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.


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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

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.
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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?


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In case you think that corporate minutes and other corporate formalities are for sissies, think again.  And read the opinion in the case of KT4 Partners vs. Palantir, decided by the Delaware Supreme Court in January 2019.

KT4 had submitted a demand under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, seeking to inspect Palantir’s books and records.  Because such an inspection must be for a “proper purpose,” KT4 noted that, among other things, Palantir had failed to hold stockholder meetings and to give proper notice under stockholder agreements.

The demand ended up in the Delaware Court of Chancery, which granted some of KT4’s demands but rejected demands for emails exchanged among directors and officers relating to an investor rights agreement.  KT4 appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court, which reversed that rejection.


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A while back – March 2017, to be exact – I posted a piece entitled “Beware when the legislature is in session”, citing a 19th Century New York Surrogate’s statement that “no man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

It may be time to amend that statement, for Washington seems to be at it regardless of whether the legislature is in session.  A very rough count suggests that there are more than 20 pending bills dealing with securities laws, our capital markets, corporate governance and related matters.  And that does not include other initiatives, such as the President’s August 17 tweet that he had directed the SEC to study whether public companies should report their results on a semi-annual, rather than a quarterly, basis.

Problems with the Approach

I’m not saying that all of the ideas being floated are awful, or even bad.  (One good thing is that our legislators seem to have decided that trying to give every statute a name that can serve as a nifty acronym isn’t worth the effort.)  In fact, some of the ideas merit consideration.  However (you knew there would be a “however”), I have problems with the way in which these bills deal with the topics in question.  (I have problems with some of the ideas, as well, but more on that later.)

  • First, in my experience, far too many legislators do not understand what our securities laws are all about, and some do not want to understand or do not care. I will not cite particular instances of this, but I’ve been surprised several times with the level of ignorance or worse (i.e., cynicism) demonstrated by legislators and their staffs about the matters their proposals address.  At the risk of hearing you say “duh”, this does not lead to good legislation.
  • Second, these bills represent a slapdash approach when what is needed is a comprehensive, holistic one. Even the best of the pending bills and proposals is a band-aid that will create another complication in an already overcrowded field of increasingly counterintuitive and/or contradictory regulations, interpretations, and court decisions.

Problems with the Proposals

As promised (threatened), I also have concerns about a number of the proposals being bruited about, but for the moment I’ll focus on two of them – eliminating quarterly reporting and Senator Warren’s “Accountable Capitalism Act”.
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Since the beginning of this month (July 2018), the SEC has brought two enforcement cases involving perquisites disclosure – one involving Dow Chemical, and one involving Energy XXI.  As my estimable friend Broc Romanek noted in a recent posting, over the past dozen years, the SEC has brought an average of one such case per year.  It’s not clear why the SEC is doubling down on these actions, but regardless of the reasons, it makes sense to pay attention.

The SEC’s complaint in the Dow Chemical case is an important read, as it summarizes the requirements for perquisites disclosure.  Among other things, it’s worth noting the following:

  • While SEC rules require disclosure of “perquisites and other personal benefits”, they do not define or provide any clarification as to what constitutes a “perquisite or other personal benefit.” Instead, the SEC addressed the subject in the adopting release for the current executive compensation disclosure rules, and it has also been covered in numerous speeches and other statements over the years by members of the SEC staff.
  • For those of you who prefer a principles-based approach to rulemaking, you win. Specifically, the adopting release stated as follows:

“Among the factors to be considered in determining whether an item is a perquisite or other personal benefit are the following:

  1. An item is not a perquisite or personal benefit if it is integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties.
  2. Otherwise, an item is a perquisite or personal benefit if it confers a direct or indirect benefit that has a personal aspect, without regard to whether it may be provided for some business reason or for the convenience of the company, unless it is generally available on a non-discriminatory basis to all employees.”

The SEC has also noted on several occasions that if an item is not integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties, it’s still a “perk”, even if it may be provided for some business reason or for the convenience of the company.


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No, this is not a riff on Hamlet’s soliloquy.  It’s about the current kerfuffle (one of my favorite words) about stock buybacks.  In case you’ve not heard, some (but not all) of the concerns about stock buybacks are as follows:

  • Plowing all that cash into buying back stock means that it’s not going into plant and equipment, R&D or other things that facilitate longer-term growth and job creation.
  • Companies are using the windfall from the 2017 tax act to buy shares back rather than to make investments that will create jobs and longer-term growth.
  • Stock buybacks artificially inflate stock prices and earnings per share, which contributes to or results in additional (i.e., excessive) executive compensation.
  • By reducing the number of shares outstanding, buybacks mask the dilutive effects of equity grants to senior management.

And now there’s another concern.  Specifically, in a recent speech, new SEC Commissioner Jackson announced that stock buybacks are being used by executives to dispose of the shares they receive in the equity grants referred to above.  And one of his proposed solutions is that compensation committees engage in more active oversight – or, rather, that compensation committees should be required to engage in more active oversight – of insider trades “linked” to buybacks.


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If you find the title of this posting confusing, let me explain:  On June 28, the SEC announced revisions to the definition of “smaller reporting company”that will significantly expand the number of companies that fit within that category (i.e., “smaller gets bigger”).  As a result, more public companies will be able to reduce the disclosure they are required to provide under SEC rules (i.e., “which means less”).  The new definition will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Background

The SEC adopted the reduced disclosure requirements applicable to smaller reporting companies, or SRCs, in 2007. These reduced requirements were intended to ease the costs and other burdens of disclosure for small companies.  The reduced requirements enabled SRCs, among other things, to:

  • present only two (rather than three) years of financial statements and the related management’s discussion and analysis;
  • provide executive compensation for only three (rather than five) “named executive officers”;
  • omit the compensation discussion and analysis in its entirety;
  • present only two (vs. three) years of information in the summary compensation table; and
  • omit other compensation tables, pay ratio disclosure, and narrative descriptions of various compensation matters.

In addition, SRCs that are not “accelerated filers” (companies that must file their Exchange Act reports on an accelerated basis) need not provide an audit attestation of management’s assessment of internal controls, required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  More on this below.
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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.)


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