Recently, Apple CEO and director, Tim Cook, discussed the company’s commitment to the environment, the blind, and making the world a better place. Cook supposedly told investors:
If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.
More forcefully, Cook said:
When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI.
In Cook’s first statement, he seems to be saying that ROI is one of the reasons (just not the only reason) Apple makes decisions. This appears to be a perfectly acceptable statement for a director in the day-to-day decision-making process to make. Could, however, Apple’s board of directors properly completely disregard ROI, as Cook’s second statement suggests?
While Apple is a California corporation, many states take their cues from Delaware on issues of corporate law. Two-former Delaware Chancellors, one of whom is the new Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, have reiterated the importance of considering shareholder value, at least for directors of Delaware corporations.
In eBay v. Newmark, former-Chancellor William Chandler stated that:
Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the Craigslist directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
In a similar vein, Chief Justice Leo Strine has written that:
[A]s a matter of corporate law, the object of the corporation is to produce profits for the stockholders…. the social beliefs of the managers, no more than their own financial interests, cannot be their end in managing the corporation.
(I note that a number of academics think the former-Chancellors' focus on shareholders is misplaced).
How much leeway does corporate law provide directors in focusing on non-shareholder interests? One might convincingly argue that even directors of public, Delaware-corporations are likely to avoid liability if they can make an argument that the decision could (possibly) lead to long-term value for the shareholders. Making such an argument would be relatively easy for Apple – likeminded customers, shareholders, and employees may become more committed to Apple following Apple's society-focused decisions. These likeminded shareholders may buy more shares and sue less frequently. Customers may buy more Apple products and goodwill may increase. Employee turnover may be reduced. All of this may increase profitability in the long-term. While a court is unlikely to challenge such an argument from Apple’s directors, is the argument an honest one? Are Apple's directors really making those decisions with a focus on profitability?
As regular readers know, I bow to no one as a defender of the shareholder wealth maximization norm (see, e.g., here). At the same time, however, I think Haskell is wrong here.
Consider that hoary chestnut Shlensky v. Wrigley, 237 N.E.2d 776 (Ill. App. 1968). Shlensky, a minority shareholder in the Chicago Cubs, challenged the decision by Wrigley, the majority shareholder, not to install lights at Wrigley Field. Shlensky claimed the Cubs were persistent money losers, which he attributed to poor home attendance, which in turn he attributed to the board’s refusal to install lights and play night baseball. According to Shlensky, Wrigley was indifferent to the effect of his continued intransigence on the team’s finances. Instead, Shlensky argued, Wrigley was motivated by his beliefs that baseball was a day-time sport and that night baseball might have a deteriorating effect on the neighborhood surrounding Wrigley Field.
Despite Shlensky’s apparently uncontested evidence that Wrigley was more concerned with interests other than those of the shareholders, the court did not even allow him to get up to bat. Instead, the court presumed that Wrigley’s decision was in the firm’s best interests. Indeed, the court basically invented reasons why a director might have made an honest decision against night baseball. The court opined, for example, “the effect on the surrounding neighborhood might well be considered by a director.” Again, the court said: “the long run interest” of the firm “might demand” protection of the neighborhood. Accordingly, Shlensky’s case was dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
But here is the critical point: The court did not require defendants to show either that of those considerations motivated their decisions or that the decision in fact benefited the corporation. To the contrary, the court acknowledged that its speculations in this regard were irrelevant dicta:
By these thoughts we do not mean to say that we have decided that the decision of the directors was a correct one. That is beyond our jurisdiction and ability. We are merely saying that the decision is one properly before directors and the motives alleged in the amended complaint showed no fraud, illegality or conflict of interest in their making of that decision.
As a result, the business judgment rule has the effect--although, in my view, not the intent--of protecting decisions like that made by Tim Cook from judicial review.
Put another way, my view is that current law allows boards of directors substantial discretion to consider the impact of their decisions on interests other than shareholder wealth maximization, but also that this discretion exists not as the outcome of conscious social policy but rather as an unintended consequence of the business judgment rule. This is why I argue that the business judgment rule sometimes has the effect of insulating a board of directors from liability when it puts the interests of nonshareholder constituencies ahead of those of shareholders, but deny that that is the rule’s intent.
What then is the rule's intent? As the Delaware supreme court has explained:
Under Delaware law, the business judgment rule is the offspring of the fundamental principle, codified in [Delaware General Corporation Law] § 141(a), the business and affairs of a Delaware corporation are managed by or under its board of directors.... The business judgment rule exists to protect and promote the full and free exercise of the managerial power granted to Delaware directors.
The business judgment rule thus operationalizes the intuition that fiat— i.e., centralization of decision-making authority—is the essential attribute of efficient corporate governance. As Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow explains, however, authority and accountability cannot be reconciled:
[Accountability mechanisms] must be capable of correcting errors but should not be such as to destroy the genuine values of authority. Clearly, a sufficiently strict and continuous organ of [accountability] can easily amount to a denial of authority. If every decision of A is to be reviewed by B, then all we have really is a shift in the locus of authority from A to B and hence no solution to the original problem.
The business judgment rule prevents such a shift in the locus of decision-making authority from boards to judges. It does so by establishing a limited system for case-by-case oversight in which judicial review of the substantive merits of those decisions is avoided. The court begins with a presumption against review. It then reviews the facts to determine not the quality of the decision, but rather whether the decision-making process was tainted by self-dealing and the like. The questions asked are objective and straightforward: Did the board commit fraud? Did the board commit an illegal act? Did the board self-deal? Whether or not the board exercised reasonable care is irrelevant, as well it should be. The business judgment rule thus erects a prophylactic barrier by which courts pre-commit to resisting the temptation to review the merits of the board’s decision.
The business judgment rule, however, has no application where the board of directors is disabled by conflicted interests. In such cases, concern for director accountability trumps protection of their discretionary authority. In corporate takeovers, for example, a well-known conflict of interest taints target company director decisionmaking. Not surprisingly, therefore, the law denies directors discretion to consider the interests of nonshareholder constituencies in the takeover setting. To be sure, the interests of shareholders and nonshareholder may be consistent in takeover fights, just as they are in many settings. In light of the directors’ conflict of interest, however, we can no longer trust them to make an unbiased assessment of those competing interests. The conflict between management and shareholder interests requires skepticism when management claims to be acting in the stakeholders’ best interests. A board decision to resist a hostile offer may have been motivated by concern for potentially affected nonshareholder constituencies, but it may just as easily have been motivated by the directors’ and managers’ concern for their own positions and perquisites. Selfish decisions thus easily could be justified by an appropriate paper trail of tears over the employees’ fate. Consequently, in the takeover setting, rigorous application of the shareholder wealth maximization norm properly becomes the standard of judicial review.
The eBay case Haskell cites, for example, is a takeover case (in part) in which enhanced scrutiny was brought to bear. But no such enhanced scrutiny would be applicable to Tim Cook's decision.
Granted, he would have been wise to be more temperate in his remarks (compare Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., where Ford's intemperate remarks about his shareholders needing to be happy with whatever he chose to gave them got himn in trouble), but there's no prospect of liability here.