Is ISS claiming pledging is the same as bribery?The answer: when ISS is evaluating a public company’s corporate governance under its revised policies for the 2013 proxy season. We previously blogged about the potential insider trading issues that could theoretically arise when insiders pledge company stock to secure loans. Now, with the implementation of the revised ISS governance standards, there are additional reasons for publicly traded companies to implement antipledging and antihedging policies.

ISS specifically addressed hedging and pledging activity in its 2013 U.S. corporate governance policy updates, which were posted in November of last year.  In these updates, ISS included a footnote to its policy on voting for director nominees in uncontested elections in circumstances where there are perceived corporate governance failures. Under the new policy, ISS will recommend “against” or “withhold” votes for directors (individually, committee members, or, in extreme cases, the entire board) due to “[m]aterial failures of governance, stewardship, risk oversight, or fiduciary responsibilities at the company”. The new footnote cites hedging and significant pledging of company stock as examples of activities that will be considered failures of risk oversight. Other cited examples of risk oversight failures include bribery, large or serial fines or sanctions from regulatory bodies, and significant adverse legal judgments or settlements. 

The rationale behind this new update seems to be based on ISS’s belief that pledging any amount of company stock by insiders for a loan is
Continue Reading When does hedging or pledging of company stock by insiders equate to bribery?

Proxy advisory firms' influence over proxy votingAs we say “goodbye” to 2012 we say “hello” to another proxy season full of angst caused by the self-appointed czars of corporate governance, the proxy advisory firms.  Although ISS and Glass Lewis have been making voting recommendations for more than a decade, over the past two years their power over voting outcomes has increased.  When the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted in 2010 Congress was very clear that the Say-on-Pay votes were merely advisory and that directors would not be subjected to increased liability over a company’s executive compensation practice; however, the unintended consequence of Dodd-Frank was to strengthen the unregulated proxy advisory firm industry by allowing these firms to be the near-final arbiters of whether executive compensation should be approved by shareholders.  Failure to comply with the arbitrary guidelines of ISS or the often unknowable guidelines of Glass Lewis can cause a company the potential embarrassment of a “failed” Say-on-Pay vote regardless of whether the independent directors at the company, who painstakingly analyzed various metrics in deciding what to pay the executive officers, determined the compensation to be in the best interests of the company and its shareholders.  In fact, Matteo Tonello of the Conference Board suggests there is substantial evidence demonstrating that the proxy advisory firms have significant influence over the design of executive compensation programs, but no evidence that they have contributed at all to improved governance quality or increased shareholder value.

The SEC clairvoyantly expected a growing conflict between issuers and the proxy advisory firms when it
Continue Reading Are investors’ interests served by proxy advisory firms?

Following the recent financial crisis and government bailouts of major U.S. financial institutions, the federal government has gradually facilitated a power shift from companies and their officers and boards of directors to their shareholders. A prime example of this is the recently enacted “say-on-pay voting” requirements. Through provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act which was passed in July 2011, Congress directed the SEC to adopt rules requiring public companies to give their shareholders a vote, on an advisory basis, on the approval of executive compensation (“say-on-pay”). The implemented rules also require public companies to hold an advisory vote on the frequency (“say-on-when”) with which the say-on-pay vote would occur. Taking into account the results of the say-on-when vote, companies determined whether to hold say-on-pay votes on an annual, biennial, or triennial basis, with most electing to hold annual say-on-pay votes. Despite these shareholder votes being advisory, and as we explained in a previous blog, these votes may actually be more impactful than originally anticipated due to the effect of poor or failed say-on-pay votes on the recommendations from proxy advisory firms, such as ISS. For example, a “poor” (i.e., less than 70% shareholder approval) or “failed” say-on-pay vote result (i.e., less than 50% shareholder approval) could lower one or more of a company’s ISS “GRId” scores (or other proprietary proxy advisory firm corporate governance rating scores) which would negatively impact the recommendations published by the proxy advisory firms with respect to the election of directors and other corporate governance matters being put to a vote of the shareholders at the annual meeting. By way of example, if a public company receives less than 70% shareholder approval for executive compensation, the company must show that it took steps to address its perceived executive pay shortcomings, otherwise ISS will recommend a “withhold” vote for the directors up for re-election at the next annual meeting.

Going one-step further, however, the United Kingdom announced on June 20, 2012 that it will be implementing a binding say-on-pay vote requirement for public companies. According to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the U.K. government will “introduce a new binding vote on companies’ pay policies in order to empower shareholders and
Continue Reading Binding say-on-pay: Is it coming to a public company near you?