Monthly Archives: October 2013

Implications of Recent Developments in SEC Enforcement

The following post comes to us from Michael D. Trager, senior partner at Arnold & Porter LLP and chair of the firm’s Securities Enforcement Practice. This post is based on an Arnold & Porter memorandum.

In the six months since Mary Jo White was sworn in as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s 31st Chairman, the SEC has announced important new policies and initiatives as the agency has begun to utilize new enforcement authority under the Dodd-Frank Act and to redeploy resources. In recent weeks, White and Andrew Ceresney, Co-Director of the Division of Enforcement, have made important public announcements regarding enforcement priorities. Taken together, these policies, initiatives, and announcements signal a shift toward more aggressive enforcement. This advisory discusses these developments.

Approach to Enforcement

From the time of her nomination, White stressed that the SEC would take an aggressive approach to enforcement under her leadership. At her March 12, 2013 confirmation hearing, White pledged that one of her highest priorities as Chairman would be “to further strengthen the enforcement function of the SEC” in a way that is “bold and unrelenting.” White also stated that the SEC would pursue “all wrongdoers – individual and institutional, of whatever position or size” in order to deter wrongdoing and protect the integrity of financial markets. [1]

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Global Trends in Board-Shareholder Engagement

Matteo Tonello is managing director of corporate leadership at The Conference Board. This post relates to an issue of The Conference Board’s Director Notes series authored by James Kim and Jason D. Schloetzer; the complete publication, including footnotes, is available here.

There has been a rapid increase in shareholder requests for special meetings with the board. This report discusses the potential benefits and complexities of the board-shareholder engagement process, reviews global trends in engagement practices, provides insights into engagement activities at U.S. companies, and highlights developments in the use of technology to facilitate engagement. It also provides perspectives from institutional investors on the design of an effective engagement process.

The annual general meeting is the main channel of communication between a company’s board and its shareholders. Among other important meeting activities, shareholders have the opportunity to hear executives and directors discuss recent performance and outline the company’s long-term strategy.

Since 2007, there has been an increase in shareholder requests for special meetings with the board. A recent study of board-shareholder engagement activities shows that 87 percent of security issuers, 70 percent of asset managers, and 62 percent of asset owners reported at least one engagement in the previous year. Moreover, the level of engagement is increasing rapidly, with 50 percent of issuers, 64 percent of asset managers, and 53 percent of asset owners reporting that they were engaging more. Only 6 percent of issuers and almost no investors reported a decrease in engagement. Shareholders, particularly institutional investors, believe that annual meetings are too infrequent and do not provide sufficient content to address their concerns.

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Sponsor Exits: Managing Private Company Sales

Toby Myerson is a partner in the Corporate Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP and co-head of the firm’s Global Mergers and Acquisitions Group. The following post is based on a Paul Weiss memorandum.

In the last edition of the Digest, we discussed the issues and alternatives faced by private equity sponsors when taking a portfolio company public. An IPO exit can be an attractive option for the appropriate portfolio company, but a private company sale at the right valuation is often more compelling because it provides certainty to a sponsor about the price that it will realize and maximizes the sponsor’s internal rate of return.

Although a private company sale may be an attractive exit, the traditional means of securing a selling sponsor’s post-closing indemnification obligations may decrease a sponsor’s IRR. This issue of the Digest discusses a number of strategies employed, and issues faced, by sponsors when they agree to indemnify buyers of their portfolio companies. These strategies include (i) preparing for a private company sale and sharing liability among other equityholders, (ii) utilizing alternative mechanisms to the traditional escrow account, such as representation and warranty insurance, fund guarantees and letters of credit and (iii) mitigating the risk of liabilities beyond those negotiated and assumed by the sponsor seller in the sale contract.

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The Challenge for Boards

James Woolery is Deputy Chairman of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, Co-Chair of its Corporate Department and head of its Business Development Group. The following post is based on a Cadwalader publication by Mr. Woolery.

Public company boards have experienced real turbulence for the better part of five years. Some of this turbulence is the product of internal dynamics—the need to improve liquidity, strengthen balance sheets and cut costs. Some is the product of external factors—volatile capital markets and government action and inaction. So, who can blame directors for being cautious? The answer: shareholders and activists.

In response to this turbulence, boards have chosen to seek steady shareholder returns, return shareholder capital and modestly adjust portfolios over executing large-scale transactions, combinations or investments. As a result of this restraint, the overwhelming strength of U.S. corporations is unmistakable: cash balances are at an all-time high and there is an abundance of cheap financing. Yet corporate investment in the economy remains muted.

Directors remain cautious while shareholders are increasingly moving in favor of more aggressive action. The evolving dynamic between boards and the shareholders they serve presents new challenges that require a different set of tools in the boardroom. New efforts to bridge what may be a growing divide between boards and shareholders should be undertaken directly by U.S. boards and management teams with a view toward increasing shareholder value, advancing investment stability, and maintaining sound governance.

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The Origins of the Market for Corporate Control

John Armour is the Hogan Lovells Professor of Law and Finance at the University of Oxford, and Brian Cheffins is a Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Cambridge.

The standard historical narrative is that the market for corporate control took on its modern form in the mid-1950s with the emergence of the cash tender offer. Our paper, The Origins of the Market for Corporate Control, which was prepared for a University of Illinois College of Law symposium honoring Prof. Larry Ribstein, pushes the story back to the beginning of the 20th century. Drawing primarily upon hand-collected data from newspaper reports, we show that were numerous instances during the opening half of the 20th century where a bidder sought to obtain voting control of targeted companies when the incumbent managers were opposed to change. Having documented that the most popular hostile bid technique initially was the purchasing of shares on the stock market we explain why cash tender offers came to dominate the market for control after World War II.

The general consensus is that the market for corporate control, a term coined by Henry Manne in the mid-1960s, only began to emerge as a meaningful corporate governance mechanism in the United States in the mid-1950s when the cash tender offer was initially deployed. Various observers have acknowledged the existence of a highly rudimentary pre-1950 market for corporate control but empirical analysis was lacking until a 2011 study of ours in which we used the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database to search major daily newspapers over the period 1900-1949 to identify “open market bids” (OMBs), these being instances where an attempt was made, without consent from a target company’s board, to buy sufficient shares on the stock market to acquire control of a public company. We revisit our findings in this paper, confirming there were 82 hostile bids for control launched by way of open market purchases of shares over the fifty year period.

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The Path Forward on Disclosure

Mary Jo White is Chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. This post is based on Chair White’s remarks to the National Association of Corporate Directors 2013 Board Leadership Conference; the full text, including footnotes, is 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.

It is an honor to be with you today [Oct. 15, 2013]. The National Association of Corporate Directors has long played an important leadership role providing the insight and guidance that board members need to enhance shareholder value and effectively confront the various business challenges their companies face. The NACD has also been a very important partner to the SEC—providing valuable input on a number of our rulemaking efforts that affect companies and their boards of directors.

As members of boards of directors, each of you has an incredibly important job. You are fiduciaries and tasked with the oversight of company management—which requires a tremendous amount of time, knowledge and dedication. As a former director, I know all-too-well the heavy responsibility you have and the hard and time-consuming work involved to do the job properly.

One aspect of the job, which has taken on increasing importance in the last several years, is the role that you play in shareholder engagement and ensuring that management is considering the needs of investors in connection with the information that is provided to them.

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A Solution to the Collective Action Problem in Corporate Reorganization

The following post comes to us from Eric Posner, Kirkland & Ellis Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Aaron Director Research Scholar at the University of Chicago, and E. Glen Weyl, Assistant Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a dizzyingly complex and inefficient process. Voting on potential reorganization plans take place by class, rules are based on achieving majorities and super-majorities by different standards, and a judge must evaluate the plan to ensure it respects pre-bankruptcy entitlements appropriately. Plan proponents can gerrymander plans in order to isolate creditors; hedge funds can buy positions that pay off if plans fail while allowing them to exert influence over the negotiation process; and judges are often unable to stop such gaming. To cut through this morass, lawyers and economists have proposed reforms, such as holding an auction for the firm or offering options to junior creditors that enable them to buy out senior creditors.

While these reforms could make important steps towards improving Chapter 11, they neglect a crucial problem the current system is designed to address: that of collective action. The current owners of various claims on the firm are usually well-suited to play the particular roles they are playing within the capital structure. Because of sunk investments in learning about the firm or their risk-preferences they are the most valuable investors to hold the assets they hold. A reorganized firm that does not have their appropriate participation may not be nearly as valuable as one that does. In fact, it may be better to liquidate the firm, even if reorganization could be efficient, than to reorganize it with the wrong owners.

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Equity Securities in an M&A Transaction after the JOBS Act

The following post comes to us from James Moloney, partner and co-chair of the Securities Regulation and Corporate Governance Practice Group at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, and is based on a Gibson Dunn alert by Robert B. Little and Anthony Shoemaker.

In April 2012, we wrote here about the potential future impact of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (“JOBS Act”) on M&A transactions in which an acquirer seeks to issue its privately placed equity securities as consideration in an acquisition. Our discussion at the time focused on the conditions of Rule 506 of Regulation D under the Securities Act of 1933 (the “Securities Act”) and, in particular, the tension faced by issuers that are required to determine the offerees’ status as “accredited investors” or as otherwise suitable to evaluate the potential investment. We noted that such issuers have historically been prohibited from using any form of “general solicitation” when offering securities in such transactions. Subsequently, in July 2013, the SEC adopted final rules (effective September 23, 2013) to eliminate the absolute prohibition against general solicitation in securities offerings conducted pursuant to Rule 506, as required by Section 201(a) of the JOBS Act (Gibson Dunn’s summary and analysis of the rules may be found here). The following discussion updates our earlier post to address the legal and practical effects of these new rules for M&A transactions that include a private placement component.

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The Twilight Zone: OTC Regulatory Regimes and Market Quality

Christian Leuz is the Sondheimer Professor of International Economics, Finance and Accounting at the University of Chicago.

In 2010, more than 8,000 domestic equity securities traded in the U.S. OTC market. Yet, research studying this market is limited. Stocks in this market tend to be small. The OTC market generally offers less investor protection than the traditional exchanges, and fraudulent and abusive practices in this market cause significant economic harm to investors. Thus, this market illustrates the trade-off that securities regulators face between their charter to ensure investor protection and their desire to create a viable market for small growth firms. This trade-off has come into focus with the passage of the JOBS Act in 2012, which intends to lower the regulatory burden on firms when they access public capital markets. One of its key provisions is to loosen the ownership limits for SEC registration, which will likely increase the number of unregistered securities in the OTC market. This change raises significant concerns with respect to investor protection. In light of these initiatives, it is important to understand the efficacy of existing regulatory regimes in the OTC market. In our paper, The Twilight Zone: OTC Regulatory Regimes and Market Quality, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, my co-authors (Ulf Bruggemann, Aditya Kaul, and Ingrid Werner) and I analyze the association between these regulatory regimes and market quality.

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Career Consequences of Proxy Contests

The following post comes to us from Vyacheslav Fos of the Department of Finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Shleifer and Vishny (1997) explain that “corporate governance deals with the ways in which the suppliers of finance to corporations assure themselves of getting a return on their investment.” The fundamental feature of corporate governance is shareholders’ right to elect directors to represent their interests. This shareholder representation by the board of directors is a central component of corporate governance. For corporate governance to be effective, shareholders who are dissatisfied with a board’s performance must have a mechanism to replace directors. If shareholders’ impact on electing and replacing directors is weak, so is the connection between owners and managers.

In our paper, Shareholder Democracy in Play: Career Consequences of Proxy Contests, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, my co-author, Margarita Tsoutsoura, and I investigate whether proxy contests affect the careers of directors whose companies have been targeted. Specifically, the paper aims to shed light on whether shareholders are able impose a career cost on directors when they are dissatisfied with firm performance. This question is particularly important in today’s environment when activist shareholders often demand reforms in corporate governance. For example, the process of shareholders nominating and electing directors was at the heart of the recent (failed) proxy-access reform that was motivated by the Dodd-Frank Act. Proponents of the reform argued its necessity in increasing the power of shareholders to be able to elect or remove directors from the board (Bebchuk, 2007). On the other hand, critics of this view argued that shareholders already have tools to hold directors accountable (Bainbridge, 2006).

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