Vice Chancellor Laster has been writing for several years about the fiduciary duties of directors who represent the interests of a particular block of stockholders. In his opinion in the Trados Shareholder Litigation he found that directors, elected by the venture capital investors who held Trados’s preferred stock, had a conflict of interest in deciding on a sale of the corporation in which all the proceeds would be absorbed by the liquidation preference of the preferred and nothing would go to the common.  As a result of this finding, Vice Chancellor Laster applied the entire fairness standard of review to the Trados board’s decision. He concluded that while the directors failed to follow a fair process, the transaction was fair because the common stock had no economic value before the sale and so it was fair for the common stock to receive nothing from the sale.  In a recent Business Lawyer article which he co-authored with Delaware practitioner John Mark Zeberkiewicz,  Vice Chancellor Laster extended his Trados conflict of interest analysis to other situations in which directors represent stockholder constituencies with short-term investment horizons, including directors elected by activist stockholders seeking immediate steps to increase the near term stock price of the corporation. He states that such directors can face a conflict of interest between their duties to the corporation and their duties to the activists.
Posts Tagged ‘Conflicts of interest’
In December, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority entered into settlement agreements with a number of the major banking firms in response to allegations that their equity research analysts were involved in impermissibly soliciting investment banking business by offering their views during the pitch for the Toys “R” Us IPO (which was never actually completed). FINRA rules generally prohibit analysts from attending pitch meetings  and prospective underwriters from promising favorable research to obtain a mandate.  In this situation, no research analyst attended the pitch meetings with the investment bankers and none explicitly promised favorable research in exchange for the business. However, FINRA announced an interpretation of its rules that took a broad view of a “pitch” and the “promise of favorable research.” FINRA identified a so-called “solicitation period” as the period after a company makes it known that it intends to conduct an investment banking transaction, such as an IPO, but prior to awarding the mandate. In the settlement agreements, FINRA stated its view that research analyst communications with a company during the solicitation period must be limited to due diligence activities, and that any additional communications by the analyst, even as to his or her general views on valuation or comparable company valuation, will rise to the level of impermissible activity. The settlements further suggested that these restrictions apply not only to research analysts, but also to investment bankers that are conveying the views of their research departments to the company. The practical result of these settlements will be to dramatically reduce the interaction between research analysts and companies prior to the award of a mandate.
More than a decade ago, Professors Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried published the seminal work on the role and significance of managerial power theory in executive compensation. Their work cultivated a vivid debate on executive compensation in companies with dispersed ownership. The discourse on the optimality of executive pay in controlled companies, however, has been more monolithic. Conventional wisdom among corporate law theorists has long suggested that the presence of a controlling shareholder should alleviate the problem of managerial opportunism because such a controller has both the power and incentives to curb excessive executive pay.
My Article, Executive Compensation in Controlled Companies, forthcoming in the Indiana Law Journal, challenges that common understanding by proposing a different view that is based on an agency problem paradigm, and by presenting a comprehensive framework for understanding the relationship between concentrated ownership and executive pay. On the theoretical level, the Article shows that controlling shareholders often have incentives to overpay professional managers instead of having an arm’s-length contract with them, and therefore it suggests that compensation practices in a large number of controlled companies may have their own pathologies.
On October 24, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision, In Re: Crimson Exploration Inc. Stockholder Litigation, addressing when: (i) a stockholder with less than majority voting power may be deemed a controlling stockholder, and (ii) the controlling stockholder’s actions trigger “entire fairness” review of a challenged merger. The court also rejected criticisms of the seller’s financial advisor based on supposed conflicts of interest and flawed valuation methodologies.
The decision provides important guidance for directors and their advisors in merger transactions where one stockholder or a cohesive group of stockholders holds a sizable share of company stock.
Leo Strine, Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and the Austin Wakeman Scott Lecturer on Law and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance, gave a lecture to a the Delaware Business Law Forum that will be published in The Business Lawyer in May, next year. The essay, titled Documenting The Deal: How Quality Control And Candor Can Improve Boardroom Decision-making And Reduce The Litigation Target Zone, is available here.
As 2014 winds down and 2015 approaches, proxy advisory firms—and the investment managers who hire them—are finding themselves under increased scrutiny. Staff guidance issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission at the end of June and a working paper published in August by SEC Commissioner Daniel M. Gallagher both indicate that oversight of proxy advisory services will be a significant focus for the SEC during next year’s proxy season. Under the rubric of corporate governance, annual proxy solicitations have become referenda on an ever-widening assortment of corporate, social, and political issues, and, as a result, the influence and power of proxy advisors—and their relative lack of accountability—have become increasingly problematic. The SEC’s recent actions and statements suggest that the tide may be turning. Proxy advisory firms appear to be entering a new era of increasing accountability and potentially decreasing influence, possibly with further, more significant, SEC action to come.
Shareholder voting has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past few decades. Institutional ownership of shares was once negligible; now, it predominates. This is important because individual investors are generally rationally apathetic when it comes to shareholder voting: value potentially gained through voting is outweighed by the burden of determining how to vote and actually casting that vote. By contrast, institutional investors possess economies of scale, and so regularly vote billions of shares each year on thousands of ballot items for the thousands of companies in which they invest.
I recently posted my forthcoming book chapter, From Institutional Theories to Private Pensions (in Company Law and CSR: New Legal and Economic Challenges, Ivan Tchotourian ed., Bruylant 2014) on SSRN.
Corporate governance is sometimes described by political scientists as a three-player game between capital, management, and labor. Yet, in most contemporary debates about corporate governance among lawyers and economists, especially in the English-speaking world, the agency problem and conflicts of interest between shareholders and management seem to be single conflict of interest to which much attention is paid. In this chapter, which builds on previously published law review articles, I attempt to put this observation into a larger historical context, arguing that the nearly exclusive focus on the concern of shareholders is historically and geographically contingent. Differences between conflicts of interest in different corporate governance systems have long been recognized in the scholarly literature. Most obviously, it is well known that the majority-minority agency problem is more salient than the one between shareholders and managers in countries where concentrated ownership is more common. However, it is also worthwhile to look at other conflicts in the tripartite structure of corporate governance that may be equally relevant, at least under certain circumstances. Most importantly, the interests of employees are often relegated either to employment law, or are interpreted as an aspect of corporate social responsibility and thus dismissed as an issue promoted by “sandals-wearing activists” that are effectively only a distributive concern.
Recently issued SEC staff guidance addresses concerns that have been raised about proxy advisory firms by emphasizing that the investment adviser that retains and pays a proxy advisory firm is uniquely positioned to monitor the proxy advisory firm and is required to actively oversee the firm if it wants to benefit from the firm’s services to discharge its fiduciary duty. As a result of the greater oversight exercised by all of their investment adviser clients, the proxy advisory firms will presumably respond by enhancing their policies, processes and procedures, as well as the transparency of these policies, processes and procedures. In turn, the corporate community may indirectly benefit to some degree.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission) issued a cease and desist order on June 16, 2014 (the Order) against Paradigm Capital Management, Inc. (Paradigm) and its founder, Director, President and Chief Investment Officer, Candace King Weir (Weir).  The Order alleged that Weir caused Paradigm’s hedge fund client, PCM Partners L.P. II (Fund), to engage in certain transactions (Transactions) with a proprietary account (Trading Account) at the Fund’s prime broker, C.L. King & Associates, Inc. (C.L. King). Paradigm and C.L. King were allegedly under the common control of Weir. The Order further alleged that, because of Weir’s personal interest in the Transactions and the fact that the committee designated to review and approve the Transactions on behalf of the Fund was conflicted, Paradigm failed to provide the Fund with effective disclosure and failed effectively to obtain the Fund’s consent to the Transactions, as required under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (Advisers Act).