Two news items from the front lines:
First, you may recall my mentioning that the Council of Institutional Investors was considering adopting a new policy that would limit newly public companies’ ability to include “shareholder-unfriendly” provisions in their organizational documents (see “Caveat Issuer“, posted on February 13). I just came back from Washington, DC, where I attended the Council’s Spring Meeting, and the new policy appears to have been adopted as proposed. While the text of the new policy was not made available at the meeting, and has yet to be posted on the Council’s website, it appears to provide that while some of these provisions can be in place when a company goes public, others — such as plurality voting for directors in uncontested elections — should be absent from the get-go.
By the way, my hotel room had a lovely view of the Jefferson Memorial, and the cherry blossoms were about to pop.
In other news, the SEC has announced, by way of a Sunshine Act Notice, that at an open meeting to be held on March 30 it “will consider whether to issue a concept release seeking comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K”. Looks like the disclosure effectiveness program may be moving forward. Watch this space for details.
According to SEC Chair White, regulators are looking – and not happily – at companies’ increasing use of customized financial disclosures. In fact, her recent remarks suggest that additional regulation is not being ruled out to curb the use of such “bespoke” data.
For some of us it may seem like only yesterday – though it was actually in 2003 – that the SEC adopted Regulation G to address the then-growing concern that companies were developing odd ways of communicating financial information to make their numbers look better. In general, Reg G says that companies
- cannot make non-GAAP disclosures more prominent than GAAP disclosures;
- need to explain why they use non-GAAP disclosures; and
- must provide a reconciliation showing how each non-GAAP measure derives from the GAAP financial statements.
So far, so good. However, some companies give little more than lip service to these requirements. For example, it’s not unusual to see Item 2 addressed by a statement along the lines of “investors who follow the company use this measure to assess its performance.” And, more recently, companies seem to be developing more peculiar ways of showing performance, such as excluding the effects of some taxes but not others. This creativity may not be as arch as excluding recurring items or turning losses into gains, but it still makes regulators uneasy.
We are pleased to provide a posting from our colleagues, William K. Hill, a shareholder in Gunster’s Business Litigation practice group, and Joshua A. Levine, an associate in that practice group.
On January 22, 2016, as part of the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision concerning the stockholder class action challenging Zillow’s acquisition of Trulia, see In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litig., CV 10020-CB, 2016 WL 325008 (Del. Ch. 2016), the Delaware Court extensively discussed the phenomenon of “disclosure settlements” and the Court’s attitude and approach to them.
The Court wrote that, in today’s environment, a public announcement of virtually every transaction involving the acquisition of a public corporation provokes a “flurry” of class action lawsuits alleging that the target’s directors breached their fiduciary duties by agreeing to sell the corporation for an unfair price. The Court explained that the percentage of transactions of $100 million or more that have triggered stockholder litigation in the United States has gone from 39.3% in 2005 to a peak of 94.9% in 2014.
Far too often, the Court explained, such litigation serves no useful purpose for shareholders and only generates fees for “certain lawyers who are regular players in the enterprise of routinely filing hastily drafted complaints on behalf of stockholders.” The plaintiff leverages its threat of an injunction to prevent a transaction from closing, and defendants are incentivized to quickly settle in order to avoid the expense and distraction of litigation and to obtain comprehensive releases as a form of “deal insurance.” Defendants procure settlements by issuing supplemental disclosures to the target’s stockholders before they are asked to vote on the proposed transaction, under the theory that, by having this additional information, stockholders will be better informed when exercising their franchise rights. Once an agreement in principle is reached to settle for supplemental disclosures, the Court must evaluate the fairness of the proposed settlement.
Despite the wave of corporate governance reform that began after the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002 – and that continues pretty much unabated today – companies going public have gotten a pass. Whether the process of going public takes the form of a spin-off or a conventional IPO, newly public companies have been able to emerge into the world with a full (or nearly full) arsenal of defensive weapons that can help them stave off an unwanted acquisition.
The rationale for this leniency is that newly public companies are like tadpoles that need to be given time to turn into frogs (or princes) before they are gobbled up.
That seems to be changing.
Photo by Saulo Cruz
Corporate venture capital has quickly developed into a major funding source for startup companies. This type of startup funding is available to some innovative startups and early stage companies, and the dollars involved are significant. This all sounds great, but is this type of funding right for your startup?
According to the National Venture Capital Association and PWC’s Money Tree survey, 905 corporate venture capital deals were closed during 2015 with $7.5 billion invested (primarily in high growth startup companies). These transactions comprised 21% of the total number of venture capital deals closed in 2015 and represented 13% of the total venture capital funds invested in that year. Not surprisingly, the biggest chunk of these investments went to software companies ($2.5 billion in 389 deals, which represented 33% of all corporate venture deals in 2015), while biotech deals were second ($1.2 billion in 133 deals, which represented 16% of all corporate venture deals that year).
Many large and familiar companies have implemented venture capital programs. Some of the most well-known corporate venture funds are Alphabet’s GV (formerly Google Ventures), Microsoft Ventures, and Salesforce Ventures. Most of these corporate venture funds are sponsored by large technology companies, but Airbus Group Ventures is an example of a fund established by a non-technology company in a specific industry space. While each of these programs has some independent characteristics, the commonalities are a strong desire to foster innovation (either generally or in specific industry segments) and an ability to step out of the normal corporate mold and commit funds to situations with higher risk profiles when compared to normal corporate investments like real estate and straightforward corporate industry acquisitions.
There are a number of significant potential advantages associated with corporate venture capital. For me, two of the biggest potential advantages are the broader investment scope and the more long-range expectations which may result in a corporate venture investment as compared to a normal external venture investment. A corporate venture capital investor can Continue Reading
This time I’m not writing about disclosure or governance. Rather, I’m posting my annual list of my 10 favorite books. For those of you who haven’t seen these lists before, (1) I apologize if this seems hubristic (or “braggadocious”, if you will) – I do it because some folks have told me they like it; and (2) the list involves books that I happened to read (or re-read) in 2015, not necessarily books that were published in 2015.
I didn’t encounter lots of great fiction last year; for me, the great books were non-fiction. Let’s see if the trend continues in the New Year.
So here goes (in order of preference):
Those of you who’ve been following my postings know that I’m not a fan of Congressional interference in the workings of the SEC. Well, those same wonderful folks who’ve garnered the lowest opinion ratings in history are at it again.
First, you may recall that Congress acted a few weeks ago to avoid another federal government shutdown. Well, a few interesting provisions were added to that legislation and – you guessed it – one of them was precisely the kind of thing that sets me off; in this case, it was a prohibition against any SEC rulemaking requiring disclosure of political contributions.
A week or two ago I was asked to speak at a meeting of the Small- and Mid-Cap Companies Committee of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals. That’s not unusual or even noteworthy, as I’m a long-time, active member of the Society and often speak at Society functions.
What was unusual and perhaps noteworthy is the topic on which I was asked to speak and the reason I was asked to speak on it. Specifically, one of the Committee members had asked the Chair if someone could give a general primer on shareholder proposals, because his/her company had received its first shareholder proposal ever.
Photo by Dieter Drescher
After much anticipation, the SEC adopted final crowdfunding rules on October 30, 2015. These rules (called Regulation Crowdfunding) will become effective 180 days after they are published in the Federal Register. Here are links to the SEC’s press release and a helpful summary of these new rules as well as some good background commentary from Chair White. Click here for the final rules. VentureBeat also recently posted a helpful and practical summary of Regulation Crowdfunding.
There is a lot of optimism regarding these crowdfunding rules and their potential positive impact on capital raising, and there is certainly a high degree of good intent behind these rules. I continue to doubt, however, that crowdfunding will have a major impact on capital raising for many companies because of the associated regulatory requirements and high costs (particularly the costs associated with audited financial statements and the use of an intermediary).
The most important components of these crowdfunding rules are:
- Issuers can raise up to $1 million during each 12 month period in crowdfunding offerings.
- There are substantial limits on the amounts that an investor can invest. If an investor has less than $100,000 in either annual income or net worth, that investor can only invest the greater of $2,000 or 5% of their annual income or net worth in all crowdfunding transactions over a 12 month period. Investors whose annual income and net worth are both at least $100,000 can invest up to 10% of their annual income or net worth in all crowdfunding transactions over a 12 month period. It is important to note that during this 12 month period the aggregate amount of securities sold to an investor in all crowdfunding transactions cannot exceed $100,000.
- Certain entities, such as Exchange Act reporting companies, non-U.S. companies, “blank check” companies and certain disqualified companies, are not eligible to use Regulation Crowdfunding.
- Issuers must submit detailed reports to the SEC and to investors in connection with each crowdfunding transaction and also annually. These reports must contain, among other things, information about the issuer’s officers, directors and principal shareholders, related party transactions and the use of proceeds. Audited financial statements (prepared by an independent accounting firm) are generally required, although there is some relief from the audit requirement for certain issuers who are utilizing Regulation Crowdfunding for the first time. In these cases the financial statements must be reviewed. The issuer’s principals may be required to disclose certain personal financial information.
- Securities purchased in a crowdfunding transaction can generally not be resold for one year.
- Holders of securities obtained in a crowdfunding transaction will generally not be counted in the determination of whether an issuer must register under Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act.
- An intermediary (called a funding portal) must be used. The requirements for an intermediary under Regulation Crowdfunding are complex and contain numerous important provisions and restrictions that are specific to crowdfunding transactions.
The SEC’s press release also described some interesting proposed Continue Reading
The SEC has issued its much-anticipated Staff Legal Bulletin on two rules impacting shareholder proposals. You can find the SLB here. The SLB looks a bit more benign than some had feared; in other words, it’s got some bad news, but the good news is that it’s not as bad as some feared.
Rule 14a-8(i)(9) – Conflicting Proposals
The SLB deals with two areas of SEC Rule 14a-8 – the Rule governing shareholder proposals. The first area relates to Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which addresses what happens when a shareholder proposal “directly conflicts” with a company proposal. This issue reared its head during the 2015 proxy season, when the SEC withdrew a no-action letter it had granted to Whole Foods permitting it to exclude a shareholder proposal on proxy access and, at the direction of SEC Chair White, declared a moratorium on issuing no-action letters under Rule 14a-8(i)(9).