Category: Corporate Law

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Berkshire Hathaway’s Unique Permanence

aaa rock of gibralterPermanence is the most distinctive trait of Berkshire Hathaway, the diversified Fortune 10 conglomerate whose unusual features, thanks to iconoclastic chairman Warren Buffett, are legion. Permanence is salient because, unlike any other conglomerate in history or rival in the acquisitions market, Berkshire has never sold a subsidiary it acquired.

Ironically, the experience that led to this unique practice culminated in the reluctant sale of Berkshire’s original business, textile manufacturing, in 1985. That sale was so painful for management, employees and other stakeholders that Berkshire committed to avoid a replay.

Instead, it adopted a policy of up-front screening, rigorous acquisition criteria that cut the chances of owning a business that would be tempting to sell. Berkshire then turned that policy into a huge advantage, assuring prospective sellers of companies a permanent corporate home.

In turn, the assurance of permanence appealed strongly to the kinds of companies that would meet Berkshire’s rigorous acquisition criteria: those owned and loved by families, entrepreneurs and other owner-oriented types. Some fifty acquisitions later, the promise has never been broken.

That is why I found so peculiar the following passage in William Thorndike’s well-selling book, The Outsiders, a profile of select big-name CEOs, including Buffett, whom Thorndike considers to have been similar to each other but different from everybody else. After referencing the 1985 closure of Berkshire’s ailing textile business, he writes: Read More

Big Rig? Libor & Beyond

BankstersTo inaugurate a series of posts about scandals and crime in the financial sector, I wanted to highlight John Lanchester’s work in the London Review of Books on “banks’ barely believable behaviour.” He mentions the still unwinding Libor scandal up front:

Libor is the single most important number in international financial markets, used as a reference point throughout the global financial system. It is a range of interbank lending rates, set after consultation between the British Bankers’ Association and two hundred and fifty-odd participating banks. During the daily process, each bank is asked the rate at which it could borrow money from other banks, ‘unsecured’ i.e. backed only by its own creditworthiness rather than by specific collateral. The question is, in effect: what would your credit be like today, if you had to ask? . . . .

It seems bizarre that something so central to the global markets – $360 trillion of deals are pinned to Libor – should have such a strong element of invention or guesswork. The potential for abuse is immediately apparent. As Donald MacKenzie prophetically said, ‘the obvious risk to the integrity of the calculation is that a bank on a Libor panel might make a manipulative input, trying to move Libor up or down so as to influence interest rates or the value of its swaps portfolio.’ Surprise! After the crisis, when investigators were taking an energetic interest in Libor, it turned out that that was exactly what had been happening, not just at one or two banks but across an entire swath of the industry.

Lanchester only brings up LIBOR as the opening act for what he considers a far deeper scandal in Britain—PPI. And guess what—it’s not just LIBOR where we’re seeing these concerns about privileged access to information turning into profit. Here are some other “rigging” scandals of recent vintage:
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Warren Buffett’s Single Bid Rule

Among the many ways that Warren Buffett is unusual is his approach to the role of price in business acquisition negotiations. Other people commonly haggle over price. Tactics include sellers naming an asking price that is higher than warranted or buyers making a low-ball bid. Some people enjoy the give and take and many believe it is a way to produce value in exchange.

Buffett eschews such exercises as a waste of time. One of Berkshire’s acquisition criteria (in addition to size, proven earnings power, quality management in place and relative simplicity of the business) is having a price. Eschewing the games so many negotiators like to play over ranges of values, Buffett wants a single price at which each side can say yes—or walk away. His bid is his bid; when he gives you a bid, what you have is what most people classify as the “best price,” “final offer,” or “highest bid.”

Buffett has repeatedly statesd this policy, along with the other acquisition criteria, in every Berkshire Hathaway annual report since 1983 (and once in a 1986 ad in the Wall Street Journal). Yet I know many people who are skeptical about whether Buffett and Berkshire actually adhere to this policy—doesn’t he engage in price negotiations in at least some cases, they ask? Aren’t there situations in which the value of an exchange is not discovered other than through the dynamic of negotiations, including about appropriate methodology?

To answer such questions, I examined the 16 Berkshire Hathaway acquisitions over the past two decades that involved public company targets. Unlike private company targets, those companies are required by U.S. federal law to publicly disclose the background of the transaction, including negotiation over all material terms, such as price. Read More

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Corporate Political Speech, Rent-Seeking, and Political Extortion

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank Danielle et al. for their hospitality.  I’m very glad to have had this opportunity to share some of my thoughts, and to get some great feedback.  Let me finish up by offering an alternative rationale – grounded in public choice theory – for limited shareholder authority over corporate political spending.

Shareholder regulation of corporate political activity may not only decrease agency costs within the firm, it may improve overall societal welfare.  First, diversified shareholders might be able to constrain the costs of rent-seeking behavior that merely redistributes wealth between portfolio firms. Second, all shareholders may want to reduce the possibility of political extortion by removing from management the final say on certain kinds of political expenditures.  Allowing shareholders to regulate corporate political activity could limit these social welfare-decreasing activities, and channel corporate resources to more productive uses.  I sketch these arguments in more detail below. Read More

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The Efficiency of Corporate Political Speech Bylaws

Nearly half a century ago, Albert Hirschman formalized two ways in which members of organizations could express their displeasure: exit and voice.  Exit is market-based expression, and is typically quiet, impersonal and cheap.  Voice, by contrast, is political expression — it is usually loud, messy, and expensive.  From an efficiency perspective, exit is thus generally favored as a matter of institutional design.

Corporate law largely track Hirschman’s theory.  Shareholders’ voice rights are, by default, quite constricted, and the business judgment rule imposes an important limitation on seeking judicial remedies.  In most cases, unhappy shareholders’ only practical method of expressing their discontent is to exit the firm by selling their shares.

But Hirschman warns that in certain circumstances, such as where the barriers to exit are sufficiently high, it is preferable to adjust institutional design to facilitate or strengthen members’ voice rights.  Corporate political activity presents exactly such a case, because the standard shareholder remedies – suing, voting for the board of directors, and selling their shares – are either unavailing or exceptionally costly.  I treat this range of options in more detail elsewhere, but below I will briefly describe these problems with a focus one key area in which corporate political activity differs markedly from other types of corporate action, and then turn to an important objection. Read More

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Legal Diversification

I’ve just posted my latest paper, Legal Diversification, on SSRN. The paper starts from the premise that investors derive significant protection from the risks of capital investment by diversifying their holdings. By the same token, it seems to me that investors may be able to realize benefits from the broad diversity of corporate and securities laws governing investment opportunities.

The Essay introduces a new dimension of diversification for investors: legal diversification. Legal diversification of investment means building a portfolio of securities that are governed by a variety of legal rules. Legal diversification protects investors from the risk that a particular method of minimizing agency costs will prove ineffective and allows investors to own securities in a variety of firms, with each security governed by the most efficient set of legal rules given the circumstances of the investment. Diversification of investment by legal rules is possible because of the varied menu of legal rules firms can choose from when organizing and raising capital. The most recent addition to the securities laws, the JOBS Act, may compromise the diversity of legal rules that protects investors by pushing even more firms toward organizing as public corporations, thereby threatening to curtail or eliminate the variety that allows effective diversification.

The Essay makes several contributions to the literature. By introducing legal diversification, it reveals a new understanding of how investors, issuers, and society can benefit from maintaining a variety of legal rules to govern investment in businesses. The corporate law scholarship has long advocated preserving a variety of rules under which firms can organize, but it has yet to consider how investors can take advantage of that variety to protect themselves before market competition has revealed the “best” rules. Legal diversification also complements recent literature emphasizing the importance of diversity in financial regulation by highlighting another reason diversity of legal rules is important to healthy capital markets. Legal diversification fills gaps in the literature advocating regulatory diversity by offering an explanation for why that diversity is a valuable protection for investors and an indispensable mechanism for allowing firms to choose the most efficient legal rules to govern their organization and operation.

I’m still working on editing the draft, so would greatly appreciate any thoughts or comments you may have on the project.

 

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Wachtell Lipton’s Errors on Shareholder-Paid Director Bonuses

Amid debate over shareholders offering contingent payments to directors, Wachtell Lipton recommends an option that may be tempting for incumbent boards: unilaterally adopting a bylaw banning the arrangements.  Boards should be wary of this advice.

True, Wachtell’s position concurs with my view that such payments are lawful, contrary to the position urged by my esteemed fellow corporate law Prof., Stephen Bainbridge.  But that’s where Wachtell and I part company, first because Wachtell’s proposal is myopically universal and second because it errs on a basic legal point about board and shareholder power.

In my view, not only are the arrangements lawful, but shareholder bodies ought to have the choice to embrace or reject them.  My guess is that they are desirable for some corporations in some settings and not so for others.  Therefore, the use or rejection of these ought to be determined, as with much else in corporate life and law, in context by business people participating in particular governance situations. Read More

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The Reality of Short Termism Per Mark Roe

Short-termism in stock markets preoccupies many policy makers and analysts of late but Mark Roe wonders about the validity of some of the conventional talk.   He has posted a series of three short articles on the topic excerpted from a larger project, all worth a look: (1) about whether the cause of any new corporate short-termism may not be stock markets but the speed of change in business pressures;  (2) Are Stock Markets Really Becoming More Short-Term?, and (3) Apple’s Cash Flow Problem, using that case to question the assumption of short-termism.   Business Lawyer will publish the longer version of the inquiry this summer in Mark’s piece, Corporate Short-termism — In the Boardroom and in the Courtroom.  All worth reading.

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Prof. Bainbridge on Hess: Critics Still Not There Yet

Prof. Steve Bainbridge replied to my post about shareholders paying bonuses to director nominees elected in contested elections, highlighted by the pending proxy battle at Hess.  Steve clarifies his objection to Elliott Associates, the activist shareholder hedge fund, promising to pay its director nominees bonuses if Hess’s stock price outperforms a group of industry peers over the next 3 years:

When I described these transactions as involving a conflict of interest, what I had in mind was the general conflict of interest ban contained in Restatement (Second) of Agency sec 388:  “Unless otherwise agreed, an agent who makes a profit in connection with transactions conducted by him on behalf of the principal is under a duty to give such profit to the principal.”  Surely the hedge fund payments here qualify as, for example, the sort of gratuties picked up by comment b to sec 388:

“An agent can properly retain gratuities received on account of the principal’s business if, because of custom or otherwise, an agreement to this effect is found. Except in such a case, the receipt and retention of a gratuity by an agent from a party with interests adverse to those of the principal is evidence that the agent is committing a breach of duty to the principal by not acting in his interests.  Illustration 4.   A, the purchasing agent for the P railroad, purchases honestly and for a fair price fifty trucks from T, who is going out of business. In gratitude for A’s favorable action and without ulterior motive or agreement, T makes A a gift of a car. A holds the automobile as a constructive trustee for P, although A is not otherwise liable to P.”

How is the hedge fund’s gratitude for good service by the Hess director any different than T gift to A?  To be sure, directors are not agent of the corporation, but “The relationship between a corporation and its directors is similar to that of agency, and directors possess the same rights and are subject to the same duties as other agents.” . . . Thus, I believe, even if the hedge fund nominee/tippees are scrupulously honest in not sharing confidential information with the funds, put the interests of all shareholders ahead of those of just the hedge funds, and so on, there would still be a serious conflict of interest here.

I can offer 4 replies to Steve’s fine legal points, which I’ll first summarize and then elaborate:

1.  While Steve acknowledges that agency law doesn’t apply, he stresses similarities between agency and corporate law when justifying reference to the American Law Institute’s Restatement (Second) of Agency, but then omits the differences that warrant treating directors differently than agents.

2. Even accepting arguendo Steve’s proposal to rely on the Restatement (Second) of Agency,  he chose to present Illustration 4 as governing the Elliott-Hess arrangement, but the next one, Illustration 5 (excerpted below), is more on point and comes out the other way because the agent and principal are free to agree otherwise.

3.  Even if agency law applied, the Restatement (Second) of Agency, initially adopted in 1958, was superseded in 2006 by the Restatement (Third) of Agency, whose provisions support the Elliott-Hess arrangements.

4.  But agency law doesn’t apply.  The ALI’s applicable standard from corporate law is stated in its Principles of Corporate Governance, expressly referenced in the Restatement (Third) of Agency.  This standard puts the burden on those challenging such arrangements to prove defects such as unfairness or secretiveness, which opponents have not done.  Read More

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Debating “The Shareholder Value Myth”

Many thanks to Larry and the Concurring Opinions folks for inviting me to blog this month. This is my first time blogging and I’m glad to finally try it out.

On Wednesday, I attended an event promoting Lynn Stout’s book The Shareholder Value Myth, sponsored by the Federalist Society and the American Enterprise Institute. The event was structured as a debate of Stout’s thesis with Jonathan Macey (who wrote this review of the book) taking the opposing position. In her book, Stout argued that the widely accepted norm that corporations are owned by shareholders and exist to maximize shareholder wealth is a destructive myth. Instead, Stout claimed, corporations own themselves and in running corporations, managers can and should pursue any lawful purpose.

It is a real credit to Lynn that there was such a lively, thought-provoking debate about the topic. That corporate managers have an obligation to work on behalf of shareholders to maximize shareholder wealth may be the most basic tenet of corporate law and policy. Options theory aside, many think of shareholders as the “owners” of the corporation and even those who question whether shareholders technically own the corporation do not doubt that the corporation should be operated in such a way as to maximize shareholder value. This unwritten “norm” has dominated corporate law, policy, scholarship, and, indeed, management for a long time (for precisely how long, Stout and Macey disagreed).  It is extremely impressive that Stout has been able to provoke a debate about the viability of this fundamental norm.

Wednesday’s debate was the second time I’d seen Stout present at a Federalist Society event. Both times, she began her presentation by arguing that hers was the truly conservative position. It seems an unlikely claim that surprises the audience given what her conclusions are, but I think it highlights what Stout does so well – she reaches her audience with their priors in mind in order to really draw them into her ideas where they might be tempted to dismiss her arguments out of hand. Her presentation was not about good corporate behavior or environmentalism, themes she touched upon in the book, but rather about how debunking the shareholder value myth would allow corporate law to favor state law over federal regulation, to prefer common law rules to statutory regulation, to enhance private ordering, and to honor the lessons of history.

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