Every corporate director knows the importance of M&A in the grand scheme of enterprise. With some 40,000 significant transactions announced annually, M&A is hard to ignore. Yet there are persistent risks that directors need to understand and mitigate through insightful questions and the dialogue that ensues.
Risk: Not all bets will pay off—at least not right away. Buying a company means placing a bet on the future. Given the level of unpredictability involved, there is some chance that the merger will fail to achieve its goals and/or fail to return incremental value to shareholders. It is commonly cited that “80 percent of all mergers fail” to add value; however, this percentage is an exaggeration. Event studies that compare transactions over time present a more realistic picture by showing that incremental financial value is not assured. For example, a study conducted by Kingston Duffie, publisher of the digital magazine Braid, indicates that companies actually lost 4.8 percent of their value when they spent at least five percent of their market capitalization on M&A during the 18-month period between October 2014 and March 2016. The interactive graphic included in the study shows differentiated performance during the period—high for Stamps.com Inc., medium for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., and low for EV Energy Partners. Your company could experience returns like any one of these.
Question for Directors:If this merger ends up havinga slightly negative result for our shareholders, what are the compelling strategic reasons to do this deal? When do we believe that deal synergies will materialize?
Risk: As a director, you could be named in a lawsuit—especially if you are voting on the sale of a company. In 2015, lawsuits were brought in 87.7 percent of completed takeovers. Although most cases settle, some do go to trial. In a trial setting there are four main standards for judging director conduct in the sale of the company, ranging from lenient to stringent:
The business judgment rule (trusting the decision as long as directors have no conflicts of interest and are reasonably well informed).
The Unocal standard (protecting anti-takeover moves only if a threat is real).
The Revlon standard (requiring an auction process once a company is in play).
Entire fairness (requiring both a fair price and a fair process).
In addition, when a company has promised its shareholders the right to have the company appraised, the court itself can impose its own valuation. In the original Dell go-private transaction, the court retroactively forced the company to pay aggrieved stockholders what the court deemed to be a missing increment to their premium.
Question for Directors:How can we find assurance that sale is in the best interest of the company and its owners, and that we have chosen an optimal price? How can we ensure that there is a litigation-ready record of our deliberations in this regard?
Risk: You could lose your board seat. According to a study by Kevin W. McLaughlin and Chinmoy Ghosh of the University of Connecticut, there is a higher rate of retention for directors from the acquiring firm (83 percent) following a merger, with the most likely survivors being individuals who serve on more than one outside board. Only about one-third of directors from the target board (34 percent of the inside directors and 29 percent of the outside directors) continue to serve after the merger.
This October, when Dell Inc. and EMC Corp. officially merge (assuming full regulatory clearance following their recent shareholder approval), many who serve on the EMC board may not be on the post-merger Dell board, including retiring EMC Chair-CEO Joe Tucci. When the merger was first announced last October, a spokesman for Elliott Management Corp. stated in a press release, “Elliott strongly supports this deal. As large stockholders, we have enjoyed a productive and collaborative dialogue with Joe Tucci and EMC’s Board and management. We are confident that this Board has worked tirelessly to evaluate all paths for the company and that today’s transaction represents the best outcome for stockholders.”
Saying goodbye to some or all of these incumbents this fall will seem to be an ironic outcome for creating value. And yet that is how it must be. Fiduciaries are not self-serving, but rather they serve on behalf of shareholders to promote the best interests of the company. As such, they need to be ready to move on when that is the best outcome for the corporation. Still, it is disruptive (and not always creatively so) to be a trusted voice of wisdom for the future one day, and mere history the next.
Question for Directors: If we sell this company and our board must merge or disband, who among us will be most useful in steering the combined company in the next chapter?
These are not easy questions. But by asking them, directors can help their companies beat the tough M&A odds.
Meeting minutes of the board of directors, which usually are prepared by the corporate secretary, can play a crucial role in a government investigation or civil litigation relating to a decision or indecision of the board of directors or the knowledge of an individual director. In some instances, the minutes could establish an important defense for directors, while in other instances the minutes may subject directors to unnecessary criticism or worse. Directors should ensure that the corporate secretary follows these guidelines.
Unlike the meeting secretary, directors neither are obligated nor are advised to take individual notes during board and committee meetings. Individual director notes are unnecessary because the secretary’s official minutes will contain a record of the meeting. Additionally, director note-taking is risky. Directors’ notes likely would be discoverable in litigation, and notes that seemed clear in the days after a meeting may not be clear several years later after memories have faded. Absent a clear interpretation, adversaries will attempt to impose their own meanings on the notes. Furthermore, if multiple directors take notes, discrepancies may exist with other notes or the official meeting minutes.
Although individual circumstances may vary, below are some general guidelines that corporate secretaries of U.S. companies should follow when they take official notes and prepare meeting minutes for the board of directors. If a company is incorporated outside the United States, different guidance might apply.
Record the essential information. The corporate secretary should record essential information such as the date, starting and ending times, location, attendees (e.g., directors, management, experts, and legal counsel), presence and maintenance of a quorum, meeting chair, materials distributed in advance of the meeting, topics discussed, and decisions made in a formal meeting of the board. In some cases, the secretary should note the length of particular discussions and deliberations, especially if a particular discussion is an important part of the meeting. Directors also should ensure that the notes taken by the corporate secretary do not editorialize, as commentary could be misconstrued by an adversary if discovered in litigation.
Clearly identify separate meetings and tasks. Because notes and minutes are incomplete by nature, the more organization and structure they contain, the easier they will be to understand and interpret in the event that they are scrutinized. Secretaries should use the meeting’s agenda as a guide for organizing and labeling their notes and the minutes, and should indicate transitions from one topic to the next, including presentations by management, counsel, or advisory firms and executive sessions.
Identify in notes when an attorney is present during a conversation. Directors’ interactions with lawyers usually are protected by the attorney-client privilege or work-product protection, which may shield the content of those discussions from being turned over to an adversary. Boards also should consider including the general counsel in meetings that could involve a discussion of legal issues. If a lawyer is present during any portion of a meeting, the minutes should indicate the lawyer’s name and law firm, and the portions of the meeting for which the lawyer was present. Generally, the minutes for these interactions should indicate only that such discussions occurred and the general topics discussed.
Identify and describe the board’s deliberative process. Recording the general fact that the directors discussed or deliberated about an issue is critically important. However, what a particular director said about a particular issue is usually less important. For that reason, and to avoid errors in attribution, the secretary’s notes and official minutes generally should use collective or passive-voice descriptions (e.g., “the directors discussed the matter” or “a discussion ensued”) as opposed to attempting to record individual viewpoints and the directors who expressed them. Because directors may express passionate views about an issue, the secretary should exercise good judgment in determining what to record.
If notes are taken by hand, they should be clearly, legibly recorded, and should not include shorthand. Illegible meeting notes and notes taken in shorthand can be difficult to interpret when the secretary refers to them while drafting the official minutes. Provided typing is not disruptive to the directors in the meeting, directors should ask corporate secretaries to consider taking notes on a secure computer. Clarity and accuracy are crucial because a difference of opinion between directors regarding the events that occurred at a meeting ultimately may be resolved by reference to the secretary’s notes. In the litigation or regulatory enforcement context, unclear notes may result in meeting minutes that lack an obvious, objective interpretation and are susceptible to being misinterpreted by an adversary.
Encourage the secretary to maintain a standard practice of note taking. Secretaries generally should establish and maintain a standard practice for taking notes, retaining meeting materials and individual notes, and preparing meeting minutes. Deviating from a standard practice could raise negative inferences from a regulator or court.
The secretary should distribute the draft minutes for directors to review as soon as practicable. During their review, directors and secretaries should be mindful of any important events that occur between the meeting date and the finalization of the minutes. If a director believes the minutes omit important information, then the director should discuss orally the matter with the secretary. E-mails regarding the minutes between the secretary and directors, or among directors, should be strictly discouraged.
Discuss with counsel whether to retain notes and draft minutes. There may or may not be a legal or corporate requirement for the secretary to retain his or her meeting notes or draft minutes. After the official minutes are approved, the secretary should discuss with company counsel whether there is a requirement to maintain these materials and ascertain the length and nature of the requirement. If there is no requirement to maintain the materials, the secretary should discuss with counsel whether and how to discard them.
Bradley J. Bondi and Bart Friedman are partners with Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP. They advise financial institutions and global corporations, boards of directors, audit committees, and officers and directors of publicly-held companies in significant corporate and securities matters, with particular emphasis on internal investigations and enforcement challenges. Michael D. Wheatley, a litigation associate at Cahill, assisted with this article.
In 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) formed the Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force to detect fraudulent or improper financial reporting, and since then has brought more than 300 issuer reporting and disclosure cases. One area of focus is a company’s restatement of financial statements and company actions connected with the restatement.
The audit committee plays an important role in navigating a restatement—from investigating errors and their origins to overseeing the restatement process. A mishandled restatement can lead to a prolonged SEC investigation, increased exposure to liability in civil litigation, loss of confidence by lenders, and potential delisting by an exchange.
To survive a restatement, audit committees should avoid the following pitfalls.
Engaging inexperienced counsel and advisors for investigation. A restatement is commonly precipitated or accompanied by an independent investigation overseen by the audit committee. Proper investigation of accounting errors is critically important, and inexperienced counsel could fumble the investigation—and restatement—from the beginning by incorrectly scoping the investigation, failing to obtain the relevant information, or losing credibility with regulators.Four qualities are essential for counsel tasked with conducting independent investigations into accounting errors.
First and foremost, counsel must be independent from management. Counsel must not have done prior work for the company or have any significant ties to the management.
Second, counsel should be experienced with conducting independent investigations for boards and board committees.
Third, counsel should understand accounting and disclosure issues, and have experience with the nuances of accounting investigations. Nonetheless, counsel should also be expected to engage experienced, outside forensic accountants to aid in the investigation.
Finally, counsel and their team must be respected by regulators and have a reputation of conducting appropriately thorough and complete investigations.
Forming a special committee when the audit committee might suffice. While a special committee might be necessary in certain rare investigative circumstances, the board should avoid forming one if its audit committee is composed of independent and disinterested directors who are suited for the task. A special committee must be disbanded at some point (usually once the investigation is completed and before the restatement process begins), and the disbanding could become a complicated news item.In contrast, if the audit committee oversees the investigation, then, once the investigation is complete, the audit committee can pivot back to its normal role, which would include overseeing the actual restatement process. Investigations overseen by the audit committee also benefit from the positive relationship that the chair usually has with the company’s outside accounting firm.
The run-away or open-ended investigation. Incorrectly scoped investigations can lead to burdensome legal fees, continued business disruptions, and inadequate investigatory results. Importantly, an independent investigation does not mean that counsel is independent of the client. The “client”—i.e., the audit committee—should discuss the scope and budget of the investigation with outside counsel and together tailor the investigation to the circumstances.
Failing to keep auditors apprised of the investigation and errors found. Keeping auditors in the dark regarding the progress and results of the investigation could delay the restatement and result in the resignation of the auditor. The audit committee’s counsel should maintain a good relationship with the company’s auditors and keep them appropriately apprised of the investigation through periodic calls or meetings. If the auditor is conducting a shadow investigation, this dialogue will aid it in confirming that appropriate remedial measures occur (e.g., a restatement) and that the company’s professional practice group, risk, or forensic functions are informed.
Indecisiveness and inability to reach conclusions. Indecisiveness can delay the investigative process, allow misconduct to persist unchecked, and create the damaging perception among investors, regulators, and the plaintiffs’ bar that the company’s problems extend beyond financial reporting. To minimize these effects and maximize potential cooperation credit, the audit committee, in conjunction with counsel, should reach conclusions concerning accounting errors as promptly as possible.
Waiting too long to deal with wrongdoers. Once an investigation has made conclusions about individual conduct, any wrongdoers should be disciplined and, when necessary, removed from their position—either by terminating their employment or forcing their resignation. When determining cooperation credit, the SEC and Department of Justice (DOJ) will focus on whether the responsible individuals are still with the company, and, if so, whether they are still in the same positions. Removing wrongdoers clears the path for the audit committee to share investigation results with management so it can correct errors and implement remedial actions.
Not self-reporting findings to the SEC. Whenever a restatement is made, the SEC will inquire whether the underlying accounting error was intentional. It also may inquire about the root cause of the error; how, when, and by whom it was discovered; the reporting periods impacted; how the error is being corrected; and the impact on the company’s financial control environment.The SEC expects a registrant to voluntarily share the results of its investigation. If the SEC learns of misconduct from a source other than the company, or if the company fails to make its investigative findings available to the SEC, the company could become ineligible for cooperation credit associated with self-reporting. The incentives in the SEC’s whistleblower bounty program provide additional motivation for companies to be proactive in promptly and thoroughly self-reporting.
Audit committee micromanagement of the restatement. Management is ultimately responsible for financial reporting, and the audit committee must maintain its supervisory role and refrain from stepping into the role of management to correct errors. Once an accounting error has been identified, it must be assessed to determine whether the affected financial statements are materially misstated. Quantifying the errors is a critical step in determining materiality, and Staff Accounting Bulletin (SAB) 108 contains guidance.The audit committee counsel should assist management, as appropriate, in understanding the nature of the errors and how to correct them. This is also a good time for the audit committee to request that management re-evaluate the enterprise-wide risk assessment process and the design and effectiveness of internal controls over financial reporting.
Failing to remediate. If accounting errors lead to a restatement, then the company may have deficiencies in internal controls. In addition, inadequate or ineffective internal controls often raise issues that should be investigated by the audit committee relating to the certifications by the CEO, CFO, and outside auditor. Failure to remediate gaps in internal controls and to address certification issues provides the opportunity for additional misconduct and could damage the company’s credibility with regulators. The SEC in particular will focus on what steps the company took upon learning of the misconduct or control weaknesses, whether the company took immediate corrective action, and what new and more effective internal controls or procedures the company plans to adopt to prevent a recurrence. When documenting remedial actions, the company should avoid characterizing them as other than what they are—improvements in internal control procedures. This neutral approach might help to mitigate potentially harmful collateral impacts in civil litigation.
Creating an unnecessarily detailed SAB-99 materiality analysis. Shareholder class actions inevitably follow restatements. The audit committee should resist the impulse to create an unnecessarily detailed SAB-99 materiality analysis that will be discoverable in litigation against the company and could provide a roadmap for private plaintiffs. To the extent additional details regarding the materiality analysis are necessary, oral discussions with auditors are often sufficient.
Bradley J. Bondi is a partner with Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP. He advises financial institutions and global corporations, boards of directors, audit committees, and officers and directors of publicly-held companies in significant corporate and securities matters, with particular emphasis on internal investigations and enforcement challenges, including those related to restatements. Michael D. Wheatley, a litigation associate at Cahill, assisted with this article.
Jonathan T. Marks, CPA, CFE, a managing director with Navigant Consulting, Inc. in its global disputes and investigations practice, and Michael Pesce, an associate director with Navigant, contributed to this article.