Friday, September 17, 2021
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!
Friday, September 3, 2021
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.
Friday, August 20, 2021
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!
Friday, July 23, 2021
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!
Friday, May 28, 2021
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.
Sunday, December 27, 2020
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 Firms, Claudine 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.
- Investors’ ownership and their impact on intangibles like employees’ satisfaction and employee work meaningfulness.
- Governance structure and how it relates to the company’s ownership structure.
- Governance structure and how it integrates stakeholders’ interests in the decision-making process.
- Board diversity and recruitment.
- 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
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.
Sunday, December 13, 2020
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.
Sunday, December 6, 2020
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."
Monday, October 26, 2020
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.
Friday, June 12, 2020
Padfield on "the Omnipresent Specter of Political Bias" in Corporate Decision-Making (and 3 other papers)
I've finally gotten around to updating my SSRN page. I would love to hear any comments you might have.
June 12, 2020 in Behavioral Economics, Books, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Human Rights, Law and Economics, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, October 14, 2019
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.
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
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.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
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)
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I am speaking at a plenary session tomorrow during the the Energy Impacts Symposium at the Nationwide & Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Conference Center in Columbus, Ohio. The program is exciting, and I look forward to being a part of it. The program is described as follows:
Energy Impacts 2017 is a energy research conference and workshop, organized by a 9-member interdisciplinary steering committee, focused on synthesis, comparison, and innovation among established and emerging energy impacts scholars from North America and abroad. We invite participation from sociologists, geographers, political scientists, economists, anthropologists, practitioners, and other interested parties whose work addresses impacts of new energy development for host communities and landscapes.
The pace, scale, and intensity of new energy development around the world demands credible and informed research about potential impacts to human communities that host energy developments. From new electrical transmission lines needed for a growing renewable energy sector to hydraulically fracturing shale for oil and gas, energy development can have broad and diverse impacts on the communities where it occurs. While a fast-growing cadre of researchers has emerged to produce important new research on the social, economic, and behavioral impacts from large-scale energy development for host communities and landscapes, their discoveries are often isolated within disciplinary boundaries.
Through facilitated interactive workshop activities, invited experts and symposium participants will produce a roadmap for future cross-disciplinary research priorities.
I will be talking about Community Development and the North Dakota Sovereign Wealth Fund, and we'll discuss the implications of the resource curse. I am of the view that the resource curse is correlative, not causative, and that natural resource extraction can prove harmful to local communities, but that it doesn't have to be. From North Dakota's $4.33 billion fund to Norway's Government Pension Fund Global, there are examples of funding that can provide for the future. But there are numerous examples of struggling communities and bankrupt local governments where funds benefited few. And even North Dakota and Norway provide stark contrasts in how the funds are used. The point, for me, is that generalizations overstate the role of the resource and understate the role of local decision making. What we prioritize matters, and often, I think, we can do better. It's not preordained. We can do better, as long as we decide to do so.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
More than a few legal blogs and scholars have taken note of a recent paper by Adam Bonica (Stanford University), Adam S. Chilton (University of Chicago), Kyle Rozema (Northwestern University) and Maya Sen (Harvard University), “The Legal Academy’s Ideological Uniformity.” The paper finds that those in the legal academy are more liberal than those in legal profession generally. Anecdotally, I have to say I am not surprised.
The abstract of the piece is as follows:
We find that approximately 15% of law professors are conservative and that only approximately one out of every twenty law schools have more conservative law professors than liberal ones. In addition, we find that these patterns vary, with higher-ranked schools having an even smaller presence of conservative law professors. We then compare the ideological balance of the legal academy to that of the legal profession. Compared to the 15% of law professors that are conservative, 35% of lawyers overall are conservative. Law professors are more liberal than graduates of top 14 law schools, lawyers working at the largest law firms, former federal law clerks, and federal judges. Although we find that professors are more liberal than the alumni at all but a handful of law schools, there is a strong relationship between the ideologies of professors from a law school and the ideologies of alumni from that school. However, this relationship is weaker for schools with more conservative alumni.
Jonathan Adler recently discussed the paper in a piece for The Volokh Conspiracy, How ‘ideologically uniform’ is the legal academy? Adler notes, that the paper's "findings are based upon an examination of reported political donations. While this is an admittedly imperfect measure of ideology, it does allow for comparisons across population groups." I agree on both counts.
I am particularly interested in (and a bit skeptical of) the use of political donations as the proxy for ideology. I understand why the authors used that proxy: the information is available and it does, as Adler says, provide for comparisons. My skepticism is not about their process or choice, but merely about whether it tells us very much about legal ideology. I think it tells us primarily about political party. And even there, in a primarily two-party system, it only tells us about preferences between those two parties, and if the data is primarily presidential, about those two specific candidates.
My point is that legal ideology is often different that political party choice. When choosing between two parties, we all have priorities of our views, too. For example, I am a far bigger believer in the ability of markets to solve problems than many of my colleagues. I am more skeptical of government intervention and increased regulation than many of my colleagues. But because of a few priorities that tip my balancing test, I would almost certainly come out "liberal" in using my modest contributions to political parties as the assessment of my ideology.
In assessing legal ideology, though, I would argue diversity comes more from how we view the law than particular candidates or certain social issues. Obviously, it is much harder to assess that, but I think it should matter when considering how law schools teach.
Some legal programs (like SEALS) have been seeking diversity of viewpoints, along with other measures of diversity, for panel and discussions groups. This is a good thing. It's not always easy to assess, though. Maybe we should just ask. Here's how I'd assess my own legal ideology: When it comes to economic regulation, my thinking is much more in line with former law professor and SEC Commissioner Troy A. Paredes than I am with, say, Elizabeth Warren. When it comes to business entities law, I am far more Bainbridge than Bebchuck. For environmental law, more Huffman or Adler than Parenteau. Of course, I have at various times agreed and disagreed with them all.
I, like many others, am very skeptical of an ideological litmus test or quota system. And yet I also think there is value in embracing different perspectives and viewpoints. Ultimately, I don't care how someone votes when I assess whether they are a good legal scholar, a good colleague, and a good teacher. I do care that they value diversity of all kinds (including ideological), and I care that they believe in encouraging and faciltitating productive discourse. There is little value in lockstep thinking in any arena, and that is particularly true in legal education. I'm glad this discussion is part of how we consider moving forward in legal education.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Sound energy policy begins with the recognition that we have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America. The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own. We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure. Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well.
It is certainly true that we "have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America." It has brought some wealth and prosperity to the nation, and low oil prices because the country "embrace[d] the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans." However, low oil and gas prices (which largely remain) have slowed that growth and expansion because shale oil and gas exploration and production was wildly successful.
The President says, "We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own." But it's not clear how that's helpful. That is, selling our (the American people's) assets when the market is at or near record lows doesn't seem like very good asset management.
The plan is to "use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure." I am very fond of all of these things, though I am skeptical that the federal government should take a leading role in all of them. I am open to the discussion. But, if we're selling our assets at pennies on the dollar of historic value, I am particularly skeptical of the benefits.
"Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well." Low energy costs do help agriculture. That is certainly true. But notice that making energy even less expensive means we get less for our assets, and we're dumping more cheap energy into a market where private businesses in the oil and gas sector are already having a hard time.
Facilitating a boom from cheap energy means investing in new jobs to use the energy, not just getting more of the energy. Plants that use our cheaper fuels to make and build new products could help, but it's never easy. High energy prices can stifle an economy, but low ones rarely spur growth. About a year ago, an Economist article from January 2016 remains accurate, as it explained that sudden and major price increases can slow an economy rapidly, as we saw in Arab oil embargo of 1973. However, "when the price slumps because of a glut, as in 1986, it has done the world a power of good. The rule of thumb is that a 10% fall in oil prices boosts growth by 0.1-0.5 percentage points."
The article further explains:
Cheap oil also hurts demand in more important ways. When crude was over $100 a barrel it made sense to spend on exploration in out-of-the-way provinces, such as the Arctic, west Africa and deep below the saline rock off the coast of Brazil. As prices have tumbled, so has investment. Projects worth $380 billion have been put on hold. In America spending on fixed assets in the oil industry has fallen by half from its peak. The poison has spread: the purchasing managers’ index for December, of 48.2, registered an accelerating contraction across the whole of American manufacturing. In Brazil the harm to Petrobras, the national oil company, from the oil price has been exacerbated by a corruption scandal that has paralysed the highest echelons of government.
I am all for a new energy plan to help the economy grow, and I support continued energy exploration and production as long as it is done wisely, which I firmly believe can be done. But adding new competitors (by allowing more exploration on federal lands) simply won't help (and it really won't help increase coal jobs). More supply is not the answer in an already oversupplied market. And the current proposal is just giving away assets we will want down the road.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
I am happy to say I just received my new article, co-authored with a former student, S. Alex Shay, who is now a Trial Attorney in the Office of the United States Trustee, Department of Justice. The article discusses property law challenges that can impeded business development and negatively impact landowners and mineral owners in shale regions, with a focus on the West Virginia portion of the Marcellus Shale. The article is Horizontal Drilling Vertical Problems: Property Law Challenges from the Marcellus Shale Boom, 49 John Marshall Law Review 413-447 (2015).
If you note the 2015 publication date, you can see the article has been a long time coming. The conference it is linked to took place in September 2015, and it has taken quite a while to get to print. On the plus side, I was able to do updates to some of the issues, and add new cases (and resolutions to cases) during the process. I just received my hard copies yesterday -- January 9, 2017 -- and I received a notice it was on Westlaw as of yesterday, too.
I always find it odd when law reviews use a specific year for an issue, as opposed to the actual publication year. I can understand how a January publication might have a 2016 date. That would have made sense, but dating the issue back to 2015, when I discuss cases decided in 2016 seems a little weird. I know there is a certain level of continuity that the dates can provide, but still, this seems too long.
When I was editor in chief of the Tulane Law Review, one of the things we prided ourselves on was not handing off any issue from our volume to the next board. A few years prior to our arrival, a committed group of Law Review folks caught up everything -- publishing, if memory serves (and legend was correctly passed on), two and a half volumes. And Tulane Law Review publishes six issues a year. They, apparently, did not sleep.
I am happy to have the article our, and the editors did good work. It just would have been nice to have it appear a little more timely and relevant than I think this "new" article does. For anyone who is interested, here's the abstract (article available here):
This article focuses on key property challenges appearing as part of the West Virginia Marcellus Shale play. The paper opens with an introduction to the Marcellus Shale region that is the focus of our analysis. The paper explains the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing process that is an essential part of shale oil and gas development. To help readers understand the property challenges related to shale development, we include an introduction to the concept of severed estates, which can create separate ownership of the surface estate and the mineral estate. The article then focuses on two keys issues. First, the article discusses whether horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing constitute a “reasonably necessary” use of surface land to develop mineral rights, and concludes they are, at least in most instances. Second, the article discusses difficulties in analyzing deed language related to minerals rights and royalty interests, which has created challenges for mineral owners, leasing companies, and oil and gas developers. Please note that although the publication date is 2015, the article was not in print until January 2017 and discusses cases from 2016.
Ultimately, the article concludes, legislators and regulators may choose to add surface owner protections and impose other measures to lessen the burden on impacted regions to ease the conflict between surface owners and mineral developers. Such efforts may, at times, be necessary to ensure continued economic development in shale regions. Communities, landowners, interest groups, companies, and governments would be well served to work together to seek balance and compromise in development-heavy regions. Although courts are well-equipped to handle individual cases, large-scale policy is better developed at the community level (state and local) than through the adversarial system.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
When it comes to regulations and economic policy, I am quite conservative. Not a Republican-type conservative (probably more Libertarian in a political sense), but in the sense that I often advocate for less regulation, and even more often, for less changes to laws and regulations. People need to be able to count on a system and work within it. As such, whether it is related to securities law, energy and environmental law, or other areas of the law, I find myself advocating for staying the course rather than adding new laws and regulations.
For example, a while back, co-blogger Joan Heminway quoted one of my comments about securities law, where I noted "my ever-growing sense that maybe we should just take a break from tweaking securities laws and focus on enforcing rules and sniffing out fraud. A constantly changing securities regime is increasingly costly, complex, and potentially counterproductive."
After the BP oil blowout of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico, I similarly argued that we should approach new laws with caution, and that we might be better served with existing law, rather than seeking new laws and regulation in a hasty manner. I explained,
[T]here are times when new laws and regulations are necessary to handle new ways of perpetrating a fraud or to address new information about what was previously viewed as acceptable conduct. But often, new laws and regulations are not a reaction to new information or technology; they are a reaction to a unique and unfortunate set of facts that is more likely related to timing or circumstances than an emerging trend. Other times, it is a lack of enforcement of existing protections meaning the problem is not the law itself; it is the enforcement of the law that is the problem.
Choosing a Better Path: The Misguided Appeal of Increased Criminal Liability After Deepwater Horizon, 36 Wm. & Mary Envt'l L & Pol. Rev. 1, 19 (2011) (footnotes omitted). More recently, I have taken the same view with regard to hydraulic fracturing regulations:
There may well be a need for new regulations to improve oversight of hydraulic fracturing and other industries that pose environmental risks, but new regulations do not necessary lead to better oversight. . . . There is a strong argument that the problems related to hydraulic fracturing (and, for that matter, coal extraction, chemical storage, and hazardous waste operations) are more linked to a lack of enforcement and not a lack of regulation.
Facts, Fiction, and Perception in Hydraulic Fracturing: Illuminating Act 13 and Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 116 W. Va. L. Rev. 819, 847 (2014).
I swear I have a point, beyond just quoting myself. Here it is: I'd like to urge the President-Elect and the 115th Congress to sit back and stay the course for a little bit to see where things are headed. I have a strong suspicion things are headed in the right direction from an economic perspective. This is not to suggest that there are not holes in the economy or people in desperate need of jobs, training, and education (there are -- I live in West Virginia. I know.). But with a White House and a Congress controlled by the same party, the GOP play should be simply: we're in charge now, and the economy is ready to move ahead.
We have already seen it -- the stock market is up and economic indicators look better. And there has been no new legislation or regulation (or repeals of either). It's just consumers believing the economy will get better. And consumer confidence is key to expansion. Who cares that it started before the election? What matters is whether we're going in the right direction. And it seems we are. The Financial Times reported today:
A gauge of US consumer sentiment has hit a post-recession high, painting a positive outlook ahead of the key holiday shopping season as recent data point to a strengthening US economy.
The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index climbed to 107.1 in November from 100.8 in October, the highest since July 2007 and above analysts’ forecast of 101.5.
Most of the survey was conducted before the presidential election on November 8. But “it appears from the small sample of post-election responses that consumers’ optimism was not impacted by the outcome,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at the Conference Board. “With the holiday season upon us, a more confident consumer should be welcome news for retailers.”
And, just to reinforce that is not a post-election position, I have been making this argument on this blog since at least 2010, when I wrote, How to Fix the "Broken" Financial System: Stop Trying to Fix It.
So, let's stay the course for a bit and see how people respond to a little stability. Let's see what a surge in consumer confidence can do for the U.S. and world economies. Let's make sure it's broken (and if so, how), before anyone tries to fix it. And maybe, in the meantime, we can spend a little time treating each other better.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Back in May, I discussed Donald Trump’s campaign dubious promises to bring back coal jobs to places like West Virginia and Kentucky. He promised (and continues to promise) that reduced regulation and elimination of the Clean Power Plan will bring back job. Voters in West Virginia bought the claim, and they believed it from incoming governor, Democrat Jim Justice, a billionaire coal magnate.
Trump and Justice spoke the other day, with the Governor-Elect saying in a statement:
“It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work. President-elect Trump made it clear that he won’t forget about West Virginia when it comes to our nation’s energy policies. I will work closely with the President-elect and his administration on clean coal technology, rolling back the job-killing EPA regulations on coal, and growing West Virginia’s other job opportunities.”
How this will work to improve coal jobs remains an open question. Trump has yet to announce his energy-related appointments, which will include the EPA, Department of Energy, and Department of Interior. His energy secretary short list (and possibly Interior) still includes Harold Hamm, CEO of the oil and gas company, Continental Resources. Forrest Lucas (of Lucas Oil) remains on the list, as well. So, how are oil and gas executives going to help coal? Well, by “rolling back the job-killing EPA regulations on coal,” of course. (Note: that is really an EPA issue, not a Department of Energy issue.)
The problem with this for coal country, as I have noted before, is that rolling back these regulations also has the effect of rolling back regulations that impact the natural gas industry, meaning that even as coal gets cheaper, so does natural gas.
Further, there is talk in the administration about opening up more federal lands to coal mining and oil and gas exploration. (This would be a Department of Interior action, not Energy.) This move, too, is curious, as it is hard to see how increased access to more supply is going to move up prices to support the struggling industries. A greater supply of oil or gas or coal will lead to even lower prices. Lower taxes and reduced regulations equals means a lower cost of exploration and production, which leads to more resources and lower prices.
Absent a commitment to increasing the cost of natural gas, coal is simply not going to compete. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, is substantially more flexible, and despite criticisms of the process of hydraulic fracturing, it is environmentally preferable to coal mining. With oil and gas executives playing a large role in the new administration, there is no reason to expect coal will get a preference over natural gas. Perhaps renewable energy sources will be less attractive, though the prices of those sources continues to drop, and natural gas can actually work to facilitate those such energy sources. Recent reports suggest renewables and natural gas are the future. This does not bode well for coal.
Increased research on clean coal would have value. There are still millions of people around the world without access to electricity, and millions more getting power from old coal-fired plants that create health and environmental problems. But that research is not likely to change markets in the near term, and it is not likely to benefit U.S. coal miners as long as cheap natural as remains. And it is expected to remain.
Finally, reduced regulations may help move the energy sector forward more quickly, and it may help facilitate related businesses who use natural resources as a feedstock or energy-intensive processes. That remains to be seen. Any plan that does that, though, still likely leaves coal, and the people who work in the industry, behind. Just saying you will save coal jobs, doesn’t make it true. But apparently it does make some people feel better. I doubt that will last very long.