The regulatory burden on U.S. public companies continues to increase and the government’s role has expanded from that of just regulator to, in some cases, shareholder. That might leave some directors wondering how far into the boardroom Uncle Sam can reach.
A panel of financial industry and government experts convened last fall to discuss the influence of the federal government when it acts as either a shareholder or a regulator. The Clearing House Association and the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance facilitated the discussion with a program called The Government as Regulator and/or Shareholder—The Impact on Director Duties, which included the following speakers and panel members:
Rolin P. Bissell, partner, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor LLP
Amy Borrus, interim executive director, Council of Institutional Investors
Laban P. Jackson, Jr., director, JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Peter A. Langerman, CEO, Franklin Mutual Advisers, LLC
Giovanni P. Prezioso, partner, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
Gregg L. Rozansky, managing director, The Clearing House Association
Mary Schapiro, former chair, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
Collins J. Seitz, Jr., justice, Supreme Court of Delaware
Charles M. Elson, director of the Weinberg Center and professor of finance, moderated the discussion.
The panel offered a wide range of perspectives, but a few common themes emerged that are applicable to directors across a variety of industries.
Most panelists agreed that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was a response proportional to the 2008 global financial crisis, butexpressed frustration with certain government bailouts and the political motivations influencing them. Several panelists indicated they felt uneasy about the broad scale of intervention that the federal government made into the private sector to bail out failing companies. The panelists cited the example of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s $85 billion bailout of American International Group (AIG) to illustrate how far agencies reached—even in the face of the internal corruption at the company. AIG’s credit default swaps lost the company $30 billion and are often blamed as a major reason the company collapsed in 2008. Controversy swirled when in March 2009, publicly disclosed information revealed that after the bailout, employees of AIG’s financial services division were going to be paid $218 million in bonuses. A June 2010 report by the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP)—a five-member group created by Congress in 2008 to oversee the U.S. Treasury’s actions—concluded that the Federal Reserve Board’s close relations to powerful people on Wall Street influenced its decision to help AIG.
While the panelists were critical of the bailouts, they agreed that Dodd-Frank was a reasonable response to help prevent future failure of companies. Directors’ bandwidth, however, to address their corporation’s most important strategic matters, including emerging risks, may be limited by the need to spend time ensuring compliance with Dodd-Frank. Most agreed that they do not expect a lessening of regulations in the near future.
Panelists also agreed that the Delaware court system—one of the most powerful legal arbiters of U.S. corporate governance—is not designed to address scenarios in which the federal government acts as an investor. When the federal government intervenes by investing in a company to salvage it, the government becomes a shareholder with greater legal privileges than a traditional, human shareholder who might challenge corporate decisions in the Delaware courts. In the event that the government challenges a company in the federal court system, the federal government would be tried in legal institutions where the ultimate power of appeal is granted by its own founding documents. Challenges to federal sovereign immunity and the federal government as shareholder would be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.
The line between the government as a stockholder and regulator could be blurred when the regulatory influence over the company is pervasive. This issue may be particularly acute for wholly owned subsidiaries of public companies when the government closely reviews company decision-making and expresses views on what is in the best interest of the subsidiary.
Relationships between regulators and directors—though once strained by mistrust after the financial crisis—are beginning to improve. A panelist observed that, in several global markets, relationships between regulators and directors have steadily normalized over the past year and a half, in contrast to more tense interactions of previous years. As global regulatory standards are established, markets recover and stabilize, and businesses and regulators deepen their understanding of each other.
Forming relationships with regulators should be a strategic priority for directors. Most panelists insisted that good relationships with representatives from regulatory agencies are essential. Boards should aim to keep a level of candor with regulatory contacts that could be helpful when pushing back against regulatory action and when directors have suggestions for upcoming regulations. Directors should also acknowledge that regulators have an important function to carry out in a high-pressure, multi-stakes market environment that is a challenge to navigate for regulators and companies alike. A “kicking and screaming” approach to relationships with regulators was frowned upon, as it is not productive and is insensitive to the fact that developing or implementing regulation is demanding and complex.
Directors seeking to strengthen their oversight of corporate compliance and ethics programs can access the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) publication Director Essentials: Strengthening Compliance and Ethics Oversight. The guide provides an overview of the board’s role in compliance oversight and offers practical insights about fulfilling regulatory expectations.
How effective is your board? M&A can be your litmus test. If you are making a buy/sell/merge decision, the experience will reveal your board’s capabilities in myriad areas, especially these:
Information Flow, and last, but not least
Good Business Sense
Today is Day One of your M&A Litmus Test, so we’ll start by testing your board’s…
… M&A IQ.
Does your board know why M&A matters? The wise board won’t leave mergers and acquisitions to external advisors—or wait until the last minute to bring them in. The decision to buy or sell a company of significant size is clearly a matter meriting board attention. On the sell side, time may not be on your side.
Directors serving on public company boards understand that any public company, by definition, is vulnerable to a hostile takeover (since any person with enough funding can buy their shares on the open market through a tender offer and gain control). In 2010, so far there have been nearly 20,000 announced deals worth more than $1 trillion. Some 7 percent of all announced deals worldwide—nearly 1,400 transactions—were unsolicited (hostile) bids.
Directors serving on private company boards need to understand that sometimes M&A is the company’s only exit strategy when the founder wants to retire and there is no next generation of family and/or employees to continue the legacy.
Next, you’ll be tested on fiduciary duties in the sale of a company. See you in class!
Shout Out to Sources
NACDKey Agreed Principles to Strengthen Corporate Governance for U.S. Publicly Traded Companies. Download a complimentary copy at www.NACDonline.org/LeadingtheWay.
I take governance very seriously, having spent 32 years in the field (ouch! I’m old!), so when it came time to write my blog, it was more like a block (as in writer’s block). Today, in desperation, the NACD “Blogmeister” gave me a simple assignment: name Five Governance Myths.
Where to begin? There are hundreds of them—and we at NACD spend much of our time dispelling them. Our main tool for setting the record straight is our set of Key Agreed Principles, reflecting a consensus of managers, shareholders and directors.
So, what are some of the myths, why do they matter, and how can directors overcome them through action?
Governance Myth Number 1: The fundamental purpose of the board is to represent the desires of shareholders.
This “agency theory” is close, but no cigar. The truth is that the board is there to build the long-term value and sustainability of the corporation on behalf of shareholders and all stakeholders. Believing the agency theory myth causes problems because it cuts other constituents (for example, rank-and-file employees) out of the picture.
Action step for directors: When requesting reports from management, ask for long-term financial projections and constituency impact statements (with proper disclaimers, of course).
Governance Myth Number 2: The main job of the board is to monitor management.
There goes that agency theory again. This isn’t even close, and frankly, it’s insulting (makes it sound like all CEOs and CFOs are crooks). The main job of the board is to select and develop a CEO, who will in turn select and develop a management team that will in turn select talent that can create and market worthwhile products and services. Believing the monitoring myth creates headaches because it puts everybody on the defensive and impairs productivity.
Action step for directors: Work with senior management and the head of human resources to develop and implement a CEO succession plan that empowers managers to be the best they can be.
Governance Myth Number 3: The main purpose of a board or committee meeting is to hear, discuss and vote on proposals from management.
This is fine for Civics 101, but the real world delivers more board value. If your company is using directors in this way, it is wasting a powerful resource. When a company has a fully engaged board, not all ideas come from management; sometimes they come from the board. There are times when instead of giving a long proposal to the board, management is better off making a very short proposal and then asking a question: What do you think? The board meeting then becomes a living proposal. (Indeed, this was exactly how we came up with our Key Agreed Principles mentioned above!) The idea that directors are there only as a sounding board deprives a company of board brainpower.
Action step for directors: Insist that the meeting agendas have short timeframes for presentations and long timeframes for discussion.
Governance Myth Number 4: When considering management proposals, directors only know what senior management tells them.
The fancy name for this is “information asymmetry.” It’s a problem but hardly a universal law. Directors receive information from many sources—including from the results of their own research, and reports from the consultants they are empowered to hire. Under Sarbanes-Oxley Act Section 301, “Each audit committee shall have the authority to engage independent counsel and other advisers as it determines necessary to carry out its duties,” and “each issuer shall provide for appropriate funding … to any advisers employed by the audit committee under paragraph (5).”
Also, remember that audit committees receive direct reports from the internal audit function, which may or may not be part of senior management, and hotlines bring the information connection down to the shop floor. Most governance guidelines specifically permit board members to make and receive direct contact with any employee, as long as they inform the CEO of any non-routine contact. Believing otherwise impedes communication.
Action step for directors: Learn as much as you can about the companies you serve, from as many sources as you can. Rob Galford’s recent post on this subject is a good place to start.
Governance Myth Number 5. When it comes to governance, process is everything.
This is a half-myth, because it’s almost true, but it still misses the mark. To be sure, it is much more important for the board to make a decision the right way than to make the right decision. This is the basic idea behind the judicial concept called the Business Judgment Rule, and it was the great lesson of the 2005 Disney case decided by the Delaware Chancery Court as well. But the problem with believing in this half-myth is that if directors believe process is everything, they may start focusing too much on the mechanics of decision making and avoid making any decisions based on their own experience and intuition, which can sometimes transcend procedures:
Action step for directors: Go through all the proper steps—but don’t get so hung up in process that you miss a chance to make a good decision.