Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Employee Stock Options in Unicorns: Scholarship At the Intersection of Securities Law and Employee Benefits
Friend of the Business Law Prof Blog Anat Beck recently posted a draft of her article entitled Unicorn Stock Options - Golden Goose or Trojan Horse? on SSRN. I heard presentations on earlier versions of this piece, which I personally find quite intricate and interesting. An excerpt fro the SSRN abstract follows:
This article examines a contemporary puzzle in Silicon Valley – is there a shift in unicorn employees expectations that results in labor contracting renegotiations? It explores the challenges faced by unicorn firms as repeat players in competitive technology markets. It offers the following possible solutions. First, new equity-based compensation contracts, and critiques them. Second, alternatives to the traditional liquidity mechanisms, and critiques them.
It concludes with proposals to remove legal barriers to private ordering, and new mandatory disclosure requirements.
The article has been picked up by the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation and linked to in a Matt Levine column for Bloomberg. This is a good read, especially for those of you interested in entrepreneurial business law (which is Anat's speciality).
Saturday, October 13, 2018
Last week Dr. Denis Mukwege won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This short video interview describes what I saw when I went to DRC in 2011 to research the newly-enacted Dodd-Frank disclosure rule and to do the legwork for a non-profit that teaches midwives ways to deliver babies safely. For those unfamiliar with the legislation, U.S. issuers must disclose the efforts they have made to track and trace tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold from the DRC and nine surrounding countries. Rebels and warlords control many of the mines by controlling the villages. DRC is one of the poorest nations in the world per capita but has an estimated $25 trillion in mineral reserves (including 65% of the world's cobalt). Armed militia use rape and violence as a weapon of war in part so that they control the mineral wealth.
The stated purpose of the Dodd-Frank rule was to help end the violence in DRC and to name and shame companies that do not disclose or that cannot certify that their goods are DRC-conflict free (although that labeling portion of the law was struck down on First Amendment grounds). I wrote a law review article in 2013 and co-filed an amicus brief during the litigation arguing that the law would not help people on the ground. I have also blogged here about legislation to end the rule, here about the EU's version of the rule, here about the differences between the EU and US rule, and half a dozen times since 2013.
I had the honor of meeting Dr. Mukwege in 2011, who at the time did not support the conflict minerals legislation. He has since endorsed such legislation for the EU. During our trip, we met dozens of women who had been raped, often by gangs. On our way to meet midwives and survivors of a massacre, I saw five corpses of villagers lying in the street. They were slain by rebels the night before. I saw children mining gold from a river with armed soldiers only a few feet away. That trip is the reason that I study, write, and teach about business and human rights. I had only been in academia for three weeks when I went to DRC, and I decided that my understanding of supply chains and corporate governance from my past in-house life could help others develop more practical solutions to intractable problems. I believed then and I believe now that using a corporate governance disclosure to solve a human rights crisis is a flawed and incomplete solution. It depends on the belief that large numbers of consumers will boycott companies that do not do enough for human rights.
What does the data say about compliance with the rule? The General Accounting Office puts out a mandatory report annually on the legislation and the state of disclosures. According to the 2018 report:
Similar to the prior 2 years, almost all companies required to conduct due diligence, as a result of their country-of-origin inquiries, reported doing so. After conducting due diligence to determine the source and chain of custody of any conflict minerals used, an estimated 37 percent of these companies reported in 2017 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 39 and 23 percent in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Four companies in GAO’s sample declared their products “DRC conflict-free,” and of those, three included the required Independent Private Sector Audit report (IPSA), and one did not. In 2017, 16 companies filed an IPSA; 19 did so in 2016. (emphasis added).
But what about the effect on forced labor and rape? The 2017 GAO Report indicated that in 2016, a study in DRC estimated that 32 percent of women and 33 percent of men in these areas had been exposed to some form of sexual and gender-based violence in their lifetime. Notably, just last month, a coalition of Congolese civil society organizations wrote the following to the United Nations seeking a country-wide monitoring system:
... Armed groups and security forces have attacked civilians in many parts of the country...Today, some 4.5 million Congolese are displaced from their homes. More than 100,000 Congolese have fled abroad since January 2018, raising the risk of increased regional instability... Since early this year, violence intensified in various parts of northeastern Congo’s Ituri province, with terrifying incidents of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. Armed groups launched deadly attacks on villages, killing scores of civilians, torching hundreds of homes, and displacing an estimated 350,000 people. Armed groups and security forces in the Kivu provinces also continue to attack civilians. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, assailants, including state security forces, killed more than 580 civilians and abducted at least 940 others in North and South Kivu since January 2018. (emphasis added)
The U.S. government provides $500 million in aid to the DRC and runs an app called Sweat and Toil for people who are interested in avoiding goods produced by exploited labor. As of today, DRC has seven goods produced with exploitative labor: cobalt (used in electric cars and cell phones), copper, diamonds, and, not surprisingly, tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold- the four minerals regulated by Dodd-Frank. The app notes that "for the second year in a row, labor inspectors have failed to conduct any worksite inspections... and [the] government also separated as many as 2,360 children from armed groups...[t]here were numerous reports of ongoing collaboration between members of the [DRC] Armed Forces and non-state armed groups known for recruiting children... The Armed Forces carried out extrajudicial killings of civilians including children, due to their perceived support or affiliation with non-state armed groups. .."
For these reasons, I continue to ask whether the conflict minerals legislation has made a difference in the lives of the people on the ground. The EU, learning from Dodd-Frank's flaws, has passed its own legislation, which goes into effect in 2021. The EU law applies beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo and defines conflict areas as those in a state of armed conflict, or fragile post-conflict area, areas with weak or nonexistent governance and security such as failed states, and any state with a widespread or systematic violation of international law including human rights abuses. Certain European Union importers will have to identify and address the actual potential risks linked to conflict-affected areas or high-risk areas during the due diligence of their supply chains.
Notwithstanding the statistics above, many investors, NGOs, and other advocates believe the Dodd-Frank rule makes sense. A coalition of investors with 50 trillion worth of assets under management has pushed to keep the law in place. It's no surprise then that many issuers have said that they would continue the due diligence even if the law were repealed. I doubt that will help people in these countries, but the due diligence does help drive out inefficiencies and optimize supply chains.
Stay tuned for my upcoming article in UT's business law journal, Transactions, where I will discuss how companies and state actors are using blockchain technology for due diligence related to human rights. Blockchain will minimize expenses and time for these disclosure requirements, but it probably won't stop the forced labor, exploitation, rapes, and massacres that continue in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (See here for a Fortune magazine article with a great video discussing how and why companies are exploring blockchain's uses in DRC). The blockchain technology won't be the problem-- it's already being used for tracing conflict diamonds. The problem is using the technology in a state with such lawlessness. This means that blockchain will probably help companies, but not the people the laws are meant to protect.
October 13, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, October 8, 2018
BLPB reader Tom N. sent me a link to this article last week by email. The article covers Elon Musk's taunting of the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in a post on Twitter. The post followed on the SEC's settlement with Musk and Tesla, Inc. of a legal action relating to a prior Twitter post. The title of Tom N.'s message? "Musk Pokes the Bear in the Eye." Exactly what I was thinking (and I told him so) when I had read the same article earlier that day! This post is dedicated to Tom N. (and the rest of you who have been following the Musk affair).
Last week, I wrote about scienter issues in the securities fraud allegations against Elon Musk, following on Ann Lipton's earlier post on materiality in the same context. This week, I want to focus on state corporate law--specifically, fiduciary duty law. The idea for this post arises from a quotation in the article Tom N. and I read last week. The quotation relates to an order from the judge in the SEC's action against Musk and Tesla, Alison Nathan, that the parties jointly explain and justify the fairness and reasonableness of their settlement and why the settlement would not hurt the public interest. Friend and Michigan Law colleague Adam Pritchard offered (as quoted in the article): “She may want to know why Tesla is paying a fine because the CEO doesn’t know when to shut up.” Yes, Adam. I agree.
What about that? According to the article, the SEC settlement with Musk and Tesla "prevents Musk from denying wrongdoing or suggesting that the regulator’s allegations were untrue." The taunting tweet does not exactly deny wrongdoing or suggest that the SEC's allegations against him were untrue. Yet, it comes close by mocking the SEC's enforcement activities against Musk and Tesla. Musk's action in tweeting negatively about the SEC is seemingly--in the eyes of a reasonable observer--an intentional action that may have the propensity to damage Tesla.
At the very least, the tweet appears to be contrary to the best interests of the firm. But is it a manifestation of bad faith that constitutes a breach of the duty of loyalty under Delaware law? As most of us well know,
[b]ad faith has been defined as authorizing a transaction "for some purpose other than a genuine attempt to advance corporate welfare or [when the transaction] is known to constitute a violation of applicable positive law." In other words, an action taken with the intent to harm the corporation is a disloyal act in bad faith. . . . [B]ad faith (or lack of good faith) is when a director acts in a manner "unrelated to a pursuit of the corporation's best interests." It makes no difference the reason why the director intentionally fails to pursue the best interests of the corporation.
Bad faith can be the result of "any emotion [that] may cause a director to [intentionally] place his own interests, preferences or appetites before the welfare of the corporation," including greed, "hatred, lust, envy, revenge, . . . shame or pride."
In Re Walt Disney Co. Derivative Litigation, 907 A.2d 693, 753-54 (Del. Ch. 2005). Of course, Musk was not authorizing a transaction--or even clearly acting for or on behalf of Tesla--in making his taunting tweet. But he is identified strongly with Tesla, and his tweet was intentional and inconsistent with the best interests of the firm. Did he intend to harm Tesla in posting his tweet? Perhaps not. Did he act in a manner "unrelated to a pursuit of the corporation's best interests?" Perhaps. The tweet is certainly an imprudent (and likely grossly negligent or reckless) action that appears to result from Musk intentionally placing his own hatred or revenge ahead of the interests of Tesla.
"To act in good faith, a director must act at all times with an honesty of purpose and in the best interests and welfare of the corporation." Id. at 755. Yet, it is unclear how far that goes in a Twitter-happy world in which the personal blends into the professional. Musk was (in all likelihood) not taking action as a director or officer of Tesla when he tweeted his taunt. Yet, he was undoubtedly cognizant that he occupied those roles and that his actions likely had an effect on the firm. Should his fiduciary duties extend to this type of conduct?
And what about the Tesla board's duty to monitor? Does it extend to monitoring Musk's personal tweeting? E.g., the argument made in the Chancery Court's opinion in Beam Ex Rel. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. v. Stewart. Even of not mandated by fiduciary duty law, the SEC clearly wants the board to have that monitoring responsibility. The settlement with the SEC reportedly provides for "Tesla’s board to implement procedures for reviewing Musk’s communications with investors, which include tweets." More for us all to think about when we think about Elon Musk and Tesla . . . . It's always best not to poke the bear.
Monday, October 1, 2018
I have been so grateful for Ann Lipton's blog posts (see here and here) and tweets about Elon Musk's going-private-funding-is-secure tweet affair. Her post on materiality on Saturday--just before the SEC settlement was announced--was especially interesting (but, of course, that's one of my favorite areas to work in . . .). She tweeted about the settlement here:
[Note: this is a screenshot.] Ann may have more to say about that in another post; she did add a postscript to her Saturday post reporting the settlement . . . .
But I also find myself wondering about another of the contentious issues in Section 10(b)/Rule 10b-5 litigation: scienter. This New York Times article made me think a bit on the point. It tells a tale--apparently relayed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in connection with its inquiry into the tweet incident--of fairly typical back-room discussions between/among business principals. This part of the article especially stuck with me in that regard:
On an evening in March 2017, . . . Mr. Musk and Tesla’s chief financial officer dined at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., with Larry Ellison, the chairman of Oracle, and Yasir Al Rumayyan, the managing director of the Saudi Public Investment Fund. During the meal, . . . Mr. Rumayyan raised the idea of taking Tesla private and increasing the Saudi fund’s stake in it.
More than a year later, . . . Mr. Musk and Mr. Rumayyan met at the Tesla factory on July 31. When Mr. Rumayyan spoke again of taking the company private, Mr. Musk asked him whether anyone else at the fund needed to approve of such a significant deal. Mr. Rumayyan said no . . . .
Could Musk have actually believed that a handshake was all that was needed here? We all know a handshake can be significant. (See here and here for the key facts relating to the now infamous Texaco/Getty/Pennzoil case.) But should Musk have taken (or at least should he have known that he should take) more care to verify before tweeting? In other words, can Musk and his legal counsel actually believe they can prove that Musk (1) had no knowledge that his tweet was false and (2) was merely negligent--not reckless--in relying on the oral assurance of a business principal to commit to a $70+ billion transaction?
Don Langevoort has written cogently and passionately about the law governing scienter. One of my favorite articles he has written on scienter is republished in my Martha Stewart book. What he urges in that piece is that the motive and purpose of a potentially fraudulent disclosure are not the relevant considerations in determining the existence of scienter. Rather, the key question is whether the disclosing party (here, Musk) knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that what he was saying was false. Join this, Don notes, with the securities fraud requirement that manipulation or deception be in connection with the purchase or sale of a security, and the test becomes not merely whether Musk misrepresented material fact or misleadingly omitted to state material fact, but also whether he could reasonably foresee the likely impact of his misrepresentation on the market for Tesla's securities.
On the one hand, as Ann points out in her post on Saturday, a number of investors in the market thought the tweet was a joke. Given that, might we assume that Musk--a person perhaps similarly experienced in finance--knew or should have known that his tweet was false? On the other hand, as Ann notes in her post, the SEC's complaint states that "market analysts - sophisticated people - privately contacted Tesla’s head of investor relations for more information and were assured that the tweet was legit. So that’s evidence the market took it seriously." Yet, Musk might just be presumptuous enough to believe he could reasonably rely on an oral promise by a person who is in control of executing on that promise--thinking it represented a deal (although, of course, not one that experienced legal counsel would understand to be legally, or even morally, binding or enforceable). Too wealthy men jawing about a deal . . . .Puffery, or the way business actually is done in this crowd?
Based on what I know today (which is not terribly much), my sense is that a court should find that Musk acted in reckless disregard of the falsity of his words and understood the likely impact those words would have on the trading of his firm's stock. To find otherwise based on the specific facts alleged to have occurred here would inject too much subjectivity into the (admittedly subjective) determination of scienter. But we shall see. As Ann noted in Saturday's post, a private class action also has been brought against Musk and Tesla based on the tweet affair. So, we may yet see the materiality and scienter issues play themselves out in court (although I somehow doubt it).
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
According to its website,
The U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has a three-part mission:
Maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets
Facilitate capital formation
I think it needs to add: "Ensure proper entity identification."
Examples abound. Take this recent 10-Q:
On June 27, 2018, the Company formed a joint venture with Downtown Television, Inc., for the purpose of developing, producing and marketing entertainment content relating to deep-sea exploration, historical shipwreck search, artifact recovery, and expounding upon the history of these shipwrecks. The joint venture is being formed as a new limited liability corporation that will be 50% owned each by EXPL and Downtown, and has been named Megalodon Entertainment, LLC. (“Megalodon”), as is further described in Note B.
Endurance Exploration Group, Inc., SEC 10-Q, for the quarterly period ended: June 30, 2018 (emphasis added).
Side note: That 10-Q, I will note, raised some other questionable decisionmaking, as it goes on to report:
NOTE B – JOINT VENTURE
EXPL Swordfish, LLC
Effective January 9, 2017, the Company, through a newly formed, wholly owned subsidiary, EXPL Swordfish, LLC (“EXPL Swordfish”), entered into a joint-venture agreement (“Agreement”) with Deep Blue Exploration, LLC, d/b/a Marex (“Marex”). The joint venture between EXPL Swordfish and Marex is referred to as Swordfish Partners.
As near as I can tell, Swordfish Partners is what it says it is, a partnership formed as a joint venture for a unique purpose. This is fascinating to me. Why would a company filing quarterly reports with the SEC not choose to take the time to create an LLC for the joint venture? I'm not a maritime expert, though I did participate in Tulane Law School's program with the Aegean Institute of the Law of the Sea and Maritime Law many years ago. I simply cannot come up with a good reason not to create a limited liability entity for the joint venture. I know there are times when it makes sense (or is not a concern), but this doesn't seem like one of those times.
I did a quick look for some other entity issues in SEC filings. There are many more, but this is what the Google machine provided in a quick search:
- From Core Moldings Technologies, Inc. Schedule 13D (Aug. 8, S018): "GGCP Holdings is a Delaware limited liability corporation having its principal business office at 140 Greenwich Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06830."
- From Financial Engines, Inc. Form 8-K, Jan. 28, 2016: "On February 1, 2016, Financial Engines, Inc. (“Financial Engines”) completed the previously announced acquisition of Kansas City 727 Acquisition LLC, a Delaware limited liability corporation ...."
- Limited Liability Company Agreement of Artist Arena International, LLC, Exhibit 3.206: "This Limited Liability Company Agreement (this “Agreement”) of Artist Arena International, LLC, a New York limited liability company (the “Company”), dated as of January 4, 2011, is adopted and entered into by Artist Arena LLC., a New York limited liability corporation (the “Member” or “AA”), pursuant to and in accordance with the Limited Liability Company Law of the State of New York, Article 2, §§ 201-214, et seq., as amended from time to time (the “Act”)."
- CloudCommerce, Inc., Form 8-K, October 1, 2015: "Certificate of Merger of Domestic Corporation and Foreign Limited Liability Corporation between Warp 9, Inc., a Delaware corporation, and Indaba Group, LLC, a Colorado limited liability company."
I swear we can do better. Really.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
We’re a month away from our second annual Business Law Professor Blog CLE, hosted at the University of Tennessee on Friday, September 14, 2018. We’ll discuss our latest research and receive comments from UT faculty and students. I’ve entitled my talk Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management, and will blog more about that after I finish the article. This is a really long post, but it’s chock full of helpful links for novices and experts alike and highlights some really interesting work from our colleagues at other law schools.
Two weeks ago, I posted some resources to help familiarize you with blockchain. Here’s a relatively simple definition from John Giordani at Forbes:
Blockchain is a public register in which transactions between two users belonging to the same network are stored in a secure, verifiable and permanent way. The data relating to the exchanges are saved inside cryptographic blocks, connected in a hierarchical manner to each other. This creates an endless chain of data blocks -- hence the name blockchain -- that allows you to trace and verify all the transactions you have ever made. The primary function of a blockchain is, therefore, to certify transactions between people. In the case of Bitcoin, the blockchain serves to verify the exchange of cryptocurrency between two users, but it is only one of the many possible uses of this technological structure. In other sectors, the blockchain can certify the exchange of shares and stocks, operate as if it were a notary and "validate" a contract or make the votes cast in online voting secure and impossible to alter. One of the greatest advantages of the blockchain is the high degree of security it guarantees. In fact, once a transaction is certified and saved within one of the chain blocks, it can no longer be modified or tampered with. Each block consists of a pointer that connects it to the previous block, a timestamp that certifies the time at which the event actually took place and the transaction data.
These three elements ensure that each element of the blockchain is unique and immutable -- any request to modify the timestamp or the content of the block would change all subsequent blocks. This is because the pointer is created based on the data in the previous block, triggering a real chain reaction. In order for any alterations to happen, it would be necessary for the 50%-plus-one of the network to approve the change: a possible but hardly feasible operation since the blockchain is distributed worldwide between millions of users.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, here are links to a few of my favorite videos for novices. These will help you understand the rest of this blog post.
- Blockchain Expert Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty
- 19 Industries That Blockchain Will Disrupt
- How Blockchain is Changing Money and Business
To help prepare for my own talk in Tennessee, I attended a fascinating discussion at SEALS on Thursday moderated by Dean Jon Garon of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law called Blockchain Technology and the Law.
For those of you who don’t know how blockchain technology can relate to your practice or teaching, I thought I would provide a few questions raised by some of the speakers. I’ve inserted some (oversimplified)links for definitions. The speakers did not include these links, so if I have used one that you believe is incomplete or inaccurate, do not attribute it to them.
Del started the session by talking about the legal issues in blockchain consensus models. He described consensus models as the backbones for users because they: 1) allow users to interact with each other in a trustless manner; 2) ensure the integrity of the ledger in both normal and adversarial situations; and 3) create a “novel variety of networks with extraordinary potential” if implemented correctly. He discussed both permissioned (e.g. Ripple) and permissionless (Bitcoin) systems and how they differ. He then explained Proof of Work blockchains supported by miners (who solve problems to add blocks to the blockchain) and masternodes (who provide the backbone support to the blockchain). He pointed out how blockchains can reduce agency costs and problems of asymmetrical information and then focused on their utility in financial markets, securities regulation, and corporate governance. Del compared the issues related to off-chain governance, where decisionmaking first takes place on a social level and is then actively encoded into the protocol by the developers (used by Bitcoin and Ethereum) to on-chain governance, where developers broadcast their improvement protocols on-chain and then, once approved, those improvements are implemented into the code. He closed by listing a number of “big unanswered issues” related to regulatory guidance, liability for the performance of the technology and choice of consensus, global issues, and GDPR and other data privacy issues.
Catherine wants to help judges think about smart contracts. She asked, among other things, how judges should address remedies, what counts as substantial performance, and how smart contract audits would work. She questioned whether judges should use a consumer protection approach or instead follow a draconian approach by embracing automation and enforcing smart contracts as drafted to discourage their adoption by those who are not sophisticated enough to understand how they work.
Tonya focuses on blockchain and intellectual property. Her talked raised the issues of non-fungible tokens generated through smart contracts and the internet of value. She used the example of cryptokitties, where players have the chance to collect and breed digital cats. She also raised the question of what kind of technology can avoid infringement. For more on how blockchain can disrupt copyright law, read her post here.
In case you didn’t have enough trust issues with blockchain and cryptocurrency, Rebecca’s presentation focused on the “halo of immutability” and asked a few central questions: 1) why should we trust the miners not to collude for a 51% attack 2) why should we trust wallets, which aren’t as secure as people think; and 3) why should we trust the consensus mechanism? In response, some members of the audience noted that blockchain appeals to a libertarian element because of the removal of the government from the conversation.
Professor Carla Reyes, Michigan State University College of Law- follow her on Twitter at Carla Reyes (@Prof_CarlaReyes);
Carla talked about crypto corporate governance and the potential fiduciary duties that come out of thinking of blockchains as public trusts or corporations. She explained that governance happens on and off of the blockchain mechanisms through social media outlets such as Redditt. She further noted that many of those who call themselves “passive economic participants” are actually involved in governance because they comment on improvement processes. She also noted the paradox that off chain governance doesn’t always work very well because participants don’t always agree, but when they do agree, it often leads to controversial results like hard forks. Her upcoming article will outline potential fiduciaries (miner and masternode operators for example), their duties, and when they apply. She also asked the provocative question of whether a hard fork is like a Revlon event.
As a former chief privacy officer, I have to confess a bias toward Charlotte’s presentation. She talked about blockchain in healthcare focusing on these questions: will gains in cybersecurity protection outweigh specific issues for privacy or other legal issues (data ownership); what are the practical implications of implementing a private blockchain (consortium, patient-initiated, regulatory-approved); can this apply to other needed uses, including medical device applications; how might this technology work over geographically diverse regulatory structures; and are there better applications for this technology (e.g. connected health devices)? She posited that blockchain could work in healthcare because it is decentralized, has increased security, improves access controls, is more impervious to unauthorized change, could support availability goals for ransomware attacks and other issues, is potentially interoperable, could be less expensive, and could be controlled by regulatory branch, consortium, and the patient. She closed by raising potential legal issues related to broad data sharing, unanswered questions about private implementations, privacy requirements relating to the obligation of data deletion and correction (GDPR in the EU, China’s cybersecurity law, etc); and questions of data ownership in a contract.
Eric closed by discussing the potential tax issue for hard forks. He explained that after a hard fork, a new coin is created, and asked whether that creates income because the owner had one entitlement and now has two pieces of ownership. He then asked whether hard forks are more like corporate reorganizations or spinoffs (which already have statutory taxation provisions) or rather analogous to a change of wealth. Finally, he asked whether we should think about these transactions like a contingent right to do something in the future and how that should be valued.
Stay tuned for more on these and other projects related to blockchain. I will be sure to post them when they are done. But, ignore blockchain at your peril. There’s a reason that IBM, Microsoft, and the State Department are spending money on this technology. If you come to UT on September 15th, I’ll explain how other companies, the UN, NASDAQ, and nation states are using blockchain beyond the cryptocurrency arena.
August 12, 2018 in Commercial Law, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Human Rights, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching, Technology, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, July 30, 2018
Hello to all from Tokyo, Japan (Honshu). I have been in Japan for almost a week to present at and attend the 20th General Congress of the International Academy of Comparative Law (IACL), which was held last week in Fukuoka, Japan (Kyushu). By the time you read this, I will be on my way home.
As it turns out, I was at the Congress with old business law friends Hannah Buxbaum (Indiana Maurer Law), Felix Chang (Cincinnati Law), and Frank Gevurtz (McGeorge Law), as well as erstwhile SEALS buddy Eugene Mazo (Rutgers Law). I also met super new academic friends from all over the world, including several from the United States. I attended all of the business law programs after my arrival (I missed the first day due to my travel schedule) and a number of sessions on general comparative and cross-border legal matters. All of that is too much to write about here, but I will give you a slice.
I spoke on the legal regulation of crowdfunding as the National Rapporteur for the United States. My written contribution to the project, which I am told will be part of a published volume, is on SSRN here. The entire project consists of eighteen papers from around the world, each of which responded to the same series of prompts conveyed to us by the General Rapporteur for the project (in our case, Caroline Kleiner from the University of Strasbourg). The General Rapporteur is charged with consolidating the information and observations from the national reports and synthesizing key take-aways. I do not envy her job! The importance of the U.S. law and market to the global phenomenon is well illustrated by this slide from Caroline's summary.
The Congress was different from other international crowdfunding events at which I have presented my work. The diversity of the audience--in terms of the number of countries and legal specialties represented--was significantly greater than in any other international academic forum at which I have presented. Our panel of National Rapporteurs also was a bit more diverse and different than what I have experienced elsewhere, including panelists hailing from from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Poland, and Singapore (in addition to me). At international conferences focusing on the microfinance aspects of crowdfunding, participants from India and Africa are more prominent. I expect to say more about the individual national reports on crowdfunding in later posts, as the need or desire arises.
A few outtakes on other sessions follow.
July 30, 2018 in Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Crowdfunding, Current Affairs, International Business, International Law, Joan Heminway, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, July 26, 2018
One of the business law academy's power couples, Amy and Bert Westbrook, recently posted an intriguing piece on SSRN that Bert and I have been communicating about a bit this summer. It is entitled Snapchat's Gift: Equity Culture in High-Tech Firms, and it is, indeed, a lovely gift--well conceived and packaged. It is a look at dual class common equity in technology firms--and equity more generally--that confronts and incorporates many perspectives from law, economics, and other social sciences.
Some of you, like me, teach basic corporate finance in a variety of courses. In those situations, it is important for instructors to have a handle on descriptions of the basic instruments of corporate finance--debt, equity, hybrid, and other. What is the package of rights each instrument represents that incentivizes investors to supply money or other valuable assets? In my classes, we ultimately discuss equity as a bundle of rights that includes potentials for financial gain and governance. Snapchat's Gift digs into the validity of these perceived rights in relevant part by focusing on recent changes in the primary public offering market for equity securities in the United States--in particular, the advent of highly publicized and fully subscribed initial public offerings of nonvoting common shares.
Monday, July 2, 2018
What would the world look like if a public company officer or director, recognizing the value of material nonpublic firm information in his possession and intending to benefit people of limited means, gave this valuable information to those less fortunate without the knowledge or consent of the firm and without any expectation of benefit in return? How, if at all, do we desire to regulate that behavior? The officer or director apparently would be in breach of his or her fiduciary duty absent a valid, binding, and enforceable agreement to the contrary. Does that conduct also, however, violate U.S. federal insider trading rules? Should it? This article, a relatively short piece that I wrote for a "virtual symposium" issue of the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, offers answers to those questions.
Other symposium authors with insider trading pieces in this volume include:
Great reading on this topic, all around. As we await the next insider trading regulation volley after Salman v. United States, this collection of essays and articles fills a nice gap. Although the issue is not yet posted to the journal's website, it soon should be. In the mean time, here is a photo of the relevant page from the table of contents:
(Sorry for the faint image and the shadows! I took this in my office; no natural light was available, if you know what I mean . . . .)
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Bernie Sharfman's paper, A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs, was just published, and I think he has a point. In fact, as I read his argument, I think it is consistent with arguments I have made about the difference between restrictions or unconventional terms or practices that exist at purchase versus such changes that are added after one becomes a member or shareholder. Here's the abstract:
The shareholder empowerment movement (movement) has renewed its effort to eliminate, restrict or at the very least discourage the use of dual class share structures in initial public offerings (IPOs). This renewed effort was triggered by the recent Snap Inc. IPO that utilized non-voting stock. Such advocacy, if successful, would not be trivial, as many of our most valuable and dynamic companies, including Alphabet (Google) and Facebook, have gone public by offering shares with unequal voting rights.
Unless there are significant sunset provisions, a dual class share structure allows insiders to maintain voting control over a company even when, over time, there is both an ebbing of superior leadership skills and a significant decline in the insiders’ ownership of the company’s common stock. Yet, investors are willing to take that risk even to the point of investing in dual class shares where the shares have no voting rights and barely any sunset provisions, such as in the recent Snap Inc. IPO. Why they are willing to do so is a result of the wealth maximizing efficiency that results from the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements and the understanding that agency costs are not the only costs of governance that need to be minimized.
In this essay, Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s newly proposed “principal-cost theory,” “each firm’s optimal governance structure minimizes the sum of principal costs, produced when investors exercise control, and agent costs, produced when managers exercise control,” is used to argue that the use of dual class shares in IPOs is a value enhancing result of private ordering, making the movement’s renewed advocacy unwarranted.
The recommended citation is Bernard S. Sharfman, A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs, 63 Vill. L. Rev. 1 (2018).
I find his argument compelling, as I lean toward allowing contracting parties to enter into agreements as they so choose. I find this especially compelling at start-up or the IPO stage. I might take a more skeptical view of changes made after start-up. That is, if dual-class shares are voted created after an IPO by the majority insiders, there is a stronger bait-and-switch argument. Even in that case, if the ability to create dual-class shares by majority vote was allowed by the charter/bylaws, it might be reasonable to allow such a change, but I also see a self-dealing argument to do such a thing post-IPO. At the outset, though, if insiders make clear that, to the extent that a dual-class share structure is self-dealing, the offer to potential purchasers is, essentially, "if you want in on this company, these are our terms." I can work with that.
This is consistent with my view of other types of disclosure. For example, in my post: Embracing Freedom of Contract in the LLC: Linking the Lack of Duty of Loyalty to a Duty of Disclosure, I discussed the ability to waive the duty of loyalty in Delaware LLCs:
At formation . . . those creating an LLC would be allowed to do whatever they want to set their fiduciary duties, up to and including eliminating the consequences for breaches of the duty of loyalty. This is part of the bargain, and any member who does not agree to the terms need not become a member. Any member who joins the LLC after formation is then on notice (perhaps even with an affirmative disclosure requirement) that the duty of loyalty has been modified or eliminated.
It was my view, and remains my view, that there some concerns about such changes after one becomes a member that warrant either restrictions or at least some level of clear disclosures of the possibility of such a change after the fact, though even in that case, perhaps self-dealing protections in the form of the obligations of good faith and fair dealing would be sufficient.
Similarly, in my 2010 post, Philanthropy as a Business Model: Comparing Ford to craigslist, I explained:
I see the problem for Henry Ford to say, in essence, that his shareholders should be happy with what they get and that workers and others are more his important to him than the shareholders. However, it would have been quite another thing for Ford to say, “I, along with my board, run this company the way I always have: with an eye toward long-term growth and stability. That means we reinvest many of our profits and take a cautious approach to dividends because the health of the company comes first. It is our belief that is in the best interest of Ford and of Ford’s shareholders.”
For Ford, there seemed to be something of a change in the business model (and how the business was operated with regard to dividends) once the Dodge Brothers started thinking about competing. All of a sudden, Ford became concerned about community first. For craigslist, at least with regard to the concept of serving the community, the company changed nothing. And, in fact, it seems apparent that craiglist’s view of community is one reason, if not the reason, it still has its “perch atop the pile.”
Thus, while it is true craigslist never needed to accept eBay’s money, eBay also knew exactly how craigslist was operated when they invested. If they wanted to ensure they could change that, it seems to me they should have made sure they bought a majority share.
I understand some of the concern about dual-class shares and other mechanisms that facilitate insider control, but as long as the structure of the company is clear when the buyer is making the purchase decision, I'm okay with letting the market decide whether the structure is acceptable.
Monday, April 2, 2018
This timely post comes to us from Jeremy R. McClane, Associate Professor of Law and Cornelius J. Scanlon Research Scholar at the University of Connecticut School of Law. Jeremy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spotify, the Swedish music streaming company known for disrupting the music market might do the same thing this week to the equity capital markets. On April 3, Spotify plans to go public but in an unusual way. Instead of issuing new stock and enlisting an underwriter to build a book of orders and provide liquidity, Spotify plans to cut out the middleman and list stock held by existing shareholders directly on the New York Stock Exchange.
This will be an interesting experiment that will test some prevailing assumptions that about how firms must raise capital from the public.
The Importance of Bookbuilding. First, we will see just how important bookbuilding is to ensuring a successful IPO. When most companies go public, they hire an underwriter to market the shares in what is known as a “firm commitment” underwriting. The investment banks commit to finding buyers for all of the shares, or purchasing any unsold shares themselves if they cannot find buyers (an occurrence which never happens in practice). The process involves visiting institutional investors and building a book of orders, which are then used to gauge demand and set a price at which to float the stock. The benefit of this process is risk management – the issuing company and its underwriters try to ensure that the offering will be a success (and the price won’t plummet or experience volatile ups and downs) by setting a price at a level that they know market demand will bear, and ensuring that there are orders for all of the shares even before they are sold into the market.
Without underwriters or bookbuilding, Spotify is taking a risk that its share price will be set at the wrong level and become unstable. In Spotify’s case, however there is already relatively active trading of shares in private transactions, which gives the company some indication of what the right price should be. Nonetheless, that indication of price is volatile, in part because the securities laws limit the market for its shares by restricting the number of pre-IPO shareholders to 2,000, at least in the US. In 2017 for example, the price of Spotify’s shares traded in private transactions ranging from $37.50 to $125.00, according to the company’s Form F-1 registration statement.
Monday, March 26, 2018
Brent Horton of Fordham University's Gabelli School of Business recently posted his American Business Law Journal article on pre-Securities Act prospectuses.
For interested readers, the abstract is below and the article can be downloaded here.
Some legal scholars—skeptics—question the conventional wisdom that corporations failed to provide adequate information to prospective investors before the passage of the Securities Act of 1933 (Securities Act). These skeptics argue that the Securities Act’s disclosure requirements were largely unnecessary. For example, Paul G. Mahoney in his 2015 book, Wasting A Crisis: Why Securities Regulation Fails, relied on the fact that the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) imposed disclosure requirements in the 1920s to conclude that stories about poor pre-Act disclosure are “demonstrably wrong”. (Likewise, Roberta Romano argued in Empowering Investors that “there is little tangible proof” that disclosure was inadequate pre-Securities Act.)
This Article sets out to determine who is correct, those that accept the conventional wisdom that pre-Securities Act disclosure was inadequate, or the skeptics?
The Author examined twenty-five stock prospectuses (the key piece of disclosure provided to prospective investors) that predate the Securities Act. This primary-source documentation strongly suggests that—contrary to the assertions of skeptics—pre-Act prospectuses did fail to provide potential investors with financial statements, as well as information about capitalization and voting rights, and executive compensation.
Friday, March 16, 2018
Matt Kelly of Radical Compliance has posted on the costs and benefits of regulation. His post is timely considering this week's rollback of certain Dodd-Frank banking provisions by the Senate. Among other things, Kelly notes that according to a draft OMB report, "across 133 major rules, the average annualized cost (in 2015 dollars) was $92.8 billion, average annualized benefit $554.8 billion. Benefits were six times larger than costs." He further writes, with some skepticism, that the OMB is seeking comment from "peer reviewers with expertise... in regulatory policy" on its cost-benefit analysis as it finalizes its report.
He also cited GW public policy professors who looked at over two hundred major rules adopted between 2007-2010 and found that "The design of the rulemaking process can both increase the pace with which rules are promulgated and reduce the level of detail in which they are presented, but only when care is taken to ensure the individuals intimately involved have greater breadth – relative to depth – in the competencies they bring to the endeavor." As Kelly, observed, " Teams with more “breadth of competencies” (one subject matter expert, one lawyer, one economic analyst, one regulatory affairs specialist, and so forth) tended to write rules more quickly and keep them simpler. In contrast, teams with depth of competency (a whole bunch of lawyers, or policy analysts, or subject matter experts) tended to take more time and, as the authors wonderfully phrased it, “elongated the resulting rules.”'
Although Kelly looks at these issues through the lens of a compliance expert, his post is worth a read as Congress and the SEC look at regulatory reform. He correctly focuses on the need to look at the quality rather than the quantity of regulation.
Monday, March 12, 2018
As I read recent news reports (starting a bit over a week ago and exemplified by stories here, here, here, and here--with the original story featured here) about Carl Icahn's well-timed sale of Manitowoc Company, Inc. stock, I could not help but associate the Icahn/Manitowoc intrigue with the Stewart/ImClone affair from back in the early days of the new millennium--more than 15 years ago. As many of you know, I spent a fair bit of time researching and writing on Martha Stewart's legal troubles relating to her December 2001 sale of ImClone Systems, Inc. stock. Eventually, I coauthored and edited a law teaching text focusing on some of the key issues. A bit of my Martha Stewart work is featured in that book; much of the rest can be found on my SSRN author page. For those who may not recall or know about the Stewart/ImClone matter, the SEC's press release relating to its insider trading enforcement action against Stewart is here, and it supplies some relevant background. (Btw, ImClone apparently is now a privately held subsidiary of Eli Lilly and Company organized as an LLC.)
In reading about Icahn's Manitowoc stock sale, my thoughts drifted back to Stewart's ImClone stock sale because of salient parallels in the early public revelations. Just as Icahn had personal and professional connections with U.S. government officials who were aware of material nonpublic information regarding the later-announced imposition of steel tariffs, Martha Stewart had personal and professional connections with at least one member of ImClone management who was aware of impending negative news from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regarding ImClone's flagship product. We know from the law itself and Stewart/ImClone fiasco not to jump to conclusions about insider trading liability from such scant facts. Stewart's insider trading case ended up being settled. (No, that's not why she went to jail . . . .) And I have argued in a book chapter (Chapter 4 of this book) that the facts associated with Stewart's stock sale may well have revealed that she did not violate U.S. insider trading prohibitions under Section 10(b) of, and Rule 10b-5 under, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended.
The Supreme Court's decisions in Dirks v. SEC and Salman v. United States advise us that a tippee trading while in possession of material nonpublic information only violates U.S. insider trading prohibitions under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 if:
- disclosure of the material nonpublic information in the tippee's possession breached a duty of trust and confidence because it was shared (directly or indirectly) with the tippee improperly--typically (although perhaps not always--as I note and argue in a forthcoming essay) because the duty-bearing tipper benefitted in some way from disclosure of the information; and
- the tippee knew or should have known that the tipper breached his or her duty of trust and confidence.
See, e.g., Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 660 (1983).
Thus, there is much more to tease out in terms of the facts of the Icahn/Manitowoc scenario before we can even begin to assert potential insider trading liability. Among the unanswered questions:
- what Icahn knew and when he knew it;
- whether any information disclosed to Icahn was material and nonpublic;
- who disclosed the information to Icahn and whether anyone directly or indirectly making disclosures to him had a fiduciary or fiduciary-like duty of trust and confidence;
- whether any disclosures directly or indirectly made to Icahn were inappropriate and, therefore, breached the tipper's fiduciary or fiduciary-like duty of trust and confidence; and
- whether Icahn knew or should have known that the information he received was disclosed in breach of a fiduciary or fiduciary-like duty of trust and confidence.
Icahn denies having any information about the Trump administration's imposition of tariffs on the steel industry. (See, e.g., here.) And the nature of the duties of trust and confidence owed by government officials is somewhat contended (although Donna Nagy's work in this area holds great sway with me). Regardless, it is simply too soon to tell whether Icahn has any U.S. insider trading liability exposure based on current news reports. I assume ongoing inquiries will result in more facts being adduced and made public. This post may serve as a guide for the digestion of those additoonal facts as they are revealed. In the mean time, feel free to leave your observations and questions in the comments.
Monday, February 26, 2018
Professional Responsibility in an Age of Alternative Entities, Alternative Finance, and Alternative Facts
Like my fellow editors here at the BLPB, I enjoyed the first Business Law Prof Blog conference hosted by The University of Tennessee College of Law back in the fall. They have begun to post their recently published work presented at that event over the past few weeks. See, e.g., here and here (one of several newly posted Padfield pieces) and here. I am adding mine to the pile: Professional Responsibility in an Age of Alternative Entities, Alternative Finance, and Alternative Facts. The SSRN abstract reads as follows:
Business lawyers in the United States find little in the way of robust, tailored guidance in most applicable bodies of rules governing their professional conduct. The relative lack of professional responsibility and ethics guidance for these lawyers is particularly troubling in light of two formidable challenges in business law: legal change and complexity. Change and complexity arise from exciting developments in the industry that invite—even entice—the participation of business lawyers.
This essay offers current examples from three different areas of business law practice that involve change and complexity. They are labeled: “Alternative Entities,” “Alternative Finance,” and “Alternative Facts.” Each area is described, together with significant attendant professional responsibility and ethics challenges. The essay concludes by offering general prescriptions for addressing these and other professional responsibility and ethics challenges faced by business lawyers in an age of legal change and complexity.
I do not often write on professional responsibility issues. However, I do feel an obligation every once in a while to add to the literature in that area addressing issues arising in transactional business law. In essence, it's service through scholarship.
I hope you read the essay and, if you do, I hope you enjoy it. I also can recommend the commentary on it published by my UT Law faculty colleague George Kuney and my student Claire Tuley. Both comments will be available electronically in the coming months. I will try to remember to post links . . . .
Friday, February 23, 2018
I love the Kardashians. I don't watch the reality show, but I do keep up with them because I use them in hypotheticals in class and in exams for entity selection questions. The students roll their eyes, but invariably most of them admit to knowing everything about them. When the students can relate to the topic, it makes my job easier. That's why I used the SNAP IPO last year as our case study on basic securities law. Every year I pick a "hot" offering to go through some of the key principles and documents, and Snap was the logical choice because the vast majority of the students love(d) the Snapchat app. The company explained as its first risk factor "... the majority of our users are 18-34 years old. This demographic may be less brand loyal and more likely to follow trends than other demographics. These factors may lead users to switch to another product, which would negatively affect our user retention, growth, and engagement." I used myself as an example to explain that risk factor in class. I have over 100 apps on my smartphone, and I have a son in the target demographic, but I never open Snapchat unless my six-year-old goddaughter sends me something. I just don't get the appeal even though millions of celebrities and even mainline companies use it for marketing. My students were aghast when I told them that I wouldn't invest in any stock that depended on the vagaries of their ever-changing taste.
Enter Kylie Kardashian. She's the youngest Kardashian (20 years old), is worth at least $50 million, runs a cosmetics empire on track to earn a billion dollars, has 95 million followers on Instagram, and has 24 million followers on Twitter.
After she offhandedly tweeted that she doesn't really open Snapchat anymore yesterday, Snap lost $1.3 billion (6%) in value. This plunge added to an already bad week for Snap after Citi issued a sell rating and the company confirmed to 1.2 million change.org petition signers that its new redesign was here to stay. But it was Kylie's tweet that caused the real damage. Perhaps one of Kylie's lawyers or business managers alerted her to the fallout because she later tweeted out, "still love you tho snap... my first love." Kylie probably forgot how much power she really has. When she released a video about her pregnancy and childbirth, 24 million people watched in less than 24 hours because she had refused to allow any of her followers to see pictures of her belly. She knows marketing.
Meanwhile, after seeing Kylie's first tweet, cosmetics competitor Maybelline went on Twitter to ask its users if it should stay on Snapchat, noting that its Snapchat views had dropped dramatically. The company later deleted the tweet, but users had already voted 81% to 19% to leave on the Twitter poll.
Snap appears determined to stick to its unpopular redesign, and its CEO received a $637 million bonus last year after the IPO. Perhaps the CEO should use some of that money to pay for a new Kylie tweet. In 2016, when Kylie earned only $18 million, 20% of that haul came from social media endorsements. It looks like the President isn't the only one who can move markets with a tweet.
Friday, February 16, 2018
Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era
This may be obsolete by the time you read this post, but here are my thoughts on Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era. Thank you, Joan Heminway and the wonderful law review editors of Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law. The abstract is below:
With Republicans controlling Congress, a Republican CEO as President, a “czar” appointed to oversee deregulation, and billionaires leading key Cabinet posts, corporate America had reason for optimism following President Trump’s unexpected election in 2016. However, the first year of the Trump Administration has not yielded the kinds of results that many business people had originally anticipated. This Essay will thus outline how general counsel, boards, compliance officers, and institutional investors should think about risk during this increasingly volatile administration.
Specifically, I will discuss key corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility issues facing U.S. public companies, although some of the remarks will also apply to the smaller companies that serve as their vendors, suppliers, and customers. In Part I, I will discuss the importance of enterprise risk management and some of the prevailing standards that govern it. In Part II, I will focus on the changing role of counsel and compliance officers as risk managers and will discuss recent surveys on the key risk factors that companies face under any political administration, but particularly under President Trump. Part III will outline some of the substantive issues related to compliance, specifically the enforcement priorities of various regulatory agencies. Part IV will discuss an issue that may pose a dilemma for companies under Trump— environmental issues, and specifically shareholder proposals and climate change disclosures in light of the conflict between the current EPA’s position regarding climate change, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and corporate commitments to sustainability. Part V will conclude by posing questions and proposing recommendations using the COSO ERM framework and adopting a stakeholder rather than a shareholder maximization perspective. I submit that companies that choose to pull back on CSR or sustainability programs in response to the President’s purported pro-business agenda will actually hurt both shareholders and stakeholders.
February 16, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, January 29, 2018
At The University of Tennessee College of Law, we have a four-credit-hour, four-module course called Representing Enterprises that is one of three capstone course offerings in our Concentration in Business Transactions. In Representing Enterprises, each course module focuses on a different aspect of transactional business law, often a specific transaction or task. We try to both ask the enrolled students to apply law that they have learned in other courses (doctrinal and experiential) and also introduce the students to applied practice in areas of law to which they have not or may not yet have been exposed.
I have been teaching the first module over the past few weeks. We finish up tomorrow. My module focuses on disclosure regulation. I have five class meetings, two hours for each meeting, to cover this topic. Each class engages students with a hypothetical that raises disclosure questions.
The first class focused on general rule identification regarding the applicable laws governing disclosure in connection with the purchase of limited liability membership interests. Specifically, our client had bought out his fellow members of a member-managed Tennessee limited liability company at a nominal price and without giving them full information about a reality television opportunity our client had with his wife. As things turned out, the television show was picked up and popularized the brand name of the limited liability company, making the husband and wife, over the next few years, significant income. Now, of course, the former limited liability company members are contending that, had they known the complete facts, they would have demanded a higher price for their limited liability membership interests from our client. The students did some nice, creative thinking here in identifying applicable legal rules, pointing to Tennessee limited liability company fiduciary duty law (although they missed our closely held limited liability company doctrine), federal and state securities law, business torts, potential contract law issues, etc.
Subsequent class meetings broke disclosure law down into component pieces commonly seen in a business transactional law context. The second class centered on work for another client, a Delaware corporation, concerning fiduciary duty disclosure issues under Delaware corporate law in connection with a merger. The third class focused on a client's obligations under mandatory disclosure and antifraud elements of the federal securities laws. The fourth class involved a hypothetical that raises specialized disclosure regulation questions for a talent agency that is an indirect subsidiary of a New York Stock Exchange ("NYSE") listed company. I may post later about the fifth class meeting, which will take place tomorrow. It involves Uber's recently publicized data security breach and related disclosure matters.
I want to focus today on the fourth class meeting. In that class, one of the things the students had to wrestle with was determining how the parent's status and regulation as a NYSE-listed firm might impact or be impacted by disclosure compliance at the subsidiary level. The NYSE Listed Company Manual provides, e.g.,
The market activity of a company's securities should be closely watched at a time when consideration is being given to significant corporate matters. If rumors or unusual market activity indicate that information on impending developments has leaked out, a frank and explicit announcement is clearly required. If rumors are in fact false or inaccurate, they should be promptly denied or clarified. A statement to the effect that the company knows of no corporate developments to account for the unusual market activity can have a salutary effect. It is obvious that if such a public statement is contemplated, management should be checked prior to any public comment so as to avoid any embarrassment or potential criticism. If rumors are correct or there are developments, an immediate candid statement to the public as to the state of negotiations or of development of corporate plans in the rumored area must be made directly and openly. Such statements are essential despite the business inconvenience which may be caused and even though the matter may not as yet have been presented to the company's Board of Directors for consideration. . . .
Having identified this and other related rules, we posited situations in which operations or activities at the subsidiary level might require disclosure by the parent company under the NYSE listed company rules. We dug in most specifically on what might lead to market rumors or cause unusual market activity. Having just discussed in the prior class meeting disclosure standards under the federal securities laws, the students understood that materiality was a distinct, separate disclosure-triggering standard and that the parent firm might have different--even conflicting--disclosure obligations under the federal securities laws and the NYSE listed company rules. With these observations as a foundation, I asked the students what types of conduct or information at the subsidiary level might generate market rumors or unusual market activity.
Given that the firm was a talent agency, I was not surprised when one of the first answers referenced the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The disparate pay issues relating to the Mark Wahlberg/Michelle Williams affair that I wrote about in a different context a few weeks ago (w/r/t which the same talent agency advised both actors) also came up. In each case we tried to envision what the subsidiary should be disclosing to the parent, and when, to enable the parent to satisfy its NYSE obligations. Among other things, we discussed the financial and non-financial impacts of the facts we were generating on the trading price and volume of parent's stock. It was a great brainstorming session, imv. By the end of class, we could see that a communication-oriented compliance plan for the subsidiary seemed to be in order.
Interestingly, the Steve Wynn story then broke the next day. I was pleased in the aftermath to see this article in The New York Times that validated the nature of our discussion and the complexity involved in assessing market risk in these kinds of situations.
The question, though, is what specifically investors are now pricing in. One risk is that regulators make it difficult for Wynn Resorts to expand. The Massachusetts gaming watchdog said on Friday that it would review plans for a new casino in Boston.
The threat of parting ways with an influential executive, until now a reasonable steward of shareholder value, is also potent. Over the past decade, Wynn Resorts’ average 10.5 percent shareholder return is a shade higher than that of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index — despite a slump in 2014 after China toughened rules on holiday gamblers.
Investors’ strong response to the reports is now the problem of Wynn Resorts’ 10-person board, which contains just one woman. Others surely will learn from how the Wynn board responds.
My students did identify regulatory risk (and the rest of the class was spent talking about California and New York laws regulating talent agencies, which are regulated and require licensure) and the risks associated with an iconic founder or chief executive at the heart of a controversy. I love it when current events dovetail with classroom activities!
Have any of you taught a course or course component like this before? I would be interested to know. I found it hard to teach the securities regulation issues to the students who were not interested in securities regulation work. I tried to break the legal foundations down into relatively small policy and doctrinal chunks, and I told them that every business lawyer needs to know a little bit about securities regulation, whether advising or litigating in connection with business transactions. But those who had not taken and were not taking our Securities Regulation course (a majority of the class) seemed to mentally almost shut down. Some of that may be 3L-itis. But I am rethinking how to engage students more happily with this part of the course. I will be asking the students for help on this. But any thoughts you have from your own experience (or otherwise) would be a great help to me as I think this through.
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
The new semester is upon us, and AALS (as it tends to) ran right into the new semester. Joan Heminway provided a nice overview of some of her activities, including her recognition as an outstanding mentor by the Section on Business Associations, and it was a pleasure to see her recognized for her tireless and consistent efforts to make all of us better. Congratulations, Joan, and thank you!
I, too, had a busy conference, with most of it condensed to Friday and Saturday. (As a side note, it was pretty great to run along the water in 55-65 degree weather. As much as I love New York and appreciate San Francisco and DC, I'd be quite content with AALS moving between San Diego and New Orleans.) I spoke on a panel with my co-bloggers, as Joan noted, about shareholder proposals, and I spoke on a panel about the green economy and sustainability, which was also fun. It's nice when I am able to spend some time with a focus on my two main areas of research.
As to our panel on shareholder proposals, I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts. First, as I have explained in the past, I am not anti-activist investor, even though I often think their proposals are wrong headed. I think shareholder (and hedge fund) activist can add value, even when they are wrong, as long as directors continue to exercise their judgment and lead the firm appropriately.
Second, although I tend to have a bias for staying the course and leaving many laws and regulations alone, I am open to some changes for shareholder proposals. The value of the current system (especially one that has been in place for some time) is that everyone knows the rules, which means there is some level of efficiency for all the players.
That said, the threshold for shareholder proposals has been in places since the 1950s. The Financial Choice Act looks to move the proxy threshold from $2,000 and one-year holdings to a 1%/three-year hurdle. That is a pretty big move. Updating the $2,000 threshold from 1960 would mean raising the threshold to around $16,000, so a move to what can be millions may be too much. But $16,000 (basically updating for inflation), would make some sense to me, too. Anyway, just a few simple thoughts to start the year. Hope your classes are starting well.
Monday, January 8, 2018
Last week, I had the privilege of attending and participating in the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (#aals2018). I saw many of you there. It was a full four days for me. The conference concluded on Saturday with the program captured in the photo above--four of us BLPB co-bloggers (Stefan, me, Josh, and Ann) jawing about shareholder proposals--as among ourselves and with our engaged audience members (who provided excellent questions and insights). Thanks to Stefan for organizing the session and inspiring our work with his article, The Inclusive Capitalism Shareholder Proposal. I learned a lot in preparing for and participating in this part of the program.
Earlier that day, BLPB co-blogger Anne Tucker and I co-moderated (really, Anne did the lion's share of the work) a discussion group entitled "A New Era for Business Regulation?" on current and future regulatory and de-regulatory initiatives. In some part, this session stemmed from posts that Anne and I wrote for the BLPB here, here, and here. I earlier posted a call for participation in this session. The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating. I took notes for two essays I am writing this year. A photo is included below. Regrettably, it does not capture everyone. But you get the idea . . . .
In between, I had the honor of introducing Tamar Frankel, this year's recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Section for Women in Legal Education luncheon. Unfortunately, the Boston storm activity conspired to keep Tamar at home. But she did deliver remarks by video. A photo (props to Hari Osofsky for getting this shot--I hope she doesn't mind me using it here) of Tamar's video remarks is included below.
Tamar has been a great mentor to me and so many others. She plans to continue writing after her retirement at the end of the semester. I plan to post more on her at a later time.
On Friday, I was recognized by the Section on Business Associations for my mentoring activities. On Thursday, I had the opportunity to comment (with Jeff Schwartz) on Summer Kim's draft paper on South Korean private equity fund regulation. And on Wednesday, I started the conference with a discussion group entitled "What is Fraud Anyway?," co-moderated by John Anderson and David Kwok. My short paper for that discussion group focused on the importance of remembering the requirement of manipulative or deceptive conduct if/as we continue to regulate securities fraud in major part under Section 10(b) of, and Rule 10b-5 under, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended.
That summary does not, of course, include the sessions at which I was merely in the audience. Many of the business law sessions were on Friday and Saturday. They were all quite good. But I already am likely overstaying my welcome for the day. Stay tuned here for any BLPB-reated sessions for next year's conference. And in between, there's Law and Society, National Business Law Scholars, and SEALS, all of which will have robust business law programs.
Good luck in starting the new semester. Some of you, I know, are already back in the classroom. I will be Wednesday morning. I know it will be a busy 14 weeks of teaching!