As we approach the end of the 2015 peak proxy season, the annual parade of articles and studies of executive compensation has begun. To no one’s surprise (at least not mine), the numbers keep going up, and some investors and media types are looking for someone to blame. Companies and their boards or compensation committees are obvious targets (in some cases, quite justifiably), and some have criticized investors themselves, who continue to overwhelmingly support say-on-pay proposals whether or not their support seems warranted.
If you accept that one symptom of insanity is to repeat the same behaviors over and over again while expecting different results, then it appears we’re in the midst of an epidemic of compensation craziness. Why did anyone seriously think that say-on-pay votes would cause executive compensation to decrease? (Parenthetically, there are people who think that disclosure of CEO-to-median employee pay ratios will lead to a reduction in executive pay. Talk about crazy.) I learned a long time ago – from the mouth of Pearl Meyer herself – that every attempt to rein in executive pay by legislation, regulation or disclosure (i.e., shame) has failed. Why did anyone think this would be different? In other words, limiting executive compensation is like what Mark Twain said (or not) about the weather – everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. At least nothing that works.
Well, maybe not. It seems that Dan Price, the CEO of a company called Gravity Payments in Seattle, who’s been making over “a million-dollar salary,” decided this year that he would do something about it. Specifically, he cut his compensation and decided that everyone in his company would make at least $75,000 per year. You’d think that he’d be given laurel wreaths or maybe a ticker-tape parade, at least in some circles of compensation-land, but you’d be wrong. There have been articles (i.e., screeds) written by some in the industry that he’s going about it all wrong, that it’s not a solution that can be applied on a broad base, and so on. He’s even been referred to as crazy.
A recent case out of the Delaware Court of Chancery could result in heightened scrutiny of equity award grants to non-employee directors. Although this decision was rendered at the procedural stage of the case and the merits of the claims have yet to be fully analyzed, this case potentially affects directors of Delaware companies and those advising them on compensation-related matters.
In this case, a stockholder of Citrix, Inc. (“Citrix”) brought a derivative lawsuit against the Citrix board of directors alleging a number of things, including breach of fiduciary duty by the board of directors in awarding significant equity compensation awards. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that restricted stock units (“RSUs”) granted to non-employee directors (who constituted eight of the nine Citrix board members) under the Citrix equity incentive plan, were excessive.
Because the non-employee directors who received the RSU grants in question constituted eight of the nine members of the Citrix board of directors, the plaintiff was successfully able to rebut the business judgement rule presumption and the defendants bear the burden of proving to the court’s satisfaction that the RSU grants were the product of both fair dealing and fair price (i.e., the “entire fairness” standard of review).
The defendants argued that Continue Reading
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone nerdy enough to be reading this blog that the Dodd-Frank Act mandated SEC rulemaking in four areas relating to the disclosure of executive compensation:
- pay ratio,
- clawbacks, and
- pay-for performance.
These items have been variously referred to as the “four horsemen” (as in apocalypse) or the “gang of four” (as in Chairman Mao’s evil wife and her evil friends).
Up until now, the SEC has been moving at a rather leisurely pace to get the horsemen – er, rules – out. In fact, the SEC’s failure to adopt final pay ratio disclosure rules has generated some criticism (see my recent UpTick). Perhaps for that reason, the SEC seems to be moving forward to propose the remaining rules at a somewhat faster pace. Just about 10 weeks ago, the SEC proposed rules on hedging.
And now the SEC has scheduled an open meeting on April 29 at which it will consider proposing rules for pay-for-performance disclosure. You can find the SEC’s Sunshine Act notice of this meeting here. It’s anyone’s guess what the proposed rules will look like, but the proposals will definitely generate lots of interest. So, for the time being, all I can suggest is “watch this space.” We’ll let you know once we have a chance to see what emerges from the open meeting.
I’ve done my share of griping about the SEC, but credit needs to be given where credit is due. And credit is due to the SEC for adopting a new, improved version of Regulation A that has become known as “Reg A+”. (OK, we can gripe about how long it took the SEC to adopt the final rule, but let’s be gracious and remember that justice delayed isn’t necessarily justice denied.)
Reg A has been around forever, but has been used very infrequently. Like many other long-time SEC practitioners, I’ve never done a Reg A deal. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that Reg A limited the maximum amount of an offering to $5 million – hardly enough to justify the costs involved (which included compliance with Blue Sky laws). Then Reg D came along, as well as the amendment of Rule 144 reducing the amount of time that an investor had to hold “restricted securities,” and the rest is history.
The JOBS Act called for the SEC to review and update Reg A, and they’ve done an A+ job – all puns intended. Here are some key provisions of Reg A+ Continue Reading
On Sunday, April 12, the Business section of the New York Times led with an article by Gretchen Morgenson taking the SEC to task for not having adopted rules requiring disclosure of CEO pay ratios. This follows similar complaints by members of Congress, most recently in the form of a March letter by 58 Democratic congressmen to Chair White. And going further back – specifically, to Chair White’s Senate confirmation hearing in March 2013 – Senator Warren told Chair-Designate White that SEC action on this rule “should be near the top of your list.”
I’ve given this a great deal of thought since Congress mandated pay ratio disclosure in the Dodd-Frank Act, and I’ve yet to figure out why – aside from political considerations – so many people think this disclosure is so important or what it will achieve. In fact, when I coordinated a comment letter on the rule proposal as Chair of the Securities Law Committee of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals, I told a number of people that it was the hardest comment letter I’d ever worked on, and I believe that was the case because it was hard to comment on a proposal that struck and continues to strike me as ill-advised and unnecessary in its entirety.
Ms. Morgenson’s article proves my point. It provides pay ratio data for a number of companies, as determined by a Washington think tank. But at the end of the article, all the data demonstrate is that the CEOs of the companies in question make a ton of money. The ratios don’t tell us anything more than that; Disney had the highest ratio, but does anyone need a ratio to know that its CEO makes lots of money? Ditto Oracle, Starbucks and the others – in all cases, the ratio is far less informative than the dollar amounts, which of course are and have for many years been disclosable.
The ratios might – but only might – be more meaningful if we knew what the underlying facts are; for example, what is the mix of US to non-US employees? To what extent are the employees part-time or seasonal? But of course the article doesn’t reveal this information, and neither would the proposed SEC rules. And the SEC Staff has indicated the final rules are not likely to allow companies to exclude non-US, part-time or seasonal employees. In other words, we won’t be able to distinguish between two companies with the same pay ratios regardless of the fact that one may have vast numbers of employees in the third world while the other’s employees are located in major industrialized countries.
I’m a governance nerd. I really believe that corporate governance is important, that it makes a difference, and that there is such a thing as good governance – though I don’t believe that one size fits all.
So it troubles me that in governance, as in life, virtue is usually not its own reward. In fact, no one seems to care about governance unless and until performance deteriorates.
I was reminded of this the other day when reading a story about an investigation by New York Attorney General Schneiderman of governance practices at Cooper Union, a venerated educational institution in New York. It seems that Cooper Union, whose mission is to provide free education, started charging tuition last year because of poor financial condition. (As an aside, Cooper Union’s major asset is the Chrysler Building in New York City – yes, THAT Chrysler Building, which to me and many others is the most beautiful skyscraper ever built.) The story says that the investigation “has signaled that the laissez-faire approach to nonprofit governance is over.” In other words, as long as performance was OK, no one cared about governance. Or so it seems.
Another story made the same point a couple of months ago, albeit in different circumstances, when an institutional shareholder announced that it had submitted a proposal to separate the positions of CEO and board chair at a major company. In the article, the proponent seemed to be saying that the proposal hadn’t been necessary before because the company had been performing well. Now I’m no advocate of CEO/board chair separation, but if you believe that having an independent, non-executive board chair is critical (which the proponent clearly believed), why should it make a difference that the company had been performing well?
And just the other day, an executive told me that while his company doesn’t have Grade A governance, it doesn’t hear anything on the subject from investors because it’s had year after year of improved performance.
So the question is out there: does governance matter? What do you think?
Last December, I wrote an UpTick (“There ought to be a law”) about a decision in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that appears to be wreaking havoc with insider trading prosecutions past and present. The Second Circuit has now rejected a Justice Department request to reconsider the decision, and so we now face a period of uncertainty regarding whether and to what extent insider trading can be prosecuted.
Since the terms “inside information” and “insider trading” have never been defined, one suggestion is that Congress should enact legislation that would define one or both terms. That’s a good idea in principle, but the proposals that have been bandied about thus far provide little confidence that legislation would clarify the situation. For example, one bill would prohibit trading on information that “is not publicly available” but not “information that the person has independently developed from publicly available sources”. I’m not sure this helps; after all, Ray Dirks (the subject of an SEC vendetta that, in my opinion, led to the current confusion on what is and is not insider trading) independently developed the information in question, but the SEC prosecuted him anyway.
Another bill would (1) define inside information as nonpublic information obtained illegally from the issuer “with an expectation of confidentiality” or “in violation of a fiduciary duty” and (2) remove the requirement that a tipper receive a personal benefit for leaking the information. I like the second part, but I’m not sure that the first part works; for example, if I hear the information from someone who heard it from someone who heard it from the issuer, does that remove the taint?
There are also suggestions that Congress may consider a broader approach – i.e., making it illegal to trade when in possession of confidential information regardless of how it’s obtained. This reminds me of a hypothetical posed years ago by Stanley Sporkin, then the very feisty Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division: you’re flying in a plane and look out of your window to see XYZ Corporation’s biggest plant going up in flames. As interpreted by Mr. Sporkin, if you got off the plane and called your broker with a sell order, you would be engaging in illegal insider trading. Of course, these days you could place the order online well before the plane lands. Is that really how we’d like it to turn out?
It seems to me that before Congress even thinks about acting (not that Congress can act on very much if anything these days), we need to think about what goal we’re trying to achieve. If the objective is to create a level playing field for all investors, that’s one thing, and would probably require a much broader approach. If the goal is less ambitious — i.e., to curtail trading based on knowing leaks and thefts of inside information — that’s another. In any case, wishing for legislation on this topic reminds me of the old saw about being careful what you wish for.
As some of us contemplate which disclosure rules we’d like to do away with, others are thinking about new rules that would require more disclosure. One possible area of rulemaking relates to disclosure of political contributions. Regardless of one’s views of the merits of such disclosure, significant and vocal groups of shareholders advocate it, and for that reason alone it’s not something that companies (or regulators) can blithely ignore.
What I don’t understand is why those who are pressing for such disclosure seem to believe not only that it is imperative, but also that it must be included in Exchange Act reports, such as 10-Ks or 10-Qs. To the extent (albeit limited) that any securities lawyers are OK with political contributions disclosure in the first place, the insistence upon including it in a 10-K or 10-Q is a major turn-off, because doing so would lengthen those already voluminous reports and, more importantly, would subject a company to Exchange Act liability.
I’ve spoken to one of the principal advocates of such disclosure – who, by the by, is a smart and decent man – about this insistence. I asked why, for example, he’d oppose posting the information on a company’s website, or including it in a supplemental report (both of which are the current norms for such disclosure) outside the framework of the Exchange Act. He countered by saying, first, that only an SEC rule would require all public companies to provide the information and that only an SEC rule would set universal disclosure standards. I disagree; it seems to me that both of those goals could be achieved through industry standard-setting or exchange listing standards. But even if he’s right and the SEC were to impose requirements, that doesn’t mean that the disclosure should have to be in an Exchange Act report. No offense to my smart and decent friend, but I’m still waiting for an answer.
As we approach disclosure “reform” with hopes that the web will offer us some respite from ever-longer SEC filings through more “layered” disclosure, much of it posted on the web, and not all of which needs to be printed or “filed” or even “furnished,” it seems anomalous if not downright ill-advised to insist upon this particular push to make our filings look more and more like doorstops. The good news is that thus far the SEC has shown little or no interest in rulemaking in this area, but time will tell.
It’s not for nothing that I’m a securities lawyer. I sincerely believe in the need for and efficacy of full and fair disclosure, both professionally and personally. That’s one of the many reasons why I have been advocating disclosure reform – or, as we now call it, “effective disclosure” – to assure that important matters are disclosed, and that unimportant matters need not be.
So it’s not surprising that I’m upset about something that happened recently. I attended a program at which a representative of a major institutional investor said that his firm just doesn’t have time to read the proxy statements of the companies in which the firm has invested. I’ve heard this song before in various guises – for example, one major institution told me a few years ago that the most they’d ever spend reading a 100-page proxy statement was 15-20 minutes – but for some reason the statement I heard recently really bothered me.
Why do securities lawyers spend most of their waking hours, and many of the hours when they should be sleeping, trying to provide investors with the information they need to make important decisions? (And, for the cynics out there, I’ve never heard a securities lawyer say anything like “How can we hide this?”) Why do companies spend untold amounts of money paying their lawyers to do that? More important, why is it acceptable for major investors to say that they don’t read their investees’ disclosures? Does it ever occur to them that they may be in violation of their legal and ethical obligations to their clients by blowing off the obligation to read those disclosures and voting on significant matters without reading those disclosures?
Which brings me back to “effective disclosure.” I’m passionate about the topic, and I’ve put my time (which is, after all, money) where my mouth is. But I’d be crazy not to think about whether it’s really worth the time and effort it will take to overhaul our approach to disclosure if, at the end of the proverbial day, few if any people will benefit from it or even care about it.
Years ago I commented on an SEC rule proposal by saying, among other things, that it would result in more disclosure that no one would read. I was told by the then-Director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance that rulemaking isn’t based on whether anyone reads the disclosures in question. At the time, I thought he was probably right, but now I’m not so sure.
Marketplace lending surely had its day in the sun in 2014. Peer-to-peer lending, which now goes by the term marketplace lending, took a big step forward last year. We saw the IPO of Lending Club rocket in its first day of trading on December 11, 2014 by first pricing above the range at $15 per share and then touching a high mark of 67% that day. Lending Club has been the leader in this field and its IPO highlighted the importance and the emergence of this new lending alternative. Despite this surge, however, not everyone attended the party in 2014. Noticeably, the SEC still has not finalized its crowdfunding rules, which are an important next step for the marketplace lending industry.
So what exactly is marketplace lending? Put simply, it is an Internet based lending market that is created by connecting borrowers with lenders or investors. There are various companies with different approaches to the concept. In Lending Club’s case, potential borrowers fill out online loan applications. The company (and its bank behind the scenes) then uses online data and technology to evaluate the credit risks, set interest rates and make loans. On the other side of the equation, Investors are offered notes for investment that correspond to portions of the loans and can earn monthly returns on their notes that are backed by borrower payments. As a result, marketplace lending effectively offers secondary market trading for loans.
On the positive side, marketplace lending can be good for borrowers because the lower cost structure of an online platform can be passed along to borrowers in the form of lower interest rates. The use of the Internet and online credit resources can also speed up the credit approval process so that borrowers can get funds faster. In addition, some borrowers may get access to loans that they could not get from traditional banks. In other words, the marketplace could help individuals with lower credit scores or negative credit histories find loans. Thus, despite its critics, marketplace lending can help serve a niche that has historically been underserved by the banking industry.
Marketplace lending, however, at least when it comes to Lending Club and those like it, still has a bank at its core. So some borrowers will still not be able to get loans through this marketplace model. Also, the investors are buying registered securities with interests in the loans made in the marketplace. Lending Club turned to registering their notes with the SEC when Continue Reading