Monthly Archives: March 2008

Safeway Adopts My Poison Pill Bylaw Proposal

Editor’s Note: This post is from Lucian Bebchuk of Harvard Law School.

Safeway and I have reached an agreement under which the company adopted a by-law provision I proposed for limiting the adoption of poison pills. Safeway is the second company in this proxy season, and the fourth overall, to adopt a poison pill bylaw I proposed.

The adopted by-law is based on a shareholder proposal to amend the company’s by-laws that I submitted for the company’s upcoming annual meeting. Following my agreement with the company, the company’s board adopted the new by-law and I withdrew the shareholder proposal. The amended by-laws of Safeway, including the new section 9 of Article VI, were filed yesterday and are available here.

Under the new by-law provision, any extension of a poison pill plan not ratified by the shareholders must be approved by at least 75% of the members of the board of directors, and a pill not so extended will expire one year after its adoption or last such extension.

My shareholder proposal and the by-law adopted by Safeway are based on a model by-law that was the subject of a court decision in the CA case, which led CA to abandon its attempt to exclude my proposal from the corporate ballot. An article about this case and my model by-law is available here.

Safeway’s adoption of my poison pill by-law was preceded by an adoption last month by CVS Caremark, an adoption by Disney, and an adoption by Bristol-Myers Squibb. Disney amended its by-laws after my proposal won 57% of the votes in Disney’s annual meeting, while CVS Caremark and Bristol-Myers Squibb, like Safeway now, amended their by-laws following an agreement with me that made a shareholder vote unnecessary.

I commend Safeway’s board of directors for agreeing to adopt the pill-limiting by-law. I hope that other public companies will follow the example set by Safeway, CVS, Disney, and Bristol-Myers and adopt similar by-law provisions.

I would like to thank Michael Barry and Ananda Chaudhuri from the law firm of Grant & Eisenhofer for their valuable legal advice and legal representation in connection with my shareholder proposals in general and the pill by-law proposals in particular. I also wish to thank Greg Taxin and Julie Gresham of Spotlight Capital Management for advising me on engagement with companies.

AFL-CIO Proxy Voting

Editor’s Note: This post is from Daniel F. Pedrotty of AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO has issued a new report, Facts about the AFL-CIO’s Proxy Votes, to explain how the AFL-CIO votes in corporate director elections. In summary, the AFL-CIO votes for corporate directors based on recommendations by an independent proxy advisor following proxy-voting guidelines that address corporate governance issues, and not union representation.

Last year, an unpublished, unreviewed paper by Ashwini Agrawal, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, was posted on this blog, making the very serious and completely false claim that the AFL-CIO is more likely to support directors at companies whose employees are no longer affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Despite publishing his accusations in news sources and on public websites, Agrawal has refused to discuss his findings, disclose his data set, or respond to substantive criticisms of his paper. After receiving an email requesting peer review and the release of his data, he did publish a revised version on February 7th that failed to address any of the AFL-CIO’s comments, and further failed to release his data.

A letter from the AFL-CIO to Mr. Agrawal pointing out the methodological flaws in his paper and again seeking the release of his data can be viewed here.

Every year, the AFL-CIO publicly discloses each proxy vote that it casts and the corporate governance policy rationale for each vote. Disclosure of the AFL-CIO’s proxy voting record enables interested parties to monitor how the AFL-CIO voted in specific director elections and to make their own determination as to whether these votes are in shareholders’ best interests.

While the information disclosed in the AFL-CIO’s report directly contradicts the Agrawal paper, no meaningful conclusion can be drawn from any correlation between the AFL-CIO’s proxy voting and union representation. The AFL-CIO’s proxy votes are based on corporate governance issues, and any correlations with union representation are entirely coincidental and unlikely to persist over time.

The AFL-CIO has requested that the Agrawal paper be revised or withdrawn. The report Facts about the AFL-CIO’s Proxy Votes is available here.

The Future of Transactional Legal Practice

On Wednesday February 27, HLS Professor George Triantis delivered his inaugural lecture “The Future of Transactional Legal Practice” marking his appointment to the Eli Goldston Professorship of Law.

In his lecture, Triantis surveyed the reasons why major U.S. law firms have enjoyed robust growth in their transactional practices over the past several decades, including the fact that they have often provided their clients with substantial business guidance in addition to legal advice. But he warned that many of the services they’ve offered are increasingly provided by others—investment bankers, management consultants, accountants, offshore outsourcing firms, and other business professionals—more cheaply.

Triantis observed that transactional firms grew and rose to prominence by negotiating and drafting three kinds of contracts: “standardized” contracts that are easily adaptable for use by successive clients; “innovative” contracts; and “tailored” contracts uniquely geared to their clients’ particular circumstances. But increasingly, he said, law firms are losing market share to other players in all three categories.

To recapture lost market share and to stem the tide against further erosion, Triantis said, law firms should refocus on innovative contract design that does what other business professionals can’t do as well: anticipate and plan for what happens if and when a deal doesn’t work out—litigation.

“Litigation, in its various forms, is the core competency from which lawyers can derive comparative advantage in designing transactions for their clients,” said Triantis. “Lawyers can help their clients choose the mode of enforcement and mold their legal commitments accordingly, knowing that they will be enforced through or in the shadow of an adversarial judicial process. …The modern law firm is organized around practice groups. Two of these groups—litigation practice and corporate transactions—often fail to mesh at the interface of particular transactions because the firm that litigates a transaction is often not the firm that did the deal in the first instance. … By connecting these two services, rather than treating them as distinct tasks or modules, law firms can recapture some of the lost revenues.”

Click here for a webcast of this event.

Securities Class Actions: Time to Fix Broken System

The National Law Journal recently published Securities Class Actions: Time to Fix Broken System, an opinion piece by defense counsel Daniel Small. The piece explains the rationale underpinning the existence of class actions and focuses on aspects of the system the author regards as broken. The piece is critical of the ability of the first “victim” in the court house to “help decide which [law] firm is lead counsel, help approve settlement and fee agreements and take other important actions.” The author suggests that 1995 amendments designed to minimize the perverse incentives created by the system suffered from a lack of regulatory oversight. The author cites events surrounding the sentencing of Seymour Lazar in support of his critique, but cautions against focusing on the wrongdoing of particular individuals or law firms if this would obscure systemic problems requiring attention.

Mr Small recommends systemic changes to securities class actions, which include the following: limiting the number of times one person (or family) can be a class representative; limiting class representatives to shareholders who satisfy stiffer requirements concerning their shareholding; requiring attorneys to sign the class representative certification; and limiting attorney fees.

The article is available here.

Perpetuities, Taxes, and Asset Protection

This post is from Robert Sitkoff of Harvard Law School.

The Program on Corporate Governance has recently released a new discussion paper entitled Perpetuities, Taxes, and Asset Protection: An Empirical Assessment of the Jurisdictional Competition for Trust Funds, which I co-wrote with Max Schanzenbach. The paper abstract is as follows:

This chapter provides an accessible overview of our previous work on the impact of the abolition of the Rule Against Perpetuities (RAP) on trust fund situs. The implementation of the Generation Skipping Transfer (GST) Tax by the Tax Reform Act of 1986 sparked a movement to repeal the RAP. Since 1986, nearly half the states have abolished or effectively abolished the RAP as applied to interests in trust. Prior to 1986, only three states had abolished the RAP. We find no evidence that abolishing the RAP prior to the 1986 GST tax attracted trust business. By contrast, between 1986 and 2003, abolishing states reported an average increase in trust assets of $6 billion (a 20 percent increase). In addition, average account size in abolishing states increased by $200,000, implying that abolishing the rule attracted relatively larger trusts. Our findings imply that roughly $100 billion in trust funds have moved to take advantage of the abolition of the RAP. Further, we can trace these results to the subset of abolishing states that did not levy a tax on income accumulated in trusts attracted from out of state. This finding, which implies that abolishing the RAP does not directly increase state tax revenue, bears on the scholarly debate over the mechanisms of jurisdictional competition. Our analysis also controls for whether a state validated the so-called self-settled asset protection trust (APT). We did not find consistent evidence that validating APTs increases a state’s reported trust business, but in the period studied few states had validated APTs, so we draw no firm conclusions.

We conclude that the jurisdictional competition for trust funds is real and intense, with the primary margin of competition being the rules that bear on trust duration, and that the enactment of the GST tax sparked the rise of the perpetual trust. In future work using more refined data, we intend to revisit the jurisdictional competition for trust funds and to expand our inquiry to include directed trustee statutes and the recent reforms to trust-investment laws.

Hedge Fund Activism, Corporate Governance, and Firm Performance

This post is from Randall S. Thomas of Vanderbilt University.

Alon Brav, Wei Jiang and Frank Partnoy and I have recently released a paper, entitled Hedge Fund Activism, Corporate Governance, and Firm Performance. The abstract is as follows:

Using a large hand-collected data set from 2001 to 2006, we find that activist hedge funds in the U.S. propose strategic, operational, and financial remedies and attain success or partial success in two-thirds of the cases. Hedge funds seldom seek control and in most cases are nonconfrontational. The abnormal return around the announcement of activism is approximately 7%, with no reversal during the subsequent year. Target firms experience increases in payout, operating performance, and higher CEO turnover after activism. Our analysis provides important new evidence on the mechanisms and effects of informed shareholder monitoring.

Fiduciary Duties for Activist Shareholders

This post is from Lynn A. Stout of UCLA School of Law.

Together with Iman Anabtawi, I have just issued a new article on SSRN entitled Fiduciary Duties for Activist Shareholders. The article is to be published in the Stanford Law Review, and a current draft is available here. The article was recently profiled in the Financial Times.

Fiduciary Duties for Activist Shareholders argues that corporate law seems to impose few or no fiduciary duties on minority shareholders in public corporations because historically, minority shareholders in public firms enjoyed little or no power or influence within the firm. The most important trend in corporate governance today, however, is the move toward “shareholder democracy.” Activist investors, especially hedge funds, are using their new power to pressure managers and directors into pursuing corporate transactions ranging from share repurchases, to special dividends, to the sale of assets or even the entire firm. In many cases these transactions benefit the activist while failing to benefit, or even harming, the firm and other shareholders.

Greater shareholder power should be coupled with greater shareholder responsibility. Fiduciary Duties for Activist Shareholders argues that the rules of fiduciary duty traditionally applied to officers and directors and, more rarely, to controlling shareholders, should be applied to activist minority investors as well. There is no reason to believe that newly-empowered activist shareholders are immune to the forces of greed and self-interest widely understood to tempt corporate officers and directors. Corporate law can and should adapt to this reality.

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