Commissioner Daniel M. Gallagher of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) authored a working paper, published last month by the Washington Legal Foundation, regarding the outsized power and influence of proxy advisory firms.  In his paper, Commissioner Gallagher provides his view of the most important aspects of Staff Legal Bulletin No. 20 (“SLB 20”), in which the SEC staff recently “moved toward addressing some of the serious issues” resulting from the emergence of proxy advisory firms as a dominant player in American corporate governance. Notably, Gallagher also offers some critical advice to public companies engaging with proxy advisory firms.
Posts Tagged ‘Proxy advisors’
Shareholder voting has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past few decades. Institutional ownership of shares was once negligible; now, it predominates. This is important because individual investors are generally rationally apathetic when it comes to shareholder voting: value potentially gained through voting is outweighed by the burden of determining how to vote and actually casting that vote. By contrast, institutional investors possess economies of scale, and so regularly vote billions of shares each year on thousands of ballot items for the thousands of companies in which they invest.
Corporate governance remains a hot topic worldwide this year, but for different reasons in different regions. In the United States, this year could be characterised as largely “business as usual”; rather than planning and implementing new post-financial crisis corporate governance reforms, companies have operated under those new (and now, not so new) reforms. We have witnessed the growing and changing influence of large institutional investors, and different attempts by companies to respond to those investors as well as to pressure by activist shareholders. We have also continued to monitor the results of say-on-pay votes and believe that shareholder litigation related to executive compensation continues to warrant particular attention.
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.
Over the last few years, Congress and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) were put under pressure to seriously consider regulating proxy advisory firms. Financial industry and government leaders have voiced concern that proxy advisory firms exert too much power over corporate governance to operate unregulated. The SEC as well as the Congress have investigated and debated the merits of proxy advisory regulation. The U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on the matter in June of 2013, and the SEC followed this hearing with a roundtable discussion in December of 2013. On June 30, 2014, the Investment Management and Corporate Finance Divisions of the SEC issued a bulletin outlining the responsibilities of proxy advisors and institutional investors when casting proxy votes. As of yet, no binding regulation has been promulgated, despite repeated calls for it.
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.
On June 30, 2014, the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (the “Commission”) Division of Investment Management and Division of Corporation Finance (the “Staff”) issued much-anticipated guidance regarding proxy advisory firms, in the form of 13 Questions and Answers. Published in Staff Legal Bulletin No. 20 (“SLB 20″), available at http://www.sec.gov/interps/legal/cfslb20.htm, the Staff’s guidance addresses both (1) investment advisers’ responsibilities in voting client proxies and retaining proxy advisory firms (Questions 1-5), and (2) the availability and requirements of two exemptions to the proxy rules often relied upon by proxy advisory firms (Questions 6-13).
In this year’s Foreword, Dougherty differentiates the need for directors to focus on their core mission of informed oversight and vigilance rather than merely reacting to the constant influx of “daily corporate governance commentary,” and explores other front-burner issues, such as the marked increase in SEC enforcement actions and other recent SEC initiatives; the continuing trend of class action suits as de facto settlement instruments; proxy advisory firm priorities for directors; and new guidance from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) that recommends that audit committee directors discuss internal auditing deficiencies with their auditors.
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.
Regulation of proxy advisers is a widely discussed subject matter worldwide. The European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), the regulator responsible for enforcing European securities regulation, declared in its ESMA Final Report and Feedback Statement on the Consultation Regarding the Role of the Proxy Advisory Industry in February 2013, to favor a self-regulatory approach over mandatory regulation of the industry. “In order to ensure a robust process in developing, maintaining, and updating the Code of Conduct,” ESMA set up a list of key governance for developing a Code of Conduct for the industry (see ESMA, Final Report, at p. 11). These included, inter alia, a transparent composition and the appointment of an independent Chair that possesses the relevant skills and experience. The Code of Conduct was required to “adequately address the needs and concerns of all relevant stakeholders (including proxy advisors themselves, institutional investors, and issuers).” ESMA’s Final Report offered guidance for the detailed elaboration of the Code of Conduct on certain subject matters. In particular, ESMA asked the industry to respond to concerns regarding conflicts of interests and communication with issuers.
…continue reading: Best Practice Principles for Proxy Advisors and Chairman’s Report