Initiatives of shareholder engagement must take into consideration the modern, complex nature of share ownership. Shareholders can no longer be considered as a single group, instead the shareholder base may include a range of institutional investors, hedge funds, private equity funds, sovereign wealth funds and other activist investors. There has been a significant transformation of institutional holdings in recent years, and company boards will need to adjust their behaviour and the nature in which these engage with these new categories of investors.
Posts Tagged ‘Sodali’
“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.
During the past decade the Annual General Meeting has become a forum for confrontation with shareholders as much as an assembly for the conduct of company business. In today’s environment, companies planning their AGMs must prepare for an array of potential disruptions that can include organized opposition to agenda items, opportunistic activism and campaigns to unseat or replace directors, often accompanied by negative media coverage and reputational damage.
Opinions vary widely as to whether confrontation at annual meetings is a sign of healthy corporate governance or a distraction from essential business goals. Regardless of its merits, controversy at AGMs has become a fact of life for listed companies around the world. How to avoid being surprised or forced into a defensive posture or losing control of the annual meeting is a serious challenge that corporate boards and managers will face once again in 2013.
Comply-and-Explain: Should Directors Have a Duty to Inform?, published recently in Duke Law School’s Journal of Law and Contemporary Problems, argues that the directors of publicly held companies in the United States should be subject to a new state law duty requiring them to explain to shareholders how the board is exercising business judgment and acting in the best interests of the corporation.
The duty is derived from: (1) the Model Business Corporation Act (MBCA) Section 8.30 that requires directors to act in the best interest of the corporation and to share information material to the exercise of the board’s decision-making or oversight functions; (2) Section 3.C.4 of the American Bar Association’s Corporate Director’s Guidebook, that sets forth a director’s “duty of disclosure”; and (3) the Department of Labor ERISA requirements governing the fiduciary duties of institutional investors and their exercise of proxy votes. The duty to inform also builds on concepts from the UK’s principles-based, comply-or-explain governance system that gives directors wide discretion to customize governance policies provided that they explain how their decisions are intended to achieve business goals and serve the best interests of the company and its shareholders.
Peter Drucker, the revered management guru, deplored excessive CEO pay. He argued that CEOs should not be paid more than 20 to 25 times the average salary of company employees. While his approach is schematic, Drucker’s reasons for opposing high executive compensation resonate today even more than during his lifetime. Essentially, Drucker believed that the leadership, motivation and teamwork needed for a successful business are undermined when the CEO is overpaid. He maintained that business leaders should set an example of responsibility, not privilege. He defined the CEO’s role in terms of stewardship, not self-interest.
The financial crisis certainly validated Drucker’s concerns. A Who’s-Who of respected global business leaders have recently gone on record advocating changes in executive compensation. The list includes Paul Volcker, Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffett, Jeff Immelt, Mervyn King — even Allen Greenspan.
Conspicuously absent from the list have been the leaders of Wall Street, and herein lies an important clue to what went wrong, what should be done and why the task is so difficult.
In their recent post on the Forum entitled Restoring Balance in Proxy Voting: The Case For “Client Directed Voting (available here), Frank Zarb Jr. and John Endean advocate Client Directed Voting (CDV), and describe how CDV might work. However, their model suffers from a significant problem. As envisioned by Mr. Zarb and Mr. Endean, CDV would offer beneficial owners only three choices: (1) to vote in proportion to other retail shareholders; (2) to vote as the board recommends; (3) to vote “contrary to the board’s recommendation.” This approach offers no improvement over the old discredited system of broker discretionary voting. In fact, proportional voting is a practice that violates the core governance principle of one-share-one-vote and increases the risk of manipulative practices. What is needed is an efficient model of CDV that is contextual and that can be customized to individual companies and their circumstances.
It is possible to conceive of a much more robust model for CDV in which retail investors would have access to a variety of meaningful choices for directed voting. CDV make sense if it could be structured to offer retail beneficial owners (RBOs) meaningful and customized voting choices, an audit trail, regular reporting and annual contract renewal.
To be meaningful, CDV should provide RBOs an array of voting analyses and choices from different types of institutional investors and other groups, including public pension funds, environmental and social investors, long term centrists such as TIAA-CREF, labor unions, advocacy investors, etc. It is interesting to speculate whether or how activist institutional investors, short-term investors or hedge funds might participate in a CDV system. It is also interesting to consider whether the voting recommendations of proxy advisory firms might appear on CDV platforms, with or without accompanying analyses.