Can Large Corporations Be Made Accountable?

Kudos to Sen. Elizabeth Warren for introducing a piece of legislation that filters out all the political noise and goes to the heart of one of the most pressing issues of the day: what can be done to change the behavior of large irresponsible corporations? Her answer: quite a lot.

The key to Warren’s newly introduced Accountable Capitalism Act is a proposal – similar to one pushed by Ralph Nader starting in the 1970s – to end the monopoly that states have had on the chartering of corporations. Beginning in the late 19th Century, that system brought about a disastrous race to the bottom as states competed with one another for registrations by lowering their standards toward the vanishing point. Delaware won that competition and is now the chartering mecca for big business.

Warren’s bill would not eliminate state charters but would require large corporations, defined as those with $1 billion or more in gross receipts, to obtain a federal charter from a new agency created within the Department of Commerce. These “United States corporations” would be subject to a strict set of controls. First of all, they would be required to act in a way that creates “a general public benefit” and that balances the interests of shareholders with those of employees, consumers, communities and the environment.

To promote that end, employees of these corporations would get to choose two-fifths of the members of the board of directors. To discourage policymaking aimed at short-term stock gains, directors and officers would be prohibited from selling their shares for five years after obtaining them. To discourage improper involvement in the political process, these corporations would be barred from using company funds for political expenditures unless 75 percent of the board and 75 percent of shareholders approve.

Yet perhaps most important are the provisions relating to charter revocation. In theory, states have the power to revoke the charter of a corporation that engages in serious misconduct, but they almost never exercise that power. Warren’s bill would allow a state attorney general to petition the federal corporation office to revoke the charter of a company that has engaged in “repeated, egregious, and illegal misconduct” that has caused harm to customers, employees, shareholders or the communities in which the firm operates. That sounds a lot like the track record of a corporation like Wells Fargo.

Warren’s bill would go a long way to rein in large corporate miscreants. Of course, it has little chance of passage in the current Congress. Those circumstances may change, in which case Warren might want to consider some alterations to the bill to address a danger that would exist if someone like Donald Trump were in the White House.

We’ve just seen how Trump is using the power of his office to punish a critic such as former CIA director John Brennan by revoking his security clearance. If Warren’s federal chartering system were in effect, someone like Trump might try to revoke the charter of a corporation he dislikes. If Warren is going to use the federal government to restrain rogue corporations, she needs to make provisions for a rogue president as well.

Tiananmen Square Inc.

Large corporations don’t depend on China only for cheap labor; they also seem to be adopting the practices of that country’s repressive government in the treatment of dissidents. It has just come to light that oil giant Chevron is working with Houston authorities in the prosecution of shareholder activist Antonia Juhasz, who berated executives and directors at the company’s annual meeting last May over environmental and human rights issues.

Juhasz, author of the book Tyranny of Oil and editor of an alternative annual report on Chevron, was removed from the May meeting and arrested. Rather than dropping the charges after the disruption was over, Chevron has pursued the matter. At a recent court hearing, the company pushed for Juhasz to get jail time for criminal trespass and other charges.

What happened to Juhasz was not the first time an activist was ejected from an annual meeting for speaking out. In 2004 veteran labor activist Ray Rogers was wrestled to the ground by security guards and forcibly removed from Coca-Cola’s meeting after he forcefully criticized the company for its ties to paramilitary groups involved in the murder of trade union leaders in Colombia. He was threatened with arrest but not taken into custody.

The criminal prosecution of Juhasz is a troubling turn of events. Annual meetings are the one occasion when corporations are supposed to give the semblance of being democratic institutions. CEOs and board members should endure the protests and not try to take revenge on their critics.

Some might say that the likes of Juhasz and Rogers are out to disrupt annual meetings and that they should instead work through proper channels to get their point of view across. But corporations are trying to close that avenue as well.

Corporate interests are up in arms about the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision in August giving shareholders new powers to nominate directors to corporate boards. The move marks the beginning of the end of non-competitive board elections that have much in common with the selection of leaders in China and the old Soviet Union.

Corporations tried mightily to prevent this intrusion of democracy into their affairs. As I noted a year ago, the corporate comments submitted to the SEC about the proposal raised some ridiculous objections. The Business Roundtable claimed that the rules would violate a corporation’s First Amendment rights by forcing it to include comments by outside candidates in its proxy statement.

McDonald’s Corporation fretted that shareholders might nominate someone “who may not have even met the existing members of the Board.” Sara Lee Corporation claimed that the change would result in directors who represented a special interest rather than the interests of all shareholders – conveniently forgetting that many directors have been chosen because of their affiliation with a financial institution or other entity that has a significant relationship with the company—a suspicious practice known as corporate interlocks or interlocking directorates.

Having lost in the rulemaking process, business groups are now taking the matter to court. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have challenged the SEC decision in the federal court of appeals in Washington. The two groups – whose legal team is led by Eugene Scalia, son the Supreme Court Justice – depict activist shareholders as a special interest whose ability to nominate board candidates would violate the First and Fifth Amendment rights of corporations. Their brief implies that the whole idea of proxy access is a plot by unions.

Echoing the current Republican talking point, they claim that the new rules would create “uncertainty.” They even play the recession card, saying: “We respectfully submit that stewardship of the national economy during these difficult economic times counsels strongly in favor of a stay.” They conclude by saying that a failure of the appeals court to put a stop to the proxy reforms would cause “irreparable injury” to public traded corporations.

At one time, such arguments would be laughed out of court. But in the current climate, with business rights being treated as sacrosanct, the challenge has a reasonable chance of success. Democracy may not be coming to Corporate America after all.

Throw the Bums Out — of the Boardroom

The financial reform bill just released by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd is facing a great deal of criticism for being too weak. Let me pile on by focusing on one of the less noticed parts of the bill: the provision dealing with the composition of financial institution boards of directors.

Among the many reasons for the financial debacle of the past few years was the failure of board members at the big commercial and investment banks to exercise any kind of meaningful oversight while the executives of those companies were applying the business principles of Charles Ponzi. This was a replay of what happened during the Enron and other corporate scandals of the early 2000s.

One of the key causes of feckless boards is the phenomenon of interlocking directorates — the tendency of large and powerful corporations to share directors. This happens when the chief executive of a big company or bank sits on the board of another corporate leviathan, or when retired business executives join multiple boards. In these cases the outside director can usually be counted on to endorse the strategies put forth by top management and to be generous when it comes to setting executive compensation policies. And perhaps be willfully ignorant when management is cooking the books.

According to the recent report from its bankruptcy examiner, that was the case when Lehman Brothers was engaged in its Repo 105 scam to hide the fact that its balance sheet was becoming overwhelmed by toxic assets. Prior to its collapse in 2008, the chair of the audit committee of Lehman’s board was the retired chief executive of Halliburton.

Tucked in Dodd’s 1,336-page bill is a short section (no. 164) that addresses the board issue by proposing a modification in what is known as the Depository Institutions Management Interlocks Act (DIMIA), an obscure law from 1978 that prohibits someone from sitting on the boards of more than one bank, depending on the size and location of the institutions. Dodd wants to apply DIMIA to the large nonbank financial companies that would be subject to additional regulation under his bill. In doing so he would bar the Federal Reserve from allowing any interlocks between those nonbank financial companies and large bank holding companies.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does not begin to address the corporate governance lapses that helped bring about the Wall Street meltdown. Those lapses showed that existing rules on corporate boards, such as those contained in the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, are not up to the task.

And we certainly can’t count on big financial institutions themselves to choose the best board members or even to exclude those whose track record should disqualify them. Citigroup made a big show last year of revamping its board, but the person it chose to chair that body was Jerry Grundhofer, who, in addition to being the former CEO of U.S. Bancorp, had served as a director of Lehman Brothers during its last ignominious year.

Another bailed out institution, Bank of America, also chose some new directors last year. Its choices included two former regulatory officials – Susan Bies of the Federal Reserve and Donald Powell of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – whose agencies did little to detect or prevent the crisis. B of A also brought on Robert Scully, a former executive of Wall Street giant Morgan Stanley.

In the wake of the Enron scandal, groups such as the AFL-CIO called on companies on whose boards Enron’s outside directors also served to ease them out when they came up for reelection. In 2005 board members at Enron and at WorldCom had to pay millions of dollars of their own money to settle lawsuits brought by investors in the two companies brought down by fraud.

So far, those who served on the boards of the large banks have avoided a similar fate. It would be good to see them face litigation and public disapprobation, but at least they should be barred from continuing to serve on the boards of institutions where future financial crises may occur. Strengthening the rules against interlocks in a meaningful way would also help diminish cronyism in the boardroom.

Big Money requires the kind of strong external regulation that financial reform could conceivably bring about. That regulation should also make sure that institutions also have a decent first line of internal regulation in the form of truly independent and diligent board members.

Will Democracy Invade the Boardroom?

board meetingLife has been tough for the Securities and Exchange Commission, what with the power grab at its expense by the Federal Reserve and new revelations that its investigators acted like Keystone Kops when looking into tips about the suspicious behavior of Bernie Madoff. Now the SEC has the opportunity to do some good. The question is whether it has the nerve to stand up to powerful corporate interests.

In May the SEC voted to propose rule changes that would enable shareholders to nominate directors for corporate boards. The Commission issued a 250-page description of the proposed changes in June and asked for public comments. A decision is expected this fall.

The process of selecting board candidates makes a mockery of the idea of corporate democracy. Except in those rare instances when a takeover effort leads to a proxy fight, potential directors are chosen by management and run unopposed. This helps ensure that the ranks of outside (non-executive) directors, who are supposed to function as watchdogs, are filled with agreeable souls.

The proposed SEC rules would be a vast improvement, but they would allow shareholders to name no more than one-quarter of the candidates, and they would limit nominating rights to large shareholders (those with at least 1 percent of big companies and larger percentages in smaller ones). However, alliances of shareholders would be able to use their combined holdings to meet the threshold.

Comments flooded into the SEC over the summer. As a review of the comments conducted by the Wharton School of Business shows, the reactions have been highly polarized, with large companies warning of doom and proponents such as large pension funds predicting the changes would be a boon for shareholder rights.

The Business Roundtable weighs in with more than 150 pages of comments, posing dozens of plausible and not-so-plausible objections, including the hilarious claim that the rules would violate a corporation’s First Amendment rights by forcing it to include comments by outside candidates in its proxy statement.

Revealing a fear that the rule changes would undermine the clubbiness that characterizes the current system, comments submitted by McDonald’s Corporation fretted that shareholders might nominate someone “who may not have even met the existing members of the Board.” Another laughable objection is one made, for example, by Sara Lee Corporation claiming that the change would result in directors who represent a special interest rather than the interests of all shareholders. Sara Lee conveniently forgets that under the current system outside directors are often chosen because of their affiliation with a financial institution or other entity that has a significant relationship with the company—a suspicious practice known as corporate interlocks or interlocking directorates.

Some commenters, including a joint submission by 26 large corporations, support a compromise that, instead of imposing new proxy rules on all publicly traded companies, would make it easier for shareholders to seek changes in the nominating process on a company-by-company basis. This seems like little more than an attempt to undermine the whole idea.

But perhaps the saddest thing about the comments is the surprisingly large number of submissions by owners of small businesses—from a dog bakery called For Pampered Pooches to Dreamland Daycare—who have somehow been brainwashed by some trade association into thinking that a reform aimed at major corporations is somehow going to threaten their privately held enterprise.

Here’s hoping that the SEC ignores the preposterous arguments of both large and small companies and injects some measure of democracy into Corporate America.

A Bad Rating for the Raters

Short of direct shareholder activism, one of the most common methods used to promote corporate governance reform is the creation of rating systems. The notion is that companies will institute changes to rectify a bad rating, or else they will be pressured to do so by institutional shareholders that use the evaluations in their investment decisions.

For this to work, the rating systems need to be able to identify corporate governance shortcomings in a coherent way and be consistent in their evaluations. One might think that the diagnosis is a straightforward matter and that the challenge lies in getting companies to change. Yet a new report issued by the the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University apparently finds a wide degree of variation among the ratings offered by different services.

I say “apparently,” because the report, despite being described in some detail in an article posted today by Fortune magazine (which presumably received an advance copy), has not appeared on the Center’s website as of this writing.

According to Fortune, the study found that the ratings of a given company by the leading services—RiskMetrics Group’s ISS Governance Services, The Corporate Library, GovernanceMetrics International (GMI) and Audit Integrity—can vary wildly. For example, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is said to have received a perfect score of 100 from ISS at one point but a less impressive D from the Corporate Library at the same time. Lockheed Martin got 9.5 out of 10 from GMI but the worst possible grade from the Corporate Library.

Fortune quoted study co-author Robert Daines as saying that “[good] governance is a little bit like porn. I can spot it when I see it, but it is hard to say what it is.” If that’s the case, perhaps institutional shareholders should stop paying hefty fees to the rating services and use their own judgment—or else rely on corporate accountability groups with clear principles rather than black-box systems to determine what’s wrong with the way companies are run.

UPDATE: I’ve now learned that the Stanford study is available online here.