Shareholder voting, once given up for dead as a vestige or ritual of little practical importance, has come roaring back as a key part of American corporate governance. Where once voting was limited to uncontested annual election of directors, it is now common to see short slate proxy contests, board declassification proposals, and “Say on Pay” votes occurring at public companies. The surge in the importance of shareholder voting has caused increased conflict between shareholders and directors, a tension well-illustrated in recent high profile voting fights in takeovers (e.g. Dell) and in the growing role for Say on Pay votes. Yet, despite the obvious importance of shareholder voting, none of the existing corporate law theories coherently justify it.
Posts Tagged ‘Proxy advisors’
Two articles (among several) in a comprehensive proposal to revise EU corporate governance would have a significant beneficial impact if they were to be adopted in the United States. In large measure they mirror recommendations by Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr., in two essays: Can We do Better by Ordinary Investors? A Pragmatic Reaction to the Dueling Ideological Mythologists of Corporate Law, 114 Columbia Law Review 449 (Mar. 2014) and One Fundamental Corporate Governance Question We Face: Can Corporations Be Managed for the Long Term Unless Their Powerful Electorates Also Act and Think Long Term? 66 Business Lawyer 1 (Nov. 2010).
We published this post last August. Since then there have been several developments that prompt us to revisit it; adding the first three paragraphs below.
First, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr. published a brilliant article in the Columbia Law Review, Can We Do Better by Ordinary Investors? A Pragmatic Reaction to the Dueling Ideological Mythologists of Corporate Law in which he points out the serious defects in allowing short-term investors to override carefully considered judgments of the boards of directors of public corporations. Chief Justice Strine rejects the argument of the academic activists and activist hedge funds that shareholders should have the unfettered right to force corporations to maximize shareholder value in the short run. We embrace Chief Justice Strine’s reasoning and conclusions.
As the fallout from the financial crisis recedes and both institutional investors and corporate boards gain experience with expanded corporate governance regulation, the coming year holds some promise of decreased tensions in board-shareholder relations. With governance settling in to a “new normal,” influential shareholders and boards should refocus their attention on the fundamental aspects of their roles as they relate to the creation of long-term value.
Institutional investors and their beneficiaries, and society at large, have a decided interest in the long-term health of the corporation and in the effectiveness of its governing body. Corporate governance is likely to work best in supporting the creation of value when the decision rights and responsibilities of shareholders and boards set out in state corporate law are effectuated.
Over the past year, boards of directors continued to face increasing scrutiny from shareholders and regulators, and the consequences of failures became more serious in terms of regulatory enforcement, shareholder litigation and market reaction. We expect these trends to continue in 2014, and proactive board oversight and involvement will remain crucial in this challenging environment.
During 2013, activist investors publicly pressured all types of companies—large and small, high-flyers and laggards—to pursue strategies focused on short-term returns, even if inconsistent with directors’ preferred, sustainable long-term strategies. In addition, activists increasingly focused on governance issues, resulting in heightened shareholder scrutiny and attempts at participation in areas that historically have been management and board prerogatives. We expect increased activism in the coming year. We also expect boards to continue to have to grapple with oversight of complex issues related to executive compensation, shareholder litigation over significant transactions, risk management, tax strategies, proposed changes to audit rules, messaging to shareholders and the market, and board decision-making processes. And, as evidenced in recent headlines, in 2014 the issue of cybersecurity will demand the attention of many boards.
Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) has announced the governance factors and other technical specifications underlying its new Governance QuickScore 2.0 product, which ISS will apply to publicly traded companies for the 2014 proxy season. Companies have until 8pm ET on Friday, February 7th to verify the underlying raw data and can submit updates and corrections through ISS’s data review and verification site. ISS will release company ratings on Tuesday, February 18th, and the scores will be included in proxy research reports issued to institutional shareholders. While previous QuickScore ratings remained static between annual meeting periods, ISS has now committed to update ratings on an on-going basis based on a company’s public disclosures throughout the calendar year.
On January 8, 2014, Institutional Shareholder Services, Inc. (“ISS”) announced that it will launch a new version of QuickScore (“QuickScore 2.0”) on February 18, 2014. QuickScore benchmarks a company’s governance risk against other companies in the Russell 3000 Index based on a number of weighted governance factors. QuickScore 2.0 will use a different method to score companies’ governance risk and will automatically reflect changes in companies’ governance structures based on publicly disclosed information.
In the latest instance of proxy advisors establishing a governance standard without offering evidence that it will improve corporate governance or corporate performance, ISS has adopted a new policy position that appears designed to chill board efforts to protect against “golden leash” incentive bonus schemes. These bonus schemes have been used by some activist hedge funds to recruit director candidates to stand for election in support of whatever business strategy the fund seeks to impose on a company.
In proxy contests earlier this year involving the boards of Agrium Inc. (“Agrium”) and Hess Corporation (“Hess”), the compensation by activist shareholders of their proposed director nominees was heavily criticized both by the target boards and by third party commentators. The Agrium and Hess contests have given rise to a debate over the merits and propriety of nominee compensation generally, with some institutional shareholders and commentators calling for the prohibition of the practice. In the face of this critical commentary, the recent experience of Provident Financial Holdings, Inc. (“Provident”), a U.S. bank holding company, suggests that efforts by boards to prohibit the practice entirely are likely to meet resistance.
For many public companies, the new year marks the beginning of compensation season. As in years past, we have set forth below some of our thoughts on what to expect from the current compensation environment. Unlike previous years, the upcoming proxy season is not marked by new legislative or regulatory developments. And, as described in our memorandum of November 26, 2013, discussed previously on this Forum, here, the Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) voting policies regarding compensation matters have remained largely unchanged. The most significant development this proxy season is the continuation of a single trend: increasing levels of shareholder engagement.