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 ‘Holly Gregory’
Governance of public corporations continues to move in a more shareholder-centric direction. This is evidenced by the increasing corporate influence of shareholder engagement and activism, and shareholder proposals and votes. This trend is linked to the concentration of ownership in public and private pension funds and other institutional investors over the past 25 years, and has gained support from various federal legislative and regulatory initiatives. Most recently, it has been driven by the rise in hedge fund activism.
International Banking Regulators Reinforce Board Responsibilities for Risk Oversight and Governance Culture
In October 2014, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision of the Bank for International Settlements issued its consultative Guidelines [on] Corporate governance principles for banks (the “2014 Principles”). The 2014 Principles revise the Committee’s 2010 Principles for enhancing corporate governance (the “2010 Principles”), in which the Committee reflected on the lessons learned by many central banks and national bank supervisors from the global financial crisis of 2008-09, in particular with regard to risk governance practices and supervisory oversight at banks. The 2014 Principles also incorporate corporate governance developments in the financial services industry since the 2010 Principles, including the Financial Stability Board’s 2013 series of peer reviews and resulting peer review recommendations. The comment period for the 2014 Principles expires on January 9, 2015.
This post highlights certain themes in the 2014 Principles and identifies recent comments by U.S. banking regulators that indicate that supervised financial institutions can expect new regulations to address some of these themes.
Last month, the SEC announced that it brought enforcement actions primarily relating to Section 16(a) under the Securities Exchange Act against 34 defendants. The defendants were 13 individuals who were or had been officers or directors of public companies, five individual investors, ten investment funds/advisers and six public companies.
This post briefly discusses several noteworthy points regarding this development and also discusses practical steps that companies could consider taking in response.
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.
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.