The 2013 proxy season marks the third year of Advisory Vote on Executive Compensation proposals (Management Say on Pay (MSOP)) as required under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. In 2011, 36 U.S. corporations failed to receive majority shareholder support for their MSOP proposal and in 2012 that number increased to 59. Based on the YTD results for 2013, it seems that there could be fewer MSOP failures this year compared to 2012. In this report, we present some interesting facts relating to the 20 failed MSOP votes for annual meetings through May 17. 
Posts Tagged ‘Proxy advisors’
1. Shareholder activism is growing at an increasing rate. No company is too big to become the target of an activist, and even companies with sterling corporate governance practices and positive share price performance, including outperformance of peers, may be targeted.
2. “Activist Hedge Fund” has become an asset class in which institutional investors are making substantial investments. In addition, even where institutional investors are not themselves limited partners in the activist hedge fund, several now maintain open and regular lines of communication with activists, including sharing potential “hit lists” of possible targets.
3. Major investment banks, law firms, proxy solicitors, and public relations advisors are representing activists.
I am delighted to be able to participate in this conference, and especially proud as an Irish-American that it is being held in conjunction with Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This conference is particularly valuable because it provides a forum for executives, directors, investors, and policy makers to have a frank and productive dialogue on important corporate governance issues.
I would like to talk about the increasing role that governments – particularly, in the United States, the federal government – play in corporate governance as well as the increasingly prominent influence of proxy advisory firms on how companies are governed and on how shareholders vote. These changes have led to, among other things, new limitations and requirements being imposed on boards of directors and companies. And while the resulting costs to investors are easily apparent, the purported benefits are harder to discern. Although today I will for the most part discuss these issues as they apply to U.S. companies, I note that there is a related trend in Europe. As such, I hope that my comments may help inform your approach to regulating corporate governance as well.
Say on Pay Continues to Shape the Executive Pay Landscape
An overwhelming 97% of Russell 3000 companies that conducted a Say on Pay (SOP) vote in 2012 received majority shareholder support.  While support levels rival those for management proposals to ratify auditors, companies do not take SOP vote outcomes for granted. Rather, the prospects for low shareholder support for SOP proposals have caused most companies to devote a tremendous amount of time, resources, and consideration to the administration and disclosure of executive compensation programs. This paper serves to highlight the key issues compensation committees faced in 2012 and the implications for action in 2013 and beyond.
The 2013 annual meeting season may lack the drama of last year’s Occupy protests and impending presidential election but it will still have its share of challenges for issuers. Revisions to proxy advisors’ pay models and peer groups are already spawning another round of supplemental proxies on Say-on-Pay (SOP), while threats of compensation disclosure strike suits have become this year’s unwelcome sideshow.
This spring also promises another big wave of shareholder resolutions, with over 600 filed to date, though for the most part they will repeat the prevailing themes seen in past years. Public pension funds and other institutional proponents are methodically cleaning up S&P 500 and Russell 2000 firms that still have classified boards and plurality voting in director elections. Meanwhile, retail activists are boosting their share of proposals calling for independent board chairmen and compensation reforms, in addition to their perennial filings on supermajority voting, special meetings, and written consent.
Based on submissions to date, several unexpected trends stand out. The first is a renewed blitz of resolutions on corporate campaign finance, particularly indirect lobbying activities, following the record spending in the 2012 election cycle. Although not likely to gain ground in support levels, proponents are clearly keeping up the momentum on this issue in the hopes of eventual SEC rulemaking mandating disclosure of political spending. Filings of compensation-related proposals have also escalated this year, though many of these were part of a now-abandoned campaign by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) to promote triennial SOP votes.
ISS, the dominant proxy advisory firm, recently unveiled its new ISS Governance QuickScore product, which will replace its Governance Risk Indicators (“GRId”) next month. ISS asserts that QuickScore is an improvement on the GRId product because it is “quantitatively driven” (with a “secondary policy-based overlay”). Using an algorithm purportedly derived from correlations between governance factors and financial metrics, QuickScore will rank companies in deciles within each of ISS’ existing four pillars—Audit, Board Structure, Compensation and Shareholder Rights – and provide an overall governance rating to “provide a quick understanding of a company’s relative governance risk to an index or region.” While one can understand, as a business matter, ISS’ desire to continually reinvent and “improve” its products, the constant shifting of goalposts creates uncertainty and inefficiency. More important, QuickScore will likely provide a no more complete or accurate assessment of corporate governance practices than its predecessors, and it may be worse.
When ISS adopted its GRId product three years ago, we cautiously noted that it offered greater transparency and granularity than the blunt one-dimensional CGQ ratings that it replaced. Unfortunately, in our view, going back to a system of opaque quantified ratings is a move in the wrong direction. After a substantial investment of management time and effort, companies have familiarity with the GRId “level of concern” approach, which at least helps them understand and address any legitimate issues or explain any divergences from ISS’ “best practices.” While ISS retains GRId’s formulaic approach, to the extent that it does not share the weightings it assigns to the various governance factors, it reduces transparency as companies would not be able to compute their own QuickScores.
In our annual missive last year, we wrote about the need to restore trust in our system of corporate governance generally and in relations between boards of directors and shareholders specifically. We continue to be troubled by the tensions that have developed over roles and responsibilities in the corporate governance framework for public companies. The board’s fundamental mandate under state law – to “manage and direct” the operations of the company – is under pressure, facilitated by federal regulation that gives shareholders advisory votes on subjects where they do not have decision rights either under corporate law or charter. Some tensions between boards and shareholders are inherent in our governance system and are healthy. While we are concerned about further escalation, we do not view the current relationship between boards and shareholders as akin to a battle, let alone a revolution, as some media rhetoric about a “shareholder spring” might suggest. However, we do believe that boards and shareholders should work to smooth away excesses on both sides to ensure a framework in which decisions can be made in the best interests of the company and its varied body of shareholders.
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) imposed a requirement that public companies allow shareholders the opportunity to cast an advisory vote on executive compensation (typically annually). This requirement is commonly referred to as say-on-pay (SOP). Shareholders that disagree with a firm’s executive compensation program can cast anon-binding (or precatory) vote “against” the management compensation program disclosed in the proxy statement for the annual shareholder meeting. Presumably firms with a substantial proportion of negative votes will make appropriate changes to their compensation program.
In the paper, The Economic Consequences of Proxy Advisor Say-on-Pay Voting Policies, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, my co-authors (Allan McCall of Stanford University and Gaizka Ormazabal of the University of Navarra) and I examine the changes that boards of directors make in anticipation of the initial SOP votes and the shareholder reaction to those changes. Since the SOP vote is advisory, boards are under no obligation to make changes pursuant to its outcome. A board may simply wait to see the outcome of the vote before deciding whether changes to compensation programs are warranted. However, if a board anticipates substantial opposition to its executive compensation program and believes that this opposition is costly to shareholders (e.g., because it invites derivative lawsuits, negative press, regulatory scrutiny, or distracts executives and employees), it might rationally take preemptive actions to decrease the probability of receiving negative votes. In such a setting, the board of directors will be interested in anticipating whether institutional investors (who hold the majority of outstanding shares) will vote for or against a SOP proposal.
In the boardrooms of America’s largest corporations, a company with scarcely over $100 million in annual revenue and $10 million in profits commands directors’ full attention: the proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services. ISS advises pension funds, mutual funds and hedge funds on how to vote on corporate ballot items.
The company is the dominant proxy adviser, reporting 1,700 clients that manage an estimated $26 trillion in assets. But its role in corporate governance is largely a creation of federal regulations—and its positions on countless ballot items follow the lead of special-interest investors like labor-union pension funds and “socially responsible” investing vehicles, not those of the average diversified investor.
In 2011 and 2012, for example, every public company in the Fortune 200 held an advisory vote on executive pay as mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. According to an analysis by the Manhattan Institute, ISS recommended that shareholders vote against 44 compensation packages in 338 “say on pay” votes (13%), but a majority of shareholders opposed executive pay at only six companies (1.5%).
Why 2012 Was the Year of Pay for Performance
Whether the pay of a company’s CEO and other executive officers is aligned with the company’s performance has been the single most important and controversial executive pay issue for U.S. public companies since the advent of mandatory say-on-pay votes under the Dodd-Frank Act, which applied to most U.S. public companies in 2011; smaller reporting companies will face these votes and issues in 2013. As we wrote in our Director Notes “Proxy Season 2012: The Year of Pay for Performance,” 2012 was indeed the year of “pay for performance.” This has been proven by the over 2,000 say-on-pay vote results reported through September 5, 2012.
The stage for the 2012 pay-for-performance debate was set in 2011, when Institutional Shareholder Services Proxy Advisory Services (ISS), which is widely regarded as the most influential U.S. proxy adviser, applied a crude two-step test to assess pay for performance in making its say-on-pay voting recommendations.
Generally, under its 2011 test, ISS concluded that a pay-for-performance “disconnect” existed if: