Cornell University Library
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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

Committee Rotation
Photo by Justin Kern

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 about the use (and appropriateness) of age limits, term limits and other processes to assure regular board turnover.  For example, Institutional Shareholder Services has suggested that a director serving more than nine years may no longer qualify as independent.  As part of this discussion, questions have also been raised about the need for “committee refreshment” – rotating directors off and on committees to keep them fresh and receptive to new ideas.

Governance practitioners have been grappling with the issue of board and committee refreshment for many years, even though the objective may not have been called “refreshment” until recently.  For example, corporate secretaries and others have scratched their heads as to how to enforce age limits, how to decide when those limits should be waived or raised, how to grapple with the political and personal issues that can arise when the age limit is waived for one director but not for another, and whether term limits would be preferable to age limits.  Recent discussions have also generated pushback from companies and their directors that age and/or long tenure may generate greater, rather than less, independence; after all, a director with 15 or more years of service who has overseen two or more CEOs may feel far less dependent upon the current CEO than a director who has joined the board only recently.

These and other concerns are challenging enough at the board level, but they can be far more challenging at the committee level.  In an era when much of the substantive, detailed work of the board is handled by committees, and committee service increasingly calls for subject matter expertise, refreshing a committee is not as simple as putting Mr. or Ms. X on the committee when Mr. or Ms. Y retires.  The qualifications and abilities – and, in some cases, expertise – of the replacement need to be considered before he or she can be used to fill the vacancy or simply “rotated on” a new committee.

Continue Reading The challenges in ‘refreshing’ board committees

money laundering
Photo by Seth M.

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 directors and officers of those entities in the financial services industry, so too should the recent trend toward increased scrutiny for directors and officers failing to address alleged BSA or OFAC compliance shortfalls. An August 2014 agreement reached by FinCEN and a former casino official permanently barring the official from working in any financial institution drives the point home: When it comes to liability for BSA or OFAC violations, FinCEN and federal regulators might not limit penalties to the entity actually committing violations, and instead, may also penalize the individual directors and officers of those entities. 

Even before FinCEN’s August 2014 bar of the casino official, a number of enforcement actions assessed personal monetary penalties against financial institution directors and officers over the past few years. In February 2009, the directors of Sykesville Federal Savings Association were collectively fined Continue Reading Directors and Officers Beware: You could be individually liable for your entity’s Bank Secrecy Act or Office of Foreign Assets Control violations

Bob Lamm's Golden Nugget's of Corporate Governance
Photo by Eric Roy/ Golden Nugget Casino, Las Vegas, late 80’s.

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 and securities law. 

The panel, entitled “50 Nuggets in 75 Minutes,” may just be the CLE equivalent of speed dating – each of five panelists covers 10 “nuggets” – practical and other takeaways to help them do their jobs better – in a 75-minute panel.

Here are Bob’s 10 “nuggets,” reprinted courtesy of the Conference sponsors and Broc. 

1.    Engagement is a Two-Way Street – At this stage of the game, shareholder engagement is – or should be – a given, and one of a company’s normal responsibilities.  Along with that is the mantra “engage early and often”; in other words, don’t wait until you are faced with a negative vote recommendation to start reaching out to your major holders. 

What may not be part of the mantra is that engagement is a two-way street.  Your job (and that of your colleagues and even some directors) is to Continue Reading 10 nuggets on corporate governance hot topics

Looking into the future of changes to corporate governanceInterest 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 speak with investors.  And that’s just for starters.   

These developments represent the latest iteration of what has become part of our normal business cycle – scandals (e.g., Enron, WorldCom, Madoff, derivatives), followed by significant declines in stock prices, resulting in public outrage, reform, litigation, and shareholder activism.   Now that the economy is rebounding, should we anticipate a return to “normalcy” (whatever that may be)?  Are we back to “business as usual”? 

Gazing into a crystal ball can be risky, but I’m going to take a chance and say “no.”  While our economic problems have abated, I believe that the past is prologue – in other words, we’re going to continue to see more of the same: investor pressure on companies, legislation and regulation seeking a wide variety of corporate reforms, and the like.  Some more specific predictions follow: 

  • Increased Focus on Small- and Mid-Cap Companies:  Investors have picked most if not all of the low-hanging governance fruit from large-cap companies.  Sure, there are some issues that may generate heat and some corporate “outliers” that investors will continue to attack.  However, most big companies have long since adopted such reforms as majority voting in uncontested director elections, elimination of supermajority votes and other anti-takeover provisions, and shareholder ability to call special meetings, to name just a few.  If investors (and their partners, the proxy advisory firms) are to continue to grow, Continue Reading The shape of things to come in corporate governance

Golden leashes
Photo by Don Urban

The compensation disclosure rules contained in Regulation S-K are intended to provide meaningful disclosure regarding an issuer’s executive and director compensation practices such that the investing public is provided with full and fair disclosure of material information on which to base informed investment and voting decisions. However, as we pointed out in a blog from last year, not all compensation is covered by these rules, including compensation paid to directors by third parties (e.g., by a private fund or activist investors). These arrangements are commonly known as “golden leashes.”  The two examples I discussed previously related to proxy fights involving Hess Corporation and Agrium, Inc. In each case, hedge funds had proposed to pay bonuses to the director nominees if they were ultimately elected to the board of directors in their respective proxy contests. Additionally, in the Agrium, Inc. case, the director nominees would have received 2.6% of the hedge fund’s net profit based on the increase in the issuer’s stock price from a prior measurement date. The amounts at issue could have been significant considering this particular hedge fund’s investment in Agrium, Inc. exceeded $1 billion, but none of the nominees were ultimately elected to the Agrium, Inc. board.

Considering the large personal gains these director nominees could potentially realize under these types of arrangements, it could pose a problem from a corporate governance standpoint as it is a long-standing principal of corporate law that directors are not permitted to use their position of trust and confidence to further their private interests. Recognizing this potential problem, the Council of Institutional Investors (“CII”), a nonprofit association of pension funds, other employee benefit funds, endowments and foundations with combined assets that exceed $3 trillion, recently wrote the SEC asking for a review of existing proxy rules “for ways to ensure complete information is provided to investors about such arrangements.”

In its letter, the CII points out that existing disclosure rules do not “specifically require disclosure of compensatory arrangements between a board nominee and the group that nominated such nominee.” The CII believes that disclosure related to these types of third party director compensation arrangements are material to investors due to the potential Continue Reading Institutional investor organization asks the SEC to require disclosure of “golden leashes”

Golden leashes
Photo by Don Urban

The compensation disclosure rules contained in Regulation S-K are intended to provide meaningful disclosure regarding an issuer’s executive and director compensation practices such that the investing public is provided with full and fair disclosure of material information on which to base informed investment and voting decisions. However, as we pointed out in a blog from last year, not all compensation is covered by these rules, including compensation paid to directors by third parties (e.g., by a private fund or activist investors). These arrangements are commonly known as “golden leashes.”  The two examples I discussed previously related to proxy fights involving Hess Corporation and Agrium, Inc. In each case, hedge funds had proposed to pay bonuses to the director nominees if they were ultimately elected to the board of directors in their respective proxy contests. Additionally, in the Agrium, Inc. case, the director nominees would have received 2.6% of the hedge fund’s net profit based on the increase in the issuer’s stock price from a prior measurement date. The amounts at issue could have been significant considering this particular hedge fund’s investment in Agrium, Inc. exceeded $1 billion, but none of the nominees were ultimately elected to the Agrium, Inc. board.

Considering the large personal gains these director nominees could potentially realize under these types of arrangements, it could pose a problem from a corporate governance standpoint as it is a long-standing principal of corporate law that directors are not permitted to use their position of trust and confidence to further their private interests. Recognizing this potential problem, the Council of Institutional Investors (“CII”), a nonprofit association of pension funds, other employee benefit funds, endowments and foundations with combined assets that exceed $3 trillion, recently wrote the SEC asking for a review of existing proxy rules “for ways to ensure complete information is provided to investors about such arrangements.”

In its letter, the CII points out that existing disclosure rules do not “specifically require disclosure of compensatory arrangements between a board nominee and the group that nominated such nominee.” The CII believes that disclosure related to these types of third party director compensation arrangements are material to investors due to the potential Continue Reading Institutional investor organization asks the SEC to require disclosure of "golden leashes"

Golden leashes
Photo by Don Urban

The compensation disclosure rules contained in Regulation S-K are intended to provide meaningful disclosure regarding an issuer’s executive and director compensation practices such that the investing public is provided with full and fair disclosure of material information on which to base informed investment and voting decisions. However, as we pointed out in a blog from last year, not all compensation is covered by these rules, including compensation paid to directors by third parties (e.g., by a private fund or activist investors). These arrangements are commonly known as “golden leashes.”  The two examples I discussed previously related to proxy fights involving Hess Corporation and Agrium, Inc. In each case, hedge funds had proposed to pay bonuses to the director nominees if they were ultimately elected to the board of directors in their respective proxy contests. Additionally, in the Agrium, Inc. case, the director nominees would have received 2.6% of the hedge fund’s net profit based on the increase in the issuer’s stock price from a prior measurement date. The amounts at issue could have been significant considering this particular hedge fund’s investment in Agrium, Inc. exceeded $1 billion, but none of the nominees were ultimately elected to the Agrium, Inc. board.

Considering the large personal gains these director nominees could potentially realize under these types of arrangements, it could pose a problem from a corporate governance standpoint as it is a long-standing principal of corporate law that directors are not permitted to use their position of trust and confidence to further their private interests. Recognizing this potential problem, the Council of Institutional Investors (“CII”), a nonprofit association of pension funds, other employee benefit funds, endowments and foundations with combined assets that exceed $3 trillion, recently wrote the SEC asking for a review of existing proxy rules “for ways to ensure complete information is provided to investors about such arrangements.”

In its letter, the CII points out that existing disclosure rules do not “specifically require disclosure of compensatory arrangements between a board nominee and the group that nominated such nominee.” The CII believes that disclosure related to these types of third party director compensation arrangements are material to investors due to the potential Continue Reading Institutional investor organization asks the SEC to require disclosure of "golden leashes"

Nasdaq reverses course on independence standardsApparently, corporate governance cannot be dictated by the stock exchanges.  As we had blogged about last year, Section 952 of Dodd-Frank required each national securities exchange to review its independence standards for directors who serve on an issuer’s compensation committee.  Each national securities exchange had to ensure that its independence definition considered relevant factors such as (i) the source of the director’s compensation, including any consulting, advisory, or other compensatory fees paid by the listed company and (ii) whether the director has an affiliate relationship with the company.

As it turns out, Nasdaq interpreted the Dodd-Frank requirement to be much stricter than the NYSE.  At the time I suggested that Nasdaq was trying to “out corporate governance” the NYSE by layering on an extra independence requirement of prohibiting any director serving on the compensation committee from accepting “directly or indirectly any consulting, advisory, or other compensatory fee” from the issuer.  I still think that is the case.  As we have blogged about before, the NYSE and Nasdaq are fierce competitors in their attempts to obtain an issuer’s listing.  In fact, Nasdaq stresses that its stringent corporate governance requirements are a reason why an issuer should list on Nasdaq rather that the NYSE.

Well, I thought that Nasdaq’s stringent interpretation of the rule made little sense and that the burden simply outweighed any limited improvement in corporate governance, especially for community banks where directors often maintain some limited business with the issuer.  Apparently, Nasdaq-listed issuers agreed with me and “based on feedback” and indications that the stringent interpretation of Section 952 of Dodd-Frank “could influence a company’s choice of listing venue” Nasdaq quickly reversed course.

Nasdaq has proposed to eliminate the prohibition of compensation committee members from receiving any compensation beyond board fees.  Instead, Nasdaq-listed issuers will merely need to consider whether the compensation impairs the director’s ability to make independent judgments about the issuer’s executive compensation.  Nasdaq’s revised independence requirement is substantially the same as the NYSE.  Nasdaq expects to adopt the rule amendment prior to the start of issuers’ 2014 annual meetings.

forum selection bylawsMore and more plaintiff lawyers are suing issuers outside of an issuer’s state of incorporation, which requires issuers to defend substantially identical claims in multiple forums at added expense with little to no benefit to the shareholders.  While plaintiff lawyers enjoy this lucrative source of revenue, the increasing amount of time and money expended on this multiforum shareholder litigation drives the need for a creative solution for issuers.  A 2010 Delaware court decision, provided such a solution by suggesting that Delaware corporations could amend their organizational documents to provide that Delaware courts are the exclusive jurisdiction for settling intracorporate disputes, including derivative claims.  Thus, dozens of issuers have adopted so called “forum selection” clauses in their bylaws.  Generally, these clauses are similar to Chevron’s:

Unless the Corporation consents in writing to the selection of an alternative forum, the sole and exclusive forum for (i) any derivative action or proceeding brought on behalf of the Corporation, (ii) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty owed by any director, officer or other employee of the Corporation to the Corporation or the Corporation’s stockholders, (iii) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the Delaware General Corporation Law, or (iv) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine shall be a state or federal court located within the state of Delaware, in all cases subject to the court’s having personal jurisdiction over the indispensible parties named as defendants. Any person or entity purchasing or otherwise acquiring any interest in shares of capital stock of the Corporation shall be deemed to have notice of and consented to the provisions of this Article VII.

And while the 2010 Delaware court decision suggested these clauses were permissible, it was not until earlier this year that a Delaware court specifically ruled that the forum selection clause adopted by Chevron was valid. Although the Delaware Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the issue (the plaintiff dropped its appeal in the Chevron case), it is clear that Delaware corporations have the power to adopt these forum selection clauses.  What is not clear is Continue Reading Do forum selection clauses in bylaws make sense for companies not incorporated in Delaware?