Category: Corporate Law

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Berkshire’s Disintermediation

aaaaaDisintermediation” is the business phenomenon of the technology era, when consumers go straight to the source for everything from accommodations to crowdfunding. Yet the greatest exemplar of the practice is the era’s least technologically savvy company, Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire, 50 years old as a conglomerate and now one of America’s largest public companies, almost never uses intermediaries — brokers, lenders, advisers, consultants and other staples of today’s corporate bureaucracies. There are lessons in the model for the rest of corporate America, as well as investors, and it is an honor to be including a full length piece on the broad topic of disintermediation in the Wake Forest U. symposium on the subject hosted by Alan Palmiter and Andrew Verstein.

While American companies borrow heavily, Berkshire shuns debt as costly and constraining, preferring to rely on itself and to use its own money. It generates abundant earnings and retains 100 percent, having not paid a dividend in nearly 50 years. In 2014, Berkshire earned $20 billion — all available for reinvestment.  In addition, thanks to its longtime horizon, Berkshire holds many assets acquired decades ago, resulting in deferred taxes now totaling $60 billion. These amount to interest-free government loans without conditions. The principal leverage at Berkshire is insurance float. This refers to funds that arise because Berkshire receives premiums up front but need not pay claims until later, if it all. Provided insurance is underwritten with discipline, float is akin to borrowed money but cheaper. At Berkshire, float now totals $72 billion, which it uses to buy businesses that continue to multiply Berkshire’s value.

American corporations tend to design acquisition programs using strategic plans administrated by an acquisitions department. They rely heavily on intermediaries such as business brokers and investment bankers, who charge fees and have incentives to get deals done; firms also use consultants, accountants and lawyers to conduct due diligence before closing. erkshire has never had any such plans or departments, rarely uses bankers or brokers, and does limited due diligence. In the early days, Berkshire took out a newspaper ad announcing its interest in acquisitions and stating its criteria — which it has reprinted in every annual report. Berkshire now relies on a network of relationships, including previous sellers of businesses.

Today, corporate America’s boards are intermediaries between shareholders and management. Directors are monitors involved in specific strategic decision-making. They meet monthly, using many committees, which in turn hire consultants, accountants and lawyers. American directors are well-paid — averaging $250,000 annually — including considerable stock compensation plus company-purchased liability insurance.  Berkshire’s board, in contrast, follows the old-fashioned advisory model. Composed of friends and family, they are directors because they are interested in Berkshire. They do not oversee management but provide support and advice. There are few committees, no hired advisers, and only two or three meetings a year. Berkshire pays its directors essentially nothing and provides no insurance. Berkshire’s directors are significant shareholders and bought the stock with their own cash — which is why they are there.

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FAN 53.1 (First Amendment News) U. Maryland Law to Host Conference: “The Impact of the First Amendment on American Business”

e5eb96fc377fcf9f7e18eb56d245dca1The 2015 Symposium (March 27th), “The Impact of the First Amendment on American Businesses,” will facilitate a discussion on the effects and consequences of First Amendment jurisprudence on businesses. The symposium will specifically cover the areas of commercial speech, religious exemptions for businesses, and rights of businesses to use technology appropriately. This event will be located at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and is open to anyone interested in attending, including students, lawyers, and scholars.

Welcome and Introductory Remarks
Dean Donald TobinUniversity of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Keynote Speaker 1
Travis LeBlanc, Federal Communications Commission

Panel 1: First Amendment and Commercial Speech Relating to Health

Jane Bambauer, University of Arizona School of Law
Adam Candeub, Michigan State University College of Law
Stephanie Greene, Boston College & Greene LLP
Kathleen Hoke, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
Wendy Wagner, University of Texas at Austin School of Law

Panel 2: First Amendment and Technology

Hillary Greene,  University of Connecticut School of Law
James Grimmelmann, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
Glenn Kaleta, Microsoft Corporation
Renee Knake, Michigan State University College of Law
Neil Richards, Washington University School of Law
Felix Wu, Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

Panel 3: Religious Exemptions for Corporations

Caroline Corbin, University of Miami School of Law
Michelle Harner, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
Louise Melling, American Civil Liberties Union
Jennifer Taub, Vermont Law School
Nelson Tebbe, Brooklyn Law School

Keynote Speaker 2

Tamara PietyUniversity of Tulsa School of Law

Closing Remarks

Danielle CitronUniversity of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

For additional information, please contact Joella Roland, Executive Symposium & Manuscripts Editor, via email at JoellaRoland@UMaryland.edu.

ht: Neil Richards 

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Fed Officials Accused of Perjury in AIG Bailout Trial

In the financial trial of the century, the most important document is missing. The document is the term sheet that the government says it gave AIG’s board right before taking the company over in Sept. 2008.  The government says the AIG board thus approved the Draconian terms that benefited Goldman Sachs and other rivals. But other evidence, including  AIG’s contemporaneous securities filings, suggests the board was agreeing only to sell the government warrants not transfer 80% of the common stock to it for a song.  The missing document would prove which side is telling the truth.

That’s one of many amazing points of contention noted by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism in her relentless digging into what government really did during the financial crisis. Most recently, she alleges and documents perjury and obstruction of justice by top federal officials in the pending case of former AIG shareholders against the US. The case alleges that the government trampled on corporate law rights and that the Fed exceeded its authority—allegations that I document in my book, The AIG Story, written with Hank Greenberg, lead plaintiff in the case.

Smith lays out her claims in an extensive blog post at Naked Capitalism, accompanied by reams of additional documents and examples. For those looking for a skinny version, here is an abridged adaptation. Most examples concern Scott Alvarez, general counsel of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve; there is one with with Tom Baxter, general counsel of the New York Fed, who worked with Tim Geithner. The shareholders are represented by the noted trial lawyer, David Boies. The point about the term sheet is at the end.

Example 1

Boies: Would you agree as a general proposition that the market generally considers investment-grade debt securities safer than non-investment-grade debt securities?

Alvarez: I don’t know.

 

Example 2

Boies: [Presents a copy of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report stating that the Fed had lowered the standards it applied for the quality of collateral for its loans under two programs then devised to support lending and asks] Do you see that?

Alvarez: I see that. . .

Boies: . . . [W]ould you agree that the Federal Reserve had lowered its standards regarding the quality of the collateral that investment banks and other primary dealers could use while borrowing. . . ?

Alvarez: No.

Boies: You would not agree with that?

Alvarez: Right.

 

Example 3 Read More

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Buffett on Family Business: Beat the Third Generation Curse

warren buffettWarren Buffett is very good at spotting great family businesses. What does he look for? How can his filters help family businesses prosper?

For one, they can mitigate one of the greatest dangers: the third generation “curse.” This refers to how few family businesses survive beyond the third generation, let alone prosper.

An under-appreciated fact about Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate Buffett built: virtually all its family businesses boast second or third generation descendants who rival or outshine previous generations. That is rare among family businesses.

So while every family and business situation differs, Berkshire’s two dozen family companies are a good place to look for insight about multi-generational prosperity in the family business.

Studying Berkshire’s family businesses, I found that they are united by the following values. These values are important factors in their success, in the founding generation and subsequent ones.

Family business members, and their professional advisors, whether in law, accounting, or other fields, would do well to ponder these points.

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Walmart versus Apple aka Revenue versus Profit

Which business would you want to be? The Economist Espresso reports that Walmart takes “about 65 seconds to collect $1m in revenue,” but Apple needs “very nearly three minutes.” Looks like Walmart is where the money is. And it is, but when it comes to profit, “Apple, with its high margins, is fastest in the profit stakes: chalking up $1m takes it less than 13 minutes and 20 seconds, whereas Walmart needs more than half an hour.” Looking at the chart, Apple and Google have good profit margins but banks like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs do even better (all above 20%). Coke (17.4) and Pepsi (10.4) are quite good too. So how much does the law affect these sectors and which the best to be in? Hard to tell.

No matter what, any regulation be it about disclosures about practices or nutrition or oversight or safety or labor or where a good is made or liability for property rights or ability to weather an economic downturn, can shape a sector. Given the high profits in some of these sectors, you will see some arguing that they are getting away with too much and others saying that any regulation will kill the sector. Both positions are likely incorrect. That said, watching where new money, new offices (for old and new ventures), and start ups go may tell us something about where people believe they can do well.

One thing I am thinking about is how much state-by-state regulations and barriers to labor mobility influence business decisions. Although work on intellectual capital and noncompetes is quite strong that lower restrictions help business overall, alleged protection of voting systems and other entry barriers matter too. Someone may have studied this point. If so, please share. But my guess is that a company that has trouble getting people (and I mean U.S. citizens) to their headquarters won’t be happy about that cost.

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An Important New Paper on Veil Piercing Procedure

Sam Halabi (Tulsa) has written an important and interesting new paper on veil piercing, titled Veil-Piercing’s Procedure.

“With the lines between shareholders and corporations blurring over constitutional rights like free exercise of religion and political speech, questions as to how and under what circumstances the law respects or disregards the separation between shareholders and their corporations have never been more urgent. In the corporate law literature, these inquiries have overwhelmingly focused on the doctrine of piercing the corporate veil, a judicial mechanism normally applied to hold shareholders responsible for the obligations of corporations. The last twenty years of veil-piercing scholarship has been largely devoted to empirical analyses of veil-piercing cases collected from Lexis and Westlaw searches. Since 1991, scholars have been trying to mine cases for ever more variables that might predict when and under what circumstances judges disregard the separation between shareholders and their corporations. This Article argues that these scholars have focused on the substance of veil-piercing law to the detriment of another factor: civil procedure. This Article is the first to survey civil procedure and evidentiary rules that affect existing veil-piercing studies including pleading standards, threshold presumptions, burdens of proof, jury access and waiver. The Article ultimately argues that phenomena scholars now ascribe to the “incoherence” of veil-piercing law are explicable in the context of veil-piercing’s procedural fluidity.”
The paper breaks new ground on a very, very well trodden field.  (Full disclosure: Sam critiques my work with Christy Boyd on this topic, and we’re mostly guilty as charged.)  I continue to think that veil piercing is a vastly over-written topic, but this paper makes a real contribution and is worth reading. Check it out.

 

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Chapter 8 of Berkshire Beyond Buffett: An Excerpt and Link

untitledThe following is an excerpt from Chapter 8, Autonomy, from Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values; the full text of the chapter, which considers the case for Berkshire’s distinctive trust-based model of corporate governance, can be downloaded free from SSRN here.

. . . Berkshire corporate policy strikes a balance between autonomy and authority. Buffett issues written instructions every two years that reflect the balance. The missive states the mandates Berkshire places on subsidiary CEOs: (1) guard Berkshire’s reputation; (2) report bad news early; (3) confer about post-retirement benefit changes and large capital expenditures (including acquisitions, which are encouraged); (4) adopt a fifty-year time horizon; (5) refer any opportunities for a Berkshire acquisition to Omaha; and (6) submit written successor recommendations. Otherwise, Berkshire stresses that managers were chosen because of their excellence and are urged to act on that excellence.   

Berkshire defers as much as possible to subsidiary chief executives on operational matters with scarcely any central supervision. All quotidian decisions would qualify: GEICO’s advertising budget and underwriting standards; loan terms at Clayton Homes and environmental quality of Benjamin Moore paints; the product mix and pricing at Johns Manville, the furniture stores and jewelry shops. The same applies to decisions about hiring, merchandising, inventory, and receivables management, whether Acme Brick, Garan, or The Pampered Chef. Berkshire’s deference extends to subsidiary decisions on succession to senior positions, including chief executive officer, as seen in such cases as Dairy Queen and Justin Brands.

Munger has said Berkshire’s oversight is just short of abdication. In a wild example, Lou Vincenti, the chief executive at Berkshire’s Wesco Financial subsidiary since its acquisition in 1973, ran the company for several years while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease—without Buffett or Munger aware of the condition. “We loved him so much,” Munger said, “that even after we found out, we kept him in his job until the week that he went off to the Alzheimer’s home. He liked coming in, and he wasn’t doing us any harm.” The two lightened a grim situation, quipping that they wished to have more subsidiaries so earnest and reputable that they could be managed by people with such debilitating medical conditions.   

There are obvious exceptions to Berkshire’s tenet of autonomy. Large capital expenditures—or the chance of that—lead reinsurance executives to run outsize policies and risks by headquarters. Berkshire intervenes in extraordinary circumstances, for example, the costly deterioration in underwriting standards at Gen Re and threatened repudiation of a Berkshire commitment to distributors at Benjamin Moore. Mandatory or not, Berkshire was involved in R. C. Willey’s expansion outside of Utah and rightly asserts itself in costly capital allocation decisions like those concerning purchasing aviation simulators at FlightSafety or increasing the size of the core fleet at NetJets.

 Ironically, gains from Berkshire’s hands-off management are highlighted by an occasion when Buffett made an exception. Buffett persuaded GEICO managers to launch a credit card business for its policyholders. Buffett hatched the idea after puzzling for years to imagine an additional product to offer its millions of loyal car insurance customers. GEICO’s management warned Buffett against the move, expressing concern that the likely result would be to get a high volume of business from its least creditworthy customers and little from its most reliable ones. By 2009, GEICO had lost more than $6 million in the credit card business and took another $44 million hit when it sold the portfolio of receivables at a discount to face value. The costly venture would not have been pursued had Berkshire stuck to its autonomy principle.

The more important—and more difficult—question is the price of autonomy.  Buffett has explained Berkshire’s preference for autonomy and assessment of the related costs: 

We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that [disagreeable] operating and capital decisions are occasionally made. . . . Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly—or not at all—because of a stifling bureaucracy.

Berkshire’s approach is so unusual that the occasional crises that result provoke public debate about which is better in corporate culture: Berkshire’s model of autonomy-and-trust or the more common approach of command-and-control. Few episodes have been more wrenching and instructive for Berkshire culture than when David L. Sokol, an esteemed senior executive with his hand in many Berkshire subsidiaries, was suspected of insider trading in an acquisition candidate’s stock. . . .

[To read the full chapter, which can be downloaded for free, click here and hit download]

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On National Ice Cream Day, Thanks Dairy Queen

DQIn honor of National Ice Cream Day (July 20), here is a brief celebration of Dairy Queen, an institution of American culture—entrepreneurial, legal, literary, and familial—that helped put this cold concoction on the national calendar. I developed these reflections when researching my upcoming book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia U. Press 2014), which provides deep looks at the corporate culture of Berkshire Hathaway’s fifty-plus subsidiaries, including Dairy Queen.

While full treatment must await publication of the book (which can be pre-ordered now), here are a few passages along with many outtakes—i.e., sections that did not make it into the final book because they are too technical, but may appeal to readers of this blog interested in the history of franchising businesses and intellectual property rights.

Dairy Queen’s roots date to 1927’s founding of Homemade Ice Cream Company by John F. (“Grandpa”) McCullough (1871‒1963) and his son Alex near the Iowa-Illinois border. Innovative ice cream makers, they experimented with temperatures and textures and eventually pioneered soft ice creams. One discovery: ice cream was frozen for the convenience of manufacturers and merchants, not for the delight of consumers.

At first, the McCulloughs were unable to interest any manufacturer in building the necessary freezers and dispensers to serve soft ice cream. Luckily, however, Grandpa happened to see a newspaper ad in the Chicago Tribune describing a newly-patented continuous freezer that could dispense soft ice cream. Grandpa answered the inventor/manufacturer, Harry M. Oltz, and the two made a deal in the summer of 1939.

The McCullough-Oltz agreement entitled Oltz to patent royalties equal to two cents per gallon of soft ice cream run through the freezer; the agreement also granted the McCulloughs patent licensing rights in the Western U.S., while Oltz retained them for the Eastern part of the country. The agreements that McCullough and Oltz made with licensees seemed to cover only the patent, rather than the DQ trademark, and contained few quality controls.

After World War II, DQ stores hit their stride, drawing lengthy lines of increasingly loyal customers enjoying the cooling effects of soft ice cream all sultry-summer long. The customer throngs at one store in Moline, Illinois caught the attention of Harry Axene. An entrepreneurial farm equipment salesman for Allis-Chalmers, Axene wanted to invest in the business. He contacted the McCulloughs and acquired both the rights to sell the ice cream in Illinois and Iowa as well as an interest in the McCullough’s ice cream manufacturing facility. Read More

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Truth, Candor, and Crisis at Yeshiva University

Among universities in trouble, the darkest cloud hangs over Yeshiva University, a venerable Jewish institution founded in New York in 1886. The University acknowledges huge economic losses and failed investment policies and is taking extraordinary steps to balance its books, including ceding control over its one-time crown jewel, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which has close friends of its law school, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, very concerned.  Critics, moreover, see a death spiral and question the leadership’s candor.

Amid calls for the resignation or dismissal of Yeshiva’s president, Mr. Richard M. Joel, he says the University will no longer engage with the media on fiscal questions. The Wall Street Journal reports that the University has hired the crisis-management communications firm, Kekst & Co., but any benefits from that hiring are not yet obvious.sunlight

In a familiar pattern facing other organizations in crisis, what both sides miss in this dangerous heightening of tensions is the importance of trust to any institution’s health. To resolve this crisis, as always, the institution’s leadership must regain trust by explaining how its current fiscal stewardship advances the institution’s mission. Critics must not rush to judgment and hear the leadership out on what it has learned from recent problems and plans for the future.

Like other investors, part of Yeshiva’s problems are due to the financial collapse of 2008, but its roots are a bit deeper and offer broader lessons. Since at least 1993, the board of trustees oversaw Yeshiva’s endowment and made investment decisions. University policy permitted trustees to invest endowment in funds the trustees managed, despite conflicts of interest, so long as they made full disclosure.

During the early 2000s, the trustees increasingly allocated endowment to their own hedge funds, which were heavily weighted in risky securities. By 2008, the endowment, valued at more than $1 billion, held riskier investments than those of peer institutions. The financial upheaval of 2008 thus hit Yeshiva even harder than most peers, shrinking its endowment by more than $300 million, including $100 million due to the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, whose top victims also included a Yeshiva trustee.

While it appears that the trustees and the administration acted in good faith, even if no laws were broken, poor judgment abounded. The loose conflict-of-interest policy certainly was a mistake, as a trustee’s personal involvement skews his judgment. Reputable and durable institutions scrupulously avoid the remotest appearance of impropriety. For stalwarts like Yeshiva, this principle of integrity, coupled with an ethic of prudence, should govern investment decisions.

The University learned its lesson from this calamity and has adopted new policies that may serve as a model for other endowments. It created a professional investment office to set strategy, updated oversight protocols, and established a rigorous conflicts policy. While thus implicitly recognizing earlier weaknesses, the University has not offered a mea culpa nor has it identified particular past faults—whether sins of omission or commission, of process or substance, or whether the product of mere haplessness or of actual chicanery. That reticence allows unimpressed critics to overlook the significance of these reforms.

It is hard to measure objectively the exact economic costs of Yeshiva’s policies or market onslaughts from which it has suffered. One result of this difficulty is wildly different numbers being reported by the University and critics—ranging from $300 million to a staggering $1.3 billion. However, it is less important to achieve consensus on financial figures than to find common ground on productive next steps.

At stake is advancing the institution’s core mission, which is not to maximize endowment or earn a profit but to promote knowledge and teach students. The fiscal drama becomes a superficial distraction from fundamental academic judgments about the relation among current and future pedagogical, scholarly, scientific, cultural and religious needs and resources.

Constituents would rightly like to know more about Yeshiva’s finances as well as the academic thinking behind decisions concerning building or closing facilities and forming or ending joint ventures and programs. For example, when Yeshiva recently ceded managerial control over Einstein College of Medicine to another institution to cut costs, it did not publicly detail the educational rationale. Critics jumped on the move, assuming and asserting that it was a sign of distress rather than a shrewd maneuver that promotes the University’s goals.

When institutions are imperiled in this way, the best course of action is to make certain that the operative facts are publicly known, to identify lessons learned, and to act on them. In that spirit, the University might do well to form an independent task force with unlimited access to University information charged to report a public assessment of where things stand and where they are going. Lifting the cloud over this 128-year old bastion of Judaism, such a look would enable Yeshiva University to move forward with its important business of education.

Lawrence A. Cunningham, a graduate and former faculty member of Yeshiva University’s law school (Cardozo), is a professor at George Washington University and the author of the forthcoming book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values.