The challenges that directors of public companies face in carrying out their duties continue to grow. The end goal remains the same, to oversee the successful, profitable and sustainable operations of their companies. But the pressures that confront directors, from activism and short-termism, to ongoing shifts in governance, to global risks and competition, are many. A few weeks ago we issued an updated list of key issues that boards will be expected to deal with in the coming year (accessible at this link: The Spotlight on Boards, and discussed on the Forum here). Highlighted below are a few of the more significant issues and trends that we believe directors should bear in mind as they consider their companies’ priorities and objectives and seek to meet their companies’ goals.
Posts Tagged ‘Karessa Cain’
In many respects, the relentless drive to adopt corporate governance mandates seems to have reached a plateau: essentially all of the prescribed “best practices”—including say-on-pay, the dismantling of takeover defenses, majority voting in the election of directors and the declassification of board structures—have been codified in rules and regulations or voluntarily adopted by a majority of S&P 500 companies. Only 11 percent of S&P 500 companies have a classified board, 8 percent have a poison pill and 6 percent have not adopted a majority vote or plurality-vote-plus-resignation standard to elect directors. The activists’ “best practices” of yesterday have become the standard practices of today. While proxy advisors and other stakeholders in the corporate governance industry will undoubtedly continue to propose new mandates, we are currently in a period of relative stasis as compared to the sea change that began with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and unfolded over the last decade.
In other respects, however, the corporate governance landscape continues to evolve in meaningful ways. We may be entering an era of more nuanced corporate governance debates, where the focus has shifted from check-the-box policies to more complex questions such as how to strike the right balance in recruiting directors with complementary skill sets and diverse perspectives, and how to tailor the board’s role in overseeing risk management to the specific needs of the company. Shareholder engagement has been an area of particular focus, as both companies and institutional investors have sought to engage in more regular dialogue on corporate governance matters. The evolving trend here is not only the frequency and depth of engagement, but also a more fundamental re-thinking of the nature of relationships with shareholders and the role that these relationships play in facilitating long-term value creation. Importantly, this trend is about more than just expanding shareholder influence in corporate governance matters; instead, there is an emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of both companies and shareholders in facilitating thoughtful conversations instead of reflexive, off-the-shelf mandates on corporate governance issues, and cultivating long-term relationships that have the potential to curb short-termist pressures in the market.
Empirical studies show that attacks on companies by activist hedge funds benefit, and do not have an adverse effect on, the targets over the five-year period following the attack.
Only anecdotal evidence and claimed real-world experience show that attacks on companies by activist hedge funds have an adverse effect on the targets and other companies that adjust management strategy to avoid attacks.
Empirical studies are better than anecdotal evidence and real-world experience.
Therefore, attacks by activist hedge funds should not be restrained but should be encouraged.
Harvard Law School Professor Lucian A. Bebchuk is now touting this syllogism and his obsession with shareholder-centric corporate governance in an article entitled, “The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism” (previously discussed here). In evaluating Professor Bebchuk’s article, it should be noted that:
1. Shareholder activism is growing at an increasing rate. No company is too big to become the target of an activist, and even companies with sterling corporate governance practices and positive share price performance, including outperformance of peers, may be targeted.
2. “Activist Hedge Fund” has become an asset class in which institutional investors are making substantial investments. In addition, even where institutional investors are not themselves limited partners in the activist hedge fund, several now maintain open and regular lines of communication with activists, including sharing potential “hit lists” of possible targets.
3. Major investment banks, law firms, proxy solicitors, and public relations advisors are representing activists.
The years since the onset of the financial crisis have served to further increase the demands on and scrutiny of public company boards of directors. The assault on the director-centric model of corporate governance continues in the shareholder activist and political arenas, and the challenges of planning for and investing in the long-term health of the corporation have become more daunting. As the power and organization of both governance and hedge fund activists have increased, the pressure to produce short-term results has only grown stronger, regardless of whether the steps necessary to produce those results may be harmful to the corporation in the long run.
In this environment, the challenge for directors is to continue to focus on doing what they believe is right for their corporations while maintaining a sufficient understanding of shareholder sensitivities to avoid a targeted attack that could undermine their ability to act in their company’s best interest. The primary focus of a director, of course, should be on promoting and helping to develop the long-term and sustainable success of their company. This encompasses a wide range of activities, including working with management on the company’s business and strategies, planning for the succession of the CEO and other key executives, overseeing risk management, monitoring compliance, setting the appropriate tone at the top and being prepared to step in to address any corporate crises that arise. At the same time, the board needs to be aware of and address shareholder demands in a constructive manner, consider how a hedge fund or other activist may view the company and its strategic alternatives and try to ensure that the company maintains a shareholder relations program that clearly articulates the reasons for the company’s strategies and engenders support from the company’s major shareholders. In some cases, this may include direct communication between board members and institutional shareholders.
Recently, the SEC adopted controversial new rules that create significant financial incentives for whistleblower employees to report suspected securities law violations directly to the SEC, potentially circumventing company compliance programs in the process. Under the new rules, which were adopted pursuant to Section 922 of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC will pay awards to whistleblowers who voluntarily provide the SEC with original information about a violation of securities laws that leads to a successful enforcement action brought by the SEC and that results in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million.
The size of potential bounty payments may range from 10% to up to 30% of the total monetary sanctions collected in successful SEC and related actions. In some cases, this could result in multimillion dollar cash payments to whistleblowers. The final rules set forth the SEC’s methodology for determining awards, with specified factors weighing in favor of an increase in the reward size and others weighing in favor of a reduction in the reward size. In addition, the rules provide that various persons will not be eligible for whistleblower payments, including compliance and internal audit personnel, but an exception is provided for such personnel if they believe disclosure “may prevent substantial injury to the financial interest or property” of the company or investors, and at least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower reported the information internally at the company or became aware of information that was already known to the company.
In the coming year, boards of directors face a two-fold challenge: they must implement the various new legislative, regulatory and “best practice” mandates relating to corporate governance, while at the same time tailoring them to the needs of each corporation and implementing them in ways that will promote the board’s core mission of securing long-term value for shareholders. This challenge is complicated by the fact that many of the corporate governance provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, new SEC regulations and other reforms require or put pressure on the board to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to corporate governance. Thus, while the financial crisis and ensuing global recession have prompted boards to critically review their oversight role and consider ways in which they might function more effectively, their individualized action plans and “lessons learned” have to some extent been preempted by blunt regulatory mandates and best practices. Moreover, as boards work to craft strategies for sustainable economic recovery, they are increasingly vulnerable to shareholder activist demands for quick turnaround measures and short-term gains, particularly as hedge funds and other special interest shareholders seek to execute their own agendas for liquidity and financial recoupment.
The numerous legislative and regulatory initiatives adopted or proposed in response to the economic crisis, and the increased corporate governance activism by shareholders and their advisory organizations, raise the question of what are the key matters that a board should be considering on a regular basis. As a supplement to our recent post on the Forum, entitled Some Thoughts for Boards of Directors in 2010, we developed the following list of matters. Some matters could be visited once a year; and some should be visited at each meeting. Some companies will need to add matters to this list in view of relevant business, corporate governance or other issues specific to their companies. Boards should also consider the extent to which some of these matters should be addressed more fully by board committees. Each company should tailor the scope of, and the allocation of time to, the matters, and the frequency of their consideration, to its particular circumstances.
- Performance of the business, including comparison to budget and peers
- CEO succession and exposure of senior executives to the board
Never before in the history of American business has the role of the corporate director been more important or more challenging. Boards today must navigate a tremendously difficult business environment featuring intense competition from foreign manufacturers, weak consumer confidence, growing unemployment, volatility in financial and commodity markets and a host of other complex challenges. At the same time, directors are currently undergoing intense public and political scrutiny of their basic role and functioning at the helm of public companies. As we begin to emerge from the worst recession since the Great Depression, the search for root causes of the economic crisis and second-guessing of corporate decisions has generated a multitude of corporate governance reform proposals, legislative initiatives and rule-making that seek to shift decision-making authority from boards to institutional shareholders and shareholder activists. Despite the stated intention of these initiatives, this shift will impede the ability of boards to resist pressures for short-term gain and tie their hands at a time when the need for effective board leadership is particularly acute.
Senator Dodd unveiled his 1,136-page financial reform bill discussion draft today, which proposes a variety of new financial industry regulations and regulatory agencies. While the bill focuses on these wide-ranging and controversial financial reform proposals, a number of corporate governance reforms are also buried in the bill on pages 755 to 762, and are largely taken, albeit in somewhat weakened form, from Senator Schumer’s proposed Shareholder Bill of Rights Act. As we have previously commented, these governance reforms, while presented as a means of enhancing corporate governance and restoring stability to American companies, are likely to have just the opposite effect. See the Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz memoranda “A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: The Proposed ‘Shareholder Bill of Rights Act of 2009’ Is a Serious Mistake,” posted on the Forum here, and “Corporate Governance in Crisis Times,” posted on the Forum here.