Saturday, May 05, 2007

International Affairs

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket It is nothing new for corporate America to have to contend with activist investors. But an activist international institutional investor, backed by a sovereign nation and burgeoning oil wealth and committed to a broadly-based social and environmental agenda, represents a different level of activist pressure. The prototype for this international institutional investor is the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, which collects and invests surplus revenue from the country’s petroleum production, and which at $300 billion in asset value represents the largest public pension fund in Europe. The Fund is prohibited from investing in Norway, so instead it owns what amounts to a considerable slice of the world.

The Norwegian Fund’s impact is not merely financial. The Fund operates according to “ethical” investment principles, pursuant to which the Fund has divested ownership in companies that the Fund’s Advisory Council on Ethics believes are involved in certain kinds of weapons production, environmental damage and human rights violations. The most prominent example of its divestitures for ethical reasons was its high profile divestiture of its $400 million investment in Wal-Mart because of alleged child labor law violations by WalMart suppliers (refer here).

A May 4, 2007 New York Times article entitled in the print edition “Norway Backs Its Ethics With Its Cash” (here) discusses the Fund’s ethical investing practices and their impact. The article quotes the Norwegian Finance Minister, Kristin Halvorsen, as saying “In a global economy, ownership of companies is the most important way to have influence.” As many as 21 companies (so far) have felt this Norwegian "influence," twelve of them American.

Nor is the Fund’s activist impact restricted to its investment activities. Norges Bank, the division of the Norwegian Central Bank responsible for managing the Fund’s investments, has made its presence felt as a securities fraud lawsuit litigant. For example, Norges Bank was one of the prominent litigants that chose to opt-out of the Time Warner class action settlement (here). Norges Bank was also a major participant in the recent historic Royal Dutch Shell investor settlement (here).

The most prominent institutional investor activist in the U.S. has arguably been the California Public Employee Retirement System (Calpers), which with current investement assets of about $244 billion is actually smaller than the Norwegian Fund. Moreover, because Norway is the world’s No. 3 oil exporter (behind Saudi Arabia and Russia), Norway’s Fund will grow substantially in the years ahead. The Times article estimates that at the rate at which it is growing, the Fund could be worth $800 billion to $900 billion in a decade. With the Fund’s growing size and activist agenda, its impact could be enormous, particularly given the Fund’s apparent willingness to resort to litigation.

The Fund’s growth will provide it with the powerful tools to drive its agenda. As a result, companies could face growing pressure to provide compliance and disclosure on a broad range of social and environmental issues. Readers of The D & O Diary will recall my recent post (here) on the growing importance of climate change disclosure; the Times article reports that the Norwegian Fund’s next area of scrutiny will be companies that contribute to global warming. (There is of course some irony in a country which has grown wealthy from oil production presuming to lecture the rest of the world about global warming.)

The upshot is that public companies could face growing pressure on environmental and social issues, from the Norwegian Fund as well as other investors that follow their lead. Traditional notions of “good corporate governance” will necessarily evolve to adapt to these circumstances. These evolving issues represent risks that may not be apparent on companies’ financial statements. Companies will face changing levels of reputational risk and even political risk as part of this evolving global investment dynamic. It will be increasingly important for companies to have tools to measure and control their exposure to these developing concerns, as well as to provide adequate disclosure of these issues to their shareholders.

Cross-Border Prosecutorial Collaboration: Along with the globalization of political and social issues, the increasing global collaboration of national regulatory and investigative personnel also represents a new and growing risk to companies in the global economy. The high-profile collaboration of a multinational investigative force in the Siemens bribery investigation (here) is a recent prominent example. Another example is illustrated in a May 4, 2007 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Cartel Arrests in U.S. Bolster Europe Probe” (here, subscription required).

According to the Journal, executives from companies in Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Japan were arrested in the U.S. this past week for their role in an alleged international cartel to fix prices for industrial hoses used in oil transportation. The arrests reportedly were “the result of a joint U.S. investigation with the European Union and U.K. agencies under a program of trans-Atlantic cooperation against bid rigging.” The stumbling block for EU enforcement of its anti-cartel laws has been the lack of any personal liability for cartel participants under EU law. These limitations have restricted EU authorities’ ability to pursue cartel activities. The enlistment of American authorities in the anti-cartel efforts circumvents these EU limitations by exposing individuals to personal liability under tougher American anti-cartel laws.

While these developments are perhaps socially desirable for their ability to punish and deter anticompetitive activity, the developments also carry some disturbing implications for officials at companies engaged in the global economy. Executives could face the threat of prosecution not only under the laws of their own country but under the laws of many other countries. The willingness of the U.S. to enforce its antibribery laws against foreign companies whose shares or ADRs trade on U.S. exchanges is another example of this extraterritorial impact of domestic laws. The result of this globalization of criminal enforcement could be a dramatic expansion of corporate executives’ risk exposure.

Not only does this evolving globalization of criminal enforcement create a new category of risk management challenges, but it could create new challenges for the structure of the companies’ D & O insurance program. Certainly, companies engaged in the global economy will want to understand their policy's potential protection for foreign investigations and proceedings, as well as the policy's protection for criminal processes such as extradition.

Be Here Now: As scientists and commentators have struggled to prefigure a future world beset with the consequences of global climate change, they have projected a litany of grave impacts: coastal erosion and subsidence from rising sea levels; extreme weather events; unprecedented economic impacts; and a deteriorating health environment.

Readers skeptical of these scenarios will want to consider these stories appearing in newspapers just this week alone: the seacoast of East Anglia in the U.K. is sliding into the sea because of rising sea levels (here); Australia’s six year drought is now so serious that the country must restrict crop irrigation, while politicians struggle to respond (here); Germany will no longer apply seasonal adjustment to its unemployment statistics because the increasingly mild winters have a diminished employment impact (here); and the global incidence of asthma and hay fever has escalated as a result of the proliferation of allergens due to warming conditions (here).

After I wrote my post a few weeks ago about global climate change and D & O risk (here), I received some very skeptical and even derisive reactions. But the reality is that global climate change is not some distant theoretical construct. Its impacts are already being felt throughout the world. The answer to the question whether or not this will affect the risk profile of publicly traded companies is simply a reflection of the way you frame the issue. You can, as I think is the proper approach, regard global climate change as a separate category of risk to be analyzed as such. Or you can simply look at it as imbedded within numerous other risk categories, such as commodities pricing risk, political risk, and currency risk, as well as what insurers call parameter risk (the risk of events different than those that have occured in the past). Whether viewed separately or as a part of the overall panoply of corporate risk, global climate change will be an increasingly important part of the risk landscape that companies face. The influence of activist investors like the Norwegian Fund suggests that companies disregard these risks at their peril.

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