The Spotlight on Boards

Martin Lipton is a founding partner of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and matters affecting corporate policy and strategy. This post is based on a Wachtell Lipton memorandum by Mr. Lipton and Sabastian V. Niles. Mr. Niles is counsel at Wachtell Lipton specializing in rapid response shareholder activism and preparedness, takeover defense, corporate governance, and M&A.

The ever evolving challenges facing corporate boards, and especially this year the statements by BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard of what they expect from boards, prompts an updated snapshot of what is expected from the board of directors of a major public company—not just the legal rules, but also the aspirational “best practices” that have come to have almost as much influence on board and company behavior.

Boards are expected to:


An End to Disclosure-Only Settlements?

Monica K. Loseman is a partner in the Litigation Department at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. This post is based on a Gibson Dunn publication authored by Ms. Loseman, Nicholas A. KleinBrian M. Lutz, and Meryl L. Young. This post is part of the Delaware law series, which is cosponsored by the Forum and Corporation Service Company; links to other posts in the series are available here.

In an opinion last week [September 17, 2015], the Delaware Court of Chancery, following other recent decisions from that Court, strongly signaled that stockholder lawsuits in Delaware attacking mergers may no longer be resolved by a corporate defendant providing additional disclosures to stockholders in exchange for a broad release of claims against all defendants. Signaling the end to what has become common practice in stockholder litigation routinely challenging mergers, Vice Chancellor Glasscock noted in his decision approving a settlement in In re Riverbed Technologies that, “in light of this Memorandum Opinion,” expectations that the court will approve such broad releases in exchange for additional disclosures “will be diminished or eliminated going forward.”

The settlement arose out of stockholder litigation concerning a going-private transaction. In the settlement, Riverbed agreed to make supplemental disclosures in an SEC filing prior to the stockholder vote and pay plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, in exchange for defendants receiving a full release from liability for all claims arising out of the merger.


Active Ownership

Oğuzhan Karakaş is Assistant Professor of Finance at Boston College. This post is based on an article authored by Professor Karakaş; Elroy Dimson, Professor of Finance at London Business School; and Xi Li, Assistant Professor of Accounting at Temple University. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Socially Responsible Firms by Allen Ferrell, Hao Liang, and Luc Renneboog (discussed on the Forum here).

In our paper, Active Ownership, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we analyze highly intensive engagements on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues by a large institutional investor with a major commitment to responsible investment (hereafter “ESG activism” or “active ownership”). Given the relative lack of research on environmentally and socially themed engagements, we emphasize the environmental and social (ES) engagements throughout the paper and use the corporate governance (CG) engagements as a basis for comparison.


Will a New Paradigm for Corporate Governance Bring Peace?

Martin Lipton is a founding partner of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and matters affecting corporate policy and strategy. This post is based on a Wachtell Lipton memorandum. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang (discussed on the Forum here); The Myth that Insulating Boards Serves Long-Term Value by Lucian Bebchuk (discussed on the Forum here); The Law and Economics of Blockholder Disclosure by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson Jr. (discussed on the Forum here); and Pre-Disclosure Accumulations by Activist Investors: Evidence and Policy by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, Robert J. Jackson Jr., and Wei Jiang.

The decades-long conflict that is currently raging over short-termism and activist hedge funds strikes me as analogous to the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th Century, albeit fought with statistics (“empirical evidence”), op-eds and journal articles rather than cannon, pike and sword. I decided, after some thirty-six years in the front line of the army defending corporations and their boards, that pursuing the thought might result in an essay more interesting (and perhaps a bit more amusing) than my usual memos and articles.

In 1618, after two centuries of religious disputation and tenuous co-existence, the ascension of the staunchly partisan Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor sparked a revolt that disrupted the balance of power in Europe and began the Thirty Years’ War. The War quickly involved the major powers of Europe. The conflict resulted in the Peace of Westphalia and the redrawing of the religious and political map of Europe, a new paradigm for the governance of Europe.

In 1985, a century of disputation as to the roles of professional management, boards of directors and shareholders of public companies similarly resulted in the disruption of the balance of power and general prosperity. In the two decades immediately preceding 1985, corporate raiders had perfected the front-end-loaded, two-tier, junk-bond-financed, bust-up tender offer, using tactics such as the “Highly Confident Letter” to launch a takeover without firm financing, “greenmail” (accumulating a block of stock and threatening a takeover bid unless the target company repurchases the block at a premium to the market) and litigation attacking protective state laws. Public companies did not have sufficient time or means to defend against corporate raiders. The battles culminated in two key 1985 decisions of the Delaware Supreme Court that restored the balance of power between boards of directors and opportunistic shareholders. In the Unocal case, the court upheld the power of the board of directors to reject, and take action to defeat, a hostile takeover bid, and in the Household case, it sustained the legality of the poison pill, which I had introduced three years earlier in an effort to level the playing field between corporate raiders and the companies they targeted.


The Effect of Relative Performance Evaluation

Frances M. Tice is Assistant Professor of Accounting at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This post is based on an article authored by Ms. Tice.

In the paper, The Effect of Relative Performance Evaluation on Investment Efficiency and Firm Performance, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, I examine the effect of explicit relative performance evaluation (RPE) on managers’ investment decisions and firm performance. Principal-agent theory suggests that firms can motivate managers to act in shareholders’ interest by linking their compensation to firm performance. However, firm performance is often affected by exogenous factors, and as a result, performance-based compensation may expose managers to common risk that they cannot directly control. In such cases, RPE enables the principal to compensate managers on their effort and events under their control by removing the effect of common shocks from measured performance, thus improving risk sharing and incentive alignment. However, RPE use as implemented in practice may not be effective in addressing agency costs because of potential peer group issues, such as availability of firms with common risk or a self-serving bias in peer selection. In addition, prior research also suggests that a large gap in ability between the RPE firm and peers (“superstar effect”) may actually reduce managers’ effort because the probability of winning is low. Therefore, the question of whether explicit RPE use in executive compensation does indeed reduce agency costs remains unanswered in the empirical literature.


SEC Interpretation of “Whistleblower” Definition

Nicholas S. Goldin is a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. This post is based on a Simpson Thacher publication by Mr. Goldin, Peter H. BresnanYafit Cohn, and Mark J. Stein.

On August 4, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued an interpretive release to clarify its reading of the whistleblower rules it promulgated in 2011 under Section 21F of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (the “Exchange Act”). The release expressed the SEC’s view that the employment retaliation protection accorded by the Dodd-Frank Act and codified in Section 21F is available to individuals who report the suspected securities law violation internally, rather than to the SEC. [1]


Asset Managers: AML ready?

Dan Ryan is Leader of the Financial Services Advisory Practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. This post is based on a PwC publication by Mr. Ryan, Jeff Lavine, Adam Gilbert, and Armen Meyer. The complete publication, including footnotes and appendix, is available here.

On August 25th, the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) proposed anti-money laundering requirements for US investment advisers. The proposal requires advisers that are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to establish anti-money laundering (AML) programs, to report suspicious activities related to money laundering and terrorist financing, and to comply with other sections of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).

If finalized as proposed, the impact of these new requirements will vary. Advisers owned by bank holding companies (BHCs) are already subject to similar requirements that are applicable to their BHC parents and enforced by the Federal Reserve. These advisers will nevertheless likely experience an increase in regulatory oversight, as the proposal now allows the SEC to enforce AML requirements.


Remarks on Small and Emerging Companies

Mary Jo White is Chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The following post is based on Chair White’s remarks at a recent open meeting of the SEC, available here. The views expressed in this post are those of Chair White and do not necessarily reflect those of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the other Commissioners, or the Staff.

As you know, the term of this Committee expires September 24, 2015. The advice and expertise the Committee has provided to the Commission on a variety of issues over the last four years has been incredibly helpful to us. And, as today’s [September 23, 2015] agenda reflects, you are continuing those contributions. Your contributions have shown the importance of this Committee, and I am pleased to announce that the Commission is renewing its charter for another two-year term. The Commission will be selecting members and it is my hope that many of you will continue your service. I look forward to our continuing dialogue and being the beneficiary of your insight and suggestions.


NYSE Expands Rules on Material News and Trading Halts

Stuart H. Gelfond is a partner in the Corporate Department at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. This post is based on a Fried Frank publication authored by Mr. Gelfond, Victoria D. Laubach, and Hayley S. Cohen.

Recently, the New York Stock Exchange LLC (“NYSE” or “Exchange”) filed a proposed rule change with the Securities and Exchange Commission to amend the NYSE Listed Company Manual (the “Manual”), effective September 28, 2015. [1] The proposed amendments (i) expand the pre-market hours during which companies with listed securities are required to notify the Exchange prior to disseminating material news, (ii) provide guidance related to the release of material news after the close of trading on the Exchange and (iii) permit the Exchange to halt trading in certain additional circumstances, including when it needs to obtain more information about a listed company’s news release.


Announcement of New Rulemaking Database

Mary Jo White is Chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The following post is based on Chair White’s recent public statement, available here. The views expressed in this post are those of Chair White and do not necessarily reflect those of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the other Commissioners, or the Staff.

Strong regulations are central to the Commission’s mission. For more than 80 years, we have used rulemaking to establish a comprehensive framework for our securities markets that protects investors, enhances market integrity, and promotes capital formation. The rulemaking process is the means through which the Commission responds to the ever-changing securities markets, targets and attacks harmful practices in those markets, and meets the goals mandated by Congress. Our rules provide important standards against which we assess compliance in our examinations and hold wrongdoers accountable in our enforcement actions.


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