The 2008 financial crisis and the slow recovery that has followed has brought further evidence tending to support the view that the structure of our corporate sector needs adjustment, and that its faults affect the competitiveness of our economy. The crisis has resulted, as would be expected, in a raft of new rules and regulations, which as usual have been implemented before there emerged any consensus about the nature of the problems. There has also been a vigorous competition of ideas over causes and remedies.
Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder communications’
The Shareholder-Director Exchange (SDX™)  is a working group of leading independent directors and representatives from some of the largest and most influential long-term institutional investors.  SDX participants came together to discuss shareholder-director engagement and to use their collective experience to develop the SDX Protocol, a set of guidelines to provide a framework for shareholder-director engagements. While the decision to engage directly with investors should be made in consultation with or at the request of management, the 10-point SDX Protocol offers guidance to US public company boards and shareholders on when such engagement is appropriate and how to make these engagements valuable and effective.
As we begin 2014, calendar-year companies are immersed in preparing for what promises to be another busy proxy season. We continue to see shareholder proposals on many of the same subjects addressed during last proxy season, as discussed in our post recapping shareholder proposal developments in 2013. To help public companies and their boards of directors prepare for the coming year’s annual meeting and plan ahead for other corporate governance developments in 2014, we discuss below several key topics to consider.
The principal corporate governance campaigns of the past decade have reached a plateau in terms of both investor commitment and implementation. These governance issues (such as majority voting, de-classifying staggered boards, eliminating super-majority votes and executive compensation excesses) are not by any means going away. Indeed, there are concerted investor-led efforts to push favored corporate governance “best practices” down the corporate chain to mid-cap and small-cap companies. However, the activist community has clearly won the policy battles surrounding these governance principles, and their “sizzle” is dissipating.
Policy stasis does not become corporate governance activism, as its very name implies. Corporate governance activists will develop new “green fields” to plow; otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant. The question is not whether corporate governance activists will move on but rather where they will go.
While there are a number of possible new foci, two stand out in particular:
Companies today are being called upon by their shareholders and other stakeholders to not only boost the bottom line, but also to help address some of the country’s most challenging problems, including those concerning economic development and the environment. While opinions differ on how responsibility should be allocated across the public and private sectors, corporate stakeholders (which typically include shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, communities, governments and regulators) are demanding that companies recognize a broader scope of responsibility in addressing those problems. As a result, companies are increasingly working with stakeholders to understand their views and concerns on various environmental, social, corporate governance and economic issues (such issues often referred to as corporate social responsibility (“CSR”) issues) and to incorporate and address those views and concerns in the company’s strategic decision-making processes.
When we convened our Corporate Governance Symposium last year (October 2012), we highlighted the increasingly important role shareholders were playing in the corporate decision-making process, commenting as follows:
“Over the course of the past year, we have continued to see shareholders making their voices heard, in some cases rather forcefully and effectively, on a broad range of corporate issues. In many ways, the recent developments in corporate governance reinforce the growing perception that we are, and have been for several years, experiencing a potentially fundamental shift in the balance of authority, or influence, between boards of directors and shareholders in the corporate decision-making process, moving further away from the longstanding board primacy model of corporate governance.”
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.
In many respects, the relentless drive to adopt corporate governance mandates seems to have reached a plateau: essentially all of the prescribed “best practices”—including say-on-pay, the dismantling of takeover defenses, majority voting in the election of directors and the declassification of board structures—have been codified in rules and regulations or voluntarily adopted by a majority of S&P 500 companies. Only 11 percent of S&P 500 companies have a classified board, 8 percent have a poison pill and 6 percent have not adopted a majority vote or plurality-vote-plus-resignation standard to elect directors. The activists’ “best practices” of yesterday have become the standard practices of today. While proxy advisors and other stakeholders in the corporate governance industry will undoubtedly continue to propose new mandates, we are currently in a period of relative stasis as compared to the sea change that began with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and unfolded over the last decade.
In other respects, however, the corporate governance landscape continues to evolve in meaningful ways. We may be entering an era of more nuanced corporate governance debates, where the focus has shifted from check-the-box policies to more complex questions such as how to strike the right balance in recruiting directors with complementary skill sets and diverse perspectives, and how to tailor the board’s role in overseeing risk management to the specific needs of the company. Shareholder engagement has been an area of particular focus, as both companies and institutional investors have sought to engage in more regular dialogue on corporate governance matters. The evolving trend here is not only the frequency and depth of engagement, but also a more fundamental re-thinking of the nature of relationships with shareholders and the role that these relationships play in facilitating long-term value creation. Importantly, this trend is about more than just expanding shareholder influence in corporate governance matters; instead, there is an emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of both companies and shareholders in facilitating thoughtful conversations instead of reflexive, off-the-shelf mandates on corporate governance issues, and cultivating long-term relationships that have the potential to curb short-termist pressures in the market.
“Can we end the long tradition of the boardroom as a sealed chamber…? Can we move toward more transparency about the boardroom process…?”
—Leon Panetta 
Companies preparing for their annual shareholder meetings in 2014 should be aware of a new governance challenge: opposition to the election of individual directors is becoming a strategy of choice not only for activists but for “responsible” investors seeking change at portfolio companies. Withholding (or threatening to withhold) votes for incumbent directors, supporting short slate campaigns, or voting for dissident candidates in proxy contests are no longer considered hardball tactics for use only in extreme cases. Institutional investors who in the past would routinely support incumbent directors have learned an important lesson from the success of hedge funds and activists: targeting directors gets the immediate attention of companies, promotes dialogue, attracts media coverage and increases pressure on other investors to support shareholder initiatives.
There has been a rapid increase in shareholder requests for special meetings with the board. This report discusses the potential benefits and complexities of the board-shareholder engagement process, reviews global trends in engagement practices, provides insights into engagement activities at U.S. companies, and highlights developments in the use of technology to facilitate engagement. It also provides perspectives from institutional investors on the design of an effective engagement process.
The annual general meeting is the main channel of communication between a company’s board and its shareholders. Among other important meeting activities, shareholders have the opportunity to hear executives and directors discuss recent performance and outline the company’s long-term strategy.
Since 2007, there has been an increase in shareholder requests for special meetings with the board. A recent study of board-shareholder engagement activities shows that 87 percent of security issuers, 70 percent of asset managers, and 62 percent of asset owners reported at least one engagement in the previous year. Moreover, the level of engagement is increasing rapidly, with 50 percent of issuers, 64 percent of asset managers, and 53 percent of asset owners reporting that they were engaging more. Only 6 percent of issuers and almost no investors reported a decrease in engagement. Shareholders, particularly institutional investors, believe that annual meetings are too infrequent and do not provide sufficient content to address their concerns.