It remains to be seen whether the new administration will actually drain the swamp or do away with political correctness, but one hope that some of us have – regardless of our views on the election – is that the SEC may finally get around to some issues that have been on the back burner for years.
One such issue is a long-overdue overhaul of the rules surrounding shareholder proposals, including the submission and resubmission thresholds for proposals under SEC Rule 14a-8. Many organizations, including the Society for Corporate Governance, have repeatedly urged the SEC to update these rules, which have been in place for many years. However, the SEC has been reluctant to plunge into the area due to the likely political firestorm that would result.
Now, another organization has jumped in. At the end of October, the Business Roundtable published “Modernizing the Shareholder Proposal Process”, a rational and well thought-out series of suggestions for bringing shareholder proposals into the 21st Century.
In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next President, there has been a lot of speculation about the effect of a Trump administration on securities law and corporate governance. Looking into a crystal ball is always risky, but here are some observations.
Conflict Minerals: It’s too soon to tell whether Dodd-Frank will be repealed in its entirety, if it will die the death of 1,000 cuts, or if it will stay pretty much as is. What I will say is that few will cry if the conflict minerals provisions are eliminated (and I will not be among those few). Complying with the conflict minerals rules is time-consuming (and therefore costly), and it’s questionable whether many people care. Perhaps of equal or greater importance is that there is some evidence that the conflict minerals requirements are actually hurting the people they were supposed to help.
Pay Ratio: More of the same here. There is some support for pay ratio disclosure among labor pension funds, but that's about it. Companies don’t like it (duh…), and mainstream investors have no use for it. Given how the Democrats seem to have fared in the industrial states, it’s not clear that they would fall on their collective sword to save this one. Continue Reading
The morning after a surprising election outcome seems as good a time as any to bear in mind the old saw that the more things change the more they stay the same.
And so it goes with corporate governance trends. Lost in the piles of paper and ink (real and virtual) expended on the Wells Fargo scandal is an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago suggesting that the beleaguered bank will benefit from its post-oops decision to separate the positions of CEO and Chairman of the Board.
I’ve studied this issue for several years, and I can state with confidence that there is no proof that separating the positions or having an independent Board Chair does anything to improve performance or to avoid problems. The most that can be said is that the studies are inconclusive.
The United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister. Her name is Theresa May, and she’s a member of the
[caption id="attachment_2812" align="alignright" width="278"] Photo by Scott P[/caption]
Conservative Party. Remember that, because what you are about to read will probably lead you to think otherwise.
In a speech made a couple of days before Ms. May became Prime Minister, she said that she would pursue the following actions if she were to become Prime Minister: Continue Reading
In a June 27 speech to the International Corporate Governance Network, SEC Chair Mary Jo White engaged in a bit of full disclosure herself:
“I can report today that the staff is preparing a recommendation to the Commission to propose amending the rule to require companies to include in their proxy statements more meaningful board diversity disclosures on their board members and nominees where that information is voluntarily self-reported by directors.”
As noted in her remarks, the SEC adopted the current disclosure requirements on board diversity in 2009. However, the requirements were added to other board-related disclosure requirements at the last minute, when it was reported that Commissioner Aguilar refused to support the other requirements unless diversity disclosure was also mandated. As a result, the diversity requirements were never subjected to public comment, did not define “diversity,” and seemed to require disclosure only if the company had a diversity “policy”. When companies failed to provide the disclosure because they had no policy, the SEC clarified that if diversity was a factor in director selection then, in fact, the company would be deemed to have a policy, thus requiring disclosure.
A little over two years ago, the Council of Institutional Investors (“CII”) asked the SEC to review its proxy disclosure rules related to director compensation received from third parties, which we had blogged about here. At the time, the CII was concerned that the existing proxy rules did not capture compensation that may be paid… Continue Reading
One of the hottest topics in governance today is director refreshment. (No, that doesn't refer to what your board members have for lunch.) Boards comprised of long-serving directors do, in fact, tend to be "pale, male and stale" – i.e., comprised of old white men. Self-perpetuating boards are less likely to be diverse, and there is increasing evidence that companies with diverse boards tend to perform better (the evidence demonstrates correlation rather than causation, but it's still evidence). There is also a plausible argument that self-perpetuating boards are less likely to challenge long-standing assumptions and practices, leading to board (and corporate) stagnation.
Perhaps it's a poorly kept secret, but companies and boards have been concerned about this for years if not decades. Even boards that don't engage in much introspection are often aware that some directors do not contribute much. As a result, companies and boards have tried all sorts of devices to force board refreshment – term limits and/or age limits having been the most common. Unfortunately, these devices have not worked very well, perhaps because they may be inherently ineffective, and no doubt also because companies often move the goalposts – age limits are waived (because keeping director X is deemed to be "in the best interests of the company", whatever that means) or creep upward, term limits force good directors to retire, etc. And so, corporate America continues to search for the right approach. Some companies have adopted extremely long term limits (15 years), and others have said that average tenure may not exceed X years, but it's too soon to tell whether these or other newer approaches will succeed.
Two news items from the front lines:
First, you may recall my mentioning that the Council of Institutional Investors was considering adopting a new policy that would limit newly public companies' ability to include "shareholder-unfriendly" provisions in their organizational documents (see "Caveat Issuer", posted on February 13). I just came back from Washington, DC, where I attended the Council's Spring Meeting, and the new policy appears to have been adopted as proposed. While the text of the new policy was not made available at the meeting, and has yet to be posted on the Council's website, it appears to provide that while some of these provisions can be in place when a company goes public, others -- such as plurality voting for directors in uncontested elections -- should be absent from the get-go.
By the way, my hotel room had a lovely view of the Jefferson Memorial, and the cherry blossoms were about to pop.
In other news, the SEC has announced, by way of a Sunshine Act Notice, that at an open meeting to be held on March 30 it “will consider whether to issue a concept release seeking comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K”. Looks like the disclosure effectiveness program may be moving forward. Watch this space for details.
Despite the wave of corporate governance reform that began after the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002 – and that continues pretty much unabated today – companies going public have gotten a pass. Whether the process of going public takes the form of a spin-off or a conventional IPO, newly public companies have been able to emerge into the world with a full (or nearly full) arsenal of defensive weapons that can help them stave off an unwanted acquisition.
The rationale for this leniency is that newly public companies are like tadpoles that need to be given time to turn into frogs (or princes) before they are gobbled up.
That seems to be changing.
A week or two ago I was asked to speak at a meeting of the Small- and Mid-Cap Companies Committee of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals. That’s not unusual or even noteworthy, as I’m a long-time, active member of the Society and often speak at Society functions.
What was unusual and perhaps noteworthy is the topic on which I was asked to speak and the reason I was asked to speak on it. Specifically, one of the Committee members had asked the Chair if someone could give a general primer on shareholder proposals, because his/her company had received its first shareholder proposal ever.
My favorite quote of the week seems to have gone largely unnoticed, despite the fact that I tweeted about it and told several people about it. The quote, attributed to former Congressman Barney Frank, was “people expect too much from boards”. If you don’t believe me, you can find it here – in the venerable New York Times, no less.
Am I the only one who thinks that the statement, particularly considering the source, is offensive? Am I the only one who thinks that the co-sponsor of the legislation that bears his name, and the author and/or instigator of many of its provisions that imposed extensive obligations on boards, saying that we expect too much from boards is similar to the child who kills his parents throwing himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan?
In fairness to Mr. (no longer Congressman) Frank (not that I feel compelled to be fair to him), he is also quoted to have said that the most important oversight of financial companies comes not from its directors but from regulators. If that’s the case, however, why does the eponymous legislation bother to impose so many burdens on boards? Why not leave it all to the regulators (or would that leave the plaintiffs’ bar in the lurch)? Alternatively, why not expand the concept of mandatory say on pay votes (which the Dodd-Frank Act imposes upon most publicly held companies) to everything a board does and do away with the board entirely? Need a new plant? Put it to a shareholder vote! Want to think about entering new line of business? How about a say on that?
It’s done. On August 5, the SEC adopted final rules that will require publicly traded companies to disclose the ratio of the CEO’s “total compensation” to that of the “median employee.” We’re still wending our way through the massive (294 pages) adopting release, but one piece of good news (possibly the only one) is that it appears that pay ratio disclosures won’t be needed until 2018 for most companies.
I’ve already posted my views on this rule (see “CEO pay ratios: ineffective disclosure on steroids”), so it’s no surprise that I’m not happy. However, what is surprising are the myths and madness that the mandate has already created. First, there’s the “median employee,” who may be a myth in and of him/herself. But that’s not all; the media (notably The New York Times) have begun to tout the rule and make all sorts of predictions about how it will impact CEO pay, many of which involve myths and madness of their own.
Myth: In an August 6 column, Peter Eavis wrote about the rule, saying “the ratio, cropping up every year in audited financial statements, could stoke and perhaps even inform a debate over income inequality”. Really? In the audited financial statements? I haven’t finished reading the rule, despite its being such a page-turner, but I didn’t see that in there and don’t think I will. Someone better tell the audit firms – and also tell Mr. Eavis that the ratio is not auditable.
Governance wonks can rest easy. In fact, we can all go home and think about another career. The reason? CalSTRS – California State Teachers’ Retirement System – has issued a “fact sheet” entitled “Best Practices in Board Composition”.
It’s interesting that CalSTRS calls it a fact sheet, since much if not most (if not all) of what it says is opinion, belief or aspiration rather than fact. However, I suppose calling it an “opinion sheet” or an “aspiration sheet” would have resulted in fewer hits.
The document lists five “best practices” (though the fifth has four sub-items; perhaps that means there are nine best practices?). No indication is given as to whether the practices are listed in order of their best-ness. However, it’s notable that the first practice is “independent leadership” – in other words, having “an independent chair that is separate from the Chief Executive Officer”. I’ve done lots and lots of research on this point, and the most that can be said is that there is no conclusive evidence of any connection between an independent board chair and performance. Again – that’s the most that can be said. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at this Yale study.)
Last week I attended the National Conference of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals in Chicago. It was a great conference – wonderful, substantive programs and a chance to catch up with many friends and colleagues.
With some exceptions.
One exception was the opening speech by SEC Chair Mary Jo White. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan (particularly when Senator Warren and others go after her – as in my last post). Among other things, I love the fact that she speaks clearly; unlike so many others in Washington, whose statements make me think I know what it must have been like to visit the Delphic Oracle, she’s perfectly straightforward about her views. It was her views – or at least most of them – that I didn’t like.
Chair White addressed four topics, and on all but one of them she basically told the corporate community to give up. Her topics and views can be summarized as follows:
I’m a governance nerd. I really believe that corporate governance is important, that it makes a difference, and that there is such a thing as good governance – though I don’t believe that one size fits all.
So it troubles me that in governance, as in life, virtue is usually not its own reward. In fact, no one seems to care about governance unless and until performance deteriorates.
I was reminded of this the other day when reading a story about an investigation by New York Attorney General Schneiderman of governance practices at Cooper Union, a venerated educational institution in New York. It seems that Cooper Union, whose mission is to provide free education, started charging tuition last year because of poor financial condition. (As an aside, Cooper Union’s major asset is the Chrysler Building in New York City - yes, THAT Chrysler Building, which to me and many others is the most beautiful skyscraper ever built.) The story says that the investigation “has signaled that the laissez-faire approach to nonprofit governance is over.” In other words, as long as performance was OK, no one cared about governance. Or so it seems.
Another story made the same point a couple of months ago, albeit in different circumstances, when an institutional shareholder announced that it had submitted a proposal to separate the positions of CEO and board chair at a major company. In the article, the proponent seemed to be saying that the proposal hadn’t been necessary before because the company had been performing well. Now I’m no advocate of CEO/board chair separation, but if you believe that having an independent, non-executive board chair is critical (which the proponent clearly believed), why should it make a difference that the company had been performing well?
And just the other day, an executive told me that while his company doesn’t have Grade A governance, it doesn’t hear anything on the subject from investors because it’s had year after year of improved performance.
So the question is out there: does governance matter? What do you think?
Director “refreshment” has become a very hot topic in the governance community. Investors increasingly are calling for replacing longer-serving board members with newer directors, possibly in order to achieve greater board diversity, possibly to get some fresh blood (or fresh thinking) on the board, or possibly to achieve other goals. There is also increased talk… Continue Reading
There have been a number of press reports in recent days about attempts by the new Republican majority to repeal all or part of Dodd-Frank. Depending upon whom you choose to believe (assuming you choose to believe anyone in the current political environment), the Republicans want to eviscerate it, and the Democrats refuse to change one word, or possibly even a punctuation mark.
The real problem with Dodd-Frank is that it’s a mixed bag – a mess, of course, but a mixed bag nonetheless. My take on it is that there are some provisions that are reasonable and make sense; others go way too far; and still others don’t go far enough. For example, the infamous (and, IMHO, ridiculous) provision requiring public companies to disclose the ratio of the CEO’s pay to that of the mean of all employees’ compensation. On the other side, one wonders if the statute really did anything to regulate the financial services industry or if it did nothing more than exponentially increase the costs of compliance while leaving open the possibility that recent history (i.e., an economic collapse) could happen all over again for the same reasons.
What this suggests is that to make Dodd-Frank a good statute – assuming that’s possible – would require delicate surgery that would take time, careful thought and bipartisanship. It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – that isn’t going to happen in the current environment. Grandstanding and blustery populist oratory seem to be the order of the day, and careful drafting isn’t even on the agenda. (Of course, that was the case when the statute was being drafted – one of the scariest things I ever saw on a monitor was a live webcast of Barney Frank’s subcommittee hearing, when multi-page riders were waltzed in to the hearing room and voted upon before anyone could read them – much less debate them.)
I’m not sure where that leaves us, but wherever that is, it’s not a good place to be.
There it is. I’d like to know what you think.
A few weeks ago - “From the same wonderful folks who brought you conflict minerals (among other things)” – I complained about Senator Blumenthal’s attempt to tell the SEC what to regulate and how to regulate it. I had an equal and opposite reaction to the recent news that Commissioner Gallagher and former Commissioner Grundfest had gone after the Harvard Shareholder Rights Project, in effect telling the Project (AKA Lucian Bebchuk) that its actions violate the federal securities laws.
I agree with some (though not all) of Commissioner Gallagher’s views. I’m also troubled by the notion of an esteemed academic institution taking aggressive, one-size-fits-all positions on corporate governance matters. However, in this case, I’m inclined to think that Commissioner Gallagher should have taken a higher road – encouraging discussion, maybe even holding an SEC Roundtable on the topic. And if he really thinks that there’s a violation here, perhaps he should have whispered in the ear of the Enforcement Division that it might want to look into this. Instead, he’s behaving somewhat like a bully – not that the Good Professor is likely to be quaking in his boots about it.
Also, it strikes me as downright inappropriate for a Commissioner to make a statement about a matter that the Commission could conceivably have to rule on if the matter ever does result in an enforcement action. At a minimum, he’d have to recuse himself on the matter, which could mean the difference between victory and defeat. And given recent criticisms of the SEC for (1) pursuing more matters as administrative proceedings than court cases and (2) unfairly touting its enforcement record, does Commissioner Gallagher think he's enhanced the stature of the SEC by doing this?
In recent years, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and federal regulators of the financial services industry have more aggressively enforced the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and the economic sanctions imposed by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”). While this should in of itself be a matter of particular attention to the… Continue Reading
Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis have issued their voting policies for the 2015 annual meeting season. For the most part, both proxy advisory firms’ 2015 policies are refinements of those already in place. However, companies should carefully review their 2015 annual meeting agendas against the updated policies to anticipate possible issues. A summary of… Continue Reading
Last week I posted an UpTick about the rollout of ISS’s voting policies for 2015. This week saw what appears to be the completion of that rollout, and we were also blessed with the publication of Glass Lewis’s 2015 voting policies.
On a quick read, neither set of voting policies seems to contain anything shocking, but both sets continue the march towards what the proxy advisors see as shareholder democracy. To paraphrase Jules Feiffer, I sympathize with their aspirations, but in some ways it looks like shareholder tyranny. Both ISS and GL are adamant about two types of by-law amendments: those that make the loser pay in meritless lawsuits and those that arguably impact shareholder rights without getting shareholder approval. ISS also tinkers with shareholder proposals on CEO/board chair separation. GL is also concerned about by-law amendments and continues to rail against companies that don’t satisfactorily implement majority-approved shareholder proposals. GL also continues to focus “material” transactions with directors.
I really do sympathize with at least some of the aspirations of ISS and GL. However, their policies reinforce the notion – with which I’m not at all sympathetic – that shareholders have the right to second-guess each and every decision that the board makes. For example, why does ISS think that shareholders are in a better position than the board to determine the board’s leadership structure? And if the board has no business deciding on its own leadership structure, why give it the power to do anything at all?
We’ll be posting a more detailed analysis of the 2015 voting policies on The Securities Edge within the next few days. For the time being, let us know what you think of them (or of my views).
Britney Spears has nothing on Institutional Shareholder Services, better known as ISS. ISS is rolling out proposed new voting policies for the 2015 proxy season. ISS often uses more words to tout how transparent it is than to explain its voting policies clearly, and the draft policies being considered for 2015 are no different.
One new proposed policy addresses voting on shareholder proposals on independent board chairs. ISS proposes to expand the list of factors that will be considered in developing a voting recommendation and to look at these factors in a more “holistic” manner. (The current policy is to support the proposals unless the company meets all of the criteria.) So this seems like a good thing. However, ISS indicates that the new policy is not expected to change the percentage of independent chair proposals that it will support. The obvious question is, then, how will the new policy really work? Your guess is as good as mine (which frankly isn’t very good).
The other new proposed policy provides additional information regarding the “scorecard” that ISS will use to evaluate equity plans. Like the independent chair policy above, some more criteria are laid out, but it’s impossible to tell how the factors – or, indeed, the new scorecard, will be weighed or will work – thus assuring that companies seeking shareholder approval of equity plans will have to continue to use ISS’s consulting service to find out whether a new plan will pass muster.
I could just as easily have referred to Yogi Berra as to Britney Spears, because if this isn’t déjá vu all over again, I don’t know what is.
On September 30, Bob Lamm moderated a panel at a “Say-on-Pay Workshop” held during the 11th Annual Executive Compensation Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Conference is an annual event sponsored by TheCorporateCounsel.net and CompensationStandards.com – and emceed by our good friend, Broc Romanek – and features many of the pre-eminent practitioners in corporate governance… Continue Reading
Interest in corporate governance has increased exponentially over the last several years, as has shareholder and governmental pressure – often successful – for companies to change how they are governed. Since 2002, we’ve seen Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, higher and sometimes passing votes on a wide variety of shareholder proposals, and rapid growth in corporate efforts to… Continue Reading