Steve Bainbridge has a wish list for reforms to financial and securities law in the new Congress, especially the damaging Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley laws. Included: repeal of conflicts minerals disclosure, “say on pay,” and pay ratio disclosure; more leeway for public companies to opt out of various regulatory obligations to shareholders that their own shareholders have not contractually seen fit to impose; and litigation reform.
Meanwhile, my Cato colleague Mark Calabria points out that there “are numerous protectors of the status quo in both major political parties,” which may frustrate the relatively free-market instincts of the responsible committee chairs, Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Jeb Hensarling. “But at least financial regulation is unlikely to get any worse.”
Prof. Bainbridge flags this disturbing Wall Street Journal piece:
The Securities and Exchange Commission is increasingly steering cases to hearings in front of the agency’s appointed administrative judges, who found in its favor in every verdict for the 12 months through September, rather than taking them to federal court.
Previously, the agency had tended to use the ALJs (administrative law judges) for relatively cut-and-dried enforcement actions, while taking more complex or cutting-edge disputes to federal court. Now, following the Dodd-Frank expansion of its powers, it prefers ALJs even for many complex and demanding cases arising from charges such as insider trading. Defendants enjoy a range of protections in federal court that are not provided in administrative litigation, including juries as well as the presence of federal judges who are independent of agency control, held to a more demanding ethical code, and drawn generally from higher and more sophisticated circles within the legal profession. Read the entire Bainbridge commentary, with followups linking Henry Manne (adjudicatory actions are ways to avoid the more demanding process of rulemaking) and Keith Bishop (current system open to constitutional challenge?).
Much more rewarding to act as a government informant than to help the employer address the problem: “Allegations of wrongdoing within a company often surface in the compliance department, which often is involved in internal investigations and receives employee complaints. Like other employees, compliance staff can under various statutes submit information on potential wrongdoing for whistleblower awards or claim retaliation for raising concerns about alleged wrongdoing.” [WSJ via CompliancEX]
I’ve now got a guest column at PointOfLaw.com on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed rule (earlier) requiring public companies to calculate and make public the ratio between chief executive officer (CEO) pay and the pay of a median worker. For companies with international operations in particular, the calculation may be quite difficult (it might depend on assumed exchange rates, for example, to say nothing of noncash benefits) and it might also depend on the ability to gather in one place certain types of data whose export is forbidden by some privacy-sensitive foreign laws. And all for what, aside from stoking demagogy? Or was that the point of the Dodd-Frank mandate that the SEC is now implementing?
I have fond memories of launching Point of Law during my years at the Manhattan Institute, and I was its primary writer for many years, so it is especially rewarding to contribute a guest column there. Under the leadership of MI’s Jim Copland, the site (and MI in general) has become especially active in corporate governance, shareholder and SEC controversies.
“U.S. corporations will need to disclose how the paychecks of their chief executive officers compare with those of their workers under a new proposal released [in September] by a sharply divided U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.” [Reuters] The measure, pushed by labor advocates, was prescribed as part of the maximalist-regulation Dodd-Frank law, but opponents say the SEC majority is requiring needlessly costly compliance methods: “Proponents have acknowledged the sole objective of the pay ratio is to shame CEOs, but the shame from this rule should not be put on CEOS- it should be put on the five of us,” said Republican commissioner Michael Piwowar. “Shame on us for putting special interests ahead of investors.” [Towers Watson/MarketWatch] Because of the high expected cost of compliance, “we are almost certain to see quite a few companies paying more than they actually pay their CEO to figure out how much more their CEO makes than their median worker. If this rule was really being implemented for the benefit of the shareholders, then Congress could have let each company’s shareholders opt in or opt out of this disclosure regime. Clearly, the people pushing this ratio had no interest in giving actual shareholders a veto over this racket.” [Marc Hodak] More: Prof. Bainbridge, Keith Paul Bishop, Michael Greve, Jeffrey Miron on FBN. The agency is taking public comments through December 2.
The Economist on an unplanned (at least one hopes it was unplanned) effect of Dodd-Frank:
THE Dodd-Frank law of 2010 requires a “say-on-pay” vote for shareholders of American companies. Clever lawyers scent a payday for themselves.
One law firm in particular, Faruqi & Faruqi, has filed a series of class-action suits demanding more information about how companies decide what to pay their senior executives. It seeks to prevent its targets from holding their annual meetings until the extra information turns up. One such suit, against Brocade Communications, a Californian company, forced the suspension of the annual meeting last February. Brocade quickly settled. Faruqi’s fees were $625,000. Several other companies, not wanting to delay their meetings, have settled similar suits.
Prof. Bainbridge is reminded of the specialized group of non-lawyers in Japan known as sokaiya, who extract money from target companies by threatening (among other things) to disrupt annual meetings.