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.
Posts Tagged ‘David Katz’
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.
Three years ago we petitioned the SEC to modernize the beneficial ownership reporting rules under Section 13(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (see our rulemaking petition, our memos of March 7, 2011, April 15, 2011, March 3, 2008 and our article in the Harvard Business Law Review). Since we filed our petition, activist hedge funds have grown more brazen in exploiting the existing reporting rules to the disadvantage of ordinary investors.
With M&A activity expected to increase in 2014, shareholder activism is an important factor to be considered in the planning, negotiation, and consummation of corporate transactions. In 2013, a year of relatively low deal activity, it became clear that activism in the M&A context was growing in scope and ambition. Last year activists were often successful in obtaining board seats and forcing increases in deal consideration, results that may fuel increased efforts going forward. A recent survey of M&A professionals and corporate executives found that the current environment is viewed as favorable for deal-making, with executives citing an improved economy, decreased economic uncertainty, and a backlogged appetite for transactions. There is no doubt that companies pursuing deals in 2014—whether as a buyer or as a seller—will have to contend with activism on a variety of fronts, and advance preparation will be important.
Last week, the Delaware Court of Chancery reached the rare conclusion that an independent, disinterested board breached its fiduciary duties in connection with an arm’s-length, third-party, premium merger transaction. The decision, In re Rural Metro Corp. Stockholders Litig., C.A. No. 6350-VCL (Del. Ch. Mar. 7, 2014), which relies heavily on findings that the board’s financial advisor had undisclosed conflicts of interest, holds the advisor liable for aiding and abetting the breaches, but does not reach the question of whether the directors themselves could have been liable, as they settled before trial. The decision sends a strong message that boards should actively oversee their financial advisors in any sale process.
Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) has announced the governance factors and other technical specifications underlying its new Governance QuickScore 2.0 product, which ISS will apply to publicly traded companies for the 2014 proxy season. Companies have until 8pm ET on Friday, February 7th to verify the underlying raw data and can submit updates and corrections through ISS’s data review and verification site. ISS will release company ratings on Tuesday, February 18th, and the scores will be included in proxy research reports issued to institutional shareholders. While previous QuickScore ratings remained static between annual meeting periods, ISS has now committed to update ratings on an on-going basis based on a company’s public disclosures throughout the calendar year.
In our Age of Communication, confidential information is more easily exposed than ever before. Real-time communication tools and social media give everyone with Internet access the ability to publicize information widely, and confidential information is always at risk of inadvertent or intentional exposure. The current cultural emphasis on transparency and disclosure—punctuated by headline news of high-profile leakers and whistleblowers, and exacerbated in the corporate context by aggressive activist shareholders and their director nominees—has contributed to an atmosphere in which sensitive corporate information is increasingly difficult to protect. There is limited statutory or case law to guide boards and directors in this area, and there exists a range of opinions among market participants and media commentators as to whether leaking information (other than illegal insider tipping) is problematic at all.
Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) recently published its 2014 Corporate Governance Policy Updates, which would apply to annual meetings beginning in February 2014. ISS updated relatively few of its policies this year, but the changes largely represent a more measured, company-specific approach to corporate governance practices, which reflects a move by ISS to avoid “one-size-fits-all” policies and recommendations. ISS also announced a new consultation and comment period concerning potential policy changes applicable to the 2015 proxy season or beyond with respect to director tenure, director independence, independent chair shareholder proposals, equity-based compensation plans and auditor ratification.
2014 Policy Updates
Board Response to Majority Supported Shareholder Proposals. As announced last year, ISS evaluates a company’s response to shareholder proposals that receive a majority of shares cast in considering “withhold” recommendations against the full board, committee members or individual directors. With respect to such majority supported shareholder proposals, ISS will now make vote recommendations on director elections on a case-by-case basis and will no longer require boards to fully implement majority supported shareholder proposals in all cases. Instead, ISS will consider mitigating factors in cases involving less than full implementation, including the board’s articulated rationale for its response and level of implementation (with consideration of such rationales being a new factor not previously considered by ISS), disclosed shareholder outreach efforts by the board in the wake of the vote, the level of support and opposition for the proposal, actions taken, and the continuation of the underlying issue as a voting item on the ballot (as either shareholder or management proposals).
The Delaware Court of Chancery recently determined that forum selection provisions in corporate charters—much like forum selection bylaws—are presumptively valid, and provided guidance on the appropriate procedure to enforce such provisions against a stockholder who files suit in violation of them. Edgen Grp. Inc. v. Genoud, C.A. No. 9055-VCL (Del. Ch. Nov. 5, 2013) (Trans.).
The dispute arose after the Edgen Group announced that it had agreed to sell itself in a premium, all-cash, sales transaction to an unrelated third party. Edgen’s certificate of incorporation includes a provision that provides that any claim of breach of fiduciary duty by an Edgen stockholder must be filed in Delaware. Nevertheless, a putative class action challenging the merger was filed in Louisiana state court. In response, Edgen filed suit against the stockholder in Delaware, asking the Court of Chancery to enjoin him from proceeding in Louisiana.
While the number of women directors on U.S. public company boards has not risen dramatically since 2012, the issue of gender diversity on boards continued to gain momentum and global prominence over the last 12 months. Since we last discussed this issue, new legislative and non-governmental initiatives around the world have resulted in growing numbers of women directors and greater shareholder focus on board diversity and related disclosures. This issue is likely to become increasingly significant in 2014 and beyond, both in the United States and abroad.
Earlier this month, the European Commission moved a step closer to imposing a form of gender quota on major public companies in the European Union. Two committees of the European Parliament voted in favor of a proposal by the European Commission to require certain public companies to increase the representation of women on their boards. The proposed law applies only to large public companies, with no exceptions even for companies in which women compose less than 10 percent of the workforce, and, if adopted, provides for obligatory sanctions for failure to follow the proposed requirements.