On January 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a no-action letter to Schlumberger Ltd. (“Schlumberger” or “the Company”), permitting the Company not to file a preliminary proxy statement under Rule 14a-6(a) when the only matters to be acted upon by stockholders at the Company’s annual meeting were either specifically excluded from the filing requirements by Rule 14a-6(a) or were certain ordinary and routine matters required to be submitted for stockholder approval under Curaçao law on an annual basis.
Posts Tagged ‘Proxy materials’
This proxy season, rather than following the traditional route of seeking no-action relief from the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) (or, in one instance, after receiving a no-action denial), at least four companies have filed lawsuits against activist investor John Chevedden, in each case requesting declaratory judgment that the company may properly exclude Chevedden’s proposed shareholder resolution from the proxy materials for its 2014 annual meeting. While companies have enjoyed judicial victories against Chevedden in the recent past (including during the current proxy season), this month, for the first time, three federal courts dismissed actions against Chevedden, citing lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Public interest groups and socially responsive investors have been for decades pushing for increased sustainability (also known as environmental, social, and governance or ESG) disclosure by public companies. Surprisingly, many mainstream investors (in the United States and worldwide) are now joining the call for better and more uniform sustainability disclosure, arguing that such disclosure is required for them to be able to make informed investment decisions. Some global stock exchanges have also thrown their support behind this campaign and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) appears to be listening, too.
Shareholder activism, specifically submitting shareholder proposals to U.S. public companies for inclusion in such companies’ annual proxy statements on form DEF 14A was one of the original tools of public interest groups to compel companies to disclose and consider sustainability matters. This strategy had manifold benefits to the public interest groups, including forcing companies to focus on their sustainability issues, generating helpful written statements from the SEC in response to company no-further action letter requests to exclude these proposals from their proxies, and gaining media attention for the cause. This activism proved to be a fertile training ground for the interest groups who continue to submit various sustainability shareholder proposals, but are now focusing their sights on the next frontier, i.e., binding sustainability disclosure requirements.
ProxyPulse™ provides data and analysis on voting trends as the proxy season progresses. This first edition for the 2013 season covers the 549 annual meetings held between January 1, and April 23, 2013 and subsequent editions will incorporate May and June meetings. These reports are part of an ongoing commitment to provide valuable benchmarking data to the industry.
The analysis is based upon Broadridge’s processing of shares held in street name, which accounts for over 80% of all shares outstanding of U.S. publicly-listed companies. For purposes of this report, the term “institutional shareholders” refers to mutual funds, public and private pension funds, hedge funds, investment managers, managed accounts and voting by vote agents. The term “retail shareholders” refers to individuals whose shares are held beneficially in brokerage accounts.
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.
After the horrifying collapse of a factory in Bangladesh killed over 1,100 workers, companies like H&M are moving to strengthen supplier standards and audits, as they should. We have seen similar responses to other compliance meltdowns in the past. Banks trumpet new checks and balances to help prevent excessive risk taking, massive trading losses and robo-foreclosures. Walmart points to changes in its compliance policies in response to front-page allegations of bribery and corruption in Mexico. Companies are quite happy to tell investors, employees, and the public how such changes will prevent the same problems from recurring.
This public disclosure about change for the future is commendable. But such reforms must be accompanied by measures to hold executives accountable for major compliance failures in the past. And here, beyond the occasional news report that a CEO volunteered to forego a bonus, companies tell us very little.
During the 2012 proxy season, the SEC staff concurred that a number of high profile shareholder proposals could be excluded from company proxy statements because various key terms in the proposals were not adequately defined or explained within the text of the proposal and supporting statement. See e.g., WellPoint, Inc. (SEIU Master Trust) (avail. Feb. 24, 2012, recon. denied Mar. 27, 2012) (concurring with exclusion of an independent chair proposal that referred to the New York Stock Exchange standard of independence without defining it because “neither shareholders nor the company would be able to determine with any reasonable certainty exactly what actions or measures the proposal requires”); Textron Inc. (avail. Mar. 7, 2012) (arguing that a reference to the Rule 14a-8 eligibility requirements in a proxy access shareholder proposal was vague and indefinite, although the staff ultimately concurred with the exclusion of the shareholder proposal on other grounds); Dell Inc. (avail. Mar. 30, 2012) (concurring with the exclusion of a similar proxy access shareholder proposal because the proposal’s reference to the Rule 14a-8 eligibility requirements was vague and indefinite). While these no-action letters reflected long-standing SEC staff precedent, in the current proxy season, there has continued to be a large number of no-action requests arguing that various terms in shareholder proposals are undefined or vague and therefore excludable under Rule 14a-8(i)(3).
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)
The Preamble to SEC Disclosure Regulations (2006)  states: “We believe that plain English principles should apply to the disclosure requirements that we are adopting, so disclosure provided in response to those requirements is easier to read and understand. Clearer, more concise presentation of executive and director compensation…can facilitate more informed investing and voting decisions in the face of complex information about these important areas.”
To which the Mad Hatter might have responded: “You can assume plain English conveys clear thinking, but what happens if plain English is not fed by clear thinking?”
The 2012 proxy season in the United States, forecast by some to feature significant turmoil and change, has in fact been less tumultuous than expected. It’s been all quiet on the regulatory front, owing to the SEC’s highly deliberate approach to rulemaking and the D.C. Circuit’s interventionist reaction to the proxy access rules. With new rules, for once, not in motion, change is occurring incrementally, as activists continue old campaigns and launch new ones, institutional shareholders express their support on both the issues and the circumstances of particular companies, and the companies themselves decide when to resist and when to negotiate.
Continued Support for Say-on-Pay Votes
Obtaining say-on-pay support continues to be a nonissue for many companies. Of the 639 large accelerated filers to report results as of May 18th, only 2% failed their say-on-pay votes, the same percentage that we saw in 2011. Less than 16% of large accelerated filers reported say-on-pay results below the 80% approval level and less than 10% reported results below the 70% approval level. The continued high pass rates may reflect not only the tactical judgment of shareholders to force the issue at only a handful of companies, but also the retreat at many companies from practices that had drawn the most criticism, such as tax gross-ups and excessive severance. Many companies also increased their engagement with shareholders and have done a better job of explaining their pay practices.
The compensation discussion and analysis (CD&A) portion of the corporate proxy statement has been a point of frustration for both issuers and investors since its adoption by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2006. The compensation disclosure regime was intended to help both shareowners and boards of directors make more informed decisions concerning appropriate executive compensation practices. However, the CD&A report, in its current format, has often resulted in frustration due to its length and complexity and because such reports often focus on regulatory compliance to the detriment of conveying the company’s compensation story in a concise and understandable manner.