This section of the blog will examine what standards and processes should be applied to requests for COI waivers.

“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.

Inherent conflicts of interest and behavioral ethics

At his trial for Libor rigging, evidence was introduced last week that former trader Tom Hayes had told the Serious Frauds Office that “many of the people responsible for submitting panel banks’ Libor rates also traded products linked to the rate, creating an inherent conflict of interest” and that “’[n]ot even Mother Teresa wouldn’t manipulate Libor if she was trading it,…’”

While obviously somewhat self-serving, this colorful bit of analysis still  helps to underscore the overarching behavioral ethics point that to reduce the risk of ethical transgression often one cannot always count on the characters of those involved.  Rather, the situation will play the decisive role.

Inherent COIs are an instance of that. Granted, they are just one of many such types, but they may also be more common than most others, and hence worth further study.

And beyond an area of interest to behavioral ethicist scholars, seeing some COIs as being inherent (or near to inherent) can be useful to others, too, such as:

– C&E professionals, who should consider the category of inherent COIs in their risk assessments.

– Senior managers and directors, who should – as part of their C&E program oversight – make sure that nothing their company is doing or contemplating doing falls into (or anywhere near) this category of risk.

– Enforcement personnel, who often can find good fishing in the inherent COI waters.

– Individual business people, who – in making career decisions – should steer clear of jobs that could involve inherent conflicts of interest.

On this last point, Mr. Hayes would surely agree.

And on the point about the role of enforcement personnel, in my view the “fishing” shouldn’t be limited to those individuals who succumbed to the pull of the inherent COIs, but should also include the senior managers and directors who allowed the COIs to exist in their respective organizations. (For further reading on how a behavioral understanding of ethics and compliance should inform our approach to liability see this earlier post.)

(Thanks to Scott Killingsworth of the Bryan Cave law firm for letting me know about this story.)

Can ethics be “unbundled” from business?

Imagine the following: You need to hire a lawyer to advise you on a complex and highly confidential corporate acquisition, but the one you’d most like to have is pretty pricey. You explain this to her and she proposes what she calls a “win-win” solution:  if you sign an engagement letter that broadly states that she need not act in your best interests while performing services for you she’ll discount her hourly rate by 25%.

Or, imagine that your doctor has two schedules of fees: a “full price” one for patients who want the doctor to prescribe medicine based purely on what’s in their best interests and a lower-cost “value plan” for those who agree that the doctor can receive money from pharma companies for prescribing their medicines. Like the lawyer, your doctor is offering to “unbundle” his professional ethical obligations from the other aspects of his service – as a way of saving you money.

You seek clarification from both of them – what will this mean for me?  They both have the same response: while we won’t promise to act in your best interest we will act in ways that are “suitable” for you.

Would you be tempted by either offer?

Note that it is doubtful that either arrangement would be considered lawful – certainly the medical one  wouldn’t be, and I doubt the lawyer one would be either (although professional ethics issues arising from providing unbundled legal services are somewhat complicated – as reflected in this piece in the ABA Journal).    But even if they were permissible it is hard to imagine clients and patients saying yes to such options, where the risk of betrayal is so clear-cut and the adverse impact of such could be so great.

Yet a less obvious but not at all hypothetical version of ethics unbundled from business is already standard operating procedure in large parts of the investment world, where some of those who give advice to investors about retirement accounts have been allowed to operate outside of a best-interests-of-the-client framework. The main argument for this state of affairs is that “Consumers Deserve Choices”,  as described in this recent article in Investment News – including the choice of low-cost/non-fiduciary advice.

Of course, not all business relationships warrant the imposition of fiduciary duties. With some, “the morals of the marketplace” – in the immortal words of Judge Benjamin Cardozo – may well be morality enough.  But the business of providing advice about retirement accounts would not seem to be in this category, given how much is at stake for retirees (and, in a sense, for society as a whole), and the massive conflicts of interest problems that have beset the financial services industry for decades.

However, change is in the air. As described by the director of policy research at Morningstar,  last week “the Department of Labor proposed an amendment to the fiduciary definition under ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. In short, the proposal would require any individual receiving compensation for providing investment advice to a plan sponsor, plan participant, or IRA owner making a retirement investment decision to adhere to a series of fiduciary duties–that is, to act in the best interests of their clients. The rule is based, in part, on a Council of Economic Advisors analysis showing that when individuals receive what the White House calls ‘conflicted advice,’ they tend to enjoy lower investment returns.”

Note that the even the proposed rule does have some exceptions built into it. For instance, “you can call a broker to execute a trade without triggering fiduciary duties, you just can’t ask for advice,…” as noted in this article in Forbes.   There are other exceptions too.  But overall it is a big step forward.

At this risk of being repetitive, I definitely recognize that there are times when it may indeed make sense to “unbundle” what would otherwise be an ethical duty from a business relationship.  An example from an earlier post is that joint ventures partners may and sometimes do waive fiduciary duties expected of board members on the JV.

However, one would be hard-pressed to look at instances such as this – where the investors in question tend to be powerful and sophisticated – as being relevant to the reality faced by most individuals struggling to grow/maintain their retirement accounts. Like the lawyer and doctor examples at the beginning of the post, if you take ethics out of the equation for investment advice involving retirement, what’s left might well be worthless …or outright damaging.


“Reverse Conflicts of Interest”

Consider the following (disguised) case, from some years ago….

A company enters into a complex business arrangement where one of its managers has a relationship with the other entity.  The relationship is fully disclosed and approved pursuant to company policy on COI waivers.  After time, the arrangement runs into business difficulties.  Although the company has lived up to its contractual obligations, the other entity seems to feel that the company should have done more to make the arrangement work.  Based partly on that, some employees of the company question whether that entity had been promised more than was disclosed by the manager, causing the employees to take various defensive measures which put further strain on the arrangement. Ultimately, the arrangement collapses.

As a general matter, if properly disclosed and approved, some COIs can be waived (although some should not be permitted under any circumstances).  Such approvals can be either a true “green light” or subject to being managed on an ongoing basis, i.e., a “yellow light.”

Like many C&E-related determinations, this type of decision tends to be made based on a balancing of costs versus benefits (hopefully, with a reasonably high burden of showing that the latter outweigh the former).

The case above illustrates what I believe is a factor that should generally be considered by companies deciding whether to grant a COI waiver: whether there will be reasonable possibility of overcompensating for the COI in ways that are harmful to the company.  The potential for such “reverse COIs” could turn on many factors – perhaps most significantly, on the extent to which the contemplated relationship must rely on trust.  (That is, the greater the need for trust, the greater the possibility of suspicion – at least as a general matter.)

Historically, reverse COIs may not have been common.  But as sensitivity to COIs has grown dramatically over the past few years (the subject of a coming post), they seem more likely to occur than ever before, and should be on a company’s radar in making COI waiver determinations.