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 ‘Wachtell Lipton’
The Securities and Exchange Commission announced last week that it had charged eight directors, officers and major stockholders for failing to timely disclose steps taken to take their respective companies private in their beneficial ownership reports on Schedule 13D. The orders issued by the SEC indicate the SEC staff became aware of the violations in the course of their review of proxy and Schedule 13E-3 transaction statements, which described the steps taken in the required disclosures regarding the background of the transactions. The orders note that emails and other contemporaneous communications clearly indicate the steps taken that had not been properly disclosed. The orders issued by the SEC (to which the offending parties consented) resulted in cease-and-desist orders and payment of civil penalties.
Delaware corporations and their advisers have been eagerly awaiting the response of the Delaware legislature to the recent surge in appraisal arbitrage and judicial pronouncements allowing this activity and suggesting that lawmakers should step in if they perceive a problem. It now appears based on a proposal released by the Delaware Corporation Law Council that the legislature may act as soon as this week. If the lawmakers follow the recommendations of the Council (which they usually do) the changes will likely disappoint Delaware corporations, make mergers and acquisitions in that important state more difficult, reduce deal flow, and lead to lower prices being paid to selling shareholders. The beneficiaries of this legislation will be the small (but growing) group of short term speculators specializing in appraisal arbitrage and the advisors who support that industry. Some of the problems created by appraisal arbitrage are described in my post on this subject a few weeks ago.
Pursuant to Section 955 of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC on February 9, 2015 proposed hedging disclosure rules for public comment and review. These rules, if adopted, would require proxy statements involving the election of directors to disclose whether the company permits employees (including officers), members of the board of directors or their designees to engage in transactions to hedge or offset any decrease in the market value of equity securities that are granted to the employee or board member as compensation or otherwise held, directly or indirectly, by the employee or board member, regardless of source.
As the 2015 proxy season approaches, the dominant theme appears to be the interaction between directors and investors. Though, traditionally, there was little to no direct engagement, recent experience indicates that communication between these two groups is now on the rise, in some cases resulting in collaboration. This is potentially a beneficial development, particularly insofar as it may help companies and long-term investors work together to resist pressure from activist shareholders seeking short-term profits. In the current environment where activists and hedge funds appear to wield unprecedented financial and political leverage, and the influence of proxy advisors is as significant as it is controversial, the predominant trend seems to be “toward diplomacy rather than war.” Organizations such as the Shareholder-Director Exchange, which began last year to offer guidance to shareholders and boards on direct engagement, are promoting policies that may reduce the incidence, duration, and severity of contentious public disagreements.
Yet again, the past year has witnessed a staggering array of massive financial settlements in regulatory and white collar matters. Prominent examples, among many others, include Toyota, which was fined $1.2 billion in connection with resolving an investigation into safety defects; BNP, which pleaded guilty and paid $8.9 billion to resolve criminal and civil investigations into U.S. OFAC and other sanctions violations; Credit Suisse, which also pleaded guilty and paid $2.6 billion to resolve a long-running cross-border criminal tax investigation; and the global multi-agency settlements with six financial institutions for a total of $4.3 billion in fines, penalties and disgorgement in regard to allegations concerning attempted manipulation of foreign exchange benchmark rates. The government also continued to generate headlines with settlements arising out of the financial crisis, including settlements with numerous financial institutions totalling more than $24 billion. We have no reason to expect that this trend will change in 2015.
Acquisition financing activity was robust in 2014, as the credit markets accommodated increased demand from rising M&A activity. At over $749 billion, global 2014 M&A loan issuance was up approximately 40 percent year over year, the highest total since before the Great Recession. While the aggregate figures suggest a borrower-friendly market, the actual picture is more nuanced. Investment grade acquirors benefited from a consistently strong financing environment throughout 2014 and finished the year with a flourish (including a $36 billion commitment backing Actavis’ acquisition of Allergan), while leveraged acquirors encountered more volatility, as lenders responded quickly to regulatory changes and market conditions, and both high-yield commitments and debt became more costly.
The year 2014 was marked by accelerating mergers and acquisitions activity in the financial institutions space and by several distinct trends. Institutions continued to adapt to the changed regulatory environment, as several important rule proposals and releases brought the ultimate contours of that environment into clearer focus. Profitability pressures continued for traditional businesses. And, as investors continue to seek yield in a low-rate world, shareholder activism notably proliferated. Continued improvement in the economy brought new opportunities into sight and ramped up private equity activity in the financial services sector. Cutting across all of these trends, technological changes, and associated business challenges, continued to reshape firms’ strategic playbooks.
Early indications suggest the M&A activity trend continuing into 2015. In the opening days of the new year, City National agreed to merge with Royal Bank of Canada. The largest bank holding company merger since the financial crisis, at $5.4 billion, the City National deal signals the continuing recovery of the U.S. market from post-crisis distressed deal terms, transaction motivations and negotiating positions. City National is widely considered to be among the strongest franchises in the U.S. It maintained its position of strength and financial performance throughout the financial crisis—as evidenced by the 2.6x multiple of deal price to tangible book value to be paid to City National shareholders. The merger is also a significant vote of confidence by RBC in the outlook for the U.S. banking market and in particular for the type of clientele served by City National. RBC will be reentering retail and commercial banking in the U.S. with 75 branches and $32 billion in assets, and a franchise that is highly complementary to its existing strong U.S. asset management presence.
Again in 2014, as in the two previous years, there has been an increase in the number and intensity of attacks by activist hedge funds. Indeed, 2014 could well be called the “year of the wolf pack.”
With the increase in activist hedge fund attacks, particularly those aimed at achieving an immediate increase in the market value of the target by dismembering or overleveraging, there is a growing recognition of the adverse effect of these attacks on shareholders, employees, communities and the economy. Noted below are the most significant 2014 developments holding out a promise of turning the tide against activism and its proponents, including those in academia. Already in 2015 there have been several significant developments that are worth adding, which are included in bold at the end.
Following a year in which REITs returned more than 30% and were involved in a wide variety of strategic transactions, we are keeping an eye on the following trends:
1. Based on the current pipeline, we expect REIT and real estate M&A and consolidation activity to continue at a steady pace, accelerating in a few sectors and with traditional public-to-public mergers likely to pick up. The potential for privatizations is increasing but we are not yet seeing meaningful action.
2. Unlocking the value of corporate real estate through OpCo-PropCo structures, REIT spins and conversions is set to continue as long as REIT multiples remain robust relative to corporates, but we are not expecting an avalanche—these transactions are complex and time consuming and need to be carefully measured against alternatives.