Following an increase in shareholder and investor activism beyond pure executive remuneration issues in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2013, with some 25 companies targeted for public campaigns, this post provides a summary of certain principles of English law and UK and European regulation applicable to UK listed public companies and their shareholders that are relevant to the expected further increase in activism in 2014. This post covers (i) stake-building; (ii) shareholders’ rights to require companies to hold general meetings; (iii) shareholders’ rights to propose resolutions at annual general meetings; and (iv) recent developments in these and related areas through raising and answering a number of relevant questions.
Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder rights’
Thursday February 13, 2014 was an important day for shareholder democracy in Canada. We know that athletes train many years in order to reach the Olympics, but the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (CCGG) also has worked publicly and behind the scenes for many years to bring majority voting to Canada. Finally, last week the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) agreed to adopt a listing requirement effective June 30, 2014 pursuant to which TSX listed companies (other than those which are majority controlled) must adopt a majority voting policy which requires each director of a TSX listed issuer to be elected by a majority of the votes cast with respect to his or her election other than at contested meetings.
The recent announcement of the formation of the Shareholder-Director Exchange, a new group that aims to facilitate direct communication between institutional shareholders (namely, mutual funds and pension programs) and non-management directors of the U.S. public companies they own, has been accompanied by a flurry of articles regarding the purposes and possibilities of this new group. From my perspective, the Shareholder-Director Exchange has tremendous potential to help improve corporate governance and performance in this country.
There are many good, independent boards of directors at public companies in the United States. Unfortunately, there are also many ineffectual boards composed of cronies of CEOs and management teams, and such boards routinely use corporate capital to hire high-priced “advisors” to design defense mechanisms, such as the staggered board and poison pill, that serve to insulate them from criticism. Recently, these advisors have created a particularly pernicious new mechanism to protect their deep-pocketed clients—a bylaw amendment (which we call the “Director Disqualification Bylaw”) that disqualifies certain people from seeking to replace incumbent members of a board of directors. Under a Director Disqualification Bylaw, a person is not eligible for election to the board of directors if he is nominated by a shareholder and the shareholder has agreed to pay the nominee a fee, such as a cash payment to compensate the nominee for taking the time and effort to seek election in a proxy fight, or compensation that is tied to performance of the company. 
In a much anticipated decision, the Delaware Chancery Court upheld on June 25, 2013 the validity of the forum selection bylaws adopted by the boards of directors of FedEx Corporation (“FedEx”) and Chevron Corporation (“Chevron”). Such bylaws provide that stockholders bringing derivative claims or claims alleging breaches of fiduciary duties, arising from the Delaware General Corporate Law (the “DGCL”) or otherwise implicating the internal affairs of the corporation be brought exclusively in Delaware state or federal courts. In rendering his opinion, Chancellor Leo Strine found that specifying the forum for litigating such matters is well within the statutorily permitted scope of bylaw provisions under Section 109(b) of the DGCL. Further, the Court found that these unilateral board actions to adopt such bylaws without the consent of stockholders were nonetheless contractually binding on stockholders because Section 109(b) of the DGCL allows a corporation, through its certificate of incorporation, to grant directors the power to adopt and amend bylaws unilaterally (which was the case here). When FedEx and Chevron stockholders invested in the respective corporations, they were deemed under Delaware law to be put on notice that the board could amend the bylaws to include provisions such as the one at issue.
Bebchuk, Cohen, and Wang Win the 2013 IRRCi Academic Award for “Learning and the Disappearing Association between Governance and Returns”
In an award ceremony held in New York City on Tuesday, the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute (IRRCi) announced the winners of its the 2013 prize competition. The academic award, coming with a $10,000 award prize, went to HLS professor Lucian Bebchuk, HLS Senior Fellow and Tel-Aviv University Professor Alma Cohen, and HBS professor Charles Wang. Bebchuk, Cohen, and Wang received the award for their study, Learning and the Disappearing Association between Governance and Returns, available on SSRN here.
The Bebchuk-Cohen-Wang study was published last month by the Journal of Financial Economics. In presenting the award, IRRCi chair announced that the winning paper “will be valuable … for investors, policymakers, academia, and other stakeholders.”
The study seeks to explain a pattern that has received a great deal of attention from financial economists and capital market participants: during the period 1991-1999, stock returns were correlated with the G-Index, which is based on twenty-four governance provisions (Gompers, Ishii, and Metrick (2003)) and the E-Index, which is based on the six provisions that matter most (Bebchuk, Cohen, and Ferrell (2009)). The study shows that this correlation did not persist during the subsequent period 2000-2008. Furthermore, the study provides evidence that both the identified correlation and its subsequent disappearance were due to market participants’ gradually learning to appreciate the difference between firms scoring well and poorly on the governance indices. Consistent with the learning hypothesis, the study finds that:
The Court of Chancery has rejected statutory and contractual challenges to forum-selection bylaws adopted unilaterally by the boards of directors of Chevron Corporation and FedEx Corporation. In an opinion deciding motions for partial judgment on the pleadings in Boilermakers Local 154 Retirement Fund, et al. v. Chevron Corp., et al., C.A. No. 7220-CS, and Iclub Inv. P’ship v. FedEx Corp., et al., C.A. No. 7238-CS, Chancellor Strine determined that a board of directors, if granted authority to adopt bylaws by the certificate of incorporation, has the power under the Delaware General Corporation Law to adopt a bylaw requiring litigation relating to the corporation’s internal affairs to be conducted exclusively in the Delaware courts, and that such a bylaw may become part of the binding agreement between a corporation and its stockholders even though the stockholders do not vote to approve it. The Court emphasized, however, that stockholder-plaintiffs retain the ability to challenge the enforcement of such a bylaw in a particular case, either under the reasonableness standard adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States in The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972), or under principles of fiduciary duty. The Court also left open the possibility that the boards’ actions in adopting such bylaws could be subject to challenge as a breach of fiduciary duty.
“One-share, one-vote,” a bedrock principle of Anglo-Saxon corporate governance, is back in the spotlight. Except this time the aim is to diminish its application rather than to extend its global footprint. Rising short-termism among investors — which threatens to destabilize both companies and the wider economy — is prompting a reconsideration of the principle that all shareholders should have equal say.
Prominent commentators such as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, McKinsey Managing Director Dominic Barton and blog, and Vanguard Group founder John Bogle have advocated bolstering the voting rights of long-term shareholders or, conversely, withholding them from short-term investors. Significantly, the Financial Times reported last week that the European Commission was preparing a proposal to give “loyal” shareholders extra voting influence.
Seeking insulation from near-term pressures, Facebook, LinkedIn, Groupon, and other Silicon Valley outfits went public in recent years with dual-class shares that gave their founders — believed to be the most committed to their long-term success — voting power of up to 150 times greater than those accorded outside investors. Google, which adopted a similar share structure at the time of its initial public offering in 2004, has gone further with its decision last spring to issue non-voting stock.
In our paper, Should Shareholders Have a Say on Executive Compensation? Evidence from Say-on-Pay in the United States, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine the SEC 2011 regulation requiring an advisory (non-binding) shareholder vote on the compensation of the top five highest paid executives – “say-on-pay” (SOP). In July of 2010, Section 951 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank) was signed into law requiring all public companies to give their shareholders the opportunity to cast a “non-binding” advisory vote to approve or disapprove the compensation of the 5 highest paid executives at least once every 3-years. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) implemented “say-on-pay” (SOP) in January of 2011, and since then, shareholders in the US have “had their say” on executive compensation packages for two years: 2011 and 2012. To date, the SOP shareholders’ votes overwhelmingly approved the executive compensation proposals by a majority of votes (>than 50 percent) giving broad support to management pay packages (Cotter et al., 2012). Only 1.2 percent of the Russell 3000 failed the SOP proposal in 2011 and 2.5 percent failed in 2012 obtaining less than 50 percent approval. However, around 10 percent of firms received more than 30 percent opposition or “rejection” votes.
This post provides a summary of certain principles of English law and UK and European regulation applicable to UK-listed public companies and their shareholders that may affect shareholder activism, namely (i) stake-building, (ii) shareholders’ rights to require companies to hold general meetings, (iii) shareholders’ rights to propose resolutions at annual general meetings and (iv) recent developments in these and related areas.
I Own or Am Intending to Acquire Shares; Do I Need To Make Any Disclosures?
The UK’s disclosure obligations (under the UK Listing Authority’s Disclosure and Transparency Rules (the “DTRs”)) apply once a person (or persons acting in concert) has (or together have) a holding of 3 per cent. or more of a listed company’s total voting rights and capital in issue (either as a shareholder or through a direct or indirect holding of relevant financial instruments) unless the relevant listed public company enters an “offer period” (as to which, see below). Thereafter, any changes to that holding that cause the size of the holding to reach, exceed or fall below every 1 per cent. above the 3 per cent. threshold (i.e. reaching, exceeding or falling below 4, 5, 6 per cent. etc.) must be disclosed by the relevant shareholder(s) to the listed company and the listed company is then obliged to announce those disclosures to the market. In addition, the disclosure obligations extend to the disclosure of voting rights held by a person as an indirect holder of shares, such as where a person is entitled to acquire, dispose of or exercise the voting rights attaching to shares (for example, via synthetic holdings or contract(s) for difference). It is important to note that any indirect holdings must be aggregated and separately identified in the relevant notification(s).