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)
Friday, August 20, 2021
Testing Our Intuitions About Insider Trading - Part II
As Congress and the SEC continue to contemplate reforms to the U.S. insider-trading enforcement regime, I suggested in my last post that 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?” To this end, I have 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 last post, I offered a scenario that would result in liability under a parity-of-information regime, but not under the other three. Those of you who were not convinced that the trading in that scenario was wrongful may favor one of the less restrictive models.
In this post, I offer the following scenario to test our attitudes regarding trading under an equal-access model. An equal-access regime precludes trading by those who have acquired information advantages by virtue of their privileged access to sources that are structurally closed to other market participants (regardless of whether such trading violates a duty of trust and confidence). An equal access model is narrower in scope than the parity-of-information model, but broader than the laissez-faire and fiduciary-fraud models. Consider these facts:
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 (another publicly traded company). The shares of both BIG Corp and XYZ Corp will skyrocket when the deal is announced to the public in seven days. The senior VP asks the CEO and board of Big Corp if, instead of receiving the usual cash bonus that would be his due for leading such a deal, he can purchase shares of XYZ Corp for his personal account in advance of the announcement. The CEO and board approve the VP’s trading—deciding that the BIG Corp shareholders will save money from this arrangement. The VP buys XYZ Corp shares in advance of the announcement and he makes huge profits when the deal is announced.
Was the senior VP’s trading wrong or harmful? If you do not think the senior VP or Big Corp has done anything wrong or harmful in this scenario, then you will probably not favor the equal-access model for insider trading regulation—which would render this conduct illegal. You will likely favor some version of the less restrictive laissez-faire or fiduciary-fraud model instead. My next post will offer a scenario to test our intuitions about the fiduciary-fraud model (the third most restrictive regime).
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. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
August 20, 2021 in Business Associations, Ethics, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Philosophy, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 6, 2021
Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (Bloomington) Hiring
Indiana University has a top-notch Business Law and Ethics department in their business school. I know a number of their professors and they would be fabulous colleagues.
The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington seeks applications for a tenured/tenure-track position or positions in the Department of Business Law and Ethics, effective fall 2022. The candidate(s) selected will join a well-established department of 28 full- time faculty members who teach a variety of courses on legal topics, business ethics, and critical thinking at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It is anticipated that the position(s) will be at the assistant professor rank, though appointment at a higher rank could occur if a selected candidate’s record so warrants.
To be qualified, a candidate must have a J.D. degree with an excellent academic record and must demonstrate the potential for outstanding teaching and excellent scholarship in law and/or ethics, as well as the ability to contribute positively to a multicultural campus. Qualified applicants with expertise in any area of law and/or ethics will be considered, and we welcome candidates with teaching interests across a broad range of legal and ethical issues in business, as well as research methods or perspectives, that would contribute to the diversity of our department and help usadvance the Kelley School’s equity and inclusion initiatives and programs.
Candidates with appropriate subject-matter expertise and interest would have the opportunity to be involved on the leading edge of a developing interdisciplinary collaboration between the Kelley School of Business and the Kinsey Institute, the premier research institute on human sexuality and relationships and a trusted source for evidence-based information on critical issues in sexuality, gender, and reproduction. Such expertise, however, is not required to be qualified and considered for the position or positions.
Interested candidates should review the application requirements and submit their application materials at https://indiana.peopleadmin.com/postings/11252. Candidates may direct questions to: Professor Josh Perry, Department Chair (email@example.com), or Professor Tim Fort, Search Committee Chair (firstname.lastname@example.org), both at Department of Business Law and Ethics, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University, 1309 E. 10th Street, Bloomington, IN 47405.
Application materials received by September 15, 2021 will be assured of consideration. However, the search will continue until the position(s) is/are filled.
Indiana University is an equal employment and affirmative action employer and a provider of ADA services. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to age, ethnicity, color, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status, national origin, disability status or protected veteran status.
August 6, 2021 in Business Associations, Business School, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Jobs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Testing Our Intuitions About Insider Trading - Part I
In January of 2020, The Bharara Task Force on Insider Trading released its report recommending that Congress adopt sweeping reforms of our insider trading enforcement regime. And it appears there is at least some momentum building to act on this recommendation. In April of 2021, the House of Representatives passed the Promoting Transparent Standards for Corporate Insiders Act, and in May of 2021, the House passed the Insider Trading Prohibition Act. I have expressed some concerns about these bills (see, e.g., here and here). But, as I argue in my book, Insider Trading: Law, Ethics, and Reform, I am in complete agreement with the claim that our current insider trading regime is broken and needs to be reformed.
We should not, however, rush to adopt a new insider trading regime without first thoughtfully considering what constitutes insider trading; why it is wrong; who is harmed by it; and the nature and extent of the harm. The answers to these questions have been subject to endless academic debate, but are crucial for determining whether insider trading should be regulated civilly and/or criminally (or not at all), as well as for determining the nature and magnitude of any sanctions to be imposed.
Historically, insider trading regimes around the globe can be grouped (roughly) into four categories (listed from the least to most restrictive): (a) laissez-faire regimes, which permit all trading on information asymmetries, so long as there is no affirmative fraud (actual misrepresentations or concealment); (b) fiduciary-fraud regimes, which recognize a duty to disclose or abstain from trading, but only for those who share a recognized duty of trust and confidence (with either the counterparty to the trade, or with the source of the information, or both); (c) equal-access regimes, which preclude trading by those who have acquired information advantages by virtue of their privileged access to sources that are structurally closed to other market participants (regardless of whether such trading violates a duty of trust and confidence); and (d) parity-of-information regimes, which strive to prohibit all trading on material nonpublic information (regardless of the source).
The following scenario illustrates conduct that would expose the trader to liability under a parity-of-information regime, but not under an equal access, fiduciary-fraud, or laissez-faire regime. As you read through the fact pattern, ask yourself: (1) Is this trading wrong? (2) Who (if anyone) is harmed by it? (3) What is the nature and extent of the harm? (4) Should this trading be regulated (civilly or criminally)? (Please share any answers/thoughts in the comments below!):
A high-school janitor is traveling home from work late at night on a public bus. She looks down and sees a trampled piece of paper. She picks up the paper and reads it. It appears to be someone’s notes from a meeting—though there is nothing to identify the paper’s owner/author. The paper reads as follows:
Meet at HQ of XYZ Corp at 3PM on Jan. 3 to finalize the merger with BIG Corp. Merger to be announced to public on Jan 10. Note: the announcement of merger will send shares of XYZ through the roof, so everyone must maintain strict confidentiality.
The janitor looks up and sees the bus is totally empty. There is no chance of finding the person who dropped the paper. It is January 4. The janitor opens an online brokerage account when she gets home and buys as many shares of XYZ Corp as she can afford. She makes huge profits when the merger is announced on January 10.
If you do not think the janitor has done anything wrong or harmful in this scenario, then you will probably not favor the parity-of-information model for insider trading regulation—which would render this conduct illegal. You will likely favor some version of one of the other insider-trading models instead. My next post will offer a scenario to test our intuitions about the equal-access model (the second-most restrictive regime).
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 answer to this question) the nature and extent to which it should be regulated.
August 6, 2021 in Ethics, Financial Markets, John Anderson, M&A, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (2)
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)
Monday, July 19, 2021
Since the Pandemic is Still with Us . . .
. . . I figure it is still OK to publish a link to the SSRN posting of my co-authored article from the 2020 Business Law Prof Blog symposium, Connecting the Threads. Published earlier in the spring, this piece, entitled Business Law and Lawyering in the Wake of COVID-19, was written with two of my students: Anne Crisp (who will start her 3L year in about a month) and Gray Martin (who graduated in May and will take the bar exam next week). My March 30, 2021 post on business interruption insurance came from this article. The SSRN abstract is included below.
The public arrival of COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus 2019) in the United States in early 2020 brought with it many social, political, and economic dislocations and pressures. These changes and stresses included and fostered adjustments in business law and the work of business lawyers. This article draws attention to these COVID-19 transformations as a socio-legal reflection on business lawyering, the provision of legal services in business settings, and professional responsibility in business law practice. While business law practitioners, like other lawyers, may have been ill-prepared for pandemic lawyering, we have seen them rise to the occasion to provide valuable services, gain and refresh knowledge and skills, and evolve their business operations. These changes have brought with them various professional responsibility and ethical challenges, all of which are ongoing at the time this is being written.
No doubt both the changes to business lawyering and the lessons learned from the many substantive, practical, and ethical challenges that have arisen in the wake of COVID-19 will survive the pandemic in some form. This offers some comfort. While the thought of another systemic global crisis is unappealing at best, what we have experienced and learned will no doubt be useful in maneuvering and surviving through whatever the future may bring.
This article came to be because I agreed to take on additional research assistants after summer jobs were scuttled for many students in the spring of 2020. I shared the germ of an idea with Anne and Gray. They took that idea and ran with it, adding important new concepts and support. The writing collaboration naturally followed. They co-presented the article with me at the symposium back in October. Working with them throughout was so joyful and fun--a true pandemic silver lining.
July 19, 2021 in Contracts, Corporate Governance, Current Affairs, Ethics, Joan Heminway, Law Firms, Lawyering | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, July 6, 2021
Social Enterprise Centers
In 2008, my university (Belmont University) was supposedly the first to offer a social entrepreneurship major. Since then, not only have the schools offering majors in social entrepreneurships grown, but many schools have created centers, institutes, or programs dedicated to the area. Below I try to gather these social enterprise centers in universities. The vast majority are in business schools, some are collaborative across campus, and a few are located in other schools such as law, social work, or design. A few have a specifically religious take on business and social good. Happy to update this list with any centers I missed.
Lewis Institute at Babson https://www.babson.edu/academics/centers-and-institutes/the-lewis-institute/about/#
Christian Collective for Social Innovation at Baylor https://www.baylor.edu/externalaffairs/compassion/index.php?id=976437
Center for Social Innovation at Boston College https://www.bc.edu/content/bc-web/schools/ssw/sites/center-for-social-innovation/about.html
Watt Family Innovation Center at Clemson https://www.clemson.edu/centers-institutes/watt/
Center for the Integration of Faith and Work at Dayton https://udayton.edu/business/experiential_learning/centers/cifw/index.php
CASE i3 at Duke https://sites.duke.edu/casei3/
Social Innovation Collaboratory at Fordham https://www.fordham.edu/info/23746/social_innovation_collaboratory
Social Enterprise & Nonprofit Clinic at Georgetown https://www.law.georgetown.edu/experiential-learning/clinics/social-enterprise-and-nonprofit-clinic/
and Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown https://beeckcenter.georgetown.edu
Global Social Entrepreneurship Institute at Indiana https://kelley.iu.edu/faculty-research/centers-institutes/international-business/programs-initiatives/global-social-entrepreneurship-institute.html
Business + Impact at Michigan https://businessimpact.umich.edu
Social Enterprise Institute at Northeastern https://www.northeastern.edu/sei/
Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business at Notre Dame https://cerv-mendoza.nd.edu
Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford https://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/research/centres-and-initiatives/skoll-centre-social-entrepreneurship
Wharton Social Impact Iniviative at Penn https://socialimpact.wharton.upenn.edu/
and Center for Social Impact Strategy at Penn https://csis.upenn.edu
Faith and Work Initiative at Princeton https://faithandwork.princeton.edu/about-us
Center for Faithful Business at Seattle Pacific https://cfb.spu.edu
Center for Social Innovation at Stanford https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/centers-initiatives/csi
Social Innovation Initiative at Texas https://www.mccombs.utexas.edu/Centers/Social-Innovation-Initiative
Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane https://taylor.tulane.edu/about/
Social Innovation Cube at UNC https://campusy.unc.edu/cube/
Social Innovation at the Wond’ry at Vanderbilt https://www.vanderbilt.edu/thewondry/programs/social-innovation/
Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest: https://leadershipandcharacter.wfu.edu/#
Program on Social Enterprise at Yale https://som.yale.edu/faculty-research/our-centers/program-social-enterprise/programs
July 6, 2021 in Business School, CSR, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Law School, Religion, Social Enterprise, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Recently, I finished two similar books on problems with extreme meritocracy in the United States: The Tyranny of Merit by Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel and The Meritocracy Trap by Yale law professor Daniel Markovits. Law schools and entry level legal jobs tend to be intensely meritocratic. The more competitive entry level legal jobs rely very heavily on school rank and student class rank. Once in a private firm, billable hours seem to be the main metric for bonuses and making partner.
Sandel describes at least three problems with meritocracy: (1) people are not competing on an even playing field in the US "meritocracy" (e.g., children of top 1% in income are 77x more likely to attend an Ivy League school than children of bottom 20%); (2) even if there were an even playing field, natural talents that fit community preferences would lead to wild inequality in a pure meritocracy and those natural advantages are not “earned,” (3) a strict meritocracy leads to excessive hubris among the “winners” and shame among the “losers” who believe they deserve their place in society.
Markovits hits a lot of the same notes, but pays more attention to how the elite “exploit themselves” trying to keep themselves and their children in the shrinking upper class. While the $50,000/year competitive preschools Markovits describes are mostly limited to NYC and Silicon Valley now, the expenditures on the education and extracurriculars of children of the wealthy seems to be increasing exponentially everywhere. He also notes the lengthening work hours for the “elite” and the increasing percentage of wealth tied to labor. For example, Markovits points out that the ABA assumed that lawyers would bill 1300 hours a year in 1962 (and 1400 in 1977). As legal readers know, many firms now require 2000+ billable hours a year (which means working 2500+ hours in most cases).
Both Sandel and Markovits do a thorough job explaining the problems of meritocracy, but are fairly brief on proposed solutions. Sandel thinks meritocracy could be made more fair through elite schools eliminating SAT/ACT requirements (that tend to track family income), engaging in more aggressive class-based affirmative action, and using a lottery to admit baseline qualified students. He thinks the last suggestion would reduce the hubris of those admitted to elite schools, and acknowledge an element of luck in their selection. Sandel also suggests more government expenditures on training and retraining programs, as most economically advanced countries spend a much higher percentage of GDP on these programs (0.1% vs. 0.5% to 1.0%). He also suggests using the tax system to reward “productive labor” by, for example, “lower[ing] or even eliminat[ing] payroll taxes and rais[ing] revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions.” (218).
Markovits proposes that private schools should lose their tax-exempt status if at least half of their students do not come from the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. Markovits also suggests promoting more mid-skill production; by, for example, reducing regulation to allow more work to be done by nurse practitioners (rather than doctors) and legal technicians (rather than lawyers.) He suggests uncapping payroll tax (so that the wealthy pay more of their share), introducing wage subsidies for middle class jobs, and raising the minimum wage.
As Ivy League professors, I think they overestimate the role of their schools in shaping the rest of the country, though they may be right about their influence among certain segments of the wealthy. And while their solutions are rather thin, I think they raise issues with meritocracy worth addressing. As Henri Nouwen acknowledged more than 50 years ago in his book Reaching Out, “people are in growing degree exposed to the contagious disease of loneliness in a world in which a competitive individualism [ a/k/a "meritocracy"] tries to reconcile itself with a culture that speaks about togetherness, unity, and community as the ideals to strive for.”
June 8, 2021 in Books, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Law School, Lawyering, Management | 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)
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)
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Gonzaga Law - VAP Opening: Center for Law, Ethics, and Commerce
This comes to us from friend-of-the-BLPB, Agnieszka McPeak:
Gonzaga Law is seeking a visiting assistant professor (VAP) for its Center for Law, Ethics, and Commerce, a centerpiece of Gonzaga Law School’s identity and mission. Persons with strong academic records, a dedicated commitment to teaching, and the potential for outstanding scholarship are encouraged to apply. The position is a full-time, 9-month, visiting position beginning in August 2021, with the potential to renew for one (but no more than one) additional year (contingent upon funding). The fellow may be permitted to work entirely remotely.
The successful candidate will teach up to three courses in the academic year in areas related to the Center and its mission, including at least one upper-level Business Law elective. Experiential and clinical teaching are also optional. The candidate will work closely with the Director of the Center for Law, Ethics, and Commerce to plan and participate in activities related to the Center’s goals and mission. In addition, the VAP will be invited to participate in faculty workshops and will be offered a budget for scholarship and travel. More information here: https://gonzaga.peopleadmin.com/postings/15150
I know Agnieszka (who directs the Center for Law, Ethics, and Commerce) is excited to hire for this position, which is likely to be attractive to aspiring law professors who may have a business/innovation interest and expertise. Please send folks her way!
February 28, 2021 in Ethics, Joan Heminway, Jobs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 4, 2020
Did A Child Slave Help Make Your Chocolate Bar and If So, Who Should Be Responsible? The Supreme Court and Nestle v. Doe
If you’re sipping some hot chocolate while reading this post or buying your Hanukah or Christmas candy, chances are you’re consuming a product made with cocoa beans harvested by child slaves in Africa. Almost twenty years ago, the eight largest chocolate companies, a US Senator, a Congressman, the Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, NGOs, and the ILO pledged through the Harkin Engel Protocol to eliminate “the worst forms of” child slavery and forced labor in supply chains. In 2010, after seeing almost no progress, government representatives fom the US, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast released a Framework of Action to support the implementation and to reduce the use of child and forced labor by 70% by 2020. But, the number of child slaves has actually increased.
2020 has come and almost gone and one of the Harkin Engel signatories, Nestle, and another food conglomerate, Cargill, had to defend themselves in front of the Supreme Court this week in a case filed in 2005 by former child slaves. The John Does were allegedly kidnapped in Mali and forced to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, where they worked 12-14 hours a day in 100-degree weather, spoke a different language from the farmers, lived off dirty water and bowls of rice, and were never paid. According to counsel for the Respondents who gave a debrief earlier this week, the children were locked up at night, told to work or starve, whipped, and when one tried to escape, his feet were slashed and then hot chilis were rubbed into his soles. Respondents sued under the Alien Tort Statute, which Congress passed in 1789 to allow foreign citizens to sue in US federal courts for violations of “the law of nations” to avoid international tensions. In two recent cases, the Court has limited the use of the ATS against foreign corporations sued for acts against foreign plaintiffs because of jurisdictional grounds and ruled that foreign corporations were not subject to the ATS. But the Nestle and Cargill case is different. Respondents sued a US company and the US arm of a Swiss company. (Click here for access to the briefs and here to listen to the oral argument.) For an excellent symposium on the issues see here.
Respondents claim that the companies provided money and resources to the farmers in Africa and knew that child slaves harvested their cocoa. The two questions before the Court were:
- May an aiding and abetting claim against a domestic corporation brought under the Alien Tort Statute overcome the extraterritoriality bar where the claim is based on allegations of general corporate activity in the United States and where the Respondents cannot trace the alleged harms, which occurred abroad at the hands of unidentified foreign actors, to that activity?
- Does the judiciary have the authority under the Alien Tort Statute to impose liability on domestic corporations?
To those who obsess about business and human rights and ESG issues like I do, this case has huge potential implications. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written more than half a dozen posts, law review articles, and an amicus brief on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals disclosures, which purport to inform consumers about the use of forced labor and child slaves in the harvesting of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. I’ve been skeptical of those disclosure rules that don’t have real penalties. The Nestle case could change all of that by crafting a cognizable cause of action.
To my surprise, the Justices weren’t completely hostile to the thought of corporate liability under the ATS. Here are some of the more telling questions to the counsel for the companies:
Justice Alito: Mr. Katyal, many of your arguments lead to results that are pretty hard to take. So suppose a U.S. corporation makes a big show of supporting every cause de jure but then surreptitiously hires agents in Africa to kidnap children and keep them in bondage on a plantation so that the corporation can buy cocoa or coffee or some other agricultural product at bargain prices. You would say that the victims who couldn't possibly get any recovery in the courts of the country where they had been held should be thrown out of court in the United States, where this corporation is headquartered and does business?
Justice Breyer: …I don't see why exempt all corporations, including domestic corporations, from this -- the scope of the statute.
Justice Kagan: If you could bring a suit against 10 slaveholders, when those 10 slaveholders form a corporation, why can’t you bring a suit against the corporation?
Justice Kavanaugh: The Alien Tort Statute was once an engine of international human rights protection. Your position, however, would allow suits by aliens only against individuals, as you've said, and only for torts international law recognized that occurred in the United States. And Professor Koh's amicus brief on behalf of former government officials, for example, says that your position would "gut the statute." So why should we do that?
Here are some of the more interesting questions to the government, which supports the companies’ positions against application of the ATS to corporations:
Chief Justice Roberts: We don't have objections from foreign countries in this case. As far as we can tell, they're perfectly comfortable having U.S. citizens, U.S. corporations hailed into their U -- in U.S. courts. What should we make of that, and doesn't that suggest we ought to be a little more -- a little less cautious about finding a cause of action here?
Justice Breyer: …what’s new about suing corporations? When I looked it up once, there were 180 ATS lawsuits against corporations. Most of them lost but on other grounds. So why not sue a domestic corporation? You can't sue the individual because, in my hypothetical, the individuals have all moved to Lithuania. All you have is the corporate assets in the bank and minutes that prove it was a corporate decision. What's new about it? Why is it creating a form of action?
Justice Alito: Won't your arguments about aiding and abetting and extraterritoriality all lead to essentially the same result as holding that a domestic corporation cannot be sued under the ATS? Corporations always act through natural persons, so if a corporation can't aid and abet, there -- there will be only a sliver of activity where they could be responsible under respondeat superior, isn't that true?
Justice Amy Coney Barrett: You say that the focus of the tort should be the primary conduct, so, here, what was happening in Cote d'Ivoire, rather than the aiding and abetting, which you characterize as secondary. But why should that be so? I mean, let's imagine you have a U.S. corporation or even a U.S. individual that is making plans to facilitate the use of child slaves, you know, making phone calls, sending money specifically for that purpose, writing e-mails to that effect.Why isn't that conduct that occurs in the United States something that touches and concerns, you know, or should be the focus of conduct, however you want to state the test?
Finally, here are some of the tough questions posed to counsel for the Respondents:
Justice Thomas: The TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] seems to suggest that Congress does not see the ATS the way you do. Obviously, there, you don't have corporate liability and you don't have aiding and abetting liability. So why shouldn't we take that as an indication that Congress sought limitations on -- on the ATS jurisdiction?
Justice Breyer: Assume that there is corporate liability for domestic corporations. Assume that there is aiding and abetting liability. Now what counts as aiding and abetting for purposes of this statute? When I read through your complaint, it seemed to me that all or virtually all of your complaint amount to doing business with these people.They help pay for the farm. And that's about it.And they knowingly do it. Well, unfortunately, child labor, it's terrible, but it exists throughout the world in many, many places. And if we take this as the norm, particularly when Congress is now working in the area, that will mean throughout the world this is the norm. And I don't know, but I have concern that treating this allegation, the six that you make here, as aiding and abetting falling within that term for purposes of this statute, if other nations do the same, and we do the same, could have very, very significant effects. I'm just saying I'm worried about that.
Justice Alito: So, after 15 years, is it too much to ask that you allege specifically that the -- the defendants involved -- the defendants who are before us here specifically knew that forced child labor was being used on the farms or farm cooperatives with which they did business? Is that too much to ask?
To be fair, Nestle and Cargill have worked to remedy these issues. Nestle’s 2019 Shared Values Report tracks its commitments to individuals and families, communities, and the planet to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Among other things, the report highlights Nestle's work to reduce human rights abuses and links to its December 2019 report on child labor and cocoa farms. The company touts its progress but admits it has a long way to go. Cargill has a separate Cocoa Sustainability Progress Report, which describes its 2012 Cargill Cocoa Promise for capacity building and a more transparent supply chain. But is it enough?
In any event, we won’t know what the Court decides until Spring. In the meantime, despite the best efforts of the companies, almost two million children still work in the cocoa harvesting business and most aren’t kidnapped anymore. They need the work. The local governments have taken notice in part due to the terrible publicity from the media. Allegedly, however, Hershey and Mars are trying to avoid the $400 a ton premium that the West African governments are levying to provide more funding for the farmers. The companies deny these allegations. But there’s now a chocolate war. This means your chocolate may get more expensive, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
How will this all shake out? There’s a chance that the Court could find for the Respondents. More likely, though advocates will focus on convincing Congress to expand the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to include corporations. Some NGOs are already talking about increasing consumer awareness and spurring boycotts. Perhaps, advocates will put pressure on the Biden administration to ban the import on chocolate harvested with child labor, similar to the ban on some products produced by Uighurs in China.I expect that there will be a lot of lobbying at the state and federal level to deal with the larger issue of whether corporations that have some of the rights of natural persons should also have the responsibilities. Boards and companies should get prepared. In the meantime, do you plan to give up chocolate?
December 4, 2020 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Human Rights, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, October 23, 2020
When Wall Street Talks, Does Washington Listen?
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
Sex, Lies, and M&A- Part II
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 email@example.com.
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
Where Were The Gatekeepers Pt 2- Social Media's Social Dilemma
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)
Monday, September 14, 2020
Monday Haiku - Lawyers as Leaders
Lawyers as leaders.
Reputation is sacred.
So, guard it closely.
In my new role as Interim Director of UT Law's Institute for Professional Leadership (IPL, for short), I have made a commitment to sit in on the classes in the Institute's curriculum. One of them, Lawyers as Leaders, is the flagship course--the course that catalyzed the establishment of the IPL. This semester, it is being hosted on Zoom.
In that course this afternoon, the students wrestled with attorney misconduct--and how to punish it. During the first hour of the two-hour session, they spent time in breakout rooms discussing three cases that involved different lapses of professional responsibility rules (and, in some cases, criminal law rules). They were asked to report out/comment on several things about those cases, including the propriety and relative severity of the penalties imposed on the respective transgressor attorneys. During the second hour of class, the students had the opportunity to listen to one of the three offenders tell his story and share what he learned about leadership through his misconduct. They also were invited to ask him questions.
The story that the students heard was the one involved in this case. But they heard about the facts in a way that the Tennessee Supreme Court could not possibly convey them. And they heard about the personal family tragedy that intersected with the case.
The class was a very moving experience for me--even though I have heard the story told before. I can only hope that the learning done by the students was as powerful as the teaching. The haiku that introduces this post only covers the top line; there is so much more richness there that can only be appreciated by hearing the story in person. I found myself wishing that I had been afforded the opportunity to learn about professional responsibility and leadership in a similarly compelling way during my law school career. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this program.
September 14, 2020 in Ethics, Joan Heminway, Lawyering | Permalink | Comments (2)
Saturday, September 5, 2020
Where Were The Gatekeepers Pt 1- Big Pharma and Operation Warp Speed
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)
Monday, August 3, 2020
Drake Hiring Announcements - Technology and Law
Drake University invites applications from entry level and lateral candidates for a tenure-track Assistant/Associate Professor of Law position beginning in the 2021-22 academic year. We are interested in candidates with demonstrated interest or experience in Technology Law. Applicants must hold a J.D. degree (or the equivalent) and should have a record of academic excellence, substantial academic or practice experience, and a passion for teaching. Appointment rank will be determined commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and experience.
In addition to service and scholarship, this position involves teaching courses such as Legal/Ethical Issues in Technology, Technology Law, Privacy Law, and related areas in both the Law School and the College of Arts & Sciences as well as advising law and undergraduate students and serving as a University resource on technology legal issues.
Drake University sustains a vibrant intellectual culture, and Des Moines has been recognized as the Best Place to Live (US News), the Best Place for Young Professionals (Forbes), and as the #1 Best U.S. City for Business (MarketWatch).
Drake University is an equal opportunity employer and actively seeks applicants who reflect the nation’s diversity. No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information or veteran status. Diversity is one of Drake’s core values and applicants need to demonstrate an ability to work with individuals and groups of diverse backgrounds.
Confidential review of applications will begin immediately. Applications (including a letter of interest, a complete CV, teaching evaluations (if available), a diversity statement, and the names and addresses of at least three references) should be sent to Professor Ellen Yee, Chair, Faculty Appointments Committee, Drake University Law School, 2507 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Drake University Law School invites applications from entry level and lateral candidates for a tenure-track or tenured Assistant/Associate/Professor of Law position beginning in the 2021-22 academic year. We are especially interested in candidates with demonstrated interest or experience in Contracts, Sales, Tax, Intellectual Property, and Family Law. Applicants must hold a J.D. degree (or the equivalent) and should have a record of academic excellence, substantial academic or practice experience, and a passion for teaching. Appointment rank will be determined commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and experience.
Drake University Law School sustains a vibrant intellectual culture, and Des Moines has been recognized as the Best Place to Live (US News), the Best Place for Young Professionals (Forbes), and as the #1 Best U.S. City for Business (MarketWatch). The Law School features innovative and nationally recognized programs in agricultural law, constitutional law, legal research and writing, and practical training.
Drake University is an equal opportunity employer and actively seeks applicants who reflect the nation’s diversity. No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information or veteran status. Diversity is one of Drake’s core values and applicants need to demonstrate an ability to work with individuals and groups of diverse socioeconomic, cultural, sexual orientation, disability, and/or ethnic backgrounds.
Confidential review of applications will begin immediately. Applications (including a letter of interest, a complete CV, teaching evaluations (if available), a diversity statement, and the names and addresses of at least three references) should be sent to Professor Ellen Yee, Chair, Faculty Appointments Committee, Drake University Law School, 2507 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311 or e-mail: email@example.com.
August 3, 2020 in Commercial Law, Contracts, Ethics, Intellectual Property, Joan Heminway, Jobs, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Siedel & Ladwig's "Ethical Dilemma: The Burger Murders"
So, I knew about TEDx and TED Talks, but I just learned about TED-Ed today in viewing Professors George Siedel & Christine Ladwig’s “Ethical Dilemma: The Burger Murders” (here). If you’re planning to incorporate an ethics module into your business law courses this year, including their video and accompanying teaching materials could be a great, entertaining addition to your class that I think students would love. Along with their fun, short video, Siedel and Ladwig have provided teaching materials (here) that include multiple choice and open ended questions; a “dig deeper” piece; and, a guided discussion section. They posted only yesterday, and have already had 152,224 views and 744 comments! Check it out! And if you didn’t see my prior post on Siedel’s negotiation materials, check that out too (here)!
July 29, 2020 in Colleen Baker, Ethics, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Ethics of Legal Astuteness and Banking on the Cloud
I wanted to share with BLPB readers that two of my articles that I've mentioned in previous posts (here and here) have now been published. I've posted them to SSRN. Comments welcome!
An abstract for Ethics of Legal Astuteness: Barring Class Actions Through Arbitration Clauses, written with Daniel T. Ostas and published in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal is below, and the article is here.
Recent Supreme Court cases empower firms to effectively bar class
action lawsuits through mandatory arbitration clauses included in
consumer adhesion and employment contracts. This article reviews
these legal changes and argues for economic self-restraint among
both corporate executives and corporate lawyers who advise them.
Arbitration has many virtues as it promises to reduce transaction costs
and to streamline economic exchange. Yet, the ethics of implementing
a legal strategy often requires self-restraint when one is in a position
of power, and always requires respect for due process when issues of
human health, safety, and dignity are in play.
An abstract for Banking on the Cloud, written with David Fratto and Lee Reiners, and published in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law is below, and the article is here.
Cloud computing is fast becoming a ubiquitous part of today’s
economy for both businesses and individuals. Banks and financial
institutions are no exception. While it has many benefits, cloud
computing also has costs and introduces risks. Significant cloud
providers are single points of failure and, as such, are an important
new source of systemic risk in financial markets. Given this reality,
this article argues that such institutions should be considered critical
infrastructures and designated as systemically important financial
market utilities under Dodd-Frank’s Title VIII
July 22, 2020 in Colleen Baker, Ethics, Financial Markets, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)