In our Age of Communication, confidential information is more easily exposed than ever before. Real-time communication tools and social media give everyone with Internet access the ability to publicize information widely, and confidential information is always at risk of inadvertent or intentional exposure. The current cultural emphasis on transparency and disclosure—punctuated by headline news of high-profile leakers and whistleblowers, and exacerbated in the corporate context by aggressive activist shareholders and their director nominees—has contributed to an atmosphere in which sensitive corporate information is increasingly difficult to protect. There is limited statutory or case law to guide boards and directors in this area, and there exists a range of opinions among market participants and media commentators as to whether leaking information (other than illegal insider tipping) is problematic at all.
Posts Tagged ‘Proxy access’
For many years, the proactive engagement of shareholders on corporate governance matters has been limited to just a handful of companies. However, over the past few years companies have shown a greater willingness to engage, particularly after the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) made advisory votes on executive compensation (commonly referred to as “say-on-pay”) a mandatory voting item for most publicly traded U.S. companies. Last year we reported on the explosive growth in the level of engagement between public companies and investors on corporate governance matters, with both sides lauding the benefits of such engagement. Investors’ proxy departments have reported the benefits of gaining an early understanding of the issues a company is facing and the rationale behind decisions the company made beyond what is disclosed in the proxy statement. Meanwhile, issuers have found value in gaining firsthand knowledge of the nuances of investors’ proxy voting guidelines.
Given that both sides have seen the benefits of such an exchange, there has again been a significant rise in the number of engagement programs initiated by companies this year. As one would expect, there were a variety of reasons that companies sought to engage in outreach campaigns. While most companies engaged in order to improve on their past voting results, many others have aimed to establish a dialogue in order to maintain positive results. The scope of programs also tended to vary with many being quite expansive. These included lengthy off-season engagements with institutions, multiple contacts with the same institution during the year, in-person visits with investors and inclusion of members of the board of directors in the discussion. Some companies went so far as to proactively reach out to their top 100, 150 and even 200 institutional investors.
While the proxy and annual reporting season for calendar year public companies typically heats up in the winter, by autumn preparations for the 2014 season should be underway. The following key issues for the upcoming season are discussed below:
- Current Say-on-Pay Considerations
- Compensation Committee Independence and Compensation Consultants
- NYSE Quorum Requirement Change
- Pending Dodd-Frank Regulation
- Proxy Access
- Specialized Disclosures
- SEC Interpretations Impacting Reporting
- Iran Sanctions Disclosure
- PCAOB Audit Committee Communications Requirements
- Director and Officer Questionnaires
During this year’s annual meeting season, issuers experienced better outcomes on say on pay (SOP) and shareholder resolutions, underpinned by a high degree of engagement and responsiveness to past votes. With SOP in its third year, companies addressed many of investors’ and proxy advisors’ pivotal compensation concerns, which was reflected in a modest improvement in average SOP support and proportionately fewer failed votes.
Similarly, although the volume of shareholder resolutions on ballots was nearly comparable to the first half of 2012, average support declined across many categories and there were 27% fewer majority votes (See Table 1). This was due in large part to corporate actions on resolutions that are traditionally high vote-getters, such as board declassification, adoption of majority voting in director elections, and the repeal of supermajority voting provisions, resulting in the withdrawal or omission of the shareholder proposal. Indeed, issuers made a conscious effort to avoid the prospect of majority votes, mindful of potential fallout against directors by proxy advisory firms. Beginning in 2014, ISS will oppose board members who fail to adequately address shareholder resolutions that are approved by a majority of votes cast in the prior year, while Glass Lewis is scrutinizing board responses to those that receive as little as 25% support (see our January newsletter).
In Business Roundtable v. SEC, the DC Court of Appeals struck down the proxy access rule giving certain shareholders access to the corporate proxy on the grounds that the SEC failed to adequately fulfill its requirement to consider the impact of new rules on “efficiency, competition, and capital formation.” The Court offered a blistering critique of the SEC’s economic analysis in the rule. Criticism of the opinion followed and also led to a series of Congressional hearings on the SEC’s process for weighing the economic costs and benefits of new rules. Many of the critics of the opinion, and indeed of cost-benefit analysis itself, have argued that it is simply too difficult to guide rulemaking, or that costs are easier to measure than benefits and so the approach trends against the status quo.
I counter that critique of Business Roundtable by way of example in an article co-authored with Thomas Stratmann in the Stanford University Law Review, Does Shareholder Proxy Access Damage Share Value in Small Publicly Traded Companies? We suggest a question the SEC might itself have investigated about its approach, if it had submitted a rule proposal first and if it was committed to economic analysis of its rules. We consider a natural experiment provided by the rule’s differential impact on small and large firms above and below the arbitrary $75 million market capitalization separation. We measure the impact of the market’s frustrated expectation of a permanent exemption for small firms, an expectation stemming from prior SEC implementation of other controversial rules and strong language in the Dodd-Frank Act, against a control group represented by large firms who expected application of the rule and for whom the new rule’s impact was largely capitalized into their value.
The effects of say on pay on shareholder engagement, the introduction of proxy access proposals, and the resurgence of board declassification resolutions were the principal themes of the last proxy season and are expected to continue to take center stage in 2013, according to a report issued today by The Conference Board in collaboration with FactSet Research Systems Inc.
Proxy Voting Analytics (2008-2012) analyzes data on voting by shareholders of U.S. companies that held their annual general meetings (AGMs) in the January 1-June 30 period during the last five years. Aggregate data on shareholder proposals, management proposals, and proxy contests is examined and segmented based on market index (whether the Russell 3000 or the S&P 500) and 20 business industry groups.
The report is supplemented with an appendix offering detailed recommendations from Conference Board experts for companies facing situations of shareholder activism.
Data analyzed in the report includes:
The Securities and Exchange Commission has suffered a number of recent setbacks in areas ranging from enforcement policy to rulemaking. One of the most serious was the DC Circuit’s 2011 decision in Business Roundtable v. SEC, in which the court invalidated the SEC’s proxy access rule, Rule 14a-11, on the basis that the SEC had failed to conduct an adequate cost-benefit analysis. By imposing an onerous, and possibly insurmountable procedural burden, the decision threatens to paralyze rulemaking by the SEC and other administrative agencies. The effect is particularly troubling in light of the heavy rulemaking obligations imposed by Dodd-Frank and the JOBS Act.
In my article, The Long Road Back: Business Roundtable and the Future of SEC Rulemaking (forthcoming in Seattle University Law Review), I critically evaluate the Business Roundtable decision. Specifically, I argue that, although Rule 14a-11 suffered from a number of flaws, flaws I have noted in other work (see Fisch, The Destructive Ambiguity of Federal Proxy Access, 61 Emory L. J. 435 (2012)), the deficiencies in SEC’s rule-making that led to the adoption of Rule 14a-11 cannot accurately be ascribed to inadequate economic analysis. Nor is the demanding standard imposed by DC Circuit’s decision a product of the statutory constraints on SEC rulemaking. Rather it stems from the court’s skepticism about proxy access and the SEC’s policymaking generally.
The SEC’s inability to defend its proxy access rule against attack was, in part, a product of two important constraints on its policy formation – the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act and the Government in the Sunshine Act. Although commentators have defended both these requirements in terms of transparency and democratic values, they sacrifice consensus building as well as decision-making efficiency, and they allow for the increased influence of political forces and interest groups. These sacrifices are of particular concern in the context of SEC rulemaking and, I argue, were at the heart of a problematic Rule 14a-11.
As participants in the Forum know, SEC rule changes that took effect in September 2011 once again allow shareowners the right to submit and vote on “proxy access proposals” as we had done prior to an underground reinterpretation of SEC rules in 1990 and during a brief window of opportunity after AFSCME v AIG (2006). These proposals give shareowners the right to include director nominees in the company’s proxy materials. Arguably, the most innovative recent models of such proposals have now withstood the SEC “no-action” process and will soon come to a vote at Forest Labs (FRX) on August 15th, Medtronic (MDT) on August 23rd and H&R Block (HRB) on September 13th.
Download a PowerPoint presentation and/or read the paper (pdf) on these important proposals. All three proposals were introduced by long-time activist Kenneth Steiner, with the help of John Chevedden. Design of the proposal came from a team of United States Proxy Exchange (USPX) members, including James McRitchie, Glyn Holton, Brett Davidson, Steve Neiman, Daniel Rudewicz, Steven Towns and others, with helpful input from a variety of their contacts.
Update: An updated version of the memo on which this post is based is available here.
Pursuant to SEC rule changes that took effect in September 2011, shareholders are now permitted to submit and vote on “proxy access proposals” – that is, proposals to give shareholders the right to include director nominees in the company’s proxy materials. Over 20 such shareholder proposals (half of which were binding) were submitted during the 2012 proxy season, of which only eight have come to a vote. Many of the proposals that did not come to a vote were deemed excludable from proxy statements by the staff of the SEC for a variety of technical reasons. We have included on the following page a chart of the terms and outcomes of proxy access proposals submitted to date.
The vote results from this limited pool suggest that shareholders are hesitant to approve proposals that would give a proxy access right to holders of a small number of shares, but are more supportive of proposals that have ownership requirements that are similar to the 3%/3-year threshold that would have applied under the SEC’s now-vacated mandatory proxy access rule.
There have been a number of significant shareholder proposals submitted during the 2012 proxy season to date. This alert summarizes notable responses by the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) staff (the “Staff”) to no-action requests concerning many of these shareholder proposals. By way of background, according to Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”), 1,105 proposals have been submitted to companies to date for 2012 annual meetings. As of May 22, 2012, 303 no-action requests had been submitted to the SEC since October 1, 2011. This is comparable to the number of shareholder proposal no-action requests submitted during a similar period in 2011. Moreover, repeating the experience in 2011, the number of requests for reconsideration submitted by both companies and proponents was high. In addition, many companies successfully negotiated with proponents to withdraw shareholder proposals, illustrating that engagement with proponents can often eliminate the need to file a no-action request.