Now that I have your attention, you may be disappointed to know that I’m referring to another s-word: “sustainability”.  It’s surely one of the big governance words of 2017.  Investors are pressuring companies to do and say more about it.  Organizations are developing standards – sometimes inconsistent ones – by which to measure companies’ performance in it.  And companies are dealing with it in a growing variety of ways, including through investor engagement and disclosure.

Being a governance and disclosure nerd, I’ve given lots of thought to sustainability in both contexts.  Lately, I’ve come up with two thoughts about it.

Thought 1 Continue Reading The s-word and your investment portfolio

Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve proposed changes to its guidance on corporate governance for banking organizations.  The proposals suggest a new approach to corporate governance that could extend beyond the banking industry; among other things, they suggest that boards should spend more time on more important matters, such as strategy and risk tolerance, than on compliance box-ticking. However, taken as a whole, the proposals strike me as being something of a mixed bag.  And some of the positive aspects of the proposals are already being subjected to attacks.

The Good News

The good news is that the Fed seems to be acknowledging that the board’s role is that of oversight and that boards are spending far too much time micro-managing compliance and should focus on big picture items such as strategy and risk.  Those of us who speak with board members know that this has been a significant concern since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.

Continue Reading Federal Reserve governance guidance: the pendulum swings back (?)

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

Photo by Martin Fisch
Photo by Martin Fisch

When you think of corporations, you think “maximize profits for shareholders”. This notion is being turned on its head as a growing sustainable business movement asks: “Can we look to factors in addition to profit to measure a company’s success?” More than thirty U.S. states and the District of Columbia have answered “yes” by authorizing a benefit corporation, or “B Corp” – a for-profit corporate entity, but one that seeks to positively impact society, the community, or the environment, in addition to generating profit. The concept is catching on internationally as well, with Italy the first country outside the U.S. to pass benefit corporation legislation.

Tell me more

Benefit corporations fundamentally alter how a company is allowed to act. While the laws on benefit corporations differ around the country, model legislation is available. B Corps not only seek to create shareholder value, but also must balance social purpose, transparency, and accountability. A B Corp’s purpose is also to create general public benefit — for instance, a material positive impact on society or the environment. B Corps must publish annual benefit reports, made against an independent third-party standard, of their social and environmental performance, and often must file these reports with the Secretary of State. The benefit report includes a description of how the company pursed its benefit, hindrances faced in pursuing such benefit, and the reasons for choosing the specific third-party standard. For example, a company with an environmental purpose may choose to report against the standards set forth by the Global Reporting Initiative. Additionally, shareholders have a private right of action known as a benefit enforcement proceeding, in which they can seek to enforce the company’s mission.

In Florida, a B Corp’s articles of incorporation must state that the corporation is a benefit corporation to incorporate as such. Further, an existing corporation may amend its articles of incorporation to become a benefit corporation. Likewise, a corporation may terminate its benefit status via amendment of its articles of incorporation by a two-thirds vote of shareholders. The law is similar for social purpose corporations (discussed later). B Corp status may provide more options on the sale of the company: (1) buyer competition increased based on the company’s commitment to public benefit, as compared to other potential targets without such a reputational distinction; (2) the seller can consider other factors besides price; and (3) the buyer or seller can keep/remove benefit corporation status immediately before/after sale based on the new owner’s perspective regarding the benefits of B Corp status.

“To ‘B’ or Not To ‘B’?”

There is growing demand for B Corps from: (1) consumers wanting to buy responsibly; (2) employees seeking meaningful jobs; and (3) communities dealing with corporate misconduct. While these Continue Reading Don’t stop B-lievin’: A “Journey” into benefit corporations

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

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?

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

Cornell University Library
Cornell University Library

New York Surrogate Gideon Tucker (1826-1899) is credited with originating the maxim that “no man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”  Were Surrogate Tucker around today, he might have added boards of directors to those who should be wary of legislative action.

There are numerous weird bills rumbling around the hallowed halls of Washington these days, but one of the bills that is making me unhappy is the Cybersecurity Disclosure Act of 2017.  The good news is that the bill is very short.

The bad news is threefold. Continue Reading Beware when the legislature is in session