Posts Tagged ‘Lawyers’

What’s material? It depends …

November 3, 2015

Materiality is one of those fuzzy ideas. Is it a piece of information that makes your stock price move (or would if disclosed)? A change that impacts sales or profit by 10% … or 5 … or 1? One of those events requiring an 8-K filing? Is anything investors want to know material?

Early in my career in investor relations, I learned that accountants can be surprisingly philosophical – arguing vehemently when gathered around a table for late-night discussion of a draft. The same is true of lawyers. And I suppose IROs can disagree on such issues, too.

The Wall Street Journal offered up a couple of explorations this week:

In “Definition of Materiality Depends Who You Ask” on Nov. 3, the quicker read, a WSJ blogger quotes five different definitions of materiality – such as they are – and notes that they are in flux.

In “Firms, Regulators Try to Sort Out What’s Worth Disclosing to Investors” on Nov. 2, the paper focuses on potential shifts in regulatory views – and pushback from companies against overlegislation.

This debate is perennial, and probably unresolvable. But a refreshing aspect is the new interest in whether companies are disclosing too much detail that has nothing to do with investors making decisions – and by its sheer volume may obscure what the real issues are.

Honeywell International Inc., the paper notes, is pursuing on a “disclosure simplification” project to enhance the quality of reporting. In October, Honeywell and its CPAs met with the SEC staff – and the agency filed a short Honeywell slide deck outlining key themes:

  • Eliminate duplicative and immaterial disclosures
  • Customize disclosures to Honeywell
  • Streamline footnotes to address information overload
  • Assess the relevance of recurring disclosures
  • Challenge boilerplate language typically included in company filings
  • Use of cross references

Hmmm … novel ideas. Reducing repetition, making footnotes digestible, taking a red pen to boilerplate and questioning verbiage that’s been in the 10-K so long no one can remember why. This will be interesting.

And what do you think “material” means?

© 2015 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

The phone call no IRO wants

June 8, 2013

As a non-lawyer, I always pay heed when an attorney for a client speaks. Certainly when a letter from a law firm or government agency arrives (though most are friendly). And when the phone rings and a caller says he or she works for the SEC or FINRA, well …

In 20-plus years of IR work, I’ve never personally heard from a regulator. But a piece in the June/July issue of NIRI’s IRupdate, “What to Do When You Get ‘The Call’,” caught my eye. And it’s worth noting.

The advice of the lawyers NIRI cites comes down to this:

… if you are the one to get the call, it’s not hard to know what to do: Basically, it’s say little and listen a lot …

Be polite but reserved. Neither hostile nor chatty. Don’t volunteer details or opinions. Your goal at this stage is to gather information to give your general counsel or securities lawyer – who can then manage the process. Ask the caller what the focus of the inquiry is, if it relates to a specific event, time  or person. Then head for your company lawyer’s office.

This seems like good advice to me. Any reactions?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Why Delaware?

January 29, 2011

As a non-lawyer I’ve wondered why so many companies – regardless of where they do business or actually are located – incorporate in Delaware.

The little state that is barely a whistle-toot on a fast New York-to-Washington train ride practically makes an industry of playing host to corporations. More than 850,000 companies make their home there, including the majority of US publicly traded companies, according to the Delaware Division of Corporations.

So I was intrigued by “Boardroom Justice,” an interview with William B. Chandler III, chancellor (top judge) of Delaware’s Court of Chancery, in the December-January issue of Directorship, the National Association of Corporate Directors magazine.

The Court of Chancery – and the Delaware Corporation Law it interprets – have a lot to do with why lawyers tell companies to incorporate there. Delaware law gives flexibility to companies in governance matters, and the court itself has a long history of case law on issues like fiduciary responsibilities of directors.

What’s more, the judges (a chancellor and four vice-chancellors) on the Court of Chancery specialize full-time in corporate matters. And they decide the cases, with no jury trials. Chandler explains:

The reason Delaware is viewed as the center of the universe for corporate law is that a defendant (or a plaintiff) can be guaranteed—no matter which judge you get—to have a jurist acutely familiar with this body of law; a judge who works with corporate law issues day in and day out, seven days a week. That’s the uniqueness of the Court of Chancery.

Contrast that with, say, Texas or California: A complex shareholder lawsuit may be presided over by a judge with more experience in bank robbery or debt collection cases than corporate law – and it may be decided by a jury of folks who, well, aren’t really the peers of the CEO, members of the Board of Directors or the shareholders.

I’m sure I’ve oversimplified. But if you’re curious, have a look at your 10-K or your client’s and see where the company is incorporated. Then ask a lawyer why.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.
(oddly enough, a Kansas corporation)

Shareholders don’t own companies?

April 1, 2010

The Harvard Business Review offers a provocative thought in its April 2010 issue: According to two professors at overseas universities (which may be relevant), shareholders are not the owners of corporations – and boards of directors shouldn’t feel so compelled to make decisions in the shareholders’ interest.

No, this isn’t an April Fool’s Day joke – at least, I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Citing the recent Kraft Foods takeover of Cadbury, a case of M&A not welcomed on the British side of the Atlantic, the article asks whether the Cadbury board could have said no – or said it more emphatically – and stood its ground.

Loizos Heracleous, a professor of strategy and organization at the University of Warwick, UK, and Luh Luh Lan, associate professor of law at the National University of Singapore, offer companies what has to be a contrary opinion:

Oddly, no previous management research has looked at what the legal literature says about the topic, so we conducted a systematic analysis of a century’s worth of legal theory and precedent. It turns out that the law provides a surprisingly clear answer: Shareholders do not own the corporation, which is an autonomous legal person.

The two go on to say that boards can put their own judgment ahead of shareholder interests in making decisions such as whether to be acquired:

What’s more, when directors go against shareholder wishes – even when a loss of value is documented – courts side with directors the vast majority of the time.

Directors are mostly misinformed about their obligations, the profs write.

As an investor relations practitioner (and small shareholder of a few companies), I disagree with the academics. My core philosophy of IR is that management and boards should treat shareowners as exactly that – the owners of the company.

In the cultural funk that seems to follow the pain of each recession or financial crisis, we are once again hearing voices that declare our companies should lay aside the self-interest of shareholders and pursue the greater good.

Harvard and other universities seem to be advocating on this issue: In an HBR article last summer, a Stanford business prof made a similar point, arguing that stakeholders, rather than shareholders, should come first in corporate decision making.

What do you think? Share your comments by clicking below, or vote in this poll:

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Swatting a gadfly with a cannon

April 14, 2009

Keeping a sense of perspective can protect you  from embarrassment, and this holds true in the chaotic world of social media. Goldman Sachs seems to have lost track of what’s important by sending its lawyers after a blogger who is criticizing the company – a “corporate gadfly.”

A gadfly, you know, is a little person with no power but a big mouth (or pen). He complains of some perceived wrong, and pretty much no one listens, unless … well, you can be the judge of the complaints in this case.

This story starts with Mike Morgan, a Florida investment adviser and real estate broker, setting up a blog in March called GoldmanSachs666.com. The name tells you where he’s coming from. Many of America’s corporate giants have spawned critics in the blogosphere – it’s a place outside the control of corporate giants.

But who would have read the 666 guy’s blog? I don’t see anything too interesting. He has posted about 30 times in the three and a half weeks it’s been up, offering conspiracy speculation and links to other blogs and news stories. I can’t find a disclosure of his personal or business agenda, why he’s going after Goldman Sachs.

Then Goldman – actually, its Wall Street law firm – threw down the gauntlet by sending him a cease-and-desist letter claiming he’s violating their trademark by using the company name in his URL. I’m no lawyer and don’t know the legal merits of their position. But this comes across like trying to shut up a critic.

That salvo encouraged Morgan to go into full attack mode. Besides encouraging blog readers to alert the media to his story, he’s filed a pre-emptive suit claiming the GoldmanSachs666 blog is posting news and commentary, not infringing their service mark. Some financial bloggers and the UK’s Telegraph are covering the case. Morgan is recruiting volunteers online, planning a media conference call and so on. He’s campaigning to become a cause celebre.

I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of Goldman’s contacts with the 666 guy. In general, companies should do one of two things about a corporate protester, online or on the street outside the office:

  • Look for a way to engage and mollify the critic. Go the extra mile in person or by phone to see if there’s a grievance that can be solved, meet with him, offer respectful and factual answers or see where he’s coming from. Or if he seems intractable …
  • Ignore the gadfly, while preparing message points to rapidly respond to the criticism. If the negative chatter spreads to other venues or threatens the company’s business or reputation, provide your message points quickly but one-on-one. Don’t issue a press release or file a lawsuit (both of which just turn up the volume). Answer reporters’ inquiries in a noncombative way. And perhaps comment directly on other blog or Twitter posts as they arise, especially if they overlap into your own social media constituency.

But taking aim with the legal cannons seems to be the surest way to make a big noise and get the wrong kind of attention. It’s like calling the police to arrest someone carrying a picket sign outside the office – guaranteed to make the evening news. Goldman Sachs, with all else that is on its plate these days, has more important things to do.