About a year ago, I was speaking with the governance committee of a prospective client.  One of the committee members asked me what the “best practice” was in a particular area.  I said that I hate the term “best practice,” because one size never fits all, there is almost always a range of perfectly fine practices, and that a company needs to think about how a particular practice would work (or not) given its industry, its history, and its culture, among the many things that make a company unique.  Afterwards, I wondered if my candor would result in not getting the work, but evidently the committee agreed, and the rest is history.

At the time, I’d forgotten about a 2015 blog post I’d written on so-called best practices.  In fact, I continued to forget about it until I recently read a fantastic paper published by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford.  Loosey-Goosey Governance discusses four misunderstood governance terms: good governance, board oversight, pay for performance, and sustainability.  Along the way it demonstrates how wrong “conventional” wisdom can be – and is – regarding what companies should and should not do in the governance realm.  Some examples:

  • Independent chairmen: There are those in the institutional investor community, the media, and elsewhere who seem to believe that having an independent chairman (or woman) of the board is the sine qua non of corporate governance.  I’ve long disagreed with this notion (see my earlier blog post), and Loosey-Goosey agrees with my view.  In fact, it points out “that research shows no consistent benefit from requiring an independent chair.”
  • Staggered boards: Similarly, the conventional wisdom holds that staggered boards are the next best thing to satanic. Loosey-Goosey sticks a pin in this balloon by noting that “research shows quite plainly that the impact of a staggered board is not uniformly positive or negative.”
  • Dual-class shares: I am not a fan of dual-class shares, particularly when they prevent boards of directors from having any meaningful role in governance. (As my good friend Adam Epstein has noted, it’s hard to understand why anyone would join a board of a corporation that doesn’t permit him/her to govern.)  However, here again, Loosey-Goosey points out that “[w]hile…research…on dual-class share structures tends to be negative, it is not universally so,” and that a dual-class structure can provide benefits.

Continue Reading “Loosey-Goosey Governance” (or, why I STILL hate “best practices”)

I don’t look at my RSS feed or my Twitter account until I’m finished with my day’s work, so it wasn’t until last night that I read Broc Romanek’s blog post announcing his retirement from thecorporatecounsel.net.  He’s already received a number of gracious and, I am sure, sincere paeans, including from my friend and mentee (or so he says) Doug Chia, and I won’t attempt to expand upon them.  Moreover, Broc is far too young and energetic to be the subject of what appear to be eulogies.  (To paraphrase something an elderly friend frequently says, he’s not dead yet!)

However, I will say that Broc is simply the best.  He’s incisively smart, hysterically funny, candid, passionate, inspiring, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  And he is the fastest draw in the west, managing to scoop every other news source about SEC and governance matters.  I’ve also had the privilege – and great pleasure – of speaking at Broc’s annual conferences and participating in his webinars for the last few years, and in contrast to the scripted and sometimes over-planned presentations at so many other programs, speaking on panels (and listening to others) at a Broc program is just plain fun – unrehearsed, spontaneous, a bit crazy, yet always informative, in large part because they are so engaging.

I’ve had a great career, with lots of high points, but as far as I’m concerned, becoming an FOB (friend of Broc) is one of my professional pinnacles.

I know that Broc will move on to something else, and regardless of what it turns out to be, I know it and he will continue to be terrific.  Hopefully he’ll take us along for the ride.  For now, I can only wish him all he deserves.

Image by Ron Porter from Pixabay

Although Dodd-Frank was enacted in 2010, the rule needed to implement one of its provisions – the requirement to disclose hedging policies – only recently took effect.  In fact, for calendar-year companies, 2020 will be the first year in which the proxy statement will have to contain the mandated disclosures.

Of course, quite a few companies have been disclosing their hedging policies for years, including disclosures in the CD&A required under Item 402 of Regulation S-K.  However, the new rule is more detailed and contains some quirky provisions that should be considered in preparing the proxy statement language.

Here are a few high spots.

What Is “Hedging?”

The rule does not define the term “hedging.”  Instead, it refers to “the ability of employees (including officers) or directors…, or any of their designees, to purchase financial instruments (including prepaid variable forward contracts, equity swaps, collars, and exchange funds), or otherwise engage in transactions, that hedge or offset, or are designed to hedge or offset, any decrease in the market value of registrant equity securities.”  I know that sounds circular, but the SEC doesn’t usually adopt rules that define terms by saying “you know what we mean.”

One particular pitfall may be the rule’s reference to exchange funds.  Unlike forward contracts, equity swaps, and so on, the use of an exchange fund may not intuitively seem like a hedging device.  And a company may well decide to exclude exchange funds from its hedging policy.  However, if that’s the case, the company will need to disclose that exclusion.

Practices and Policies 

The rule requires disclosure of a company’s “practices or policies … regarding the ability of employees (including officers) or directors, or any of their designees” to engage in hedging transactions (see the prior section).  The practices or policies need not be in writing.  Note that companies are not required to have hedging practices or policies.  However, a company that has no such policies or practices has to say so, which means that few if any companies will have no such policies or practices.  (Sound familiar?  Companies are not required to have an audit committee financial expert, but I’ve never encountered any company that doesn’t.)

While the rule doesn’t discuss what qualifies as a “practice,” some companies prohibit hedging indirectly, by requiring directors and officers to clear every transaction and declining to approve any transactions believed to constitute “hedging.”

Who’s Covered?

The rule refers to policies applicable to directors, officers, and employees, “or any of their designees.”  In my experience, companies generally avoid making hedging and some other policies applicable to all employees (much less their designees), for the simple reason that it’s practically impossible to monitor compliance with, much less to enforce, such a broad-based policy.  Given my view that having a policy you don’t or can’t enforce is worse than having no policy at all, I’d like to think that companies will be OK with limiting their policies (or practices) to officers and directors and, as required, describing that limitation in their proxy statements, but time will tell.

What’s Covered?

Disclosure is required with respect to equity securities of the company, any of its parents or subsidiaries, and any subsidiary of any parent.  Disclosure is also required regardless of whether the securities are held directly or indirectly and whether they were part of the individual’s compensation or otherwise.

*******************

As with any SEC rule, the devil is in the details, so you should read the rule carefully to better understand how it applies to your company’s unique facts and circumstances.

Image by succo from Pixabay

A few years ago, a wonderfully outspoken member of the institutional investor community congratulated me on a corporate governance award I’d received.  She apologized for not being able to make it to the awards ceremony, referring to it – very aptly, IMHO – as the “nerd prom.”

Well, we’ve progressed from the nerd prom to a nerd war – specifically, the nasty fight over the August 19 Statement on the Purpose of the Corporation, signed by 181 CEO members of The Business Roundtable.  The Statement suggested that the shareholder-centric model of the modern American corporation needs to be changed and that “we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.”  The stakeholders listed in the Statement were customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which the companies operate; however, other stakeholders were referred or alluded to, such as the environment.  And the final bullet point in the list stated that the signers were committed to:

“Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.”

Continue Reading The war of the nerds

Image by engin akyurt from Pixabay

In case you think that SEC Regulation FD is old news, think again.  A recent enforcement action makes it clear that Reg FD is alive and well.  (And, I might add, living in Boca Raton, Florida.)

Specifically, in an August 20 announcement, the  SEC announced that it had charged a Boca Raton-based pharmaceutical company with FD violations “based on its sharing of material, nonpublic information with sell-side research analysts without disclosing the same information to the public.”  The more detailed allegations include the following:

  • In June 2017, the company privately advised analysts of a “very positive and productive” meeting with the FDA about approval of a new drug. The next day – before any public announcement – the company’s stock closed up nearly 20% on heavy volume.
  • One month later, the company issued an early morning press release that it had submitted additional information to the FDA but “did not yet have a clear path” regarding its new drug application. The stock declined 16% in pre-market trading following the issuance of the release.  However, after issuing the press release but before the opening of the market, the company provided analysts with previously undisclosed information about the June FDA meeting.   The analysts published research notes with these details, and the stock rebounded, to close “only” 6.6% down for the day.

Continue Reading FD Lives!

In recent years, the SEC has made a number of incremental changes to make disclosures more effective – not only more meaningful and user-friendly for investors, but also helpful to those of us who prepare disclosures for our companies and clients.

The drive to make disclosures more effective seems to have kicked into a higher gear with the August 8 issuance of a proposal that may result in the most significant changes in the disclosure rules in more than 30 years.  The proposal would modify some key provisions of Regulation S-K, and in doing so would move considerably closer to a principles-based approach to disclosure.   Some details follow. Continue Reading Disclosure effectiveness goes into high gear

I recently came across an article reporting that the interim president of a state university system had failed to report a number of corporate board seats on his ethics forms.  That got me thinking about the forms he may have been asked to complete, which in turn got me thinking about D&O questionnaires.

Getting directors and officers to accurately complete and return questionnaires in a timely manner is one of the most frustrating tasks faced by corporate secretaries.  Years ago, I was speaking at a program for aspiring corporate governance nerds, when a young aspirant asked me if I had the secret to getting this task done.  If memory serves me correctly, my response was to the effect that if I had the answer to her question, I could retire.

However, I sometimes think that people who circulate questionnaires are their own worst enemies.  For example, a recent study reported that D&O questionnaires averaged 40 pages and 65 questions.  That means that some, perhaps many, questionnaires are far longer.  It’s unrealistic to expect someone with a life – much less a day job – to devote the amount of time necessary to complete a 40-page (or longer) questionnaire, particularly when many questions don’t lend themselves to simple “yes” or “no” answers. Continue Reading The lowly D&O questionnaire

In December 2014, I posted my concerns with the law on insider trading.  Perhaps someone read it, because the following year, H.R. 1625, the “Insider Trading Prohibition Act,” was introduced in the House of Representatives.  I regarded it as imperfect but a start.   Of course, it went nowhere, and the state of the law has not changed.

Well, it’s back – sort of – and may have a bit of life.   H.R. 2534, with the same title as in 2015, was introduced by Congressman Jim Himes (D-CT), who introduced the 2015 bill, and co-sponsored by Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Denny Heck (D-WA).  What’s new about the bill is that it was approved – unanimously – by the Financial Services Committee in May.  That probably doesn’t mean anything, as Congress seems to be the place where legislation goes to die, but I suppose anything is possible.

Like its predecessor, it’s a start.  But I still think it’s imperfect.  The title of the first section is promising: “Prohibition Against Trading Securities While In Possession Of Material, Nonpublic Information.”  Sounds good, right?  The mere possession of MNPI means you can’t trade.  Wrong.  The text of the section gives the lie to its title.  Specifically, the prohibition exists only if the person trading “knows, or recklessly disregards, that such information has been obtained wrongfully, or that such purchase or sale would constitute a wrongful use of such information.”  In other words, (1) the bill seems to say it’s OK to trade while in possession of inside information as long as the information was not known to have been obtained wrongfully or is being used wrongfully (whatever the latter means), and (2) it would get us right back into the very issues that make the present state of the law so confusing.  You can’t trade in a stock if you know (or should have known) that the MNPI was wrongfully obtained, but what if you don’t know or have no reason to know it was wrongfully obtained?  If someone suggests that you buy (or sell) a particular stock, what is your duty of inquiry, and where does it end?

Continue Reading There STILL ought to be a law

For those of you who’ve heard me sing, rest easy – I’m not going to break into “As Time Goes By.”  But the lyric I’ve quoted in the title is worth noting.  In fact, it was noted, albeit in substance rather than form, in the June 18 opinion of the Delaware Supreme Court in Marchand v. Barnhill.  The opinion, written by soon-to-retire Chief Justice Leo Strine (more on that below) addressed two fundamental matters – director independence and the board’s oversight responsibilities.

The case resulted from a listeria outbreak caused by contaminated ice cream.  (The thought of contaminated ice cream is too upsetting, but that’s for another day.)  The key holdings referred to above were as follows:

  • Director Independence: The trial court had dismissed the complaint for failing to make a pre-suit demand on the board, based on its conclusion that the a majority of the board – albeit the slimmest majority of one director – was independent. However, when the Supreme Court considered the background of that one director, it determined that he was not independent.  Thus, the slim majority went away.  The relevant facts included that the director had worked for the company in question for 28 years, including as its CFO and a director, and that the company’s founding family had helped to raise more than $450,000 for a local college that named a building after the director.  The fact that the director had supported a proposal that the founding family opposed – i.e., separating the chair and CEO positions – was deemed by the Supreme Court to be insufficient to support a finding of independence.
  • Board Oversight: The Delaware Supreme Court found that the board had breached its fiduciary duty of loyalty by failing to oversee a significant risk – product contamination – leading to the conclusion that the board had demonstrated bad faith. As is usually the case, Chief Justice Strine says it better than I possibly could.  Citing the landmark 1996 Caremark decision, he writes:

Continue Reading The fundamental things apply…

“Where was the board?”  It’s a question we hear whenever something – anything – goes wrong at a public company.  The question has been asked in all sorts of circumstances, ranging from failing jet systems, to networks being hacked, to harassment allegations, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong – there are most assuredly cases in which the question needs to be asked. Without naming names, there have been numerous instances where it seems apparent (and in some cases has been proven) that the board elected not to see or hear evil and thus hadn’t a clue that there was a problem, and other cases where the board created or fostered a rotten culture that seemed to beg for problems.  However, what concerns me is that society at large seems to think that the board is or should be responsible for every sin of commission or omission by the company.  And that just seems wrong.

Boards are charged with oversight.  And while the definition of that word can be difficult to pin down, it seems clear that the board was never supposed to be a guarantor.  Yet that’s precisely where we are headed – or perhaps where we’ve arrived.  You even see it in articles and treatises by governance nerds who should know better: “The board should ensure that…”.  Boards cannot “ensure” anything.  They are part-time consultants, and even the best boards cannot possibly know everything that a company does.

As a result, we’ve seen an upswing in suggestions as to how to help boards, including the following: Continue Reading The board is dead! Long live the [to be provided]!