In an important recent speech, SEC Commissioner Daniel Gallagher touched on a number of key issues, all of which will be blog fodder. First, he discussed what I have called "The Creeping Federalization of Corporate Law":
Unfortunately, the trend towards increased federalization of corporate governance law seems well-entrenched. ...
Some of [SOX and Dodd-Frank's] requirements unashamedly interfere in corporate governance matters traditionally and appropriately left to the states. Others masquerade as disclosure, but are in reality attempts to affect substantive behavior through disclosure regulation. This mandated intrusion into corporate governance will impose substantial compliance costs on companies, along with a one-size-fits-all approach that will likely result in a one-size-fits-none model instead. This stands in stark contrast with the flexibility traditionally achieved through private ordering under more open-ended state legal regimes.
I couldn't agree more. Indeed, back in 2003 I wrote that:
The basic case for federalizing corporate law rests on the so-called “race to the bottom” hypothesis. States compete in granting corporate charters. After all, the more charters the state grants, the more franchise and other taxes it collects. According to the race to the bottom theory, because it is corporate managers who decide on the state of incorporation, states compete by adopting statutes allowing corporate managers to exploit shareholders. As the clear winner in this state competition, Delaware is usually the poster-child for bad corporate governance. Interestingly, the two main poster-children for reform, Enron and WorldCom, were not Delaware corporations. (They were incorporated in Oregon and Georgia, respectively.)
Basic economic common sense tells us that investors will not purchase, or at least not pay as much for, securities of firms incorporated in states that cater too excessively to management. Lenders will not lend to such firms without compensation for the risks posed by management’s lack of accountability. As a result, those firms’ cost of capital will rise, while their earnings will fall. Among other things, such firms thereby become more vulnerable to a hostile takeover and subsequent management purges. Corporate managers therefore have strong incentives to incorporate the business in a state offering rules preferred by investors. Competition for corporate charters thus should deter states from adopting excessively pro management statutes. The empirical research bears out this view of state competition, suggesting that efficient solutions to corporate law problems win out over time.
Roberta Romano’s event study of corporations changing their domicile by reincorporating in Delaware, for example, found that such firms experienced statistically significant positive cumulative abnormal returns. In other words, reincorporating in Delaware increased shareholder wealth. This finding strongly supports the race to the top hypothesis. If shareholders thought that Delaware was winning a race to the bottom, shareholders should dump the stock of firms that reincorporate in Delaware, driving down the stock price of such firms. As Romano found, and all of the other major event studies confirm, there is a positive stock price effect upon reincorporation in Delaware.
The event study findings are buttressed by a well-known study by Robert Daines in which he compared the Tobin’s Q of Delaware and non-Delaware corporations. (Tobin’s Q is the ratio of a firm’s market value to its book value and is a widely accepted measure of firm value.) Daines found that Delaware corporations in the period 1981-1996 had a higher Tobin’s Q than those of non-Delaware corporations, suggesting that Delaware law increases shareholder wealth. Although subsequent research suggests that this effect may not hold for all periods, Daines’ study remains an important confirmation of the event study data.
Additional support for the event study findings is provided by takeover regulation. Compared to most states, which have adopted multiple anti-takeover statutes of ever-increasing ferocity, Delaware’s single takeover statute is relatively friendly to hostile bidders. An empirical study of state corporation codes by John Coates confirms that the Delaware statute is the least restrictive and imposes the least delay on a hostile bidder. Given the clear evidence that hostile takeovers increase shareholder wealth, this finding is especially striking. The supposed poster child of bad corporate governance, Delaware, turns out to be quite takeover-friendly and, by implication, equally shareholder-friendly.
The takeover regulation evidence is especially important, because state anti-takeover laws are the principal arrow in the quiver of modern race to the bottom theorists. In a series of articles, Lucian Bebchuk and his co-authors point out that state takeover regulation demonstrably reduces shareholder wealth but that most states have nevertheless adopted anti-takeover statutes. Even many advocates of the race to the top hypothesis concede that state regulation of corporate takeovers appears to be an exception to the rule that efficient solutions tend to win out. But so what? Nobody claims that state competition is perfect. The question is only whether some competition is better than none. Delaware’s relatively hospitable environment for takeovers suggests an affirmative answer to that question.
Bebchuk et al.’s arguments in favor of federal preemption, moreover, betray a complete lack of sympathy for—and perhaps even awareness of—the vital relationship between federalism and liberty. In other words, even if Bebchuk could prove that state competition is a race to the bottom, basic federalism principles would still counsel against federal preemption of corporate law. The corporation is a creature of the state, “whose very existence and attributes are a product of state law.” States have an interest in overseeing the firms they create. States also have an interest in protecting the shareholders of their corporations. Finally, a state has a legitimate “interest in promoting stable relationships among parties involved in the corporations it charters, as well as in ensuring that investors in such corporations have an effective voice in corporate affairs.” In other words, state regulation not only protects shareholders, but also protects investor and entrepreneurial confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of the state corporation law.
According to the Supreme Court’s CTS decision, the country as a whole benefits from state regulation in this area, as well. As Justice Powell explained in that case, the markets that facilitate national and international participation in ownership of corporations are essential for providing capital not only for new enterprises but also for established companies that need to expand their businesses. This beneficial free market system depends at its core upon the fact that corporations generally are organized under, and governed by, the law of the state of their incorporation. This is so in large part because ousting the states from their traditional role as the primary regulators of corporate governance would eliminate a valuable opportunity for experimentation with alternative solutions to the many difficult regulatory problems that arise in corporate law. As Justice Brandeis pointed out many years ago, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of country.” So long as state legislation is limited to regulation of firms incorporated within the state, as it generally is, there is no risk of conflicting rules applying to the same corporation. Experimentation thus does not result in confusion, but instead may lead to more efficient corporate law rules.
In contrast, the uniformity imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley will preclude experimentation with differing modes of regulation. As such, there will be no opportunity for new and better regulatory ideas to be developed—no “laboratory” of federalism. Instead, we will be stuck with rules that may well be wrong from the outset and, in any case, may quickly become obsolete.
The point is not merely to restate the race to the top argument. Competitive federalism promotes liberty as well as shareholder wealth. When firms may freely select among multiple competing regulators, oppressive regulation becomes impractical. if one regulator overreaches, firms will exit its jurisdiction and move to one that is more laissez-faire. In contrast, when there is but a single regulator, such that exit by the regulated is no longer an option, an essential check on excessive regulation is lost.
In other words, by promoting the economic freedom to pursue wealth, competitive federalism does more than just expand the economic pie. A legal system that pursues wealth maximization necessarily must allow individuals freedom to pursue the accumulation of wealth. Economic liberty, in turn, is a necessary concomitant of personal liberty—the two have almost always marched hand in hand. The pursuit of wealth has been a major factor in destroying arbitrary class distinctions, moreover, by enhancing personal and social mobility. At the same time, the manifest failure of socialist systems to deliver reasonable standards of living has undermined their viability as an alternative to democratic capitalist societies in which wealth maximization is a paramount societal goal. Accordingly, it seems fair to argue that the economic liberty to pursue wealth is an effective means for achieving a variety of moral ends.
In turn, the modern public corporation has turned out to be a powerful engine for focusing the efforts of individuals to maintain the requisite sphere of economic liberty. Those whose livelihood depends on corporate enterprise cannot be neutral about political systems. Only democratic capitalist societies permit voluntary formation of private corporations and allot them a sphere of economic liberty within which to function, which gives those who value such enterprises a powerful incentive to resist both statism and socialism. As Michael Novak observes, private property and freedom of contract were “indispensable if private business corporations were to come into existence.” In turn, the corporation gives “liberty economic substance over and against the state.”