It’s official: Proxy access is the darling of the 2015 season. Shareholder-sponsored proxy access proposals are on the ballots of more than 100 U.S. public companies this spring. These precatory proposals seek a shareholder vote on a binding bylaw that would enable shareholders who meet certain ownership requirements to nominate board candidates and have them included in the company’s own proxy materials. Powerful institutional investors have given the proxy access movement enormous momentum this spring, and blue chip firms such as GE, Bank of America, and Prudential have voluntarily adopted versions of proxy access in advance of their annual meetings. Companies such as Citigroup have agreed to support proxy access shareholder proposals in their definitive proxy materials. In the absence of regulatory guidance, proxy advisors such as ISS have stepped into the breach to define the terms and conditions of proxy access. As proxy access proposals proliferate—after years of controversy—the primary debate now seems to be whether a 3 percent or 5 percent ownership threshold is more appropriate.
Posts Tagged ‘Proxy access’
Today [March 19, 2015], I will share a few observations on three specific areas: the current state of shareholder activism; the shareholder proposal process; and fee-shifting bylaws. I know your next two panels take up aspects of these important topics, but I think the space is lively and big enough for all of us to comment.
The Current Activism Landscape
There are different views on what is meant by “shareholder activism,” but just the word “activism” triggers an adverse reaction from many companies. Reflexively painting all activism negatively is, in my view, using too broad a brush and indeed is counterproductive. To me, the term activism captures the range of efforts by investors to influence a company’s management or decision-making. Some of it is constructive. In certain situations, activism seeks to bring about important changes at companies that can increase shareholder value. Now, some of you may find the juxtaposition of the word “activism” with “shareholder value” does not comport with your sense of reality. Some of you also believe that activists are not interested in increasing long-term value for shareholders and other stakeholders. Still others will assert that activists are simply short-term traders looking to make a quick dollar. I did say this was a lively topic with many different views.
On the heels of SEC Chair White’s direction to the Division of Corporation Finance to review its position on proxy proposal conflicts under Exchange Act Rule 14a-8(i)(9), both Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”) and Glass Lewis have issued clarifying policies on proxy access, entering the fray of what is becoming the hottest debate this proxy season. The publication of ISS’s updated policy in particular means that market forces may have outpaced the SEC’s review process. In order to avoid risking a withhold or no-vote recommendation from ISS against their directors, many companies will be faced with the choice of (i) including any shareholder-submitted proxy access proposal in their proxy materials (either alone or alongside a management proposal) (ii) excluding the shareholder submitted proposal on the basis of a court ruling or no-action relief from the Division of Corporation Finance on a basis other than Rule 14a-8(i)(9) (conflict with management proposal) or (iii) obtaining withdrawal of the proposal by the shareholder proponent.
Recent high-profile developments have thrust proxy access back onto the agenda for many U.S. public companies. Here is a framework for how to approach the topic.
Proxy access is back in the news and back on the agenda for many U.S. public companies. Four years after the DC Circuit invalidated the SEC’s proxy-access rule, we are seeing company-by-company private ordering with a vengeance, including a record number of Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposals in the current 2015 proxy season. Events have moved at high speed in the past few weeks, leading many companies to wonder whether they should be initiating their own approach to proxy access.
As we argued in 2009 in response to an earlier SEC proxy-access proposal, we believe that each company’s approach to proxy access should be grounded in a consideration of its particular circumstances. Despite recent high-profile adoptions of proxy-access procedures, we don’t believe that most U.S. public companies should, in knee-jerk fashion, be preparing to revise their bylaws proactively. We do, however, think that boards should be assessing on an ongoing basis the broader issues of board composition, tenure and refreshment, which are not only important in their own right but also relevant to potential vulnerability to proxy-access proposals. We also think that boards should communicate a willingness to exercise their discretion in considering all shareholder suggestions regarding board membership in order to assure shareholders of a means of expressing their views and to create a level playing field for shareholders.
ISS is providing answers to frequently asked questions with regard to select policies and topics of interest for 2015:
Proxy Access Proposals
1. How will ISS recommend on proxy access proposals?
Drawing on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decades-long effort to draft a market-wide rule allowing investors to place director nominees on corporate ballots, and reflecting feedback from a broad range of institutional investors and their portfolio companies, ISS is updating its policy on proxy access to generally align with the SEC’s formulation.
Old Recommendation: ISS supports proxy access as an important shareholder right, one that is complementary to other best-practice corporate governance features. However, in the absence of a uniform standard, proposals to enact proxy access may vary widely; as such, ISS is not setting forth specific parameters at this time and will take a case-by-case approach when evaluating these proposals.
Vote case-by-case on proposals to enact proxy access, taking into account, among other factors:
The rise of shareholder activism in the realm of corporate governance has increasingly focused on board performance and the right of shareholders to replace those directors who are perceived to underperform. One proposed approach to facilitate the replacement of underperforming directors is to give shareholders direct access to the company’s proxy materials, including permitting the inclusion of a shareholder-proposed director nominee (or slate of nominees) and a statement in support thereof in the company’s proxy statement (which such approach is more commonly referred to as “proxy access”). Although current U.S. securities regulations do not grant shareholders access to company proxy materials, proxy access may be available to shareholders by way of a company’s organizational documents (e.g., articles of incorporation, bylaws or corporate governance guidelines), as permitted by state corporate law.
While proxy access did not garner significant attention over the past two proxy seasons, it is one of the most notable early developments of the 2015 proxy season. It has been reported that shareholders have submitted an estimated 100 proxy access proposals to U.S. companies, a considerable number of which will be voted upon by shareholders over the next several months. Proxy access will very likely be one of the most contentious corporate governance issues this proxy season.
SEC Chair Mary Jo White has directed the Division of Corporation Finance (“Corporation Finance”) to review its position on Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which allows a company to exclude a shareholder proposal from the company’s proxy materials if it “conflicts” with the company’s own proposal to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting. As a result of this direction, Corporation Finance will express “no views” on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) this proxy season.
The catalyst for this development was a shareholder proposal submitted by proponent James McRitchie to Whole Foods Market, Inc., requesting that the company adopt “proxy access” procedures generally to allow one or more shareholders owning at least 3% of the company’s voting securities for three or more years to nominate up to 20% of the board of directors via the company’s proxy materials. Whole Foods countered with its own proposal that included significantly different share ownership and holding period thresholds and director nominee caps, but nevertheless was granted no-action relief by Corporation Finance, allowing it to exclude the McRitchie proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) on the basis that it conflicted with Whole Foods’ proposal and the proposals would “present alternative and conflicting decisions for the Company’s shareholders that would likely result in inconsistent and ambiguous results”. Thereafter, Mr. McRitchie, the Council of Institutional Investors and others have called for the SEC to review its position on these “conflicts”, which SEC Chair White has now done. Corporation Finance has since effectively rescinded its no-action relief to Whole Foods and stated that it has no view of Rule 14a-8(i)(9).
As the 2015 proxy season approaches, the dominant theme appears to be the interaction between directors and investors. Though, traditionally, there was little to no direct engagement, recent experience indicates that communication between these two groups is now on the rise, in some cases resulting in collaboration. This is potentially a beneficial development, particularly insofar as it may help companies and long-term investors work together to resist pressure from activist shareholders seeking short-term profits. In the current environment where activists and hedge funds appear to wield unprecedented financial and political leverage, and the influence of proxy advisors is as significant as it is controversial, the predominant trend seems to be “toward diplomacy rather than war.” Organizations such as the Shareholder-Director Exchange, which began last year to offer guidance to shareholders and boards on direct engagement, are promoting policies that may reduce the incidence, duration, and severity of contentious public disagreements.
Shareholders have been engaged in a long struggle to obtain proxy access—the idea that shareowners should be allowed to place their own board nominations on the proxies distributed by management, much as we are allowed to place our own proposals on those proxies. Shareholders should not accept the most recent roadblock, a reactive substitute proposal, by the management of Whole Foods Market (Whole Foods) and acquiescence in the form of a no-action letter from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The idea of proxy access certainly is not new. In 1980 Unicare Services included a proposal to allow any three shareowners to nominate and place candidates on the proxy. Shareowners at Mobil proposed a “reasonable number,” while those at Union Oil proposed a threshold of “500 or more shareholders” to place nominees on corporate proxies. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) submitted a proposal in 1988 but withdrew it when Texaco agreed to include their nominee.
On December 1, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a no-action letter, much awaited by the corporate community, to Whole Foods Market, Inc., concurring with the company that it may omit a proxy access shareholder proposal from its 2015 proxy materials.  The shareholder proposal, submitted by James McRitchie pursuant to Rule 14a-8, asked the Whole Foods board to amend the company’s governing documents to allow any shareholder or group of shareholders collectively holding at least three percent of the company’s shares for at least three years to nominate directors, which the company would then be required to list on its proxy statement. The proposal added that parties nominating directors “may collectively make nominations numbering up to 20% of the Company’s board of directors, or no less than two if the board reduces the number of board members from its current size.”