Archives For corporate governance

In March 2014, the U.S. Government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, the Executive Branch’s telecommunications policy agency) abruptly announced that it did not plan to renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to maintain core functions of the Internet. ICANN oversees the Internet domain name system through its subordinate agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). In its March statement, NTIA proposed that ICANN consult with “global stakeholders” to agree on an alternative to the “current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s [domain name system].”

In recent months Heritage Foundation scholars have discussed concerns stemming from this vaguely-defined NTIA initiative (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). These concerns include fears that eliminating the U.S. Government’s role in Internet governance could embolden other nations and international organizations (especially the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations) to seek to regulate the Internet and limit speech, and create leeway for ICANN to expand beyond its core activities and trench upon Internet freedoms.

Although NTIA has testified that its transition plan would preclude such undesirable outcomes, the reaction to these assurances should be “trust but verify” (especially given the recent Administration endorsement of burdensome Internet common carrier regulation, which appears to be at odds with the spirit if not the letter of NTIA’s assurances).

Reflecting the “trust but verify” spirit, the just-introduced “Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2014” requires that NTIA maintain its existing Internet oversight functions, unless the NTIA Administrator certifies in writing that certain specified assurances have been met regarding Internet governance. Those assurances include findings that the management of the Internet domain name system will not be exercised by foreign governmental or intergovernmental bodies; that ICANN’s bylaws will be amended to uphold First Amendment-type freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; that a four-fifths supermajority will be required for changes in ICANN’s bylaws or fees for services; that an independent process for resolving disputes between ICANN and third parties be established; and that a host of other requirements aimed at protecting Internet freedoms and ensuring ICANN and IANA accountability be instituted.

Legislative initiatives of this sort, while no panacea, play a valuable role in signaling Congress’s intent to hold the Administration accountable for seeing to it that key Internet freedoms (including the avoidance of onerous regulation and deleterious restrictions on speech and content) are maintained. They merit thoughtful consideration.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) subjects government-imposed burdens on religious exercise to strict scrutiny.  In particular, the Act provides that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government can establish that doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a “compelling government interest.”

So suppose a for-profit corporation’s stock is owned entirely by evangelical Christians with deeply held religious objections to abortion.  May our federal government force the company to provide abortifacients to its employees?  That’s the central issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which the Supreme Court will soon decide.  As is so often the case, resolution of the issue turns on a seemingly mundane matter:  Is a for-profit corporation a “person” for purposes of RFRA?

In an amicus brief filed in the case, a group of forty-four corporate and criminal law professors argued that treating corporations as RFRA persons would contradict basic principles of corporate law.  Specifically, they asserted that corporations are distinct legal entities from their shareholders, who enjoy limited liability behind a corporate veil and cannot infect the corporation with their own personal religious views.  The very nature of a corporation, the scholars argued, precludes shareholders from exercising their religion in corporate form.  Thus, for-profit corporations can’t be “persons” for purposes of RFRA.

In what amounts to an epic takedown of the law professor amici, William & Mary law professors Alan Meese and Nathan Oman have published an article explaining why for-profit corporations are, in fact, RFRA persons.  Their piece in the Harvard Law Review Forum responds methodically to the key points made by the law professor amici and to a few other arguments against granting corporations free exercise rights.

Among the arguments that Meese and Oman ably rebut are:

  • Religious freedom applies only to natural persons.

Corporations are simply instrumentalities by which people act in the world, Meese and Oman observe.  Indeed, they are nothing more than nexuses of contracts, provided in standard form but highly tailorable by those utilizing them.  “When individuals act religiously using corporations they are engaged in religious exercise.  When we regulate corporations, we in fact burden the individuals who use the corporate form to pursue their goals.”

  • Given the essence of a corporation, which separates ownership and control, for-profit corporations can’t exercise religion in accordance with the views of their stockholders.

This claim is simply false.  First, it is possible — pretty easy, in fact — to unite ownership and control in a corporation.  Business planners regularly do so using shareholder agreements, and many states, including Delaware, explicitly allow for shareholder management of close corporations.  Second, scads of for-profit corporations engage in religiously motivated behavior — i.e., religious exercise.  Meese and Oman provide a nice litany of examples (with citations omitted here):

A kosher supermarket owned by Orthodox Jews challenged Massachusetts’ Sunday closing laws in 1960.  For seventy years, the Ukrops Supermarket chain in Virginia closed on Sundays, declined to sell alcohol, and encouraged employees to worship weekly.  A small grocery store in Minneapolis with a Muslim owner prepares halal meat and avoids taking loans that require payment of interest prohibited by Islamic law.  Chick-fil-A, whose mission statement promises to “glorify God,” is closed on Sundays.  A deli that complied with the kosher standards of its Conservative Jewish owners challenged the Orthodox definition of kosher found in New York’s kosher food law, echoing a previous challenge by a different corporation of a similar New Jersey law.  Tyson Foods employs more than 120 chaplains as part of its effort to maintain a “faith-friendly” culture.  New York City is home to many Kosher supermarkets that close two hours before sundown on Friday and do not reopen until Sunday.  A fast-food chain prints citations of biblical verses on its packaging and cups.  A Jewish entrepreneur in Brooklyn runs a gas station and coffee shop that serves only Kosher food.  Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays and plays Christian music in its stores.  The company provides employees with free access to chaplains, spiritual counseling, and religiously themed financial advice.  Moreover, the company does not sell shot glasses, refuses to allow its trucks to “backhaul” beer, and lost $3.3 million after declining to lease an empty building to a liquor store.

As these examples illustrate, the assertion by lower courts that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” is just empirically false.

  • Allowing for-profit corporations to have religious beliefs would create intracorporate conflicts that would reduce the social value of the corporate form of business.

The corporate and criminal law professor amici described a parade of horribles that would occur if corporations were deemed RFRA persons.  They insisted, for example, that RFRA protection would inject religion into a corporation in a way that “could make the raising of capital more challenging, recruitment of employees more difficult, and entrepreneurial energy less likely to flourish.”  In addition, they said, RFRA protection “would invite contentious shareholder meetings, disruptive proxy contests, and expensive litigation regarding whether the corporations should adopt a religion and, if so, which one.”

But actual experience suggests there’s no reason to worry about such speculative harms.  As Meese and Oman observe, we’ve had lots of experience with this sort of thing:  Federal and state laws already allow for-profit corporations to decline to perform or pay for certain medical procedures if they have religious or moral objections.  From the Supreme Court’s 1963 Sherbert decision to its 1990 Smith decision, strict scrutiny applied to governmental infringements on corporations’ religious exercise.  A number of states have enacted their own versions of RFRA, most of which apply to corporations.   Thus, “[f]or over half a century, … there has been no per se bar to free exercise claims by for-profit corporations, and the parade of horribles envisioned by the [law professor amici] has simply not materialized.”  Indeed, “the scholars do not cite a single example of a corporate governance dispute connected to [corporate] decisions [related to religious exercise].”

  • Permitting for-profit corporations to claim protection under RFRA will lead to all sorts of false claims of religious belief in an attempt to evade government regulation.

The law professor amici suggest that affording RFRA protection to for-profit corporations may allow such companies to evade regulatory requirements by manufacturing a religious identity.  They argue that “[c]ompanies suffering a competitive disadvantage [because of a government regulation] will simply claim a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion.  A company will adopt a board resolution asserting a religious belief inconsistent with whatever regulation they find obnoxious . . . .”

As Meese and Oman explain, however, this problem is not unique to for-profit corporations.  Natural persons may also assert insincere religious claims, and courts may need to assess sincerity to determine if free exercise rights are being violated.  The law professor amici contend that it would be unprecedented for courts to assess whether religious beliefs are asserted in “good faith.”  But the Supreme Court decision the amici cite in support of that proposition, Meese and Oman note, held only that courts lack competence to evaluate the truth of theological assertions or the accuracy of a particular litigant’s interpretation of his faith.  “This task is entirely separate … from the question of whether a litigant’s asserted religious beliefs are sincerely held.  Courts applying RFRA have not infrequently evaluated such sincerity.”

***

In addition to rebutting the foregoing arguments (and several others) against treating for-profit corporations as RFRA persons, Meese and Oman set forth a convincing affirmative argument based on the plain text of the statute and the Dictionary Act.  I’ll let you read that one on your own.

I’ll also point interested readers to Steve Bainbridge’s fantastic work on this issue.  Here is his critique of the corporate and criminal law professors’  amicus brief.  Here is his proposal for using the corporate law doctrine of reverse veil piercing to assess a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs.

Read it all before SCOTUS rules!

An interesting looking empirical piece from David Yermack (NYU), Tailspotting: How Disclosure, Stock Prices and Volatility Change When CEOs Fly to Their Vacation Homes.  I haven’t read it closely yet.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper shows close connections between CEOs’ vacation schedules and corporate news disclosures. Identify vacations by merging corporate jet flight histories with real estate records of CEOs’ property owned near leisure destinations. Companies disclose favorable news just before CEOs leave for vacation and delay subsequent announcements until CEOs return, releasing news at an unusually high rate on the CEO’s first day back. When CEOs are away, companies announce less news than usual and stock prices exhibit sharply lower volatility. Volatility increases immediately when CEOs return to work. CEOs spend fewer days out of the office when their ownership is high and when the weather at their vacation homes is cold or rainy.

HT: Salop.

Say on say on pay?

Larry Ribstein —  6 November 2011

“Say on pay” seems like one of those “chicken soup” ideas — at best salutary and at worst unobjectionable.  Who could object to letting the shareholders vote on executive pay?

Minor Myers, for one, in The Perils of Shareholder Voting on Executive Compensation. He suggests that “the more involved shareholders are in a firm’s managerial decisions, the more difficult it is for directors to be held accountable for the outcome of those decisions.” The shareholder vote, he argues, will insulate directors’ compensation decisions from shareholder outrage, which might otherwise have served as an important discipline.  He “proposes amending the [say on pay] legislation to allow firms to opt-out of the say on pay regime by shareholder vote. This preserves the benefits of say on pay for those firms where shareholders wish to retain it and allows other firms to exit the regime at little cost.”

This proposal makes some sense. Myers cites evidence indicating that some firms gain and others lose from say on pay.  In other words, some firms find that they benefit more from holding directors solely responsible for managerial pay than by having the (mostly disengaged) shareholders take responsibility. Indeed, Myers’ theory suggests say on pay may be a boon to greedy managers.

Although Myers would amend say on pay to make it optional, one wonders why the rule would be necessary at all.  State corporation law already provides for something like an opt-in regime by authorizing charter amendments on this issue. Myers argues that opt-out is better than opt-in because the equilibrium under the opt-in alternative would be driven by managerial opportunism.  But given shareholder inertia, I’m not persuaded the equilibrium under opt out would be any better.

In any event, the rationale for federal interference in state corporate law is the need for federal minimum standards.  If say on pay is no longer a minimum standard — if, like other corporate governance provisions it is just another default rule, with costs and benefits that vary from firm to firm — then why should it be a federal rule?

Myers’ analysis suggests that say on pay is, at best, one possible decent default rule, suitable for some firms.  If that’s the best rationale we can come up with, then it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t have federal say on all other corporate governance — in other words, a full-fledged optional federal corporate law.  Such a law could include a say on pay opt-in.  Or we could have an opt-in federal corporate law with opt out say on pay.  We could call such a statute say on say on say on pay.

Or we could just forget the whole thing.

Alison Frankel gripes about a NJ judge’s ruling throwing out a shareholders’ derivative suit seeking to hold the J & J board accountable for problems concerning the company’s Rispardal drug. Frankel thinks the bad faith standard the court applied is not high enough.

Ted Frank responds that the fact that the company had settled criminal allegations doesn’t mean the board was irresponsible given big companies’ exposure to prosecutorial overreaching (here’s my thoughts on the problems with prosecutors).  He notes that given huge potential penalties and legal costs “even a risk-neutral set of executives would refuse to go to trial on criminal charges that they had a 95% chance of winning.”  As Ted says:

The issue is this: first, any corporate law is going to have to balance false negatives (valid suits against directors being thrown out prematurely) and false positives (invalid suits against directors costing tens of millions of dollars in time and money to resolve). Any opening up of the courtroom doors to challenge directors will reduce false negatives at the expense of more false positives; any increase in the burden to bring suit will reduce false positives at the expense of more false negatives.

Anyway, Ted continues, shareholders of NJ corporations can decide to invest in firms incorporated elsewhere if they think NJ law is too lenient on directors, aptly citing my and O’Hara’s The Law Market.

Of course Frankel might argue that the business judgment rule that the court used to decide the case is ubiquitous, leaving plaintiffs with little choice. Indeed, the only significant dissent is Nevada which is, if anything, even easier on directors than NJ.   Frankel might also argue that this indicates state corporation law is rigged for managers and that we would do better under federal law.  Perhaps what we need is a super Dodd-Frank/SOX on steroids that preempts state law and exposes managers to suits like the one NJ dismissed.

I would respond that the universal acceptance of the business judgment rule represents the market’s rejection of Frankel’s position.  If Frankel wants to complain that the market for corporate law is imperfect,  she would need to persuade me that shareholders are better off in the clutches of Congress.

Yaniv Grinstein and and Stefano Rossi have an interesting paper, Good Monitoring, Bad Monitoring, on the effect of corporate law, and specifically of the famous Delaware case Smith v. Van Gorkom and the Delaware legislature’s subsequent “fix” of that result.  Here’s the abstract:

We estimate the value of monitoring in publicly traded corporations by exploiting a natural experiment. A Delaware Supreme Court decision unexpectedly held directors liable for monetary damages for breach of fiduciary duties. The ruling signaled a sharp and exogenous increase in Delaware Courts’ scrutiny over board decisions. We analyze the impact of the ruling on stock returns using matching and differences-in-differences techniques. We find that, compared with appropriately matched non-Delaware firms, Delaware-incorporated firms in high-growth industries lost (CARs of -2.10%) and firms in low-growth industries gained (CARs of 1.40%) in the [0,10] window around the announcement of the Supreme Court decision. A later regulatory reform to the Delaware Code that reversed the effects of the Supreme Court decision had opposite results: firms in high-growth industries gained and firms in low-growth industries lost significantly. Our results shed light on the complex interplay of courts and regulation and on its implications for shareholder value.

In the conclusion the authors state:  “We interpret these results as implying that “one-size-fits-all” models represent inadequate solutions to the corporate governance problem.” In other words, a strict duty of care is good for some companies but not others.

This suggests that firms should be allowed to contract to tailor regulation to their needs. But the Delaware code revision did just that — allow firms to contract.  Yet returns for low-growth firms dropped, despite the fact that the statute allowed these firms to remain subject to the strict care standard.

Does this suggest that corporate contracting is flawed?  Or what?

UCLA’s Milken gift

Larry Ribstein —  23 August 2011

The NYT discusses a controversy at UCLA (mainly, it seems, involving objections by Lynn Stout) to the $10 million gift it just announced from Lowell Milken, Michael’s brother.  Lowell was accused many years ago in connection with his brother’s securities violations and escaped prosecution because of his brother’s plea deal. Steve Bainbridge comments in response to the NYT story, discussing this ancient history:

Some of us who were active in the field at the time–as I was–remember the story a bit differently. In our view, the government used threats to go after Lowell as one of the ways on which they coerced Michael into taking a plea deal.

I have more perspective in my paper, Imagining Wall Street.  There I note that Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street

may have helped create an environment that became increasingly unfriendly to takeovers.  In the year following the film’s release, Drexel and Milken were prosecuted, eventually culminating in the fining and jailing of Milken along with many others in the takeover game, and the demise of Drexel Burnham. Milken pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years in jail.68 [United States v. Milken, No. (S) 89Cr.41(KMW), 1990 WL 264699 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 21, 1990)]  * * * It is hard to say how much of that attitude was based on actual events reported in the media, and how much on the fiction Wall Street helped create. Milken was prosecuted not for insider trading, but rather for technical violations of the Williams Act—that is, using Boesky to accumulate non-disclosed positions in target shares.69 [Id. at 4]

In short, there is a big question whether Lowell’s history is such as to taint UCLA by his gift.

But I am not unsympathetic with the idea that law schools are supposed to be teaching their students that ethics trumps money, and so should be careful about whom they take money from, and more generally the company they keep. Indeed, for that reason I wrote critically last year about Bill Lerach’s foray into law teaching.

The real question here is where you draw the line and who decides.  Is the decision to turn down a gift based on ethics or politics?  More to the point, would the same people who oppose the Milken gift also object to an association with Lerach?

And how do you balance those considerations against the institution’s needs?  Interestingly, Professor Stout has written extensively about the need to take the interests of all constituencies into account in corporate decision-making.  Where would UCLA’s students stand in the decision Professor Stout favors to reject the Milken gift?

The Shareholder Protection Act been reintroduced in Congress, and Lucian Bebchuk still likes it. He and Robert Jackson wrote an article defending the basic idea, which Bebchuk describes as to “establish special corporate-governance rules for deciding when corporate resources may be spent on politics.”  He admits “the bill is unlikely to be adopted during this Congress.” However, since it seems no more likely to go away than Freddie Krueger or Michael Myers, it’s worth discussing why, like these characters, it’s a scary idea.

Bebchuk’s post is timely (for me) because it coincides with the publication of my article, The First Amendment and Corporate Governance.  This article argues generally (per the abstract)

that regulation of the corporate governance process that produces speech faces significant obstacles under the First Amendment. These include the limited efficacy of regulation of corporate governance, regulation’s potential for protecting the expressive rights of some shareholders by suppressing others, and the uncertain implications of this rationale for types of speech other than that involved in Citizens United. These problems with the corporate governance rationale for regulating corporate speech suggest that protection of shareholders’ expressive rights may be trumped by society’s interest in hearing corporate speech and the First Amendment’s central goal of preventing government censorship.

Here’s what the paper has to say about the SPA and Bebchuk & Jackson (footnotes omitted):

This Act would, among other things, require extensive quarterly and annual disclosures of corporate speech expenditures and majority shareholder authorization of “specific” expenditures a year in advance and impose damages for unauthorized expenditures.

The SPA makes clear that its purpose goes beyond merely protecting shareholders. As the bill’s “purpose and summary” notes in its opening sentences, “The [Citizens United] ruling invalidated longstanding provisions in U.S. election laws and raised fresh concerns about corporate influence in our political process. To address those concerns, the Shareholder Protection Act gives shareholders of public companies the right to vote on the company’s annual budget for political expenditures.” In other words, the proposed Act is concerned with “corporate influence.” This illustrates the tension discussed above between the concern for shareholder expression and that for corporate distortion of the political process. 

Apart from the uncertainty of the Act’s intended goal, its means of implementing this goal probably cannot survive First Amendment scrutiny under Citizens United. First, the Court suggested that, while a corporate governance regulation might pass, a remedy “based on speech, contravenes the First Amendment.” The SPA, like the restrictions at issue in Citizens United, is “based on speech.” This raises the question whether the proposed Act’s restrictions can be sustained on shareholder-protection grounds * * *.

Second, the SPA favors the expression of some stakeholders to the detriment of more passive shareholders. The provisions requiring authorization of expenditures may, depending on the applicable voting rules, empower activist shareholders, such as public pension funds, while submerging the preferences of many, perhaps a majority, of others.  

Third, the Act’s requirement that corporations get advance shareholder approval for corporate political activity sharply constrains all such speech by essentially requiring firms to lock in their political activity for a year from the close of a fiscal year. This prevents firms from dealing effectively with a dynamic political landscape. Managers’ treble damage “fiduciary” liability for unauthorized speech reinforces this inflexibility. Imposing these burdens on speech would be inconsistent with Citizens United’s emphasis on the social value of corporate speech.

Bebchuk and Jackson’s governance proposals may fare better under the First Amendment because they are more squarely aimed at corporate governance and the internal distortion problem. The authors suggest requiring the shareholders approve the firm’s overall spending budget, allowing shareholders to submit binding resolutions on corporate speech for shareholder vote, requiring that independent directors make decisions on corporate speech, and mandating more disclosure concerning corporate speech decisions. These provisions are probably less onerous than those in the SPA, depending on their specific implementation, including how they interact with the rules for shareholder voting under federal and state law. Bebchuk and Jackson also would enable shareholders to opt out of the regulation, which further mitigates the impact on corporate speech. 

The main problem with the Bebchuk-Jackson proposal is that it allows for possible super-majority shareholder authorization of corporate speech in order to protect the expressive rights of minority shareholders. * * * [P]rotecting the expressive rights of some shareholders may infringe the expression of other stakeholders and unacceptably restrict corporate speech under the Citizens United listeners’ rights rationale. These concerns increase with the level of protection for minority shareholders. Bebchuk and Jackson even suggest any level of shareholder approval is acceptable that enables “a practically meaningful opportunity to obtain the required approval.” The authors draw this standard from cases on whether state antitakeover law preempts federal law protecting shareholders’ rights. The preemption standard is based on the intent underlying federal takeover law and has little to do with determining corporations’ and corporate stakeholders’ rights regarding corporate speech.

The full article provides support for the positions underlying these criticisms, and cites to my earlier writing on these issues containing deeper background.

In a recent Dealbook post, Steven M. Davidoff complains that Delaware’s business judgment rule is too lenient.  Davidoff contends that “[a] Delaware court is not going to find [directors] liable no matter how stupid their decisions are. Instead, a Delaware court will find them liable only if they intentionally acted wrongfully or were so oblivious that it was essentially the same thing.”  He then asserts that a commonly heard justification for this lenient approach — that it is required in order to induce qualified individuals to serve as directors — is “laughable.”

Prof. Davidoff’s pithy summary of the Delaware business judgment rule seems accurate, and I share his skepticism toward the argument that the rule is justified as a means of inducing highly qualified directors to serve.  I disagree, though, with his insinuation that the Delaware approach is unjustified.  The rule makes a great deal of sense as a means of aligning the incentives of directors (and officers) with those of shareholders.

Under Delaware’s business judgment rule, courts will abstain from second-guessing the merits of a business decision — even one that appears, in retrospect, to have been substantively unreasonable — as long as the directors acted honestly, in good faith, without any conflict of interest, and on a reasonably informed basis (i.e., they weren’t “grossly negligent” in informing themselves prior to making the decision at issue).  Courts treat the rule as quasi-jurisdictional, insisting that they simply will not hear complaints about the substantive reasonableness of a decision as long as the prerequisites to BJR protection are satisfied. 

One frequently hears two justifications for this deferential approach.  First, courts sometimes seek to justify it on grounds that they are not business experts.  Second, as Prof. Davidoff observes, directors and officers often defend it on grounds that it’s needed to prevent qualified directors from being scared off by the prospect of huge liability for good faith business decisions that turn out poorly.  

Neither justification works very well.  Courts routinely second-guess the substance of decisions in areas where they lack expertise and might, by imposing liability, dissuade qualified individuals from offering their services.  Consider, for example, medical malpractice.  Courts aren’t medical experts, yet they routinely second-guess the substance of good faith, reasonably informed treatment decisions.  And they do this with full knowledge that malpractice judgments dissuade qualified doctors from providing their services.  (Remember President Bush’s concern that malpractice verdicts were dissuading gynecologists from “practic[ing] their love with women all across this country”?)  There must be something more to the story.

Indeed, there is.  By insulating directors from liability for good faith, informed business decisions that turn out poorly, the business judgment rule encourages directors to take greater business risks.  This is a good thing, because directors and officers tend to be more risk averse than their principals, the shareholders.  I previously explained that point in criticizing Mark Cuban’s claim that shareholders and CEOs “have completely different agendas: Most chief executives want to hit a ‘home run’ — taking big risks for potentially big payoffs — while most mom-and-pop shareholders simply hope not to ‘strike out’ and lose their nest egg.”  I wrote:

… Stockholders would normally prefer corporate managers to take more, not less, business risk.

When it comes to managerial decision-making, rational stockholders prefer greater risk-taking (which is associated with higher potential rewards) for a number of reasons. First, stockholders have limited liability, which means that if a business venture totally tanks and creates liabilities in excess of the corporation’s assets, the stockholders are off the hook for the excess. Since stockholders are able to externalize some of the downside of business risks, they’ll tend to be risk-preferring. Moreover, stockholders are the “residual claimants” of a corporation — they don’t get paid until obligations to all other corporate constituents (creditors, employees, preferred stockholders, etc.) have been satisfied. In other words, they get nothing if the corporation breaks even, and they therefore would prefer that managers pursue business ventures likely to do more than break even. Finally, stockholders are able to eliminate firm-specific, “unsystematic” risk from their investment portfolios by owning a diversified collection of stocks. They therefore do not care about such risk (although they do demand compensation for bearing non-diversifiable, “systematic” risk). …

Compared to equity investors, corporate managers (including CEOs) tend to be relatively risk-averse. Unlike shareholders, they get paid even if the corporation breaks even, so high-risk/high-reward ventures are less attractive to them. In addition, they cannot diversify their labor “investment” so as to eliminate firm-specific risk (one can generally work only one job, after all). Managers therefore tend to prefer “safer” business ventures.

The need to reconcile risk preferences among corporate managers (directors and officers) and their principals (the shareholders) provides a compelling justification for Delaware’s business judgment rule.  Chancellor Allen clearly articulated this point in footnote 18 of the 1996 Caremark opinion:

Where review of board functioning is involved, courts leave behind as a relevant point of reference the decisions of the hypothetical “reasonable person”, who typically supplies the test for negligence liability. It is doubtful that we want business men and women to be encouraged to make decisions as hypothetical persons of ordinary judgment and prudence might. The corporate form gets its utility in large part from its ability to allow diversified investors to accept greater investment risk. If those in charge of the corporation are to be adjudged personally liable for losses on the basis of a substantive judgment based upon what persons of ordinary or average judgment and average risk assessment talent regard as “prudent” “sensible” or even “rational”, such persons will have a strong incentive at the margin to authorize less risky investment projects.

As Geoff has often reminded us, the optimal level of business risk is not zero.

Did you know that shareholders in US corporations are like oppressed citizens of corrupt governments?  Or that “say on pay” is their Arab Spring?

If not, you haven’t been reading Gretchen Morgenson.  Better that you read Christine Hurt’s excellent critique of Morgenson’s latest screed.