Shareholder voting, once given up for dead as a vestige or ritual of little practical importance, has come roaring back as a key part of American corporate governance. Where once voting was limited to uncontested annual election of directors, it is now common to see short slate proxy contests, board declassification proposals, and “Say on Pay” votes occurring at public companies. The surge in the importance of shareholder voting has caused increased conflict between shareholders and directors, a tension well-illustrated in recent high profile voting fights in takeovers (e.g. Dell) and in the growing role for Say on Pay votes. Yet, despite the obvious importance of shareholder voting, none of the existing corporate law theories coherently justify it.
Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder voting’
In the US, every M&A deal of any significant size generates litigation. The vast majority of these lawsuits settle, and the vast majority of these settlements are for non-pecuniary relief, most commonly supplemental disclosures in the merger proxy.
The engine that drives this litigation is the concept of “corporate benefit.” Under judge-made law, litigation that produces a corporate benefit allows the court to order plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees to be paid directly by the defendants provided that the outcome of the litigation is beneficial to the corporation and its shareholders. In a negotiated settlement, plaintiffs will characterize supplemental disclosures in the merger proxy as producing a corporate benefit, and defendants will typically not oppose the characterization, as they are happy to pay off the plaintiffs’ lawyers and get on with the deal. The supposed benefits of these settlements thus are rarely tested in adversarial proceedings. Knowing this creates a strong incentive for plaintiffs’ attorneys to file claims, put in limited effort, and negotiate a settlement consisting exclusively of corrective disclosures. But is there any real value to these settlements?
As the fallout from the financial crisis recedes and both institutional investors and corporate boards gain experience with expanded corporate governance regulation, the coming year holds some promise of decreased tensions in board-shareholder relations. With governance settling in to a “new normal,” influential shareholders and boards should refocus their attention on the fundamental aspects of their roles as they relate to the creation of long-term value.
Institutional investors and their beneficiaries, and society at large, have a decided interest in the long-term health of the corporation and in the effectiveness of its governing body. Corporate governance is likely to work best in supporting the creation of value when the decision rights and responsibilities of shareholders and boards set out in state corporate law are effectuated.
The SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance recently released three Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations concerning the SEC’s so-called unbundling rule (Exchange Act Rule 14a-4(a)(3)), which requires proxies to identify clearly and impartially each “separate matter” intended to be acted upon.
Nearly a year ago, in Greenlight Capital, L.P. v. Apple, Inc., a federal court enjoined Apple from bundling four charter amendments into a single proposal. The Apple decision highlighted the lack of clarity in the unbundling rules and the risk that the SEC or an activist shareholder could challenge a company’s presentation of proposals. The new C&DIs provide bright-line guidance for amendments to equity incentive plans but leave other situations to be considered on a facts-and-circumstances basis and, implicitly, to be discussed with the SEC Staff in cases of uncertainty.
Two new concepts will need to be addressed going forward:
Amid the recent uptick in U.S. IPO transactions to levels not seen since the heady days of 1999 and 2000, Davis Polk’s pipeline of deals remains robust, leading us to believe that strength in the U.S. IPO market will continue in the near future. With ongoing pressure on companies that are past the IPO stage to update or modify their corporate governance practices to align with the views of some shareholders and proxy advisory groups, we thought this would be a good time to review corporate governance practices of newly public companies to see if they have also shifted in recent years. Our survey is an update of our October 2011 survey and focuses on corporate governance at the time of the IPO for the 100 largest U.S. IPOs from September 2011 through October 2013. Results are presented separately for controlled companies and non-controlled companies in recognition of their different governance profiles.
This third annual edition of Governance Insights presents Davies’ analysis of the corporate governance practices of Canadian public companies over the course of 2013 and the trends and issues that influenced and shaped them.
We expect 2014 to be an active year for governance themes with greater calls for diversity on boards, a growing shareholder voice on “say on pay” resolutions, and further regulatory initiatives around proxy voting and the regulation of proxy advisory firms. We also anticipate continued discussion on shareholder activism and scrutiny of the tools and strategies used by issuers and shareholders.
Public companies that have recently adopted or are considering adopting bylaws that disqualify director nominees who receive compensation from anyone other than the company should be aware of new FAQs released yesterday by Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and the potential impact the FAQs may have on forthcoming director elections. Such bylaws typically operate in conjunction with advance notice bylaws that require proponents to disclose compensation arrangements with their nominees. Compensation payable by a third party for director candidacy and/or board service—for example, by an insurgent in a contested director election—may call into question a director’s undivided loyalty to the company and all of its shareholders.
In the latest instance of proxy advisors establishing a governance standard without offering evidence that it will improve corporate governance or corporate performance, ISS has adopted a new policy position that appears designed to chill board efforts to protect against “golden leash” incentive bonus schemes. These bonus schemes have been used by some activist hedge funds to recruit director candidates to stand for election in support of whatever business strategy the fund seeks to impose on a company.
We have reviewed the 365 merger agreements that were announced during the two years after the “Say-on-Golden-Parachute” vote rule went into effect on April 25, 2011 and that were subject to the rule.  We found that 39 companies (11% of the total) substantively enhanced executive compensation arrangements in connection with the transactions.
Some of the more common executive compensation enhancements, which generally did not result in negative vote recommendations from Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”), were: granting deal closing bonuses (in 17 deals), granting retention bonuses (in 16 deals) and granting additional equity awards that vest on or post-closing (in 13 deals). However, the following executive compensation enhancements generally did result in negative vote recommendations from ISS: granting new excise tax gross-ups (three out of four deals received negative ISS recommendations), cashing-out severance or converting severance into a retention bonus without an actual termination of employment (five out of eight deals received negative ISS recommendations) and accelerating the vesting of equity awards when the stated performance hurdles were not achieved or were artificially low (five out of six deals received negative ISS recommendations).
In proxy contests earlier this year involving the boards of Agrium Inc. (“Agrium”) and Hess Corporation (“Hess”), the compensation by activist shareholders of their proposed director nominees was heavily criticized both by the target boards and by third party commentators. The Agrium and Hess contests have given rise to a debate over the merits and propriety of nominee compensation generally, with some institutional shareholders and commentators calling for the prohibition of the practice. In the face of this critical commentary, the recent experience of Provident Financial Holdings, Inc. (“Provident”), a U.S. bank holding company, suggests that efforts by boards to prohibit the practice entirely are likely to meet resistance.