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 ‘ISS’
In our paper, Influence of Public Opinion on Investor Voting and Proxy Advisors, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we address the question of how public opinion influences the proxy voting process. We find strong influence of public opinion on the evolution in both investor voting behavior and proxy advisor recommendations. Therefore, our results suggest that an additional channel through which the public can communicate with corporate management (and potentially influence corporate behavior) is the proxy voting process. We provide new evidence that media coverage can also influence firm behavior through the voting channel. This channel is important because media coverage captures the attention of proxy advisors, institutional investors and individual investors, and is thus reflected in recommendations and votes.
“Proxy season” is stretching longer and longer with each passing year as the “off season” has become the season to engage with institutional shareholders and to prepare for the next season. With 2014’s annual meetings now largely completed and the 2015 proxy season on the horizon, now seems a good time to review lessons learned and themes from 2014. This Corporate Governance Update addresses some of the developments that shaped the proxy season in 2014 and discusses points worth considering as preparations for the 2015 season begin.
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.
During the 2014 proxy season, governance-related shareholder proposals continued to be common at U.S. public companies, including proposals calling for declassified boards, majority voting in director elections, elimination of supermajority requirements, separation of the roles of the CEO and chair, the right to call special meetings and the right to act by written consent. While the number of these proposals was down from 2012 and 2013 levels, this decline related entirely to fewer proposals being received by large-cap companies, likely due to the diminishing number of large companies that have not already adopted these practices. Smaller companies, at which these practices are less common, have not seen a similar decline and, if anything, are increasingly being targeted with these types of proposals.
The 2014 proxy season, like previous seasons, has provided shareholders of public US companies with an opportunity to vote on a number of corporate governance proposals and director elections. Throughout this proxy season, proxy advisory firms have provided shareholder vote recommendations “for” or “against” those proposals and “for” or to “withhold” votes for directors. Certain proxy advisory firms, such as Institutional Shareholders Services Inc. (“ISS”) and Glass, Lewis & Co., LLC (“Glass Lewis”), have also published updated corporate governance ratings reports on public companies, including evaluations of a company’s corporate governance risk profile.
The number, severity, and sophistication of cyber attacks—whether on our retail economy, our healthcare sector, our educational sector or, in fact, our government and defense systems—grows worse by the day. 
Among the most notable cyber breaches in the public company sphere was that hitting Target Corporation (40 million estimated credit and debit cards allegedly stolen, 70 million or more pieces of personal data also stolen, and a total estimated cost of the attack to date of approximately $300 million).  Justified or not, ISS has just issued a voting recommendation against the election of all members of Target’s audit and corporate responsibility committees—seven of its ten directors—at the upcoming annual meeting. ISS’s reasoning is that, in light of the importance to Target of customer credit cards and online retailing, “these committees should have been aware of, and more closely monitoring, the possibility of theft of sensitive information.” 
UNITE HERE proposals to opt out of Maryland Unsolicited Takeover Act have received resounding support from shareholders of Ashford Hospitality Prime.
Over the past two years, activist shareholder UNITE HERE, the hospitality workers’ union, has been winning corporate governance reforms at lodging REITs, which are nearly all incorporated in Maryland.
Several proposals ask boards to opt out of Maryland statutes which provide a range of anti-takeover tools. The Maryland Unsolicited Takeover Act (MUTA), for example, allows boards to classify at any time without shareholder approval.
UNITE HERE has argued that without opting out of MUTA—and requiring shareholder approval to opt in—a Maryland REIT has not truly declassified its board. The proposals to opt out of Maryland’s anti-takeover statutes have gained traction, with six proposals withdrawn after full or substantial implementation.
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.
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.