May 14, 2020

No-Action Letters

No-Action Letters

The SEC No-Action Letter Process
      Thomas P. Lemke, 42(4): 1019–44 (Aug. 1987)
This Article is designed to assist practitioners preparing no-action requests by describing and explaining, in one place, the mechanics of the process. After surveying the background and purposes of the no-action process, the Article describes the procedures to be used in preparing the request, the SEC's processing of the request, the types of responses and procedures for appealing an adverse response, and the effect of favorable responses on the recipients and third parties.

Empty Voting and Hidden (Morphable) Ownership: Taxonomy, Implications, and Reforms
     Henry T. C. Hu and Bernard Black, 61(3):1011–1070 (May 2006)
Most American publicly held corporations have a one-share, one-vote structure, in which voting power is proportional to economic ownership. This structure gives shareholders economic incentives to exercise their voting power well and helps to legitimate managers' exercise of authority over property the managers do not own. Berle-Means' "separation of ownership and control" suggests that shareholders face large collective action problems in overseeing managers. Even so, mechanisms rooted in the shareholder vote, including proxy fights and takeover bids, constrain managers from straying too far from the goal of shareholder wealth maximization.

In the past few years, the derivatives revolution, hedge fund growth, and other capital market developments have come to threaten this familiar pattern throughout the world. Both outside investors and corporate insiders can now readily decouple economic ownership of shares from voting rights to those shares. This decoupling—which we call "the new vote buying"—is often hidden from public view and is largely untouched by current law and regulation. Hedge funds, sophisticated and largely unfettered by legal rules or conflicts of interest, have been especially aggressive in decoupling. Sometimes they hold more votes than economic ownership, a pattern we call "empty voting." That is, they may have substantial voting power while having limited, zero, or even negative economic ownership. In the extreme situation of negative economic ownership, the empty voter has an incentive to vote in ways that reduce the company's share price. Sometimes hedge funds hold more economic ownership than votes, though often with "morphable" voting rights—the de facto ability to acquire the votes if needed. We call this "hidden (morphable) ownership" because under current disclosure rules, the economic ownership and (de facto) voting ownership are often not disclosed. Corporate insiders, too, can use new vote buying techniques.

This article analyzes the new vote buying and its corporate governance implications. We propose a taxonomy of the new vote buying that unpacks its functional elements. We discuss the implications of decoupling for control contests and other forms of shareholder oversight, and the circumstances in which decoupling could be beneficial or harmful to corporate governance. We also propose a near-term disclosure-based response and sketch longer-term regulatory possibilities. Our disclosure proposal would simplify and partially integrate five existing, inconsistent share-ownership disclosure regimes, and is worth considering independent of its value with respect to decoupling. In the longer term, other responses may be needed; we briefly discuss possible strategies focused on voting rights, voting architecture, and supply and demand forces in the markets on which the new vote buying relies.

SEC Cybersecurity Guidelines: Insights into the Utility Risk Factor Disclosures for Investors
      Edward A. Morse, Vasant Raval, and John R. Wingender, Jr., 73(1): 1-34 (Winter 2017/2018)
In October 2011, the SEC issued new guidelines for disclosure of cybersecurity risks. Some firms responded to these guidelines by issuing new risk factor disclosures. This article examines the guidelines and cybersecurity disclosures in the context of existing laws governing securities regulation. It then examines empirical results from firm disclosures following the new guidelines. Evidence shows a relatively small proportion of firms chose to modify their risk factor disclosures, with most firms choosing not to disclose any specific cybersecurity risk. Moreover, disclosing firms generally experienced significant negative stock market price effects on account of making new disclosures. Rather than viewing disclosure as a positive signal of management attentiveness, investors apparently viewed it as a cautionary sign.

Public Company Virtual-Only Annual Meetings
     Lisa A. Fontenot, 73(1): 35-52 (Winter 2017/2018)
Public companies traditionally hold annual shareholder meetings using a formal in-person format. Some companies have more recently supplemented the meeting with audio or video streaming and are now adding an electronic component to a physical meeting to allow for remote participation, commonly referred to as a “hybrid meeting.” A relatively small but fast-growing number of companies are holding their annual shareholder meetings on an electronic-only basis with no physical meeting, known as a “virtual-only meeting.” This article discusses the legal landscape for virtual-only meetings, briefly reviews the history of the practice, and explores the controversy they present with certain institutional investors and activists. Its objective is to provide an initial roadmap of legal and practical considerations for companies considering virtualonly shareholders meetings.