Tagged: Current Events


Gearing Up for a Let Down?

There currently is a lot of activity surrounding implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act. The various agencies are proposing rules, numerous organizations are filing responsive comments and many rules have become final. (For useful resources to help track rulemaking and developments, see here and here.) Major portions of the Act are taking shape (see, e.g., here, here and here); the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau even has its website up and running.

But there are problems. Although progress is being made, agencies are behind schedule in meeting certain benchmarks, with the first anniversary of the Act quickly approaching. Opposition lobbies continue to form and are gaining strength (see, e.g., here and here), and funding for the Act’s initiatives remains in question (see here, here and here). I can’t help but wonder about the endgame. Can our already understaffed and underfunded agencies enforce these new rules? Are rules on the books without any meaningful enforcement mechanisms effective? If the answer to both of these questions is no, where exactly are we headed?

I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to raise these types of questions. Nevertheless, I raise them to consider the alternatives. If the risk management, corporate governance and consumer protection issues highlighted by the recent recession can’t be fixed effectively through the regulatory process, what might work? The obvious alternatives—market discipline and industry self-regulation—have their own problems, which might be as challenging to overcome as the resource issues facing the government.  (For interesting perspectives on these alternatives, see, e.g., here and here.) But I think we should continue to try; we should consider innovative ways to enhance the efficiency of these and other monitoring/disciplining tools that could complement whatever comes out of the regulatory initiatives. The economic problems we face are too big for us to fail.


The Great Sport of Entrepreneurship

Being a huge sports fan and a corporate law geek, I have truly enjoyed the attention garnered by the Green Bay Packers’ ownership structure in the build up to the Super Bowl (see, e.g., here). The success of the Packers’ non-profit, fan-owner structure raises several interesting questions (see here). That structure also is a refreshing departure from the commercialization of the sports industry generally.

Nevertheless, the Packers’ appearance in Super Bowl XLV also highlights opportunity for innovation and small business profit in the sports context. Indeed, the infamous cheesehead hats were created by a Wisconsin sports fan on his way to a Brewers’ game (see here). Talk about innovation—he apparently ripped the foam from his couch and painted it orange. Before he knew it, he owned and operated a small foam-manufacturing company that caters to Wisconsin sports fans’ every need.

Interestingly, the cheesehead hat entrepreneur is not alone. There is an entire cottage industry of sports entrepreneurs who seek to profit from the loyalty of sports fans everywhere (see, e.g., here and here). And these are not just the high-profile athletes turned entrepreneurs. These are ordinary people with unique or innovative ideas. Take those sports entrepreneurs who are operating online sports stock exchanges (see, e.g., here). I suspect that Aaron Rodgers’ stock price is at an all-time high at the moment.

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Volunteering in a Recession

I heard an interview today with a representative of a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers with organizations in need—a sort of match-maker in the volunteer context. Interestingly, the representative reported an increase in the number of available volunteers during the recession (see also here and here). She attributed this trend to two things: people who had lost their jobs wanting to keep up their skills while searching for new employment and people generally wanting to help others in need.

The report piqued my interest regarding whether the recession was having a similar, positive effect on the provision of pro bono legal services. I suspected that more people were in greater need of legal assistance as a result of the recession, which in fact turns out to be the case (see here and here). I did not know, however, whether lawyers were meeting this increased demand. I like to think we are, but the profession’s record on this point is not necessarily encouraging (see, e.g., here).

The results appear mixed. Some reports suggest that the level of pro bono activity has remained the same or increased slightly in the past few years (but see here). (For interesting perspectives on the recession and the legal profession, including pro bono legal services, see here and here.) Nevertheless, even these increased activity levels fall woefully short of the reported need. So, given high lawyer unemployment rates and the desire to better train new lawyers, why does this gap exist?

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The Very Active Activist Investors

Activist investors have been very busy in recent months, both in the U.S. (see here, here and here) and elsewhere. Among other things, Bill Ackman, through Pershing Square Capital Management, obtained seats on the board of J.C. Penney and was named Chairman of Howard Hughes Corp.—the spinoff of General Growth Properties. Ackman invested in both the equity and debt of General Growth Properties shortly before its chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and, by many accounts, hit a home run on this particular investment. The governance structure of the resulting company, Howard Hughes Corp. (which is reportedly named for the former filmmaker/entrepreneur), also is very interesting. According to Ackman, “it’s a company you can buy stock in. You can throw out the board. The board is elected annually. You can call a shareholder meeting with 15 percent of the vote…so, you know, you can get me back.” So is this a sign of things to come?

Many predict a very active proxy season for activist shareholders and the companies they target. (For an explanation of this trend, see here.) Commentators also suggest the activist agenda likely will include “proliferation of majority voting for directors from the larger public companies to mid-size and smaller companies (which we believe will see the largest number of proposals), separation of the offices of Chairman of the Board and CEO, 10 percent or lower thresholds for shareholders to call special meetings and enabling shareholders to act by majority written consent.” This agenda includes governance features that are similar to those ascribed to Howard Hughes Corp., but Ackman was able to achieve that structure without a proxy fight. Ackman, like a growing number of activists, turned to the chapter 11 bankruptcy process to win control and implement a specific governance agenda.  (For an explanation of this loan-to-own strategy, see here.)

Activist distressed debt investors recently acquired ownership and control of companies like Lear Corp., Philadelphia Newspapers, Reader’s Digest, Six Flags and Tropicana Casino & Resorts through chapter 11. Certainly, not all activist distressed debt investors are focused on governance changes, and the value added by their activism is subject to debate. And interestingly, much of their activism goes unnoticed, unlike their shareholder counterparts. So will these debtholder activists follow Howard Hughes Corp.’s lead and implement investor-friendly governance policies? Will these policies truly enhance enterprise value? These important questions—related to both shareholder and debtholder activism—will only be answered with time and performance results, but create many issues for corporate boards and governance scholars to consider in the interim.


Creating Corporate Culture Through Comedy?

As I was preparing to fly home from a conference yesterday, I was watching msnbc’s Your Business, which was profiling a small business that uses comedy to create a positive corporate culture. The company, Peppercom (a public relations firm), employs a comedy coach to work with its employees not so much to help employees tell good jokes but to build confidence and communication skills. Although this approach may not work for every business, Peppercom apparently has landed several large accounts based on its approach to business and the personality of the firm and its employees. (For an example of using comedy to discuss corporate ethics with employees, see here.)

I have to admit that I initially thought the msnbc segment was entertaining but not really applicable to the larger business community. I then boarded my Southwest Airlines’ flight and, along with the other passengers, was serenaded by one of the flight attendants who actually got most of the people on the flight to join her in the chorus of “Rolling Down the Runway” (adapted from John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary”). This experience made me reflect further on the importance of corporate culture to the overall productivity of a firm (see here and here) and the tools available to cultivate that culture.

I have previously written about corporate culture and “tone at the top” in the context of enterprise risk management (see here and here), but certainly the benefits of a positive corporate culture do not end there. Employing a workforce that enjoys coming to work, is comfortable communicating throughout the firm and portrays that positive image to the outside world potentially holds real value. (For interesting discussions of corporate culture at AIG and Lehman Brothers prior to the crisis, see here, here, here and here.) I think the challenge in this broader context, as in the enterprise risk management context, is finding the right people to foster that culture. Policymakers can impose incentives and perhaps even a process designed to promote a positive, ethical and risk aware culture at any given company, but those regulations only go so far. The people leading the company must be committed to the endeavor and the implementation of that culture—checking the box or adopting an ethical code or employee handbook is not enough.

This notion of good corporate governance being tied to the individuals serving on boards of directors and management teams was one of the issues explored during the conference I was attending. That conference, hosted by the Adolf A. Berle, Jr. Center on Corporations, Law and Society at the Seattle University School of Law, was a wonderful collection of corporate scholars from various disciplines discussing the issues we continue to face in corporate governance generally and how Adolf Berle’s work informs that discussion. I am not sure we uncovered any definitive answers, but I certainly am encouraged by the discourse and energized to continue the pursuit.


Perhaps a Sign of Things to Come

A Federal Reserve staffer suggested this week that the Fed will defer a key consumer decision to the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). That decision concerns homeowners’ rights of rescission. The rescission right gives a homeowner a certain period of time (in some cases up to three years) to challenge a mortgage on the grounds of misrepresentation or inadequate disclosure and requires the mortgagor to release its lien on the subject property. As you might guess, the rescission remedy has been invoked extensively in the recent economic downturn.

The mortgage industry has been encouraging the Federal Reserve to address the rescission issue with a sense of urgency, perhaps fearing what might happen to the rule after July 21, 2011—the date that authority on such issues is transferred to the CFPB. The Federal Reserve looked poised to make a move, having proposed a rule in September 2010 that would significantly restrict the circumstances under which a homeowner could seek to rescind a mortgage. The comment period for the proposed rule closed on December 23rd, and, despite opposition by consumer groups, many thought the Federal Reserve would continue to pursue the proposal. 

A decision by the Federal Reserve to defer this particular issue to the CFPB would be consistent with the CFPB’s objective to consolidate the oversight and implementation of consumer protection regulations in a single agency. It may not, however, produce a result consistent with the intent of the Federal Reserve’s proposed rule and the desires of many in the mortgage industry. One of the CFPB’s charges is to oversee the mortgage and credit card industries, including the language and substance of consumer disclosures. Given the CFPB’s preemption provisions (which favor enforcing state consumer protection laws), the CFPB’s proposed partnership with state attorneys general and the robo-signing and related concerns swirling around the mortgage industry, I doubt that weakening consumers’ rescission rights is high on the priority list.

I look forward to seeing how this and other pressing consumer issues play out, particularly after July 21st. The CFPB is starting to take shape (see here and here), and it appears that it will hit the ground running. (For interesting Q&A with Elizabeth Warren on the CFPB, see here and here.) In any event, the agency certainly has its work cut out for it.


Let the Good Times Roll

The PR departments of the Big 3 automakers are working overtime. With the public opening of the North American International Auto Show just days away, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler released financial results showing a significant increase in sales in 2010 and promising outlooks for 2011. And the flurry of news coverage certainly has a different feel than the doom and gloom of the coverage just two years ago (see, e.g., here).

Why the difference? Is the economic recovery helping the Big 3? Is chapter 11 bankruptcy the reason for the apparent rebirth of General Motors and Chrysler? If so, what explains Ford’s current success (for some interesting perspectives on this, see here and here)?

Many commentators have analyzed the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcy cases, and they thoughtfully dissect what was novel, not so novel and somewhat troubling about those cases (see, e.g., here, here and here). It is difficult to assess exactly what role chapter 11 played in General Motors’ and Chrysler’s recoveries, other than to state the obvious that both companies used the process to reduce overhead and balance sheet liabilities significantly. That certainly can provide new life to a company; the question then becomes what the company does with the opportunity.

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Creative Reconstruction

In my opening post, I referenced the slow pace of change and how it can be exceedingly painful for individual consumers. I want to follow up on that concept in the business context, where slow change—or the failure to change at all—can be fatal.

Consider, for example, Borders, which recently announced that it was suspending payments to vendors and trying to refinance its debt obligations (see here and here). Borders, like its competitor Barnes & Noble, is struggling to compete with big box retailers that offer steep discounts on traditional books and the growing popularity of e-Books (see here, here and here). Also like many retailers, Borders was hit hard by the economic recession (see here).

Some may say that Borders is a victim of the recession and creative destruction. And that may, in part, be accurate. (For interesting perspectives on the utility of recessions and creative destruction, see here and here.) But anyone who follows the retail industry or is an avid reader had some sense that this was coming (see here, here and here). So why didn’t Borders’ management? Or rather, why didn’t they react more quickly to the changing market and economy?

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2011: Has that much really changed?

I want to start by wishing everyone a very happy New Year and by thanking my colleague Danielle Citron and all of the permanent authors of Concurring Opinions for inviting me back to guest blog. I truly enjoyed my time as a guest blogger last January, and I look forward to participating on the blog during the next few weeks.

2010 certainly was an active year—we saw Congress pass landmark legislation (see here and here), voters overhaul the political landscape in the mid-term elections (see here and here) and everyone continue to focus on the economic recovery (see here, here and here). But as I reflect on the past year and look forward to 2011, I am not really sure that much has changed.

Yes, we were told that the economic recession officially ended, but people, businesses and countries are still feeling the pain. Domestic unemployment continues to hover around 9.8 percent, and some jobs lost during the recession may not be coming back (see here). The U.S. national debt exceeds $13 trillion, and we have no clear path for reducing it (see here and here). Several European countries continue to struggle with liquidity issues (see here and here) and banks continue to fail.

Nevertheless, some things do appear to be changing—albeit at a very slow pace. For academics, slow change can be good, in that it allows us to analyze critically the causes, developments and potential resolutions in (almost) real time. For others, the slow pace of change can be exceedingly painful. In any case, part of what I hope to do during the next few weeks is explore ongoing changes in the corporate and financial fields, as well as the challenges we continue to face in the legal profession generally. These areas are the primary focus of my teaching and scholarship, and I will endeavor to impart some of my passion, concern and optimism for each through my upcoming posts.


Ward Churchill and the Future of Public Employee Speech Retaliation Litigation

The Colorado Court of Appeals released its decision in Ward Churchill’s appeal in his First Amendment retaliation case against the University of Colorado last Wednesday (which must be one of the slowest news days of the year). A few years ago, the University terminated Churchill, a tenured professor in the University’s Department of Ethnic Studies, after concluding that he had engaged in several incidents of research misconduct, including evidentiary fabrication, plagiarism, and falsification. These conclusions were reached after several years of internal investigative and adjudicative proceedings to examine allegations of Churchill’s research misconduct. As most everyone is aware, the University did not launch its investigation until after a public outcry arose from controversial statements in an essay that Churchill wrote comparing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to “little Eichmanns,” in reference to the notorious Nazi war criminal. The perhaps forgotten larger point of the essay was an argument that the 9/11 attacks were provoked by American foreign policy actions.

Churchill sued the University, arguing that both the investigation and the termination violated his free speech rights under the First Amendment because they were undertaken in retaliation for his protected expression on matters of public concern. At trial, after the evidence was submitted, the University moved for a directed verdict on the claim that the investigation (as distinguished from the termination) was an adverse employment action that constituted unconstitutional retaliation, and the trial court agreed. The termination claim went to the jury, which held for Churchill, concluding that the University’s decision to fire him was substantially motivated by his protected speech. The jury also rejected the University’s defense under Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977), finding that the University had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have fired Churchill for reasons other than his speech. The jury then awarded Churchill only $1 for his economic loss.

In an unusual move, the parties had agreed prior to trial that the University would waive its sovereign immunity defense in exchange for Churchill’s agreement that the University could assert any defenses that its officials or employees could have raised and that those defenses could be presented after the jury’s verdict. Pursuant to this agreement, the University submitted post-verdict motions asserting that despite the jury’s ruling, the University was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity for its officials’ actions. Churchill filed a motion asking that he be reinstated to his faculty position based on the jury’s finding of unconstitutional termination. The trial court ruled in favor of the University on both claims and entered judgment for the defense, from which Churchill appealed. Read More