent forces emanating from social and financial technologies are challenging many underlying assumptions about the workings of markets, the nature of firms, and our social relationship with our economic institutions. Blockchain technologies challenge our assumptions about the need for centralization, trust, and financial institutions. Meme trading puts pressure on our assumptions about economic value and market processes. Environmental and social governance initiatives raise important questions about the relationship between economic institutions and social values. These issues will certainly drive policy debates about social and economic good in the coming years.

The group gathered some amazing presenters and commentators for the discussion, including:

The discussion was lively and informative, and I look forward to seeing the final versions of these projects in print! 

January 7, 2022 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Securities Regulation, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

AALS 2022 Annual Meeting Programs - ICYMT

Perhaps you missed these interesting programs--with super speakers--among all the amazing business associations, securities regulation, business transactions, etc. sessions!  I know I did and was glad a friend highlighted them for my attention.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022, 12:35 PM to 1:50 PM
Climate Finance and Banking Regulation: Beyond Disclosure?
Financial Institutions and Consumer Financial Services

U.S. banking regulation has been slower than other forms of financial regulation (and slower than in Europe) to address climate-related financial risks. This panel explores the role of banking regulation in addressing the physical and transition risks from climate change. Possible measures include: mandatory climate risk disclosures by banks; supervisory assessments of climate-related financial risk; capital and liquidity regulation; scenario tests; determination of the appropriate role of banks in mitigating climate risk; financial stability oversight of climate risk; and action (through the Community Reinvestment Act and otherwise) to deter harms to disadvantaged communities and communities of color from climate change.

    • Patricia A. McCoy, Boston College Law School, Moderator
    • Christina Skinner, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Speaker
    • Graham Steele, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Speaker
    • Hilary J. Allen, American University, Washington College of Law, Speaker
    • Nakita Cuttino, Georgetown University Law Center, Speaker from a Call for Papers

Sunday, January 9, 2022, 3:10 PM to 4:25 PM
Workers, Boards, and the Global Corporation
Section on Economic Globalization and Governance

The appropriate role and status of employee voice in corporate governance is an evergreen issue for corporate law. In the US, the field has traditionally focused on the interactions between boards of directors, shareholders, and managers, but with an increased emphasis on corporate social responsibility, that view has expanded. Despite widespread embrace of CSR principles, however, many corporations still resist union organizing. The inclusion of worker voice in corporate governance has significant comparative law dimensions, encompassing co-determination and union representation on boards. With the recognition that work is increasingly remote, these issues will become even more salient.

    • Miriam Cherry, Saint Louis University School of Law, Moderator
    • Lenore Palladino, University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Policy, Speaker
    • Franklin A. Gevurtz, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, Speaker
    • George S. Georgiev, Emory University School of Law, Speaker
    • Matthew T. Bodie, Saint Louis University School of Law, Speaker

Looking forward to seeing many of you on Zoom later in the week!

January 4, 2022 in Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Employment Law, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 31, 2021

New Year's Resolution for Lawyers

People rarely keep resolutions, much less ones they don’t make for themselves, but here are some you may want to try.

  1. Post information about the law and current events that lay people can understand on social media. You don’t need to be a TikTok lawyer and dance around, but there’s so much misinformation out there by “influencers” that lawyers almost have a responsibility to correct the record.
  2. Embrace legal tech. Change is scary for most lawyers, but we need to get with the times, and you can start off in areas such as legal research, case management, accounting, billing, document automation and storage, document management, E-discovery, practice management, legal chatbots, automaton of legal workflow, contract management, artificial intelligence, and cloud-based applications. Remember, lawyers have an ethical duty of technological competence.
  3. Learn about legal issues related to the metaverse such as data privacy and IP challenges.
  4. Do a data security audit and ensure you understand where your and your clients’ data is and how it’s being transmitted, stored, and destroyed. Lawyers have access to valuable confidential information and hackers know that. Lawyers also have ethical obligations to safeguard that information. Are you communicating with clients on WhatsApp or text messages? Do you have Siri or Alexa enabled when you’re talking about client matters? You may want to re-think that. Better yet, hire a white hat hacker to assess your vulnerabilities. I'll do a whole separate post on this because this is so critical. 
  5. Speaking of data, get up to speed on data analytics. Your clients use data every day to optimize their business performance. Compliance professionals and in-house lawyers know that this is critical. All lawyers should as well.
  6. Get involved with government affairs. Educate legislators, write comment letters, and publish op-ed pieces so that people making the laws and influencing lawmakers can get the benefit of your analytical skills. Just make sure you’re aware of the local, state, and federal lobbying laws.
  7. Learn something completely new. When you do your CLE requirement, don’t just take courses in your area of expertise. Take a class that has nothing to do with what you do for a living. If you think that NFTs and cryptocurrency are part of a fad waiting to implode, take that course. You’ll either learn something new or prove yourself right.
  8. Re-think how you work. What can you stop, start, and continue doing in your workplace and family life?
  9. Be strategic when thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Lawyers talk about it, but from what I observe in my lawyer coaching practice and the statistics, the reality is much different on the ground and efforts often backfire.
  10. Prioritize your mental health and that of the members on your team. Do you need to look at billable hours requirements? What behavior does your bonus or promotion system incentivize? What else can you do to make sure that people are valued and continually learning? When was the last time you conducted an employee engagement survey and really listened to what you team members are saying? Whether your team is remote or hybrid, what can you do to make people believe they are part of a larger mission? There are so many resources out there. If you do nothing else on this list, please focus on this one. If you want help on how to start, send me an email.

Wishing you a safe, healthy, and happy 2022.

December 31, 2021 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Film, Intellectual Property, Jobs, Law Firms, Lawyering, Legislation, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Technology, Wellness | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

LLC Magically Appears, Incorrectly Called a Corporation

As I have noted previously, LLCs (also known as limited liability companies) are generally required to be represented by counsel in court proceedings.  This is unremarkable, as entities, like corporations and LLCs are deemed, by law, to be separate from their owners. They are often known as “fictional people.” Because they are not natural persons, they cannot (usually) represent themselves pro se and shareholder/member/owners cannot do so for them.

A recent case from the Eastern District of Wisconsin agrees with the well-established principal. Unfortunately, it also follows suit with a less productive prior practice, calling an LLC a limited liability corporation. An LLC, again, is a limited liability company, and it is a separate and distinct entity from a corporation, with its own statute and everything.  Here’s an excerpt:

Leszczynski is representing himself in the case, which he has a statutory right to do. 28 U.S.C. § 1654 (“In all courts of the United States the parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel as, by the rules of such courts, respectively, are permitted to manage and conduct causes therein.”). But even though he is president of Rustic Retreats Log Homes, Inc., Leszczynski cannot represent that corporate defendant. “Corporations unlike human beings are not permitted to litigate pro se.” In re IFC Credit Corp., 663 F.3d 315, 318 (7th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). “A corporation is not permitted to litigate in federal court unless it is represented by a lawyer licensed to practice in that court.” United States v. Hagerman, 545 F.3d 579, 581 (7th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). That is true even if the corporation is a limited liability corporation. Id. at 582. “[T]he right to conduct business in [the form of a limited liability corporation] carries with it obligations one of which is to hire a lawyer if you want to sue or defend on behalf of the entity.” Id. at 581-82.

Leszczynski may represent himself, but he may not represent Rustic Retreat Log Homes, LLC. The corporate entity must be represented by a lawyer admitted to practice in the federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. The corporation cannot file any documents in federal court—including any answer or response to the complaint—unless it does so through an attorney licensed to practice in this court.

PIONEER LOG HOMES OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, LTD., Plaintiff, v. RUSTIC RETREATS LOG HOMES, INC., & JOHN LESZCZYNSKI, Defendants., No. 21-CV-1029-PP, 2021 WL 4902169, at *3–4 (E.D. Wis. Oct. 21, 2021).

So, this is generally pretty standard fare. Wrong, but standard, though this one has a rather interesting wrinkle. The court here notes that “corporate” defendants must be represented by a lawyer.  It repeats other authority to support this, then attempts to draw a distinction between a corporation and an LLC, but incorrectly calling the LLC a limited liability corporation.  Twice.  But that, unfortunately, is not weird. It happens far to often. 

What’s weird here is that the case caption refers to Rustic Retreat Log Homes, Inc., as does the earlier part of the opinion.  Yet, down near the end, we have the vague LLC references, and an explicit reference to Rustic Retreat Log Homes, LLC.  But where does it come from? 

The “That is true even if the corporation is a limited liability corporation” language does suggest that perhaps there is another entity involved (an LLC in addition to the corporation), but this seems to be the only clue.  Clearly, this mystery needed to be solved, so I pulled the complaint.  In the complaint, it asserts, in paragraph 62, that “Leszczynski set up a successor company, Rustic Retreats WI, LLC, on June 25, 2021.”  That’s the only LLC reference in the complaint.  It seems likely, then that the court meant to say that both Rustic Retreat Log Homes, Inc. and Rustic Retreats WI, LLC needed to be represented by a lawyer in court.  But the opinion still seems kind of weird, and kind of wrong, in explaining what seems to be a rather simple (and correct) proposition.  Sigh.    

October 26, 2021 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Viewpoint Diversity Shareholder Proposals - A Commentary

Earlier this year, Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law, published papers presented at the 2020 Connecting the Threads IV symposium, held on Zoom just about a year ago.  Back in July, I wrote about my coauthored piece from the 2020 symposium.  That was my primary contribution to the event and the published output.

However, I also had the privilege of commenting on two papers at the symposium last year, and my comments were published in the Transactions symposium volume. I have been wanting to post about those published commentaries for a number of months, but other news just seemed more important.  Given the recent completion of this year's Connecting the Threads V symposium, it seems like a good time to make those posts.  I start with the first of the two here.

This post covers my commentary on Stefan Padfield's paper, An Introduction to Viewpoint Diversity Shareholder Proposals.  It was a fascinating read for me.  I was unaware of this genre of shareholder proposal before I picked up Stefan's draft.  If you also are in the dark about these shareholder proposals, his article offers a great introduction.  Essentially, viewpoint diversity shareholder proposals are shareholder-initiated matters proposed for a shareholder vote that (1) are included in a public company's proxy statement through the process set forth in Rule 14a-8 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended, and (2) serve "to restore some semblance of balance" in public companies that are characterized by viewpoint bias or discrimination.  Stefan's article offers examples and provides related observations.

My commentary is entitled A Few Quick Viewpoints on Viewpoint Diversity Shareholder Proposals.  It is posted on SSRN here. The SSRN abstract is as follows:

This commentary essay represents a brief response to Professor Stefan Padfield’s "An Introduction to Viewpoint Diversity Shareholder Proposals" (22 TRANSACTIONS: TENN. J. BUS. L. 271 (2021)). I am especially interested in two aspects of Professor Padfield’s article on which I comment briefly in turn. First and foremost, I focus in on relevant aspects of an academic and popular literature that Professor Padfield touches on in his article. This literature addresses an area that intersects with my own research: the diversity and independence of corporate management (in particular, as to boards of directors, but also as to high level executive officers--those constituting the so-called “C-suite”) and its effects on corporate decision-making. Second, I offer a few succinct thoughts on the suitability of the shareholder proposal process as a means of promoting viewpoint diversity in publicly held firms.

The essay is reasonably brief (so feel free to read it in its entirety).  But the essence of my conclusion offers the bottom line.  

Although viewpoint diversity may be a vague or malleable term, the business environment and exemplar shareholder proposals featured in Professor Padfield’s Article offer guidance as to the contextual meaning of that term. Based on his depiction and the literature on management diversity’s role in efficacious decision-making, viewpoint diversity has the capacity to add value to the business management enterprise and enhance the existence and sustainability of a healthy, happy workforce. Moreover, his Article indicates, and this commentary affirms, that the shareholder proposal process may be a successful tool in raising viewpoint diversity issues with firm management. Even if the inclusion of specific shareholder proposals in public company proxy statements may be questionable under Rule 14a-8, the existence of viewpoint diversity shareholder proposals may open the door to productive dialogues between shareholders and the subject companies. In sum, Professor Padfield’s Article represents a thought-provoking inquiry into an innovative way in which securities regulation may contribute to forwarding corporate social justice in the public company realm.

So, even if you don't read my commentary, you should read his article.

October 18, 2021 in Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 24, 2021

Ten Ethical Traps for Business Lawyers

I'm so excited to present later this morning at the University of Tennessee College of Law Connecting the Threads Conference today at 10:45 EST. Here's the abstract from my presentation. In future posts, I will dive more deeply into some of these issues. These aren't the only ethical traps, of course, but there's only so many things you can talk about in a 45-minute slot. 

All lawyers strive to be ethical, but they don’t always know what they don’t know, and this ignorance can lead to ethical lapses or violations. This presentation will discuss ethical pitfalls related to conflicts of interest with individual and organizational clients; investing with clients; dealing with unsophisticated clients and opposing counsel; competence and new technologies; the ever-changing social media landscape; confidentiality; privilege issues for in-house counsel; and cross-border issues. Although any of the topics listed above could constitute an entire CLE session, this program will provide a high-level overview and review of the ethical issues that business lawyers face.

Specifically, this interactive session will discuss issues related to ABA Model Rules 1.5 (fees), 1.6 (confidentiality), 1.7 (conflicts of interest), 1.8 (prohibited transactions with a client), 1.10 (imputed conflicts of interest), 1.13 (organizational clients), 4.3 (dealing with an unrepresented person), 7.1 (communications about a lawyer’s services), 8.3 (reporting professional misconduct); and 8.4 (dishonesty, fraud, deceit).  

Discussion topics will include:

  1. Do lawyers have an ethical duty to take care of their wellbeing? Can a person with a substance use disorder or major mental health issue ethically represent their client? When can and should an impaired lawyer withdraw? When should a lawyer report a colleague?
  2. What ethical obligations arise when serving on a nonprofit board of directors? Can a board member draft organizational documents or advise the organization? What potential conflicts of interest can occur?
  3. What level of technology competence does an attorney need? What level of competence do attorneys need to advise on technology or emerging legal issues such as SPACs and cryptocurrencies? Is attending a CLE or law school course enough?
  4. What duties do lawyers have to educate themselves and advise clients on controversial issues such as business and human rights or ESG? Is every business lawyer now an ESG lawyer?
  5. What ethical rules apply when an in-house lawyer plays both a legal role and a business role in the same matter or organization? When can a lawyer representing a company provide legal advice to an employee?
  6. With remote investigations, due diligence, hearings, and mediations here to stay, how have professional duties changed in the virtual world? What guidance can we get from ABA Formal Opinion 498 issued in March 2021? How do you protect confidential information and also supervise others remotely?
  7. What social media practices run afoul of ethical rules and why? How have things changed with the explosion of lawyers on Instagram and TikTok?
  8. What can and should a lawyer do when dealing with a businessperson on the other side of the deal who is not represented by counsel or who is represented by unsophisticated counsel?
  9. When should lawyers barter with or take an equity stake in a client? How does a lawyer properly disclose potential conflicts?
  10. What are potential gaps in attorney-client privilege protection when dealing with cross-border issues? 

If you need some ethics CLE, please join in me and my co-bloggers, who will be discussing their scholarship. In case Joan Heminway's post from yesterday wasn't enough to entice you...

Professor Anderson’s topic is “Insider Trading in Response to Expressive Trading”, based upon his upcoming article for Transactions. He will also address the need for business lawyers to understand the rise in social-media-driven trading (SMD trading) and options available to issuers and their insiders when their stock is targeted by expressive traders.

Professor Baker’s topic is “Paying for Energy Peaks: Learning from Texas' February 2021 Power Crisis.” Professor Baker will provide an overview of the regulation of Texas’ electric power system and the severe outages in February 2021, explaining why Texas is on the forefront of challenges that will grow more prominent as the world transitions to cleaner energy. Next, it explains competing electric power business models and their regulation, including why many had long viewed Texas’ approach as commendable, and why the revealed problems will only grow more pressing. It concludes by suggesting benefits and challenges of these competing approaches and their accompanying regulation.

Professor Heminway’s topic is “Choice of Entity: The Fiscal Sponsorship Alternative to Nonprofit Incorporation.” Professor Heminway will discuss how for many small business projects that qualify for federal income tax treatment under Section 501(a) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, the time and expense of organizing, qualifying, and maintaining a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation may be daunting (or even prohibitive). Yet there would be advantages to entity formation and federal tax qualification that are not available (or not easily available) to unincorporated business projects. Professor Heminway addresses this conundrum by positing a third option—fiscal sponsorship—and articulating its contextual advantages.

Professor Moll’s topic is “An Empirical Analysis of Shareholder Oppression Disputes.” This panel will discuss how the doctrine of shareholder oppression protects minority shareholders in closely held corporations from the improper exercise of majority control, what factors motivate a court to find oppression liability, and what factors motivate a court to reject an oppression claim. Professor Moll will also examine how “oppression” has evolved from a statutory ground for involuntary dissolution to a statutory ground for a wide variety of relief.

Professor Murray’s topic is “Enforcing Benefit Corporation Reporting.” Professor Murray will begin his discussion by focusing on the increasing number of states that have included express punishments in their benefit corporation statutes for reporting failures. Part I summarizes and compares the statutory provisions adopted by various states regarding benefit reporting enforcement. Part II shares original compliance data for states with enforcement provisions and compares their rates to the states in the previous benefit reporting studies. Finally, Part III discusses the substance of the benefit reports and provides law and governance suggestions for improving social benefit.

All of this and more from the comfort of your own home. Hope to see you on Zoom today and next year in person at the beautiful UT campus.

September 24, 2021 in Colleen Baker, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, Human Rights, International Business, Joan Heminway, John Anderson, Law Reviews, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Litigation, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 3, 2021

Testing Our Intuitions About Insider Trading - Part III

I suggested in my last two posts (here and here) that as Congress and the SEC contemplate reforms to our current insider trading regime, it is important for us all to explore our intuitions about what we think insider trading is, why it is wrong, who is harmed by it, and the nature and extent of the harm. If we are going to rethink how we impose criminal and civil penalties for insider trading, we should have some confidence that the proscribed conduct is wrongful and why. One way to do this is to place ourselves in the shoes of traders and ask, “What would I do?” or “What do I think about that?” With this in mind, I developed some scenarios designed to test our attitudes regarding trading scenarios that distinguish the four historical insider trading regimes (laissez faire, fiduciary-fraud, equal access, and parity of information).

In the previous post, I offered a scenario that would result in liability under equal-access and parity-of-information regimes, but not under the fiduciary-fraud and laissez-faire models. Those of you who were not convinced that the trading in that scenario was wrongful may favor one of the less restrictive models.

In today’s post, I offer two scenarios to test our attitudes regarding trading under the fiduciary-fraud model. This model recognizes a duty to disclose material nonpublic information or abstain from trading on it, but only for those who share a recognized fiduciary or similar duty of trust and confidence to either the counterparty to the trade (under the “classical” theory) or the source of the information (under the “misappropriation” theory). The trading in the following scenario would incur liability under the classical theory of the fiduciary-fraud model (as well as under the more restrictive parity-of-information and equal-access models), but not under the misappropriation theory:

A senior VP at BIG Corp., a publicly traded company, took the lead in closing a big deal to merge BIG Corp. with XYZ Corp. The shares of BIG Corp will skyrocket when the deal is announced in seven days. The senior VP asks the CEO and board of Big Corp if he can purchase shares of BIG Corp for his personal account in advance of the announcement. The CEO and board approve the senior VPs trading. The senior VP buys Big Corp. shares in advance of the announcement and he makes huge profits when the deal is announced.

Note the difference between this scenario and the scenario in last week’s post. Here the counterparties to the trade are existing Big Corp shareholders who (if they had the same information as the senior VP) presumably would not have proceeded with the trade at the pre-announcement price. The theory assumes that such trading on the firm’s information (even with board approval) breaches a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the firm’s shareholders (fair assumption?). In last week’s post, the counterparties to the trade were XYZ Corp.’s shareholders, so the board-approved trade did not breach any fiduciary duty. Do you agree that the senior VP’s trading in the scenario above is deceptive, disloyal, or harmful to shareholders? If so, do you think such trading should be subject to civil or criminal sanction (or both)?

The trading in the next scenario would incur liability under the misappropriation theory of the fiduciary-fraud model (as well as under the more restrictive parity-of-information and equal access models), but not under the classical theory:

A senior VP at BIG Corp., a publicly traded company, took the lead in closing a big deal to merge BIG Corp and XYZ Corp. The shares of BIG Corp and XYZ Corp will both skyrocket when the deal is announced in seven days. At the closing party, the CEO and Board of BIG Corp explain to everyone on the deal team that they would like to keep the deal confidential until it is announced to the public the following week. Immediately after the party, the senior VP goes back to his office and buys shares of XYZ Corp for his personal online brokerage account. The senior VP makes huge profits from his purchase of XYZ Corp shares when the deal is announced a week later.

Here the senior VP at BIG Corp. trades in XYZ Corp. shares, so he does not breach any fiduciary duty to his shareholders. Assuming a reasonable person would conclude that a request of confidentiality includes a request not to trade (fair assumption?), the VP’s trading does, however, breach a duty of loyalty to BIG Corp. Is this trading wrongful? If so, is it more/less/equally wrongful by comparison to the trading in the classical scenario above? Finally, if you do think this trading is wrongful, should it be subject to civil or criminal sanction?

Again, the hope is that walking through these scenarios will help bring some clarity to our shared understanding of when trading on material nonpublic information is wrong and harmful—and (given our answers to these questions) the nature and extent to which it should be regulated.

September 3, 2021 in Business Associations, Corporations, Ethics, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Philosophy, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 26, 2021

Guest Post from Alicia Plerhoples: The Anti-Racist Corporation?

The following comes to us from friend-of-the-BLPB Alicia Plerhoples.

How to Be An Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi urges individuals to undertake the difficult work to become anti-racist. In Kendi’s view, racism is not a spectator sport. One can either recognize their participation in racist concepts and institutions that benefit some and work to dismantle racism, or one participates in racist concepts and institutions to perpetuate them. As he explains in Stamped from the Beginning, the 582-page academic version of his popular press book, a person can hold both racist and anti-racist views at the same time, under an assimilationist race theory.

As a business law professor, I am concerned with whether a corporation can be anti-racist. If so, what corporate policies, processes, programs, and culture does an anti-racist corporation have? These questions are imperative given America’s reckoning with racism and in my view, the disproportionate power and excessive protections that corporations have consolidated in American law and the economy.

One might quickly jump to my second question without considering the first. Can a corporation be anti-racist? Slavery’s Capitalism authors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman identify slavery as the key driving force in the development of the American economy, including American corporations, before the Civil War. “Slavery, as the foundational American institution, organiz[ed] the nation’s politics, legal structures, and cultural practices with remarkable power to determine the life chances of those moving through society.” Corporations, like individuals, benefit from a racially inequitable sociopolitical and legal framework, including, for example, the racial wealth gap, which affects everything from who the corporation’s founders and investors are to who its employees, customers, and suppliers are. According to Majority Action, “business-as-usual can never be neutral in an economy founded on systemic racism.”

Applying Dr. Kendi’s anti-racist theory, corporations can work to be anti-racist similarly to individuals who have been impacted by sociopolitical notions of human value originating from rationalizations of slavery.

What does an anti-racist corporation look like? Racial equity is “the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identify no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares.” How does a corporation embody racial equity?

A year ago, partners at Wachtell wrote that “ESG metrics…provide valuable tools and models to help both public and private companies and their investors and other stakeholders (including employees, customers, business partners and communities) understand their progress on [systemic racism and injustice] issues.” While many engaged in ESG work focus solely on the environment (particularly given the climate crisis), we should focus ESG on anti-racism too.

The same Wachtell partners recently reflected on the various racial equity tools that they have seen corporations use during the past year. These tools include:
• Hiring for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) roles;
• Expanding DEI roles;
• Anti-bias training;
• Inclusive hiring practices;
• Audits of DEI progress and effectiveness;
• Public disclosure of DEI goals and targets, including workforce data such as EEO-1 data;
• Executive compensation tied to DEI performance;
• Supporting and increasing supplier diversity; and
• Board and management diversity.

Some racial equity tools go further, calling for corporations to undertake and publicly disclose results of racial equity audits. A racial equity audit analyzes the corporation’s “adverse impacts on non-white stakeholders and communities of color.” Indeed, the 2021 proxy season saw several shareholder proposals calling for racial equity audits. Majority Action, a nonprofit organization that supports investors in holding corporations accountable for ESG and long-term value creation, supports such shareholder proposals and maintains a list of 2021 proposals here.

If a corporation’s leadership were to adopt all of these racial equity tools, would it be an anti-racist corporation? I suspect not given external forces at play. What else would a corporation’s leadership need to do to consider itself an anti-racist corporation? As I explore these issues in a law review article and other project-based work, I would love to hear thoughts from my business law professor colleagues.

Alicia's thoughts and work in this area overlap with my own on sexism and boards of directors.  I cannot help but wonder, given that, what makes an anti-sexist board of directors . . . .  Hmm.  Something to contemplate. 

Look for more from Alicia on this as her work in this area continues.  We appreciate her publishing this post with us!

July 26, 2021 in Corporations, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 23, 2021

Call for Papers – AALS 2022 Discussion Group: “A Very Online Economy”

Professor Martin Edwards (Belmont University College of Law) and I are excited to moderate a discussion group titled, “A Very Online Economy: Meme Trading, Bitcoin, and the Crisis of Trust and Value(s)—How Should the Law Respond,” at the 2022 American Association of Law Schools Annual Meeting. The discussion group is scheduled to take place (virtually) on Friday, January 7, 2022. We welcome responses to the call for participation (here). Here’s the description:

Emergent forces emanating from social and financial technologies are challenging many underlying assumptions about the workings of markets, the nature of firms, and our social relationship with our economic institutions. The 21st century economy and financial architecture are built on faith and trust in centralized institutions. Perhaps it is not surprising that in 2008, a time where that faith and trust waned, a different architecture called “blockchain” emerged. It promised “trustless” exchange, verifiable intermediation, and “decentralization” of value transfer.

In 2021, the financial architecture and its institutions suffered a broadside from socialmedia-fueled “meme” and “expressive” traders. It may not be a coincidence that many of these traders reached adulthood around 2008, when the crisis called into question whether that real money, those real securities, or that real, fundamental value were really real at all. People are engaging with questions about social values in an increasingly uneasy way. There is a flux not only in the substantive values, but also with what set of institutions people should trust to produce, disseminate, and enforce values.

One question is what role business corporations might play in this moment, which is being worked out most prominently through discussions about environmental and social governance (ESG). Social and financial technologies may be rewriting longstanding assumptions about social and economic institutions. Blockchains challenge our assumptions about the need for centralization, trust, and institutions, while meme or expressive trading and ESG challenge our assumptions about economic value, market processes, and social values.

It promises to be a great discussion!

July 23, 2021 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Short Paper: The Benefits and Burdens of Limited Liability

I recently received the final version of my short article, "The Benefits and Burdens of Limited Liability," in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law.  The article is based on some of my prior blog posts, as well as my presentation as part of the fourth annual Business Law Prof Blog symposium, Connecting the ThreadsIt was great event, as always, thanks to Joan and the whole crew at Tennessee Law, and it was my pleasure to be part of it.  

Here's the abstract: 

Law students in business associations and people starting businesses often think the only choice for forming a business entity is a limited liability entity like a corporation or a limited liability company (LLC). Although seeking a limited liability entity is usually justifiable, and usually wise, this Article addresses some of the burdens that come from making that decision. We often focus only on the benefits. This Article ponders limited liability as a default rule for contracts with a named business and considers circumstances when choosing a limited liability entity might not communicate what a business owner intends. The Article notes also that when choosing an entity, you get benefits, like limited liability, but burdens (such as need for counsel or tax consequences) also attach. It's not a one-way street. The Article closes by urging courts to consider both the benefits and burdens of an entity choice, especially in considering whether to uphold or disregard an entity, to help parties achieve some measure of certainty and equity.

The journal also has thoughtful and insightful commentary from Professor George Kuney (available here) and student Tyler Ring (here). 

 

 

June 1, 2021 in Conferences, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

ESG and the Discipline of Secrecy

The ESG movement (or EESG, if you want to follow Leo Strine on this) has been in the business and legal news quite a lot recently.

In a Bloomberg article about the tax perks of trillions of dollars in Environmental, Social, and Governance investing by Wall Street banks, tax specialist Bryen Alperin is quoted as saying: “ESG investing isn’t some kind of hippie-dippy movement. It’s good for business.”

This utilitarian approach to ESG, and social enterprise in general, has made me uncomfortable for a while. The whole “Doing Well by Doing Good” saying always struck me as problematic.

ESG and social enterprise are only needed when the decisions made are not likely to lead to the most financially profitable outcomes. Otherwise, it is just self-interested business.

Over my spring sabbatical, I have been reading a fair bit about spiritual disciplines and the one that is most relevant here is “Secrecy.” The discipline of secrecy is defined as “Consciously refraining from having our good deeds and qualities generally known, which, in turn, rightly disciplines our longing for recognition.” In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard (USC Philosophy) writes, “Secrecy at its best teaches love and humility…. and that love and humility encourages us to see our associates in the best possible light, even to the point of our hoping they will do better and appear better than us.”

As a professor with active social media accounts, the discipline of secrecy is not an easy one for me. But I do think it is a good aspiration for all of us. Not every good deed has to be kept in secret. There can be good reasons for broadcasting good deeds (for example, to encourage others.) However, regularly performing good deeds in secret can help us build selfless character.

Similarly, socially conscious businesses and investors should be focused on the broader good being done, not on the personal benefits. Granted, I don’t think investors can blindly trust the ESG funds or benefit corporations --- the screens are simply unreliable. Also, it may be difficult to determine which companies are really doing social good if they are practicing much of it in secret. But the truth has a tendency of leaking out over time and investors can focus on companies they see doing the right thing without excessive marketing.

As for the companies themselves, I remain optimistic that there are at least a few businesspeople who truly want to benefit society for mostly selfless reasons. Combatting selfishness is not easy, but the discipline of secrecy is one way to fight it.  

April 27, 2021 in Books, Corporations, CSR, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Philosophy, Religion, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Paper from Prof. Haneman: Menstrual Capitalism, Period Poverty, and the Role of the B Corporation

My friend and colleague Prof. Victoria Haneman has shared her paperMenstrual Capitalism, Period Poverty, and the Role of the B Corporation.  Here is the abstract: 

A menstruation industrial complex has arisen to profit from the monthly clean-up of uterine waste, and it is interesting to consider the way in which period poverty and menstrual capitalism are opposite sides of the same coin. Given that the average woman will dispose of 200 to 300 pounds of “pads, plugs and applicators” in her lifetime and menstruate for an average of thirty-eight years, this is a marketplace with substantial profit to be reaped even from the marginalized poor. As consciousness of issues such as period poverty and structural gender inequality increases, menstrual marketing has evolved and gradually started to “go woke” through messaging that may or may not be genuine. Companies are profit-seeking and the woke-washing of advertising, or messaging designed to appeal to progressively-oriented sentimentality, is a legitimate concern. Authenticity matters to those consumers who would like to distinguish genuine brand activism from appropriating marketing, but few objective approaches are available to assess authentic commitment.

This Essay considers the profit to be made in virtue signaling solely for the purpose of attracting customers and driving sales: pro-female, woke menstruation messaging that may merely be an exploitative and empty co-optation. Feminists should be expecting more of menstrual capitalists, including a commitment that firms operating within this space address the diapositive issue of period poverty, one of the most easily solved but rarely discussed public health crisis of our time, and meaningfully assist those unable to meet basic hygiene needs who may never be direct consumers. This Essay serves as a thought piece to explore the idea of B Corporation certification as an implicit sorting device to distinguish hollow virtue signaling from those menstrual capitalists committed to socially responsible pro-womxn business practices.

It is well-known that I am not fond of benefit corporation statutes, but given that they are a thing (along with B Corp certification), we have to deal with them.  I still feel strongly that they benefit entity type, as it currently exists, is not helpful and potentially counterproductive.  And I really don't like that B Corp certification has moved to include mandating entity type.  But that's just facts, for now, anyway.  

My opposition to benefit entities, though, is not anti-signaling by an entity of their values, and there's little doubt in my mind that a benefit entity (if it must exist) certainly makes sense for nonprofits (thought I still think the nonprofit thing told us all we needed to know).  We're stuck with benefit entities, so Professor Haneman is probably correct that choosing the entity type could have value in marketing and signaling to consumers shared values.  I still think companies should signal through acts, not entity choice, and that all entity types should have the latitude to do such signaling. But in the world we live in, this just may be how it is.  Regardless, I recommend taking a look -- even when I disagree, Professor Haneman is always thoughtful, smart, and entertaining.  

April 24, 2021 in Corporations, CSR, Entrepreneurship, Joshua P. Fershee, Marketing, Nonprofits, Research/Scholarhip | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 23, 2021

Corporations and Cancel Culture

Cancel culture has been a hot topic for years, so when the University of Miami Law Explainer podcast asked me to talk about it, I had some reservations. I'm not shy, but I'm also not looking to be a headline in our campus newspaper, a meme, or a topic on Fox News. But I have strong feelings about this, and I agreed to speak.

I'm providing the link to the 20-minute interview here. I talked about my history as a radical protestor in college and law school (and my run in with Rush Limbaugh),  the effect of boycotts and buycotts, whether Teen Vogue missed a teachable moment after firing an editor for tweets she made as a teenager, whether corporations are doing the right thing when they bow to pressure from vocal consumers, the uproar over the 1619 project, and more. If you want a break from drafting contracts or writing exams, take a listen and let me know what you think. 

April 23, 2021 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 9, 2021

New ABA Model Contract Clauses

As regular readers of the blog know, my passion is business and human rights, particularly related to supply chain due diligence and disclosure. The ABA has just released thirty-three model clauses  based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct. The ABA committee's reasoning for the model clauses is here:

The human rights performance of global supply chains is quickly becoming a hot button issue for anyone concerned with corporate governance and corporate accountability. Mandatory human rights due diligence legislation is on the near-term horizon in the E.U. Consumers and investors worldwide are increasingly concerned about buying from and investing in companies whose supply chains are tainted by forced or child labor or other human rights abuses. Government bodies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection are increasingly taking measures to stop tainted goods from entering the U.S. market. And supply chain litigation, whether led by human rights victims or Western consumers, is on the rise. There can therefore be little doubt that the face of global corporate accountability for human rights abuses within supply chains is changing. The issue is “coming home,” in other words. ... Some of the key MCCs 2.0 obligations include: (1) Human Rights Due Diligence: buyer and supplier must each conduct human rights due diligence before and during the term of the contract. This requires both parties to take appropriate steps to identify and mitigate human rights risks and to address adverse human rights impacts in their supply chains. (2) Buyer Responsibilities: buyer and supplier must each engage in responsible sourcing and purchasing practices (including practices with respect to order changes and responsible exits). A fuller description of responsible purchasing practices is contained in the Responsible Buyer Code of Conduct (Buyer Code), also developed and published by the Working Group. (3) Remediation: buyer and supplier must each prioritize stakeholder-centered remediation for human rights harms before or in conjunction with conventional contract remedies and damage assessments. Buyer must also participate in remediation if it caused or contributed to the adverse impact.

Even if you're not obsessed with business and human rights like I am, you may find the work product provides an interesting context in which to discuss contract clauses such as representations, warranties, and damages either in a first-year contract course or a transactional drafting course. 

April 9, 2021 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 1, 2021

Director Independence as a Double-Edged Sword

Friend of the BLPB Greg Shill's recent article, The Independent Board as Shield, is an engaging, provocative piece on board independence and the business judgment rule.  The abstract provides a taste of his argument and principal related proposal.

The fiduciary duty of loyalty bars CEOs and other executives from managing companies for personal gain. In the modern public corporation, this restriction is reinforced by a pair of institutions: the independent board of directors and the business judgment rule. In isolation, each structure arguably promotes manager fidelity to shareholder interests—but together, they enable manager prioritization. This marks a particularly striking turn for the independent board. Its origin story and raison d’être lie in protecting shareholders from opportunism by managers, but it functions as a shield for managers instead.

Numerous defects in the design and practice of the independent board inhibit its ability to curb managerial excess. Nowhere is this more evident than in the context of transactions that enrich the CEO. When executive compensation and similar matters are approved by independent directors, they take on a new quality: they become insulated by the business judgment rule. This rule is commonly justified as giving legal effect to the comparative advantage of businesspeople in their domain—in determining the price of a product, for example—and it immunizes such decisions from court challenge. But independent directors can opt to extend the rule’s protection beyond this narrow class of duty of care cases to domains that squarely implicate the duty of loyalty. The result is a shield for conflicts of interest that defeats the major objective of the independent board and important goals of corporate law more generally.

This Article proposes to eliminate the independent board’s paradoxical shield quality by ending business judgment protection for claims implicating the duty of loyalty. Judges would apply the familiar entire fairness standard instead. The clearest rationale for this reform comes from the logic of the rule itself: comparative advantage. Judges, not businesspeople, are best situated to adjudicate conflicts of interest. More broadly, the Article’s analysis suggests that the pro-shareholder reputation of the independent board is overstated and may have inadvertently fostered a sense of complacency around board power.

Greg makes some thoughtful points about existing business judgment rule doctrine in this piece and formulates a novel approach to addressing contextual difficulties with board independence doctrine.  A number of us had the privilege of hearing about and commenting on this project early on.  Nice work (as I told him)!

March 1, 2021 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Management | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 6, 2021

GameStop and Retail Securities Trading as Political, Social, or Aesthetic Speech

    Commenters have likened the recent retail “meme” trading in stocks such as GameStop Corp. to buying a ticket on a roller coaster—“You don’t go on a roller coaster because you end up in a different place, you go on it for the ride and it’s exciting because you’re part of it.” See, Bailey Lipschultz and Divya Balji, Historic Week for Gamestop Ends with 400% Rally as Shorts Yield, Bloomberg (January 29, 2021).

    The comparison is apt in a number of respects. These retail traders, led by some members of the “WallStreetBets” group on the Reddit social media platform, “got on” GameStop a couple weeks ago at just under $20 a share, and, despite its rapid rise to a high of just under $500 a share, I think most people expect (including the meme traders) that the price at which this turbulent ride will end is somewhere around where it began. After all, GameStop’s fundamentals have not changed. It remains a brick-and-mortar business that was devastated by the pandemic, and it is expected to steadily lose market share to online vendors.

    For anyone interested in the mechanics of the “short squeeze” and how these traders managed to move price of GameStop so far out of whack with its presumed value, see some helpful articles here, here, and here. For some thoughts on the controversial limitations on trading by retail brokerage firms such as Robinhood, see my Co-bloggers Ben Edwards’ and Anne Lipton’s recent posts here and here. And see some other interesting takes from my Co-blogger Joan Macleod Heminway here. My purpose in this post is to highlight one aspect of the meme-trading phenomenon that has, I think, been underappreciated.

    Given that we all have a pretty good idea of how this roller-coaster ride is going to end, why did many retail traders (along with others) continue to pile on? One answer is that these traders were just blinded by greed and FOMO. Indeed, concern that amateur traders are being led astray in this way by social media influencers and "game-like" trading interfaces has led some to call for paternalistic trading restrictions by brokerage firms and/or regulatory intervention. But it seems to me that something quite different may be going on here as well. There is evidence to suggest that at least some of the meme traders who have taken the markets by storm over the last couple weeks are not (and never were) buying these heavily-shorted stocks simply to make money, but rather to make a point.

    The “points” being made by these traders are not necessarily coordinated or consistent. They range from the oft-expressed goal of “taking it to” Wall-Street hedge funds to "hurt the big guys" in the same vein as the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2008, to protesting the demise of bricks-and-mortar businesses by Big-Tech and mega online vendors, to the populist rejection of perceived top-down elitism (private and public) that elevated Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016. Indeed, former SEC Commissioner, Laura Unger, recently compared the recent social-media-driven short squeezes to the Capitol Hill riots on January 6. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that some meme traders are buying stocks on aesthetic grounds, to bring back retro companies like Blackberry and Blockbuster as “nostalgia plays.”

    If retail traders are trading as a form of political, social, or aesthetic expression, then what are the implications? What does this mean for the Efficient Market Hypothesis? What (if anything) should (or can) regulators and/or legislators do about it? These are some questions my co-authors Jeremy Kidd, George Mocsary, and I plan to explore in a forthcoming article. I plan to post some more thoughts on the possibility of retail securities trading as a form of speech (and its social, market, and regulatory implications) in the coming weeks.

February 6, 2021 in Corporations, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 29, 2021

The New Normal of ESG Across Borders

Please join me for this ABA Conference on February 10-11. I'm excited to serve as a mock board member on the 11th as well as on the plenary panel on “Leading Voices in ESG Initiatives” with representatives from United Airlines, Microsoft Asia, and others focusing on the many and sometimes conflicting imperatives of implementing ESG goals. I'll be particularly interested in the session by the General Motors GC, who will speak about the plan to go away from gasoline-powered vehicles, which GM just announced.

You can register by clicking here.

About the Virtual Conference:

The state of New York, on December 9, 2020, announced that its pension fund with over $226 billion in assets would divest its oil and gas stocks in companies that, in its view, contribute to global warming. The announcement emphatically highlights how ESG factors (Environmental, Social and Governance) across borders represent business risks but also opportunities for companies, their stockholders, and their other stakeholders. In-house legal departments are the first line of defense to re-orient business operations to address global ESG issues and to identify risks. These challenges, risks and opportunities are creating additional demands on legal departments with constrained resources as they navigate this “New Normal” in addition to their traditional responsibilities to stockholders.  This two-day conference will provide in-depth critical analysis through three tracks that efficiently canvas each of the ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘G’ elements. Through these three tracks, the conference will identify, explore, and evaluate key areas of relevance to in-house counsel wanting to navigate the numerous complex legal and operational issues raised by ESG in jurisdictions around the globe.

Key Speakers:

  • Craig Glidden, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, General Motors
  • Tim O’Connor, Senior Director, Environmental Defense Fund
  • Olga V. Mack, CEO, Parley Pro
  • Ashley Scott, Senior Counsel, Lime
  • In-House Executives: Several current and former General Counsel, along with numerous senior in-house counsel across various industries, including Google, Nestle, Microsoft, General Motors, Accenture, LexisNexis, Chubb, United Airlines, Liberty Mutual, OPEC, Lazard, Iron Mountain, Willis Towers Watson, Norsk Hydro, and Equinor.
  • ESG leaders: Leading ESG voices from law firms, non-profit organizations, and universities

What to Expect

This two-day cutting-edge conference will provide opportunities for-in-depth analysis of these issues through three tracks of interactive panel discussions that canvas each of the ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘G’ elements, including how COVID-19 is accelerating ESG trends. Key areas of relevance to in-house counsel wanting to navigate the numerous complex legal and operational issues raised by ESG in jurisdictions around the globe, including NGO and government stakeholder perspectives, will also be examined.

CLEs will be available. I hope to see you there!

January 29, 2021 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 22, 2021

New Corporate and Financial Law Scholars at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Annual Conference

The Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) is scheduled to hold its annual conference in person, July 26-August 1, at The Omni Amelia Island Resort, Amelia Island, Florida.  SEALS has always been one of my favorite law conferences. It combines the opportunity to attend fascinating panels and discussion groups (showcasing our colleagues’ latest research) with plenty of networking opportunities and some fun in the sun! And one of the highlights of the conference is always the New Scholars Workshop, which provides opportunities for new legal scholars to interact with their peers and experts in their respective fields. Here’s an excerpt from the SEALS New Scholars Committee website:

For over a decade, the New Scholars Workshop has provided new scholars with the opportunity to present their work in a supportive and welcoming environment. The New Scholars Committee accepts and reviews nominations to the program, organizes new scholars into colloquia based on subject matter, and coordinates with the Mentors Committee to match each new scholar with a mentor in his or her field. We also hold a New Scholars Luncheon at the Annual Meeting at which New Scholars and their mentors can get to know one another and the members of the New Scholars Committee. To ensure that the annual program runs smoothly, members of the New Scholars Committee attend the colloquia and, following the conference, survey the New Scholars to solicit their feedback and comments on the program’s success. Additionally, the Committee traditionally has organized at least one substantive panel or discussion group on a topic of particular relevance to new law teachers, including navigating the tenure track; balancing the demands of service, scholarship, and teaching; and effective self-promotion. In recent years, the Committee has organized a social function at which New Scholars could meet and interact with one another at the Annual Meeting. We also draft an annual report on our activities.

On Wednesday, July 28, there will be a New Scholars Workshop focusing on Labor, Tax, Corporate, and Financial Law. This program will feature the scholarship of Nicole Iannarone (Drexel University School of Law), Young Ran (Christine) Kim (The University of Utah College of Law), Jennifer B. Levine (Quinnipiac University School of Law), and Daniel Schaffa (University of Richmond School of Law). I look forward to attending this event, and I encourage all new business-law scholars (as well as new scholars in other disciplines) to participate in future New Scholars Workshops at SEALS. See you there!

January 22, 2021 in Corporations, Financial Markets | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Should We Call it Moral Money?: Ownership Matters and Commitment Too

In my previous post on the "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance" ("Study on Directors' Duties") that Ernst & Young prepared for the European Commission (Commission), I focused on the transformative power of corporate governance. I said that stakeholder capitalism would have a practical value if supported by corporate governance rules based on appropriate standards such as the ones provided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Some of my pointers for the Commission were the creation of a regulatory framework that enables the representation and protection of stakeholders, the representation of “stakewatchers,” that is, non-governmental organizations and other pressure groups through the attribution of voting and veto rights and their members’ nomination to the management board (similar to German co-determination). I also suggested expanding directors' fiduciary duties to include the protection of stakeholders’ interests, accountability of corporate managers, consultation rights, and additional disclosure requirements.

In my last guest post in this series dedicated to the Study on Directors’ Duties, I ask the following questions. Do investors have a moral duty to internalize externalities such as climate change and income inequality, for example? Do firm ownership and investor commitment matter? Should investors’ money be “moral” money? 

In their study Corporate Purpose in Public and Private FirmsClaudine Gartenberg and George Serafeim utilize Rebecca Henderson’s and Eric Van den Steen’s definition of corporate purpose, that is, “a concrete goal or objective for the firm that reaches beyond profit maximization.” In their paper, Gartenberg and Serafeim analyzed data from approximately 1.5 million employees across 1,108 established public and private companies in the US. In their words:

[W]e find that employee beliefs about their firm’s purpose is weaker in public companies. This difference is most pronounced within the salaried middle and hourly ranks, rather than senior executives. Among private firms, purpose is lower in private equity owned firms. Among public companies, purpose is lower for firms with high hedge fund ownership and higher for firms with long-term investors. We interpret our findings as evidence that higher owner commitment is associated with a stronger sense of purpose among employees within the firm.

With institutional investors on the rise, these findings are important because they redirect our attention from the board of directors’ short-termism discussion to shareholders' nature, composition, ownership, and long-term commitment. When it comes to owner commitment, Gartenberg and Serafeim say:

Owner commitment could lead to a stronger sense of purpose for multiple reasons. First, to the extent that commitment translates to an ability to think about the long-term and avoid short-term pressures, this would enable a firm to focus on its purpose rather than on solely short-term performance metrics. Second, committed owners may invest to gain and evaluate more soft information about firms, which in turn may allow managers to invest in productive but hard to verify projects that otherwise would not be approved by less committed owners (e.g., Grossman and Hart, 1986). Third, committed owners might mitigate free rider problems inside the firm, allowing employees to make firm-specific investments with greater confidence that they will not be subject to holdup by firm principals (Alchian and Demsetz 1972; Williamson 1985), which in turn could enhance the sense of purpose inside the organization. A similar argument could hold for customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders, who could see a strong sense of corporate purpose from owner commitment as a credible signal that enables the development of trust or ‘relational contracts’ (Gibbons and Henderson 2012; Gartenberg et al. 2019).

Gertenberg’s and Serafeim’s paper also discloses other findings. They found that firms are more likely to hire outside CEOs when less committed investors control the firms. Additionally, those firms are more likely to pay higher executive compensation levels, particularly relative to what they pay employees. Those firms also engage more frequently in mergers and acquisitions and other corporate restructuring processes. A simple explanation for this would be that such firms have higher agency costs since their ownership is more dispersed.

If we understand the company’s ownership structure, we know the purpose of the company. Therefore, there must be an underlying mechanism to better understand the company’s ownership structure because it will help us understand the company's purpose better. 

Besides, Gertenberg’s and Serafeim’s findings spell out that financial performance and corporate ownership positively impact corporate culture, employees' satisfaction, and employee work meaningfulness. Putting it differently, the corporate culture, employees' satisfaction, and employee work meaningfulness can be standards for evaluating the impact of corporate ownership, governance, and leadership.

Now that the focus is on investors, what can they do to change corporate behavior and consequently impact stakeholders like employees? They can be actively engaged through proxy voting. In their paper Shareholder Value(s): Index Fund ESG Activism and the New Millennial Corporate Governance, Barzuza, Curtis, and Webber explain that index funds often are considered ineffective stewards. The authors also explain how index funds have claimed an active role by challenging management and voting against directors to promote board diversity and sustainability.

Still, institutional investors manage their companies’ portfolios depending on the market, which is heavily impacted by systemic shocks we know will eventually occur. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how volatile markets are and our current economic model is.

Corporate laws of most European Union (EU) countries determine that the board of directors must act in the company's interest (e.g., Unternehmensinteresse in Germany, l'intérêt social in France, interesse sociale in Italy, etc.). Defining what the interest of the company is has shown to be a rather tricky endeavor. Gelter explains that, in all cases, one side of the debate claims that the company's interest is different from the interest of shareholders. In the US, the purpose of the company is commingled with the idea of shareholder wealth maximization.

To overcome the tension between prioritizing shareholders' wealth maximization and corporate purpose that considers shareholders' and stakeholders' interests, the Commission should take into account the following dimensions in developing policies in corporate law and corporate governance. 

  1. Investors’ ownership and their impact on intangibles like employees’ satisfaction and employee work meaningfulness.
  2. Governance structure and how it relates to the company’s ownership structure.
  3. Governance structure and how it integrates stakeholders’ interests in the decision-making process.
  4. Board diversity and recruitment.
  5. Institutional investors’ financial resilience.

Finally, investors should demand CEOs and boards of directors show how they are changing the game and moving the needle toward a more sustainable and resilient conception of the corporation. Why? Because ownership matters and commitment too.

December 27, 2020 in Agency, Business Associations, Comparative Law, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, M&A, Private Equity, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

“T” is for Transformative (Corporate Governance)

In my first post on the "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance" ("Study on Directors' Duties") prepared by Ernst & Young for the European Commission, I said that corporate boards are free to apply a purposive approach to profit generation. I added that:

[a]pplying such a purposive approach will depend on moral leadership, CEOs' and corporate boards' long-term vision, clear measurement of the companies' interests and communication of those interests to shareholders, and rethinking executive compensation to encourage board members to take on other priorities than shareholder value maximization. Corporate governance has a significant transformative role to play in this context. 

This week, I focus on corporate governance’s enabling power. Therefore, “T” is for transformative corporate governance. Market-led developments can and do precede and inspire legal rules. Corporate governance rules are not an exception in this regard. To illustrate these rules’ transformative potential, I dwell on the ongoing debate around stakeholder capitalism.

First question. What is stakeholder capitalism? In a recent debate with Lucian Bebchuk about the topic, Alex Edmans explained that “stakeholder capitalism seeks to create shareholder welfare only through creating stakeholder welfare.” The definition suggests that the way to create value for both shareholders and stakeholders alike is by increasing the size of the pie.

In his book, Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, R. Edward Freeman defines “stakeholder” as “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation’s objectives.” (1984: p. 46). The Study on Directors’ Duties is concerned with the negative impact of corporate short-termism on stakeholders such as the environment, the society, the economy, and the extent to which corporate short-termism may impair the protection of human rights and the attainment of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). I am not going to discuss whether there is a causal link between short-termism and sustainability. In my previous post, I say that we need to take a step back to determine short-termism and whether it is as harmful as it sounds. Instead, I am interested in finding an answer to the following question. Has stakeholder capitalism practical value?

Edmans points out that “in a world of uncertainty, stakeholder capitalism is practically more useful.” It is more challenging to put a tag on various things in a world of uncertainty, and the market misvalues intangibles. Therefore, in this context, stakeholder capitalism would be a better decisional tool that improves shareholder value and profitability and shareholders' welfare.

Still, how do we measure CEO’s and directors’ accountability toward shareholders and the corporation for the choices they make? Can CEOs and directors be blamed for not caring about social causes? Is stakeholder capitalism, or as Lucian Bebchuk calls it “stakeholderism,” the right way to force managers to make the right decisions for the shareholders and the corporation?

While Edmans stays firmly behind stakeholder capitalism because he considers it has practical value in increasing shareholder wealth while increasing shareholders’ welfare, Bebchuk maintains that “stakeholderism” is “illusory” and costly both for shareholders and stakeholders. Clearly, they disagree.

However, both Edmans and Bebchuk agree on this – we need a normative framework that goes beyond private ordering and prevents companies from subjecting stakeholders to externalities such as climate change, inequality, poverty, and other adverse economic effects.

Corporate managers respond to incentives such as executive compensation, financial reporting, and shareholders' ownership. The challenge is to understand what type of corporate governance rules are more likely to nudge CEOs and managers to value other interests than shareholder wealth maximization. Would a set of principles suffice, or do we need a regulatory framework?

Freeman's definition of a stakeholder is telling because it allows us to think of corporations and governments as stakeholders for sustainable development. I am also inspired by the distinction that Yves Fassin makes in his article The Stakeholder Model Refined, between stakeholders (e.g., consumers), stakewatchers (e.g., non-governmental organizations) and stakekeepers (e.g., regulators). I suggest that the way to ensure stakeholder capitalism’s practical value is to create corporate governance rules based on appropriate standards. The SDGs afford the propriety of those standards.

Within this regulatory setting, corporate governance will fulfill its transformative potential by enabling, for example, the representation and protection of stakeholders, the representation of “stakewatchers” through the attribution of voting and veto rights and nomination to the management board (similar to German co-determination by which stakeholders like employees are appointed to the supervisory board). Corporate governance will show its transformative potential by enabling the expansion of directors' fiduciary duties to include the protection of stakeholders’ interests, accountability of corporate managers, consultation rights, and additional disclosure requirements.  

The authors Onyeka K. Osuji and Ugochi C. Amajuoyi contributed an interesting piece, titled Sustainable Consumption, Consumer Protection and Sustainable Development: Unbundling Institutional Septet for Developing Economies to the book Corporate Social Responsibility in Developing and Emerging Markets: Institutions, Actors and Sustainable Development. The book was edited by Onyeka K. Osuji, Franklin N. Ngwu, and Dima Jamali. The piece addresses the stakeholder model from the emerging economies perspective. It goes to show how interconnected we are.

December 20, 2020 in Books, Business Associations, Comparative Law, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Management | Permalink | Comments (6)