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

 

I recently attended the Winter Meeting of the Council of Institutional Investors and thought you would like to know what the Council and its members are thinking.

The British Library
The British Library

What was NOT discussed – proxy access

First, one dog that didn’t bark was proxy access.  There was virtually no mention of the subject. I can only assume that proxy access has been adopted by a sufficient number of companies that it is no longer controversial or even worth discussing.

Coming to a company near you – majority voting…

What was worth discussing was majority voting in uncontested director elections, and if you are a mid- or small-cap company, you’d be well advised to think about it.  Among other things, the Council sent a letter last year on the subject to the companies in the Russell 3000, and was not encouraged by the responses.  Most large-cap companies have it, and it seems to be inevitable that smaller companies will be pressured to adopt it as well.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth fighting over, and early adoption might give a company a leg up on other governance challenges. Continue Reading News from the institutional investor front

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.

Continue Reading A modest proposal about more modest proposals

3102056181_031bf572a9_zIn 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 SEC’s brave new (Trump) world

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.

Continue Reading CEO/Chair separation — the more things change…

The United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister.  Her name is Theresa May, and she’s a member of the

Photo by Scott P
Photo by Scott P

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 What happens in England

4532941987_9004c36616_mIn 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.

Continue Reading Coming soon to an SEC filing near you: board diversity (but not sustainability…for now)

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Photo by Rachita Singh

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 to directors serving on the board of a public company by a third party, such as a private fund or an activist investor, which are typically referred to as “golden leashes.”

In its letter to the SEC, the CII cited concerns that compensation under golden leash arrangements is not generally covered by the existing proxy disclosure rules, but could be material to investors due to the potential conflicts of interest arising under such arrangements. We had noted many of these issues in a prior blog post discussing the performance-based compensation arrangements of hedge fund-nominated directors for the boards of Hess Corporation and Agrium, Inc. in 2013. As we predicted would be the case, nothing really transpired on this topic in the wake of the CII’s request. That is until recently, when Nasdaq filed a proposed rule change, subsequently approved by the SEC, attempting to address this issue. Continue Reading Nasdaq-listed companies must now disclose director “golden leash” arrangements

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.

Continue Reading Governance by the numbers