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Conflict Minerals: It’s too soon to tell whether Dodd-Frank will be repealed in its entirety, if it will die the death of 1,000 cuts, or if it will stay pretty much as is.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.
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.
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.
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.