CEOs’ COIs

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “The rich are different than you and me,” and, along the same lines, CEO conflicts of interest can be pretty different than those involving people like you and me.  Consider this story – which likely would not have taken place with anyone other than a CEO – about what in going on at Chesapeake Energy.

As background, the company permits its CEO, Aubrey McClendon, to take personal stakes in the wells it drills.   By itself this arrangement – while unusual and controversial – does not, in my view, inherently involve a COI.  Indeed, one could argue that by investing side by side with the company, the CEO aligned his interests with those of the company’s shareholders.

However, “[i]n order to pay for stakes in new wells, McClendon borrowed money — using his stakes in existing wells as collateral — from a group that Chesapeake was trying to sell assets to. Investors complained that the arrangement raised a conflict of interest. They worried that Chesapeake might have sold its assets to the firm because the firm agreed to lend McClendon money, and not because the terms of the deal were the best Chesapeake could have received.  The arrangement was not previously disclosed to shareholders.” Or, as noted in another (more bluntly written) account:  “The overlapping relationship has led many analysts to say that there was at least the appearance of a conflict of interest since Mr. McClendon could give his lenders a sweetheart deal in exchange for a preferential interest rate on his loans.”  (Perhaps some of these analysts recall the harm caused by the tangled personal financial dealings of then CEO Bernard Ebbers at WorldCom.)

Where was the board – which included a former governor of Oklahoma and former US Senator – when this was going on? According to this story, Chesapeake’s general counsel initially claimed that the board “was fully aware of the existence of the loans” but the company soon reversed course on this.   As described by Ben Heineman, a former General Electric Co. general counsel who teaches corporate governance and business ethics at Harvard: “the Chesapeake board, in effect, is declaring that it would ‘rather just look ill-informed and negligent than complicit in McClendon’s deals.’”

Adding to this turmoil – a story has now surfaced of an undisclosed financial tie between the CEO and a director  (albeit one dating back several years).  And, the Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an internal  investigation.

What does all this mean for the shareholders (i.e.,  people like “you and me”)?  Many have apparently lost faith in senior management and the board, which has led to a massive loss in their investments in the company. This is, of course, entirely predictable when a CEO creates an apparent COI of this magnitude and the board – the only meaningful check on a CEO – is either negligent or complicit.

CEO conflicts really can be unique, not only in terms of what they are but also the impact they can have.

 

 

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