For those of you who’ve heard me sing, rest easy – I’m not going to break into “As Time Goes By.”  But the lyric I’ve quoted in the title is worth noting.  In fact, it was noted, albeit in substance rather than form, in the June 18 opinion of the Delaware Supreme Court in Marchand v. Barnhill.  The opinion, written by soon-to-retire Chief Justice Leo Strine (more on that below) addressed two fundamental matters – director independence and the board’s oversight responsibilities.

The case resulted from a listeria outbreak caused by contaminated ice cream.  (The thought of contaminated ice cream is too upsetting, but that’s for another day.)  The key holdings referred to above were as follows:

  • Director Independence: The trial court had dismissed the complaint for failing to make a pre-suit demand on the board, based on its conclusion that the a majority of the board – albeit the slimmest majority of one director – was independent. However, when the Supreme Court considered the background of that one director, it determined that he was not independent.  Thus, the slim majority went away.  The relevant facts included that the director had worked for the company in question for 28 years, including as its CFO and a director, and that the company’s founding family had helped to raise more than $450,000 for a local college that named a building after the director.  The fact that the director had supported a proposal that the founding family opposed – i.e., separating the chair and CEO positions – was deemed by the Supreme Court to be insufficient to support a finding of independence.
  • Board Oversight: The Delaware Supreme Court found that the board had breached its fiduciary duty of loyalty by failing to oversee a significant risk – product contamination – leading to the conclusion that the board had demonstrated bad faith. As is usually the case, Chief Justice Strine says it better than I possibly could.  Citing the landmark 1996 Caremark decision, he writes:


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“Where was the board?”  It’s a question we hear whenever something – anything – goes wrong at a public company.  The question has been asked in all sorts of circumstances, ranging from failing jet systems, to networks being hacked, to harassment allegations, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong – there are most assuredly cases in which the question needs to be asked. Without naming names, there have been numerous instances where it seems apparent (and in some cases has been proven) that the board elected not to see or hear evil and thus hadn’t a clue that there was a problem, and other cases where the board created or fostered a rotten culture that seemed to beg for problems.  However, what concerns me is that society at large seems to think that the board is or should be responsible for every sin of commission or omission by the company.  And that just seems wrong.

Boards are charged with oversight.  And while the definition of that word can be difficult to pin down, it seems clear that the board was never supposed to be a guarantor.  Yet that’s precisely where we are headed – or perhaps where we’ve arrived.  You even see it in articles and treatises by governance nerds who should know better: “The board should ensure that…”.  Boards cannot “ensure” anything.  They are part-time consultants, and even the best boards cannot possibly know everything that a company does.

As a result, we’ve seen an upswing in suggestions as to how to help boards, including the following:
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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

Costs of PCAOB proposal greatly outweigh benefitsThe PCAOB’s recently proposed auditing standards aim to “provide investors and other financial statement users with potentially valuable information that investors have expressed interest in receiving but have not had access to in the past” by changing the standard auditor’s report and increasing the auditor’s responsibilities.  Sounds like a lofty goal, except that the information that they are proposing to require auditors to provide is either (i) self-evident; (ii) an infringement on the judgment of the issuer’s audit committee; or (iii) just plain not helpful.  What the proposed auditing standards do accomplish, however, is to add more costs to being a public company just like their last proposal on mandatory auditor rotation.

Critical Audit MattersUnder the proposed auditing standards, an auditor will be required to include a discussion in its auditor’s report about the issuer’s “critical audit matters.”  Difficult, subjective, or complex judgments, items that posed the most difficulty in obtaining sufficient evidence, and items that posed the most difficulty in forming the opinion on the financial statements are deemed to be “critical audit matters.”  While this requirement may seem straightforward at first, the reality is that this “new” information should be self-evident by anyone who knows how to read a financial statement.  Revenue recognition, estimates for allowances, pension assumptions, etc. are typically deemed to be “critical audit matters” by an auditor when planning audit procedures.  These critical accounting policies are already discussed in issuers’ MD&A and in their financial statements.  Further, any investor who actually is looking at the fundamentals of an issuer’s business and historical results should already be highly focused on estimates that, if wrong, could materially impact the financial statements.  Auditors will end up being overly inclusive on what is deemed “critical” for fear of having
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Director Pay Practices

Since 2007, executive compensation practices of public companies have been at the forefront of activist shareholders’ and shareholder rights groups’ agendas. Mandatory say-on-pay proposals, enhanced executive compensation disclosure, compensation committee and compensation consultant independence rules are just a few of the recent significant changes to the laws and regulations applicable to public companies in the U.S. Moreover, as we reported in prior blogs, some countries have gone as far as making say-on-pay proposals binding on public companies. In fact, just this year, Switzerland amended its constitution to require binding shareholder say-on-pay votes and other executive compensation limitations for its public companies (also check out Broc Romanek’s blog for a collection of articles related to this topic). However, while public company executives have been in the crosshairs, little attention, if any, has been given to compensation of public company directors.

But that may change as a result of certain director pay practices highlighted by a recent NY Times Deal Book article by Steven Davidoff. The article focuses on two current proxy fights involving hedge funds attempting to get their proposed nominees elected to the boards of Hess Corporation and Agrium Inc. In the first case, the nominating hedge fund is proposing to pay a $30,000 bonus to any of its nominees who ultimately win a seat on the Hess board. Additionally, each such nominee would be eligible to earn a performance bonus based on share performance relative to its peer group. Based on the performance award formula, the maximum potential payout could be as much as $9 million if Hess outperforms its peer group by 300% over a three-year measuring period.

The second case is potentially even more lucrative for the director nominees. In addition to a $50,000 bonus each nominee would receive if elected,  they would also receive 2.6% of Jana Partners’ net profit based on the stock closing price on September 27, 2012. Director nominees not elected would still receive 1.8% of the net profit during that same period. Considering Jana’s total investment in Agrium is over $1 billion, the earning potential could be significant. However, based on the results of the Agrium annual meeting held on April 9, it appears that none of these Jana nominees were elected to the Agrium board this time around.

These arrangements pose some interesting questions from a corporate governance standpoint. Historically, directors
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Independent ChairmanAre the CEO and the Chairman of the Board the same executive at your company?  While there can be very good reasons to have these positions held by the same person, the separation of these posts continues to be a hotly debated topic.  Since the early 1980s, much attention has been paid to corporate boards of directors and how their structures improve (or undermine) organizational performance. In the wake of the recent financial crisis, public corporations have come under scrutiny from activist shareholders, institutional investors, advisory firms and regulators alike.  So naturally, this is the source of the debate over the separation of the CEO and Chairman positions. 

According to the ISS Governance Exchange, in 2012, investors filed 49 independent chair proposals, with more than three-quarters coming to a vote, including three that received majority support.  As of February 1, 2013, this year’s volume of filings now exceeds last year’s total with 53 firms targeted by shareholders seeking a split of the top posts, with additional filings likely at companies meeting later in the year.  Notably, the record for such proposals was set in 2010, with a total of 66. 

Proponents of CEO and Chair independence base their view on the inherent system of checks and balances that the Board, and particularly the Board’s Chairman, is supposed to impose on management.  Essentially, a firm’s Board and Chairman of the Board serves to hire, fire, evaluate and compensate management (including the CEO) based on performance.  Clearly then, these proponents argue, a single CEO and Chairman cannot perform these tasks apart from his or her personal interests, making it more difficult for the Board to perform its critical functions, if and when the CEO is its Chairman.  Accordingly, separation of the Chairman and CEO roles, can lead to better management and oversight because an independent Chairman is able to ensure that the board is fully engaged with strategy and to evaluate how well that strategy is being implemented by management. Importantly, appointment of an independent Chairman can also signal to all stakeholders that the CEO is accountable to a unified Board with a visible leader. 

But while largely helpful from a corporate governance standpoint, one must note that the separation of CEO and Chair positions can impose several costs on a firm.  First, while appointing an outside Chairman can reduce the agency costs of controlling a CEO’s behavior, such an appointment introduces
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compensation committeesIssuers listed on the NYSE or Nasdaq should pay close attention to the rules proposed by the exchanges last week because the proposed rules will impact compensation committees; however, the impact may be a “tale of two exchanges” because the impact is more significant to Nasdaq-listed companies.  As you may recall, Congress included several provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act to combat perceived public concerns over excessive executive compensation.  One provision, say-on-pay, has been implemented, but other more controversial provisions such as executive compensation clawbacks and executive compensation pay ratios have not been implemented.  Last week, the exchanges proposed rules to implement the independence requirements for compensation committees required under Dodd-Frank. 

As we have mentioned before, Section 952 of the Dodd-Frank Act does not infringe on traditional state corporation law by requiring an issuer to have a compensation committee or to have a compensation committee actually approve executive compensation.  Instead, it directs the exchanges to design and implement their interpretations of corporate governance best practices based on the parameters of Section 952.  The NYSE and Nasdaq proposed rules are different, and I highlight some of the most important aspects of each of the set of rules below.  In general, NYSE-listed companies are impacted significantly less than Nasdaq-listed companies.  

Director Independence  

The SEC rules implementing Section 952 require that the exchanges’ definition of independence consider 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.  The two exchanges interpreted the SEC’s rules vastly different.  

The NYSE merely maintains its current definition of “independence” and requires the issuer to consider the two additional factors set out by the SEC.  In practice, it would be highly unlikely that the two additional factors set out by the SEC would impact a board’s assessment of a particular director’s independence.  

Nasdaq’s current definition of “independent director” remains in effect; however, Nasdaq has elected to overlay a separate independence
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Compensation committees remain on the hot seat.  Stemming from the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC has adopted rules directing each national securities exchange to require companies with listed equity securities to comply with new compensation committee and compensation advisor requirements. Among other things, these new rules require national securities exchanges to implement listing standards that require :

  • each member of a listed company’s compensation committee to be an “independent” director;
  • the issuer to consider relevant factors (to be determined by the national securities exchange) including, but not limited to, the source of compensation of a member of the compensation committee member and whether a compensation committee member is “affiliated” with the issuer, subsidiary of the issuer, or an affiliate of the subsidiary;
  • an issuer’s compensation committee to have the authority and responsibility to retain compensation advisers and consider the independence of compensation advisers; and
  • require issuers to include specified disclosure about the use of compensation consultants and any related conflicts of interest in the proxy materials for their annual shareholders’ meetings.

As we noted when these rules were originally proposed, the SEC has not infringed on the traditional rights of states to define corporate law because these new rules do not require an issuer to have a compensation committee.  Rather, the new rules require that the independence rules be applied to committees performing functions typically performed by a compensation committee regardless of the name of the committee (compensation committee, human resource committee, etc.).  Under the final rules, the SEC has broadened the independence requirement to apply also to the members of the listed issuer’s board of directors who, in the absence of a compensation committee, oversee executive compensation matters.

The final definition of “independence” for a compensation committee will largely depend on the final rules of each national
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Last week, the SEC proposed new rules required by Section 952 of Dodd-Frank Act.  Under the proposal, compensation committees may engage a compensation consultant or other advisor, including legal counsel, only after taking into consideration the following factors, and any other factors determined by the national securities exchanges:

1) provision of other services to the