In late July, S&P Dow Jones and FTSE Russell announced that they were changing or proposing to change the standards that govern whether a company is included in their indices.  Although their approaches differ, the changes would effectively bar most companies with differential voting rights from their indices, as follows:

  • In its July 31 announcement, S&P Dow Jones said that companies with multiple share classes will no longer be included in the indices comprising the S&P Composite 1500 – which includes the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400 and S&P SmallCap 600. There are some exceptions; companies currently in these indices will be grandfathered, as will any newly public company spun off from a company currently included in any of the indices.
  • Five days earlier, FTSE Russell proposed to require more than 5% of a company’s voting rights – across all equity securities, whether or not listed or traded – to be held by “free float” holders to be eligible for inclusion in the FTSE Russell indices.

Continue Reading Class Acts: Stock Indices Bar Differential Voting Rights

Some of you may remember Christopher Cox, who served as SEC Chair from 2005 to early 2009, when he was succeeded by Mary Schapiro.  His name doesn’t come up often, perhaps because his legacy was a weakened Commission tarnished by, among other things, the financial crisis and the Madoff scandal.

While Chairman Cox may not have been responsible for either of those debacles, he did leave another unpleasant legacy – XBRL.  He was among the biggest cheerleaders for XBRL, claiming that it would enable investors to compare companies within and across industries and would perform various other miracles.  Suffice it to say it hasn’t done that.  Aside from the fact that it’s time-consuming, it has failed to provide the benefits of comparability.  As a client recently said,

“[E]ven if two companies use the same taxonomy/tagging for Cost of Sales, they probably are not consistent in the underlying details that go into Cost of Sales.  One company might classify certain components as G&A instead.  There are many other examples.  Consistency is very important for one company’s reporting from period to period, however comparisons of competitors’ financials will always be approximations at best.”

Continue Reading RIP XBRL?

The young ones among you may not be familiar with Harvey Pitt, but he is an incredibly smart man and a gifted attorney who chaired the SEC some years back.  He made some political gaffes in that role, but that doesn’t diminish his understanding of the securities laws and how disclosure works.

A few weeks ago, he was quoted in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of disclosure (“Harvey Pitt Envisions a New Form of Corporate Disclosure”).  Specifically, he points out that “[d]isclosure is supposed to be for the purpose of informing…but…it’s become for the purpose of providing a defense”.  He also says “…when you have proxy statements that run hundreds of pages…it’s impossible to expect any normal individual to put in the time to read all of those pages”.  As I said, he’s an incredibly smart man.

So what is his solution?  He suggests a “summary disclosure document the way disclosure used to be” – say five or six pages – and that more detailed information be available by hyperlink for the investors who want to dig deep.  At the same time, companies could track how many people actually make that deep dive and make judgments as to eliminating information that no one seems interested in.

Continue Reading On the subject of effective disclosure…

monkey-557586_1920A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that two former directors of Theranos – the embattled blood testing company – “did not follow up on public allegations that…the firm was relying on standard technology rather than its much-hyped proprietary device for most tests”.

The report states that the two board members in question – a former admiral and Secretary of State, respectively – were on the Theranos board when concerns about the company’s device were aired publicly.  However, they seem to have believed that it wasn’t their job to ask questions, at least not in the absence of some sort of proof that the concerns were valid.  The former admiral said he “did not have the information that would tell me that it’s true or not true”; the former Secretary of State said that “it didn’t occur to” him to ask questions, adding “[s]ince I didn’t know, I didn’t have anything to look into”. Continue Reading Ducks and monkeys

back-to-school-954572_1280My last post was a re-posting of Adam Epstein’s great piece on the importance of the proxy statement.  I promised that I would follow up on Adam’s thoughts with some recommendations of my own.  Here goes.

General

  • Manage your proxy statement “real estate” to maximize user-friendliness and create an optimal flow: Think about where things go.  For example, if your company is owned largely by institutions (and perhaps even if it’s not), should you lead off with an endless Q&A about the annual meeting and voting, discussing such exciting topics as the difference between record and beneficial ownership and how to change your vote?  Some of it is required, but consider taking out what’s not required and moving what is required to the back of the book.
  • Use executive summaries: Investors like them, and even the SEC has more or less endorsed their use. Think of it this way – whatever you think of ISS, it does a great job of summarizing your key disclosures, albeit not with your company’s best interests in mind.  Why pass up an opportunity to convey your key disclosures with those interests in mind?

Continue Reading Required reading (Part 2)

board-1848717_1280Those of you who know me have probably heard me sing the praises of Adam Epstein.  Adam was trained as a lawyer, has been an investor, and now advises small-cap companies on matters like board composition and disclosure.  IMHO, Adam is brilliant, and his insights need to be read, absorbed and acted on.

Adam has given me permission to copy one of his recent writings here.  It was originally posted on NASDAQ MarketINSITE.  His writing addresses how important it is for small-caps to get their proxy disclosures right.  My only quibble with it is that it’s not only true for small-caps; it’s equally true for any company that seeks to get favorable votes from institutional investors.  On the subject of singing (see above), I’ve been singing this song for a long time to minimal effect, but I’m hopeful that great advocacy from people like Adam will once again prove that justice delayed isn’t always justice denied.  By the way – Adam has written a book on the importance to small companies of getting the right board members.  I don’t often read books of that type, but Adam’s is a gem.

Here’s the posting:

Considering that 78 percent of activist campaigns were waged in companies with market capitalizations below $2 billion in 2016 (according to Activist Insight), it’s incumbent upon small-cap companies to communicate clearly about issues investors care most about. Notwithstanding the fact that proxy statements address many of those issues (e.g., board composition, compensation, etc.), too many small-cap boards outsource responsibility for drafting and refining proxy statements. That’s a mistake.

Consider a few suggestions in this regard from a buy-side perspective.

Board composition. Proxies provide an invaluable opportunity for companies to clearly answer a top-of-mind concern for seasoned investors: does a company have fulsome, objective, value-added governance, or is its board primarily composed of the CEO’s friends (i.e., oversight “lite”)? The most effective proxies set forth how the backgrounds of each board member map to a company’s key strategic imperatives, key enterprise risks, and key stakeholders and customers. An inability to succinctly explain why a company has the right people in the boardroom should serve as a warning to the board that it might be time to refresh its directors.

Compensation. Most small-cap investors aren’t compensation consultants or human resource experts; it’s unwise to draft a Compensation Discussion and Analysis (CD&A) as if they were. Investors principally want to understand how officer and director compensation is aligned with strategic value drivers, particularly for companies that are performing poorly and/or compensating richly when compared to peers. Rather than just repeating last year’s CD&A, boards should spend time each year simplifying and clarifying key investor takeaways.

Storytelling. A proxy statement is a legal document, but great proxies tell a cohesive story about: (1) a company’s values, strategic imperatives and ownership; (2) who the company is run and governed by; and (3) how and why officers and directors are appropriately compensated (among other things). Why would a company expend material time and money perfecting its storytelling to customers, and then outsource a great chance to communicate directly with investors to service providers who can’t possibly know the story as well as those inside the company?

Plain English. When proxy statements are formulaic and lawyerly, savvy small-cap investors often think two things: (1) the company doesn’t value the opportunity to communicate transparently with shareholders; and/or (2) the company is trying to hide something. Most small-cap investors aren’t lawyers, and few captivating tales have ever been written in “legalese.” So if your proxy statement doesn’t tell a compelling story that virtually any investor can understand… consider starting over again.

In addition to selling goods and services, public companies also sell stock. And whether it’s to passive, active, current, or prospective investors, it’s hard to successfully sell stock when investors don’t sufficiently understand what they’re buying.

Thanks, Adam (and NASDAQ MarketINSITE).  I’ll be writing a bit more on this topic in the coming weeks.

 

waldryano
waldryano

I don’t know when Congress decided that every piece of legislation had to have a nifty acronym, but the House Financial Services Committee recently passed (on a partisan basis) what old-fashioned TV ads might have called the new, improved version of the “Financial CHOICE Act”.  The word “choice” is in solid caps because it stands for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs”.

Whether and for whom it creates hope, opportunity or something else entirely may depend upon your perspective, but whatever else can be said of the Act, it is long (though at 589 pages, it is slightly more than half as long as Dodd-Frank), and it addresses a very broad swath of issues.  Here’s what it has to say about some key issues in disclosure, governance and capital formation, along with some commentary. Continue Reading The Financial CHOICE Act – everything you’ve ever wanted, and more?

In the hopefully unlikely event you were wondertraffic-lights-2147790_640ing if the compromise on government funding changed things vis-à-vis possible SEC rulemaking on political contributions disclosure, rest easy (or not, as the case may be).

The bar on such rulemaking that has been in place since the last appropriations bill (and, if memory serves me correctly, one or more previous appropriations bills) remains in place. However, the appropriations bill does not prohibit the SEC from addressing any of the remaining mandates under Dodd-Frank; the CHOICE Act that’s rumbling around Congress would prohibit work on those items.

Continue Reading Breaking news!!!! Nothing has changed!!!

Internet Archive Book Images
Internet Archive Book Images

I’ve previously commented on the surprising governance initiatives of the Conservative (yes, Conservative) Prime Minister of the UK.  Well, our friends across the pond are at it again – or maybe it’s just more of the same.

Specifically, on April 5, Parliament’s Business Committee issued a series of recommendations contemplating the following:

  1. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) should be empowered, among other things, to report publicly on board or individual director failings.
  2. The FRC should rate companies on governance practices. The ratings would be color-coded (red, yellow and green), and companies would be required to reference them in their annual reports.  If you’re thinking of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, you’re not alone.
  3. Companies would be subject to a slew of new rules on pay:

Continue Reading Heck, Britannia!

SDASM Archives
SDASM Archives

Even as we speculate about the likelihood and potential impact of massive deregulation here in the US, the EU is going in the opposite direction.  Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a Shareholder Rights Directive that contains some “interesting” provisions, including the following:

  • Say-on-Pay: Issuers would be required to hold prospective and retrospective say-on-pay votes (i.e., shareholders would have to approve pay plans in advance as well as how those plans worked out). These votes would be binding unless a member state opts out of this provision.
  • Director Pay: While director pay has generated more scrutiny here in the US, the EU proposes to do something about it – specifically, it appears that director pay would also be subject to shareholder approval, though it’s not clear whether the mechanics would be the same as those for executive compensation. Note that shareholder proposals seeking a say-on-pay vote on director compensation have fared poorly here in the past.
  • Related Party Transactions: “Material” related party transactions would be subject to shareholder approval.

While these items seem pretty scary, the Directive includes some features that companies are likely to approve: Continue Reading Shore patrol