Monthly Archives: May 2014

Increased Scrutiny of High-Frequency Trading

The following post comes to us from Matthew Rossi, partner in the Securities Litigation & Enforcement practice at Mayer Brown LLP, and is based on a Mayer Brown Legal Update by Mr. Rossi, Joseph De Simone, and Jerome J. Roche. The complete publication, including footnotes, is available here.

Following the publication of Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (“Flash Boys”), plaintiffs’ lawyers and US government regulators have increasingly focused their attention on financial institutions participating in high-frequency trading (“HFT”). Less than three weeks after the release of Flash Boys, private plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against 27 financial services firms and 14 national securities exchanges (with additional defendants likely to be named later) alleging that the defendants’ HFT practices in the US equities markets violated the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws. Plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a separate action against The CME Group, Inc. (“CME”) and The Board of Trade of the City of Chicago (“CBOT”) containing similar allegations in US derivatives markets.

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Renewed Focus on Corporate Director Tenure

David A. Katz is a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz specializing in the areas of mergers and acquisitions and complex securities transactions. This post is based on an article by Mr. Katz and Laura A. McIntosh that first appeared in the New York Law Journal; the full article, including footnotes, is available here.

The issue of director tenure recently has garnered significant attention both in the United States and abroad. U.S. public companies generally do not have specific term limits on director service, though some indicate in their bylaws a “mandatory” retirement age for directors—typically between 72 and 75—which can generally be waived by the board of directors. Importantly, there are no regulations or laws in the United States under which a long tenure would, by itself, prevent a director from qualifying as independent.

Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and other shareholder activist groups are beginning to include director tenure in their checklists as an element of director independence and board composition. Yet even these groups acknowledge that there is no ideal term limit applicable to all directors, given the highly fact-specific context in which an individual director’s tenure must be evaluated. In our view, director tenure is an issue that is best left to boards to address individually, both as to board policy, if any, and as to specific directors, should the need arise. Boards should and do engage in annual director evaluations and self-assessment, and shareholders are best served when they do not attempt to artificially constrain the board’s ability to exercise its judgment and discretion in the best interests of the company. In addition, much the same way boards consider CEO succession issues, boards are beginning to address director succession issues as well.

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Board Oversight of Sustainability Issues in the S&P 500

The following post comes to us from Jon Lukomnik of the IRRC Institute and is based on the summary of a report commissioned by the IRRC Institute and authored by Peter DeSimone of the Sustainable Investment Institute; the full report is available here.

Board oversight has long been viewed as an effective mechanism to direct and monitor corporate management. For example, in the wake of accounting scandals last decade, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requires all publicly traded companies in the United States to have an audit committee comprised of independent directors, charged with establishing procedures for handling complaints regarding accounting or auditing matters and for the confidential submission by employees of concerns surrounding alleged fraud.

While sustainability has been a concern of corporations and investors for years, there has been little research focused on how boards oversee a company’s sustainability efforts. Sustainable and responsible investors also have seen board oversight as an effective way to encourage corporations to accelerate such efforts; they began filing shareholder proposals requesting board oversight of various sustainability issues in the 1970s, and both the numbers of resolutions and the support those resolutions have received have grown exponentially since. It is worth noting that one such model proposal, formulated by The Center for Political Accountability (CPA) and requesting board oversight of political spending in addition to key disclosure features, accounts for the vast majority of sustainability shareholder resolutions on board oversight and resulted in political spending being a top subtopic of board oversight duties.

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Compliance and Risk Management: Area for Legal Teaching and Scholarship?

The following post comes to us from Geoffrey P. Miller, Stuyvesant P. Comfort Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.

Compliance is hot.

Pick up the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and you are likely to find a story about yet another huge fine for regulatory infractions.

In early May, to take a recent example, BNB Paribas, the big French bank, admitted that the $1.1 billion it had set aside for infractions involving sanctions regimes would not be nearly enough to cover its expected liability.

A billion dollars is a big number, but it is hardly the largest penalty we have seen in recent years. It is dwarfed, for example, by the more than $13 billion JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay to various regulatory agencies for mortgage infractions.

Numbers like these command attention.

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Settlements of Shareholder Litigation Involving M&A

John Gould is senior vice president at Cornerstone Research. This post discusses a Cornerstone Research report by Olga Koumrian, titled “Settlements of Shareholder Litigation Involving Mergers and Acquisitions,” available here.

Only 2 percent of lawsuits filed in response to M&A deals that settled in 2013 produced monetary returns for shareholders. These findings are published in Settlements of Shareholder Litigation Involving Mergers and Acquisitions, which follows an earlier report on M&A filings and litigation outcomes issued this year by Cornerstone Research. Legal challenges to M&A deals resulted in only two monetary settlements in 2013, down from four in 2012 and seven in 2011.

The report also finds that plaintiff attorney fees awarded in disclosure-only settlements of M&A cases continued to drop in 2013. In addition, over the last four years, the Delaware Court of Chancery approved 80 percent of the fee amounts requested in such cases, compared with 90 percent in other courts.

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The Expanding Scope of Whistleblower Protections

The following post comes to us from Jason M. Halper, partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, and is based on a Cadwalader publication by Mr. Halper, Lambrina Mathews, and William J. Foley. The complete publication, including footnotes, is available here.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“Sarbanes-Oxley”) was enacted following the accounting scandals of the early 2000s involving Enron, WorldCom and other public companies. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) in 2010 following the global credit crisis that began a few years earlier. Both statutes offer protections for employees who face retaliation for “blowing the whistle” on corporate misconduct, and Dodd-Frank also provides enhanced monetary incentives to the employees who do so. Given the SEC’s recent and often-stated commitment to strict enforcement of the securities laws, coupled with the fact that the SEC has received over 6,000 whistleblower complaints in the past two years (and has made six awards since inception of its whistleblower reward program in 2011), whistleblowing activity now is a fact of corporate life that is likely to become even more prevalent as awareness spreads of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower reward program.

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Silicon Valley Venture Survey: First Quarter 2014

The following post comes to us from Barry J. Kramer, partner in the corporate and securities group at Fenwick & West LLP and is based on a Fenwick publication by Mr. Kramer and Michael J. Patrick; the full publication, including detailed results and valuation data, is available here.

We analyzed the terms of 156 venture financings closed in the first quarter of 2014 by companies headquartered in Silicon Valley.

Overview of Fenwick & West Results

Valuation results in 1Q14 were very strong.

  • Up rounds exceeded down rounds 76% to 8% with 16% flat. The 68 point difference between up and down rounds was the largest since 2Q07, when the spread was 70 points
  • The Fenwick & West Venture Capital Barometer™ showed an average price increase of 85%, a significant increase from 57% in 4Q13.
  • The median price increase of financings in 1Q14 was 52%, a significant increase from 27% in 4Q13 and the highest amount since we began calculating medians in 2004.
  • Software and internet/digital media continued to be the strongest industry sectors, with life science, cleantech and hardware lagging but showing respectable results. The percentage of all financings that are for software companies has trended up in recent years, hitting 45% in this quarter.
  • The use of senior liquidation preference fell for the third quarter in a row, an indication of companies having leverage in negotiations with investors.

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Regulation and Self-Regulation of Related Party Transactions in Italy

The following post comes to us from Luca Enriques, Professor of Business Law at LUISS University (Rome). The post is based on a paper co-authored by Professor Enriques, and Marcello Bianchi, Angela Ciavarella, Valerio Novembre and Rossella Signoretti of CONSOB (Commissione Nazionale per le Societa e la Borsa).

Agency problems and tunneling are traditional features of corporate governance in Italy. Where ownership is concentrated, dominant shareholders have both the incentives and the means to monitor managers but they may also extract private benefits through self-dealing transactions that favor the related party at the expense of minority shareholders. Pyramids and other control enhancing mechanisms (CEMs) make minorities more vulnerable to abusive self-dealing. The regulatory environment proved to be too lax. The late 1990s reforms failed to specifically address conflicts of interests in listed companies. Further, as a result of the 2003 corporate law reform, directors are allowed to vote even if their interests conflict with those of the firm and parent companies within integrated groups may legitimately force subsidiaries into possibly harmful transactions, provided some procedural and substantial requirements are met. With the exception of corporate governance codes, no specific new rule addressed the fairness of related party transactions (RPTs).

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Powerful Independent Directors

The following post comes to us from Kathy Fogel of the Department of Finance at Suffolk University, Liping Ma of the Department of Finance and Managerial Economics at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Randall Morck, Professor of Finance at the University of Alberta.

In our recent NBER working paper, Powerful Independent Directors, we find that independent directors who are powerful elevate shareholder wealth—in part at least by preventing value-destroying decisions such as economically unsound merger bids and excessive free cash flow retention, by meaningfully linking CEO pay to firm performance, and by forcing out underperforming CEOs. Independent directors who are not powerful do none of these things. These findings may explain why a robust link between independent directors on boards and firm value has proved so elusive; and thereby reconcile Fama’s (1980) thesis that independent directors can maximize shareholder valuations by advising and, where necessary, disciplining or replacing CEOs with the observation of Bebchuk and Fried (2006) that independent directors often do no such thing.

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Canadian Court Takes Hybrid Approach to Poison Pill

The following post comes to us from Berl Nadler, partner at Davies, Ward, Phillips & Vineberg LLP, and is based on a Davies publication by Kevin J. Thomson, Peter Hong, and Gilles R. Comeau.

On May 2, 2014, the British Columbia Securities Commission (the “BCSC”) determined to allow the shareholder rights plan of Augusta Resource Corporation (“Augusta”) to remain in effect for at least 156 days after the announcement of the unsolicited offer by HudBay Minerals Inc. (“HudBay”) to acquire the shares of Augusta. The BCSC order was issued at a hearing held shortly after the continuance of the rights plan was approved by the shareholders of Augusta.

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