Last night, as part of the NPR Marketplace series "The Price of Profits," a report by Scott Tong provided an intellectual history of shareholder primacy, from Milton Friedman through Gordon Gekko and on to the present. The overview was fairly long for a news program -- my wife wondered if we had stumbled into a podcast -- and sought to provide an in-depth look at the shareholder primacy phenomenon. Lynn Stout was quoted in her role as the loyal opposition. Perhaps the newsiest part of the segment was the perspective of Michael Jensen, long one of the intellectual godfathers of primacy. Although Jensen defended the initial discipline that shareholder primacy imposed on markets, he backed away from any sort of muscular approach to the doctrine. Here's the excerpt:
“Has it happened the way I wanted it to happen? Eh, probably not,” Jensen said. “There’s always going to be some people who take it too far. And then cause damage.”
Jensen said focusing solely on stocks and stockholders is a “misreading” of his scholarship. He wrote in 1990 that CEOs should “do what’s in the shareholders’ best interests.”
“I wouldn’t put shareholders at the center," he said. "I’m still unhappy about the situation where people end up thinking that shareholders are primary. That they are our only bosses. No.”
Jensen has backed away from his scholarship -- or, at least, the commonly understood ramifications of his scholarship -- before. In 2007, he told the New York Times that "I would never award the standard executive stock option again," despite his early advocacy for such compensation packages.
It has been a pleasure to guest-blog for the last two weeks here at the Glom. (Previous posts available here: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine.) This final post will introduce the book that Lynn Stout and I propose writing to give better direction to business people in search of ethical outcomes and to support the teaching of ethics in business schools.
Sometimes bad ethical behavior is simply the result of making obviously poor decisions. Consider the very human case of Jonathan Burrows, the former managing director at Blackrock Assets group. Burrows’s two mansions outside London were worth over $6 million U.S., but he ducked paying a little over $22 U.S. in train fare each way to the City for five years. Perhaps Burrows had calculated that being fined would be less expensive than the inconvenience of complying with the train fare rules. Unluckily, the size of his $67,200 U.S total repayment caught the eye of Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority, which banned Burrows from the country’s financial industry for life. That’s how we know about his story.
But how do small bad ethical choices snowball into large-scale frauds? How do we go from dishonesty about a $22 train ticket to a $22 trillion loss in the financial crisis? We know that, once they cross their thresholds for misconduct, individuals find it easier and easier to justify misconduct that adds up and can become more serious. And we know that there is a problem with the incentive structure within organizations that allows larger crises to happen. How do we reach the next generation of corporate leaders to help them make different decisions?
Business schools still largely fail to teach about ethics and legal duties. In fact, research finds “a negative relationship between the resources schools possess and the presence of a required ethics course.” Moreover, psychological studies demonstrate that the teaching of economics without a strong ethical component contributes to a “culture of greed.” Too often business-school cases, especially about entrepreneurs, venerate the individual who bends or breaks the rules for competitive advantage as long as the profit and loss numbers work out. And we fail to talk enough about the positive aspects of being ethical in the workplace. The situation is so bad that Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago asks point-blank if business schools incubate criminals.
New business-school accreditation guidelines adopted in April 2013 will put specific pressure on schools to describe how they address business ethics. Because business schools are accredited in staggered five-year cycles, every business school that is a member of the international accreditation agency will have to adopt ethics in its curriculum sometime over the next few years.
We hope that the work outlined in my blogposts, discussed at greater length in my articles, and laid out in our proposed book will be at the forefront of this trend to discuss business ethics and the law. We welcome those reading this blog to be a part of the development of this curriculum for our next generation of business leaders.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight) discussed the dangers of granting intracorporate conspiracy immunity to agents who commit coordinated wrongdoing within an organization. The last two blogposts (here and here) highlighted the harm that public and judicial frustration with this immunity inflicts on alternative doctrines.
In addition to exacerbating blind CEO turnover, substituting alternative doctrines for prosecuting intracorporate conspiracy affects an executive’s incentives under Director’s and Officer’s (D&O) liability insurance. This post builds on arguments that I have made about D&O insurance in articles here and here.
In traditional conspiracy prosecutions, the Model Penal Code (MPC) provides an affirmative defense for renunciation. The MPC’s standard protects the actor, who “after conspiring to commit a crime, thwarted the success of the conspiracy, under circumstances manifesting a complete and voluntary renunciation of his criminal purpose.” This means that the executive who renounces an intracorporate conspiracy faces no charges.
In contrast with conspiracy prosecutions, responsible corporate officer doctrine and its correlates fail to reward the executive who changes course to mitigate damages or to abandon further destructive behavior. Although the size of the damages may be smaller with lesser harm if the executive renounces an organization’s course of conduct, the executive’s personal career and reputation may still be destroyed by entry of a judgment. Modest whistle-blower protections are ineffectual.
Specifically, because of the way that indemnification and D&O insurance function, the entry of judgment has become an all-or-nothing standard: an employee’s right to indemnification hinges on whether the employee is found guilty of a crime or not. To receive indemnification under Delaware law, for example, an individual must have been “successful on the merits or otherwise in defense of any action, suit or proceeding.” Indemnification is repayment to the employee from the company; D&O insurance is a method that companies use to pass on the cost of indemnification and may contain different terms than indemnification itself.
Indemnification and D&O insurance are not a minor issues for executives. In fact, under many circumstances, employees have a right to indemnification from an organization even when the alleged conduct is criminal. Courts have acknowleged that “[i]ndemnification encourages corporate service by capable individuals by protecting their personal financial resources from depletion by the expenses they incur during an investigation or litigation that results by reason of that service.” And when hiring for an executive board, “Quality directors will not serve without D&O coverage.” Because of this pressure from executives, as many as ninety-nine percent of public U.S. companies carry D&O insurance.
So what does this standard mean for executives prosecuted under responsible corporate officer doctrine instead of for traditional conspiracy? Executives are incentivized either not to get caught, or to perpetrate a crime large enough that the monetary value of the wrongdoing outweighs the potential damage to the executive’s career. Because an executive’s right to indemnification hinges on whether he is found guilty of a crime or not, he has an enormous incentive to fight charges to the end instead of pleading to a lesser count. Thus, unless the executive has an affirmative defense to charges, like renunciation in traditional conspiracy law, there is no safety valve. Litigating responsible corporate officer doctrine cases creates a new volatile high-wire strategy. Moreover, as discussed in my last blogpost, responsible corporate officer doctrine imposes actual blind “respondeat superior” liability. Regardless of the merits, the executive may be penalized. So you can see the take-home message for executives: go ahead and help yourself to the largest possible slice pie on your way out the door.
I argue that in sending this message, and in many other ways, our current law on corporate crime is badly broken. My last blogpost for the Glom will introduce the book that Lynn Stout and I propose writing to give better direction to business people in search of ethical outcomes.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven) discussed why conspiracy prosecutions were the best method to penalize coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. Using alternative doctrines to impose liability on behavior that would otherwise be recognized as an intracorporate conspiracy results in flawed incentives and disproportionate awards.
The fundamental problem with substituting responsible corporate officer doctrine and control person liability for reforming the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is that these alternative doctrines represent exactly what Professor Martin objects to: actual imposition of blind “respondeat superior” liability. For example, under these doctrines, “in most federal courts, it is not necessary to show that the corporate official being charged had a culpable state of mind.” Instead, the issue before the court is merely whether the officer had control and responsibility for the alleged actions. Accordingly, it is not a defense to control person liability that the officer did not “knowingly participate in or independently commit a violation of the Act.”
But simply penalizing the officer who is in the wrong place at the wrong time does little to define and encourage best practices. Moreover, with these and other explosive hazards for corporate service, it should be no surprise that top executives are demanding and receiving ever-increasing compensation for often short-term positions. Since 2009, the year that the NSP case establishing “control person” liability was settled, the discrepancy in pay between top management and the average worker has been growing dramatically. In 2013, the CEO of J.C. Penny Co., for example, was exposed for making 1,795 times what the average U.S. department store employee made. From 2009 to 2013, as measured across Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) of companies, “the average multiple of CEO compensation to that of rank-and-file workers” has risen to 204, an increase of twenty percent.
It is true that the financial crisis did reduce executive compensation packages before 2009, and that there has been a historical trend towards the growth of executives’ salaries as a multiple of average workers’ salaries. For example, “[es]timates by academics and trade-union groups put the number at 20-to-1 in the 1950s, rising to 42-to-1 in 1980 and 120-to-1 by 2000.” But the jump in executives’ salaries from 2009 has been extraordinary. The new emphasis on vicarious liability for individuals under the responsible corporate officer doctrine since that date must be considered part of executives’ demands for such high compensation in exchange for their risky positions.
The average duration of a CEO’s time in office has diminished as well. In 2000, the average tenure of a departing S&P 500 CEO in the U.S. was ten years. By 2010, it was down to eight years. In 2011, merely a year later, the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO was barely 4.6 years. In 2013, that former CEO of J.C. Penny Co. served for only eighteen months.
With an eighteen-month tenure, how much can the chief executive of a large company discover about the wrongdoing that his or her new company is committing? Furthermore, how much can that person design and institute good preventative measures to guide his or her subordinates to avoid that harm? A blindly revolving door for CEOs does not help those interested in effectively reducing the wrongdoing of agents within the corporation. Incentives without intracorporate conspiracy immunity would be different because they would reward the agent who abandons a conspiracy. (More about this argument here, here, here, and here.)
My next blogpost will examine how substituting alternative doctrines for prosecuting intracorporate conspiracy affects incentives under Director’s and Officer’s (D&O) liability insurance.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, and six) discussed why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has distorted agency law and inappropriately handicaps the ability of tort and criminal law to regulate the behavior of organizations and their agents.
My Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap article argues that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is not properly based in agency law, and that it should most certainly not be applied throughout tort law and criminal law. As a result of the immunity granted by the doctrine, harmful behavior is ordered and performed without consequences, and the victims of the behavior suffer without appropriate remedy. My Corporate Conspiracy Vacuum article argues that public and judicial frustration with the lack of accountability for corporate conspiracy has now warped the doctrines around it.
Courts have used a wide variety of doctrines to hold agents of enterprises responsible for their actions that should have prosecuted as intracorporate conspiracy. Some of these doctrines include:
But the new applications of these alternative doctrines are producing distortions that make the doctrines less stable, less predictable, and less able to signal proper incentives to individuals within organizations.
An example of how piercing the corporate veil has been used to defeat intracorporate conspiracy immunity can be seen in the Morelia case. A previous blogpost discussed how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has defanged RICO prosecutions of agents and business entities. In Morelia, which was a civil RICO case, the federal district court, obviously outraged by defendants’ behavior in the case, explicitly permitted plaintiffs to pierce the corporate veil to avoid application of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. In a creative twist invented from whole cloth to link the two doctrines, the Morelia court overruled its magistrate judge’s recommendation to announce:
"Since the court has determined that plaintiffs have properly alleged that the corporate veil should be pierced, the individual defendants may be liable for corporate actions and any distinction created by the intra-corporate doctrine does not exist."
Regarding its test for piercing the corporate veil, the Morelia court further overruled its magistrate’s recommendation by focusing on plaintiffs’ arguments regarding undercapitalization, and its decision included only a single footnote about the disregard of corporate formalities.
The Morelia court is not alone in its frustration with the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine and in its attempt to link analysis under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine with the stronger equitable tenets of piercing the corporate veil. More subtly, courts across the country have started to entangle the two doctrines’ requirements as intracorporate conspiracy immunity has become stronger and courts have increasingly had to rely on piercing the corporate veil as an ill-fitting alternative to permit conspiracy claims to proceed. Even large public companies should take note. No public company has ever been pierced, but a bankruptcy court recently reverse-pierced corporate veils of the Roman Catholic Church, which is far from a single-person “sham” corporation. My Corporate Conspiracy Vacuum article discusses additional examples and repercussions for incentives under each of these alternative doctrines.
My next blogpost will examine how frustration with intracorporate conspiracy immunity has led to volatility in responsible corporate officer doctrine and related control person liability. Ironically, executive immunity from conspiracy charges fuels counterproductive CEO turnover.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, and five) introduced why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach wrongdoing by agents within an organization. The 2012 prosecution of Monsignor Lynn for twelve years of transferring predator priests from parish to parish at the command and for the benefit of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was defeated by the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. Moreover, this was not the first time that the Roman Catholic Church had used the doctrine to help its bureaucrats escape liability for suppressing sex abuse cases.
In 1997, employees of the Roman Catholic Church in Connecticut were alleged—very much like Lynn—to have covered up the sexual misconduct of a priest, enabling him to continue to abuse children entrusted to the Church’s care by virtue of his office. When sued for civil conspiracy by the victims, the employees’ defense was that they were acting in the best interest of the corporation.
The Connecticut court found that the test for whether an agent is acting within the scope of his duties “is not the wrongful nature of the conspirators’ action but whether the wrongful conduct was performed within the scope of the conspirators’ official duties.” If the wrongful conduct was performed within the scope of the conspirators’ official duties, the effect of applying the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is to find that there was no conspiracy. Because covering up the priest’s sex abuse was in the best interest of the corporate organization, the court found that the employees were all acting on behalf of the corporation. The court never reached the issue of whether the employees’ actions rose to the level of a civil conspiracy. Under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, it was a tautology that no conspiracy could be possible.
This case is interesting not only because it documents the way that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine protects enterprises from inquiry into conspiracies, but also because of the subsequent history of its allegations. The full extent of the Bridgeport Diocese’s wrongdoings—if current public knowledge is indeed complete—only came to light in December 2009, twelve years after the 1997 case. It took twelve years, the combined resources of four major newspapers, an act displaying public condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church by members of the state legislature, and finally a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to release the documents that could have become the basis of the intracorporate conspiracy claim in 1997. There is still no conspiracy suit or any criminal charge against the Diocese. Additional details about the case are available in my article The Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap. The article will be published soon in the Cardozo Law Review, and it is available in draft form here.
Astonishingly, none of the extensive news coverage about the sexual abuse cases in Bridgeport over those additional twelve years has connected these facts to the original 1997 case defeated by application of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. If the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine had not provided immunity, the case might have revealed the Diocese’s pattern of wrongdoing long beforehand and in a much more efficient way.
My next blogpost reveals additional dangers from the spread of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine: frustration with the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has started to distort other areas of law.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, and four) introduced why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach wrongdoing by agents within a business organization. The same legal analysis applies to religious organizations.
We should have been able to charge Monsignor Lynn and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that directed his actions to hide the sexual abuse by priests with criminal conspiracy. Instead, Pennsylvania charged Lynn with two things: child endangerment and conspiracy with the priests.
As international news outlets later reported, Lynn could not be guilty of child endangerment because the state’s statute could not apply to an administrative church official who did not directly supervise children.
Lynn could not be guilty of conspiracy with the priests because he did not share their “particular criminal intent.” As the jury understood, Lynn was not trying to help a predator priest get from parish to parish so that “he can continue to enjoy what he likes to do.” Lynn was trying to protect the reputation of his employer, the Archdiocese—if the priests benefitted, that was a side issue.
So why didn’t the prosecution charge Lynn and the Archdiocese with conspiracy? It was the Archdiocese that directly coordinated and profited from Lynn’s actions. The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, as discussed before, would bar that prosecution. In Pennsylvania, it is “well-settled that a corporation cannot conspire with its subsidiary, its agents, or its employees.”
Finally, considering other options, Lynn could not have been charged with possible crimes such as obstruction of justice. Lynn was too good: Lynn and the Archdiocese were so successful at covering up the sexual abuse and silencing victims, there was no ongoing investigation to obstruct. “Aiding and abetting” the Archdiocese’s cover-up of the sex abuse would have been difficult to pursue (see more here) and is not allowed under RICO in the Third Circuit.
My next blogpost will demonstrate that the Monsignor Lynn case was also part of a pattern by the Roman Catholic Church in America to use the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine to hide the coordinated wrongdoing of its agents to cover-up sexual abuse by priests. Fifteen years before prosecutors attempted to try Monsignor Lynn, the silenced Connecticut sex-abuse case showed the Church how effective this defense could be.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, and three) introduced the topic of how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine prevents the prosecution of coordinated wrongdoing by individuals within organizations. This post illustrates the doctrine’s effect in the context of a specific organization—here a religious one: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the systematic transfer of predator priests. This post is based on my article The Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap to be published soon in the Cardozo Law Review. The article is available in draft form here.
For twelve years, from 1992 to 2004, as Secretary for Clergy, Monsignor William Lynn’s job within the Philadelphia Archdiocese was to supervise priests, including the investigation of sex-abuse claims. In 1994, Monsignor Lynn compiled a list of thirty-five “predator” priests within the archdiocese. He compiled the list from secret church files containing hundreds of child sex-abuse complaints. On the stand, Lynn testified that he hoped that the list would help his superiors to address the growing sex-abuse crisis within the Archdiocese. But for twelve years Lynn merely re-assigned suspected priests, and he hid the abuse within the church. His superiors never acted on the list that Lynn gave them—in fact, they ordered all copies of the list destroyed—and Lynn never contacted outside authorities. As late as 2012, one of the “predator” priests on Lynn’s list was still serving in a parish.
All parties agree that Lynn’s actions in transferring priests who molested children allowed those priests to continue to abuse children, sheltered the priests from potential prosecution, and directly protected the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s reputation.
In fact, Lynn’s actions had been ordered by the archbishop on behalf of the Archdiocese. Lynn reported what he was doing to his superiors, who rewarded Lynn with twelve years of employment and a prominent position within the Archdiocese for doing his job as they saw it. Moreover, the archbishop himself inadvertently revealed the existence of the number thirty-five “predator” priests to the media, and he was the one who ordered all copies of the list to be shredded to keep it from being discovered in legal proceedings.
The instinct here is that this behavior—the transferring of predator priests to cover-up the sexual abuse of children—should have been illegal for Monsignor Lynn to pursue. But the Commonwealth could not prosecute Monsignor Lynn and the Archdiocese for conspiracy. Furthermore, immunity for Lynn’s behavior is now the rule in most state and federal jurisdictions around the country. As described in an earlier blogpost, the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine provides immunity to an enterprise and its agents from conspiracy prosecution, based on the legal fiction that an enterprise and its agents are a single actor incapable of the meeting of two minds to form a conspiracy.
My next blogpost will further investigate why this behavior was not illegal under our current system, and how we should have tried Monsignor Lynn.
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My first and second blogposts introduced why conspiracy prosecutions are particularly important for reaching the coordinated actions of individuals when the elements of wrong-doing may be delegated among members of the group.
So where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy??? The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (“RICO”, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1961 et seq.), no longer applies to most business organizations and their employees. In fact, business organizations working together with outside agents can form new protected “enterprises.”
What’s going on here? In this area and many other parts of the law, we are witnessing the power of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. This doctrine provides immunity to an enterprise and its agents from conspiracy prosecution, based on the legal fiction that an enterprise and its agents are a single actor incapable of the meeting of two minds to form a conspiracy. According to the most recent American Law Reports survey, the doctrine “applies to corporations generally, including religious corporations and municipal corporations and other governmental bodies. The doctrine applies to all levels of corporate employees, including a corporation’s officers and directors and owners who are individuals.” Moreover, it now extends from antitrust throughout tort and criminal law.
What is the practical effect of this doctrine? The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has distorted agency law and inappropriately handicaps the ability of tort and criminal law to regulate the behavior of organizations and their agents. Obedience to a principal (up to a point) should be rewarded in agency law. But the law should not immunize an agent who acts in the best interest of her employer to commit wrongdoing. Not only does the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine immunize such wrongdoing, but the more closely that an employer orders and supervises the employee’s illegal acts, the more the employer is protected from prosecution as well.
My next blogpost illustrates how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine operates to defeat prosecutions for coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. Let’s examine the case of Monsignor Lynn.
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In my previous blogpost, I granted the merit of defense counsel’s argument that the actions of discrete individual defendants—when the law is not permitted to consider the coordination of those actions—may not satisfy the elements of a prosecutable crime.
But what is the coordination of individuals for a wrongful common purpose? That’s a conspiracy. And, for exactly the reasons that defense counsel articulates, these types of crimes cannot be reached by other forms of prosecution. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that conspiracy is its own animal. “[C]ollective criminal agreement—partnership in crime—presents a greater potential threat to the public than individual delicts.” When we consider the degree of coordination necessary to create the financial crisis, we are not talking about a single-defendant mugging in a back alley—we are talking about at least the multi-defendant sophistication of a bank robbery.
Conspiracy prosecutions for the financial crisis have some other important features. First, the statute of limitations would run from the last action of a member of the group, not the first action as would be typical of other prosecutions. This means that many crimes from the financial crisis could still be prosecuted (answering Judge Rakoff’s concern). Second, until whistle-blower protections are improved to the point that employees with conscientious objections to processes can be heard, traditional conspiracy law provides an affirmative defense to individuals who renounce the group conspiracy. By contrast, the lesson Wall Street seems to have learned from the J.P. Morgan case is not to allow employees to put objections into writing. Third, counter to objections that conspiracy prosecutions may be too similar to vicarious liability, prosecutors would have to prove that each member of the conspiracy did share the same common intent to commit wrongdoing. The employee shaking his head “no” while saying yes would not be a willing participant, but many other bankers were freely motivated by profit at the expense of client interest to cooperate with a bank’s program.
My next blogpost will ask: where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy?
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I blogged yesterday about administrative enforcement, an area that lies at the intersection of criminal and administrative law. Among other topics, my scholarship has considered the civil penalty process. In particular, what are the inputs and incentives that shape administrative agency penalties?
A standard model used to describe the penalty process emphasizes economic theories of deterrence. Financial penalties are a mechanism to raise the price for violations either to make misconduct completely unprofitable or, in the alternative, to force violators to internalize the costs of violations. I’ve pointed out one way that this theory may break down – administrative agencies might not focus on deterrence at all. Instead, their penalties may be crafted to achieve retributive ends.
In our recent Harvard Law Review article, For-Profit Public Enforcement, Margaret H. Lemos and I looked at penalties from another perspective: public enforcers may have self-interested reasons to maximize civil penalty recoveries. These incentives are widely recognized in private enforcement. Class action lawyers, for example, operating on a contingency fee basis have straightforward reasons to maximize recoveries.
Perhaps less obviously, public enforcement lawyers can have comparable incentives to impose large penalties. These incentives work most clearly in cases where enforcement agencies keep a portion of the civil penalties imposed. This structure is common in the asset forfeiture process used in connection with many criminal cases and also exists in other state and federal enforcement contexts. Even when penalties are turned over to the general treasury, enforcers may have reputational incentives to maximize penalties. Both agencies as a whole and individuals working in enforcement agencies may seek to build a reputation as an aggressive enforcer for reasons other than deterrence.
Assuming that these claims are right and that civil penalties can be driven by retributive or self-interested goals, is this a problem? Perhaps, perhaps not. Self-interested public enforcement may push enforcers to emphasize financial recoveries over other tools of regulatory control, such as injunctive relief. However, if our default assumption is that administrative agencies underenforce and usually do not impose adequate penalties, the pressure of self-interest may correct this trend to some degree.
The presence of retribution in civil penalties has similarly mixed effects. Of course, if penalties are supposed to be carefully calculated to deter, retributive ends will hamper this goal. On the other end, we now widely recognize the role of norms in shaping compliance behavior. Retributive punishment done well can shape and reinforce industry norms.
Erik, thank you for that introduction. It is a pleasure to join the Conglomerate for a week. My scholarly interests have recently focused on federal administrative enforcement – enforcement actions by agencies like the SEC, the CFTC, as well as a host of lower profile entities. This is a fascinating area of public law combining two scholarly literatures. Administrative enforcement actions share much in common with criminal cases. They are brought by public entities to vindicate public wrongs. However, the administrative context deeply shapes this type of enforcement. For example, unlike most prosecutor's offices, administrative enforcement bodies tend to be industry-specific.
As a result, administrative enforcement can go wrong in two different ways– the “criminal law” way or the “administrative law” way. Administrative agencies face the challenges of regulatory capture, inadequate or incorrect information, or simply the wrong incentives to engage in appropriate regulatory action. Criminal enforcement, though, often struggles with procedural fairness as well as the difficult task of assigning the correct level of punishment to different forms of misconduct.
Take, for example, this last issue: the fundamental question of penalty levels. Administrative agencies commonly use financial penalties to punish regulatory violations. How should these penalties be set? Which cases require the largest penalties and which only need more modest sanctions?
Criminal law scholars will recognize this question as an inquiry about theories of punishment. Speaking broadly, criminal law considers a couple of approaches. Utilitarian theories of punishment (e.g., deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation) seek to punish conduct to produce beneficial social outcomes. Retributive theories emphasize desert – punishment occurs because the violator deserves punishment, not because it produces a social benefit.
So what do federal agencies do? As I argue here, administrative agencies almost uniformly talk about deterrence, but usually engage in retribution. When setting penalty levels, agencies move penalties up or down in response to facts that justify retributive punishment but do not adjust penalties in the way deterrence requires. For instance, building on Gary Becker’s justifiably famous work, Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach, most deterrence theories emphasize the role of the probability of detection in setting penalty levels. To deter appropriately, penalties need to increase when violations are harder to detect and punish. In practice, though, administrative agencies place little weight on this issue. Instead, agencies are deeply concerned with issues like mens rea, a topic far more central to retributive theories of punishment.
Is this retributive bent in administrative enforcement surprising? Perhaps not. A large literature suggests that most people are intuitively retributive when making punishment choices. In social science experiments, study participants set penalties based on retributive concerns, but do not adjust punishment levels in ways that would be required to deter appropriately. In this way, administrative agencies look like the rest of us. We mostly care about desert even when we talk about deterrence.
For this last guest post, I decided to eschew IP (well, to some degree, see below) and focus on a recent article of mine and Leandra Lederman—Enforcement as Substance in Tax Compliance—that (in my biased opinion) deserves more press. (Though, to be certain, Leandra would strongly disagree with my catchy title—see more on that below.)
In the article, we argue that the failure of the tax authorities to perfectly enforce the tax laws in effect can alter the substance of the tax laws, at least to the extent that taxpayers know the penalties for non-compliance and can reasonably predict how often the tax authorities conduct audits for certain classes of taxpayers.
This claim is quite different from the one that audit rates merely affect the propensity of taxpayers to “cheat.” Rather, the effective tax rate can be intentionally adjusted downward (and not just to zero) by the taxing authorities from the nominal tax rate, in effect, yielding an entirely new substantive law.
For instance, suppose there is a sales tax of 5% and that given current audit strategies, the effective tax rate is 4% in all industries, because 20% of the taxes go unpaid in each industry. Based upon the elasticity characteristics of the products in a given industry—in other words, the propensity of purchasers to continue buying as the price of a good increases—under certain circumstances, the tax authority can adjust its audit rates in one industry relative to another to change the compliance by taxpayers in each industry. This adjustment, in turn, can change the effective tax rates paid by a given industry. For instance, the tax authority might audit more heavily in an industry selling luxury cars than in one selling textbooks, yielding effective tax rates of 4.5% in the luxury car industry and 3.5% in the textbook industry.
The ability of the tax authority to generate different effective tax rates from the same nominal tax rate is an example of what we call “enforcement as substance,” namely the ability of differential enforcement strategies to effectively change the substantive law. A broader (and much less studied) question is whether “enforcement as substance” can be intentionally harnessed to improve social welfare.
Drawing upon work of mine in IP and others that shows that imperfect enforcement can decrease deadweight losses stemming from the issuance of patent rights, we show in our article that a “measured enforcement” policy (i.e., a conscious strategy to differentiate enforcement among different legal actors) can improve social welfare. In the tax context, measured enforcement can similarly be used to decrease deadweight losses caused by taxation, specifically by placing more of an onus on those industries with lower elasticities. Additionally, tax authorities can implement a quasi-Pigouvian tax on activities otherwise imposing negative externalities by upping enforcement of taxes on those activities.
Importantly, we show that under a variety of conditions, measured enforcement can yield welfare benefits while maintaining or even increasing the government’s total tax revenue. Some of these conditions are that the taxpayers be sophisticated and informed and respond rationally to incentives provided by the tax authority’s publicizing of its enforcement strategy. Generally, we believe large, sophisticated corporations—at least as an initial matter—would fit this bill.
Additionally, contrary to the title of this post—such a system should not be billed as one promoting “cheating.” Rather, like prosecutorial discretion in the criminal law context, here the tax authority would use its on-the-ground enforcement discretion to achieve optimal deterrence—namely, the use of its resources in those areas that most need it not solely to increase the public fisc, but to improve overall social welfare. Such allocation of resources of course is not tantamount to promoting cheating in the conventional sense (hence, the quotes around “cheat” in the title of this post).
One potential concern with such an approach is the possibility of abuse on the part of the taxing authority—adjusting enforcement not to benefit society, but as a means of political reward and punishment. Yet, our proposal yields no more room for abuse than under the current system. Indeed, under our framework, the taxing authority would publish its audit rates (otherwise, how could taxpayers adjust their behavior?), making its audit scheme much more transparent than it is now.
Of course, other potential concerns arise in such a scheme, such as separation of powers and horizontal equity (“treating like taxpayers alike”). We address these and other potential issues in detail in the article, concluding (of course) that none are fatal.
On a final note, thanks again to Gordon Smith to letting me guest blog the last few weeks—now, it’s back to the run-of-the-mill life as a law professor in the summer: writing law review articles (most of the time spent on the footnotes), lamenting the decline in law school enrollment, and enjoying the World Cup, Wimbledon, and the occasional barbeque.
In my last post—also a shameless plug for my recent article, “Boilerplate Shock”—I argued that boilerplate terms governing securities could serve as a trigger that transforms an isolated credit event into the risk of a broader systemic failure. I’ll now briefly explain why I see this danger—which I call “boilerplate shock”—as a general problem in securities regulation, not just some quirky feature of Eurozone sovereign debt (the focus of the paper and post). Any market where securities are governed by uniform boilerplate terms is vulnerable to boilerplate shock.
The nature of this phenomenon—systemic risk—is of course familiar, but its source in contract language is a little unintuitive. How could private contracts unravel an entire securities market or the world economy?
Coordination around uniform standards.
In the back of our mind most of us probably still conceive of contracting as an activity that occurs among two, or perhaps a few, individuals or firms. But when standard terms are used by virtually all actors within a given market, it’s worth considering the collective impact of those terms as a distinct phenomenon.
Coordination’s benefits are well known. Consider uniform traffic signals. But coordination can also compound the effects of bad individual decisions.
As Charles Whitehead has argued, widespread “destructive coordination” among banks during the precrisis days helped generate systemic risks. When the credit markets froze, for example, firms using the same risk management formulas reacted in the same way at the same time. This helped transform isolated events into systemic ones—e.g., Lehman, the canonical example of a failure that triggered a de facto coordinated panic.
A similar risk, I argue, is present where participants in a securities market rely on the same standardized contract terms. Whether they were intended to or not, these terms will often control what happens in the event of certain legal emergencies, like a country departing the euro or Lehman declaring bankruptcy.
For example, if an effort by Greece to pay its bonds in “new drachmas” is rejected because of Boilerplate Contract Terms A and B, the market will surely be concerned that Terms A and B also govern the bonds of similarly situated borrowers, like Spain, Italy, etc. You’ll see that the borrowing premium the “peripheral” euro countries (the uppermost five lines: Ireland, Italy, Greece (biggest spike), Portugal, Spain) paid versus richer euro countries (Germany, France, the Netherlands, the three lowest lines) zoomed higher as worry over a Greece exit gripped markets in late 2011/early 2012, and again (to a lesser extent) because of Cyprus exit talk in early 2013:
Bloomberg. Click to enlarge.
Moreover, this panic occurred against a backdrop of unduly rosy assumptions (namely, that a departing euro country could convert its bonds into a new currency and thereby avoid default, a likely contagion trigger). I argue that the uniformity of boilerplate across these bonds would intensify these problems significantly since it’s likely to result in a declaration of default.
To my mind, this demonstrates that boilerplate securities contracts, in the aggregate, can be systemically significant. “Boilerplate Shock” introduces this concept and offers a modest proposal to mitigate its dangers in the Eurozone.
Beyond the euro, what about the risks of boilerplate shock in general?
Boilerplate shock is probably an inherent and permanent risk in any securities market.
Securities contracts are quintessential candidates for boilerplate. They are used by sophisticated parties for repeat or similar transactions and are drafted quickly—sometimes in three and a half minutes. The (correct) assumption is that they are more efficient for the parties that use them.
I’d like to begin thinking about how contracts can be drafted with a view to systemic risk mitigation, or at least to avoid exacerbating existing risks. But I think this is a hard problem that lacks an off-the-shelf solution:
- The nature of the risk is that it is a byproduct, not the result of intentional choices about risk allocation. This is the reason for the information-forcing default rule I propose in the Eurozone.
- The risk is also an externality: it is severe because of its collective impact. The parties do not bear the primary risk that uniform contracts will result in a meltdown, and in the unlikely event a crash happens (1) no individual party will be to blame and (2) at least one party to the initial transaction (the initial purchaser of a bond, for example) will probably no longer hold the asset, because most systemically significant securities are actively traded on the secondary market.
But banning or discouraging boilerplate is not the answer:
- The risk that a bunch of assets governed by the same terms will plummet in value is not only an externality. Risk allocation among parties might improve if scrutiny of existing securities boilerplate improves. The terms can evolve.
- A requirement to craft unique, artisanal terms—disclosures, subordination provisions ("flip clauses"), choice of governing law—for each individual securities transaction would be criminally inefficient.
- A requirement to craft unique contract terms might even be unjustified on risk-management terms alone, because it would increase drafting errors.
It's tricky to mitigate the risks of securities boilerplate.
Some options for places to start:
- Validation by third parties: perhaps issuers could use risk-rated contract templates. For example, see credit ratings…but see credit ratings.
- Culture: inculcate systemic risk mitigation as a professional norm among private sector lawyers? In principle, this could work. The number of lawyers who draft these contracts is pretty small. In practice, one could envision many complications.
- Insurance: encourage the development of derivatives to account for the possibility of boilerplate shock? Like some of the other solutions, this one presumes some agreement on what terms create the risk of boilerplate shock. It could also encourage new forms of moral hazard.
- Mandatory regulation: some public entity could be tasked with the mission of proactively identifying and combating the risk of boilerplate shock in contract practices. Arguably a natural choice given that the risk is an externality. Nevertheless, I’m a little skeptical. First of all, who would do it? A domestic regulator, like the SEC or CFTC, that might be dodged on jurisdictional grounds? An international institution, which is arguably more subject to capture? More generally, regulation seems like a heavy-handed first choice.
In sum, when standardized and aggregated, choices that determine legal risks—e.g., contract terms designating governing law, payment priority—can create the same hazards as choices about business risks. This suggests that contract terms should be taken seriously as possible sources of systemic risk alongside more familiar sources, like leverage and credit quality.
Securities contracts as a source of systemic risk—what do you think?
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I expressed concern in my last post that uniform contract terms could destabilize securities markets in unexpected ways. In a recent paper, I dub this risk “Boilerplate Shock.” The paper uses boilerplate terms in Eurozone sovereign bonds as a case study, but I argue that any market in which a lot of securities are governed by uniform contract terms is vulnerable to boilerplate shock. In this post, I will focus on the Eurozone and my proposed solution to the risk of boilerplate shock there.
One major problem is that no one really knows how to deal with sovereign debt obligations denominated in a currency that still exists but is no longer used by the debtor. A partial breakup of the European Monetary Union would trigger some question marks in commercial law and private international law (among other things).
In the Eurozone sovereign lending market, bond contracts typically contain standardized language specifying:
(a) choice of governing law (often foreign), and
(b) currency of payment (euros).
The combined effect of these clauses, I argue, is to render any country that departs the euro more likely to default on its debt. Whatever the impact of the departure itself, a forced default would make things much worse for Europe and the world economy.
Leading scholars have concluded or strongly suggested that a sovereign that changes currencies can redenominate (convert) its bonds to its new currency even where the contract is governed by foreign law (e.g., Philip Wood (p. 177), Michael Gruson (p. 456), Arthur Nussbaum (pp. 353-59), Robert Hockett (passim)). As a descriptive matter, I believe this to be a mistaken interpretation of New York (and probably English) private international law and commercial law (see “Boilerplate Shock” pp. 47-67). But normatively, I agree: a sovereign should be able to redenominate its bonds under certain circumstances. Among other things, the alternative would make currency union breakups far more dangerous than they already are.
- The prevailing consensus underestimates the risk that a departing Eurozone member’s attempt to redenominate its sovereign bonds into a new currency will be ruled a default.
- Since the bonds of other struggling euro countries are largely governed by the same boilerplate terms ((a) and (b) above), this misapprehension has the potential to be particularly damaging. In addition to surprising the market (which appears to incorporate this consensus), it is likely to spread beyond the immediate debtor to the bonds of similarly situated countries that have issued under the same terms.
- Same for CDSs (which are likewise often governed by foreign law, usually New York).
- Thus, given the widespread use of terms (a) and (b), a ruling that a departing country cannot pay its euro-denominated contracts in a new currency could cause the market to demand unsustainable premiums from other weak debtors.
- This could cause Eurozone countries to lose market access. Greece is not TBTF in any sense, but some of its neighbors are—and are also too big for the EU (including the ECB) and IMF to bail out. Italy (the world’s 9th largest economy) and Spain (13th) come to mind.
Thus, if my commercial law/private international law analysis is right, these boilerplate contracts could end up playing quite a big role in the event of any euro breakup.
To mitigate this risk of boilerplate shock, I suggest a new rule of contract interpretation. The proposal is detailed at pp. 67-71 of the article. I suggest commercially significant jurisdictions adopt it by statute. Here is a quick summary.
Any sovereign that:
- Belongs to an international monetary union, and
- Issues bonds in the currency of that monetary union subsequent to the adoption of this rule, and
- Leaves the monetary union and introduces its own currency,
shall retain the right to redenominate its bond obligations into its new currency, UNLESS the sovereign has affirmatively waived the right to redenominate its bonds.
You’ll notice this is a default rule—merely a presumption of the right to redenominate—not a mandatory rule. It is also prospective-only: it does not apply to existing issuances. It also does not protect sovereigns that issue in foreign currency (e.g., Argentina), only those that are monetary union members and issue in the common currency (e.g., France).
The reason for these limitations is to minimize unintended consequences and near-term disruption to the market, but also to embody the relatively modest objectives of the rule. It is an information-forcing default rule that is intended to facilitate better risk management by parties. It is not a “save the world” rule.
The challenge, as I’ll discuss in my next post on the paper, is not that redenomination would be ruled impermissible when it ought to be available (otherwise, that might suggest a mandatory “pro-redenomination” rule). It is that the likely effect of these boilerplate terms—to prohibit redenomination—was almost certainly not bargained for and is largely unknown to parties. This market failure has, in turn, created latent risks to the broader financial system and the existing legal tools are poorly suited to address them.