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:
Something shocking happened at the SEC yesterday. SEC Chair Mary Jo White directed the SEC Staff to review its long-standing position on when a shareholder proposal conflicts with a company proposal and may be excluded from the proxy statement. As a result, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance withdrew a no-action letter that had given Whole Foods the green light to exclude a shareholder proposal on proxy access by including its own (less shareholder-friendly) proposal on the subject. Corp Fin also said that it would not be issuing any additional no-action letters under the rule in question. It’s worth noting that these actions were taken at a sensitive time, as calendar-year companies approach peak proxy season and a major investor campaign is under way to impose proxy access upon companies that have been resisting it.
The SEC’s shareholder proposal rules are very complex, and I won’t go into details here. However, as a general matter, the rules lay out the process by which eligible shareholders can submit proposals for inclusion in a company’s proxy statement. Relevant here is that (1) the rules provide certain conditions under which a company can exclude a proposal and (2) companies can avail themselves of a “no-action” process to get the SEC’s permission to exclude a proposal if the conditions are satisfied. It’s worth noting that the no-action process isn’t dispositive; the proponent or the company can take the matter to court, and there are usually a couple of cases each year in which that happens.