Friday, October 23, 2020
It’s hard to believe that the US will have an election in less than two weeks. Three years ago, a month after President Trump took office, I posted about CEOs commenting on his executive order barring people from certain countries from entering the United States. Some branded the executive order a “Muslim travel ban” and others questioned whether the CEOs should have entered into the political fray at all. Some opined that speaking out on these issues detracted from the CEOs’ mission of maximizing shareholder value. But I saw it as a business decision - - these CEOs, particularly in the tech sector, depended on the skills and expertise of foreign workers.
That was 2017. In 2018, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, told the largest companies in the world that “to prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society…Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.” Fink’s annual letter to CEOs carries weight; BlackRock had almost six trillion dollars in assets under management in 2018, and when Fink talks, Wall Street listens. Perhaps emboldened by the BlackRock letter, one year later, 181 CEOs signed on to the Business Roundtable's Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which “modernized” its position on the shareholder maximization norm. The BRT CEOs promised to invest in employees, deal ethically and fairly with suppliers, and embrace sustainable business practices. Many observers, however, believed that the Business Roundtable statement was all talk and no action. To see how some of the signatories have done on their commitments as of last week, see here.
Then came 2020, a year like no other. The United States is now facing a global pandemic, mass unemployment, a climate change crisis, social unrest, and of course an election. During the Summer of 2020, several CEOs made public statements on behalf of themselves and their companies about racial unrest, with some going as far as to proclaim, “Black Lives Matter.” I questioned these motives in a post I called “"Wokewashing and the Board." While I admired companies that made a sincere public statement about racial justice and had a real commitment to look inward, I was skeptical about firms that merely made statements for publicity points. I wondered, in that post, about companies rushing to implement diversity training, retain consultants, and appoint board members to either curry favor with the public or avoid the shareholder derivative suits facing Oracle, Facebook, and Qualcomm. How well had they thought it out? Meanwhile, I noted that my colleagues who have conducted diversity training and employee engagement projects for years were so busy that they were farming out work to each other. Now the phones aren’t ringing as much, and when they are ringing, it’s often to cancel or postpone training.
Why? Last month, President Trump issued the Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping. As the President explained:
today . . . many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual. This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans ... Therefore, it shall be the policy of the United States not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in the Federal workforce or in the Uniformed Services, and not to allow grant funds to be used for these purposes. In addition, Federal contractors will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees.
The Order then provides a hotline process for employees to raise concerns about their training. Whether you agree with the statements in the Order or not -- and I recommend that you read it -- it had a huge and immediate effect. The federal government is the largest procurer of goods and services in the world. This Order applies to federal contractors and subcontractors. Some of those same companies have mandates from state law to actually conduct training on sexual harassment. Often companies need to show proof of policies and training to mount an affirmative defense to discrimination claims. More important, while reasonable people can disagree about the types and content of diversity training, there is no doubt that employees often need training on how to deal with each other respectfully in the workplace. (For a thought-provoking take on a board’s duty to monitor diversity training by co-blogger Stefan Padfield, click here.)
Perhaps because of the federal government’s buying power, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce felt compelled to act. On October 15th, the Chamber and 150 organizations wrote a letter to the President stating:
As currently written, we believe the E.O. will create confusion and uncertainty, lead to non-meritorious investigations, and hinder the ability of employers to implement critical programs to promote diversity and combat discrimination in the workplace. We urge you to withdraw the Executive Order and work with the business and nonprofit communities on an approach that would support appropriate workplace training programs ... there is a great deal of subjectivity around how certain content would be perceived by different individuals. For example, the definition of “divisive concepts” creates many gray areas and will likely result in multiple different interpretations. Because the ultimate threat of debarment is a possible consequence, we have heard from some companies that they are suspending all D&I training. This outcome is contrary to the E.O.’s stated purpose, but an understandable reaction given companies’ lack of clear guidance. Thus, the E.O. is already having a broadly chilling effect on legitimate and valuable D&I training companies use to foster inclusive workplaces, help with talent recruitment, and remain competitive in a country with a wide range of different cultures. … Such an approach effectively creates two sets of rules, one for those companies that do business with the government and another for those that do not. Federal contractors should be left to manage their workforces and workplaces with a minimum amount of interference so long as they are compliant with the law.
It’s rare for the Chamber to make such a statement, but it was bold and appropriate. Many of the Business Roundtable signatories are also members of the U.S. Chamber, and on the same day, the BRT issued its own statement committing to programs to advance racial equity and justice. BRT Chair and WalMart CEO Doug McMillon observed, “the racial inequities that exist for many Black Americans and people of color are real and deeply rooted . . These longstanding systemic challenges have too often prevented access to the benefits of economic growth and mobility for too many, and a broad and diverse group of Americans is demanding change. It is our employees, customers and communities who are calling for change, and we are listening – and most importantly – we are taking action.” Now that's a stakeholder maximization statement if I ever heard one.
Those who thought that some CEOs went too far in protesting the Muslim ban, may be even more shocked by the BRT’s statements about the police. The BRT also has a subcommittee to address racial justice issues and noted that “For Business Roundtable CEOs, this agenda is an important step in addressing barriers to equity and justice . . . This summer we took on the urgent need for policing reform. We called on Congress to adopt higher federal standards for policing, to track whether police departments and officers have histories of misconduct, and to adopt measures to hold abusive officers accountable. Now, with announcement of this broader agenda, CEOs are supporting policies and undertaking initiatives to address several other systems that contribute to large and growing disparities.”
Now that stakeholders have seen so many of these social statements, they have asked for more. Last week, a group of executives from the Leadership Now Project issued a statement supporting free and fair elections. However, as Bennett Freeman, former Calvert executive and Clinton cabinet member noted, no Fortune 500 CEOs have signed on to that statement. Yesterday, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) sent a letter to 200 CEOs, including some members of the BRT asking for their support. ICCR asked that they endorse:
- Active support for free and fair elections
- A call for a thorough and complete counting of all ballots
- A call for all states to ensure a fair election
- A condemnation of any tactics that could be construed as voter intimidation
- Assurance that, should the incumbent Administration lose the election, there will be a peaceful transfer of power
- Ensure that lobbying activities and political donations support the above
Is this a pipe dream? Do CEOs really want to stick their necks out in a tacit criticism of the current president’s equivocal statements about his post-election plans? Now that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has spoken about the importance of respect for the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power, perhaps more executives will make public statements. But should they? On the one hand, the markets need stability. Perhaps Dimon was actually really focused on shareholder maximization after all. Nonetheless, Freeman and others have called for a Twitter campaign to urge more CEOs to speak out. My next post will be up on the Friday after the election and I’ll report back about the success of the hashtag activism effort. In the meantime, stay tuned and stay safe.
October 23, 2020 in Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Legislation, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, October 2, 2020
No. You didn't miss Part 1. I wrote about Weinstein clauses last July. Last Wednesday, I spoke with a reporter who had read that blog post. Acquirors use these #MeToo/Weinstein clauses to require target companies to represent that there have been no allegations of, or settlement related to, sexual misconduct or harassment. I look at these clauses through the lens of a management-side employment lawyer/compliance officer/transactional drafting professor. It’s almost impossible to write these in a way that’s precise enough to provide the assurances that the acquiror wants or needs.
Specifically, the reporter wanted to know whether it was unusual that Chevron had added this clause into its merger documents with Noble Energy. As per the Prospectus:
Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, (i), no allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct have been made against any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above through the Company’s anonymous employee hotline or any formal human resources communication channels at the Company, and (ii) there are no actions, suits, investigations or proceedings pending or, to the Company’s knowledge, threatened related to any allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above. Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, neither the Company nor any of its Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above.
Whether I agree with these clauses or not, I can see why Chevron wanted one. After all, Noble’s former general counsel left the company in 2017 to “pursue personal interests” after accusations that he had secretly recorded a female employee with a video camera under his desk. To its credit, Noble took swift action, although it did give the GC nine million dollars, which to be fair included $8.3 million in deferred compensation. Noble did not, however, exercise its clawback rights. Under these circumstances, if I represented Chevron, I would have asked for the same thing. Noble’s anonymous complaint mechanisms went to the GC’s office. I’m sure Chevron did its own social due diligence but you can never be too careful. Why would Noble agree? I have to assume that the company’s outside lawyers interviewed as many Noble employees as possible and provided a clean bill of health. Compared with others I’ve seen, the Chevron Weinstein clause is better than most.
Interestingly, although several hundred executives have left their positions due to allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment since 2017, only a small minority of companies use these Weinstein clauses. Here are a few:
Except in each case, as has not had and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect, to the Knowledge of the Company, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against (A) any officer or director of the Acquired Companies or (B) any employee of the Acquired Companies who, directly or indirectly, supervises at least eight (8) other employees of the Acquired Companies, and (ii) the Acquired Companies have not entered into any settlement agreement related to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by an employee, contractor, director, officer or other Representative.
- Merger between Genuine Parts Company, Rhino SpinCo, Inc., Essendant Inc., and Elephant Merger Sub Corp.:
To the knowledge of GPC, in the last five (5) years, no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any current SpinCo Business Employee who is (i) an executive officer or (ii) at the level of Senior Vice President or above.
- AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER BY AND AMONG WORDSTREAM, INC., GANNETT CO., INC., ORCA MERGER SUB, INC. AND SHAREHOLDER REPRESENTATIVE SERVICES LLC:
(i) The Company is not party to a settlement agreement with a current or former officer, employee or independent contractor of the Company or its Affiliates that involves allegations relating to sexual harassment or misconduct. To the Knowledge of the Company, in the last eight (8) years, no allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made against any current or former officer or employee of the Company or its Affiliates.
- AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER By and Among RLJ ENTERTAINMENT, INC., AMC NETWORKS INC., DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT HOLDINGS LLC and RIVER MERGER SUB INC.:
(c) To the Company’s Knowledge, in the last ten (10) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries, and (ii) the Company and its Subsidiaries have not entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by an officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries.
Here are just a few questions:
- What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? Are the companies using a legal definition? Under which law? None of the samples define the term.
- What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"?
- How do the parties define "sexual harassment"? Are they using Title VII, state law, case law, their diversity training decks, the employee handbook? None of the samples define the term.
- What about the definition of "allegation"? Is this an allegation through formal or informal channels (as employment lawyers would consider it)? Chevron gets high marks here.
- Have the target companies used the best knowledge qualifiers to protect themselves?
- How will the target company investigate whether the executives and officers have had “allegations”? Should the company lawyers do an investigation of every executive covered by the representation to make sure the company has the requisite “knowledge”? If the deal documents don't define "knowledge," should we impute knowledge?
- What about those in the succession plan who may not be in the officer or executives ranks?
Will we see more of these in the future? I don’t know. But I sure hope that General Motors has some protection in place after the most recent allegations against Nikola’s founder and former chairman, who faces sexual assault allegations from his teenage years. Despite allegations of fraud and sexual misconduct, GM appears to be moving forward with the deal, taking advantage of Nikola’s decreased valuation after the revelation of the scandals.
I’ll watch out for these #MeToo clauses in the future. In the meantime, I’ll ask my transactional drafting students to take a crack at reworking them. If you assign these clauses to your students, feel free to send me the work product at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take care and stay safe.
October 2, 2020 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Lawyering, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, September 18, 2020
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the role of compliance officers and general counsel working for Big Pharma in Where Were the Gatekeepers- Part 1. As a former compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I wondered how and if those in-house sentinels were raising alarm bells about safety concerns related to rushing a COVID-19 vaccine to the public. Now that I’ve watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” I’m wondering the same thing about the lawyers and compliance professionals working for the social media companies.
The documentary features some of the engineers and executives behind the massive success of Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, is the star of the documentary and the main whistleblower. He raised concerns to 60 Minutes in 2017 and millions have watched his TED Talk. He also testified before Congress in 2019 about how social media companies use algorithms and artificial intelligence to manipulate behavior. Human rights organizations have accused social media platforms of facilitating human rights abuses. Facebook and others have paid billions in fines for privacy violations. Advertisers boycotted over Facebook and hate speech. But nothing has slowed their growth.
The documentary explicitly links the rising rate of youth depression, suicide, and risk taking behavior to social media’s disproportionate influence. Most of my friends who have watched it have already decreased their screen time or at least have become more conscious of it. Maybe they are taking a cue from those who work for these companies but don’t allow their young children to have any screen time. Hmmm …
I’ve watched the documentary twice. Here are some of the more memorable quotes:
”If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”
“They sell certainty that someone will see your advertisement.”
“It’s not our data that’s being sold. They are building models to predict our actions based on the click, what emotions trigger you, what videos you will watch.”
“Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.”
”It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product.”
“Social media is a drug.”
”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
”Social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.”
”The very meaning of culture is manipulation.”
“Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them.”
“These services are killing people and causing people to kill themselves.”
“When you go to Google and type in “climate change is,” you will get a different result based on where you live … that’s a function of … the particular things Google knows about your interests.”
“It’s 2.7 billion Truman Show. Each person has their own reality, their own facts.”
“It worries me that an algorithm I worked on is increasing polarization in society.”
“Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than real news.”
“People have no idea what is true and now it’s a matter of life and death.”
“Social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay to the point that we don’t know what’s true no matter what issue we care about.”
“If you want to control the operation of a country, there’s never been a better tool than Facebook.”
"The Russians didn't hack Facebook. What they did was use the tools Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users, and they applied it to a nefarious purpose."
“What [am I] most worried about? In the short term horizon? Civil War.”
“How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix”?
“You could shut down the service and destroy . . . $20 billion in shareholder value and get sued, but you can’t in practice put the genie back in the model.”
“We need to accept that it’s ok for companies to be focused on making money but it’s not ok when there’s no regulation, no rules, and no competition and companies are acting as de facto governments and then saying ‘we can regulate ourselves.’ “
“There’s no fiscal reason for these companies to change.”
This brings me back to the beginning of my post. We’ve heard from former investors, engineers, and algorithm magicians from these companies, but where were and are the gatekeepers? What were they doing to sound the alarm? But maybe I’m asking the wrong question. As Ann Lipton’s provocative post on Doyle, Watson, and the Purpose of the Corporation notes, “Are you looking at things from outside the corporation, in terms of structuring our overall legal and societal institutions? Or are you looking at things from inside the corporation, in terms of how corporate managers should understand their jobs and their own roles?”
If you’re a board member or C-Suite executive of a social media company, you have to ask yourself, what if hate speech, fake news, polarization, and addiction to your product are actually profitable? What if perpetuating rumors that maximize shareholder value is the right decision? Why would you change a business model that works for the shareholders even if it doesn’t work for the rest of society? If social media is like a drug, it’s up to parents to instill the right values in their children. I get it. But what about the lawyers and the people in charge of establishing, promoting, and maintaining an ethical culture? To be clear, I don’t mean in any way to impugn the integrity of lawyers and compliance professionals who work for social media companies. I have met several at business and human rights events and privacy conferences who take the power of the tech industry very seriously and advocate for change.
The social media companies have a dilemma. Compliance officers talk about “tone at the top,” “mood in the middle,” and the “buzz at the bottom.” Everyone in the organization has to believe in the ethical mandate as laid out and modeled by leadership. Indeed, CEOs typically sign off on warm, fuzzy statements about ethical behavior in the beginning of the Code of Conduct. I’ve drafted quite a few and looked at hundreds more. Notably, Facebook’s Code of Conduct, updated just a few weeks ago, has no statement of principle from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and seems very lawyerlike. Perhaps there’s a more robust version that employees can access where Zuckerberg extols company values. Twitter’s code is slightly better and touches more on ethical culture. Google’s Code states, “Our products, features, and services should make Google more useful for all our users. We have many different types of users, from individuals to large businesses, but one guiding principle: “Is what we are offering useful?”’ My question is “useful” to whom? I use Google several times a day, but now I have to worry about what Google chooses to show me. What's my personal algorithm? I’ve been off of Facebook and Instagram since January 2020 and I have no plans to go back.
Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman uttered the famous statement, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” The social media companies have written the rules of the game. There is no competition. Now that the “Social Dilemma” is out, there really isn’t any more deception or fraud.
Do the social media companies actually have a social responsibility to do better? In 2012, Facebook’s S-1 proclaimed that the company’s mission was to “make the world more open and connected.” Facebook’s current Sustainability Page claims that, “At Facebook, our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Why is it, then that in 2020, people seem more disconnected than ever even though they are tethered to their devices while awake and have them in reach while asleep? Facebook’s sustainability strategy appears to be centered around climate change and supply chain issues, important to be sure. But is it doing all that it can for the sustainability of society? Does it have to? I have no answer for that. All I can say is that you should watch the documentary and judge for yourself.
September 18, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Family, Film, Human Rights, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Psychology, Shareholders, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, September 5, 2020
I think that the GCs at Big Pharma have hacked into my Zoom account. First, some background. Earlier this week, I asked my students in UM’s Lawyering in a Pandemic course to imagine that they were the compliance officers or GCs at the drug companies involved in Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership formed to find a vaccine for COVID-19 in months, rather than years. I asked the students what they would do if they thought that the scientists were cutting corners to meet the government’s deadlines. Some indicated that they would report it internally and then externally, if necessary.
I hated to burst their bubbles, but I explained that the current administration hasn’t been too welcoming to whistleblowers. I had served on a non-partisan, multi-stakeholder Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee when President Trump came into office, which was disbanded shortly thereafter. For over a year after that, I received calls from concerned scientists asking where they could lodge complaints. With that background, I wanted my students to think about how company executives could reasonably would report on cutting corners to the government that was requiring the “warp speed” results in the first place. We didn’t even get into the potential ethical issues related to lawyers as whistleblowers.
Well the good news is that Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi announced on Friday that they have signed a pledge to make sure that they won’t jeopardize public safety by ignoring protocols. Apparently, the FDA may be planning its own statement to reassure the public. I look forward to seeing the statements when they’re released, but these companies have been working on these drugs for months. Better late than never, but why issue this statement now? Perhaps the lawyers and compliance officers – the gatekeepers – were doing their jobs and protecting the shareholders and the stakeholders. Maybe the scientists stood their ground. We will never know how or why the companies made this decision, but I’m glad they did. The companies hadn’t announced this safety pledge yet when I had my class and at the time, almost none of the students said they would get the vaccine. Maybe the pledge will change their minds.
Although the drug companies seem to be doing the right thing, I have other questions about Kodak. During the same class, I had asked my students to imagine that they were the GC, compliance officer, or board member at Kodak. Of course, some of my students probably didn’t even know what Kodak is because they take pictures with their phones. They don’t remember Kodak for film and cameras and absolutely no one knows Kodak as a pharmaceutical company. Perhaps that’s why everyone was stunned when Kodak announced a $765 million federal loan to start producing drug ingredients, especially because it’s so far outside the scope of its business. After all, the company makes chemicals for film development and manufacturing but not for life saving drugs. Kodak has struggled over the past few years because it missed the boat on digital cameras and has significant debt, filing for bankruptcy in 2012. It even dabbled in cryptocurrency for a few months in 2018. Not the first choice to help develop a vaccine.
To be charitable, Kodak did own a pharmaceutical company for a few years in the 80’s. But its most recent 10-K states that “Kodak is a global technology company focused on print and advanced materials and chemicals. Kodak provides industry-leading hardware, software, consumables and services primarily to customers in commercial print, packaging, publishing, manufacturing and entertainment.”
The Kodak deal became even more newsworthy because the company issued 1.75 million in stock and options to the CEO and other grants to company insiders and board members before the public announcement of the federal loan. The CEO had only had the job for a year. I haven’t seen any news reports of insiders complaining or refusing the grants. In fact, the day after the announcement of the loan, a Kodak board member made a $116 million dollar donation to charity he founded. Understandably, the news of the deal caused Kodak’s shares to soar. Insiders profited, and the SEC started asking questions after looking at records of the stock trades.
Alas, the deal is on hold as the SEC investigates. The White House’s own trade advisor has said that this may be “one of the dumbest decisions by executives in corporate history.” I’m not sure about that, but there actually may be nothing to see here. Some believe that there was a snafu with the timing of the announcement and that the nuances of Reg FD may get Kodak off the hook .I wonder though, what the gatekeepers were doing? Did the GC, compliance officer, or any board member ask the obvious questions? “Why are we doing something so far outside of our core competency?” They didn’t even get the digital camera thing right and that is Kodak’s core competency. Did anyone ask “should we really be issuing options and grants right before the announcement? Isn’t this loan material, nonpublic information and shouldn’t we wait to trade?”
I’ll keep watching the Kodak saga and will report back. In coming posts, I’ll write about other compliance and corporate governance mishaps. In the meantime, stay safe and please wear your masks.
September 5, 2020 in Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 28, 2020
Two weeks ago, I wrote about wokewashing and the board of directors. I discussed companies that tout their social justice credentials to curry favor with consumers but in fact treat their employees differently. I touched on the difference between companies jumping on the “anti-racism” bandwagon and those like Nike, which took an unpopular stand in 2018 by supporting Colin Kapernick, who at the time was considered a pariah for taking a knee during the national anthem. Some commentators predicted boycotts but in fact, Nike had a 31% increase in sales following the ad campaign. One sporting good store owner who publicly called for a boycott actually went out of business.
Four years after Kapernick took a knee, professional basketball, hockey, soccer, and tennis players took a walk protesting a police-involved shooting of a Black man. Although the Milwaukee Bucks spurred the walkout by refusing to play against the Orlando Magic in the playoffs on Wednesday, LeBron James reportedly led what could have been a season-ending strike of the West Coast teams. One hundred league staffers also temporarily walked off the job today in support. Michael Jordan, basketball legend and team owner, helped broker a deal for the NBA teams to resume play tomorrow (Saturday).
What does all of this have to do with business? According to Forbes, “since 2010, the average NBA team value is up nearly sixfold and growing at a much faster rate than the other three major U.S. sports leagues, thanks to strong international growth prospects and blockbuster media deals.” The NBA’s 30 teams generated over $8 billion in revenues and several teams are worth $4billion each. NBA players aren’t doing too badly either. LeBron James earns almost $40 million a year from the NBA but is worth almost $500 million from endorsements and other deals. Athletes and entertainers are big business -- as rapper/producer Jay-Z once sang, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”
Remember that store owner who went out of business after boycotting Nike products? He apparently realized that "being a sports store and not having Nike jerseys is kind of like being a milk store without milk or a gas station without gas." Being a sports league without marquee players is the same thing. Although the players received threats and vitriol, they chose to follow the example of the Bates 7 of NYU, Muhammad Ali refusing to go to VietNam, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the Summer Olympics in 1968, the Boston Celtics in 1961, and countless others.
While some have argued that ball players should “shut up and dribble,” tennis legend Billie Jean King has stated that athletes must lead. No one complained when football player Aaron Rodgers took a stand on conflict minerals at the height of his playing career. But arguing for a law that prevents rape, murder, and child slavery isn’t really controversial. The Milwaukee Bucks did more than walk out. They apparently called the Wisconsin Attorney General from the locker room. The NBA players led and the NBA followed. League Commissioner Adam Silver stated that he supported the players, even though they initially took action without notifying the league or the union.
Is the NBA wokewashing? Not likely, even though NBA fans tend to be younger and more diverse than other sports fans. Today, the NBA and NBPA issued a statement promising to establish a social justice coalition to advocate for “meaningful police and criminal justice reform,” promote voting in ads, and work with cities to convert arenas into polling locations. Time will tell. I’m the mother of a Black 24-year old artist. He wouldn’t hurt a soul. But I worry every single day that he could be the next George Floyd or Jacob Blake. I thank the athletes who risked being “Kapernicked” or blacklisted. The NBA and other leagues know that if they don’t live up their commitments, they may not just lose fans, they’ll lose the game.
Friday, August 14, 2020
As an academic and consultant on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, I’ve used a lot of loaded terms -- greenwashing, where companies tout an environmentally friendly record but act otherwise; pinkwashing, where companies commoditize breast cancer awareness or LGBTQ issues; and bluewashing, where companies rally around UN corporate social responsibility initiatives such as the UN Global Compact.
In light of recent events, I’ve added a new term to my arsenal—wokewashing. Wokewashing occurs when a company attempts to show solidarity with certain causes in order to gain public favor. Wokewashing isn’t a new term. It’s been around for years, but it gained more mainstream traction last year when Unilever’s CEO warned that companies were eroding public trust and industry credibility, stating:
Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply… There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.
The Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements have brought wokewashing front and center again. My colleague Stefan Padfield has written about the need for heightened scrutiny of politicized decisions and corporate responses to the BLM movement here, here, and here, and Ann Lipton has added to the discussion here. How does a board decide what to do when faced with pressure from stakeholders? How much is too much and how little is too little?
The students in my summer Regulatory Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course were torn when they acted as board members deciding whether to make a public statement on Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. As fiduciaries of a consumer goods company, the “board members” felt that they had to say “something,” but in the days before class they had seen the explosion of current and former employees exposing companies with strong social justice messaging by pointing to hypocrisy in their treatment of employees and stakeholders. They had witnessed the controversy over changing the name of the Redskins based on pressure from FedEx and other sponsors (and not the Native Americans and others who had asked for the change for years). They had heard about the name change of popular syrup, Aunt Jemima. I intentionally didn’t force my students to draft a statement. They merely had to decide whether to speak at all, and this was difficult when looking at the external realities. Most of the students voted to make some sort of statement even as every day on social media, another “woke” company had to defend itself in the court of public opinion. Others, like Nike, have received praise for taking a strong stand in the face of public pressure long before it was cool and profitable to be “woke.”
Now it’s time for companies to defend themselves in actual court (assuming plaintiffs can get past various procedural hurdles). Notwithstanding Facebook and Oracle’s Delaware forum selection bylaws, the same lawyers who filed the shareholder derivative action against Google after its extraordinary sexual harassment settlement have filed shareholder derivative suits in California against Facebook, Oracle, and Qualcomm. Among other things, these suits generally allege breach of the Caremark duty, false statements in proxy materials purporting to have a commitment to diversity, breach of fiduciary duty relating to a diverse slate of candidates for board positions, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs have labeled these cases civil rights suits, targeting Facebook for allowing hate speech and discriminatory advertising, Qualcomm for underpaying women and minorities by $400 million, and Oracle for having no Black board members or executives. Oracle also faces a separate class action lawsuit based on unequal pay and gender.
Why these companies? According to the complaints, “[i]f Oracle simply disclosed that it does not want any Black individuals on its Board, it would be racist but honest…” and “[a]t Facebook, apparently Zuckerberg wants Blacks to be seen but not heard.” Counsel Bottini explained, “when you actually go back and look at these proxy statements and what they’ve filed with the SEC, they’re actually lying to shareholders.”
I’m not going to discuss the merits of these cases. Instead, for great analysis, please see here written by attorneys at my old law firm Cleary Gottlieb. I’ll do some actual legal analysis during my CLE presentation at the University of Tennessee Transactions conference on October 16th.
Instead, I’m going to make this a little more personal. I’m used to being the only Black person and definitely the only Black woman in the room. It’s happened in school, at work, on academic panels, and in organizations. When I testified before Congress on a provision of Dodd-Frank, a Black Congressman who grilled me mercilessly during my testimony came up to me afterwards to tell me how rare it was to see a Black woman testify about anything, much less corporate issues. He expressed his pride. For these reasons, as a Black woman in the corporate world, I’m conflicted about these lawsuits. Do corporations need to do more? Absolutely. Is litigation the right mechanism? I don’t know.
What will actually change? Whether or not these cases ever get past motions to dismiss, the defendant companies are likely to take some action. They will add the obligatory Black board members and executives. They will donate to various “woke” causes. They will hire diversity consultants. Indeed, many of my colleagues who have done diversity, equity, and inclusion work for years are busier than they have ever been with speaking gigs and training engagements. But what will actually change in the long term for Black employees, consumers, suppliers, and communities?
When a person is hired or appointed as the “token,” especially after a lawsuit, colleagues often believe that the person is under or unqualified. The new hire or appointee starts under a cloud of suspicion and sometimes resentment. Many eventually resign or get pushed out. Ironically, I personally know several diversity officers who have left their positions with prestigious companies because they were hired as window dressing. Although I don’t know Morgan Stanley’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Marilyn Booker, her story is familiar to me, and she has now filed suit against her own company alleging racial bias.
So I’ll keep an eye on what these defendants and other companies do. Actions speak louder than words. I don’t think that shareholder derivative suits are necessarily the answer, but at least they may prompt more companies to have meaningful conversations that go beyond hashtag activism.
August 14, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, August 10, 2020
Decent amount of reading for a summer than seemed quite chaotic. Fairly eclectic . Always open to suggestions.
God and Money - John Cortines and Gregory Baumer (2016) (Personal Finance). Two recent Harvard Business School graduates discuss thoughts on faith, finances, and giving. Less than 3% of American adults give away 10% or more of their income. Advocates for setting a floor of giving away at least 10% of gross income. In addition, the authors suggest setting an income and net worth cap and giving away the remainder. Reflection here (near the end of the post).
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid (2013) (Novel). Family, love, business, morality, and violence. Novel claims to be written in a self-help style (though it didn’t really capture the self-help voice, in my opinion). I greatly preferred Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2008) to this one, but still think Hamid is talented and worth reading. As a father and a son, I liked this quote near the end - “You feel a love [toward your son] you know you will never be able to adequately explain or express to him, a love that flows one way, down the generations, not in reverse, and is understood and reciprocated only when time has made a younger generation of an older one.” (222).
When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi (2016) (Memoir). Dr. Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer as a 35-year old nonsmoker. Paul’s diagnosis came just as he was finishing his training as a neurosurgeon at Stanford. Faith, family (including a newborn daughter), and work all provide purpose. Reflection here.
The Coddling of the American Mind - Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) (Social Psychology and Culture). Argues that privileged, upper/middle class children and students are overprotected. Children need more free play. Students need more exposure to differing viewpoints, learning civil discourse, and building well-supported arguments.
Let Your Mind Run - Deena Kastor (2018) (Memoir). History of a top professional runner and the role of positive thinking.
Love in the Ruins - Walker Percy (1999) (Novel). Satire, politics, religion, relationships, and the end of the world.
Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman (1985) (Cultural Commentary). Thesis - “Orewell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” (Preface).
Friday, July 24, 2020
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of Black entrepreneurs sponsored by the Miami Finance Forum, a group of finance, investment management, banking, capital markets, private equity, venture capital, legal, accounting and related professionals. When every company and law firm was posting about Black Lives Matter and donating to various causes, my colleague Richard Montes de Oca, an MFF board member, decided that he wanted to do more than post a generic message. He and the MFF board decided to launch a series of webinars on Black entrepreneurship. The first panel featured Jamarlin Martin, who runs a digital media company and has a podcast; Brian Brackeen, GP of Lightship Capital and founder of Kairos, a facial recognition tech company; and Raoul Thomas, CEO of CGI Merchant Group, a real estate private equity group.
These panelists aren't the typical Black entrepreneurs. Here are some sobering statistics:
- Black-owned business get their initial financing through 44% cash; 15% family and friends; 9% line of credit; 7% unsecured loans; and 3% SBA loans;
- Between February and April 2020, 41% of Black-owned businesses, 33% of Latinx businesses, and 26% of Asian-owned businesses closed while 17% of White-owned business closed;
- As of 2019, the overwhelming majority of businesses in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods did not have enough cash on hand to pay for two weeks worth of bills;
- The Center for Responsible Lending noted that in April, 95% of Black-owned businesses were tiny companies with slim change of achieving loans in the initial rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program;
- Only 12% of Black and Hispanic business owners polled between April 30-May 12 had received the funding they requested from the stimulus program. In contrast half of all small business had received PPP funds in the same poll.
Because we only had an hour for the panel, we didn't cover as much as I would have liked on those statistics. Here's what we did discuss:
- the failure of boards of directors and companies to do meaningful work around diversity and inclusion- note next week, I will post about the spate of shareholder derivative actions filed against companies for false statements about diversity commitments;
- the perceptions of tokenism and "shallow, ambiguous" diversity initiatives;
- how to get business allies of all backgrounds;
- the need for more than trickle down initiatives where the people at the bottom of the corporation/society don't reap benefits;
- the fact that investing in Black venture capitalists does not mean that those Black VCs will invest in Black entrepreneurs and the need for more transparency and accountability;
- whether the Black middle class still exists and the responsibility of wealthier Black professionals to provide mentorship and resources;
- why it's easier for entrepreneurs to get investments for products vs. services, and a hack to convince VCs to invest in the service;
- whether a great team can make up for a so-so product when a VC hears a pitch;
- why there are so many obstacles to being a Black LGBTQ entrepreneur and how to turn it to an advantage when pitching; and
- whether reparations will actually help Black entrepreneurs and communities.
If you want to hear the answers to these questions, click here for access to the webinar. Stay safe and wear your masks!
July 24, 2020 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Family Business, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Private Equity, Service, Shareholders, Technology, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
Earlier today (July 14), Fordham University hosted a webinar entitled Reopening Justly or Just Reopening: Catholic Social Teaching, Universities & COVID-19.
Speakers on the topic of the ethics of reopening schools include the following theology professors:
- Christine Firer Hinze (Fordham)
- Gerald Beyer (Villanova)
- Craig Ford (St. Norbert)
- Kate Ward (Marquette)
Christine Firer Hinze discussed Catholic Social Thought, human dignity, and solidarity. She reminded us that reopening universities is literally a question of life and death, but is also a question of livelihood. Gerald Beyer stressed looking to the the latest science and considering the common good (the flourishing of all). Craig Ford commented on the reality that some universities may be facing financial collapse, that the pandemic is likely to be with us for a long while, and that there are no perfect solutions. Ford also suggested a focus on protecting those who are most vulnerable. Kate Ward talked about moral injury, lamentation, and redemption. A question and answer period --- including on the topics of racial justice, transparency, shared sacrifices and mental health --- followed opening remarks.
Monday, July 6, 2020
What remains when the intoxicating distractions of life are removed?
I read both of these books on vacation at Ocean Isle, NC late last month; this was not exactly light, uplifting beach reading.
Before the plague engulfed the Algerian coastal town of Oran, Camus’ narrator notes that:
Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.” Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasure as love-making, sea bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly they reserve these past times for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible . . . . Nevertheless there still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern.
In sharp contrast to the citizens of Oran, Ben Ellis had steadier footing in advance of tragedy. Ben Ellis was a teacher at the private school connected to our church in Nashville (CPA). Our current pandemic has been clarifying for me in many ways, and it has convinced me that Saint Paul was correct when he wrote that faith, hope, and love are the things that remain. Ben Ellis was already building his life on those three things prior to his cancer diagnosis. As his condition worsened in September of 2016, over 400 students gathered outside of his home to sing worship songs with him. Ben Ellis died about 10 days later. Difficulties can clarify, and Ben’s death clarified that he spent his time focused on meaningful things outside of himself. Watch the clip below to see clear evidence of a man who loved God, his students, and his family well. (His daughter is so poised and thoughtful, and the headmaster obviously valued him).
But for many of the citizens of Oran, and many of us in the individualistic, materialistic United States, difficulties can also show that we rest on a shaky foundation. If we are focused primarily on financial success and personal status, something like a pandemic or cancer can destroy the entire endeavor in short order.
In terms of “success,” as it is typically defined in the United States, few could be said to surpass Doctor Paul Kalanithi. He followed an undergraduate and masters degree at Stanford University with medical school at Yale. At the time of his cancer diagnosis, he was in his last year of neurosurgical training as the chief resident back at Stanford University. But even with just a few months left to live, Paul went back to work. The purpose of work does not have to be centered on finances and status. In Paul’s case, he returned to work, I think, primarily because he was doing meaningful work with people he cared about. Impending death clarified that status was of little importance, and he turned down a prestigious and lucrative job offer far from family. I do wonder if he would have taken that job in Wisconsin, but for his diagnosis. From his writing, it sounds like he probably would and that may have been a mistake given his underlying priorities. We often lean toward finances and status, even if our highest priorities lie elsewhere. Hopefully, this pandemic can give us all some time for reflection and help us make decisions that elevate those things that are most important.
Monday, May 25, 2020
As we close out the holiday weekend, I offer simple words of respect, admiration, and thanks for those who have sacrificed their lives for all of us. Amidst the barbecues and beer and whatnot, it is sometimes difficult to remember that we take today to honor our fallen heroes. Although I spent today working (grades for all courses due tomorrow!), I took time out to remind myself that life is not all about business law prof'ing and contemplate the importance of the day.
The photo above (taken by my brother last year) depicts a gravestone honoring one of our family's military heroes. He did not die in combat, but he was wounded and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although we honor those kinds of commitments more directly on Veteran's Day, I was thinking about him today--and about the thin line that divides life and death, especially in times of military conflict.
My heart goes out to all who have lost family and friends in the line of battle or otherwise in service to our country. May those lost servants rest in peace. And may those who remain take pride in their ultimate sacrifice.
Monday, May 11, 2020
Maybe I am just sensitized to these media reports because of my research and teaching, but it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked new media interest in and engagement with corporate governance issues. I have received four media calls in the past few weeks--two on background and two for source quotations. That is an unusual rate of contact for me. Is anyone else noticing this?
Of course, there has been a lot to talk about. Annual meetings already called and noticed to shareholders needed to move online. As managers and employees moved out of workplaces to shelter at home, well-worn systems of decision-making and information dissemination--as well as the expectations of others in connection with them--changed or were challenged. Filing and other deadlines became guidelines . . . .
The two media calls in which I was asked to provide background information related to
- increased or altered director and legal counsel attentiveness to drafting force majeure clauses and material adverse change/effect definitions in light of what we now know about COVID-19 and its effects and
- prospects for various kinds of shareholder derivative, direct, and class action litigation in light of COVID-19 and related board decision making.
I was glad to be able to help the two journalists who called on these issues. They had great questions; made me think.
The two articles in which I was quoted are both (regrettably) secured behind firewalls. But if any of you are subscribers to Agenda, you will have access to them both. I have linked to each below. Both were written by Jennifer Williams-Alvarez.
The first piece, an April 22nd article entitled "Boards Adopt Emergency Bylaws for Critical Flexibility," put a spotlight on the potential utility of emergency bylaws in light of the pandemic. I admitted that I now am more sensitive and sympathetic to emergency bylaws than I used to be.
Decades ago, Heminway says she would not have necessarily recommended that companies include an emergency bylaw provision when drafting corporate governance documents. But with the financial crisis, the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the current Covid-19 crisis, she says she would now make the suggestion.
I wonder how many of you who have been in practice for "more than a minute" feel the same way.
The second article, "DPA Forces New Unknowns for Boards to ‘Triage’," posted on April 27, offered insights on the Defense Production Act, the subject of multiple executive memoranda and orders relying to product manufacturing and distribution over the past month. This article picked up on a topic I wrote about here early last month. Since Agenda focuses on issues of importance to corporate directors and those who work with them, the article explored various angles of interest in the Defense Production Act relating to corporate boards. For example, we got into an extended conversation about public company reporting obligations and related information gathering and management.
Board members should think about disclosure responsibilities, says Heminway. For certain companies, such as manufacturers, an assessment must be made about whether it represents a material risk to repurpose operations or reprioritize contracts so that the government is at the front of the line, she says.
Between the two of us, we were able to find a few examples of COVID-19 Defense Production Act disclosures made in public filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Our coverage of applicable mandatory disclosure obligations led to a brief conversation about how boards of directors gather information.
“What I worry about is the board exercising its fiduciary duties in this context,” Heminway says, referring to reporting responsibilities. “The main issues here are going to be duty of care issues,” a requirement that directors fully inform themselves of all material information, she notes.
“The amount of information available now is overwhelming, and it’s changing every day. The Defense Production Act is a piece of that,” says Heminway. “It’s part of what they need to be informed about.
The article covers a lot of ground overall and quotes from a number of sources, including former and current government employees.
I admit that I have been impressed by the level of interest and engagement of the journalists with whom I have been speaking. What they and others like them are producing and publishing fueled my teaching during March and April (I assigned a number of articles to my students relating to COVID-19 and corporate governance) and is likely to continue to catalyze blog posts and, potentially, research projects as time goes on. It is good to know that corporate governance questions are motivating useful media inquiries and publications during the COVID-19 crisis. It also is nice to know that we law professors may be able to use our knowledge to help inform important constituencies during the pendency of the pandemic while, at the same time, expanding our own horizons. A true win-win.
Wednesday, April 29, 2020
This has been quite a first year as a dean. Heck, it's been quite a year for all of us.
I woke up (very) early this morning, and it struck me that I hadn't been in contact with our students since Friday, which was our last day of classes. I don't want to be a distraction to their studies, but I also realized the midway through the first week, they might need a reminder of what they have accomplished in the face of unique and unprecedented challenges. Following is the note I sent our students, which I share for all of us who might need a reminder of what we're accomplishing. It is addressed to our Creighton Law students, but it's for all law students. Hang in there.
It’s the middle of the first week of what has to be the strangest finals we have ever experienced. This is always a time of hard work, long days, and high stress, but never before have we had to be so separate while going through it. We can’t experience study group or lunch breaks with friends, or play basketball or soccer in a group to blow off steam. In addition, there are health concerns for ourselves and loved ones, and many of us have kids at home, in wide ranges of ages who may need help with homework or just to be watched because the daycares are closed.
Despite all of this, you have shown up. You have worked, and you have learned. You are a remarkable group of people, and I am so proud of all you have accomplished. I know there is more to do, and I know this has not been easy. And there will continue to be bumps in the road, so I need you to know you can do this. Not just exams. Not just law school. All of it. You can do life, and you can be exceptional at what you do.
This is true even if you’re struggling right now. It’s not what happens in the next couple of days that will define you. It will be how you respond on the other side of this that matters, and from what I have seen, you are up to the task. And know you will have your Creighton Law community by your side, or at you back, when you need it.
I know you have a lot left to do, so I won’t take up more of your time. Please just know that even though we’re not in the law school, we’re still here for you. Keep at it, and know you’re not alone.
Sunday, April 26, 2020
In his Wednesday post (here), co-blogger Stefan J. Padfield highlighted a recent development in the arbitration area that I also want to bring to readers’ attention. I’m sure that all BLPB readers are a party to an arbitration agreement as these provisions have become so widespread in consumer adhesion contracts. The New York Times recently ran a fascinating article by Michael Corkery and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, ‘Scared to Death’ by Arbitration: Companies Drowning in their Own System. It details an innovative development in which entrepreneurial lawyers “are leaders in testing a new weapon in arbitration: sheer volume,” which is something the current arbitration system can’t handle.
Arbitration provisions in consumer adhesion contracts generally bar class-action lawsuits and might also bar class-wide arbitration. And it often makes little economic sense for an individual to take a large corporation to arbitration. Not surprisingly, many don’t. Corkery and Silver-Greenberg note that “Over the past few years, the nation’s largest telecom companies, like Comcast and AT&T, have had a combined 330 million customers. Yet annually an average of just 30 people took the companies to arbitration…” Now entrepreneurial lawyers such as Teel Lidow, who runs FairShake, and Travis Lenkner at Chicago law firm Keller Lenkner have entered the picture and are shaking up the consumer arbitration area with mass arbitration filings. It’s going to be a really interesting development to watch. It’s also a great reminder to all of the power of entrepreneurial thinking: “ 'The conventional wisdom might say that arbitration is a bad development for plaintiffs and an automatic win for the companies,’ he said. ‘We don’t see it that way.’ ” (Lenkner, as quoted by Corkery and Silver-Greenberg)
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
The National Center for Public Policy Research has posted an open letter to Blackrock CEO Larry Fink that should be of interest to readers of this blog. I provide some excerpts below. The full letter can be found here.
Dear Mr. Fink,
This economic crisis makes it more important than ever that companies like BlackRock focus on helping our nation’s economy recover. BlackRock and others must not add additional hurdles to recovery by supporting unnecessary and harmful environmental, social, and governance (ESG) shareholder proposals.
…. we are especially concerned that your support for some ESG shareholder proposals and investor initiatives brings political interests into decisions that should be guided by shareholder interests…. when a company’s values become politicized, the interests of the diverse group of shareholders and customers are overshadowed by the narrow interests of activist groups pushing a political agenda.
…. ESG proposals will add an extra-regulatory cost .... This may harm everyday Americans who are invested in these companies through pension funds and retirement plans. While this won’t affect folks in your income bracket, this may be the difference between affording medication, being able to retire, or supporting a family member’s education for many Americans.
There is a financial risk to this tack as well. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “[p]erformance of BlackRock’s own iShares range of ESG funds shows that ESG is no guarantee of gold-plated returns. Its two oldest in the U.S., set up in 2005 and 2006 and now tracking the MSCI USA ESG Select index and the MSCI KLD 400 Social index, have both lagged behind iShares’ S&P 500 fund.”
And while publicly traded companies operate under a legal fiduciary duty to their investors, this is also a moral imperative. Free market capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any economic system in world history. That’s because, at its simplest level, capitalism operates under the basic rule that all exchanges are voluntary. Therefore, to achieve wealth and create growth in a capitalist system, one must appeal to the self-interest of others….
Monday, April 6, 2020
In my post last week, I mentioned the President's invocation of the Defense Production Act during the current COVID-19 crisis. I was immediately curious about this law when news of the President's March 27 memorandum focused on General Motors and ventilator production hit my radar screen (a/k/a, my laptop, which has effectively become my lap these days). Surely, it must be unusual for the U.S. government, I thought, to direct the nature, means, and timing of production and supply. That seems antithetical to the spirit, if not the letter, of U.S. capitalism. However, the more I read, the less curious and concerned I am, at least for the moment. Perhaps some of the reporting in this area is more geared to generating a splashy news item than, well, alerting us to something truly unusual or troubling. Nevertheless, I will make a few foundational points on the Act here. I may have more to say later.
The Defense Production Act of 1950 can be found in Chapter 55 of Title 50 of the U.S. Code. The Act recognizes that "the security of the United States is dependent on the ability of the domestic industrial base to supply materials and services for the national defense and to prepare for and respond to military conflicts, natural or man-caused disasters, or acts of terrorism within the United States." 50 U.S.C. § 4502(a)(1). To meet these and other requirements, the Defense Production Act "provides the President with an array of authorities to shape national defense preparedness programs and to take appropriate steps to maintain and enhance the domestic industrial base." Id. at § 4502(a)(4).
The President's highly publicized General Motors memorandum referenced above is only one of a number of formalized presidential actions citing to or using the Defense Production Act in the war against COVID-19. That memorandum directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to "use any and all authority available under the Act to require General Motors Company to accept, perform, and prioritize contracts or orders for the number of ventilators that the Secretary determines to be appropriate." The General Motors memorandum follows on a March 16 executive order delegating specified presidential powers under Section 101 of the Act to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. An April 2 memorandum directs the Secretary of Homeland Security "through the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Administrator), . . . [to] use any and all authority available under the Act to acquire, from any appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of 3M Company, the number of N-95 respirators that the Administrator determines to be appropriate." A second April 2 memorandum directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services, "in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, . . . [to] use any and all authority available under the Act to facilitate the supply of materials to the appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of the following entities for the production of ventilators: General Electric Company; Hill-Rom Holdings, Inc.; Medtronic Public Limited Company; ResMed Inc.; Royal Philips N.V.; and Vyaire Medical, Inc." Finally, an April 3 memorandum directs the Secretary of Homeland Security "through the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, . . . [to] use any and all authority available under section 101 of the Act to allocate to domestic use, as appropriate, . . . [specified] scarce or threatened materials designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services . . . ." The President also issued a related statement on April 3 that decries "wartime profiteering."
Although the use of the Defense Production Act in directing production during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis may be novel in its nature or scale, Fortune reports that the Act is used "routinely" to prioritize contracts relating to military procurements and in response to natural disasters. Other past uses also are mentioned in that Fortune article. None of the President's actions to date invoking the Act as to production by specific firms is in the form of an executive order. However, the President is afforded many powers under the Act, see 50 U.S.C. § 4554(a) (providing in relevant part that "the President may prescribe such regulations and issue such orders as the President may determine to be appropriate"), although they are subject to certain limitations (including, e.g., broad-based restrictions relating to "wage or price controls" and "chemical or biological weapons" under 50 U.S.C. § 4514).
Even without the issuance of enforceable presidential orders, however, those charged with manufacturing under the various presidential memoranda are (and in some cases, prior to presidential action, were) scrambling to make up for lost time. A report published over the weekend in The Washington Post describes the status of some of their efforts. CNBC's similar report is here. Time weighed in a few days earlier with its story. Finally, an earlier report from The New York Times offers historic details relevant at that time. Private industry has been stepping up in so many ways during the pandemic. With all the hullabaloo around the Defense Production Act, we all should know about and be proud of that.
As for the actual COVID-19 business operational effects of the powers afforded to the President under the Defense Production Act, they remain to be seen. My interest has been whetted, however, and I will be paying attention to future invocations of the Act not only in the COVID-19 crisis, but also in other contexts. My perception is that it is one of the lesser-known laws that can impact business in a significant ways if the full force of its provisions is employed. It is legislation--even 70 years out--that all of us business lawyers and law professors should be aware of.
Monday, March 30, 2020
COVID-19's effects on financings and M&A, as well as contracts more generally (as covered here, here, and here among many other places), the rapid adoption of the Coronavirus Act, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a/k/a the “CARES Act” (key terms summarized briefly here and elsewhere), and the President's invocation of the Defense Production Act have me feeling like I am drinking business law water out of a fire hose this past week. Anyone else feeling that way? Whew!
I am still sorting through it all. I am sure that I will have more to say on some of this as time passes. However, earlier today, in the process of reading online resources and watching and listening to others talk about the many legal aspects of the current pandemic, I came across this YouTube video, done by one of my former students, a local attorney who works with entrepreneurs, start-ups, and small businesses.
I have not fact-checked this video. And he jumps in to correct himself. But what I like about it is that it represents unvarnished, even humorous, boots-on-the-ground legal public service. He does not want businesses in the local community to miss out or waste time/money shooting in the dark--or in the wrong direction.
Sometimes, our students do great things after they leave the hallowed halls of law school. Many times, those good deeds go unrecognized. Haseeb has always been passionate. It makes me so happy to see him using his passion to help the local business community. I want to offer a "shout out" to him here. (And his dog, Simon, is the cutest! ♥)
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Like so many law schools, we're navigating our way to online and other remote teaching and learning in a rapid and unexpected way. We started classes yesterday, and it's gone fairly well. Our faculty has worked hard, and our students have been incredibly resilient in the face this adversity we all, unfortunately, share. It does, though, impact people in many different ways.
Some people face additional health risks, financial challenges, childcare problems, technology limitations, learning disabilities, and more, and I have been so impressed with the strength and composure I have seen in our community. I suspect it's that way a lot of places, and I hope so, but it has been remarkable to see.
The Harvard Business Review posted a piece yesterday that framed this whole COVID-19 experience in a way I had not considered. The piece is titled, That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief. I would not have framed it the way, but I think it's an important perspective. The whole piece is worth a read, but here are some important points worth considering:
Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be. You can name five things in the room. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. . . . .
You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.
Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. A coworker got very snippy with me the other day and I thought, That’s not like this person; that’s how they’re dealing with this. I’m seeing their fear and anxiety. So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.
This all makes sense to me, and it is a helpful way to think about things when everything feels a little off. And right now, that seems to be often. Another thing I have tried to do is find some routine and ways to share with one another. We have been having family dinners and family movie night most nights. And we have been reconnecting with friends around the country via phone calls, but more often on Zoom. Sharing some time with friends works remarkably well, at least now that we lack other options interaction.
In the interest of sharing, here are a few recommendations. As to movies and music, if periodic coarse language, drug references, etc., are not for you, my recommendations may not be for you. So in closing, I will share some (mostly new) songs you may not have heard (and I think you should). Be safe, be well, and be good to each other.
1. I think I'm OKAY, Machine Gun Kelly, et al., -- seems about right.
2. how will i rest in peace if i'm buried by a highway?, KennyHoopla (for old guys like me, there's a modern edge with an old techno, maybe New Order, feel)
3. Hit the back, King Princess (sultry, smooth, with a 70s dance vibe, not too sappy).
4. Celoso, Lele Pons (chill Latin dance that's upbeat yet goes well with a cocktail)
5. Don't You (Forget About Me), beabadoobee (Okay, you've probably heard this one, but not this version. Like I said, I'm Gen X).
Wednesday, March 4, 2020
Last year, in a post about personal finance, I mentioned my friend Joey Elaskr, who is completing a PHD/MD program at Vanderbilt University. In late 2019, Joey qualified for the Olympic Trials at the Monumental Marathon in an impressive 2:18:57 (5:18 per mile for 26.2 miles). On February 29th this year, just a couple weeks after successfully defending his dissertation, he competed in the Olympic Trials in Atlanta. You can read a bit about Joey's running on Lets Run and on Money & Megabytes. While the tie to "business law" is admittedly stretched, I do think our readers can learn a good bit about juggling demanding responsibilities from Joey, and I am glad he agreed to answer a few questions below the break.
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!