Recently issued SEC staff guidance addresses concerns that have been raised about proxy advisory firms by emphasizing that the investment adviser that retains and pays a proxy advisory firm is uniquely positioned to monitor the proxy advisory firm and is required to actively oversee the firm if it wants to benefit from the firm’s services to discharge its fiduciary duty. As a result of the greater oversight exercised by all of their investment adviser clients, the proxy advisory firms will presumably respond by enhancing their policies, processes and procedures, as well as the transparency of these policies, processes and procedures. In turn, the corporate community may indirectly benefit to some degree.
Posts Tagged ‘Holly Gregory’
Corporations today are routinely subject to expensive shareholder litigation for which shareholders ultimately foot the bill. Even weak shareholder claims pose significant costs and uncertainty, and exert significant settlement pressures, on corporations. Several recent state court decisions, however, underscore the potential for corporate bylaws, including those adopted by boards, to reduce incentives for the plaintiffs’ bar to file such lawsuits:
- The Delaware Court of Chancery has upheld, at least as a general matter, the statutory and contractual validity of board-adopted bylaws that seek to limit the forum for intra-corporate litigation.
- State courts in Louisiana, New York and Illinois have, in turn, enforced Delaware exclusive forum clauses.
- The Delaware Supreme Court has upheld the statutory and contractual validity of bylaws that allocate the cost of intra-corporate litigation to a losing plaintiff.
- A state court in Maryland has upheld a corporate bylaw that requires the arbitration of intra-corporate disputes.
On February 12, the White House released the widely anticipated Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (“the Framework”). Developed pursuant to Executive Order 13636 (issued in February 2013), the Framework strongly encourages companies across the financial, communications, chemical, transportation, healthcare, energy, water, defense, food, agriculture, and other critical infrastructure sectors to implement and comply with its voluntary standards. The provisions set forth in the Framework may establish a new baseline for industry standard practices, and may impact or guide FTC enforcement actions and plaintiff data breach lawsuits.
As the fallout from the financial crisis recedes and both institutional investors and corporate boards gain experience with expanded corporate governance regulation, the coming year holds some promise of decreased tensions in board-shareholder relations. With governance settling in to a “new normal,” influential shareholders and boards should refocus their attention on the fundamental aspects of their roles as they relate to the creation of long-term value.
Institutional investors and their beneficiaries, and society at large, have a decided interest in the long-term health of the corporation and in the effectiveness of its governing body. Corporate governance is likely to work best in supporting the creation of value when the decision rights and responsibilities of shareholders and boards set out in state corporate law are effectuated.
On November 21, 2013, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) released updates to its proxy voting policies for the 2014 proxy season, effective for meetings held on or after February 1, 2014.  In addition, ISS has requested that companies notify it by December 9, 2013 of any changes to a company’s self-selected peer companies for purposes of benchmarking CEO compensation for the 2013 fiscal year.
This post provides guidance to US companies on how to address ISS policy changes and also highlights recent developments regarding potential regulation or self-regulation of proxy advisory firms.
The amendments to ISS proxy voting policies for the 2014 proxy season relate to:
In our annual missive last year, we wrote about the need to restore trust in our system of corporate governance generally and in relations between boards of directors and shareholders specifically. We continue to be troubled by the tensions that have developed over roles and responsibilities in the corporate governance framework for public companies. The board’s fundamental mandate under state law – to “manage and direct” the operations of the company – is under pressure, facilitated by federal regulation that gives shareholders advisory votes on subjects where they do not have decision rights either under corporate law or charter. Some tensions between boards and shareholders are inherent in our governance system and are healthy. While we are concerned about further escalation, we do not view the current relationship between boards and shareholders as akin to a battle, let alone a revolution, as some media rhetoric about a “shareholder spring” might suggest. However, we do believe that boards and shareholders should work to smooth away excesses on both sides to ensure a framework in which decisions can be made in the best interests of the company and its varied body of shareholders.
Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) and Glass Lewis & Co. have each made several important revisions to their proxy voting policies for the 2013 proxy season. ISS released new and updated FAQs relating to application of ISS proxy voting policies to compensation (including peer groups and realizable pay), board responsiveness to shareholder proposals, hedging and pledging of company stock, and other matters. This post provides guidance to US companies on how to address these policy changes.
This month marked an important milestone in the development of securities law at its newest frontier: social media. For the first time, the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a Wells Notice based on a social media communication. This Wells Notice, which notified Netflix, Inc. and its CEO of the Enforcement Division’s intent to recommend an enforcement case to the Commission, demonstrates the potential for liability arising from disclosures by corporate officers through social media. Although the SEC itself uses social media to disclose important information, the agency has yet to offer formal guidance concerning the use of social media to communicate with the investing public. For this reason, the outcome of the SEC’s investigation into Netflix and its CEO’s social media usage will prove instructive to issuers, directors, corporate officers, investors, and members of the securities and white collar bars.
Although discussions continue to be robust about effective corporate governance practices, review of the aspirational governance principles and guidelines issued by influential board, management and investor affiliated associations and pension funds indicates significant areas of agreement. Areas of apparent agreement include, for example, the appropriate voting standard in director elections (majority voting in uncontested elections with a director resignation policy, plurality for contested elections), the need for some form of independent board leadership (whether in the form of an independent chair or lead or presiding director) and the importance of formal board evaluation processes.
The Comparison of Corporate Governance Principles & Guidelines from Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP highlights the convergence in views about effective governance practices and structures, as well as remaining areas of disagreement, by providing a side-by-side look at suggestions for board structure and practice from influential players in the investor, board and management communities. The Comparison shows a range of structures and practices that are generally acceptable, while reflecting general agreement that “one size does not fit all.”
Concerns about the responsible use of corporate power remain high in the wake of the financial crisis. Although these concerns have been focused primarily on the financial sector, there is spillover to corporations in every industry. Tough economic conditions, slow job growth, political dysfunction and general uncertainties about the future continue to undermine investor confidence and fuel public distrust (with Occupy Wall Street an example). This in turn intensifies the scrutiny of corporate actions and board decisions, and may skew the regulatory environment in which companies compete.
All corporate governance participants – boards, executive officers, shareholders, proxy advisors, regulators and politicians – have both an interest and a role to play in rebuilding trust in the corporations that are the engine of our economy. In our annual reflection, we offer thoughts on how, without the need for regulatory intervention, boards and shareholders can seize the opportunity to rebuild trust and, by doing so, help resolve some of the tensions that are stalling our economic recovery.