The global onset of the COVID-19 virus has precipitated a wide range of reactions in the community, from ambivalence to anxiety. Many governments have stepped in to support their citizens. Some have imposed community-wide lockdowns and social distancing protocols in an effort to break the spread of the contagion; others have implemented rigorous testing and quarantine regimes to identify and isolate those affected.
Business leaders have been considering their options too. Working from home has become a 'thing', as has the use of video conferencing and other online tools. Amongst the many responses, one in particular caught my eye this week: proposals by the directors' institutes of several countries—notably Australia, New Zealand and Britain, and Germany and others as well—to temporarily suspend director liability in the case of insolvency.
Superficially, this sounds like a reasonable idea. When a force majeure event strikes, the impact on sales, working capital and jobs may be very significant. The effect may be immediate, especially if the company is prevented from trading due to a lockdown. If the affected company cannot restructure its cost base, draw on financial reserves or secure finance quickly, business continuity will be at risk. Insolvency may follow, and all jobs will be lost. Thus goes the argument. But on the flip side (there always is one), the suspension of director liability and allowance to trade whilst insolvent may open the door for abuse, despite the honourable intention of keeping the economy functioning.
Insolvency has always been a red line for boards and companies. This proposal makes it porous, by absolving directors of responsibility for trading while insolvent. Some questions worth considering as lawmakers assess the proposal:
While a force majeure event can catch even the most well-run companies out, those with strong balance sheets and highly-engaged boards are better placed to respond well. They probably do not need the protection of the proposed provision, because they are more likely to have a robust risk assessment and mitigation framework in place, and strategic risks will have been assessed at most board meetings. But those companies being run close to the wire, or with inadequately engaged boards or weaker systems, may be caught flat footed. And if they are, what then? Should directors be protected, or be held to account?
Lawmakers need to tackle these types of questions, and resolve ambiguities thoroughly. If they don't, expect scurrilous directors to exploit the inevitable loopholes—to defend against other, board-induced, problems such as ineptitude, incompetence, negligence or malfeasance, for example.
Enquiry is appropriate, regardless of the catalyst, because sunlight, as they say, is a great disinfectant.
Information (and mis-information) about the spread of COVID-19 around the world is clogging our airwaves, inboxes and social media feeds as quickly as the virus itself is spreading. But amongst it all, there are some things we can hold as self-evident. Many people are suffering, some are dying. New phrases are entering the lexicon, such as, social distancing (should be physical distancing, I think) and self isolation. Governments are responding with a variety of controls to limit movement. Borders have been closed, and lockdowns are being imposed in some areas. Airlines have reduced capacity, grounding fleets. Many businesses, especially SMEs, are in turmoil. People are on edge—lives have been put on hold.
While COVID-19 has spooked many people, not to mention the stock markets and wider economy, life must go on—and it will, albeit with some adjustments, of course.
The challenge for those who direct the affairs of companies—boards—is one of governing well in the face of what is, patently, a very different environment from that which existed even two weeks ago.
Businesses face continuity and safety risks every day. Routinely, staff and managers spot, assess, prioritise and respond to operational risks every day; that is their job. But when risks have strategic implications (i.e., an occurrence is likely to have a major effect on strategy execution, future business success or even company viability), the board must become involved. COVID-19 is one such risk. The board needs to understand the potential short- and longer-term impact (using information from credible sources and tools such as scenario planning, for example), consider various options and make informed decisions.
Some practical questions that the board may wish to consider include:
One final point. COVID-19 is no longer a strategic risk. It is upon us. Boards everywhere need to deal with it as well as they can, given the most reliable information available, with the best interests of the company to the fore. That means providing close support to management; more so if big decisions are needed, such as releasing staff or partial closures. However, and most importantly, boards should not panic. Neither should the board react to suggestions being advanced by some that an event such as the COVID-19 outbreak should be seen as a catalyst to redefine corporate governance. Corporate governance remains corporate governance—the means by which the company is directed and controlled. What might be appropriate though is a review, to consider how the board practices corporate governance. But that should wait until the current crisis in in hand. Fix the problem first, then learn from it.
A kerfuffle has broken out on the East Coast of the US, between Lucian Bebchuk, an esteemed professor at Harvard University, and Martin Lipton, partner at New York law firm Wachell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Specifically, Lipton has mounted a strong attack on an article published by Bebchuk (a critical examination of 'stakeholder governance'). That Lipton has objected should not be surprising. After all, he is a lawyer with vested interests and he has a long record of promoting stakeholder governance.
This is what Bebchuk asserted:
Stakeholderism, we demonstrate, would not benefit stakeholders as its supporters claim. To examine the expected consequences of stakeholderism, we analyze the incentives of corporate leaders, empirically investigate whether they have in the past used their discretion to protect stakeholders, and examine whether recent commitments to adopt stakeholderism can be expected to bring about a meaningful change. Our analysis concludes that acceptance of stakeholderism should not be expected to make stakeholders better off.
Lipton's counter to these assertions was strident:
We reject Professor Bebchuk's economic, empirical and conceptual arguments. They are ill-conceived and ignore real-world challenges companies and directors face today.
This debate exposes something awkward—that when partisans announce their views people react, especially if they denounce other perspectives. This tactic may well pique interest and sell column inches, but it rarely results in viable outcomes that can be sustained over time.
My own research, and experience both as an advisor and serving company director, suggests that either-or argumentation, a characteristic of determinism, is deeply flawed. To pursue profit as an exclusive goal inevitably results in selfishness and inequity. Similarly, the pursuit of priorities espoused by ESG proponents introduces a another, and not insignificant, risk—of exposing the companies and the economy more generally to an 'Icarus moment'.
Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, summed things up well in his January 2019 letter:
Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose—in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked. Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time—not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities. Similarly, when a company truly understands andexpresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability. Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behaviour and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders.
Fink's position highlights that a balanced perspective is probably 'best'. But how might it be achieved? The pathway may be hiding in plain sight. If the board is to fulfil its duty to ensure value is created over time, it needs to look well beyond selfish interests and motivations. This means considering the wider context within which the company operates, creating a viable strategy, determining appropriate 'performance' measures and only then governing accordingly.
Bebchuk was brave to call out the messianic assertions of the stakeholder capitalism camp. Perhaps Lipton might take stock, and meet with Bebchuk—the purpose being to explore the nuances of each other's views, in search of a more balanced understanding of the purpose of companies and role of the board.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.