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.
Posts Tagged ‘Political spending’
This post provides an overview of shareholder proposals submitted to public companies during the 2014 proxy season, including statistics, notable decisions from the staff (the “Staff”) of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) on no-action requests and information about litigation regarding shareholder proposals.
The financial crisis that began in 2007 prompted a tidal wave of thinking about financial regulation. One major theme that has been pursued by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, journalists, and scholars—most recently in Other People’s Houses, by Jennifer Taub—is the question of what went wrong in the years or decades leading up the crisis. A second strand of research answers the question of what substantive regulations we should have; one important book in this genre is The Banker’s New Clothes, by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig. But beyond the issue of what regulations are appropriate for today’s complex financial system, a third important area of inquiry is the political and administrative landscape in which financial regulations (whether statutes, rules, administrative guidances, or court opinions) are hammered out. After all, if it were somehow possible to design a perfect regulatory framework, it could only become effective by navigating through the complicated web of interests and incentives that encompasses the legislative and executive (and perhaps judicial) branches.
In our paper, Corporate Distress and Lobbying: Evidence from the Stimulus Act, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, we contribute to the long literature on corporate behavior in distress, as well as to studies of the consequences of financial distress. Using the financial crisis in 2008 as a negative shock to nonfinancial firms’ financial conditions, we document a novel fact on the relation between firms’ financial health and their lobbying activities. We compare the lobbying activities of firms before and after the onset of the crisis and find that firms with weak financial health—as measured by their CDS spread—lobby more. This result is robust to controlling for such firm-specific variables as size, profitability, and market-to-book ratio, all the firm characteristics that remain unchanged during the short window before and during the passage of the stimulus act, sector-wide time trends, and the adoption of different time windows for comparison in the difference-in-differences framework.
In our paper, Are Red or Blue Companies More Likely to Go Green? Politics and Corporate Social Responsibility, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, we test the hypothesis that Democratic-leaning firms (i.e., firms with a higher proportion of Democratic stakeholders) are associated with more socially responsible policies than Republican-leaning firms. Our results can be illustrated by a comparison of Starbucks and Wendy’s, two large and well-known food and drink retailers. Starbucks started as a coffee beans store in 1971 and began to grow as a popular coffeehouse chain in the late 1980s after entrepreneur Howard Schultz bought it. Schultz, who is the current CEO and Chairman of Starbucks, is a well-known Democrat who donated $130,500 to Democratic federal candidates and only $1,000 to Republicans over his lifetime. In addition, Starbucks was founded and is currently headquartered in Seattle, Washington, a bastion of progressivism and the Democratic Party.
The SEC’s recent decision to take disclosure of political activities off the SEC’s agenda is a policy mistake, as it ignores the best research on the point, described below, and perpetuates a key loophole in the investor-relevant disclosure rules, allowing large companies to omit material information about the politically inflected risks they run with other people’s money. It is also a political mistake, as it repudiates the 600,000+ investors who have written to the SEC personally to ask it to adopt a rule requiring such disclosure, and will let entrenched business interests focus their lobbying solely on watering down regulation mandated under the Dodd-Frank Act and the 2012 securities law statute, rather than having also to work to influence a disclosure regime.
Mutual funds’ support for corporate political disclosure reached a new high in 2013, according to a ten-year analysis by the Center for Political Accountability. Forty large US mutual fund families voted in favor of corporate political spending disclosure an unprecedented 39% of the time, on average.
CPA’s review of mutual fund votes looks at how 40 of the largest U.S. fund families voted on 276 shareholder requests for disclosure of corporate political contributions at U.S. companies over proxy seasons from 2004 to 2013 (covering shareholder meetings from 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2013). Together, these fund families manage around $3.3 trillion in U.S. securities, according to Morningstar® fund data, and control a large portion of the shareholder vote in US securities.
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:
Last week the Securities and Exchange Commission released its regulatory agenda, and this agenda no longer includes rules requiring public companies to disclose their spending on politics. The agenda now includes only overdue rules that the SEC is required to develop under Dodd-Frank and the JOBS Act. While we are disappointed by the SEC’s decision to delay its consideration of rules requiring disclosure of corporate political spending, we hope that the SEC will consider such rules as soon as it is able to devote resources to rulemaking other than that required by Dodd-Frank and the JOBS Act. The submissions to the SEC over the past two years have clearly demonstrated the compelling case and large support for requiring such disclosure.
We co-chaired a committee of ten corporate and securities law professors that filed a rulemaking petition urging the SEC to develop rules requiring public companies to disclose their spending on politics. In the two years since the petition was submitted, the SEC has received more than 600,000 comment letters on our petition—more than on any other rulemaking project in the Commission’s history. The overwhelming majority of these comments—including letters from institutional investors and Members of Congress—have been supportive of the petition. At the end of 2012, the Director of the SEC’s Division of Corporate Finance acknowledged the widespread support for the petition, and the Commission placed the rulemaking petition on its regulatory agenda for 2013.
Leading US public companies are making political disclosure and accountability a mainstream corporate practice. That’s a key finding of the 2013 CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Accountability and Disclosure released on September 25. Now in its third year, the Index benchmarked the top 200 companies of the S&P 500 on their policies and practices for disclosing, decision-making and managing the risks associated with their political spending. (The actual total was 195 after discounting mergers and other factors.)
The increase in the average overall Index score of all companies—a 41 percent jump from 38 last year to 51 in 2013—showed strong across the board improvement in company policies. Over three quarters of these companies—about 78 percent—saw their scores rise. Biggest gains came in board oversight, with 66 percent of the companies improving scores in that area, followed by disclosure, with 57 percent improving, and political spending policies, with 42 percent improving.