September 7, 2018

Backdating: CEOs Playing “The Dating Game 2.0?”

Earlier this year, we blogged about evidence from insider gifts that backdating was alive and well.  Now a recent study says that there’s a new twist on option backdating – instead of manipulating the timing of equity awards, CEOs are supposedly manipulating the market price of the shares on the award dates.This Stanford article about the study says insiders are reaping the same windfalls that they received when awards were backdated in the old fashioned way.

Here’s an excerpt quoting one of the authors of the study, Stanford Prof. Robert Daines:

In Dating Game 2.0, however, many top executives appear to be reaping the same kinds of windfalls with a new variant on the original scam. Instead of manipulating the dates of option grants to match a dip in the stock price, companies appear to be manipulating the stock price itself so that it’s low on the predetermined option date and higher right afterward.

“I was surprised, because it sounded too cynical at first,” says Daines, who teamed up with Grant R. McQueen and Robert J. Schonlau at Brigham Young University. “But we tested for all kinds of benign explanations and none of them fit the data. The unusual stock patterns happen so often, and they exactly fit with the self-interest of the CEOs and senior executives. Either the CEOs are incredibly lucky or they are manipulating stock prices.”

So how are companies supposedly manipulating the market price? Would you believe “bullet-dodging” & “spring-loading”:

The researchers found concrete evidence for both bullet-dodging and spring-loading in corporate “8-K” disclosures, which companies are required to file when important new developments occur between regular quarterly reports. At companies that issued lots of stock options, the disclosures before an option grant were more likely than not to drive shares down and those that came after an option date were more likely to send prices up. The same pattern showed up with company-issued “guidance” about upcoming earnings and with accounting decisions that effectively shift profits from one quarter to the next.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

How to Respond to ESG Research Providers

If you are involved with a public company and you haven’t yet heard from an ESG research provider – don’t worry, you will. With ESG becoming more important to institutional investors, many are turning to these providers for assessments of public companies’ ESG performance. The problem is that there are more than 150 of these outfits – and many of them want you to respond to detailed questionnaires. So the question becomes – should you respond to these guys, and if so, how?

This Westwicke Partners blog has some helpful advice on that front. Here’s an excerpt on the pros & cons of responding to these questionnaires:

If you receive a questionnaire from one (or a dozen) of these ESG research providers seeking information on your company’s ESG disclosure and practices, it’s important to consider a few pros and cons of responding:

– Pro: Responding allows your company to better ensure the accuracy of the data used to determine your rating.
– Pro: Responding may set your company apart from those that decline to participate. Many ESG providers give higher ratings to companies that provide more ESG-related disclosures, and some even denote which companies did not respond to their questionnaires.
– Con: Responding can be a significant drain on your organization’s time and resources. Some questionnaires are estimated to take 1,000 hours to complete and require input from as many as 30 employees across multiple departments.

The blog also has pointers on determining how best to participate in the data-gathering process & handling inbound questionnaires from ESG research providers.

FCPA: 2nd Cir. Rejects “Monty Python” Approach to Foreign National Liability

This Drinker Biddle blog notes that the 2nd Circuit recently shot down the DOJ’s attempt to extend the scope of FCPA jurisdiction over foreign nationals. Here’s an excerpt:

The Second Circuit ruled on August 24 in United States v. Hoskins that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) does not apply to foreign nationals who do not have ties to United States entities for bribery crimes that take place outside of U.S. borders. In doing so, the court rejected the government’s broadened theory of prosecution against Lawrence Hoskins, a U.K. citizen and former executive of the U.K.-based subsidiary of Alstom S.A., a global company headquartered in France that provides power and transportation services.

I’m no FCPA expert, but it sure seems like the DOJ was pushing the envelope in this case. The government’s position reminded me of the old Monty Python “Tax on Thingy” sketch – where at one point Terry Jones says that “to boost the British economy I’d tax all foreigners living abroad.” We’re posting memos in our “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” Practice Area.

John Jenkins