The balance of power between shareholders and boards of directors is central to the U.S. public corporation’s success as an engine of economic growth, job creation and innovation. Yet that balance is under significant and increasing strain. In 2015, we expect to see continued growth in shareholder activism and engagement, as well as in the influence of shareholder initiatives, including advisory proposals and votes. Time will tell whether, over the long term, tipping the balance to greater shareholder influence will prove beneficial for corporations, their shareholders and our economy at large. In the near term, there is reason to question whether increased shareholder influence on matters that the law has traditionally apportioned to the board is at the expense of other values that are key to the sustainability of healthy corporations. These concerns underlie the issues that will define the state of governance in 2015 and likely beyond:
Posts Tagged ‘Boards of Directors’
In the paper Understanding Director Elections: Determinants and Consequences, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we provide an in-depth examination of uncontested director elections. Using a hand-collected and comprehensive sample for director elections held at S&P 500 firms over the 2003–2010 period, we examine the factors driving shareholder votes in uncontested director elections, the effect of these votes on firms’ actions and the impact of these actions on firm value. We make three contributions.
First, it is well known that recommendations by the proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) play a key role in determining the voting outcome. Yet, the question of what factors drive ISS recommendations and, thus, shareholder votes in uncontested director elections remains largely unanswered. To fill this gap, we use the reports ISS releases to its clients ahead of the annual meeting and identify the specific reasons underlying negative ISS recommendations. We find that 38.1% of the negative recommendations target individual directors (reflecting concerns with independence, meeting attendance and number of directorships), 28.6% target an entire committee (usually the compensation committee), and the remaining 33.3% target the entire board (mostly for lack of responsiveness to shareholder proposals receiving a majority vote in the past). A withhold recommendation by ISS is associated with about 20% more votes withheld, in line with prior research. More relevant to our study, there is substantial variation in votes withheld from directors conditional on the underlying reason. A board-level ISS withhold recommendation is associated with 25.48% more votes withheld, versus 19.73% and 16.44%, respectively, for committee- and individual-level withhold recommendations. The sensitivity of shareholder votes to ISS withhold recommendations is higher when there are multiple reasons underlying the withhold recommendation for the director (a proxy for more severe concerns) and at firms with poorer governance structures. These results suggest that shareholders do not blindly follow ISS recommendations but seem to take into account their rationale, their severity and other contextual factors (e.g. governance of the firm). However, cases of high votes withheld without a negative proxy advisor recommendation are rare, suggesting that voting shareholders only focus on the issues singled out by proxy advisors, potentially at the expense of other value-relevant factors (e.g. directors’ skill set, expertise and experience) for which proxy advisors have not (yet) developed voting guidelines (perhaps due to lack of sophistication or the inherent complexity of the issue).
Director-adopted bylaws that affect shareholders’ litigation rights have attracted both praise and controversy. Recent bylaws specify an exclusive judicial forum for litigation of corporate-governance claims, require that shareholder claims be arbitrated, and (most controversially) impose a one-way regime of fee shifting on shareholder litigants. To one degree or another, courts have legitimated each development, while commentators differ in their assessments. My paper, Forum-Selection Bylaws Refracted Through an Agency Lens, brings into clear focus issues so far blurred in the debate surrounding these types of bylaws.
1. How does the new approach differ from the previous approach?
Under the previous approach, ISS generally recommended for independent chair shareholder proposals unless the company satisfied all the criteria listed in the policy. Under the new approach, any single factor that may have previously resulted in a “For” or “Against” recommendation may be mitigated by other positive or negative aspects, respectively. Thus, a holistic review of all of the factors related to company’s board leadership structure, governance practices, and performance will be conducted under the new approach.
For example, under ISS’ previous approach, if the lead director of the company did not meet each one of the duties listed under the policy, ISS would have recommended For, regardless of the company’s board independence, performance, or otherwise good governance practices.
Under the new approach, in the example listed above, the company’s performance and other governance factors could mitigate concerns about the less-than-robust lead director role. Conversely, a robust lead director role may not mitigate concerns raised by other factors.
Fenwick & West has released its annual study about gender diversity on boards and executive management teams of companies in the technology and life science companies included in the Silicon Valley 150 Index and very large public companies included in the Standard & Poor’s 100 Index.  The Fenwick Gender Diversity Survey uses almost twenty years of data to provide a better picture of how women are participating at the most senior levels of public companies in Silicon Valley.
This year’s survey also introduces the Fenwick Gender Diversity Score™, a metric for assessing gender diversity overall within each of the indices. This composite score is based on data at the board and executive management level in the SV 150, top 15 companies of the SV 150 by revenue, and the S&P 100 over the nineteen years surveyed and in a set of categories selected as representative of the overall gender diversity picture.
On December 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of Delaware reversed the Delaware Court of Chancery’s November decision (discussed on the Forum here) to preliminarily enjoin for 30 days a vote by C&J Energy Services stockholders on a merger with Nabors Red Lion Limited, to allow time for C&J’s board of directors to explore alternative transactions. The Supreme Court decision clarifies that in a sale-of-control situation, Revlon and its progeny require an effective, but not necessarily active, market check, and there is no “specific route that a board must follow” in fulfilling fiduciary duties.
The decision also reaffirms the type of record that must be made to support a mandatory preliminary injunction, a type of injunction that requires parties to take affirmative actions as opposed to merely maintaining the status quo. The Court found that the Chancery Court “blue penciled” the merger agreement, and in the process stripped Nabors of its contractual rights, by effectively inserting a go-shop provision into the contract where the parties never agreed to one. Moreover, the Chancery Court improperly did so without finding that Nabors aided and abetted a fiduciary duty breach and based its holding only on disputed facts that were not adjudicated following a trial. While the decision does not break new ground, it is significant in better defining directors’ duties when selling control and articulating the limits of a court’s ability to issue mandatory preliminary injunctions.
Director tenure continues to gain attention in corporate governance as term limits become a cause célèbre. Proponents argue directors should no longer qualify as independent after 10 years of service, even though no law, rule or regulation prescribes a maximum term for directors.
We believe director term limits would be misguided and counterproductive. Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has increased its focus on the issue. ISS’ governance rating system, QuickScore, views tenure of more than nine years as an “excessive” length that potentially compromises director independence. ISS’ more moderate proxy voting guidelines, while opposing proposals for director term limits and mandatory retirement ages, indicates that ISS will “scrutinize” boards whose average tenure exceeds 15 years.
“If this incident [Sony] isn’t a giant wake-up call for U.S. corporations to get serious about cybersecurity, I don’t know what is. I’ve done more than two dozen speaking engagements around the world this year, and one point I always try to drive home is that far too few organizations recognize how much they have riding on their technology and IT operations until it is too late. The message is that if the security breaks down, the technology stops working—and if that happens the business can quickly grind to a halt. But you would be hard-pressed to witness signs that most organizations have heard and internalized that message, based on their investments in cybersecurity relative to their overall reliance on it.”
— Author Brian Krebs, Dec. 20, 2014.
“For those worried that what happened to Sony could happen to you, I have two pieces of advice. The first is for organizations: take this stuff seriously. Security is a combination of protection, detection and response. You need prevention to defend against low-focus attacks and to make targeted attacks harder. You need detection to spot the attackers who inevitably get through. And you need response to minimize the damage, restore security and manage the fallout.”
— Professor Bruce Schneier, Dec. 19, 2014.
Without a doubt, the last month in the world of cyber security has been tumultuous. It has now been confirmed that two companies in the United States have potentially been the subject of cyber-terrorism. Servers have been taken down or wiped out. Businesses have been significantly disrupted. Personally identifiable employee information has been shoveled by the pound onto Internet credit card “market” sites. The cyber security world has changed. And two of the most respected men in cyber security have both iterated similar messages: it is time for U.S. corporations to take this stuff seriously.
On Friday, December 19, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed a preliminary injunction entered by the Delaware Court of Chancery which had (a) barred, for 30 days, a stockholder vote to approve the combination of C&J Energy Services, Inc. and a division of Nabors Industries Ltd., (b) required C&J to conduct a “go-shop” during that period and (c) preemptively declared that such “go-shop” did not constitute a breach of the “no-shop” or other deal-protection provisions in the Nabors/C&J merger agreement. In reversing the injunction, the Supreme Court held that the C&J board likely satisfied its Revlon duties (to the extent such duties applied), notwithstanding the lack of a pre-signing market check, given that “[w]hen a board exercises its judgment in good faith, tests the transaction through a viable passive market check, and gives its stockholders a fully informed, uncoerced opportunity to vote to accept the deal, [Delaware courts] cannot conclude that the board likely violated its Revlon duties.”
A unanimous Delaware Supreme Court yesterday reaffirmed the ability of Delaware companies to organize corporate litigation in the Delaware courts. United Technologies Corp. v. Treppel, No. 127, 2014 (Del. Dec. 23, 2014) (en banc).
The case involved an action to produce corporate books and records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, an increasingly frequent preliminary battleground in derivative litigation. Following a familiar pattern, stockholder plaintiffs demanded access to certain books and records of United Technologies Corporation, allegedly to assist in their consideration of potential derivative litigation. UTC asked that all demanding stockholders agree to restrict use of the materials obtained in the inspection to cases filed only in Delaware, pointing out that litigation had already been filed relating to the same matters in the Delaware courts and that any derivative lawsuit would be governed by Delaware law. Then, further evincing its concern to organize corporate governance litigation in the courts of Delaware, UTC’s board adopted a forum selection bylaw during the pendency of the Section 220 lawsuit.