This has been called “the heyday of hedge fund activism,” and it is certainly true that today boards of directors must constantly be vigilant to the many and varied ways in which activist investors can approach a target. Commencing a proxy fight long has been an activist tactic, but it is now being used in a different way. Some hedge funds are engaging in proxy fights in order to exercise direct influence or control over the board’s decision-making as opposed to clearing the way for a takeover of the target company or seeking a stock buyback. In some cases, multiple hedge funds acting in parallel purchase enough target shares to hold a voting bloc adequate to elect their director nominees to the board. A recent Delaware case addressed a situation in which a board resisted a threat from hedge funds acting together in this manner. The court determined that a shareholder rights plan, or poison pill, could, in certain circumstances, be an appropriate response. As a general matter, boards of directors facing activist share accumulations and threats of board takeovers can take comfort in this latest affirmation of the respect accorded to an independent board’s informed business judgment.
Archive for the ‘Boards of Directors’ Category
Under Delaware’s corporate benefit doctrine, a stockholder who presents a meritorious claim to a board of directors may be entitled to attorneys’ fees if the stockholder’s efforts result in the conferring of a corporate benefit.  On June 20, 2014, the Delaware Chancery Court considered in Raul v. Astoria Financial Corporation  whether attorneys’ fees are warranted under this doctrine when a stockholder identifies potential deficiencies in executive compensation disclosures required by the SEC pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act “say on pay” provisions.  The court held that the alleged omissions at issue failed to demonstrate any breach of the Board of Directors’ fiduciary duties under Delaware law and accordingly the Plaintiff did not present a meritorious demand to the Board. This decision makes clear that the courts will not shift fees to a stockholder (and the stockholder’s law firm) who “has simply done the company a good turn by bringing to the attention of the board an action that it ultimately decides to take.” 
This post looks at results from 2,788 shareholder meetings held between January 1 and May 22, 2014. We provide data and analyses on areas such as share ownership composition, director elections, say-on-pay, proxy material distribution and the mechanics of shareholder voting. We also look at differences in proxy voting by company size.
With about three-quarters of the 2014 proxy season complete, voting results continue to show that public company executives and directors must remain vigilant regarding corporate governance matters. In comparison to last proxy-season at this time, large-cap ($10b+) companies have attained higher levels of shareholder support both for directors and for executive compensation plans. In contrast, support levels for executive compensation plans fell at mid-cap ($2b–$10b), small-cap ($300m–$2b) and micro-cap ($300m or less) companies, and support for directors fell at mid-cap companies.
Public companies increasingly are adopting “exclusive forum” bylaws and charter provisions that require their stockholders to go to specified courts if they want to make fiduciary duty or other intra-corporate claims against the company and its directors.
Exclusive forum provisions can help companies respond to such litigation more efficiently. Following most public M&A announcements, for example, stockholders file nearly identical claims in multiple jurisdictions, raising the costs required to respond. Buyers also feel the pain, since they typically bear the costs and may even be named in some of the proceedings. Exclusive forum provisions help address the increased costs, while allowing stockholders to bring claims in the specified forum.
During the 2014 proxy season, governance-related shareholder proposals continued to be common at U.S. public companies, including proposals calling for declassified boards, majority voting in director elections, elimination of supermajority requirements, separation of the roles of the CEO and chair, the right to call special meetings and the right to act by written consent. While the number of these proposals was down from 2012 and 2013 levels, this decline related entirely to fewer proposals being received by large-cap companies, likely due to the diminishing number of large companies that have not already adopted these practices. Smaller companies, at which these practices are less common, have not seen a similar decline and, if anything, are increasingly being targeted with these types of proposals.
Shareholder activism is the corporate topic du jour, be it in boardrooms, the media or Washington, D.C. While corporate boards and management need to understand the current environment and how we got here, their top priority is to develop comprehensive strategies for navigating the activism landscape. As activists have become more sophisticated, and activism more mainstream, approaches to dealing with activists are, by necessity, evolving.
In this year’s Foreword, Dougherty differentiates the need for directors to focus on their core mission of informed oversight and vigilance rather than merely reacting to the constant influx of “daily corporate governance commentary,” and explores other front-burner issues, such as the marked increase in SEC enforcement actions and other recent SEC initiatives; the continuing trend of class action suits as de facto settlement instruments; proxy advisory firm priorities for directors; and new guidance from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) that recommends that audit committee directors discuss internal auditing deficiencies with their auditors.
The SEC today has about 4,200 employees, located in Washington and 11 regional offices across the country, including one in San Francisco that is very ably led by Regional Director Jina Choi, who is here [June 23, 2014]. Many of you have likely had some contact with our Division of Corporation Finance, which, among other things, has the responsibility to review your periodic filings and your securities offerings. Some of you that work for or represent a company that we oversee know our staff in our National Exam Program, and I imagine a few of your companies know something about our Enforcement Division staff. Our other major divisions are Investment Management, Trading and Markets and the Division of Economic and Risk Analysis.
So that is just a quick snapshot of the structure of the SEC and as you undoubtedly know, the SEC has a lot on its regulatory plate that is relevant to you—completion of the mandated rulemakings under the Dodd Frank Act and JOBS Act, adopting a final rule on money market funds, enhancing the structure and transparency of our equity and fixed income markets, reviewing the effectiveness of disclosures by public companies, to name just a few. But what you may not be as focused on is the mindset of the agency on some other things that are also relevant to you as directors.
The Dodd-Frank Act was undoubtedly a thorough re-working of the regulatory paradigm for banks and other financial institutions. But no less resolute are the intentions of U.S. banking regulators to carry regulatory reform further, based in significant part on perceived “macroprudential” authority after Dodd-Frank. The new regulatory paradigm will increasingly leave behind bank regulation’s traditional moorings in the protection of federally insured deposits and safe and sound operation of banking organizations. Instead, “macroprudential” regulation will rest on the goals of protecting U.S. financial stability and reducing systemic risk—broad, malleable concepts that elude precise definition. It will seek to influence activities not just of banking organizations but also activities conducted by non-bank entities not traditionally subject to prudential regulation. And, according to an important speech given last week by Federal Reserve Governor Daniel K. Tarullo, the new regulatory paradigm embraces consideration of a potentially unprecedented expansion of the fiduciary duties of directors of banking institutions. This would give such directors very potent incentives to prioritize supervisory goals—including macroprudential objectives.
The 2014 proxy season, like previous seasons, has provided shareholders of public US companies with an opportunity to vote on a number of corporate governance proposals and director elections. Throughout this proxy season, proxy advisory firms have provided shareholder vote recommendations “for” or “against” those proposals and “for” or to “withhold” votes for directors. Certain proxy advisory firms, such as Institutional Shareholders Services Inc. (“ISS”) and Glass, Lewis & Co., LLC (“Glass Lewis”), have also published updated corporate governance ratings reports on public companies, including evaluations of a company’s corporate governance risk profile.