Friday, August 5, 2022

Do Recent Calls for Censorship Respond to a Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas?

Back in March, I posted about a paper, "Censorship and Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas," that Professor Jeremy Kidd and I presented at a research roundtable on Capitalism and the Rule of Law hosted by the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School. A complete version of that paper is now available here. Here is the abstract:

Use of the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has historically presumed that free and uninhibited competition among ideas will reliably arrive at truth. But even the most fervent economic free-market advocates recognize the possibility of market failure. Market failure is a market characteristic (e.g., monopoly power) that precludes the maximization of consumer welfare.

The last few years have witnessed increased calls for censorship of speech and research pertaining to a variety of subjects (e.g., climate change; COVID-19 sources and treatments; and viewpoints concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation) across a variety of fora. The consistent refrain in favor of this censorship is that the spread of false or misleading information is preventing access to or distorting the truth and thereby inhibiting social progress: undermining democracy, fomenting bigotry, costing lives, and even threating the existence of the planet.

Though on their face these calls for censorship appear anti-liberal and contrary to the marketplace model, they can be made consistent with both if they are understood as a response to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. While recent calls for censorship have not been justified expressly as a response to market failure, reframing the debate in these terms may prevent parties on both sides of the issue from engaging at cross purposes by locating the debate within an otherwise familiar model.

The Article proceeds as follows: Part I offers examples of recent calls for (and efforts at) censorship in the market of ideas concerning a variety of subjects and forums. Part II articulates a model of the marketplace of ideas that jibes with contemporary economic concepts, defines its components (e.g., sellers, buyers, intermediaries, etc.), considers the possibility of associated market failures, and highlights some common fallacies in the application of the concept of market failure more broadly. Part III explores the principal philosophical justifications for the utility of freedom of expression, focusing on the arguments articulated in John Stuart Mill’s classic, On Liberty. Part IV argues that, in light of these arguments (and taking into account contemporary critiques), the threat of false and misleading expression does not reflect market failure in the marketplace of ideas as modeled here. To the contrary, Part V argues that the ease with which recent public and private efforts at censorship have succeeded may itself reflect a market failure warranting correction—if not through legislation or the courts, then by social sanction and the court of public opinion.

August 5, 2022 in Ethics, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Philosophy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 8, 2022

Sam Sturgis on the Wealth Tax

Samuel Sturgis, a 2022 graduate of MC Law, was recenty honored by the Tax Law Section of the Federal Bar Association for his excellent scholarship. Sam received second place in the Donald C. Alexander Tax Law Writing Competition for his paper, "The Wealth Tax--Egalitarian Dream or Utilitarian Nightmare?" A full version of the paper, which Sam is planning to develop for submission to law reviews, is available on the FBA website (here). Sam will enter the Graduate Tax Program at the University of Florida Levin College of Law this fall; they are very lucky to have him! Here is an abstract of his article:

In the Nottingham of literary folklore, the poor starved while the wicked feasted. To survive, ordinary people needed a savior, and they found it in Robin Hood. Taking from the rich feed the poor, the green-clad yeoman emboldened the hopeless and became a hero of the proletariat for centuries to come. Today, the poor face a similar plight—castles and kings have disappeared, but an uncrossable moat seems to be widening between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Ordinary working people need a hero. Instead of Robin Hood, many are beginning to howl for a new solution, one that would turn the tables on the wealthy and give them a taste of their own medicine. Their answer: tax the rich.

The urge is timeless. Landed gentry, titled aristocracy or silicon-valley elite, the rich have always occupied an enviable spot in society. But in a world that has recently ground to a halt under the pandemic, the divide between ordinary and elite has only grown. As interest rates and inflation rise and hard-working Americans watch their industries dwindle, America’s billionaire class is thriving. While Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk battle for the title of world’s richest man, normal Americans seem to inch daily towards a Nottingham reality.

As a result, many businessmen, economists, and policymakers and have come forward with a new solution: tax the assets of the ultra-wealthy. This so-called “wealth tax” would be a form of redistributive justice aimed at closing the wealth gap and putting money where it is most needed: in the hands of hard-working Americans. To do so, it would levy an annual tax on the standing wealth of the financial elite. But is this really a workable solution? At first blush, a tax on standing wealth sounds workable, even desirable. Surely the uber-wealthy can afford to lose a bit of their massive wealth; and think of all the wrongs that could be righted with the revenues such a tax would generate. Utopia, it might seem, is within grasp.

But these claims must be tested. If a wealth tax is to produce tangible good, it must be measured against a tangible standard. While the proponents of a wealth tax laud it as a modern-day Robin Hood, its detractors stand ready to point out that in the long run, the ends might not justify the means. To truly judge a policy as socially disruptive as a wealth tax, discernable standards must be applied to answer a simple question: is a wealth tax good?

This Article attempts to answer that question by applying Utilitarian moral framework to current wealth tax proposals. Armed with a historical understanding of the progressive U.S. tax system and an eye toward cumulative effects, it seeks to determine whether a wealth tax is morally defensible, both as an economic solution and a philosophical ideal.

Ultimately, the answer is clear: a tax on wealth, while attractive in theory, is ultimately not the best solution for a struggling society. A wealth tax might feel good; it might even succeed in sticking it to the rich. But at the end of the day, its costs outweigh its benefits. Its downstream effects, as well as its ideological underpinnings, are less effective and far more sinister than they appear. As the Article will show, enacting any of the current wealth tax proposals would be a bad choice—one with potentially devastating consequences. It would do more harm than good, and could leave the country looking a lot less like Robin Hood than Prince John.

July 8, 2022 in John Anderson, Law and Economics, Philosophy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Guttentag's Response to My Post Concerning His Article on Insider Trading as Wasteful Competition

The following comes to us from Professor Mike Guttentag in response to my recent post on his excellent and thought-provoking new article, Avoiding Wasteful Competition: Why Trading on Inside Information Should be Illegal. This is a worhy discussion I look forward to continuing--and I hope others will engage in the comments below. Now, here is Professor Guttentag's response:

As always, I am honored and impressed by the seriousness and respect with which Professor Anderson approaches my work.  I would, however, take exception to the reasons he offers for rejecting my conclusions.

The debate about insider trading over the past five decades has suffered from limited evidence of either benefits or harms. Those who have objected to a strict insider trading prohibition have reasonably asked: what evidence is there that the harms of insider trading justify a broad prohibition?

In my article I believe I have answered that challenge.  First, I explain why there is a significant mismatch between private gains and social gains when trading on inside information. This mismatch arises both because of how inside information is produced (largely as a byproduct of other activities) and how trading on this information generates profits (at the expense of others). I next show how this mismatch between private gains and social gains (perhaps the defining economic feature of insider trading) leads to an unusual problem: the problem of too much or wasteful competition. This is not just a theoretical concern. I offer concrete estimates of the magnitude of the costs of this wasteful competition problem. One very conservative estimate puts the costs of wasteful competition in United States equity markets in the range of tens of billions of dollars a year. The logic is compelling, and the amounts involved substantial: insider trading is a socially wasteful activity that should be outlawed. 

The time has now come for those who would do less than outlaw all trading when in possession of inside information to provide either equally compelling evidence of the benefits of an alternative regime or an explanation as to why my calculations are flawed. I do not believe that Anderson’s critiques meet either of these challenges.  

I will go through Anderson’s critiques one by one. The first concern Anderson raises is that he believes my argument hinges on the claim that all inside information is produced as a byproduct of other activities. Anderson has read my argument as relying on a stronger claim than I think it needs to rely on. I do not aim to refute the vast body of work by the likes of Henry Manne and many, many others on the various costs and benefits of insider trading. These lists of the potential costs and benefits established over the past decades are largely correct. However, there are two problems with these lists. First, these lists have consistently failed to realize the magnitude and importance of the wasteful competition problem created by insider trading (I have addressed the reasons for this oversight elsewhere, Law and Surplus: Opportunities Missed). Second, once the costs of wasteful competition are included in the calculus the appropriate starting point shifts. Given how significant the wasteful competition problem is, we need more than just a list of plausible but hard-to-quantify costs and benefits to rebut the presumption that all trading when in possession of inside information should be outlawed. That is the extent of my claim.

The second point that Anderson raises in his comments is that he does not think I have carried out an adequate “comparative institutional approach to market failure.” In fact, I think I do a fair job in the article of addressing this question, and show, for example, why private ordering is not an effective alternative to legal intervention as a way to address the wasteful competition problem created by insider trading. Moreover, the correct comparison should be between the cost of our muddled and confused current regime and the simple proposal I offer, a proposal, by the way, that is similar to the insider trading prohibition already in place in Europe (albeit with less enforcement capability in Europe). I do not see what institution Anderson thinks could do a better job addressing the problem I have identified than the federal government. As a side note, if we want to minimize the kind of rent-seeking by government officials that Anderson also mentions, then a bright-line such as the one I propose might well be preferable to the murky waters that now surround the insider trading prohibition.

The third point Anderson raises is that he finds my consideration of internal compliance costs lacking.  My response to this observation is: internal compliance costs as compared to what baseline? The current system is a quagmire, whereas the one I propose would be more straightforward to implement. It seems to me that when it comes to minimizing internal compliance costs my proposal is preferable to the status quo.  But even if I am incorrect about the relative costs of internal compliance under different regulatory regimes the larger point remains: discussions of these kinds of second order, difficult-to-quantify cost simply do not offer enough evidence to justify accepting the costs of wasteful competition that a very conservative estimate puts in the range of tens of billions of dollars a year in only one marketplace.

The fourth point Anderson raises is yet another potential cost of my proposal as compared to the status quo. Anderson correctly points out that my rule may be over-inclusive and prevent some individuals from gathering and trading on information for which social gains are equal to or greater than private gains. This is true. However, again, where is the concrete evidence that these costs of over-inclusivity are anything near the magnitude of the quantifiable costs that result from wasteful competition. The evidence in support of a sweeping prohibition remains.

Finally, Anderson raises the specter of criminal punishment. I did not hope, as Anderson suggests, to fully “detach my model from the debate over the morality of insider trading.” I only rejected current efforts to base an insider trading prohibition on fairness concerns. In terms of advancing my own arguments, I felt that as a practical matter the topic of links between solutions to a wasteful competition problem and criminality was too vast to fit in an already long article. For those who are interested, I have begun to further explore these connections elsewhere in work on the relationships between evolutionary psychology and the use of law as a tool to share resources.

The one point I did make in the article relevant to the question of criminal liability for insider trading was to observe that engaging wasteful competition can trigger moral outrage in some circumstances. Such feelings can be observed, for example, when others react to people cutting in line. We have normative reactions to people who pursue their naked self-interest in situations where payoffs through cooperation are greater than those that can be realized through competition by, for example, refusing to honor a queue.  Anderson investigates this analogy by asking about someone who has permission to cut in line.  Presumably, he means to draw a parallel to issuer-sanctioned insider trading wherein firms allow employees to trade on material nonpublic information. The question of whether or how permission to cut in line might be granted is quite complex and is a topic for another day. I only hoped in this article to suggest why there might be a link between my conclusion that avoiding wasteful competition justifies an insider trading prohibition and the choice to criminalize insider trading.

Again, I truly appreciate Anderson’s honest engagement with my work. However, I think he fails to provide a compelling rebuttal. What we need now in the United States is a prohibition on all trading when in possession of inside information.

March 22, 2022 in Corporations, Ethics, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 18, 2022

Guttentag on Wasteful Competition and Insider Trading Reform

For some time now, the insider trading enforcement regime in the United States has been criticized by market participants, scholars, and jurists alike as lacking clarity, theoretical integrity, and a coherent rationale. One problem is that Congress has never enacted a statute that specifically defines “insider trading.” Instead, the current regime has been cobbled together on an ad hoc basis through the common law and administrative proceedings. As the recent Report of the Bharara Task Force on Insider Trading puts it, the absence of an insider trading statute “has left market participants without sufficient guidance on how to comport themselves, prosecutors and regulators with undue challenges in holding wrongful actors accountable, those accused of misconduct with burdens in defending themselves, and the public with reason to question the fairness and integrity of our securities markets.”

Congress appears to be responding, and a number of bills that would define insider trading and otherwise reform the enforcement regime are receiving bipartisan support. But it would be a mistake to pass new legislation without first taking the time to get clear on the economic and ethical reasons for regulating insider trading. This is particularly true in light of the fact that the general public is clearly ambivalent about whether and why insider trading should be regulated.

Mike Guttentag's new article, Avoiding Wasteful Competition: Why Trading on Inside Information Should Be Illegal, offers an important new (or at least heretofore underappreciated) lens through which the potential costs of insider trading may be identified. For Guttentag, inside information is generally created as a mere byproduct of otherwise productive economic activity. But though it takes no additional effort to create, it has significant economic value for those who can trade on it. The rush to capture this surplus results in “wasteful competition because competition for surplus (or rent-seeking in the terminology economists prefer) is both hard to prevent and inherently wasteful.” Absent comprehensive regulation of insider trading, vast resources would be wasted in efforts by market participants to capture what Guttentag estimates may amount to tens of billions of dollars in potential insider trading profits each year.

Since the problem of wasteful competition arises whenever trading with material nonpublic information is permitted, Guttentag recommends “(1) that federal insider trading legislation should be enacted that prohibits all trading on inside information regardless of whether the information is wrongfully acquired, (2) courts should not require proof that a tipper received a personal benefit to find tippers and tippees culpable, and (3) the mere possession of inside information should be sufficient to trigger a trading prohibition.”

Guttentag’s arguments are original and compelling, but I am not convinced they justify the reforms he proposes. Here are some of my reasons:

  • First, Guttentag’s wasteful competition argument turns on the claim that all inside information is a mere byproduct of otherwise productive activity. But this seems to beg the question against Henry Manne and others who have argued that insider trading as compensation can be an effective incentive for entrepreneurship and innovation at firms. And this incentive can come at a savings to shareholders by reducing the need for other forms of compensation. If the production of inside information is part of the motivation behind innovation, it is not a surplus. Guttentag does address some (though not all) of Manne’s arguments concerning insider trading as compensation, but I would like to see a more complete treatment.
  • Second, even if we are convinced that insider trading drives wasteful rent-seeking, I’m not sure Guttentag has shown that the broad enforcement regime he recommends is the appropriate response. Under the comparative institutional approach to market failure, the proponent of regulation needs to show the regulation would improve matters. Rent-seekers come in all shapes and sizes, and government agencies such as the SEC are by no means immune to the temptation to engage in rent-seeking and rent-selling. Expanded authority would no doubt increase the opportunities and incentives for such wasteful action on the part of the regulators. Guttentag fails to address this concern.
  • Third, Guttentag fails to acknowledge the internal compliance costs his proposed expansion of liability will impose on issuers. I address the significant costs of insider trading compliance in my article, Solving the Paradox of Insider Trading Compliance. I suspect these already significant costs (and incentives to rent-seek from regulators) would only increase under Guttentag’s proposed regime. This concern should be considered as part of a comparative institutional analysis.
  • Fourth, Guttentag’s proposed reform would impose liability for trading while in possession of inside information even if that information played no part in the trading. But trading for reasons unrelated to inside information does not evidence wasteful competition for that information. Guttentag’s rationale cannot therefore justify this rule. He suggests that this mere possession rule can be justified as a prophylactic measure—simplifying enforcement of insider trading that does derive from wasteful competition. Guttentag fails, however, to consider the significant costs (e.g., in terms of [a] liquidity for those who are compensated with equity and [b] the preclusion of otherwise innocent, value-enhancing trades) the broad restriction would impose on the insiders, the issuers, and the market more broadly.
  • Finally, Guttentag considers it a virtue of his wasteful competition model that it does not rely on any controversial claims regarding the ethics of insider trading to justify its regulation. His model imposes liability on those who trade while possessing inside information because it is wasteful—not because it is wrongful. But insider trading liability in the United States has historically carried stiff criminal penalties. Guttentag is comfortable with the idea that these penalties be imposed under his proposed regime as well. This makes me wonder what other criminal sanctions for morally innocent but wasteful behavior this logic might justify. Guttentag seems to anticipate this concern and hedges a bit by suggesting that wasteful behavior may not be morally innocent after all. He notes that, for example, those who engage in wasteful behavior like cutting in line typically elicit “strong feelings of moral disapproval.” First, this may be true, but what about those who ask permission to cut (for some good reason)—and receive that permission? Such persons’ behavior would be just as wasteful, but would probably not receive the same moral disapproval. Second, to the extent Guttentag considers detaching his model from the debate over the morality of insider trading, this line-cutting example pulls him right back in.

Despite these concerns, I am convinced that Guttentag’s new article advances the discussion about why insider trading is (or can be) harmful to markets and society. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to be educated on the subject. Here’s the abstract to Mike’s article:

This article offers a new and compelling reason to make all trading based on inside information illegal.

The value realized by trading on inside information is unusual in two respects. First, inside information is produced at little or no incremental cost and is nevertheless quite valuable. Second, profits made from trading on inside information come largely at the expense of others. When the value of something exceeds the cost to produce it, a wasteful race to be the first to capture the resulting surplus is likely to ensue. Similarly, resources expended solely to take something of value from others are wasted from an overall social welfare perspective. Thus, both at its source and in its use inside information invites wasteful competition. A law prohibiting insider trading is the best way to avoid this wasteful competition.

Previous scholarship misses this obvious conclusion because of its reliance on one of three assumptions. First, wasteful competition is assumed to be a problem that markets can rectify. Second, private ordering solutions are assumed to be available even when market mechanisms fail to address this problem. Third, a wasteful race to acquire and use inside information is viewed as otherwise unavoidable. None of these assumptions is correct.

The findings here have immediate policy implications. First, insider trading legislation should be enacted that bans all insider trading and not just trading based on wrongfully acquired information. Second, there is no reason to require proof that a tipper received a personal benefit to prosecute someone for tipping inside information. Third, the possession and not the use of inside information should be enough to trigger a trading prohibition.

March 18, 2022 in Corporations, Ethics, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 4, 2022

Censorship and Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas

The Law and Economics Center at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of law is hosting a Research Roundtable on Capitalism and the Rule of Law this week in Destin, Florida. My co-author, Professor Jeremy Kidd (Drake University School of Law) and I are honored to present a draft of our current work-in-progress, "Market Failure and Censorship in the Marketplace of Ideas," at tomorrow's (March 5, 2022) session. We look forward to receiving feedback from all the brilliant scholars in attendance. Here's an abstract of the current draft. We look forward to sharing a link to the full draft soon:

As one author notes, the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has “permeate[d] the Supreme Court’s first amendment jurisprudence.” If the test for efficiency in the marketplace for goods is wealth maximization, the test for efficiency in the marketplace of ideas has historically been understood in terms of its ability to reliably arrive at truth, or at least the most socially beneficial ideas within the grasp of a community of discourse. And consistent with economic free-market advocates, the received expectation in Western liberal democracies has been that “a process of robust debate, if uninhibited by government [or other] interference, will” best achieve this end. In other words, the assumption is that the market of ideas is most efficient when it is free. As Thomas Jefferson famously claimed, “Truth is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from conflict, unless by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” Similarly, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes later noted, “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

But even the most fervent economic free-market advocates recognize the possibility of market failure. Market failure is “a market characteristic that prevents the market from maximizing consumer welfare.” The exercise of monopoly power, for example, is a common source of market failure. Most economists agree that government or other regulatory interference with market freedom may be justified to correct a market failure.

The last few years have witnessed increased calls (from both government officials and the private sector) for censorship of speech and research pertaining to a variety of subjects (e.g., climate change; COVID-19 sources and treatments; and viewpoints concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation) across a variety of venues (e.g., social media, the classroom, internet searches, corporations, and even persons’ private bookshelves). The consistent refrain in favor of this censorship is that the spread of false or misleading information is preventing access to or distorting the truth and thereby inhibiting social progress: undermining democracy, fomenting bigotry, costing lives, and even threating the existence of the planet.

Do these increasing calls for censorship respond to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas? For example, could a majority race so dominate the terms of conditions of public and private discourse that minority voices are effectively barred from entry? If so, calls for censorship of expressly or implicitly racially biased voices may be an appropriate response to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. If not, however, pervasive success at censorship (whether public or private) may itself create inefficiencies equivalent to market failure.

In this Article, the authors draw upon familiar economic principles to explore the possibility of market failure in the marketplace of ideas. The authors then rely on philosophical arguments articulated by liberal thinkers from John Milton and John Stuart Mill to Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty to argue (in response to classical and post-modern critiques) that the spread of false or misleading information does not on its own reflect a market failure warranting censorship as a corrective. Instead, it is argued recent successful efforts at silencing and deplatforming dissenting voices (particularly in the context of social media, but also in academia and the workplace) reflects the real market failure in need of correction.

The Article proceeds as follows: Part I offers examples of recent calls for (and efforts at) censorship in the market of ideas concerning a variety of subjects and forums. Part II explores the idea of the marketplace of ideas as an economic concept, defines its components, considers the possibility of associated market failures, and highlights some common fallacies in the application of the concept of market failure more broadly. Part III explores the principal philosophical arguments for the utility of freedom of expression, focusing on the arguments articulated in John Stuart Mill’s classic, On Liberty. Part IV argues that, in light of these arguments (and taking into account contemporary post-modern critiques), the threat of false and misleading expression does not reflect market failure in today’s marketplace of ideas. To the contrary, Part V argues that the ease with which recent public and private efforts at censorship have succeeded itself reflects a market failure warranting correction—if not through legislation or the courts, then by social sanction and the court of public opinion.

March 4, 2022 in John Anderson, Law and Economics, Philosophy | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 26, 2021

Presenting at the 16th Annual Meeting of the American College of Business Court Judges

I was recently honored to be invited to join a panel at the 16th Annual Meeting of the American College of Business Court Judges (ABCBJ), which was held in Jackson, Mississippi, on October 27-29. The meeting was hosted by Chancellor Denise Owens (the current president of the ACBCJ) in association with the Law & Economics Center (LEC) at George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of Law.

Chancellor Owens kicked off the event and introduced the keynote speaker, Haley Barbour (former Governor of Mississippi). Governor Barbour gave an excellent talk about the ways in which Mississippi's musical traditions have helped to improve race relations over the past century.

The meeting panels covered a broad array of topics, including:

  • Ownership, Transfer and Trading of Intellecual Property Rights.
  • The Cost of Truth, Can You Afford It?
  • Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Algorithms: Studies in Law, Economics, and Racial Bias
  • Thriving Post Pandemic - Private Practice and Expanding Regulatory Authority After COVID-19.

I joined Professors Todd Zywicki and Donald Kochan on a panel moderated by Judge Elihu Berle (Los Angeles Superior Court). The panel was entitled, Shareholder Wealth Maximization versus ESG and the Business Roundtable: The Growing Debate Over Corporate Purpose. I presented on the Securities and Exchange Commission's plans for a new mandatory climate-change-related disclosure regime. The prsentation drew from portions of a recent essay I coauthored with Professor George Mocsary, An Economic Climate Change?

The conference concluded with the tour of our new Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. It was a wonderful meeting, and I look forward to participating in future ABCBJ events!

November 26, 2021 in Business Associations, Conferences, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 17, 2021

The SEC Can't Have Its Cake and Eat It Too: Some Concerns for Proposed Trading Plan Reforms

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Chairman, Gary Gensler, recently directed the staff to present recommendations to "freshen up" and tighten some provisions in Exchange Act Rule 10b5-1. In response, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee proposed new restrictions on the use of 10b5-1(c) trading plans as an affirmative defense against insider trading liability. The proposed changes are designed to address concerns that "some plans are used to engage in opportunistic trading behavior that contravenes the intent behind the rule," and they are consistent with recommendations outlined in the  Promoting Transparent Standards for Corporate Insiders Act that passed the House of Representatives in April 2021.

But any proposed restrictions to trading plans must be considered in light of the broader context of Rule 10b5-1, and the motivation behind the affirmative defense’s adoption.

The courts have interpreted Section 10b of the Exchange Act as prohibiting insiders from trading in their own company’s shares only if they do so “on the basis” of material nonpublic information. This element of intent for insider trading liability can be difficult for regulators and prosecutors to satisfy because insiders who possess material nonpublic information at the time of their trade can often claim that they did not use the information to trade. They may claim, for example, that they only sold stock to pay their child’s college tuition bill, and the material nonpublic information had nothing to do with the trade.

Prior to 2000, the SEC and prosecutors sought to defeat this defense strategy by taking the position that knowing possession of material nonpublic information while trading satisfies the “on the basis of” element of insider trading liability. But when pressed, this strategy met with only mixed results in the courts. In an attempt to settle a circuit split over this “use-versus-possession” issue, the SEC adopted Rule 10b5-1, which defines trading “on the basis of” material nonpublic information for purposes of insider trading liability as trading while “aware” of such information.

The SEC anticipated two problems for its new awareness test: (1) It anticipated concern from the courts that imposing liability on a person who is merely aware of material nonpublic information while trading (without a causal relation between the information and the trade) would exceed the commission’s statutory authority by failing to satisfy the requirement of scienter under the general antifraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act. (2) There was also a concern that the broad awareness test may chill legitimate trading by insiders (e.g., for portfolio diversification), which would negatively impact the value of firm shares as a form of compensation. The 10b5-1 trading plan as an affirmative defense to insider trading liability was designed to mitigate these concerns.

Now, the SEC is considering significant new restrictions on the use of trading plans that include (a) a “cooling off” period of at least four months between plan adoption and trading or modification; (b) a prohibition on overlapping plans; and (c) new disclosure requirements.

In two recent articles, Anticipating a Sea Change for Insider Trading Law: From Trading Plan Crisis to Rational Reform and Undoing a Deal with the Devil: Some Challenges for Congress's Proposed Reform of Insider Trading Plans, I argue that additional restrictions on trading plan use like those being proposed by the SEC risk defeating the very purposes for which the affirmative defense was adopted. For example, new restrictions on 10b5-1(c) trading plans may force courts to conclude that the SEC exceeded its authority with the adoption of its broad 10b5-1(b) awareness test. Moreover, since new restrictions on trading plans will make it more difficult for employees to sell shares issued to them as equity compensation, those shares will be less valuable to employees. Firms will therefore have to offer more shares to employees to achieve the same remunerative effect. This will impose new costs on shareholders. Will the anticipated benefits of the new restrictions offset these costs?

My hope is that the SEC will take these considerations (and others I have raised) into account as it mulls the question of 10b5-1(c) trading plan reform. After all, the Commission cannot have its cake and eat it too!

September 17, 2021 in Ethics, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 3, 2021

Testing Our Intuitions About Insider Trading - Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, 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)

Friday, May 28, 2021

My First "In-Person" Workshop since January 2020

I just returned from my first “in-person” scholarly workshop since the onset of the pandemic. The event, “Introduction to the Economics of Information, Advertising, Privacy, and Data Security,” was hosted by the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School’s Law & Economics Center (LEC). The workshop took place at the Omni Amelia Island Resort—just outside of Jacksonville, Florida.

After a warm welcome from the LEC’s Director, Henry N. Butler, the program launched into nine sessions over three days:

  • Introduction to Economics of Information
  • Signaling/Screening/Mandated Disclosures
  • Theories of Advertising, Substantiation, and Optimal Remedies
  • Economics of Privacy
  • Algorithmic Bias
  • Economics of Data Security
  • Big Data, Privacy, and Antitrust
  • First Amendment Issues
  • Social Media and Content Moderation.

The sessions were led by either Prof. Jane Bambauer, Prof. James C. Cooper, or Prof. John M. Yun. I’ve attended LEC workshops in the past, and have found them to be both rigorous and entertaining. This event was no exception. The assigned readings ranged from classic articles by Harold Demsetz and Jack Hirshleifer to contemporary pieces authored by the presenters and other leaders in the field. I learned a great deal and recommend future LEC workshops to anyone who may have the opportunity to participate.

But while I took a number of inspirations for future scholarship away from this workshop, I think I will remember this event most for offering the first opportunity, after a year and a half of “Zooming,” to get together with fellow scholars from around the country in person!

A number of us on the Business Law Prof Blog have written about how the pandemic has led to the discovery of wonderful new teaching and scholarly opportunities through online meeting spaces. The ability to meet “online” has certainly made me more accessible to my students (and vice versa), and I have participated in a number of conferences and panels that I would not have been able to attend even if pandemic-related travel restrictions were not in place. Nevertheless, this in-person event reminded me of the little big things that are gained by meeting in person. To note just a few:

  • New friendships made while waiting in line for a coffee
  • Philosophical discussions about the nature of language and sense perception over a good meal
  • Long walks with old friends along the beach
  • Meeting a fellow scholar at the pool who just happens to be working in the same area, and who would be perfect for the panel you are putting together…..

In sum, as wonderful as online platforms can be, there are many things about in-person meetings that are simply irreplaceable. I am grateful to George Mason and the LEC for offering me the first opportunity since the onset of the pandemic to be reminded of them.

May 28, 2021 in John Anderson, Law and Economics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2020

“T” is for Transformative (Corporate Governance)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2020

First Things First: Is Short-Termism the Problem?

This is my second post in a series of blog posts on the "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance ("Study on Directors' Duties") prepared by Ernst & Young for the European Commission.

In 2015, the world gathered at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit for the adoption of the Post-2015 development agenda. That Summit was convened as a high-level plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. At this meeting, Resolution A/70/L.1, Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, was adopted by the General Assembly. In 2016, the Paris Agreement was signed. In my last post, I called both the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement trendsetters because they kicked-off a global discussion on sustainable development at so many levels, including at the financial level.

During the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, I recall that the Civil Society representatives called for a UN resolution on sustainable capital markets to tackle the absence of concrete actions regarding global financial sustainability following the 2008 Great Recession.

At the end of 2016, the European Commission (Commission) created the High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance (HLEG). In early 2018, the HLEG published its report. Shortly after, in 2018, the European Union (EU) published the Action Plan: Financing Sustainable Growth (EU's Action Plan) based on the HLEG’s report. I want to focus for a bit on Action 10 of the EU's Action Plan: Fostering Sustainable Corporate Governance and Attenuating Short-Termism in Capital Markets. Action 10 sets forth the following:

1.To promote corporate governance that is more conducive to sustainable investments, by Q2 2019, the Commission will carry out analytical and consultative work with relevant stakeholders to assess: (i) the possible need to require corporate boards to develop and disclose a sustainability strategy, including appropriate due diligence throughout the supply chain, and measurable sustainability targets; and (ii) the possible need to clarify the rules according to which directors are expected to act in the company's long-term interest.

2.The Commission invites the ESAs to collect evidence of undue short-term pressure from capital markets on corporations and consider, if necessary, further steps based on such evidence by Q1 2019. More specifically, the Commission invites ESMA to collect information on undue short-termism in capital markets, including: (i) portfolio turnover and equity holding periods by asset managers; (ii) whether there are any practices in capital markets that generate undue short-term pressure in the real economy.

Under the EU's Action Plan, in 2019, the Commission called the three European Supervisory Authorities (ESAs) to collect evidence of undue short-term pressure from the financial sector on corporations. These supervisory authorities include the European Banking Authority (EBA), the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), and the European Insurance and Occupational Pension Authority (EIOPA). The reports from EBA, ESMA, and EIOPA reviewed the relevant financial literature and identified potential short-term pressures on corporations.

In 2019, the European Commission Directorate-General Justice and Consumers organized a conference on "Sustainable Corporate Governance" that reunited policy-makers to discuss policy developments on corporate governance within Action 10 of the EU's Action Plan.

The Study on Directors' Duties builds on Action 10. As it reads in the Study:

[T]he need for urgent action to attenuate short-termism and promote sustainable corporate governance is clearly identified in the Action Plan on Financing Sustainable Growth, 137 put forward by the European Commission in 2018. The Action Plan recognises that, despite the efforts made by several European companies, pressures from capital markets lead company directors and executives to fail to consider long-term sustainability risks and opportunities and be overly focused on short-term financial performance. Action 10 of the Action Plan is therefore aimed at "fostering sustainable corporate governance and attenuating short-termism in capital markets." The present study implements Action 10, together with other studies aimed at investigating complementary aspects of short-termism,138 which shows European Commission's commitment to explore this complex problem from different angles and find an integrated response.

Before moving forward, it is pressing to define short-termism. In this context, obtaining empirical evidence to infer causation is important for policy advice. When it comes to defining short-termism, in a recent Policy Workshop on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance, Zach Sautner defined short-termism as a reflection of actions (e.g., investment, payouts) that focus on short-term gains at the expense of the long-term value of the corporation. The concept of short-termism encompasses a certain form of value destruction, an undue focus on short-term earnings or stock price, and a notion of market inefficiency. Suppose a CEO favors short-term earnings or makes decisions (e.g., buybacks) to the detriment of the corporation's long-term value. Then, if the market is efficient, it should signal that something is not right.

Still, I cannot avoid asking: is short-termism the right problem that needs fixing? The discussion around short-termism is puzzling because there is a vehement academic debate whether there even exists short-termism or whether it is as harmful as it sounds. For example, in their paper, Long-Term Bias, Michal Barzuza & Eric Talley explain how corporate managers can become hostages of long-term bias, which can be as damaging for investors as short-termism.

If short-termism and its effects are as negative as they sound, what kind of incentives do managers have to overcome it? Corporate managers act based on incentives such as executive compensation, financial reporting, and shareholders' ownership. Is this bad news for those who firmly stand behind stakeholders who can be undoubtedly impacted by the corporation's performance?

The bottom line is this. We need a clearer perspective on short-termism. Suppose one says that excessive payouts are not the problem. They are the symptom. However, even this bold statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It is difficult to assess if payouts (e.g., dividends, buybacks) are excessive if we do not know if there is a short-termism problem.

December 13, 2020 in Business Associations, Comparative Law, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 6, 2020

A Purposive Approach to Corporate Governance Sustainability - Lécia Vicente Guest Post

The post below is the first in Lécia Vicente's December series that I heralded in my post on Friday.  Due to a Typepad login issue, I am posting for her today.  We hope to get the issue corrected for her post for next week. 

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My series of blog posts cover the recent "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance" ("Study on Directors' Duties") prepared by Ernst & Young for the European Commission. This study promises to set the tone of the EU's policymaking in the fields of corporate law and corporate governance. The study explains that the "evidence collected over 1992-2018 period shows there is a trend for publicly listed companies within the EU to focus on short-term benefits of shareholders rather than on the long-term interests of the company." The main objective of the study is to identify the causes of this short-termism in corporate governance and determine European Union (EU) level solutions that permit the achievement of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Both the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are trendsetters, for they have elevated the discussion on sustainable development and climate change mitigation to the global level. That discussion has been captured not only by governments and international environmental institutions but also by corporations. Several questions come to mind.

What is sustainability? This one is critical considering that the global level discussion is often monotone, with the blatant disregard of countries' idiosyncrasies, the different historical contexts, regulatory frameworks, and political will to implement reforms. The UN defined sustainability as the ability of humanity "to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The other question that comes to mind is: what is development? Is GDP the right benchmark, or should we be focusing on other factors? There is disagreement among economists on the merit of using GDP as a development measure. Some economists like Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo say, "it makes no sense to get too emotionally involved with individual GDP numbers." Those numbers do not give us the whole picture of a country's development.

The Study on Directors' Duties maintains as a general objective the development of more sustainable corporate governance and corporate directors' accountability for the company's sustainable value creation. This general objective would be specifically implemented either through soft law (non-legislative measures) or hard law (legislative measures) that redesign the role of directors (this includes the creation of a new board position, the Chief Value Officer) and directors' fiduciary duties. This takes me to a third question.

What is the purpose of the company? In other words, what is it that directors should be prioritizing? In a recent blog post, Steve Bainbridge says

I don't "disagree with the assertion that the law does not mandate that a corporation have as its purpose shareholder wealth maximization" but only because I don't think it's useful to ask the question of "what purpose does the law mandate the corporation pursue?

[…] Purpose is always associated with the intellect. In order to have a purpose or aim, it is necessary to come to a decision; and that is the function of the intellect. But just as the corporation has neither a soul to damn nor a body to kick, the corporation has no intellect.

Bainbridge prefers "to operationalize this discussion as a question of the fiduciary duties of corporate officers and directors rather than as a corporate purpose."

Continue reading

December 6, 2020 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Joan Heminway, Law and Economics, Management, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Sharing Economy, Autonomous Vehicles, and Such . . . .

Although my UT Law colleague Greg Stein is perhaps most well known for his work in the area of real estate law (development, finance, land use, etc.--see his SSRN page here), of late, he has been focusing increased attention on issues at the intersection of technological innovation and economic enterprise.  I have been interested in and engaged by this new twist to his research, thinking, and writing.  This post promotes two works he has completed that occupy this scholarly space, the first of which was recently published in the Brooklyn Law Review and the second of which is forthcoming in the Florida State University Law Review.

The Brooklyn Law Review piece is entitled "Inequality in the Sharing Economy."  The SSRN abstract follows.

The rise of the sharing economy benefits consumers and providers alike. Consumers can access a wider range of goods and services on an as-needed basis and no longer need to own a smaller number of costly assets that sit unused most of the time. Providers can engage in profitable short-term ventures, working on their own schedule and enjoying many new opportunities to supplement their income.

Sharing economy platforms often employ dynamic pricing, which means that the price of a good or service varies in real time as supply and demand change. Under dynamic pricing, the price of a good or service is highest when demand is high or supply is low. Just when a customer most needs a good or service – think bottled water after a hurricane – dynamic pricing may price that customer out of the market.

This Article examines the extent to which the rise of the sharing economy may exacerbate existing inequality. It describes the sharing economy and its frequent use of dynamic pricing as a means of allocating scarce resources. It then focuses on three types of commodities – necessities, inelastic goods and services, and public goods and services – and discusses why the dynamic pricing of these three types of commodities raises the greatest inequality concerns. The Article concludes by asking whether some type of intervention is warranted and examining the advantages and drawbacks of government action, action by the private sector, or no action at all.

The title of the article that is forthcoming in the Florida State University Law Review is "The Impact of Autonomous Vehicles on Urban Land Use Patterns."  The SSRN abstract for this article is set forth below.

Autonomous vehicles are coming. The only questions are how quickly they will arrive, how we will manage the years when they share the road with conventional vehicles, and how the legal system will address the issues they raise. This Article examines the impact the autonomous vehicle revolution will have on urban land use patterns.

Autonomous vehicles will transform the use of land and the law governing that valuable land. Automobiles will drop passengers off and then drive themselves to remote parking areas, reducing the need for downtown parking. These vehicles will create the need for substantial changes in roadway design. Driverless cars are more likely to be shared, and fleets may supplant individual ownership. At the same time, people may be willing to endure longer commutes, working while their car transports them.

These dramatic changes will require corresponding adaptations in real estate and land use law. Zoning laws, building codes, and homeowners’ association rules will have to be updated to reflect shifting needs for parking. Longer commutes may create a need for stricter environmental controls. Moreover, jurisdictions will have to address these changes while operating under considerable uncertainty, as we all wait to see which technologies catch on, which fall by the wayside, and how quickly this revolution arrives. This Article examines the legal changes that are likely to be needed in the near future. It concludes by recommending that government bodies engage in scenario planning so they can act under conditions of ambiguity while reducing the risk of poor decisions.

These articles offer interesting perspectives on the need for and desirability of legal or regulatory change as a response to existing and inevitable ripple effects of the new ways we engage with technology and use it in our lives--in commerce and in the more personal aspects of our existence--whether those effects are felt in the socio-economic landscape or the land use realm.  Many business law academics have been researching and writing about these relationships between and among legal and regulatory rules, technological innovation, and shifts in commercial and personal behavioral patterns.  Greg's contributions to this body of work are both compelling and thoughtful.  I appreciate his insights.

October 26, 2020 in Commercial Law, Joan Heminway, Law and Economics, Real Property, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 12, 2020

Padfield on "the Omnipresent Specter of Political Bias" in Corporate Decision-Making (and 3 other papers)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Nobel Prize and The Challenges of Global Poverty

Image result for Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer

Congrats to MIT professors Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer on their recent Nobel Prize in Economics

A few years ago, I completed Professors Banerjee and Duflo's free online EdX course on "The Challenges of Global Poverty."

Evidently, they are doing a rerun of that course, starting February 4, 2020. You can sign up here

October 14, 2019 in Business Associations, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Law and Economics, Nonprofits, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Defining Neoliberalism

I recently listened to an episode of EconTalk: “Dani Rodrik on Neoliberalism.” What follows is an excerpt from the show, wherein Rodrik defines neoliberalism:

What I mean by neoliberalism is really mostly a frame of mind that places the independent functioning of markets and private incentives and pricing incentives at the center of things. And I think in the process downgrades certain other values, like equity and the social contract, and certain restraints on private enterprise that are often required to achieve economic ends that are more compatible with social goals.

For whatever it’s worth, I’d change this definition as follows:

What I mean by neoliberalism is really mostly a frame of mind that places the independent functioning of markets and private incentives and pricing incentives at the center of things. And I think in the process [posits that] certain other values, like equity and the social contract, and certain restraints on private enterprise that are often required to achieve economic ends that are more compatible with social goals [are optimized via free markets compared to the historical failures of central planning].

Two other comments from the show that stuck out to me:

  • what both Foxconn and the Amazon cases show is that in fact there is so much uncertainty about markets and consumer preferences and technologies that, you know, before the ink is dry that there are things that contribute to the unraveling of these contracts
  • the cornerstone idea in microeconomics of utility--I mean, it's not measurable

On this last point, I was remined of a footnote in Volume I of the two-volume mini-treatise on the history of economic thought I co-authored with Robert Ashford (A History of Economic Thought: A Concise Treatise for Business, Law, and Public Policy):

To the extent utilitarianism poses a challenge to laissez-faire policies (i.e., rather than letting the market decide who gets what, we will study costs and benefits and allocate resources on that basis), economists favoring laissez-faire policies could be seen as hijacking utilitarian concepts by simply defining the results of free exchange as utility. In other words, while utilitarianism may be viewed as starting out as a challenge to laissez-faire ideology, once utility is equated with efficiency, and efficiency is generally associated with free-market transactions, then utilitarianism arguably becomes an asset to those espousing a laissez-faire ideology as opposed to a challenge.

October 2, 2019 in Books, Law and Economics, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

These Reasons Social Benefit Entities Hurt Business and Philanthropy Will Blow Your Mind

I suspect click-bait headline tactics don't work for business law topics, but I guess now we will see. This post is really just to announce that I have a new paper out in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law related to our First Annual (I hope) Business Law Prof Blog Conference co-blogger Joan Heminway discussed here. The paper, The End of Responsible Growth and Governance?: The Risks Posed by Social Enterprise Enabling Statutes and the Demise of Director Primacy, is now available here.

To be clear, my argument is not that I don't like social enterprise. My argument is that as well-intentioned as social enterprise entity types are, they are not likely to facilitate social enterprise, and they may actually get in the way of social-enterprise goals.  I have been blogging about this specifically since at least 2014 (and more generally before that), and last year I made this very argument on a much smaller scale.  Anyway, I hope you'll forgive the self-promotion and give the paper a look.  Here's the abstract: 

Social benefit entities, such as benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies (or L3Cs) were designed to support and encourage socially responsible business. Unfortunately, instead of helping, the emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy run the risk of derailing large-scale socially responsible business decisions. This could have the parallel impacts of limiting business leader creativity and risk taking. In addition to reducing socially responsible business activities, this could also serve to limit economic growth. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, all to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.

The potential harm from social benefit entities and eroding director primacy is not inevitable, and the challenges are not insurmountable. This essay is designed to highlight and explain these risks with the hope that identifying and explaining the risks will help courts avoid them. This essay first discusses the role and purpose of limited liability entities and explains the foundational concept of director primacy and the risks associated with eroding that norm. Next, the essay describes the emergence of social benefit entities and describes how the mere existence of such entities can serve to further erode director primacy and limit business leader discretion, leading to lost social benefit and reduced profit making. Finally, the essay makes a recommendation about how courts can help avoid these harms.

February 13, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Lawyering, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)