Multiple Classes of Stock and the Public Company

In March 2017, Snap Inc. completed its IPO, selling only non-voting Class A common shares to the investing public and beginning an ongoing discussion of the viability and morality of multiple classes of stock in the public company setting. No other company has gone public with non-voting stock on a U.S. exchange.  Although Facebook and Alphabet have dual-class stock structures, shareholders still have voting rights, even though insiders hold substantial control with super-voting preferred stock.

Snap’s stock price was $10.79 on May 7, 2018, well below is IPO opening price of $17.00. Certainly the decline has a lot to do with the company’s floundering app, Snapchat, which famously lost $1.3 billion in value when reality star Kylie Jenner tweeted that she no longer used the app, but the negativity associated with the share structure has made it difficult to attract institutional investors, especially those with a history of activism. Although there was a net increase of $8.8 million in institutional ownership in the company for the quarter ending March 2018, the approximate 20% total institutional ownership is below average for the Internet software/services industry and the increase in the quarter resulted from purchases by 2 institutions where 8 others decreased their holdings.

Moreover, many institutions, including pension funds, have holdings in Snap because they buy index funds, including ETFs, and Snap is in the S&P 500. The Council of Institutional Investors has even sent Snap a letter urging it to reconsider its share structure.

The discussion has gained regulatory attention as well. On February 15, 2018, SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr. gave a speech entitled “Perpetual Dual-Class Stock: The Case Against Corporate Royalty” in which he talked about the detriments of closely held perpetual control stock in a public company.

Days prior to Commissioner Jackson’s speech, Commissioner Kara Stein gave a speech at Stanford University about the role of corporate shareholders.  Commissioner Stein posits that the relationship between a company and its shareholders should be mutual, including in areas involving cyber threats, board composition, shareholder activism and dual-class capital structures. Stein sees dual-class structures as purposefully disenfranchising shareholders and being inherently undemocratic.

Perhaps feeling the pressure, on May 2, 2018, Zynga founder Mark Pincus announced he will convert his super-voting preferred stock into common stock, eliminating the company’s dual-class structure.  As a result of the conversion, Pincus’ voting power was reduced from 70% to 10%. His prior 10% economic stake remains unchanged.

SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr.’s Speech: Perpetual Dual-Class Stock: The Case Against Corporate Royalty

On February 15, 2018, SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr., gave a speech entitled “Perpetual Dual-Class Stock: The Case Against Corporate Royalty” at the University of California, Berkley campus.  Commissioner Jackson began the substantive portion of his speech with a summary background of a dual-class stock structure.  I’ve supplemented his explanation with additional information.

Dual-class voting typically involves two more or more classes of stock, with one class having significantly more voting power than the others. The higher voting shares are often called “super-voting.” Typically, in a dual-class structure, the equity issued to the public is common equity with one vote per share and equity issued to insiders would be super-voting preferred stock. A company may also have other classes of preferred stock with various rights issued to different investors.  Snap’s issuance of non-voting common stock to the public takes this structure one step further.

Historically, the NYSE did not allow companies to go public with dual-class voting structures. However, the takeover battles in the 1980s resulted in a change in the rules to allow for insider and management anti-takeover voting protection. Today, it is common for companies to go public with dual classes of voting stock.  Public companies using dual-class are today worth more than $5 trillion, and more than 14% of the 133 companies that listed on U.S. exchanges in 2015 have dual-class voting. That compares with 12% of firms that listed on U.S. exchanges in 2014, and just 1% in 2005. Nearly half of the companies with dual-class shares give corporate insiders super-voting rights in perpetuity.

Commissioner Jackson acknowledges the reasons for a dual-class structure, and the desire by entrepreneurs and founders to go public while retaining control; however, he also quickly asserts that such a structure undermines accountability. Prior to accessing public markets, management control is beneficial in that it allows visionaries and entrepreneurs to innovate and disrupt industries without the short-term pressure of a loss of control over their efforts. However, perpetual outsized voting rights not only provide ultimate control to founders and entrepreneurs, but to their heirs as well, who may or may not be strong managers, entrepreneurs and visionaries.

Although many market players are recently strongly advocating for a change in rules to prohibit companies from going public with a dual-class structure, Commissioner Jackson advocates a change such that a dual-class structure has a time limit or expiration date. There may be benefits to management control for a period of time, but that benefit ultimately runs out after a company is public and certainly once the founding management retires, leaves, passes away or otherwise ceases their entrepreneurial run. He suggests that the exchanges propose amended rules in this regard.

Commissioner Jackson waxes philosophical pointing out the foundation of the United States origins, the Constitution and government structure, all of which are designed to allow for a change in regime and a vote by the masses. Even in public markets, power is not meant to continue in perpetuity, which is one of the reasons that the U.S. requires public companies to report and provide disclosure to investors and shareholders. Jackson likens perpetual super-voting stock as creating corporate royalty.

However, for the sake of the debate, I note that in the free market system, it is likely that if management that holds super-voting shares does not perform, the underlying business will lose value, consumers will stop buying the product, and institutions will stop owning the stock and investing. The corporate royalty would then be under self-preserving pressure to be acquired by a stronger competitor with a better management team.

In fact, Jackson continues his speech with analytics indicating that companies with super-voting insider control, do not perform as well as their counterparts. A recent study by Martijn Cremers, Beni Lauterbach, and Anete Pajuste entitled The Life-Cycle of Dual-Class Firms (Jan. 1, 2018) shows that the costs and benefits of dual-class structures change over time, with such companies trading at a premium shortly after the IPO, but decreasing over time.

Jackson’s staff studied 157 dual-class IPOs that occurred within the past 15 years.  Of the 157 companies, 71 had sunset provisions or provisions that terminated the dual-class structure over time, and 86 gave insiders control forever. Whereas the companies traded relatively equally for the first few years, after seven years, those with a perpetual dual-class structure traded at a substantial discount to the others. Furthermore, when a company with a perpetual dual-class structure voluntarily eliminated the second control class, there was a significant increase in valuation.

As mentioned, institutional investors and market participants have vocally opposed dual-class structures for public companies. In December 2017, the Investor as Owner Subcommittee of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee published a report entitled Discussion Draft: Dual Class and Other Entrenching Governance Structures in Public Companies strongly opposing the structure. In addition to its letter to Snap, the Council of Institutional Investors has published a page on its website discussing and advocating for one-share equal voting rights for public companies.

Furthermore, the FTSE Russell index will now exclude all companies whose float is less than 5% of total voting power, the S&P Dow will now exclude all dual-class companies and the MSCI will reduce dual-class companies from its indexes. Commissioner Jackson is concerned that excluding dual-class stock companies from indexes does more harm than good. Many Main Street investors own public equities through funds or ETFs that in turn either own or mirror indexes. By removing dual-class companies from index funds, Main Street investors lose the opportunity to invest in these companies, some of which are the most innovative in the country today.

Commissioner Jackson’s suggestion of finding a middle ground whereby a company could complete an IPO with a dual-class structure and allow its visionaries to build without short-term shareholder pressure, but then limiting that sole control to a defined period, was met with praise and approval. Several market participants, including the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee and the Council of Institutional Investors, made comments supporting the suggestion.

More on Preferred Equity

Although the topic of super-voting features in dual-class stock structures has been hotly debated recently, it is not the only feature that may be in preferred stock.  Preferred stock is the most commonly used investment instrument due to its flexibility. Preferred stock can be structured to offer all the characteristics of equity as well as of debt, both in financial and non-financial terms. It can be structured in any way that suits a particular deal. The following is an outline of some of the many features that can be included in a preferred stock designation:

  1. Dividends – a dividend is a fixed amount agreed to be paid per share based on either the face value of the preferred stock or the price paid for the preferred stock (which is often the same); a dividend can be in the form of a return on investment (such as 8% per annum), the return of investment (25% of all net profits until the principal investment is repaid) or a combination of both. Although a dividend can be structured substantially similar to a debt instrument, there can be legal impediments to a dividend payment and a creditor generally takes priority over an equity holder. The ability of an issuer to pay a dividend is based on state corporate law, the majority of which require that the issuer be solvent (have the ability to pay creditors when due) prior to paying a dividend. Accordingly, even though the issuer may have the contractual obligation to pay a dividend, it might not have the ability (either legally or monetarily) to make such payments;

– As a dividend may or may not be paid when promised, a dividend either accrues and cumulates (each missed dividend is owed to the preferred shareholder) or not (we didn’t get the dividend this quarter, but hopefully next);

– Although a dividend payment can be structured to be paid at any interval, payments are commonly structured to be paid no more frequently than quarterly, and often annually;

– Dividends on preferred stock are generally preferential, meaning that any accrued dividends on preferred stock must be fully paid before any dividends can be paid on common stock or other junior securities;

  1. Voting Rights – as discussed, preferred stock can be set up to establish any level of voting rights from no voting rights at all, voting rights on certain matters (sole vote on at least one board seat; voting rights as to the disposition of a certain asset but otherwise none), or super-voting rights (such as 10,000 to 1 or 51% of all votes);
  2. Liquidation Preferences – a liquidation preference is a right to receive a distribution of funds or assets in the event of a liquidation or sale of the company issuer.  Generally creditors take precedence over equity holders; however, preferred stock can be set up substantially similar to a debt instrument whereby a liquidation preference is secured by certain assets, giving the preferred stockholder priority over general unsecured creditors vis-à-vis that asset.  In addition, a liquidation preference gives the preferred stockholder a priority over common stockholders and holders of other junior equities. The liquidation preference is usually set as an amount per share and is tied into the investment amount plus accrued and unpaid dividends;

– In addition to a liquidation preference, preferred stockholders can partake in liquidation profits (for example, preferred stockholder gets entire investment back plus all accrued and unpaid dividends, plus 30% of all profits from the sale of the company issuer; or preferred stockholder gets entire investment back plus all accrued and unpaid dividends and then participates pro rata with common stockholders on any remaining proceeds (known as a participating liquidation preference);

  1. Conversion or exchange rights – a conversion or exchange right is the right to convert or exchange into a different security, usually common stock;

– Conversion rights include a conversion price which can be set as any mathematical formula, such as a discount to market (75% of the average 7-day trading price immediately prior to conversion); a set price per share (preferred stock with a face value of $5.00 converts into 5 shares of common stock thus $1.00 per share of common stock); or a valuation (converts at a company valuation of $30,000,000);

– Conversion rights are generally at the option of the stockholder, but the issuer can have such rights as well, generally based on the happening of an event such as a firm commitment underwriting (the issuer has the right to convert all preferred stock at a conversion price of $10.00 per share upon receipt of a firm commitment for the underwriting of a $50,000,000 IPO);

– The timing of conversion rights must be established (at any time after issuance; only between months 12 and 24; within 90 days of receipt of a firm commitment for a financing in excess of $10,000,000);

– conversion rights usually specify whether they are in whole or in part and, for public companies, limits are often set (conversion limited such that cannot own more than 4.99% of outstanding common stock at time of conversion);

  1. Redemption/put rights – a redemption right in the form of a put right is the right of the holder to require the issuer to redeem the preferred stock investment (to “put” the preferred stock back to the issuer); the redemption price is generally the face value of the preferred stock or investment plus any accrued and unpaid dividends; redemption rights generally kick in after a certain period of time (5 years) and provide an exit strategy for a preferred stock investor;
  2. Redemption/call rights – a redemption right in favor of the issuer is a call option (the issuer can “call” back the preferred stock); generally when the redemption right is in the form of a call a premium is placed on the redemption price (for example, 125% of face value plus any accrued and unpaid dividends or a pro rata share of 2.5 times EBITDA);
  3. Anti-dilution protection – anti-dilution protection protects the investor from a decline in the value of their investment as a result of future issuances at a lower valuation.  Generally the issuer agrees to issue additional securities to the holder, without additional consideration, in the event that a future issuance is made at a lower valuation such as to maintain the investors overall value of investment; an anti-dilution provision can also be as to a specific percent ownership (the holder will never own below 10% of the total issued capital of the issuer);
  4. Registration rights – registration rights refer to SEC registration rights and can include demand registration rights (the holder can demand that the issuer register their equity securities) or piggyback registration rights (if the issuer is registering other securities, it will include the holder’s securities as well);
  5. Transfer restrictions – preferred stock can be subject to transfer restrictions, either in the preferred stock instrument itself or separately in a shareholder’s or other contractual agreement; transfer restrictions usually take the form of a right of first refusal in favor of either the issuer or other security holders, or both;
  6. Co-sale or tag along rights – co-sale or tag-along rights are rights of holders to participate in certain sales of stock by management or other key stockholders;
  7. Drag-along rights – drag-along rights are the rights of the holder to require certain management or other key stockholders to participate in a sale of stock by the holder;
  8. Other non-financial covenants – preferred stock, either through the instrument itself or a separate shareholder or other contractual agreement, can contain a myriad of non-financial covenants, the most common being the right to appoint one or more persons to the board of directors and to otherwise assert control over management and operations; other such rights include prohibitions against related party transactions; information delivery requirements; non-compete agreements; confidentiality agreements; limitations on management compensation; limitations on future capital transactions such as reverse or forward splits; prohibitions against the sale of certain key assets or intellectual property rights; in essence non-financial covenants can be any rights that the preferred stockholder investor negotiates for.