This post provides an overview of shareholder proposals submitted to public companies during the 2014 proxy season, including statistics, notable decisions from the staff (the “Staff”) of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) on no-action requests and information about litigation regarding shareholder proposals.
Posts Tagged ‘Board independence’
State Street Global Advisors (“SSgA”) believes that board refreshment and planning for director succession are key functions of the board. Some markets such as the UK, have adopted best practices on a comply-or-explain basis that aim to limit a director’s tenure to nine years of board service, beyond which, investors may question a director’s independence from management. Such best practices have helped lower average board tenure, and have encouraged boards to focus on refreshment of director skills and plan for director succession in an orderly manner.
The issue of director tenure recently has garnered significant attention both in the United States and abroad. U.S. public companies generally do not have specific term limits on director service, though some indicate in their bylaws a “mandatory” retirement age for directors—typically between 72 and 75—which can generally be waived by the board of directors. Importantly, there are no regulations or laws in the United States under which a long tenure would, by itself, prevent a director from qualifying as independent.
Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and other shareholder activist groups are beginning to include director tenure in their checklists as an element of director independence and board composition. Yet even these groups acknowledge that there is no ideal term limit applicable to all directors, given the highly fact-specific context in which an individual director’s tenure must be evaluated. In our view, director tenure is an issue that is best left to boards to address individually, both as to board policy, if any, and as to specific directors, should the need arise. Boards should and do engage in annual director evaluations and self-assessment, and shareholders are best served when they do not attempt to artificially constrain the board’s ability to exercise its judgment and discretion in the best interests of the company. In addition, much the same way boards consider CEO succession issues, boards are beginning to address director succession issues as well.
In our recent NBER working paper, Powerful Independent Directors, we find that independent directors who are powerful elevate shareholder wealth—in part at least by preventing value-destroying decisions such as economically unsound merger bids and excessive free cash flow retention, by meaningfully linking CEO pay to firm performance, and by forcing out underperforming CEOs. Independent directors who are not powerful do none of these things. These findings may explain why a robust link between independent directors on boards and firm value has proved so elusive; and thereby reconcile Fama’s (1980) thesis that independent directors can maximize shareholder valuations by advising and, where necessary, disciplining or replacing CEOs with the observation of Bebchuk and Fried (2006) that independent directors often do no such thing.
The private equity firm that was the controlling stockholder of Orchard Enterprises effected a squeeze-out merger of the minority public stockholders. Two years later, a Delaware appraisal proceeding determined that Orchard’s shares at the time of the merger were worth more than twice as much as was paid in the merger. Public shareholders then brought suit, claiming that the directors who had approved the merger and the controlling stockholder had breached their fiduciary duties and should be held liable for damages. The Orchard decision  issued by the Delaware Chancery Court this past Friday adjudicates the parties’ respective motions for summary judgment before trial.
U.S. public companies face a host of challenges as they enter 2014. Here is our list of hot topics for the boardroom in the coming year:
- 1. Oversee strategic planning amid continuing fiscal uncertainty and game-changing advances in information technology
- 2. Address cybersecurity
- 3. Set appropriate executive compensation as shareholders increasingly focus on pay for performance and activists target pay disparity
- 4. Address the growing demands of compliance oversight
- 5. Assess the impact of health care reform on the company’s benefit plans and cost structure
- 6. Determine whether the CEO and board chair positions should be separated
- 7. Ensure appropriate board composition in light of increasing focus on director tenure and diversity
- 8. Cultivate shareholder relations and strengthen defenses as activist hedge funds target more companies
- 9. Address boardroom confidentiality
- 10. Consider whether to adopt a forum selection bylaw
On November 26, 2013, the Nasdaq Stock Market filed a proposal to amend its listing rules implementing Rule 10C-1 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, governing the independence of compensation committee members.  Currently, Nasdaq Listing Rule 5605(d)(2)(A) and IM-5605-6 employ a bright line test for independence that prohibits compensation committee members from accepting directly or indirectly any consulting, advisory or other compensatory fees from the company or any subsidiary. The requirement is subject to exceptions for fees received for serving on the board of directors (or any of its committees) or fixed amounts of compensation under a retirement plan for prior service with the company provided that such compensation is not contingent on continued service.
The Florida State Board of Administration (the “SBA”) takes steps on behalf of its participants, beneficiaries, retirees, and other clients to strengthen shareowner rights and promote leading corporate governance practices among its equity investments in both U.S. and international capital markets. The SBA adopts and reports clearly stated, understandable, and consistent policies to guide its approach to key issues. These policies are disclosed to all clients and beneficiaries.
The SBA supports the adoption of internationally recognized governance practices for well-managed corporations including independent boards, transparent board procedures, performance-based executive compensation, accurate accounting and audit practices, and policies covering issues such as succession planning and meaningful shareowner participation. The SBA also expects companies to adopt rigorous stock ownership and retention guidelines, and implement well designed incentive plans with disclosures that clearly explain board decisions surrounding executive compensation.
Reputation concerns create strong incentives for independent directors to be viewed externally as capable monitors as well as to retain their most valuable directorships. In our paper, Reputation Incentives of Independent Directors: Impacts on Board Monitoring and Adverse Corporate Actions, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we extend this literature significantly by examining the effects of differential reputation incentives across firms that arise when a director holds multiple directorships.
Firms having boards composed of a greater portion of independent directors for whom this directorship represents one of their most prestigious are associated with firm actions known to reward directors and are negatively associated with firm actions known to be costly to director reputations. Specifically, they are associated with a lower likelihood of covenant violations, earnings management, earnings restatements, shareholder class action suits and dividend reductions. In addition, we also find they are positively associated with stock repurchases and dividend increases.
Research on the composition and structure of the board of directors is a thriving subject in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The discussion thus far has assumed that finding the right board members is extremely important because they tend to enhance corporate strategy and decision-making. Consider the case of Apple’s board. Following Steve Jobs’ return to the firm in 1997, he understood well the important role of the board of directors to both improve company productivity and build relationships with its suppliers and customers. In order for the board of directors to become a competitive advantage and help carry Apple forward, its members needed to have a thorough understanding of the computer industry and the firm’s products. Accordingly, a change in the composition of the board of directors was arguably a necessary first step to bring back focus, relevance and interaction (with the outside world) to the company in its journey to introduce disruptive innovations and creative products to its customers. The result was impressive: Between August 6th, 1997 (the day the “new” board was introduced) and August 23rd, 2011 (the last day of Jobs as the CEO of Apple), the stock price soared from $25.25 to $360.30, increasing 1,327 per cent.