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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”)

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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?


Continue Reading Disclosure as disinfectant

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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.)


Continue Reading Plague, shmague, as long as you have an independent board chair

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Continue Reading Analyze This!

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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

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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:

Non-Fiction

  1. 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.
  1. 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.)


Continue Reading My Year of Reading

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”)

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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

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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