Financing Corporate Elections

Andrew A. Schwartz is an Associate Professor at University of Colorado Law School. This post is based on Professor Schwartz’s recent article published in The Journal of Corporation Law, available here. 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), and Servants of Two Masters? The Feigned Hysteria Over Activist-Paid Directors, by Yaron Nili (discussed on the Forum here).

There is a battle in progress between activist hedge funds and public companies over so-called “golden leash” payments. This is where an activist shareholder running a proxy contest promises to pay her slate of director-candidates a supplemental compensation, over and above the ordinary director fees paid by the company to all directors. The purpose of the golden leash, according to the hedge funds that invented it, is to help activists recruit highly qualified people to challenge incumbent board members and, once on the board, to push for business decisions that will benefit all shareholders. Because the golden leash serves to enhance corporate democracy by helping activists mount effective proxy contests to challenge the incumbent board, the advisory services ISS and Glass Lewis have voiced support for the practice, as have some other commentators.

Many others, however, have expressed concern that the golden leash, by placing a director ‘on the payroll’ of a third party, creates an obvious incentive for her to favor the interests of her sponsor, even at the expense of the corporation or the shareholders as a whole. Thus Columbia Professor John Coffee has analogized the golden leash to a bribe, and UCLA Professor Stephen Bainbridge has called it illegal nonsense. On the suggestion of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz, dozens of public companies adopted bylaws that prohibited golden leash payments on their boards. Although most of those bylaws were later retracted in the face of ISS opposition, the battle still rages.

The latest front is at NASDAQ, which has not only proposed a new exchange rule that would require the disclosure of golden leash arrangements, but has also floated the idea of banning the golden leash entirely at NASDAQ-listed companies. The former proposal is currently pending before the SEC, which received thoughtful comments on both sides and which has called for more time to consider it.

So, should we ban the golden leash—or should we laud it? Both sides of the debate make strong arguments, but I think that neither has focused sufficient analytical attention on the nature of the golden leash itself. Before deciding whether to criticize or defend the golden leash, it is surely vital to understand it first, and I undertake that analysis in my latest article, Financing Corporate Elections. In my view, the golden leash is not, or not only, a payment for service performed as a director. Rather, the golden leash can best be understood as a form of campaign contribution paid by the activist sponsor to a director-candidate in a contested proxy contest. At its most basic, the golden leash is a payment of contingent consideration from an activist to a director-candidate in order to encourage the latter to launch a campaign for office; and the same activist is also willing to bear the costs of running the campaign. This fits well into the conceptual framework of third-party campaign finance, where one party pays the expenses of the political campaign of another.

Accepting the golden leash as a campaign contribution, what are the rules or limits on corporate campaign finance? Are there legal limits on who may contribute to a director-candidate or her campaign, or how much they may contribute? May an incumbent board impose such limits by amending its bylaws? What about disclosure? These are all new questions for corporate elections, and there is no case law on point. Yet analogous questions regarding political campaign finance have been analyzed and resolved for decades under the First Amendment and a line of doctrine derived from the landmark Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo, decided in 1976. The so-called “Buckley framework” is premised in part on a concern that incumbent officeholders may impose such tight limits on campaign finance that they neutralize their political competitors and entrench the incumbents in office. In order to protect our republican form of democracy, Buckley thus imposes strict scrutiny, meaning the government must prove that its campaign finance law or regulation furthers a “compelling interest” and is “narrowly tailored” to achieve that interest.

I contend in Financing Corporate Elections that the underlying logic of the Buckley framework is transferrable to the corporate context via the famous Blasius doctrine of Delaware law. [1] Incumbent directors, just like incumbent politicians, have an interest in perpetuating themselves in office, and it is easy to imagine that an incumbent board might impose limits on financing corporate elections that have the effect of hindering insurgent campaigns (and thus entrenching the incumbents). I therefore argue that Blasius should be understood to call for a Buckley-like analysis of corporate campaign finance regulation. My proposed “Blasius-Buckley framework” would ask courts to strictly scrutinize board-imposed campaign finance regulations to determine whether they advance a compelling corporate interest in a narrowly tailored fashion.

How would this insight apply to the golden leash and efforts to limit or ban it? Since the golden leash is a form of campaign contribution, then a board-imposed bylaw that regulates it is just the type of campaign finance regulation that should, in my view, be analyzed using the Blasius-Buckley framework. The first issue under Blasius-Buckley is whether there is a compelling corporate interest in regulating the golden leash, and here the answer is almost certain to be yes. The golden leash poses a direct threat to the foundational corporate interest in having a board of directors whose loyalty unquestionably lies with the corporation and its shareholders. When one party makes large payments directly to a director-candidate, as in the golden leash, this clearly raises the specter that the candidate will follow the sponsor’s commands or advance its interests, even if doing so may not be in the best long-term interest of the corporation or its shareholders as a whole. A corporation surely has a compelling interest in preventing this sort of subversion.

The second prong of the Blasius-Buckley framework goes to narrow tailoring, and this part of the analysis would depend on the precise nature of the limits placed by the incumbent directors. An incumbent board that places too-strict limits on the golden leash may thereby hamstring their rivals and effectively entrench themselves in office, which would offend the core value of shareholder sovereignty. Hence, a bylaw that were to ban the golden leash entirely, as the model bylaw proposed by Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz appears to do, would probably not pass muster under the narrow-tailoring prong of Blasius-Buckley. But less-draconian bylaws that merely seek to regulate the golden leash would probably survive. Disclosure requirements, reasonable limits on the size and form of golden leash payments, and restrictions on the source of such payments, would likely all qualify as narrowly tailored.

The full article is available for download here.


[1] See Blasius Indus., Inc. v. Atlas Corp., 564 A.2d 651 (Del. Ch. 1988).

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