The Federal Reserve’s Dodd-Frank enhanced prudential standards (“EPS”) final rule requires a foreign banking organization with $50 billion or more in U.S. non-branch/agency assets (“Foreign Bank”) to place virtually all of its U.S. subsidiaries underneath a top-tier U.S. intermediate holding company (“IHC”). The IHC will be subject to U.S. Basel III, capital planning, Dodd-Frank stress testing, liquidity, risk management requirements and other U.S. EPS on a consolidated basis.
A recent and groundbreaking decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasburg might shatter the entire structure of the Italian and European regulation of market abuse (insider trading and market manipulations). The case is “Grand Stevens and others v. Italy”, and was decided on March 4, 2014.
The facts can be briefly summarized as follows. In 2005, the corporations that controlled the car manufacturer Fiat, renegotiated a financial contract (equity swap) with Merrill Lynch. One of the goals of the agreement was to maintain control over Fiat without being required to launch a mandatory tender offer. Consob, the Italian securities and exchange commission, initiated an administrative action against the corporation and some of its managers and consultants, accusing them of not having properly disclosed the renegotiation of the contract to the market. The procedure resulted in heavy financial fines (for some individuals, up to 5 million euro), and additional measures prohibiting some of the people involved from serving as corporate directors and practicing law. At the same time, a criminal investigation was launched for the same facts. It is not necessary here to discuss the merits of the controversy, it is sufficient to mention that the sanctioned parties challenged the sanctions in Italian courts, but did not prevail.
On January 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a no-action letter to Schlumberger Ltd. (“Schlumberger” or “the Company”), permitting the Company not to file a preliminary proxy statement under Rule 14a-6(a) when the only matters to be acted upon by stockholders at the Company’s annual meeting were either specifically excluded from the filing requirements by Rule 14a-6(a) or were certain ordinary and routine matters required to be submitted for stockholder approval under Curaçao law on an annual basis.
Much corporate finance research is concerned with causation—does a change in some input cause a change in some output? Does corporate governance affect firm performance? Does capital structure affect firm investments? How do corporate acquisitions affect the value of the acquirer, or the acquirer and target together? Without a causal link, we lack a strong basis for recommending that firms change their behavior or that governments adopt specific reforms. Consider, for example, corporate governance research. Decisionmakers—corporate boards, investors, and regulators—need to know whether governance causes value, before they decide to change the governance of a firm (or all firms in a country) with the goal of increasing firm value or improving other firm or market outcomes. If researchers provide evidence only on association between governance and outcomes, decisionmakers may adopt changes based on flawed data that may lead to adverse consequences for particular firms.
In its recent decision in In Re Rural Metro Corporation Stockholders Litigation,  the Delaware Court of Chancery, in a footnote, touches on what it means for directors to be “fully protected” by §141(e) of the Delaware General Corporation Law when they rely on information, opinions, reports or statements provided to them by officers, employees, board committees or experts. While not central to the Rural Metro decision, this is an issue that should be of interest to conscientious public company directors. Below I suggest that, as currently applied, §141(e) does not sufficiently protect conscientious directors, examine why that may be so, highlight the need for alternative approaches to provide truly full protection without undermining other important conduct imperatives Delaware law imposes on directors and others, and offer some suggestions toward that end.
As a practicing securities lawyer for more than thirty years, I have in the past advised boards of directors, including mutual fund boards, and I am well acquainted with the important work that you do. I also understand the essential role that independent directors play in ensuring good corporate governance. As fiduciaries, you play a critical role in setting the appropriate tone at the top and overseeing the funds’ business. Thus, I commend the Mutual Fund Directors Forum’s efforts in providing a platform for independent mutual fund directors to share ideas and best practices. Improving fund governance is vital to investor protection and maintaining the integrity of our financial markets.
On March 20, 2014, the Federal Reserve announced the summary results of the Dodd-Frank Act 2014 supervisory stress tests for the 30 largest U.S. banking organizations. The results demonstrate the sharply enhanced capital strength and resiliency of the U.S. banking system. Under an “extreme stress scenario”, these U.S. banking organizations could absorb an extraordinary downturn in “pre-provision net revenues” and an unprecedented level of loan losses and still maintain capital levels well above minimum regulatory requirements and almost 40% above the actual capital ratios in 2009.
We have recently revised our paper Rethinking Basic (discussed earlier on the Forum here). Our revision, which will be published in the May issue of the Business Lawyer, takes into account, and relates our analysis to, the Justices’ questions at the Halliburton oral argument. As our revision explains, questions asked by some of the Justices at the oral argument suggest that the fraudulent distortion approach we support might appeal to the Court.
In the Halliburton case, the United States Supreme Court is expected to reconsider the Basic ruling that, twenty-five years ago, adopted the fraud-on-the-market theory, which has since facilitated securities class action litigation. Our paper seeks to contribute to this reconsideration by providing a conceptual and economic framework for a reexamination of the Basic rule.
U.S. banking regulation resembles a cat-and-mouse game of industry change and regulatory response. Often, a crisis or industry innovation will lead to a new regulatory regime. Past regulatory regimes have included geographic restrictions, activity restrictions, disclosure mandates, risk management rules, and capital requirements. But the recently enacted Dodd-Frank Act introduced a new strain of banking-industry supervision: regulation by hypothetical. Regulation by hypothetical refers to rules that require banks to predict future crises and weaknesses. Those predictions—which by definition are speculative—become the basis for regulatory intervention. Two illustrative instances of this regulation were codified in Dodd-Frank: stress tests and living wills. They are two pillars on which Dodd-Frank builds to manage risk in systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs).  As I argue in my forthcoming article, regulation by hypothetical in Dodd-Frank should be abandoned for three reasons: it relies on a faulty premise, tasks an agency with a conflicted mission, and likely exacerbates the moral hazards involved with governmental sponsorship of private institutions. Because of these weaknesses, the regulation-by-hypothetical regime must be either abandoned (my first choice) or strengthened. One way to strengthen these hypothetical scenarios would be to conduct financial war games.
We published this post last August. Since then there have been several developments that prompt us to revisit it; adding the first three paragraphs below.
First, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr. published a brilliant article in the Columbia Law Review, Can We Do Better by Ordinary Investors? A Pragmatic Reaction to the Dueling Ideological Mythologists of Corporate Law in which he points out the serious defects in allowing short-term investors to override carefully considered judgments of the boards of directors of public corporations. Chief Justice Strine rejects the argument of the academic activists and activist hedge funds that shareholders should have the unfettered right to force corporations to maximize shareholder value in the short run. We embrace Chief Justice Strine’s reasoning and conclusions.