Are corporations people? Are they entitled to the same “certain unalienable rights” as human beings – including free speech, as in the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United?  These and similar questions struck me as pretty important and presumably interesting. So when I heard about “We the Corporations – How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights”, I picked it up.

The good news is that the history of corporate civil rights is interesting, and Adam Winkler (a professor at UCLA Law School) does a decent job of telling it.  The bad news is that his negative views regarding corporations infect the narrative and make me question the impartiality, if not the accuracy, of much of the book.

Early on, Professor Winkler discusses the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century trusts.  So far, so good.  However, he then discusses the “migration” of Standard Oil from Ohio to New Jersey due to the increasingly pro-corporate laws of the Garden State.  He characterizes this development as a “race to the bottom” in corporate law.  Again, so far, so good – maybe.  But then he goes on to state that Delaware has become the jurisdiction of choice for so many corporations because it favors corporations, presumably to the detriment of their constituencies – possibly including society at large.  To be fair, that may have been an accurate characterization in the past.  However, to really be fair, Professor Winkler should have acknowledged that in recent decades Delaware has become far more judicious (all puns intended) as to the exercise of corporate rights than most states.  And he also should have acknowledged that a (the?) major reason so many corporations organize under Delaware law is the existence and wisdom of and predictability afforded by its corporate judicial system – i.e., its Court of Chancery and Supreme Court – rather than its lax laws.  (Ironically, the book ends with a lengthy discussion and citation of Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Chancellor Leo Strine, who strongly disagrees with the Citizens United decision.  One wonders if Chancellor Strine was aware of Professor Winkler’s views of his state’s laws.)

Continue Reading Interesting issue, weak execution: a review of “We the Corporations”, by Adam Winkler

A few weeks ago, I attended the “spring” meeting of the Council of Institutional Investors in Washington (the quotation marks signifying that it didn’t feel like spring – in fact, it snowed one evening).  These meetings are always interesting, in part because over the 15+ years that I’ve been attending CII meetings, their tone has changed from general hostility towards the issuer community to a more selective approach and a general appreciation of engagement.

So what’s on the mind of our institutional owners?  First, an overriding concern with capital structures that limit or eliminate voting rights of “common” shareholders.  CII’s official position is that such structures should be subject to mandatory sunset provisions; that position strikes me as reasonable (particularly as opposed to seeking their outright ban), but it’s too soon to tell whether it will gain traction.

Continue Reading News from the front

Wyoming Blockchain
Photo by Kenneth Vetter

While Bitcoin initially paved the way for the introduction of blockchain and distributed ledger technology in the mainstream, most would agree that the potential applications of this relatively new technology goes far beyond just cryptocurrencies.

Blockchain technology, at its core, is merely a set of linked records that form an immutable ledger. Information is added in “blocks” which are linked to the prior information on the block by a cryptographic hash of all of the prior information. The information on the blockchain is secure because any attempts to change information in an earlier block would result in a different “hash” that would be easily detected by the network, which would reject that version of the blockchain as being unauthentic (there are several articles about how cryptographic hash functions work, but at the most basic letter, these functions take an input of any size and convert it to an alphanumeric output of a specified length). Furthermore, because the blockchain is distributed among multiple computers, each operating as a node running the underlying software, there is no single centralized entity or system responsible for maintaining the blockchain. Rather, the collective nodes maintain the blockchain pursuant to the underlying software code.

The potential applications of blockchain technology are seemingly endless. For example, digital representations of shares of stock of a corporation could be tokenized and traded on a blockchain, which would allow companies to maintain a corporate stock ledger without the need for a transfer agent. These shares of stock could also be traded on a decentralized exchange that would provide liquidity to shareholders without the burden of applying to be listed on a national securities exchange.

Several states have taken steps to facilitate these kinds of applications for blockchain technology. For example, Continue Reading Wyoming leads the way on facilitating blockchain technology

On February 21 the SEC issued a  “Commission Statement and Guidance on Public Company Cybersecurity Disclosures”. The Release contains new guidelines and requirements regarding public companies’ disclosure responsibilities for cybersecurity situations. No new rules or regulations have been issued at this point, but the Release contains some valuable guidance. It is also clear that cybersecurity is a hot button for the SEC and for Chair Clayton, and I believe that cybersecurity disclosure issues will be subject to more rigorous scrutiny going forward. All public companies should carefully review the Release and evaluate their disclosure obligations in connection with cybersecurity.

The Release updates the SEC’s position on cybersecurity. The SEC’s previous guidance in this area was primarily a Corporation Finance Division Release issued in 2011 that did not contain specific disclosure requirements. The cybersecurity landscape has changed radically since then. The substantial increases in the number and severity of cybersecurity incidents, coupled with the growing dependence of businesses on cyber systems and the associated problems that arise in a cybersecurity incident, have clearly convinced the SEC that additional disclosure is required. Continue Reading SEC issues guidance on cybersecurity disclosure obligations (and more)

For the first time since 2015, the SEC has its full complement of five commissioners.  That’s a good thing.  And at least one new Commissioner – Robert Jackson – seems to have hit the ground running.  For example, he made a speech in San Francisco just the other day in which he expressed his disfavor of dual-class stock, suggesting that it would create “corporate royalty”. Specifically, because shareholders in at least some dual-class companies have no voting rights, leadership of the company could be passed down through the generations in perpetuity.

Commissioner Jackson is a smart man – I’ve seen him speak at a number of programs, and he’s demonstrated his intelligence as well as his telegenic appearance.  His use of the “corporate royalty” meme also shows that he’s witty, though don’t think we need to worry too much about CEO titles becoming hereditary.

What I do think we may need to worry about is where he goes with his concerns.  Specifically, the point of his speech is to suggest that exchanges adopt mandatory sunset provisions so that their dual-class structures would fade away over time.

Continue Reading Dual-class shares: marching toward merit regulation?

Photo by hamad M

Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs, have generated a lot of buzz recently as a new method by which companies can raise capital to fund their businesses. At the same time, the SEC has been cracking down on ICOs that involved the offer or sale of a security that was not registered or structured to comply with an exemption from registration. For example, the SEC announced last week that it halted a $600 million ICO by AriseBank, which allegedly involved the offering of a coin that was a security without properly registering the transaction. Despite the apparent scrutiny of ICO transactions by the SEC, there’s much uncertainty in the space as to when securities laws may or may not apply to a specific ICO transaction.

Currently, we are seeing two primary types of ICOs – those that involve the sale of a “security token” and that are intended to be offerings of a security and those that involve the sale of a so-called “utility token,” which do not involve the offer or sale of a security. The primary difference between these two types of tokens is that a utility token is designed such that it has some intrinsic value that is not based upon prospective price appreciation. For example, a cloud computing company might sell utility tokens that are redeemable with the issuer for storage space on the issuer’s servers. In this sense utility tokens are not unlike gift cards where a purchaser is acquiring something that can be redeemed for products or services from the issuer in the future. Like gift cards, an incentive to purchase a utility token could be that the token offers a discount to the normal price for the issuer’s goods and services. While a secondary market for the utility token might develop, just like there are secondary markets for the purchase and sale gift cards, issuers usually intend for these tokens to fail the Howey test, which is the test that is used to determine whether something constitutes an “investment contract” (which would be a security) for federal securities law purposes. Continue Reading Is your Initial Coin Offering a securities offering?

When governance nerds hear the term “public employee pension fund”, they may think of CalPERS or CalSTRS, the California giants. However, Florida has its very own State Board of Administration, which manages not only our public employee funds, but also our Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. I’m a big fan of the governance team at the Florida State Board; I don’t always agree with their views, but they are smart and fun and a pleasure to talk to.

The Florida State Board has just published an interesting – and mercifully brief – report on over-boarded directors – i.e., men and women (OK, usually men) who serve on too many boards. The report, entitled Time is Money, is subtitled “The Link Between Over-Boarded Directors and Portfolio Value”, and the following are among its key points: Continue Reading Over-boarding: multitasking by another name (and with predictable results?)

It may be nice to be your own boss, but setting your own compensation – and, at least arguably, giving yourself excessive pay – may get you in trouble.  A number of boards of directors have found that out, as courts have given them judicial whacks upside the head for paying themselves too much.  Not surprisingly, shareholders have gotten on the bandwagon as well.

Executive compensation – at least for public companies – has to be scrutinized and blessed by independent directors and, since the advent of Say on Pay, approved by shareholders (albeit on a non-binding basis).  In contrast, directors have long set their own pay, with little or no scrutiny and no requirement for independent review, much less approval.  (Director plans generally must get shareholder approval if they provide for equity grants, but neither the overall director compensation program nor specific awards have to be approved.) Continue Reading Pigs and hogs — a note on director compensation

Each January, I depart from my focus on securities law and corporate governance matters to cite my top 10 books of the year gone by – five each in fiction and non-fiction.  As always, my top 10 list reflects books that I’ve read, rather than books that were published, during the year.

My reading tastes seem to have changed a tad in 2017.  Specifically, two of my fiction favorites were not at all the kind of books that I thought I’d like.  In the non-fiction area, if you’d asked me my favorite type of book at the beginning of the year, I doubt that I’d have mentioned biography and memoirs, yet they comprised three of my top non-fiction works.  I’ll also note that coming up with a fifth non-fiction favorite was a bit challenging, as only four really blew me away.

With that as prologue, here goes: Continue Reading My top 10 books of 2017

Photo by Allen

Now that “An Act to provide for reconciliation pursuant to titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018” (the official name of the 2017 tax reform act – fitting for a “simplification” of the tax code!) has passed, issuers are faced with reviewing the impact of the tax reform act on its balance sheet, specifically deferred tax assets and deferred tax liabilities.

For those of us who have ignored those lines on the balance sheet, here is a quick primer: US GAAP and the US tax code have different requirements as to when to recognize income and expenses. These timing differences result in either deferred tax assets or deferred tax liabilities. In other words, if the US tax code requires recognition of income this year, but GAAP does not recognize the income yet, an issuer will need to pay the tax on the income now (the government doesn’t like to wait for its money). That’s an asset from a GAAP perspective – the issuer essentially “prepaid” income taxes that weren’t yet due as far as GAAP is concerned. From a GAAP perspective, that deferred tax asset will be used to offset GAAP tax expense in future years. The opposite is true with respect to deferred tax liabilities.

When the corporate tax rate changes (in this case, from a maximum of 35% to a maximum of 21%) the deferred tax assets aren’t as valuable anymore because the issuer won’t be subject to as much tax as it originally thought. Therefore, the tax asset needs to be written down to some lower value. That write down hits the bottom line and will have a significant adverse impact on the issuer’s quarterly results. Again, for those issuers “lucky” enough to have had significant deferred tax liabilities, those issuers will have significant gains in the quarter caused by, in essence (by lowering the tax rate), the US government partially forgiving the payment of those accrued tax obligations.

Issuers over the past week have begun to provide guidance as to what they expect the effect of the tax cut to be for their deferred tax assets and deferred tax liabilities.  However, there is no black and white rule requiring disclosure in this case.  While Item 2.06 (Material Impairments) of Form 8-K may initially have been of some concern for those issuers who need to write off tax assets, Corp Fin put those concerns to rest when issuing a new CD&I last week (Question 110.02). Consequently, it comes down to anti-fraud concerns as to when and what to disclose.  Continue Reading Tax cut implications – what and when to disclose