Category: Current Events

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Ace Greenberg, RIP

Ace GAlan C. (“Ace”) Greenberg has died at 86 (e.g., Crain’s NY Business, Money, Bloomberg, WSJ, USA Today).  A force behind the rise to prominence of Bear Stearns (which he headed from 1978 to 1993), Ace was a friend to me. He gave generously to Cardozo Law School, from which his wife Kathy graduated (in 1982), and contributed intellectually to programming I conducted there while directing the Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Center on Corporate Governance

Ace’s delightful little book, Memos from the Chairman, contains profound and pithy insight into business management, drawn from his famous memos to staff, that I’ll relish forever.  His book about the downfall of his beloved firm is also a nice contribution to our understanding of the financial crisis of 2008.

Ace kindly wrote a blurb for one of my early books on investing, How to Think Like Benjamin Graham and Invest Like Warren Buffett.  He said that the book “puts the ABCs of common sense valuation back into the business of investing” and was “the place to look for insight and guidance in the age of volatile markets and colliding ideas.”

Ace epitomized common sense and was a practical, generous, funny, and clever man.  He was also scrappy, tough, shrewd, and frugal.  Best of all, he was a champion of the underdog, just like me.   We’ll miss Ace.

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On National Ice Cream Day, Thanks Dairy Queen

DQIn honor of National Ice Cream Day (July 20), here is a brief celebration of Dairy Queen, an institution of American culture—entrepreneurial, legal, literary, and familial—that helped put this cold concoction on the national calendar. I developed these reflections when researching my upcoming book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia U. Press 2014), which provides deep looks at the corporate culture of Berkshire Hathaway’s fifty-plus subsidiaries, including Dairy Queen.

While full treatment must await publication of the book (which can be pre-ordered now), here are a few passages along with many outtakes—i.e., sections that did not make it into the final book because they are too technical, but may appeal to readers of this blog interested in the history of franchising businesses and intellectual property rights.

Dairy Queen’s roots date to 1927’s founding of Homemade Ice Cream Company by John F. (“Grandpa”) McCullough (1871‒1963) and his son Alex near the Iowa-Illinois border. Innovative ice cream makers, they experimented with temperatures and textures and eventually pioneered soft ice creams. One discovery: ice cream was frozen for the convenience of manufacturers and merchants, not for the delight of consumers.

At first, the McCulloughs were unable to interest any manufacturer in building the necessary freezers and dispensers to serve soft ice cream. Luckily, however, Grandpa happened to see a newspaper ad in the Chicago Tribune describing a newly-patented continuous freezer that could dispense soft ice cream. Grandpa answered the inventor/manufacturer, Harry M. Oltz, and the two made a deal in the summer of 1939.

The McCullough-Oltz agreement entitled Oltz to patent royalties equal to two cents per gallon of soft ice cream run through the freezer; the agreement also granted the McCulloughs patent licensing rights in the Western U.S., while Oltz retained them for the Eastern part of the country. The agreements that McCullough and Oltz made with licensees seemed to cover only the patent, rather than the DQ trademark, and contained few quality controls.

After World War II, DQ stores hit their stride, drawing lengthy lines of increasingly loyal customers enjoying the cooling effects of soft ice cream all sultry-summer long. The customer throngs at one store in Moline, Illinois caught the attention of Harry Axene. An entrepreneurial farm equipment salesman for Allis-Chalmers, Axene wanted to invest in the business. He contacted the McCulloughs and acquired both the rights to sell the ice cream in Illinois and Iowa as well as an interest in the McCullough’s ice cream manufacturing facility. Read More

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Truth, Candor, and Crisis at Yeshiva University

Among universities in trouble, the darkest cloud hangs over Yeshiva University, a venerable Jewish institution founded in New York in 1886. The University acknowledges huge economic losses and failed investment policies and is taking extraordinary steps to balance its books, including ceding control over its one-time crown jewel, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which has close friends of its law school, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, very concerned.  Critics, moreover, see a death spiral and question the leadership’s candor.

Amid calls for the resignation or dismissal of Yeshiva’s president, Mr. Richard M. Joel, he says the University will no longer engage with the media on fiscal questions. The Wall Street Journal reports that the University has hired the crisis-management communications firm, Kekst & Co., but any benefits from that hiring are not yet obvious.sunlight

In a familiar pattern facing other organizations in crisis, what both sides miss in this dangerous heightening of tensions is the importance of trust to any institution’s health. To resolve this crisis, as always, the institution’s leadership must regain trust by explaining how its current fiscal stewardship advances the institution’s mission. Critics must not rush to judgment and hear the leadership out on what it has learned from recent problems and plans for the future.

Like other investors, part of Yeshiva’s problems are due to the financial collapse of 2008, but its roots are a bit deeper and offer broader lessons. Since at least 1993, the board of trustees oversaw Yeshiva’s endowment and made investment decisions. University policy permitted trustees to invest endowment in funds the trustees managed, despite conflicts of interest, so long as they made full disclosure.

During the early 2000s, the trustees increasingly allocated endowment to their own hedge funds, which were heavily weighted in risky securities. By 2008, the endowment, valued at more than $1 billion, held riskier investments than those of peer institutions. The financial upheaval of 2008 thus hit Yeshiva even harder than most peers, shrinking its endowment by more than $300 million, including $100 million due to the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, whose top victims also included a Yeshiva trustee.

While it appears that the trustees and the administration acted in good faith, even if no laws were broken, poor judgment abounded. The loose conflict-of-interest policy certainly was a mistake, as a trustee’s personal involvement skews his judgment. Reputable and durable institutions scrupulously avoid the remotest appearance of impropriety. For stalwarts like Yeshiva, this principle of integrity, coupled with an ethic of prudence, should govern investment decisions.

The University learned its lesson from this calamity and has adopted new policies that may serve as a model for other endowments. It created a professional investment office to set strategy, updated oversight protocols, and established a rigorous conflicts policy. While thus implicitly recognizing earlier weaknesses, the University has not offered a mea culpa nor has it identified particular past faults—whether sins of omission or commission, of process or substance, or whether the product of mere haplessness or of actual chicanery. That reticence allows unimpressed critics to overlook the significance of these reforms.

It is hard to measure objectively the exact economic costs of Yeshiva’s policies or market onslaughts from which it has suffered. One result of this difficulty is wildly different numbers being reported by the University and critics—ranging from $300 million to a staggering $1.3 billion. However, it is less important to achieve consensus on financial figures than to find common ground on productive next steps.

At stake is advancing the institution’s core mission, which is not to maximize endowment or earn a profit but to promote knowledge and teach students. The fiscal drama becomes a superficial distraction from fundamental academic judgments about the relation among current and future pedagogical, scholarly, scientific, cultural and religious needs and resources.

Constituents would rightly like to know more about Yeshiva’s finances as well as the academic thinking behind decisions concerning building or closing facilities and forming or ending joint ventures and programs. For example, when Yeshiva recently ceded managerial control over Einstein College of Medicine to another institution to cut costs, it did not publicly detail the educational rationale. Critics jumped on the move, assuming and asserting that it was a sign of distress rather than a shrewd maneuver that promotes the University’s goals.

When institutions are imperiled in this way, the best course of action is to make certain that the operative facts are publicly known, to identify lessons learned, and to act on them. In that spirit, the University might do well to form an independent task force with unlimited access to University information charged to report a public assessment of where things stand and where they are going. Lifting the cloud over this 128-year old bastion of Judaism, such a look would enable Yeshiva University to move forward with its important business of education.

Lawrence A. Cunningham, a graduate and former faculty member of Yeshiva University’s law school (Cardozo), is a professor at George Washington University and the author of the forthcoming book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values.

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Happy 4th to The Persons of the Divided States of America

shredded flag“Person means a natural person, partnership, corporation, limited liability company, business trust, joint stock company, trust, unincorporated business association, joint venture, governmental entity, or other organization.”

That is from the definitions section of a commercial agreement I happened to be reading today for a consulting assignment.  That type of definition appears in millions of commercial contracts–purchase agreements, merger agreements, loan agreements, leases, licenses, you name it.

In the commercial world, among business lawyers and clients, it is commonly assumed that whenever we reference persons we mean to include every form of organization people have created.   That familiar usage might make the holdings in cases such as Holly Hobby or Citizens United seem natural, with corporations having many of the same rights and duties as people have.

On the other hand, we use the term this way in the business context where the issues being addressed concern commercial obligations and powers, liabilities and indemnities and purchases and sales–not free speech or free exercise of religion.  Moreover, the presence of such definitions in these agreements, despite ubiquity, underscores that it is more natural for persons to be seen only as natural persons, not organizations.

Hard liners on both sides of debates about corporate rights and duties show stupidity, arrogance, or mendacity when declaring either, on the right, “of course corporations are persons” or, on the left, “of course corporations are not persons.” In fact, organizations are not natural persons.  But for some purposes, they should be treated as natural persons are and for others they should not.  (See here for some additional thoughts on Hobby Lobby drawing on the example of Berkshire Hathaway.)

Context is key and hard liners tend to forget context.  In the talk these days about these two SCOTUS cases, it looks as if the Divided States of America is increasingly peopled by hard liners. Alas, that’s not something to celebrate this Fourth of July.

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What Berkshire Hathaway Teaches About Hobby Lobby

Eleven years ago tomorrow, the abortion issue led Berkshire Hathaway, the huge conglomerate Warren Buffett built and now owned by one million different shareholders, to end its shareholder-directed charitable contribution program. Under the program, Berkshire’s board earmarked an amount for charitable giving and then let the company’s class A shareholders designate the charities to which their share went. In twenty-two years, the program distributed $197 million to thousands of different charities.

Berkshire terminated the program on July 3, 2003 because activists boycotted products of one of its subsidiaries to protest giving to organizations they opposed on religious grounds: some designated Planned Parenthood, which facilitates a woman’s choice to abort an unwanted pregnancy, while others gave to Catholic Social Services, which opposes abortions.

Berkshire stood for neither position, of course, because it is a business organization whose mission is to increase its intrinsic economic value, which has nothing to do with religion. Berkshire’s board chose to terminate the program because the boycotts hurt Berkshire’s business and its personnel while offering shareholders only a slight convenience and tax advantage.

The scenario speaks to the debate that erupted this week between foes in the abortion debate thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The issue in that case, narrower and more technical than accompanying rhetoric suggests, was whether the word persons in a federal statute about religious freedom includes corporations owned by a small number of people with a specific set of religious beliefs. If so, then regulations implementing Obamacare cannot require them to fund birth control devices in conflcit with their religious beliefs.

A majority of the Court concluded that closely-held corporations are persons for the purpose of the statute because they are readily seen as merely a convenient legal form through which individuals do business. The dissent complained that only individuals can have religious beliefs and therefore corporations, whether closely held or otherwise, aren’t persons for purposes of the federal law.

The Berkshire example is instructive on both opinions. Buffett has always boasted that Berkshire, though using the corporate form, adopts a partnership attitude. The shareholder charitable contribution program epitomized this attitude. It gave the decision to the owners, as is done in partnerships and closely held corporations, not the board, the practice in public corporations. Those owners, moreover, were the class A shareholders, a subset of Berkshire’s shareholder body made up of people with larger and older stakes—including hundreds who really were Buffett’s original partners.

Berkshire shareholders, class A and class B, readily agree on a wide variety of business and ownership topics. For example, in a vote earlier this year on the company’s dividend policy, 98 percent ratified the existing—and unusual—no-dividend practice. But put a question about hot-button religious or political  issues of the day such as abortion and expect deep divisions.

Berkshire’s shareholders may be able to act like partners or closely-held shareholders on business issues while the charitable giving program proved they were unable to do so on others. For the Court in Holly Lobby, this perspective supports the majority’s holding about the nature of close corporations while validating the dissent’s appetite for a sharp boundary between them and the typical business organization.

Lawrence A. Cunningham is the author of the upcoming Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values and editor of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. He teaches business-related courses at George Washington University Law School.

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Trashing, Defending, and Deferring to Yeshiva University

University bashing is in fashion, from the broad-gauged film Ivory Tower to particular attacks on given schools. Some critiques usefully expose problems that need correcting with constructive solutions on offer.  But others seem to trash the academy for other reasons, as with a recent diatribe against Yeshiva University, which seems more calculated to exacerbate the school’s problems than help it find solutions.

In an  expose-style that seems to blow the school’s financial challenges out of proportion, Steven Weiss, who acknowledges having been expelled from Yeshiva in 2002, portrays Yeshiva’s leadership since that year variously as gullible, myopic, conflicted, or greedy.  This piece stung because I am a graduate and former faculty member of Yeshiva’s law school (Cardozo) and I know and have worked with some of the people vilified in the story.  While I am not familiar with all of the factual background of the University’s recent experience, Weiss’s story seems awfully one-sided and therefore the story, as much as the facts about Yeshiva, causes concern.

I share Weiss’s praise for Yeshiva’s former president, Rabbi Norman Lamm, whom I knew, worked with, and admired.  Lamm, and later his VP for business affairs, Sheldon Socol, led Yeshiva from the brink of bankruptcy in 1975 to fiscal soundness and renewed its status for academic excellence and cultural distinction.  (Rabbi Lamm told me how, when he was about to declare bankruptcy, his hand shook so intensely that he could not sign the papers.)

But Weiss then makes a foil out of Lamm,  painting a golden era that ended after 2002 when he passed the baton to Richard Joel, the current president, who has faced a different set of challenges that entices Weiss’s wrath.  In Weiss’s telling, after Lamm’s retirement and Joel’s succession, it’s been all downhill for Yeshiva and its students.  Joel, whom I knew as an able administrator and gentleman when he served as Dean of Business Affairs at Cardozo, certainly has a different style than the rabbi-scholars such as Lamm who preceded him.  But Weiss exaggerates in inexplicably inflammatory tones how this style difference has played out, in a story misleadingly headlined “How to Lose $1 Billion: Yeshiva University Blows Its Future on Loser Hedge Funds.” Read More

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A Toast to 50 Cent’s New Series: Power

The rap artist 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, is producing a new series on STARZ called Power. Famed for his entrepreneurial skills in hip-hop and business, not to be overlooked is his important contribution to contract law and knowledge.  Thanks to an intense dispute with his girlfriend a decade ago, students and lawyers have been treated to a saga 50 Cent endured that illuminates the nature of contracts—of legally enforceable bargains. In a tribute to his latest venture, herewith an account of this case from my book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter (Cambridge University Press 2012).

Jackson secured his first recording contract in October 2003. It came with a $300,000 advance.  To boost his professional image as a rapper, he bought a Hummer and a Connecticut mansion once owned by boxer Mike Tyson. The mansion boasted a state-of-the-art recording studio and the rapper hired a full-time caretaker and professional cleaning crew to maintain it.    In 2004 Jackson bought another house in Valley Stream, the small village in New York’s Nassau County where his grandmother lived; in December 2006, he added to his real estate holdings a $2 million house at 2 Sandra Lane, Dix Hills, on Long Island, New York. By then, he had sold tens of millions of recordings, toured the world, and amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in net worth, as chronicled in his 2005 autobiographical film, “Get Rich, or Die Tryin.”  

This success came after hard knocks. Jackson had dealt crack cocaine as a teenager. In 1995, at age 20, he was released from jail and became involved with Shaniqua Tompkins in his hometown of Jamaica in Queens, New York. The two had a son, Marquise, out of wedlock in 1996. Jackson and Tompkins had no money and no real home—living with his grandmother or hers.     In May 2000, Jackson nearly died when he was shot nine times during a gangland ambush. He was in the hospital for weeks, followed by months of rehab spent at his mother’s house, near the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Though before the shooting Jackson had been negotiating with Columbia Records, the record company stopped returning his calls.

Jackson, however, persevered. In November 2001, he launched a recording company, Rotten Apple Records. The rising rap star Eminem brought Jackson’s 2002 self-produced record to the industry’s attention.  As a result, Interscope Records offered Jackson the 2003 deal that propelled him to fame and fortune. With money flowing in and Jackson leading the high life, Tompkins asserted her right to a share. But Jackson’s relationship with Tompkins was tumultuous. They did not always live together and fought often, sometimes physically.

When Jackson bought the Dix Hills house in 2006, both agreed it was the best place to raise Marquise, then almost 10-years-old, and Tompkins pled with Jackson to put it in her name. Though Jackson promised to do so, he never did. After the relationship soured, Jackson tried to evict Tompkins from the Dix Hills house.  During that battle, the house burned to the ground under circumstances that authorities considered suspicious. The house had been insured against fire, but the policy lapsed for non-payment of the premium a few weeks before. In response to Jackson’s eviction lawsuit, Tompkins asserted a claim of her own: that the two had a contract entitling her to $50 million. Read More

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Signing off

AFC-cover      Thanks to all for having me back to Concurring Opinions.  I’ve enjoyed the visit immensely.

During my stay, I blogged about the conception of my new book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard, 2014).  I discussed ideas of constitutional formation and reorganization, alternative theories of popular consent, and certain black nationalists’ view of the Fourteenth Amendment (and even guns and self-defense).  I analyzed Cliven Bundy’s theory of rancher sovereignty, which is shared by many who rallied to his armed defense against the Bureau of Land Management (here and here).  I advocated the creation of a new national office, the Tribune of the People, whose sole responsibility would be defending civil and human rights. Finally, I discussed the Supreme Court’s recent decision on legislative prayer as an example of institutional withdrawal, as issues of prayer were thrown back to the hurly-burly of the public sphere.

News about America’s Forgotten Constitutions can be followed on my author’s page, book blog, facebook, or twitter.  On September 18, 2014, during the week celebrating the U.S. Constitution, I’ll be giving a noontime book talk and signing at the National Archives (more details later).  I hope to see you there.

I am working on a variety of other research projects, including books and papers exploring presidential leadership over individual rights, war-dependent forms of constitutional argumentation (to be published by Constitutional Commentary in the fall), and popular theories of law found in poetry and fiction (my latest, “‘Simple’ Takes On the Supreme Court” is hot off the press).  My papers can be downloaded here.

So long!

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Hitting Back When Hit By Google

Tuesday’s European Court of Justice decision requires internet search engines to omit listing irrelevant or inadequate items in response to searches for individuals by name. The ruling is simultaneously hailed and condemned, depending on whether one stresses individual control over reputation or anti-censorship (e.g.. Henry Farrell in WaPo; Jonathan Zittrain in NYT; the ubiquitous Brian Leiter).  Two aspects of the incentive effects of the recurring problem seem overlooked, as illustrated by a true story (with minor fact changes in the name of privacy).

A few years ago, a colleague got a blistering review of his teaching from a student blog.  There may have been some underlying basis for the criticism, but the post blew it all out of proportion and offered no context for the specific objection and no counterbalancing assessment of the teacher’s considerable strengths. It was both authoritative and damning as well as inadequate and of dubious relevance.

My friend’s distress intensified when this url appeared first in all searches for his name using Ask, Bing, Google, Yahoo! and other search tools.  It came up ahead of the professor’s SSRN page, school biography, library bibliography, and laudatory references in numerous other urls on the web. The result magnified the post’s significance and caused my colleague anguish.

The blog publisher refused his request to take down the post, citing forum policies on open-access, autonomy, and self-regulation.  At that time, at least, the search engines could not be bothered. Day after day, we’d do a search of his name and the inflammatory post kept coming up number one, threatening the professor’s reputation.

Finally overcoming his frustration, the professor chose to fight fire with fire.  He created a new blog and began posting entries at a regular clip.  Gradually, these posts and responses or references to them rose up the lists of hits for his name.  Eventually, the objectionable link sank down the list into a more proportionate presence, there as part of a more complete portrait, not the salient bruise it started out as.

The episode also emboldened my friend to redouble his investment in teaching.  Accepting the old adage that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, he vowed to minimize the chances that such postings, however acontextual or lopsided, would reappear.  His teaching evaluations, in fact, rose from just above average to well above average.

There are obviously many more significant complex issues associated with the hierarchy or presence of misleading or irrelevant information on the internet.  For example, norms in Europe may differ from those in the U.S., and a ruling like that of the ECJ seems unlikely in America.  And there are probably better forums to solve the problem than courthouses, including legislators, markets, and think tanks.

But in struggling with associated trade-offs and conflicting values, the incentive effects should be noted.   I don’t want negative urls polluting my public persona.  But that produces two positive results: I try to avoid doing anything that would feed them and to engage enough to neutralize their effects on my profile.  It worked for my old friend.