In my last post, I expressed some thoughts about the need to address our history and continuing practice of racial discrimination and inequality. I’m still thinking about specific actions that I can take to put my actions where my mouth is. However, in the meantime, I want to share a communication I received today
Readers of this blog know that my posts tend to be on the light side – even when addressing subjects I regard as important, I find it hard to avoid at least a touch of sarcasm or irony. Each posting also includes a picture intended to be humorous.
This is not a usual posting, however. This time, I’m writing from my heart on a subject that can’t be treated with humor, irony, or sarcasm. And no pictures this time. It’s about our country’s heritage and our future, and I’m about as serious as I can be.
The subject in question is race, or race relations. I know I am not alone in being profoundly upset about recent developments. But what really upsets me is that where we are today is really not about recent developments. Rather, our country is coping with what may be its original, 400 year-old sin, slavery, and the legacy of that original sin that even 150 years later we can’t seem to shake.
We can and must do more and do better. One of the many posters I saw on TV during the protests was one saying “Silence is Violence.” I agree. If we stay silent in the face of discrimination, its manifestations, and its consequences, we will at best find ourselves exactly where we are today 150 years from now (assuming that we don’t destroy ourselves or our planet before that). At worst, we will do just that – destroy ourselves. We need to examine and change our institutions, our practices and, frankly, our minds and the minds of those around us.…
Continue Reading I’m serious
As noted in a prior post, every now and then the SEC Enforcement Division likes to remind companies of the requirement to disclose personal benefits, or perquisites. I’d even hazard a guess – completely unsubstantiated by research – that enforcement actions regarding perquisite non-disclosure make up a significant percentage of enforcement actions concerning proxy statements.
And yet, companies seem to keep forgetting about perks disclosure. In some cases, the companies’ disclosure controls may not capture perquisites, but my hunch – again, unsupported by research, but this time supported by experience – is that companies and, in particular, their executives, manage to persuade themselves that the benefits in question have a legitimate business purpose and thus are not personal benefits at all. Over the course of my career, I’ve heard hundreds if not thousands of reasons why a seemingly personal benefit should be treated as a business expense. Here are just a few:…
Continue Reading When it comes to perquisites, caveat discloser
About two years ago, I wrote a post about director compensation, quoting the old saw that pigs get fat but hogs get slaughtered. Given what I’ve been reading of late, I think it’s time for a refresher, but this time I’m discussing executive, rather than director, compensation.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of companies or their executives took action to reduce pay. In some cases, salaries were reduced to $1 a year or eliminated entirely. So far, so good. However, there were also cases in which the executives were given so-called mega-grants of equity to make up for their sacrifices. That may have raised a few eyebrows, but the eyebrow-raising may have been mitigated or overlooked because the grants were made when the stock markets had dropped precipitously and many companies’ shares were trading at 52-week lows.
Of course, what goes down must come up, so when the stock markets rallied (and, in general, have continued to rise to levels that seem absurd in the face of what’s going on these days), the noble executives who sacrificed pay made out like bandits. Or hogs. No sane person would argue that the stock markets have any rational connection to corporate performance generally, much less to that of a particular company. However, the rising tide has floated a number of boats, including the holders of those mega-grants.…
Continue Reading Of shields and swords, pigs and hogs
Aristotle is said to have coined the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum.” Far be it from me to question Aristotle, but while he was right, I think his view was too narrow — the abhorrence of vacuums goes far beyond nature and extends to investors and the media, among many others. Companies that hide behind closed doors and ignore or deny requests for information from investors and the media run the risk of finding themselves without a welcoming audience when they eventually choose to communicate.
Let’s be clear – any securities lawyer worth his or her salt knows that sometimes the best thing to say is “no comment” or its equivalent. I’ve given that advice very often. The problem is that in my experience, most of the time when a company says “no comment” or “we don’t respond to rumors,” the rumor is likely true. Conversely, when the rumor is just that, a rumor, companies tend to squeal like a proverbial stuck pig. For some reason, companies that engage in this sort of behavior fail to understand how it plays out among investors and the media.
It has also been my experience that securities attorneys all too often think they are smarter than their clients’ communications and investor relations advisors and disregard the advisors’ recommendations. Even a smart lawyer isn’t likely to know more than these advisors about IR or communications – in fact, many lawyers are terrible communicators. So it’s worth listening to and considering those advisors’ recommendations instead of dismissing them out of hand. Personally, I’ve learned a great deal from investor relations and communications advisors.…
Continue Reading Aristotle was right (or, “tell your story or someone else will”)
The pandemic seems to raise new challenges every day – or possibly every hour – in both our personal and work lives. However, at least one of the challenges is not so new; namely, if and when to disclose that a CEO or other senior officer is infected with coronavirus.
I have expressed my views on disclosure of a CEO illness a couple of times in the last few years (see here and here). Simply stated, I think a CEO’s serious or potentially serious illness should almost always be disclosed. In some cases, he or she is the alter ego of the company; the CEO’s name is practically a household word, and his or her name is synonymous with that of the company. However, even when that is not the case, the CEO is (or at least should be) the most important person in the company. Certainly, if you read proxy statement disclosures, the CEO’s compensation is frequently justified on the basis that his/her leadership is very important, if not critical, to the company’s future; why else would or should he/she make the really big bucks and have so many financial reasons to stay with the company?
Pandemics may come and go, but governance marches on. That’s the message BlackRock seems to have sent earlier this week, when it distributed its “Engagement Priorities for 2020.” Of course, the document was completed well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, you’d think that BlackRock, ordinarily a reasonable player in the governance sandbox, would have added a last-minute addendum to the document or at least made public statements acknowledging that the current situation is extraordinary and might be taken into account in evaluating how companies are doing in that sandbox.
Not so, apparently. In fact, some BlackRock spokespeople have suggested that the crisis will separate the governance wheat from the chaff. I suppose that’s true to some extent, but when a company is struggling for its very existence, with many jobs at stake, is it really necessary that it worry about having non-executive board leadership? (Those of you who’ve read this blog probably know my views on board leadership. For those of you who have not followed my screeds, I have seen independent board leadership work wonderfully, and I’ve also seen it fail miserably. So, to me, it’s really not that big a deal.)
The SEC is re-examining one of the most important disclosures companies provide – Management’s Discussion and Analysis, or MD&A. I’ve read lots of MD&As in my time, and to be completely candid, many of them – or at least too many of them – are poor.
There are lots of ways in which MD&As are poor, but my principal complaints are as follows:
- They don’t provide the “A” in MD&A – the analysis. Sales are up? Great! Why were they up? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. “Increased market acceptance of our product.” Also great, but does “greater acceptance” mean that more units sold? That customers were willing to pay more for each unit, so the company raised the price? That the company expanded the markets in which the product is sold? Beats me.
- Instead of discussing the “why’s,” companies do a cut and paste of key line items in their financial statements, sometimes with a “Percentage Change” column, indicating how much each line in, say, the P&L changed from period to period. In other words, they’re doing what any reader can do, which is precisely what prior SEC glosses on MD&A disclosure have said not to do. And then they copy and paste sections of the notes to financial statements about how revenue is determined. Again, no “why.”
I could rattle off a list of other weaknesses of many MD&As, but let’s move on.
I don’t know very much about the federal budget process, but I do know that any budget proposed by the White House – regardless of its occupant – isn’t worth spending time on, and that by the time the budget is passed, it often looks…
Once again, it’s time for me to depart from my nerdy governance life and list my 10 favorite books of the year gone by. For those of you who are new to these annual posts, my top 10 list reflects what I read last year, rather than what was published during the year.
The only significant departure from prior years is that in a couple of instances I’ve combined two books by the same author. So here goes:
- Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is probably the best work of what is now called “narrative non-fiction” that I’ve read in many a moon. It tells the story of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland but goes well beyond that. It is gripping and sad and brilliantly executed.
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? By Jeannette Winterson. As long as we’re talking in superlatives, this is one of the best memoirs I’ve read in a long time – and I’ve read some very good ones. Winterson had a miserable childhood that could ruin anyone, but she has risen above her beginnings with grace and humor. This is one of the few books that is undoubtedly better as an audiobook, as Ms. Winterson is the narrator, and her Manchester accent is perfect. (If you were driving near me on I-95 and saw me laughing out loud, reading the book will help you understand that I had good reason.)