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.
Posts Tagged ‘Investment advisers’
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.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission) issued a cease and desist order on June 16, 2014 (the Order) against Paradigm Capital Management, Inc. (Paradigm) and its founder, Director, President and Chief Investment Officer, Candace King Weir (Weir).  The Order alleged that Weir caused Paradigm’s hedge fund client, PCM Partners L.P. II (Fund), to engage in certain transactions (Transactions) with a proprietary account (Trading Account) at the Fund’s prime broker, C.L. King & Associates, Inc. (C.L. King). Paradigm and C.L. King were allegedly under the common control of Weir. The Order further alleged that, because of Weir’s personal interest in the Transactions and the fact that the committee designated to review and approve the Transactions on behalf of the Fund was conflicted, Paradigm failed to provide the Fund with effective disclosure and failed effectively to obtain the Fund’s consent to the Transactions, as required under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (Advisers Act).
Our mid-year report one year ago presented an exciting opportunity to discuss a time of great change at the SEC. A new Chair and a new Director of Enforcement had recently assumed the reins and begun making bold policy pronouncements. One year later, things have stabilized somewhat. The hot-button issues identified early in the new SEC administration—admissions for settling parties, a growing number of trials (and, for the agency, trial losses), and a renewed focus on public company accounting—remain the leading issues a year later, albeit with some interesting developments.
On June 30, 2014, the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (the “Commission”) Division of Investment Management and Division of Corporation Finance (the “Staff”) issued much-anticipated guidance regarding proxy advisory firms, in the form of 13 Questions and Answers. Published in Staff Legal Bulletin No. 20 (“SLB 20″), available at http://www.sec.gov/interps/legal/cfslb20.htm, the Staff’s guidance addresses both (1) investment advisers’ responsibilities in voting client proxies and retaining proxy advisory firms (Questions 1-5), and (2) the availability and requirements of two exemptions to the proxy rules often relied upon by proxy advisory firms (Questions 6-13).
The conduct of investment bankers often arouses suspicion and criticism. In Toys “R” Us, the Delaware Court of Chancery referred to “already heightened suspicions about the ethics of investment banking firms”  ; in Del Monte, it criticized investment bankers for “secretly and selfishly manipulat[ing] the sale process to engineer a transaction that would permit [their firm] to obtain lucrative … fees”;  and, more recently, in Del Monte, it criticized a prominent investment banker for failing to disclose a material conflict of interest with his client, a failure the Court described as “very troubling” and “tend[ing] to undercut the credibility of … the strategic advice he gave.”  While the investment bankers involved in the cases inevitably escaped court-imposed sanctions, because they were not defendants, they also escaped sanctions from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the regulator primarily responsible for overseeing their conduct.
In response to the prevalence of social media sites featuring consumer reviews of various types of businesses, on March 28, 2014, the SEC’s Division of Investment Management published an IM Guidance Update to address concerns arising from the rating of investment advisers on such social media sites (the “Guidance Update”). Specifically, the Guidance Update clarifies the application of the testimonial rule to social media sites featuring consumer reviews, such as Yelp and Angie’s List, and sets forth the parameters for the use of such sites by investment advisers in connection with their marketing materials.
As a practicing securities lawyer for more than thirty years, I have in the past advised boards of directors, including mutual fund boards, and I am well acquainted with the important work that you do. I also understand the essential role that independent directors play in ensuring good corporate governance. As fiduciaries, you play a critical role in setting the appropriate tone at the top and overseeing the funds’ business. Thus, I commend the Mutual Fund Directors Forum’s efforts in providing a platform for independent mutual fund directors to share ideas and best practices. Improving fund governance is vital to investor protection and maintaining the integrity of our financial markets.
The increase in institutional ownership of corporate stock has led to questions about the role of financial intermediaries in the corporate governance process. This post focuses on the issues associated with the so-called “separation of ownership from ownership,” arising from the growth of three types of institutional investors, pensions, mutual funds, and hedge funds.
To a great extent, individuals no longer buy and hold shares directly in a corporation. Instead, they invest, or become invested, in any variety of institutions, and those institutions, whether directly or through the services of one or more investment advisers, then invest in the shares of America’s corporations. This lengthening of the investment chain, or “intermediation” between individual investor and the corporation, translates into additional agency costs for the individual investor and the system, as control over investment decisions becomes increasingly distanced from those who bear the economic benefits and risks of owners as principals. The rapid growth in intermediated investments has led to concerns about the consequences of intermediation and the role of institutional investors and other financial intermediaries in the corporate governance process. These concerns are particularly relevant against a background of increasing demands for shareholder engagement and involvement in the governance of America’s corporations.
The SEC settled claims against a registered investment adviser (the “Adviser”), its affiliated broker-dealer (the “Broker-Dealer”), and the founder, owner, and president of each (the “CEO”) that related to (1) investments in Class A shares of underlying funds made by funds managed by the Adviser (the “Funds”) and (2) commissions paid by the Funds to the Broker-Dealer for trades in exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). Without admitting or denying its findings, the Respondents agreed to the settlement order (the “Order”), available here, which this post summarizes.