It’s official: Proxy access is the darling of the 2015 season. Shareholder-sponsored proxy access proposals are on the ballots of more than 100 U.S. public companies this spring. These precatory proposals seek a shareholder vote on a binding bylaw that would enable shareholders who meet certain ownership requirements to nominate board candidates and have them included in the company’s own proxy materials. Powerful institutional investors have given the proxy access movement enormous momentum this spring, and blue chip firms such as GE, Bank of America, and Prudential have voluntarily adopted versions of proxy access in advance of their annual meetings. Companies such as Citigroup have agreed to support proxy access shareholder proposals in their definitive proxy materials. In the absence of regulatory guidance, proxy advisors such as ISS have stepped into the breach to define the terms and conditions of proxy access. As proxy access proposals proliferate—after years of controversy—the primary debate now seems to be whether a 3 percent or 5 percent ownership threshold is more appropriate.
In private company transactions, dealmakers often spend significant amounts of time talking about how to treat the cash held by an acquisition target. For example, if the buyer and the seller are negotiating price on the assumption that the target will be sold on a cash-free, debt-free basis, how does the purchase price get adjusted for cash that the target continues to hold at the time of closing? If the deal includes a working capital adjustment, how will cash and cash equivalents be taken into account? What are the procedures for measuring how much cash the target holds at closing?
In cross-border deals, the issues about how to deal with target cash often become significantly more complex. Businesses that operate around the world may have cash in several different countries. Regulatory and tax concerns may limit both the seller’s and the buyer’s ability to transfer cash held by the target from one country to another. Questions about how to deal with the target’s cash must be answered with these constraints in mind.
The balance of this post discusses some of the solutions that buyers and sellers use to resolve trapped cash issues in cross-border deals.
In Strougo v. Hollander, the Delaware Court of Chancery held that a fee-shifting bylaw did not apply to a former stockholder’s challenge to the fairness of a 10,000-to-1 reverse stock split that the corporation undertook in connection with a going-private transaction because (i) the bylaw was adopted after the stockholder’s interest in the corporation ceased to exist due to the reverse stock split and (ii) Delaware law does not authorize a bylaw that regulates the rights or powers of former stockholders. While the proposed 2015 amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law, if adopted, would themselves invalidate fee-shifting provisions in corporate charters and bylaws, Delaware corporations should consider the implications of this opinion’s holding that former stockholders are not bound by bylaws (or, by implication, charter provisions) adopted after their interests as stockholders cease to exist.
Our paper, When Less Is More: The Benefits of Limits on Executive Pay, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, addresses the question of whether limits on executive compensation harm or benefit shareholders. In particular, our model shows that if regulation limits executive compensation, this can make it possible for the board to give the CEO incentives that are both more effective and less costly, and for the two parties to create a relationship that is more collaborative. Among the implications—some of which we are exploring in a companion paper in progress—is this collaborative relationship makes it more attractive for the CEO to pursue long-run strategies (e.g., organic growth) that are more profitable than the short-run strategies (e.g., mergers and acquisitions) they would have pursued if firms had to rely on stock-based compensation for their executives.
Even as the Delaware appraisal rights landscape continues to evolve, dealmakers should not assume that the issues and outcomes will be the same in transactions involving companies incorporated in other states. Although once an afterthought on the M&A landscape, in recent years appraisal rights have become a prominent topic of discussion among dealmakers. In an earlier M&A Update (discussed on the Forum here) we discussed a number of factors driving the recent uptick in shareholders exercising statutory appraisal remedies available in cash-out mergers. With the recent Delaware Supreme Court decision in CKx and Chancery Court opinion in Ancestry.com, both determining that the deal price was the best measure of fair price for appraisal purposes, and the upcoming appraisal trials for the Dell and Dole going-private transactions, the contours of the modern appraisal remedy, and the future prospects of the appraisal arbitrage strategy, are being decided in real-time. These and almost all of the other recent high-profile appraisal claims have one thing in common—the targets in question were all Delaware corporations and the parties have the benefit of a well-known statutory scheme and experienced judges relying on extensive (but evolving) case law. But, what if the target is not in Delaware?
This article, The Corporation as Time Machine: Intergenerational Equity, Intergenerational Efficiency, and the Corporate Form, advances an explanation for the rise of the corporate form and an alternative perspective on its economic function. The article argues that the board-controlled corporate entity is a legal innovation that can transfer wealth forward and sometimes backward through time, for the benefit of both present and future generations. The article was written for a symposium organized around the author’s prior work with Margaret Blair.
The corporate form allows natural persons to aggregate and transfer resources to a legal person with the capacity to hold assets in its own name in perpetuity. When the corporate entity is controlled by a board subject to the fiduciary duty of loyalty, corporate assets can be “locked in” and insulated from the demands of natural persons (e.g., the current generation of shareholders) who want to extract and consume them. Asset lock-in thus permits board-controlled corporate entities with perpetual life to invest in and pursue projects that may generate wealth only in later time periods, possibly even after the current cohort of human beings has ceased to exist.
It is clear that shareholder activism continues to evolve, expand and increase in influence. There is a growing emphasis, in particular by large mutual funds and other institutional investors, on shareholder engagement and shareholder-friendly governance structures that, together with the increased activity of activist hedge funds and other “strategic” activist investors, make shareholder engagement and preparedness an essential focus for public companies and their boards.
Most recently, BlackRock Inc. and the Vanguard Group, the largest and third largest U.S. asset managers with more than $7 trillion in combined assets under management, have made public statements emphasizing that they are focused on corporate governance and board engagement. Vanguard recently sent a letter to many of its portfolio companies cautioning them not to confuse Vanguard’s “predominantly passive management style” with a “passive attitude toward corporate governance.” The letter goes on to emphasize numerous corporate governance principles and to highlight in detail (as discussed further below) the importance of direct shareholder-director interactions. BlackRock recently updated its voting policies to make clear that they are more than just guides to how BlackRock votes–they represent “our expectations of boards of directors.” The new policies continue an emphasis on direct interaction between investors and directors.
Trust is part of the foundation of public markets. Scandals at firms such as Enron and HealthSouth fractured this foundation and motivated market participants to ask why executives and other employees at these firms misled investors. Some regulators and experts conjecture that the roots of these scandals can be traced to the actions and attitudes of those at the very top of corporate leadership. In the words of Linda Chatman Thomsen (Director, Division of Enforcement, Securities and Exchange Commission) “Corporate character matters—and employees take their cues from the top. In our experience, the character of the CEO and other top officers is generally reflected in the character of the entire company.” In our paper, Suspect CEOs, Unethical Culture, and Corporate Misbehavior, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, we provide evidence consistent with this perspective by demonstrating an empirical link between CEOs’ revealed character and the misbehaviors of the firms they manage.
The Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance and the Harvard Law School Program on Institutional Investors convened the Harvard Roundtable on Corporate Governance last Wednesday, March 18. The event brought together for a roundtable discussion 75 prominent experts with a wide range of perspectives on this subject, including those of investors, issuers, advisors, and academics. Participants in the event, and the topics of discussion, are set out below.
The Roundtable, which was co-organized by Lucian Bebchuk, Stephen Davis, and Scott Hirst, was sponsored by a number of co-sponsors (listed here), the supporting organizations of the Program on Corporate Governance (listed on the program site here), and the institutional members of the Harvard Institutional Investor Forum (listed here).
The Roundtable sessions focused on board composition, and other current issues in corporate governance. The Roundtable began with discussion of board composition issues. The participants discussed a variety of issues on the topic, including director experience and skills, director tenure and age, board refreshment, board diversity and board evaluations. The Roundtable then moved to a discussion of proxy access and other current issues in corporate governance, and engagement between issuers and investors on such issues.
The participants in the Harvard Roundtable on Corporate Governance included:
The Securities and Exchange Commission announced last week that it had charged eight directors, officers and major stockholders for failing to timely disclose steps taken to take their respective companies private in their beneficial ownership reports on Schedule 13D. The orders issued by the SEC indicate the SEC staff became aware of the violations in the course of their review of proxy and Schedule 13E-3 transaction statements, which described the steps taken in the required disclosures regarding the background of the transactions. The orders note that emails and other contemporaneous communications clearly indicate the steps taken that had not been properly disclosed. The orders issued by the SEC (to which the offending parties consented) resulted in cease-and-desist orders and payment of civil penalties.