In recent weeks, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has devoted considerable attention to environmental, social and governance, or ESG, matters. It has requested public comment on climate disclosure proposals, appointed a senior policy advisor for climate and ESG, and announced that its 2021 examination priorities will include climate-related risks. Taken together, these developments indicate the SEC may be poised to mandate ESG-related disclosures. A recent post on this blog discussed the SEC’s interest in climate disclosures.
In a new article, “The New Separation of Ownership and Control: Institutional Investors and ESG,” forthcoming in the Columbia Business Law … Read more
Recently, workers at Amazon dealt what has been called a “decisive” and “crushing” blow to organized labor, with their proposed union receiving less than 30 percent of the votes cast, according to the federal vote counters overseeing the election. While union officials complain that Amazon cheated by campaigning too hard against the organizing effort, a close look at the election indicates that the better argument is that Amazon workers acted rationally.
The most likely explanation for the union’s drubbing was that Amazon workers had an informed and healthy concern that becoming unionized would make them worse off. This … Read more
Over the last few years, the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have facilitated a deeper understanding of racial and gender inequality and have, generally speaking, begun to create tangible changes within American life. At the same time, corporations have begun to reflect on what role they play within the larger community. Academic conversations over the past year have dedicated time and thought to the role of the corporation as it relates to race and gender. One question deserving more time and attention, however, is the historical context in which the foundational debates on the appropriate role and purpose of the corporation, … Read more
Hedge fund activism is a topic on which most law professors have closed their minds. They learned in student days that activist hedge funds are excellent agents of change that efficiently discipline managements at targeted firms and increase shareholder wealth. Maybe that generally happens, but we cannot stop there.
Even if activism increases shareholder wealth, that still leaves open the question of where these wealth increases come from. The standard view is that activists increase firm productivity, force the “deconglomeratization” of stagnant firms, and expose others to efficient takeovers. Of course, that does happen — sometimes. But the rival view … Read more
In a new article, I argue that standardized, credible, publicly available ESG information will enable corporations’ stakeholders and potential stakeholders to repurpose their corporations. By “repurpose,” I mean control the corporation and redirect its employees’ efforts to corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Repurposing’s mechanism will be the competitive markets in which the corporations acquire their resources from potential stakeholders. Potential stakeholders – persons considering becoming or remaining customers, employees, suppliers, investors, or host communities – will, by their decisions, confer benefits on the corporations they choose (ESG Benefit). Most will exercise their discretion to confer ESG Benefit in accord with CSR … Read more
Investors are flocking to companies with good environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scores and are threatening to shun companies with poor ones. For many investors, ESG scores are critical to a company’s long-term profitability, not to mention its impact on people and the planet. But there is good reason for skepticism about the trustworthiness of the underlying metrics. For example, there is little correlation among the scores that different ESG ratings services assign to the same companies.
This situation is not inevitable. Despite their huge differences, the practices developed in financial reporting over many decades can contribute to the emerging … Read more
In a new article, I build upon the paradox of ownership. My central thesis is that those who own are not always in control; therefore, those who control should be held accountable like the owners would if they were in control.
I am inspired by the theory of the firm, particularly, the model created by professors Sanford Grossman and Oliver Hart in their path-breaking article, The Costs and Benefits of Ownership: A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration. Grossman and Hart posit that “we do not distinguish between ownership and control and virtually define ownership as the power … Read more
Corporations are increasingly using technology to conduct business, seeking greater automation and efficiencies while decreasing costs. Indeed, several states are considering changes to their business-formation laws to accommodate completely automated businesses – those run through, or by, self-executing computer code and artificial intelligence. Internationally, several jurisdictions already offer corporation-equivalent business structures to completely automated businesses. Together, these developments set the stage for a world where autonomous business organizations enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as corporations – a world in which an autonomous organization enjoys the legal fiction of personhood. In a new article, Autonomous Corporate Personhood, I … Read more
Environmental, social and governance, or “ESG”, considerations are seemingly ubiquitous in the current financial, corporate and regulatory landscape. In parallel with the socio-economic upheaval of 2020 and a continuing academic debate around corporate purpose and the efficacy and forms of stakeholder governance, investors are increasingly using ESG factors in decisions about how to allocate their capital. This trend is seen in investors of all varieties, from large institutions (such as BlackRock and State Street, each of which has regularly published annual letters to the companies in which they are invested emphasizing ESG matters, including in 2021), to a growing number … Read more
In a tale of what is old is new again, the Delaware Court of Chancery reviewed the propriety of a poison pill — a bulwark of the 1980s takeover era — but in the context of shareholder activism against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vice Chancellor Kathaleen McCormick’s detailed review of the pertinent case law and fact-specific decision to permanently enjoin The Williams Companies, Inc.’s extraordinary 5% poison pill offers a number of lessons for directors considering the adoption or renewal of a similar device. The Williams Cos. S’holder Litig. (Del. Ch. Feb. 26, 2021).
In March 2020, … Read more
The fundamental question in the law of business organizations – what is the purpose of the corporation? – contains a related question of constituencies and, therefore, priorities among them: Whom does the corporation serve? If, for example, the purpose that justifies the existence of the corporation is the maximization of share price, then it follows that the corporation exists to serve the shareholders that are the beneficiaries of share price increases. The answers to such questions are encoded in the laws governing the decisions of a corporation’s directors and managers and regulating the transactions that allocate the benefits and the … Read more
Recent developments have placed antitrust law on a collision course with corporate purpose. In a new paper, I reveal the unforeseen negative impacts of this conflict and provide a roadmap for avoiding them.
Businesses and investors are increasingly embracing an expansive view of corporate purpose – one that looks beyond profit-maximization and addresses systemic risks, such as climate change and income inequality. This broad view of corporate purpose is championed not only by employees, lawmakers, NGOs, and society at large, but also by the world’s largest investors and asset managers, who are urging companies to serve a social purpose. … Read more
In this two-part alert, we examine key global legislative developments and proposals in the bourgeoning field of mandatory corporate human rights due diligence. In Part One (available here), we looked at very recent steps taken by the institutions of the EU towards implementation of legislation at a pan-European level. In this Part Two, we consider developments within the EU and in the UK, and we also look beyond Europe, to APAC, the US and Canada.
Developments Within Europe
In 2017, France introduced a pioneering piece of legislation: the Loi de Vigilance (the “LDV”), which inserted … Read more
On Wednesday, March 10, after engaging in conversations with stakeholders, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration issued an enforcement policy statement in which it declined to enforce two DOL rules put in place by the Trump administration in 2020.
The first of these rules placed limitations on the ability of plans subject to ERISA to invest in environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) funds. In particular, it provided that a fiduciary’s duty of loyalty and prudence under ERISA would only be satisfied if investments were selected solely on the basis of pecuniary factors (defined as factors that have … Read more
Corporations increasingly integrate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues into their business practices and signal this by committing to sustainability initiatives, such as the UN Global Compact or the 2019 Business Roundtable Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation. This development has spurred a debate on whether companies can become more profitable by creating societal value (e.g., Edmans 2020), but there is relatively little discussion of companies that have been involved repeatedly in ESG-related incidents. For example, before its Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, BP had a long history of major and minor environmental and safety incidents. Between 2007 … Read more
When governments fail to respond quickly and effectively to a crisis, can companies help address the issue? In a recent article, we explore an important mechanism through which firms can do so as corporate citizens: information transmission within organizations. Specifically, we study whether U.S. firms’ business networks with China and Italy, including trade, executive, and branch-office networks, become information networks that can be used to mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19.
COVID-19 and measures intended to contain its spread resulted in significant societal change and required governments to take unprecedented measures. Meanwhile, for companies, the pandemic made employee safety a … Read more
The most vital and deeply practical argument for more broadly understanding corporate purpose comes from the management literature and the data on how to motivate people in organizations. Put simply, people in organizations do not work as hard or come up with as many innovations for companies unless they see themselves as part of a broader purpose beyond wealth maximization for shareholders. Employee engagement, first described in management literature, and now addressed even in mainstream business publications such as Forbes, is “the emotional commitment [an] employee has to the organization and its goals. When employees care … Read more
We are living through a stock buyback revolution. Over the last decade, the amount that U.S. public firms have spent on buying back stock from their shareholders rose threefold to a record level of roughly $1 trillion in each of 2018 and 2019. By the end of 2019, the scale of buyback activity had increased to the point that total shareholder payouts (stock buybacks and dividends together) took up the full amount of corporate earnings. After a pandemic-related pause in 2020, the buyback wave is roaring to life again.
The economic and financial importance of stock buybacks has sparked a … Read more
At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020, Larry Fink – the chief executive of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock – wore a climate change-themed scarf. It featured the “warming stripes” visual, where the color of the stripes represented the annual average temperatures of planet earth from 1850 to 2019. The scarf served to emphasize Fink’s – and BlackRock’s – professed commitment to putting sustainability at the center of the firm’s investment approach. Yet, in a new paper, I argue that, when it comes to climate change, there are significant gaps between the interests … Read more
Just before year end, the Department of Labor finalized its new rules on ESG investing and voting for retirement and pension funds. The rules sharply restrict the ability of the fiduciaries of retirement and pension funds to make investments based on ESG factors or to vote shares held by such funds in favor of ESG issues. The rules are unlikely to prove popular with the Biden administration, but regardless of how long they survive, the rules currently apply to trillions of dollars of investments and raise interesting questions about who will ultimately control the placement of a huge amount of … Read more