The Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies only to "persons." Invoking this limitation, the Obama Administration claims that for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby are not RFRA persons, thus negating Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the Administration’s contraception mandate. In particular, the Administration claims that treating corporations as RFRA persons capable of exercising religion contravenes "fundamental tenets" of American corporate law.
In a brief amicus curiae, 44 professors of corporate and criminal law have elaborated on this argument. These scholars contend that treating corporations as RFRA persons that exercise their shareholders' religion violates basic principles of corporate law and would undermine that law's goals. The scholars’ brief emphasizes that corporations are separate legal entities protected from intrusion by shareholders, who enjoy limited liability behind the corporate veil. These essential attributes of corporateness, these scholars say, categorically preclude shareholders’ religion from “passing through” a boundary between shareholders and the firm and thus prevent shareholders from "impos[ing] their personal religious beliefs" on the firm. Allowing such imposition, the scholars say, would encourage intra-corporate struggles over religious identity, struggles that would sometimes result in litigation and discourage investment.
In a recent essay, Nate Oman and I argue that the Obama Administration and the scholars who support it are mistaken on this point and that for-profit corporations are in fact RFRA persons. Corporations often adopt policies that reflect shareholders’ religious beliefs. Examples include Jewish-owned restaurants or groceries that keep Kosher and remain closed on the Jewish sabbath, Christian-owned establishments that decline to sell alcohol and/or close on Sunday, and Muslim-owned firms that refuse to enter contracts that require the payment of interest. These practices do not offend corporate law, and the scholars cite no case to the contrary.
None of this is a surprise. Americans are the most religious people in the developed world. Moreover, the now-prevalent theory teaches that firms are nexuses of contracts among suppliers of various inputs. Modern corporate law reflects this contractual vision, allowing investors to alter default rules so as to facilitate the exercise of religion under the aegis of the corporate form. While the “standard” corporation entails separation of ownership from control of the sort found in large, publicly traded firms, the vast majority of corporations are closely held entities like Hobby Lobby, firms that courts and scholars have dubbed “chartered partnerships,” “incorporated partnerships,” or “corporations de jure and partnerships de facto.”
Several facets of modern corporate law empower shareholders to impose their religious beliefs on such corporations. Shareholders can adopt provisions in the corporate charter or the firm’s bylaws that limit what products firms may sell, days firms will operate, and how firms treat employees, customers, or the wider community. None of these provisions would contravene corporate law, which allows firms to pursue “any lawful businesses or purposes.” Shareholders can also enter shareholder agreements that govern operation of the firm or require unanimous consent before the firm takes certain actions. Indeed, shareholders can eliminate the Board of Directors altogether and operate the firm as a de facto partnership. Delaware law, for instance, expressly provides that shareholders may “treat the corporation as if it were a partnership or [ ] arrange relations among the stockholders or between the stockholders and the corporation in a manner that would be appropriate only among partners.” Shareholders may properly rely upon these devices (and perhaps others) to induce corporations to pursue religious objectives, even to the detriment of profits.
To be sure, shareholders of such “chartered partnerships” would retain limited liability (unless waived in the corporate charter) as well as entity status. But non-profit corporations, including churches, synagogues and mosques, and their members possess these very same attributes without forfeiting their ability to exercise religion. States confer limited liability on shareholders of for-profit corporations to encourage investment, risk taking and the like. Moreover, entity status reduces transaction costs that would result from individual shareholder transacting. Nothing about the rationales for these institutional devices justifies limiting the ability of shareholders to induce firms to pursue religious objectives.
Perhaps, however, pursuit of religion by for-profit corporations is inconsistent with the goals of corporate law, thereby suggesting that Congress did not extended RFRA to such entities. For example, the law professors’ brief suggests that allowing RFRA exemptions will lead to costly derivative suits over whether a corporation ought to adopt a particular religion and that firms will manufacture spurious religious claims to avoid onerous regulations.
We doubt it. Under current law a for-profit corporation may pursue a religious mission. It’s unclear why the predicted corporate-governance litigation over religion hasn’t already happened. It’s telling that the critics have been unable to cite a single derivative action or corporate governance dispute related to religion. In theory, it is possible that firms might manufacture insincere religious claims. This, however, has nothing to do with the corporate form. Natural persons also have incentives to manufacture religious claims. In applying RFRA, courts properly inquire into the sincerity of religious beliefs, booting spurious claims.
Finally, one might object that it simply makes no sense to give free-exercise rights (even statutory ones) to corporations. After all, a corporation has no soul, and religion is something that only natural persons can practice. We disagree. First, churches and other religious entities are corporations and no one has ever claimed that this fact disables them from practicing religion or meriting protection. Furthermore, these claims are not confined to uniquely “religious” corporations. Many churches, for example, are organized as LLCs. As a legal matter, they have the same form as Chrysler. The validity of RFRA claims should not turn on a claimant’s corporate status or lack thereof.
Perhaps the real problem is the for-profit character of firms like Hobby Lobby. Natural persons, however, also pursue profits. It would be very odd to say that a sole proprietorship or a partnership may claim the protections of RFRA but a corporation or an LLC may not. At a deeper level, it would be perverse to suggest that once a person is engaged in profit making activity they have given up their right to practice their religion. Such a principle would gut the idea of religious freedom.
Implicit in these arguments against RFRA personhood for corporations are two problematic assumptions. The first is that religion is fundamentally an individual and private affair, rather than a collective and public affair. This is a good description of a seventeenth-century Calvinist examining his or her soul for the signs of irresistible grace. This account does not work very well for many other approaches to religion. Jewish law, for example, denies that there is a distinction between the “private” and “religious” activity of the home and the “public” and “secular” activity of the marketplace. God’s demand that Israel live according to his law applies equally in both realms. Likewise, Catholic theology has a rich tradition of understanding corporate religious experience within a host of subsidiary organizations, including for-profit firms.
None of this means that the RFRA claims of for-profit corporation should always succeed. Courts should scrutinize all RFRA claims for sincerity, substantial burden, and whether any substantial burden is narrowly tailored to further a compelling interest. There is, however, no good reason for categorically excluding for-profit corporations from RFRA’s protection for religious freedom.
Some of my non-lawyer friends assume that, as a law professor, I am well versed on the interstices of every law that might apply to their lives, so I had a good chuckle this morning when I read that 352 new laws took effect in Utah today. Wow. The legislature was busy this last term.
The law that is getting the most publicity: the prohibition on dialing or texting while driving.
The law that will have the most immediate effect on my life: increasing the speed limits on rural highways.
The law that most scares me: allowing people to hunt without first completing a hunter-education course.
The law that I assumed was already in place: the "revenge porn" law, which prohibits distribution of "intimate images" without consent and with intent to cause emotional distress or harm.
A new law that is getting a lot less attention (but see here) is the adoption of the Benefit Corporation Act. I am still a skeptic, but over half of states now have or will soon have a statute in place. Do we teach these in Business Organizations? It's probably time to add them ... as if we don't have enough to do in that course.
Well, the punditocracy has concluded (and I agree) that a majority of the Court is likely to find that a for-profit corporation may be considered a "person exercising religion" under RFRA. If that is so, and putting aside all the other elements of the RFRA analysis, it seems to me a few questions are still in the air.
First, Chief Justice Roberts indicates that he is inclined to limit his ruling to "a Chapter S corporation [sic] that is closely-held." Is there some principled basis for concluding that an S corporation is a person capable of exercising religion while a C corporation is not? And, putting aside the tax code, upon what basis will the Court decide which corporations are protected by RFRA and which are not? Shouldn't the Court offer some kind of guidance on this issue? Is it enough to say, as Chief Justice Roberts does, that any corporation in which 51% of the shareholders agree to some sort of religious belief may be a "person exercising religion" under RFRA? Won't that lead to all kinds of mischief? Should the Court care?
Second, Justice Alito expressed concern about the plight of Kosher and halal slaughterhouses which might find themselves facing regulation requiring humane slaughter. Shouldn't these businesses, even if incorporated, be able to assert religious claims under RFRA? Few would say no. But, is there a difference between businesses like these where religion is at the core of what they do, and other businesses where religion has little if anything to do with the company's products and services? Must the Court rule that any corporation with 51% religious owners can claim that it is engaged in religious exercise? Won't that lead to even more mischief? Should the Court care?
Third, assuming RFRA standing, is it not fair to predict, as Justice Kagan suggested, that corporations will now feel free to assert religious objections to employment discrimination laws, minimum wage laws, the Family and Medical Leave Act, child labor laws and more? Is there a principled basis upon which the Court might limit its holding to religious objections to health care mandates? Or will the floodgates open? Should the Court care?
Finally, (irony alert) Paul Clement argued that the "least restrictive means" of implementing the contraceptive mandate would be for the government to pay for employees' contraceptive care. Where was Clement when advocates for a single-payer health care system could have used his help?
I look forward to reading the transcript of today's arguments. In the meantime, a comment on Marty's post.
I am glad that he has concluded the same thing as me, i.e., that of the burdens on natural persons here, it is on those persons as directors; see the reasons I stated yesterday. But I disagree with him that a corporation cannot have a religious obligation.
Imagine an incorporated church. Of course that organization, as an organization, has obligations of a religious nature, whether that be calling a minister, providing worship services, conducting communion, prayer meetings, and so on. There is no corporate law reason, as explained yesterday, that a for profit corporations cannot pursue profits and do some of those ecclesiastical activities. Indeed, I believe Hobby Lobby employs three chaplains. Moreover, in the Christian tradition, much of the directives are not just to individual believers but to the Body of Christ, which is the church, a group of people. And the word "corporation" derives from the root word for "body." People carry out religious activity in groups, that is, "corporately," and the law provides a ready-made vehicle for doing so, the "corporation."
But even if one accepts arguendo that the company qua company has no religious obligations, the natural person directors on the boards of these two companies certainly do. And they owe fiduciary duties to the serve the company's interests. If, because the company here is assumed to have no religious obligation, and therefore must comply with the Affordable Care Act in toto, and if, as fiduciaries, the board members must serve those interests even as they themselves, personally, have religious obligations that forbid them from doing so, then those natural persons are being forced to choose between violating their duties or violating their beliefs and obligations. I understand this to supply the scenario that Marty thought was absent.
Better in my view, to see that, for the reasons explained yesterday and above, a for-profit business corporation can be(it need not be but it can be) a mixed purpose entity advancing profits and one or more other purposes, maybe religious but maybe another social or environmental purpose, as Ron notes. And those walking, breathing people who serve as directors, in "exercising" their individual beliefs and their governance duties to the corporation, can simultaneously draw on and seek to advance individual and "corporate" obligations.
And to the nexus of contracts point, it is well taken as a theory matter. I think, however, in the world of legal doctrine the distinct legal personhood of the corporation is entrenched, subject to piercing, and this is where the 44 professors and Steve join issue. But as noted yesterday, such separateness is no impediment to the business founders here. This is because it is in their capacity as directors that these natural persons must, by corporate statute, "exercise" corporate responsibilites, and they seek to do so in this litigation by vindicating their "free exercise" religious right as individuals discharging this corporate function.
I thank Gordon and my other friends here for inviting me to write about Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood. I will not address the "substantial burden" or "compelling interest" aspects of the analysis, which I think will turn out to be decisive precisely because I believe the Court will recognize the two companies as having a free exercise right. In a later post I will address what I think are the intriguing possibilities of such a ruling for those of us who seek corporate reform(me from the right and many from the left) and will argue that those who want real reform are backing the wrong pony if they side with the government in these two cases. But first to some straight corporate law points.
I think certain corporate statutory points have not been clearly made, or if they have been made, I missed them. I think the chief brief by Conestoga Wood does the best job but it still falls a bit short. Understanding these might obviate the extensive emphasis on the corporate separateness argument made by the 44 law professors and Stephen Bainbridge's reverse piercing rejoinder. What are these?
First, there is nothing in RFRA to suggest that Congress meant to displace or preempt state corporate law, here that of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. Numerous Supreme Court cases recognize that states endow corporations with the attributes they possess. Thus, not only does the federal Dictionary Act define a "person" to include a corporation, there is nothing to indicate a federal override of state law's role in defining corporateness. Using the Pennsylvania statute and Conestoga Wood as my example, what does that corporate statute say? First, like section 3.02 of the Model Business Corporation Act, the PA statute section 1501 states that a corporation shall have the same legal capacity of individuals to act But how does a corporation act? Through its board of directors, all the members of which must be natural persons. Thus PA section 1721, like section 8.01 of the Model Act, states that all CORPORATE powers shall be "exercised by" the board of directors(please note that the term "exercised" here is the same term as in the First Amendment "free exercise" clause). When the board acts, it is not an act of the board for itself, it is an act of the corporation. Moreover, as the board acts, its natural person members can indeed do what the Third circuit wrongly said a corporation cannot do: they can worship and pray and otherwise "exercise"(in the corporate and First Amendment senses) rights in their board meeting, and they do so in their "corporate" capacity. And it is the board itself that is the key decisionmaker, not employees or others in corporate governance. The two boards here have made the key decisions. Second, PA section 102 is very interesting. It says that "a"(not "the") purpose of a corporation can be to "purse"(not "maximize") profit, and that profit may be an "incidental" (not sole) purpose of a for-profit corporation. Thus, for-profit corporations in Pennsylvania, by statute, can have multi-purposes, only one of which need be to pursue profits. That further blurs the line between so-called "non-profit" corporations(a misnomer anyway because many make profits they just can't distribute them; since the government concedes on non-profits does the First Amendment really turn on whether dividends can be paid?) and for-profit corporations, the latter of which can be hybrid purpose companies. Here, the two companies pretty clearly seek to make money and also to carry out a board-fashioned CORPORATE religious mission.
Thus, it is via the usual channels of corporate governance that individuals play a key role in corporations acting. It need not be as owners. I honor corporate separateness but think corporate powers are and must be, as here, "exercised" by board members in pursuit of a well-articulated, and utterly lawful under state law, corporate purpose that has a religious dimension. This all could have been made clearer before tomorrow's arguments.
I'm lucky to be able to say I'll be in the courtroom on Tuesday morning for the arguments in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases. Whether the Justices will ask -- or care -- about corporate law issues remains to be seen. The vast bulk of the 84 amicus briefs filed in the cases explore the historical origins of the Free Exercise Clause, the legislative history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, reproductive technology, women's equality, and employees' rights. Only two -- the Corporate and Criminal Law Professors' brief and the brief filed on behalf of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce -- deal almost exclusively with corporate law principles. Will corporate law be the tail that wags this dog?
Blue River applies expertise in robotics to develop new agricultural technologies. Recognizing that $25 billion is spent annually on herbicides that pose environmental risks, the company offers farmers the option to reduce their chemical usage by switching to robots pulled behind tractors that can quickly identify and kill weeds with a rotating blade.
Greyston sells brownies (including some found in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream), but it also adheres to a strict workforce development program. The company staffs its operations with hard-to-employ individuals and teaches them skills that they can use when looking for jobs across the wider foodservices industry. As Greyston’s slogan says, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.”
Greyston is organized as a benefit corporation; Blue River is not. That probably makes sense.
Blue River approaches what some call “the hybrid ideal” – a situation where everything a company does generates social value and revenue. The company’s social objectives are market driven. There is little tension between profits and impact. Mission drift is relatively easy to monitor. I wouldn’t think Blue River has much to gain by becoming a benefit corporation. Indeed, it seems to be doing just fine.
Greyston is different. It can’t align profits with public good quite as neatly. Its social mission is broader and open to greater interpretation. What does it mean for someone to be “hard-to-employ?” How should we measure something as fuzzy as workforce development? Even if we say that Greyston is near the hybrid ideal, can we be sure it won’t move toward greater pursuit of profits at the expense of public benefit? This might follow from something as simple as a change in ownership or leadership, and it could be hard to detect. Blue River’s products strike me as easily observable, but if Greyston makes discrete changes to its hiring policies, those decisions seem easier to keep under wraps.
The provisions found in benefit corporation statutes do not fully resolve these issues. However, I’m not ready to say that benefit corporation statutes are a mistake, or that becoming a benefit corporation is only about greenwashing. Instead, I argue that the benefit corporation’s best opportunity for influence is to be seen as a new institutional structure—one that can motivate the development of self-regulatory standards and provide a normative framework for social entrepreneurs and pro-social investors. This framework, in turn, can be particularly helpful to companies like Greyston that pursue more complex social missions.
First, the benefit corporation form offers a rallying or focal point that ought to make it easier for like-minded private actors to come together and collaborate on issues ranging from corporate governance practices to the development of social impact metrics. Seeing benefit corporation laws as focal in this way does not mean they will dictate particular standards. Rather, they simply incentivize firms and stakeholders to participate in a self-regulatory process by providing an archetype and hub that can facilitate communication and standards development. The form’s mandate to consider multiple interests should make such cooperation more palatable. Firms that prioritize profits above other objectives often lack the incentive to share information with their competitors. In that case, first-movers will see their profits slip if information sharing allows others to easily replicate their strategies. However, by definition, the benefit corporation form means that profits are not the overriding focus. It thus creates more room for cooperation and coordination—and as Haskell Murray reports, this already appears to be happening.
Additionally, a key step in addressing issues like mission drift is to recognize that, just as they send broader signals about values to the market, legal forms also influence corporate behavior. The people within an organization are the most significant determinants of its commitment to mission. With respect to the benefit corporation, forms that reflect a specific ideological commitment can influence internal culture by signaling the values that should inform employee decision-making. Patagonia cited this belief as a motivating factor in its decision to become a benefit corporation.
Finally, establishing a culture that leads to the internalization of values is easier when organizational goals match employees’ personal beliefs. The benefit corporation’s emphasis on dual objectives should attract socially minded employees by signaling that they will find a supportive structure in place. When employees then enter organizations that reflect their own values, they often exhibit greater motivation to act consistently with those values.
There is obviously much more to say about these points, and for anyone looking to wade deeper into them, I offer a fuller explanation here.
Unless the rapid spread of benefit corporation laws is evidence of an enthusiastic or cynical mistake (which I think is possible but unlikely), then there must be some underlying logic to unpack. My aim is to keep working to explain the social enterprise phenomenon, to put it into a clear theoretical framework, and to distill the best justifications for offering special organizational options for social entrepreneurs.
Problems with the sale of the Canadian ambulance service have led to one of the strongest sanctions of an investment bank, let alone a board, that this outside observer can remember coming from a Delaware court. But for real insight, let's outsource to Steven Davidoff and Matt Levine:
in Rural Metro, RBC [the bank] seems to have had all the conflicts with none of the benefits. Rural Metro was thinking about selling itself at around the same time that a larger competitor, Emergency Medical Services Corporation, was also up for sale. RBC was not involved in the EMS deal, but hoped that it could get an assignment financing the EMS acquisition. According to the opinion, RBC concocted a plan: "if Rural engaged in a sale process led by RBC, then RBC could use its position as sell-side advisor to secure buy-side roles with the private equity firms bidding for EMS." The quid pro quo would be, you hire us to finance your EMS bid, and we will give you the inside track on the Rural Metro sale.
[T]his deal reads to me less like a story of the financing deal overwhelming the M&A advice, and more like a story of how investment banking is a sales business. From this opinion, you get the sense that RBC's efforts to drum up business, whether financing or advisory, were persistent and intense and occupied most of the attention of RBC's most senior bankers. Meanwhile, its actual execution efforts were sort of halfhearted and not all that well thought out.....
And here's Davidoff:
To find the investment bank liable, however, the judge also had to find misdeeds committed by the Rural/Metro board. Vice Chancellor Laster held that the Rural/Metro Board had breached its fiduciary duties because Mr. Shackelton and RBC effectively put the company up for sale without full board authorization and that the board had failed to properly supervise RBC. He also concluded that the Rural Metro board did not have an “adequate understanding of the alternatives available to Rural” and that its decision to accept the Warburg offer was not reasonable because of a lack of sufficient information.
The judge has yet to calculate damages, but they could be as much as $250 million, despite the fact that RBC was never retained to do the financing and earned only its $5 million fee.
Instead, perhaps we should rethink how companies are sold and who is held liable when things go wrong. The Rural/Metro case shows how skewed the incentives can be, and how the checks and balances can too easily go wrong. Next time, there may not be a bank that can be put on the hook so easily. In other words, the directors may once again get away with wrongdoing, and shareholders will be left with nothing.
This story about how GM is launching an internal investigation by hiring its defense lawyers to do the investigating isn't that new, but it does remind one that if you go through the revolving door, in addition to raising your salary, you're changing your practice from one involving courtrooms and complaints to one involving conference rooms and the occasional negotiation with a regulator.
In my view, one of the biggest changes in law firm practice over the past 25 years has been the growth of this sort of work at the largest of firms, which used to stay the heck away from criminal practice. That in turn has been facilitated by the emergence of the internal investigation as something that regulators expect to see done, which means that the new work is actually profitable (those investigations involve a lot of billing, defending a criminal case generally does not). And that in turn has made the revolving door revolve more quickly; it used to involve high-ranking political appointees only, now almost any long-serving, mid-level-at-least lawyer in an enforcement agency can prove useful for a law firm.
I’m helplessly drawn to soccer and have been for nearly sixteen years. The sport has shown me countless moments of transcendent genius, like that goal by Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, and it continues to inform my thoughts on issues ranging from globalization to personal fashion.
One of the biggest stories in the footballing world this week comes out of the German Bundesliga, Germany’s top professional league. Sunday’s match between Werder Bremen and Nürnberg saw Bremen’s captain Aaron Hunt deny his team a penalty—and a near-certain goal—by admitting to the referee that he had not been fouled after seeming to “trip” over an opponent’s foot. Werder was leading at the time and eventually won the game 2-0. Afterwards, Hunt told the media that he had tried to provoke the penalty “out of instinct” but then thought that doing so “was wrong.”
Most are treating this as an example of good sportsmanship. My reaction is slightly different. I see Hunt’s conduct as a potential teaching tool for discussing social enterprise.
When I first started looking into social enterprise, it felt like the movement’s supporters saw it principally as a response to concerns about shareholder wealth maximization. Their worry was that an undue corporate emphasis on profit making was to blame for the financial crisis, climate change, and other problems. Social enterprise was seen as the antidote, since it captures firms that seek to go beyond profits in order to do “well” (financially) while doing “good” (socially).
I’m a fan of social enterprise, and I think social enterprise law can add real value. Yet I’d caution against placing it in direct opposition to traditional corporate behavior. Social enterprise is growing at a time when notions of shareholder prioritization continue to evolve. While it is true that courts generally hold that directors must act for the benefit of the “corporation,” what this means as a practical matter is open to debate. Some managers probably do see the singular pursuit of wealth as their obligation, but many others now see a strong relationship between a firm’s social footprint and its impact on shareholder value.
This brings me back to Mr. Hunt. I like to imagine that something similar to his phantom foul situation plays out in corporate decision-making. Even if traditional corporate managers often start with a view toward maximizing profits “out of instinct,” I’m not ready to concede that many won’t still pull back to consider the wider social effects of their decisions. The difference between corporate managers and professional footballers is that not every ethical quandary in the C-suite happens in front of a live worldwide audience. But that’s not to say that every manager needs or wants to check her ethical sensibilities at the door, or that existing corporate law is not already flexible enough to permit most social/economic tradeoffs.
Whatever the justifications are for supporting social enterprise—and I believe there are many—they should not include a wholesale rejection of the traditional corporate model. Generating meaningful social impact is always going to be less about form and more about management’s sense of purpose, virtue, and ideals. So where does that leave the role of social enterprise and social enterprise law? That’ll be the subject of my next few posts.
Scarlett Johansson has been in the news a lot lately because of her twin roles as spokeswoman for Oxfam and SodaStream. For nine years, Johansson served as an ambassador for Oxfam. She was a major fundraiser and public face of the charity. But this January, Oxfam told her she had to choose between representing them and SodaStream, and she chose the latter. The episode suggests some important limitations of the stakeholder theory of corporate organization.
Why did Oxfam give Johansson an ultimatum? SodaStream manufactures popular home carbonation systems in 22 facilities around the world. Some are in the U.S., China, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, and Israel, and one is in the West Bank. The company has recently been targeted by the pro-Palestinian “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement (BDS), which seeks to delegitimize either certain Israeli policies or the State of Israel itself (depending on who you talk to). The BDS movement is boycotting SodaStream because, it argues, the company promotes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by operating a factory there. Oxfam backs the BDS boycott of Israel and insisted Johansson choose between them and SodaStream.
This should not have been an intuitive response. And curiously enough, corporate law—specifically the stakeholder theory of the firm—helps illuminate the oddness of Oxfam's single-minded boycottism.
There are many strains of the stakeholder theory, but in general the idea is that management should consider the impact of its decisions not only on shareholders but on “stakeholders” of the firm—employees, suppliers, customers, community members, and other constituencies beyond its owners. (For simplicity, we'll consider the term "stakeholder" to exclude shareholders.)
The stakeholder model is often presented as an alternative to the standard shareholder model. But forget shareholders. Say you have a company that is unequivocally committed to the stakeholder model—their slogan is “people before profits,” and shareholders have no special claim on company decisions. What should the company do when the interests of employees and community members collide? Who should win out?
Ostensibly, the SodaStream boycott is being conducted on behalf of the Palestinian community and cause. The assumption is that short-term pain (i.e., probable unemployment) for the factory’s 500 Palestinian employees is the price of long-term gain (i.e., a Palestinian state) for the community.
Politics aside, the SodaStream boycott assumes a hierarchy of stakeholder interests that seems extremely tenuous. Even those sympathetic to the boycott—and this is probably obvious by now, but I am not—acknowledge that shutting SodaStream’s West Bank factory would bring hardship to a lot of Palestinian families who depend on those jobs. I would add that that sacrifice is a really bad deal for those stakeholders if the boycott does not succeed (and most don’t). Regardless, the question of the normative justness or wisdom of the boycott is beside the point—what about those stakeholder employees? They're not trying to live their politics; they want to work. What value do we place on their interests versus those of boycott advocates? In other words, how do we assess the boycott from a stakeholder perspective?
A few concerns I have with the SodaStream boycott from a stakeholder standpoint, moving from specific to general:
- The Palestinian SodaStream employees almost certainly share the same political aspirations as their community (e.g., statehood). Yet they're rejecting the boycott by working for SodaStream. Shouldn’t stakeholder-employees get a voice in whether they are forced to sacrifice their jobs in service of community goals?
- What’s the boycott’s limiting principle? Should no foreign businesses be permitted to employ Palestinians in settlements? What about a non-profit? Why limit it to settlements? If SodaStream moved its operations a few miles up the street to Palestinian-governed territory, would the BDS movement call off the boycott?
- SodaStream is headquartered in Israel. Does the boycott only apply to Israeli firms? If so, could SodaStream continue to operate in the West Bank if it sold itself to a foreign company? Stakeholder theory self-consciously promotes the observance of international law and fairness norms. Under what circumstances is per se discrimination on the basis of employer nationality okay?
- More broadly, what is the limiting principle behind privileging somewhat amorphous community interests over the clear and important interests of a defined group of stakeholders, like employees? Aren’t the sum total of global interests affecting a firm (e.g., preventing climate change) always going to be more powerful than narrow stakeholder interests (e.g., jobs on oil rigs)?
One thing I find fascinating is how quickly questions about stakeholder priority (on which the literature is pretty sparse) verge towards politics and ideology. It’s almost enough to make you miss having profit maximization as the lodestar! Snarkiness aside, I don't think advocates of the stakeholder theory would dispute that “take stakeholder interests into account” is a fuzzy objective to begin with. But as the SodaStream controversy illustrates, this is not only because a stakeholder-centric view creates conflicts between shareholders and stakeholders. It also creates confusion about how to prioritize the legitimate concerns of stakeholders as against one another.
In sum, to paraphrase ScarJo, it's hard to find a principled way to rank the competing interests of stakeholders. That observation doesn't invalidate the stakeholder theory, of course. It just shines a light on some of its limitations as a principle of organization.
Over the past few weeks, a handful of attorneys and academics have asked me exactly how specific the specific public benefit purpose(s) required by §362(a) of the DGCL for Delaware public benefit corporations (“PBCs”) must be. Section 362(a) reads, in pertinent part:
- “In the certificate of incorporation, a public benefit corporation shall. . . Identify within its statement of business or purpose . .1 or more specific public benefits to be promoted by the corporation”
Some of the early Delaware PBCs have used the general public benefit language from the benefit corporation’s Model Legislation to describe their specific public benefit purpose(s). (See, e.g., Farmingo, PBC; Ian Martin, PBC; Method Products, PBC; New Leaf Paper, Public Benefit Corporation; and RSF Capital Management, PBC). For those who are unfamiliar, the general public benefit language from the Model Legislation reads:
- “A material positive impact on society and the environment, taken as a whole, assessed against a third-party standard, from the business and operations of a benefit corporation.”
At least one early Delaware PBC has added the following to the general public benefit language:
- “specific public benefit . . .may be further specified from time to time in the Bylaws of the Corporation . . . or a resolution or resolutions of the Board of Directors of the Corporation.” (Socratic Labs, PBC).
- “for the specific public benefit of furthering universal access to the Internet” (Unifi Communications, PBC)
- "giving people access to, and the benefit of, health knowledge that is as complete and unbiased as possible." (Profile Health Systems, PBC)
In my personal opinion, using only the Model Act’s general public benefit purpose as a Delaware PBC’s specific public purpose is a bit risky and possibly conflicts with the drafters' intent. To be clear, I have not yet spoken with the drafters on this issue, and will update this post if I do. However, if the drafters had intended to allow the general public benefit language to suffice, then I think they would have simply followed the lead of the Model Legislation and would have defined and used the term "general public benefit".
Further, the FAQ about Public Benefit Corporations circulated by the drafters contained the following question and answer.
- Q: “Why does the statute require both the identification of a specific benefit or benefits and that the corporation be managed for the best interests of all those materially affected by the corporations conduct?” (emphasis in original)
- A: “….The requirement of a specific public
benefit is intended to provide focus to the directors in managing toward
responsibility and sustainability, and giving investors notice of, and some
control over, specific public purposes the corporation serves.”
That said, the Model Legislation’s general public benefit language
is more specific than “any lawful purpose” and Section 362(a) has no limit
on the number of specific purposes that can be listed, so a Delaware PBC could
conceivably list all of the specific interests the Model Legislation requires
directors to consider and achieve the same lack of focus as listing the Model Legislation’s
general public benefit language.
I have spoken to a few people in the Delaware Secretary of State’s office in an attempt to understand their stance on the specific public benefit issue. The main take-aways from those conversations were:
- they are aware of the controversy surrounding whether the Model Legislation’s general public benefit purpose suffices as a specific public benefit under the statute;
- they are currently accepting the Model Legislation’s general public benefit language as a valid specific public benefit, until it is formally challenged or they are told to do otherwise;
- they will not accept “any lawful purpose” language as a specific public benefit.
Also, for those who are interested, there were 49 public benefit corporations formed in Delaware between the August 1, 2013 effective date and October 16, 2013.
Thanks to Boston attorney Bruce Landay for excellent, in-depth conversation on this topic and for some of the certificates of incorporation cited in this post. As an academic, it is always nice to connect with attorneys who practice in my areas of interest. Thanks to Alicia Plerhoples at Georgetown Law who also provided some of the certificates of incorporation cited in this post.
We've been following the debate between Lucian Bebchuk and Martin Lipton on the value of activist shareholders with interest, and it still seems as if the protagonists see the world very differently. The debate has been occasioned by a paper from Bebchuk and his co-authors arguing, essentially, that activist shareholders increase returns to investors:
We find no evidence that interventions are followed by declines in operating performance in the long term; to the contrary, activist interventions are followed by improved operating performance during the five-year period following these interventions. These improvements in long-term performance, we find, are present also when focusing on the two subsets of activist interventions that are most resisted and criticized – first, interventions that lower or constrain long-term investments by enhancing leverage, beefing up shareholder payouts, or reducing investments and, second, adversarial interventions employing hostile tactics.
We also find no evidence that the initial positive stock price spike accompanying activist interventions fails to appreciate their long-term costs and therefore tends to be followed by negative abnormal returns in the long term; the data is consistent with the initial spike reflecting correctly the intervention’s long-term consequences. Similarly, we find no evidence for pump-and-dump patterns in which the exit of an activist is followed by abnormal long-term negative returns. Finally, we find no evidence for concerns that activist interventions during the years preceding the financial crisis rendered companies more vulnerable and that the targeted companies therefore were more adversely affected by the crisis.
In this round, Lipton offers a literature review of the case for the other side, which is motivated by the plausible assumption that activist shareholders tend not to buy and hold:
numerous empirical studies over the years have produced results that conflict with those Prof. Bebchuk espouses. These other studies generally find that activism has a negative effect or no effect on long-term value, particularly when controlling for the skewing impact of a takeover of the target (which generally occurs at a premium regardless of whether the target is the subject of activism).
Some of the studies cited are quite old, and not all of the journals are top-drawer. But others seem quite on point. Perhaps the disputants will next be able to identify some empirical propositions with which they agree, and others with which they do not (other than, you know, sample selection).
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We've got a nice donnybrook going between Lucian Bebchuk and Marty Lipton on the positive long term returns to companies subjected to campaigns by activist shareholders. Lipton believes they do not exist, Bebchuk believes they do.
Our study empirically disproves the myopic activists claim that interventions by activist hedge funds are in the long term detrimental to the involved companies and their long-term shareholders. This post responds to the main criticisms of our work in Wachtell’s memos. Below we proceed as follows:
- First, we discuss the background of how our study meets a challenge that Wachtell issued several months ago;
- Second, we highlight how Wachtell’s critiques of our study fail to raise any questions concerning the validity of our findings concerning long-term returns, which by themselves are sufficient to undermine the myopic activists claim that Wachtell has long been putting forward;
- Third, we explain that the methodological criticisms Wachtell directs at our findings concerning long-term operating performance are unwarranted;
- Fourth, we show that Wachtell’s causality claim cannot provide it with a substitute basis for its opposition to hedge fund activism;
- Finally, we explain why Wachtell’s expressed preference for favoring anecdotal evidence and reports of experience over empirical evidence should be rejected.
It is all getting quite tasty indeed, and Bebchuk's memo is pretty compelling stuff. He's of course not alone, either. To name but one paper I've seen recently, Paul Rose and Bernie Sharfman have a new paper that also reviews the economic literature, and concluding that "Empirical studies have repeatedly shown that certain types of offensive shareholder activism lead to an increase in shareholder wealth."
The empirical question, it seems to me, is not a straightforward one - it is difficult to compare firms that activists do target with firms that they do not, and difficult of course to know what would have happened had a firm not been targeted. I take it that the case against activist shareholders is unimpeachably logical, and very Chicago. In efficient markets it should not be possible to realize long terms gains through management changes, for the companies targeted would be making said changes anyway. And for examples of studies along these lines, you can look at this or this case.
But this is not meant as a critique, rather as a scene setter - if you want critique, you'll have to read the papers themselves. As long as we see more tasty memos in this fight, you can expect to see them on this here blog.