“Tailoring” the duty of loyalty

A prior post provided an overview of “corporate opportunities” – an important and somewhat distinct type of COI. Last week, writing in the Harvard Corporate Governance Blog, Gabriel Rauterberg of Michigan Law School and Eric Talley of Columbia Law School described some fascinating research they conducted regarding companies allowing their respective directors and officers to engage in conduct that would otherwise violate the corporate opportunities doctrine. The full paper is available for download here.

By way of introduction, they note that the duty of loyalty is widely perceived as “’immutable’—impervious to private efforts to dilute, tailor, or eliminate it.” However, the authors state: “That perception is false: Beginning in 2000, Delaware dramatically departed from longstanding tradition, amending its statutes to enable corporations to waive a critical component of loyalty—the corporate opportunity doctrine—which forbids corporate fiduciaries from appropriating new business prospects for themselves without first offering them to the company. From that moment forward, Delaware corporations and managers were free to contract out of a significant portion of the duty of loyalty…”

Rauterberg and Talley studied the experience of public companies that took this route. They found that literally thousands of companies adopted such waivers, showing: “Public companies have an enormous appetite for tailoring the duty of loyalty when freed to do so.” They further note that “there are…several plausible economic rationales for a corporation to embrace a COW [corporate opportunity waiver] for the sake of shareholder value. Indeed, in the years leading up to Delaware’s initial reform, a growing chorus of critics argued that the exacting requirements of the duty of loyalty had begun to impede corporations’ ability to raise capital, build efficient investor bases, and secure optimal management arrangements. This claim was based in part on the recognition that many then-emerging sources of capital, such as private equity, venture capital, or spin-off transactions may subject their financial sponsors to fiduciary duties in profound conflict with either their larger business plans or with fiduciary obligations they owe to other business entities.” The authors found as well that “COW adopters … tend to deliver larger overall market returns to their capital investors by comparison to other public companies….it does not appear that companies that execute waivers are systematically the unscrupulous bottom feeders of the corporate ecosystem.”  Finally, they assessed “whether the adoption of a waiver tends to add or dilute value on the margin, by analyzing market reactions to issuers’ first public disclosure of a COW. [Their] event study analysis reveals that market reactions are generally favorable, resulting in an average positive abnormal stock return of between 1.0 and 1.5 percent in the days immediately surrounding the announcement date…The positive market response does not seem sensitive to whether the waiver also covers officers and/or dominant shareholders…”

All told, Rauterberg and Talley present corporate opportunities waivers as often desirable based on the logic born of an efficient markets perspective.  This largely makes sense to me (although, as noted below, I have do have one area of concern about their analysis). Indeed, in an earlier post I argued that waivers of the duty of loyalty involving board representatives of joint venture partners were not troublesome, given that such partners can be seen as “consenting adults” in deciding whether a full-fledged duty of loyalty was indeed desirable in any given JV . Somewhat similarly, I’ve previously argued that client COIs arising from advertising agency mergers can readily be addressed by market forces.  (However, in other situations – particularly involving financial services professionals giving investment advice to retail clients – cutting back on the duty of loyalty seems less defensible.)

But, I am troubled by the above-noted part of the authors’ findings about officers, given that the legitimate need for a waiver should be less significant for an officer than for an outside director – as the latter is presumably more likely have business roles with other companies involving identifying business opportunities.  Also, I think (though am not sure) that the likelihood of harm flowing from a director’s usurpation of a corporate opportunity is less than that of an officer’s doing so, in that officers tend to be more knowledgeable about a company’s operations than are directors – and so on average would have the greater chance to misuse such knowledge in the pursuit of the corporate opportunity in question.

In effect, this aspect of the study’s findings can be seen as an effort to gauge the compliance and ethics risk assessment implicitly undertaken by shareholders of publicly traded companies when they learn of a COW.  Given how difficult  C&E risk assessments are even for professionals in the field, I wouldn’t view these particular findings as the final word on the downside of corporate opportunity waivers. Put otherwise, some markets are more efficient than others – and the C&E information market seems pretty inefficient to me, at least at this level of granularity.

Finally, a practice pointer for C&E officers. NYSE listing requirements (section 303A.10) strongly encourage (but do not actually require) companies to have corporate opportunities provisions in their codes of conduct, and a great many codes do this. However, if a company has adopted a COW then presumably it should  not to have such a provision, which could make the code seem deceptive.  For more on possible liability for making false claims about a company’s compliance standards  see this post.

  1. Jason Lunday 9 months ago

    Very interesting that research supports the benefit to shareholders of these corporate opportunity waivers! Still, to your point, I think the jury’s out on wholesale allowance of COWs. We just have to think back on Enron and Fastow’s many side deals that he suggested benefited the company. Before too long, I think we will see a set of principles developed around when COWs are appropriate and when not given that boards are supposed to protect the shareholders’ interests yet may seek these side deals that benefit themselves individually. If the board is supposed to supervise senior management as the corporation’s agents, do we need someone supervising the board? My experience in the healthcare group purchasing industry in the 2000s found an industry code of conduct to address this very issue (among other potential conflicts).

  2. Eric Talley 9 months ago

    Jeff — Thanks so much for your balanced overview of the paper as well as your pushing us on various points. We were similarly surprised about the officers finding, and we are working to dig a little deeper in order to assess the drivers behind it. We’ll post a revision in a month or two, and we expect the final published version to be out in late spring.

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