As the 2015 proxy season approaches, the dominant theme appears to be the interaction between directors and investors. Though, traditionally, there was little to no direct engagement, recent experience indicates that communication between these two groups is now on the rise, in some cases resulting in collaboration. This is potentially a beneficial development, particularly insofar as it may help companies and long-term investors work together to resist pressure from activist shareholders seeking short-term profits. In the current environment where activists and hedge funds appear to wield unprecedented financial and political leverage, and the influence of proxy advisors is as significant as it is controversial, the predominant trend seems to be “toward diplomacy rather than war.” Organizations such as the Shareholder-Director Exchange, which began last year to offer guidance to shareholders and boards on direct engagement, are promoting policies that may reduce the incidence, duration, and severity of contentious public disagreements.
Posts Tagged ‘David Katz’
A number of U.S. companies have recently received “proxy access” shareholder proposals submitted under SEC Rule 14a-8. Many of the recipients have been targeted under the New York City Comptroller’s new “2015 Boardroom Accountability Project,” which is seeking to install proxy access at 75 U.S. publicly traded companies reflecting diverse industries and market capitalizations. Underlying the Comptroller’s selection of targets is a stated focus on climate change, board diversity and executive compensation.
A federal district court today ruled that serious questions existed as to the legality of Pershing Square’s ploy to finance Valeant’s hostile bid for Allergan. Allergan v. Valeant Pharmaceuticals Int’l, Inc., Case No. SACV-1214 DOC (C.D. Cal. November 4, 2014).
As we wrote about in April, Pershing Square and Valeant hatched a plan early this year attempting to exploit loopholes in the federal securities laws to enable Pershing Square to trade on inside information of Valeant’s secret takeover plan, creating a billion dollar profit at the expense of former Allergan stockholders that could then be used to fund the hostile bid. Since then, Pershing Square and Valeant have trumpeted their maneuver as a new template for activist-driven hostile dealmaking.
The national and economic security of the United States depends on the reliable functioning of critical infrastructure. Cybersecurity threats exploit the increased complexity and connectivity of critical infrastructure systems, placing the Nation’s security, economy, and public safety and health at risk. Similar to financial and reputational risk, cybersecurity risk affects a company’s bottom line. It can drive up costs and impact revenue. It can harm an organization’s ability to innovate and to gain and maintain customers.
—National Institute for Standards and Technology, Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, Version 1.0
In today’s technology driven environment, public companies must constantly confront the challenge of cybersecurity, in its complex, varied, and ever-adapting forms. Cybersecurity breaches regularly fill the headlines, the costs of cybercrime are skyrocketing, and the repercussions of corporate cyber-attacks are felt all the way from chief executives to retail customers. President Barack Obama has stated that “the private sector and the government can, and should, work together to meet this shared challenge,” while FBI Director Robert S. Mueller has described “the critical role the private sector must play in cyber security.” As companies become increasingly dependent on networked technology, and as an expanding number of people conduct transactions and other activities online, cybersecurity will continue to grow in importance for the business community, for the global economy, and for society at large.
Yesterday evening, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) announced its third iteration of the Governance QuickScore product, with QuickScore 3.0 scheduled to be launched on November 24, 2014 for the 2015 proxy season. Companies will have from November 3rd until 8pm Eastern time on November 14th to verify the underlying raw data and submit updates and corrections through ISS’s data review and verification site. ISS currently plans to release the new ratings on November 24th for inclusion in proxy research reports issued to institutional shareholders. Ratings should be updated based on companies’ public disclosures during the calendar year.
In a recent decision, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio invoked federal procedural law to enforce a board-adopted forum selection bylaw. North v. McNamara, No. 1:13-cv-833 (S.D. Ohio Sept. 19, 2014). In so ruling, the court recognized that such bylaws can promote “cost and efficiency benefits that inure to the corporation and its shareholders by streamlining litigation into a single forum.”
The litigation involves Chemed, a Delaware corporation headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. In August 2013, the corporation’s board adopted a bylaw selecting any state or federal court in Delaware as the exclusive forum for intracorporate litigation. Several months later, a stockholder filed a derivative suit in federal court in Delaware on behalf of the corporation challenging certain conduct dating back to 2010. Shortly thereafter, a different stockholder filed substantially similar litigation, also on behalf of the corporation, against the same defendants concerning the same conduct in Ohio federal court. Invoking the bylaw, defendants moved to transfer the case to the Delaware federal district court under the federal venue statute, essentially seeking to consolidate it with the earlier-filed Delaware federal action.
As 2014 winds down and 2015 approaches, proxy advisory firms—and the investment managers who hire them—are finding themselves under increased scrutiny. Staff guidance issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission at the end of June and a working paper published in August by SEC Commissioner Daniel M. Gallagher both indicate that oversight of proxy advisory services will be a significant focus for the SEC during next year’s proxy season. Under the rubric of corporate governance, annual proxy solicitations have become referenda on an ever-widening assortment of corporate, social, and political issues, and, as a result, the influence and power of proxy advisors—and their relative lack of accountability—have become increasingly problematic. The SEC’s recent actions and statements suggest that the tide may be turning. Proxy advisory firms appear to be entering a new era of increasing accountability and potentially decreasing influence, possibly with further, more significant, SEC action to come.
Just over a year ago, the Delaware Court of Chancery upheld the facial validity of exclusive forum bylaws adopted by corporate boards as a means of rationalizing stockholder litigation. In the time since Chancery’s landmark Chevron opinion, numerous corporations have adopted exclusive forum bylaws, and courts in New York, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, and California have enforced such bylaws against stockholders bringing duplicative lawsuits in violation of their terms. The result, as one commentator recently noted, has been to disincentivize duplicative filings and reduce the concomitant litigation “deal tax” on merging parties. Yet, despite this progress, pernicious multijurisdictional litigation persists. A recent decision from a court in Oregon (Roberts v. TriQuint SemiConductor, Inc., No. 1402-02441 (Or. Cir. Ct. Aug. 14, 2014)) illustrates the potential harm from such litigation and the importance of continued authoritative articulation of the law to ensure the efficacy of exclusive forum bylaws.
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.
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.