Reports About Earnings Guidance, Securities Litigation Frequency, and The D & O Insurance Marketplace
The report is the product of a series of symposia the groups co-sponsored to address issues of “short-termism.” The symposia participants included a number of widely respected individuals, including John Bogle of the Vanguard Group, Louis Thompson of the National Investor Relations Institute, and other representatives from companies, investor groups and securities analyst firms.
The report states that “the obsession with short term results by investors, asset management firms, and corporate managers collectively leads to the un-intended consequences of destroying long-term value.”
The report’s recommendations include the following actions:
- End the practice of providing quarterly earnings guidance;
- Align corporate executive compensation with long-term goals and strategies and with long-term shareholder interests;
- Improve disclosure of asset managers’ incentive metrics, fee structures, and personal ownership of funds they manage; and
- Endorse the use of corporate long-term investment statements to shareowners that will clearly explain – beyond the requirements that are now an accepted practice – the company’s operating model.
With respect to quarterly earning guidance, the report notes the following:
Although there may be certain benefits to providing earnings guidance, the costs and negative consequences of the current focused, quarterly earnings guidance practices are significant, including (1) unproductive and wasted efforts by corporations in preparing such guidance, (2) neglect of long-term business growth in order to meet short-term expectations, (3) a “quarterly results” financial culture characterized by disproportionate reactions among internal and external groups to the downside and upside of earnings surprises, and (4) macro-incentives for companies to avoid earnings guidance pressure altogether by moving to the private markets.
A prior D & O Diary post noted that these and other concerns increasingly are motivating companies to move toward annual earning guidance only or the elimination of earnings guidance altogether. The elimination of quarterly earning guidance would not only address the concerns noted in the recent Report, but also would discourage activity that frequently is at the center of shareholders' claims against companies and their boards. The drive to make (or avoid missing) guidance is the root cause of many of the behaviors that drive shareholders' claims. The D & O Diary believes that implementation of the Report's recommendations for companies -- especially the Report's recommendation about eliminating quarterly earnings guidance -- would be an important step for any company that is serious about managing its securities litigation risk.
The groups' press release describing the Report can be found here. A summary of the Report’s recommendations can be found here. A July 25, 2006 cfo.com post discussing the report can be found here. An AAO Weblog post on the report can be found here.
Stanford Clearinghouse Mid-Year Report: On July 26, 2006, the Stanford Class Action Clearinghouse, in conjunction with Cornerstone Research, released their 2006 Mid-Year Class Action Securities Fraud Class-Action Filings Report, which can be found here. The report notes that the 61 class actions filed in the first half of 2006 represents a 45 percent decrease compared to the 111 filings observed in the first half of 2005. The 2006 mid-year numbers represent the lowest level of filing activity during a six-month period since 1996, just after the adoption of the PSLRA. The Report speculates that the decline is due to the passage of time from the Internet bubble of the late 1990s; to possible improvements to corporate governance owing to Sarbanes Oxley; and the overall absence of volatility in stock prices during recent periods. The press release that accompanies the report includes a quotation from a Cornerstone official that "[a]lthough there is no doubt that there has been a considerably lower level of filing activity over the last year, it is still too early to tell whether this is a permanent shift."
The D & O Diary agrees that it is way too early to conclude that the YTD numbers represent a fundamental change. Among other things that the D & O Diary thinks could still produce an uptick in class action securites activity this year is the options backdating scandal and the slow dissolution of the Milberg Weiss firm. Although the options backdating scandal has only produced limited class action securities litigation so far (as the Cornerstone mid-year Report duly notes), the string on the scandal still has a long way to run. The gradual out-migration of Milberg lawyers, including the spawn of new law firms, as well as the attraction of existing plaintiffs' firms (including firms traditionally associated with tobacco or asbetos litigation) to Milberg's space, create a population of plaintiffs' firms and attorneys that need to justify their existence. In addition, market causes, such as the low share price volatility, can change. Rising interest rates and energy prices, war in the Middle East, and the threat of terrorism and natural catastrophes all present the potential to generate volatility and undermine the generally stable business environment we have enjoyed for several good years.
The D & O Diary also notes that the class action securities lawsuits may not even be the shareholders litigation story for the first half of 2006. The real story may be the raft of shareholders' derivative suits that the options backdating scandal has generated (up to 49 cases at last count.)
State of the D & O Marketplace: On July 17, 2006, Advisen released its “Commercial Lines Expert Witness Report for D & O” which surveys the current state of play in the D & O insurance marketplace. The report contains the comments from 14 “thought leaders” in the D & O arena (including underwriters, reinsurers, brokers and attorneys). The commentators share their views on trends in D & O pricing and terms and conditions; the impact of the options backdating scandal and of Sarbanes Oxley on the D & O marketplace; and legal developments that the experts are following. The Advisen Report is a little repetitive, but there are a few nuggets that reward close reading, particularly with respect to policy terms and to legal trends. The comments of several underwriters that D & O pricing will (or at least should) rise in the second half of 2006 appear problematic in light of the statistics in the Cornerstone Report. The Advisen Report can be found here.
Some Healthy Options Backdating Skepticism: As observers and commentators have tried to get a handle on how widespread the options backdating scandal is, some pretty large numbers have gotten thrown around. For example, Professor Erik Lie and Randall Heron’s latest study concludes that over 2,200 companies backdated options. Comes now Broc Romanek of the CorporateCounsel.net blog who solemnly declares in this July 24, 2006 post that “[m]y gut tells me there is something fishy” about these numbers. The basis for Romanek’s skepticism is a fundamental disbelief that that many people are lying, coupled with a informed belief that many companies have already verified that their companies do not have a problem. Whether or not Romanek’s gut is more reliable than Professors Lie's and Heron’s analysis is for others to decide, but Romanek does have a point. The sheer magnitude of the Professors' numbers do create credibility tension. If the whole Y2K fiasco taught us nothing else, it surely taught us to be suspicious when the experts are announcing the arrival of Armageddon.
Head Case Redux: As a service to those for whom the Zidane head-butt controversy was the biggest story so far this year, The D & O Diary includes this link to a July 25, 2006 USA Today article (with video footage) entitled “Jockey apologizes for head-butting horse.” (I am not making this up.) The jockey is sorry and assures everyone that this "will never happen again." I am sure the horse feels a lot better better about it now with that reassurance. The D & O Diary notes that, unlike Zidane, the jockey was wearing a helmet at the time of the head-butt. Is The D & O Diary the only one puzzled why anyone would ever use their head (which has numerous other important uses) as a weapon?