On Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and Corporate Governance

Alissa Kole Amico is the Managing Director of GOVERN. This post is based on a GOVERN memorandum by Ms. Amico.

There was something Trumpian in Elon Musk’s tweet about taking Tesla private. “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured”, he boldly and succinctly announced on August 7, claiming that the necessary capital has been confirmed from the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign fund that is seeking to become the region’s largest according to the ambitions of its government, including through the much-debated public offering of Saudi Aramco.

Like in a Mexican soap opera, news about the PIF raising fresh capital through the transfer of its 70% stake in SABIC, the Saudi $100 billion petrochemicals giant and the largest listed company in the Kingdom to Saudi Aramco, as well its talks with Tesla’s rival Lucid followed shortly, immediately highlighting the perils of instant communication. As it turns out, tweeting 280-character messages is straightforward, explaining them takes a little more character and significantly more characters.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has reacted promptly, issuing a subpoena to Tesla to probe into the accuracy of its communication to investors. Elon Musk is unfortunately not the first CEO to pay for taking to Twitter. Nestle’s attempt at humor on Twitter, which likened a massacre of Mexican students to its candy bar, resulted in calls for boycott, ultimately forcing the company to erase the message and apologize. Even the CEO of Twitter itself, Jack Dorsey, has had to apologize for one of his personal tweets, which unlike Tesla and Nestle cases, had nothing to do with his company.

Indeed, the emergence of new communication channels has occurred at a faster pace than regulation on how these should be employed by companies has emerged, whilst over-excited executives have taken to social media in attempt to build hype around their companies. In the world where the number of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook followers counts more than the number of public investors, social media has the potential of becoming the main channel for communication in the corporate world.

Although this phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed, its implications need to be considered in a wider context that is beyond this immediate Bermuda Triangle involving Mr. Musk, the PIF and Tesla. In fact, this episode raises two important and distinct questions: first, who should be able to speak on behalf of public shareholding companies in order to ensure the accuracy of communication, and second, how should this communication be made such that it reaches its ultimate target, the investor community.

In developed markets such as the United States, where Tesla is incorporated, disclosure by public companies is subject to a myriad of regulations including Rule 10b-5—first issued 70 years ago—which prohibits the release or omission of material information, resulting in fraud or deceit. It is also subject to a more recent Fair Disclosure Regulation which essentially forbids companies from releasing non-public material information to third parties, effectively stamping out the practice of selective disclosure by companies to specific investors.

These regulations provide the colorful context behind the SEC’s investigation into Mr. Musk’s unfortunate tweet, allowing the regulator to question whether he had misled investors: that is, whether funding for taking Tesla private has indeed been “secured”. Another issue—and one not raised in the media—is whether Twitter can effectively be considered as an appropriate means of communication to the investor community. In the United States, where 70% of public share ownership today is in the hands of institutional investors, this is a moot point.

Indeed, the SEC has officially allowed listed companies to use social media in 2013, prompted by an investigation into a Facebook post by the Netflix CEO Reed Hastings about the company passing a billion hours watched for the first time. The SEC did not penalize him and decided that henceforth social media could be used for communicating corporate announcements as long as investors are warned that this would be the case.

In the context of emerging markets however, this position would be potentially quite dangerous. In Saudi Arabia for example, home to the PIF—Tesla’s alleged buyer—trading in the stock market is 90% retail, whereas its underlying ownership is largely institutional. Communicating company news via social media presupposes that all investors have equal access to it, which may not necessarily be the case in retail marketplaces. Regulators in emerging markets, where guidelines on the use of social media for corporate announcements are generally lacking, would do well to address this before executives take to Twitter and Facebook.

They would need to keep in mind however, that habits of emerging market investors may not have shifted fast enough to be comfortable in the world of Twitter. In Egypt for example, the officially recognised channel for publishing financial results remains the country’s newspapers. Expecting investors to run from conventional—not to say outdated—means of communication, to judiciously tracking social media announcements appears overly ambitious.

Using social media as a means of communicating material corporate news raises another non-semantic point which is equally important to address in both emerging and developed markets. It is not only tweets of CEOs like Elon Musk that have the potential to affect share prices and investor perceptions. If CFOs, CROs, CIOs, COOs and other C-suite members take to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other platforms to offer their interpretation of company developments, the potential impact on investors could be quite disheartening.

Just like the CEO’s or the CFO’s ability to write a cheque is circumscribed by internal controls and board oversight of material transactions related to mergers and acquisitions for instance, their ability to speak on behalf of their companies should be addressed by policies including specific approval processes. This would effectively limit the possibility of senior executives or board members using their iPhone as a Megaphone, instead requiring rigorous processes to be introduced such that social media announcements are coherent with other disclosure channels and indeed with corporate strategy.

From a governance perspective, further thought should be given to centralizing the communication function within companies in the hands of the Head of Investor Relations or equivalent. Indeed, given the value of information in our era of fast-paced communication powered by social media and fast-paced stock exchanges powered by algorithmic and high-frequency trading, the role of a Chief Communication Officer may be justified in large publicly listed companies, just as the role of a Chief Risk Officer reporting to the board has been introduced in many large organisations following the financial crisis.

While forcing companies in a straightjacket of yet more corporate governance rules on how they should handle their corporate communications may be unwise, some thought about legal distinctions and limits between what is considered personal and corporate announcements appears warranted. Investors may need to be told that unless corporate announcements come from official company channels—which personal Twitter accounts are not—their interpretation of tweets by excited executives are to be made at their own peril, not subject to usual investor protections.

Likewise, publicly-traded companies need to inform the investor community of what constitutes their official communication channels and ensure that financial and non-financial information announced through these is pre-approved, synchronized and not in conflict with existing regulations. Some regulators such as the French securities regulator, Authorité des Marches Financiers, has done so almost 5 years ago, recommending that companies specify their social media accounts on their website as well as establish a charter addressing how executives and staff are to use their personal social media accounts.

The ultimate twist of irony is of course that the SEC, investigating Tesla and its CEO, is part of the same government whose President’s tweeting activity has been far from uncontroversial. Both Mr. Musk’s and Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter highlight that—whether we like it or not—social media may soon be the most consulted sort of media. Its impact, in both corporate or political circles, needs hence to be considered by policymakers seriously. It is clear that every boat—whether corporate or political—needs a captain responsible for setting the course and communicating it to the lighthouse to avoid collisions and confusion at sea. Yet, captains are not pirates, and in the era of social media, regulators need to devise new rules of the game to avoid investor collusion and collision.

Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.