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.

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.

Great Analysis of the Larry Fink/BlackRock Letter

“Today, after more than a year of increasing pressure from climate activists, investors, legislators, and thought leaders, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, in his highly-anticipated annual letter to CEOs and to clients, announced a sweeping new set of policies which aim to put climate change and sustainability at the center of BlackRock’s business model. BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager with almost $7 trillion in assets under management as of Q3 2019. …..The announcement is a major shift for BlackRock, which previously had failed to take meaningful action on climate, and is a very important step in the right direction as the world faces increasing risk from climate change. Massive capital shifts away from fossil fuels and deforestation-risk commodities are necessary to mitigate the worst of the climate crisis and set the world on a path toward sustainability.

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.

Glass Lewis:” Proxy Guidelines for 2020″

“….As announced in our policy guidelines last year, beginning in 2019, for companies listed on the first and second sections of the TSE, we will begin making recommendations against members of a board that does not have any incumbent or proposed female members. In such instances, we will generally recommend voting against the chair of the company (or the most senior executive in the absence of a company chair) under the two-tier board or one-tier with one committee structures, or against the nominating committee chair under a one-tier with three committees structure. In the case of a two-tier board structure, we will examine the board of directors and board of statutory auditors as a whole, and in the cases of one-tier with three- committee structures, we will consider whether the company has any female executive officers as well as female directors.

Metrical:”Ex-CEO advisors”

This month METRICAL shows how the disclosure about ex-CEO advisors has progressed from a year ago. As shown the table below, in October 2018, 829 companies on METRICAL’s research universe disclosed the number of ex-CEOs (ex- Representative Directors) who retained positions as “advisor” in the company after stepping down as CEO. Of these companies that voluntarily disclosed, 474 companies had ex-CEO advisors. A year later in October 2019, a total of 894 companies disclosed the number of ex-CEOs who retained such advisory positions seat in the company after stepping down from the top management position. Of these 894 companies, 503 companies had ex-CEO advisors in October 2019.

“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….

Investing.com:“Japan is the Place to Invest” By Cumberland Advisors

“ ….The OECD notes that, despite the current slowdown, the expansion of the Japanese economy that began in late 2012 is the longest in Japan’s postwar history and is projected to continue through 2020. The Bank of Japan’s forecast is similar, with a pick-up in growth expected in Japan’s fiscal year 2021. Continued supportive monetary policy with very low interest rates and large-scale government bond purchases, together with increased public investment and spending to offset the effects of the sales-tax increase, are expected to maintain the expansion. The new U.S.-Japan trade deal and the anticipated elimination of the threat of U.S. automobile tariffs are positive developments. If the current optimism about progress in trade talks between the U.S. and China proves to be justified, Japan’s economy would benefit significantly from the positive effects on the Asia region….“