Two articles (among several) in a comprehensive proposal to revise EU corporate governance would have a significant beneficial impact if they were to be adopted in the United States. In large measure they mirror recommendations by Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr., in two essays: Can We do Better by Ordinary Investors? A Pragmatic Reaction to the Dueling Ideological Mythologists of Corporate Law, 114 Columbia Law Review 449 (Mar. 2014) and One Fundamental Corporate Governance Question We Face: Can Corporations Be Managed for the Long Term Unless Their Powerful Electorates Also Act and Think Long Term? 66 Business Lawyer 1 (Nov. 2010).
Posts Tagged ‘Martin Lipton’
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.
We recently placed on SSRN a draft of a new paper, Toward a Constitutional Review of the Poison Pill, which will be published by the Columbia Law Review in the Fall of 2014. Last week, six senior partners of the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, including founding partner Martin Lipton, published a strongly-worded response, available on the Forum here. In this post, we rebut Wachtell’s criticism.
Wachtell’s response is a twelve-page, single-spaced Memorandum that describes us as “extreme” and “eccentric,” and characterizes our paper as “tendentious,” “misleading,” and “not a work of serious scholarship.” The Memorandum also attempts to offer a substantive rebuttal of the analysis in our paper. Given that Wachtell Lipton prides itself for creating the poison pill, we understand why an article raising doubt about the validity of the state-law rules authorizing the use of poison pills touches a sensitive nerve at the Firm. Wachtell’s response, however, fails to dispel those doubts—and, indeed, shows why there are serious questions about the constitutionality of state-law poison-pill rules today.
Wachtell does not dispute the analysis in our paper showing that state-law poison-pill rules today impose tighter restrictions on tender offers than those that federal courts have viewed as preempted by the Williams Act. Instead, Wachtell’s response asserts that the “true state of the law,” about which there is “no doubt,” is that the Williams Act “governs procedure, not substance,” and that the Act therefore does not preempt any antitakeover devices that states choose to authorize. As we explain below, this is not an accurate description of the state of the law: Wachtell’s view (1) is not established by Supreme Court precedent; (2) gives undue weight to two lower federal court opinions; and (3) discounts or ignores opinions of other lower federal courts that have expressed views that differ from Wachtell’s.
In a recent paper, Professors Lucian Bebchuk and Robert Jackson have extended Professor Bebchuk’s extreme and eccentric campaign against director-centric governance into a new realm—that of the Constitution of the United States. They claim that “serious questions” exist about the constitutionality of the poison pill—or, more precisely, “about the validity of the state-law rules that authorize the use of the poison pill.” It is likely, they argue, that these state-law rules violate the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, and are thus preempted, because they frustrate the purposes of the Williams Act, the 1968 federal statute that governs tender-offer timing and disclosure.
Bebchuk and Jackson cite leading academic textbooks and articles that either recognize the preeminence of the poison pill in takeover defense or demonstrate the weakness of preemption challenges to state takeover statutes. The scholars authoring these books and articles, we are told, “overlooked” or “ignored” the obvious fact that poison pills may delay tender offers for lengthy periods of time. Bebchuk and Jackson profess “surpris[e]” that the constitutional issue they discuss “has received little attention, or even notice, from commentators,” and assert that it is rather a shocking “oversight” that, despite a “large literature” on Williams Act preemption, “commentators and practitioners” have devoted “little attention to the question of whether the state-law rules with the most powerful antitakeover effect—the rules authorizing use of the poison pill—are preempted.”
In a 17-page memorandum issued by the law firm of Wachtell Lipton (Wachtell), Empiricism and Experience; Activism and Short-Termism; the Real World of Business, the firm’s founder Martin Lipton put forward new criticism of our empirical study, The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism. Lipton’s critique is based on a review of a large number of works which, he asserts, back up empirically the view that our study questions. Following our examination of each of the studies noted by Lipton, this post responds to Lipton’s empirical review. We show that Lipton’s review fails to identify any empirical evidence that is inconsistent with our findings or backs the claim of Wachtell that our study questions.
Our study shows that the myopic activisms claim that Lipton and his firm have long asserted—the claim that that interventions by activist hedge funds are in the long term detrimental to the involved companies and their long-term shareholders—is not supported by the data. Seeking to cast doubt on the validity of our finding, Lipton’s memorandum cites twenty-seven works by academics or policymakers, and asserts that these studies demonstrate that our conclusion—that the myopic activism claims is not supported by the data—is “patently false.” In this post, we explain that this assertion is not supported by the cited studies; most of the studies are not even related to the subject of the consequences of hedge fund activism, and those that are related to it do not provide evidence contradicting our findings.
Below we begin with discussing the relevant background and then review the cited studies and explain why, in contrast to the impression Lipton’s memo seeks to make, they do not provide an empirical basis for the myopic activists view. Instead of running away from the empirical evidence, while constantly shooting back, Wachtell Lipton should accept that its myopic activists claim is not supported by the data. Indeed, as one of us plans to discuss in a separate post, despite its repeated attacks on our study, Wachtell is shifting its position toward avoiding reliance on the myopic activism claim in its opposition to hedge fun activism, and this shift should lead Wachtell and its clients to rethink their attitude to hedge funds activists.
In the latest instance of proxy advisors establishing a governance standard without offering evidence that it will improve corporate governance or corporate performance, ISS has adopted a new policy position that appears designed to chill board efforts to protect against “golden leash” incentive bonus schemes. These bonus schemes have been used by some activist hedge funds to recruit director candidates to stand for election in support of whatever business strategy the fund seeks to impose on a company.
For a number of years, as the new year approaches I have prepared for boards of directors a one-page list of the key issues that are newly emerging or will be especially important in the coming year. Each year, the legal rules and aspirational best practices for corporate governance, as well as the demands of activist shareholders seeking to influence boards of directors, have increased. So too have the demands of the public with respect to health, safety, environmental and other socio-political issues. In reviewing my 2013 issues memo, I concluded that the 2013 issues continued as the key issues for 2014 with a few changes in detail or emphasis. My key issues for 2014 are:
In many respects, the relentless drive to adopt corporate governance mandates seems to have reached a plateau: essentially all of the prescribed “best practices”—including say-on-pay, the dismantling of takeover defenses, majority voting in the election of directors and the declassification of board structures—have been codified in rules and regulations or voluntarily adopted by a majority of S&P 500 companies. Only 11 percent of S&P 500 companies have a classified board, 8 percent have a poison pill and 6 percent have not adopted a majority vote or plurality-vote-plus-resignation standard to elect directors. The activists’ “best practices” of yesterday have become the standard practices of today. While proxy advisors and other stakeholders in the corporate governance industry will undoubtedly continue to propose new mandates, we are currently in a period of relative stasis as compared to the sea change that began with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and unfolded over the last decade.
In other respects, however, the corporate governance landscape continues to evolve in meaningful ways. We may be entering an era of more nuanced corporate governance debates, where the focus has shifted from check-the-box policies to more complex questions such as how to strike the right balance in recruiting directors with complementary skill sets and diverse perspectives, and how to tailor the board’s role in overseeing risk management to the specific needs of the company. Shareholder engagement has been an area of particular focus, as both companies and institutional investors have sought to engage in more regular dialogue on corporate governance matters. The evolving trend here is not only the frequency and depth of engagement, but also a more fundamental re-thinking of the nature of relationships with shareholders and the role that these relationships play in facilitating long-term value creation. Importantly, this trend is about more than just expanding shareholder influence in corporate governance matters; instead, there is an emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of both companies and shareholders in facilitating thoughtful conversations instead of reflexive, off-the-shelf mandates on corporate governance issues, and cultivating long-term relationships that have the potential to curb short-termist pressures in the market.
This year has seen a continuance of the high and increasing level of activist campaigns experienced during the last 14 years, from 27 in 2000 to more than 200 in 2013, in addition to numerous undisclosed behind-the-scenes situations. No company is too big to become the target of an activist, and even companies with sterling corporate governance practices and positive share price performance, including outperformance of peers, may be targeted. Among the major companies that have been attacked are Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Hess, P&G, Transocean, ITW, DuPont, PepsiCo, Kraft and EADS. There are more than 100 hedge funds that have engaged in activism. Activist hedge funds have approximately $100 billion of assets under management. They have become an “asset class” that is attracting investment from major traditional institutional investors.
The major activist hedge funds are very experienced and sophisticated with professional analysts, traders, bankers and senior partners that rival the leading investment banks. They produce detailed analyses (“white papers”) of a target’s management, operations, capital structure and strategy designed to show that the changes they propose would quickly boost shareholder value. Some activist attacks are designed to facilitate a takeover or to force a sale of the target, such as the failed Icahn attack on Clorox. Prominent institutional investors and strategic acquirors have been working with activists both behind the scenes and by partnering in sponsoring an activist attack such as CalSTRS with Relational in attacking Timken, and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund with Pershing Square in attacking Canadian Pacific. Major investment banks, law firms, proxy solicitors, and public relations advisors are now representing activists.
Among the attack devices being used by activists are:
ISS Proxy Advisory Services recently recommended that shareholders of a small cap bank holding company, Provident Financial Holdings, Inc., withhold their votes from the three director candidates standing for reelection to the company’s staggered board (all of whom serve on its nominating and governance committee) because the board adopted a bylaw designed to discourage special dissident compensation schemes. These special compensation arrangements featured prominently in a number of recent high profile proxy contests and have been roundly criticized by leading commentators. Columbia Law Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. succinctly noted “third-party bonuses create the wrong incentives, fragment the board and imply a shift toward both the short-term and higher risk.” In our memorandum on the topic, we catalogued the dangers posed by such schemes to the integrity of the boardroom and board decision-making processes. We also noted that companies could proactively address these risks by adopting a bylaw that would disqualify director candidates who are party to any such extraordinary arrangements.