• Shareholder proxy access is coming, and it will be the hottest issue of the 2010 proxy season. Public companies should expect, and be prepared for, the strong likelihood of shareholder proxy access in the 2010 proxy season.
• The SEC is scheduled to vote on a proposed shareholder proxy access rule tomorrow, May 20, 2009. We assume that Chairman Schapiro intends the rule to become final around the end of October—that is, in time for the 2010 proxy season.
• Senator Charles Schumer of New York has introduced a bill that, among other things, would confirm the SEC’s authority to adopt a proxy access rule and that would require the SEC to adopt rules directly regulating proxy access, rather than deferring to state law.
• The Delaware General Corporation Law has been amended to authorize companies expressly to adopt bylaws providing for shareholders access to the company’s proxy statement for director nominations.
• Most observers now believe the question is not whether there will be shareholder proxy access for 2010, but rather what it will look like. The shape of proxy access depends principally on whether the final version of the SEC rule:
• merely empowers shareholders to submit access proposals under Rule 14a-8;
• provides minimum standards for proxy access, leaving many of the details of implementation to state law and “private ordering;” or
• entirely pre-empts state law by creating a full-fledged and exclusive federal regime for proxy access.
• For those who accept that shareholder proxy access is a foregone conclusion, the key is the details of how shareholder access will be implemented—the so-called “workability” issues. Workability in the context of proxy access is far more complicated than it may first appear. However, it will be the key to whether proxy access becomes, as many of its supporters assert, a sparingly used device that has the effect of instilling greater accountability of directors or, as many of its opponents fear, the progenitor of countless election contests and divided and dysfunctional boards.
What is Proxy Access?
Shareholder proxy access is a proposed regime that would allow shareholders of a public company to include in a company’s proxy materials (proxy statement and proxy card) candidates for director nominated by the shareholder in opposition to the company’s candidates for election. Under the current regime, only the company’s nominees for election to the board of directors are included in company proxy materials. If a shareholder wants to nominate opposition candidates, it must prepare, pay for and distribute separate proxy materials. The obvious point of shareholder proxy access is to change the classic election contest paradigm and thereby facilitate shareholders’ ability on a virtually costless basis to elect directors who are not on the board slate.
Who are the Players?
There are six main groups of players in the proxy access struggle:
• Corporate governance activists, spearheaded by labor unions, state and local government pension funds and the Council of Institutional Investors, have been the main proponents pushing for proxy access. Although not as vocal, activist investors are also supporters of proxy access;
• The SEC, where Chairman Schapiro has announced that she views proxy access rulemaking as a key priority;
• Members of Congress, such as Senator Schumer and other prominent Democratic lawmakers, seem committed to creating a shareholder access regime of some type;
• The business community, led by the US Chamber of Commerce (the Center for Capital Market Competitiveness) and The Business Roundtable, has been strongly opposed to proxy access since the first SEC rule-making foray in 2003;
• The legal community, through its various bar associations and a number of law firms, will weigh-in on the latest round of the proxy access debate once the SEC issues its proposed rule; and
• The proxy advisory firms, most notably RiskMetrics, which will have a large say on shareholder voting on proxy access proposals and on contested director elections resulting from proxy access, are expected to support proxy access.
…continue reading: The Battle for Shareholder Access: The Current State of Play