It’s official: Proxy access is the darling of the 2015 season. Shareholder-sponsored proxy access proposals are on the ballots of more than 100 U.S. public companies this spring. These precatory proposals seek a shareholder vote on a binding bylaw that would enable shareholders who meet certain ownership requirements to nominate board candidates and have them included in the company’s own proxy materials. Powerful institutional investors have given the proxy access movement enormous momentum this spring, and blue chip firms such as GE, Bank of America, and Prudential have voluntarily adopted versions of proxy access in advance of their annual meetings. Companies such as Citigroup have agreed to support proxy access shareholder proposals in their definitive proxy materials. In the absence of regulatory guidance, proxy advisors such as ISS have stepped into the breach to define the terms and conditions of proxy access. As proxy access proposals proliferate—after years of controversy—the primary debate now seems to be whether a 3 percent or 5 percent ownership threshold is more appropriate.
Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder voting’
Today’s [February 19, 2015] Roundtable on Proxy Voting is certainly timely since over the course of the next several months, thousands of America’s public companies will hold annual shareholders meetings to elect directors and to vote on many important corporate governance issues. The start of the annual “proxy season” is an appropriate time to consider the annual process by which companies communicate with their shareholders and get their input on a variety of issues. Whether it’s voting on directors, executive compensation matters, or other significant matters, the annual meeting is the principal opportunity for shareholders—the true owners of public companies—to have their voices heard by the corporate managers of their investments. At these annual meetings, shareholders can express their support, or disappointment, with the direction of their companies through the exercise of their right to vote.
In the paper Understanding Director Elections: Determinants and Consequences, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we provide an in-depth examination of uncontested director elections. Using a hand-collected and comprehensive sample for director elections held at S&P 500 firms over the 2003–2010 period, we examine the factors driving shareholder votes in uncontested director elections, the effect of these votes on firms’ actions and the impact of these actions on firm value. We make three contributions.
First, it is well known that recommendations by the proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) play a key role in determining the voting outcome. Yet, the question of what factors drive ISS recommendations and, thus, shareholder votes in uncontested director elections remains largely unanswered. To fill this gap, we use the reports ISS releases to its clients ahead of the annual meeting and identify the specific reasons underlying negative ISS recommendations. We find that 38.1% of the negative recommendations target individual directors (reflecting concerns with independence, meeting attendance and number of directorships), 28.6% target an entire committee (usually the compensation committee), and the remaining 33.3% target the entire board (mostly for lack of responsiveness to shareholder proposals receiving a majority vote in the past). A withhold recommendation by ISS is associated with about 20% more votes withheld, in line with prior research. More relevant to our study, there is substantial variation in votes withheld from directors conditional on the underlying reason. A board-level ISS withhold recommendation is associated with 25.48% more votes withheld, versus 19.73% and 16.44%, respectively, for committee- and individual-level withhold recommendations. The sensitivity of shareholder votes to ISS withhold recommendations is higher when there are multiple reasons underlying the withhold recommendation for the director (a proxy for more severe concerns) and at firms with poorer governance structures. These results suggest that shareholders do not blindly follow ISS recommendations but seem to take into account their rationale, their severity and other contextual factors (e.g. governance of the firm). However, cases of high votes withheld without a negative proxy advisor recommendation are rare, suggesting that voting shareholders only focus on the issues singled out by proxy advisors, potentially at the expense of other value-relevant factors (e.g. directors’ skill set, expertise and experience) for which proxy advisors have not (yet) developed voting guidelines (perhaps due to lack of sophistication or the inherent complexity of the issue).
In our paper Ownership Structure, Voting and Risk, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we investigate the interaction between the ownership structure of publicly traded firms and their risk profiles. In particular, we show how the potential for conflict of interest between shareholders on risk decisions may cause the emergence of activist mid-sized investors. In turn, ownership structure affects the risk decisions that firms make.
It is natural to believe that the choice of shares to hold in a company is a trade off between diversification and control: large size comes with control at the cost of diversification. Many firms, however, have mid-sized shareholders who are neither well diversified nor have control. For example, in the United States (where it is widely agreed that regulation helps dispersed ownership), 67% of public firms have more than one shareholder with a stake larger than 5%, while only 13% are widely held and 20% have only one blockholder (Dlugosz et al., 2006). In Europe (where concentrated ownership is the norm), in eight out of the nine largest stock markets of the European Union, the median size of the second largest voting block in large publicly listed companies exceeds five percent (data from the European Corporate Governance Network). Why do such mid-sized shareholders emerge?
Political spending and climate change, key topics during the 2014 proxy season, are expected to feature heavily again in 2015 shareholder proposals. This post reviews the content of the social and environmental proposals voted on most frequently by shareholders of Russell 3000 companies during the 2014 season, including the topics that received the highest average shareholder support. The complete publication provides examples of proposal text and sponsor supporting statements, as well as board responses and related corporate disclosure.
Nearly 40 percent of all shareholder proposals submitted at Russell 3000 companies that held meetings during the first half of 2014 were related to social and environmental policy issues, up from 29.2 percent in 2010, as documented in Proxy Voting Analytics (2010-2014). Social and environmental policy proposals now represent the second-largest category of the subjects in terms of both the number submitted and the number voted, narrowly behind corporate governance.
In our paper, The Efficacy of Shareholder Voting in Staggered and Non-Staggered Boards: The Case of Audit Committee Elections, which was recently made available on SSRN, we study the efficacy of audit committee member elections in staggered and non-staggered boards.
Voting in director elections and auditor ratifications is a primary mechanism shareholders can use to voice their opinion. Past research shows that shareholders cast votes against directors that exhibit poor performance, and these votes, in turn, are associated with subsequent board reaction. However, because a significant number of U.S. public companies have staggered boards, not all directors are up for election every year. Therefore, the efficacy of shareholder votes may not be uniform. Under the staggered board voting regime, shareholders and proxy advising firms can typically voice their opinion on any given director only once every three years. This election structure may increase the likelihood that directors who are not up for election following poor performance will be insulated from the scrutiny of shareholders and proxy advisors. In turn, this may influence the accountability of staggered directors and the overall efficacy of shareholder votes.
As part of our active ownership process, State Street Global Advisors (“SSgA”) considers environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) matters while evaluating and engaging with investee companies. SSgA believes that ESG factors can impact the reputation of companies and can also create significant operational risks and costs to businesses. Conversely, well-developed corporate social responsibility (“CSR”) programs  can generate efficiencies, enhance productivity and mitigate risks, all of which impact shareholder value.
Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (“ISS”) and Glass Lewis have both released updates to their respective proxy voting guidelines.  ISS’s revised policies will take effect for annual meetings occurring on or after February 1, 2015. Glass Lewis’s new policies will take effect for meetings occurring after January 1, 2015, while its clarifications of existing policies are effective immediately.
In Q1 and early Q2 2014, SSgA actively engaged with 15 global banks ahead of the proxy voting season. These engagements were conducted jointly with members of SSgA’s investment and governance teams. Our engagement addressed specific governance issues at each bank and also encompassed a wider discussion on the changing regulatory landscape and its impact on business strategy, capital requirements, operations and risk management, and the bank’s global footprint. Below we have provided the perspectives and insights gleaned from our engagement activities with banks this year.
The Comptroller of the City of New York, who oversees pension funds with a combined $160 billion in assets, recently submitted proxy access shareholder proposals at 75 U.S. public companies as part of its Boardroom Accountability Project.  These 75 companies, representing a wide range of industries and market capitalizations, were targeted based on three “priority issues”: climate change, board diversity, and executive compensation.
“Proxy access” proposals seek to provide shareholders with a mechanism for placing their nominees for director in a company’s proxy statement and on its proxy card, thereby avoiding the cost to a shareholder of sending out its own proxy statement. Under a typical proxy access bylaw, shareholders must hold a specified amount of stock in the company (e.g., 3 percent) for a certain period (e.g., 3 years), in addition to meeting other procedural requirements. Proponents of proxy access argue that it provides shareholders with a cost-effective means of running their own candidates for director, providing all shareholders with greater ability to shape the composition of the board.