Why Modern Corporate Structure Results in Large Ethical Lapses

I was recently asked by the Japan Society of Greater Cincinnati to give the keynote speech at their conference event on the theme of “Why Good People Do Bad Things”. I decided to liven things up a bit by attempting to answer the self-posed question: “how might we design corporations if we were inventing them today [not in 1600 -1900]… in an age of huge capital pools, global warming, and an increasing number of other large externalized risks and informational (and other) asymmetries?”

See what you think of my “concept for discussion” on pages 16-19, and my reasons for throwing it out for consideration on the earlier pages. I realize some people will think this concept is a strange and unnecessary, as if the basic legal structure of the corporation is immutable, or hoping ESG integration by itself will solve most of the problems it is concerned with. However, I suspect that in the next few decades corporate law will be evolving much more so as to address the issues and concerns that I raise… even if it addresses them in a different manner. I do not believe that the present legal form of “the corporation” itself is sustainable. Over the past 100 years, too many agency problems, market distortions, asymmetries, and externalities have emerged.

Memo to Shareholders of Kirin HD, from a Director Candidate

Independent Franchise Partners (IFP) has submitted a shareholder proposal nominating Kanako Kikuchi (an experienced global pharmaceutical executive) and myself as independent directors. Glass, Lewis supports electing both of us, but it seems that ISS has “split the baby” and only supports me. If investors could vote for Ms. Kikuchi as well, it would greatly help ensure that the board makes a fully informed, objective and independent assessment of the strategy on an ongoing basis.

Both of us have no past relations with IFP, and take an approach that is completely agnostic and independent of IFP’s dividend proposal. We both believe that if shareholders do not opt for that proposal, – or in any case – it is most prudent to withhold any decisions about the strategy until such time as when we are on the board and can ask questions and are privy to all internal analysis and confidential information. Therefore, we would both join the board with no pre-decision(s) made before knowing all the facts. This is the only logical position to take as a truly independent director. I have informed IFP in no uncertain terms that my philosophy and legal duty is to answer to all shareholders, and that I may well not agree with positions that IFP has taken or may take in the future. IFP has no problem with this.

Many investors may not realize that unless Ms. Kikuchi is elected, there will be no one with global biopharma experience on this board just at the time when that skill set is most needed. Given the company’s proclaimed strategy to “bridge” into health science products (which could be a good one for all I know), this is not wise and is of great concern to me.

Correlation and Causation: Good Governance Practices and Firm Performance in Japan

On December 11, 2019, I gave a lecture on BDTI’s analysis about corporate governance practices and and firm performance in Japan. Since then we have added indicators of statistical significance to our materials. To view the entire presentation as translated into English, click here: Presentation to Securities Analyst Association 2019.12.11. Those who read Japanese can read the full speech here, and can download the Japanese version of the presentation materials.

Our methodology is shown on page 23 . Our analysis suggests that the adoption of the following practices leads is followed by (appears to cause) improvements in ROA compared to the average for a firm’s industry over the next two years. Please see the charts on the left side of each page:

  • Adding an nomination committee of some sort (p. 27)
  • Appointing an outside director as the chair of that committee (p. 28)
  • The combination of nomination committee with a board composition with >33% independent directors (p. 30)
  • Adopting a performance-linked compensation plan for executives (p. 29)

Various other factors that appear to correlate with superior performance, are shown on page 22, and page 34. We will explore the direction of causation with some of these later.

Nicholas Benes: Public Comment on Revision of the Stewardship Code

1) Pension Funds
2) Other Types of Investors
3) “ESG Factors”
4) Debt Instruments

1) Pension Funds

The proposed revisions to the Stewardship Code do not make it clear enough exactly how corporate pension funds, or smaller pension funds of any type, can sign the Code and comply with it without bearing excessive cost, work, or confusion.  Because this is not sufficiently clear at present, to date only an extremely small number of the defined-benefit pension funds at listed non-financial companies in Japan have signed the Code (only about 10, out of a total of 700 or more such funds). As a result, a rather odd situation exists in that most Japanese companies claim to care for their employees deeply, but judging from their actions, do not seem to care much about employees’ investments or post-retirement quality of life – or even, to care about preserving shareholder value by reducing the cash infusions needed to keep their pension plan fully funded. This makes a mockery of the language in the Corporate Governance Code about stewardship (Principle 2.6 企業年金のアセットオーナーとしての機能発揮), and of the Stewardship Code itself.

“Japan’s Unfinished Corporate Governance Reforms”, by Nicholas Benes

My article on Japan’s unfinished reforms is online now. Lest the Abe administration and regulators “declare victory” when they are only half done, I describe seven specific measures that Japan needs to adopt in order to bring its market up to a global standard for a developed nation:

  1. Detailed rules for an independent committee
  2. A clear requirement for a majority of independent directors on the board
  3. Codifying the role and responsibilities of executive officers
  4. Consolidation of overlapping disclosure reports
  5. Protection of minority shareholder rights
  6. Enhancing transparency to reduce entrenchment and enhance inclusiveness
  7. Strengthening stewardship throughout the investment chain

I stress the reality that in all of these, strong political leadership from the Prime Minister and other senior parliamentarians will be needed. “Thus, is it essential that the Tokyo Stock Exchange (JPX/TSE) and the various regulatory agencies keep up reform momentum. However, one senses a desire from these groups to ‘declare victory’, and they have a tendency to not fully coordinate with each other. If Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet did more to make the key players coordinate their efforts in key areas, meaningful governance change (and protection of investors) would accelerate….

Activist Shareholders and Directors, Beware! (Nishimura & Asahi)

When exiting minority holdings, not only beware about insider trading rules, but also short-swing profit rules. “Similar to the securities laws of other jurisdictions, Japanese securities laws also have short swing profit rules that require directors (and equivalents thereto) or 10% or greater shareholders to disgorge profits earned from matching buy-sell transactions (i.e., purchases and sales occurring within a six month window of each other, subject to certain limited exceptions) regardless of whether they are in possession of material non-public information. To avoid a costly surprise, an investor should confirm that it has not acquired any Public Company shares during the six month period leading up to the proposed share sale in order to avoid the perfunctory short swing profit disgorgement rules under Japanese securities laws. “

Some Simple Questions for Softbank

For companies with Softbank Group’s corporate governance structure (a company with Board of Statutory Auditors), Article 362 of Japan’s Company Law stipulates the following:

…..(4) [the] Board of directors may not delegate the decision on the execution of important operations such as the following matters to directors: [which means: “may not delegate these matters to directors or anyone else with executive responsibilities. In other words, the board must approve the following: ]
(i) The disposal of and acceptance of transfer of important assets;
(ii) Borrowing in a significant amount;
(iii) The appointment and dismissal of an important employee including managers;
etc. “”

Because of this language in the law, companies draft up “criteria for board decisions” (“fugi kijun”) , and have them approved by the board. These criteria define numerically (and in other ways if necessary) what will be considered “important” under each of the categories set forth above and therefore will require board approval, e.g. purchases of real estate larger than 1.0 Billion Yen (about $10 million), investments or acquisitions larger than 2 Billion Yen ($20 million), etc. – a “limit amount” referred to below as “X” .

What is the Difference Between Mr. Ghosn’s Deferred Compensation and Hiring Post-Retirement Directors as “Advisors?”

When you squint closely at the facts, not as much as you might think. Mostly, it is the difference between individual self-dealing and collective self-dealing.

As corporate policy, many Japanese companies re-hire their executive directors as “advisors (“sodanyaku” or “komon“) immediately after they retire from the board. The re-hiring occurs automatically, and the work expected from such “advisors” in their contracts (if any) is usually vague to the point of being non-existent.

Corporate Governance in Japan: What Has Changed in the Past Three Years?

I recently gave a presentation in which I tried to answer this question. Here are the top-line conclusions:

  • Investors are finding their voting voices
  • Now they need to find to find their asking voices
  • There is a way to tear down the “allegiant shareholder ” wall
  • Factors that correlate with superior performance include: >= independent directors, low “allegiant” holdings, >15% female directors, and age of firm <45 years
  • Activism is becoming more effective

These conclusions are based on a huge amount of time-series data we have collected. We are now building a comprehensive time-series database that includes not only financial data, but all text and numerical data from financial reports and CG Reports, as well as tabulated AGM voting results for each resolution. The data will be organized so that one can zero in on exactly the data one needs. Here is a simple example showing board practices parameters, historical AGM participation and CEO approval rates, and the trend of ownership of “allegiant shareholdings”: