Category Archives: Corporate Elections & Voting

Are Companies Impermissibly Bundling Proposals for Shareholder Votes?

Randall S. Thomas is a John S. Beasley II Professor of Law and Business at Vanderbilt Law School. This post is based on the article Are Companies Impermissibly Bundling Proposals for Shareholder Votes? by Professor Thomas, James D. Cox, Fabrizio Ferri, and Colleen Honigsberg. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance about bundling includes Bundling and Entrenchment by Lucian Bebchuk and Ehud Kamar (discussed on the Forum here).

Recognizing that shareholders face a distorted set of choices when management “bundles” more than one separate item into the same proxy proposal, in 1992 the SEC enacted a pair of rules meant to protect shareholders from this practice. Bundling deprives shareholders of the right to convey their views on each separate matter being put to a vote, and instead forces them to cast a vote on the single proposal as a whole. This management practice may force shareholders to choose between rejecting the entire proposal or approving items they might not otherwise want implemented (as with the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, shareholders may be required to accept the good with the bad). To better protect the shareholder franchise, the SEC’s bundling rules prohibit joining together multiple voting items into a single proposal with a single box on the ballot. While these basic principles are easily stated, in practice the rules have been difficult to implement.

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DuPont’s Victory in the Proxy Fight with Trian

Francis J. Aquila is a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. This post is based on a Sullivan & Cromwell publication by Mr. Aquila, H. Rodgin Cohen, Melissa Sawyer, and Lauren S. Boehmke. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang (discussed on the Forum here), The Myth that Insulating Boards Serves Long-Term Value by Lucian Bebchuk (discussed on the Forum here), The Law and Economics of Blockholder Disclosure by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson Jr. (discussed on the Forum here), and Pre-Disclosure Accumulations by Activist Investors: Evidence and Policy by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, Robert J. Jackson Jr., and Wei Jiang.

On May 13, 2015, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, a major chemical company with a market cap of approximately $68 billion, defeated a proxy campaign run by Trian Fund Management, L.P., the activist fund led by Nelson Peltz that owns approximately 2.7% of DuPont. Trian was seeking four seats on DuPont’s board of directors. DuPont announced this morning that all 12 of its incumbent directors were reelected at DuPont’s annual meeting of shareholders. Although the two most influential proxy advisory firms, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. and Glass Lewis & Co., both supported Trian’s slate of director nominees, DuPont’s three largest institutional shareholders, The Vanguard Group, Blackrock, Inc. and State Street Corporation, all voted in favor of DuPont’s slate.

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Winning a Proxy Fight—Lessons from the DuPont-Trian Vote

Andrew R. Brownstein, Steven A. Rosenblum, and David A. Katz are partners, and Sabastian V. Niles is counsel, in the Corporate Department at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. This post is based on a Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz client memorandum by Messrs. Brownstein, Rosenblum, Katz, and Niles. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang (discussed on the Forum here), The Myth that Insulating Boards Serves Long-Term Value by Lucian Bebchuk (discussed on the Forum here), The Law and Economics of Blockholder Disclosure by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson Jr. (discussed on the Forum here), and Pre-Disclosure Accumulations by Activist Investors: Evidence and Policy by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, Robert J. Jackson Jr., and Wei Jiang.

DuPont’s defeat of Trian Partners’ proxy fight to replace four DuPont directors is an important reminder that well-managed corporations executing clearly articulated strategies can still prevail against an activist, even when the major proxy advisory services (ISS and Glass-Lewis) support the activist. As with AOL’s success against Starboard Value, Agrium’s against JANA Partners, Forest Laboratories’ against Carl Icahn and other examples, DuPont’s victory is a notable exception to the growing trend of activist victories.

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Shareholder Activism: Are You Prepared to Respond?

Mary Ann Cloyd is leader of the Center for Board Governance at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The following post is based on a PricewaterhouseCoopers publication. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance about hedge fund activism includes The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang (discussed on the Forum here), The Myth that Insulating Boards Serves Long-Term Value by Lucian Bebchuk (discussed on the Forum here), The Law and Economics of Blockholder Disclosure by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson Jr. (discussed on the Forum here), and Pre-Disclosure Accumulations by Activist Investors: Evidence and Policy by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, Robert J. Jackson Jr., and Wei Jiang.

Activist investors are increasing in number and becoming more assertive in exercising their influence over companies in which they have a stake. Shareholder activism comes in different forms, ranging from say-on-pay votes, to shareholder proposals, to “vote no” campaigns (where some investors will urge other shareholders to withhold votes from one or more directors), to hedge fund activism.

Activism can build or progress. If a company is the target of a less aggressive form of activism one year, such as say-on-pay or shareholder proposals, and the activists’ issues are not resolved, it could lead to more aggressive activism in the following years. (For more background information, see a previous PwC publication, discussed on the Forum here.)

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Shareholder Proposal Landscape

The following post comes to us from Ernst & Young LLP, and is based on a publication by the EY Center for Board Matters.

Institutional investors are increasingly communicating their expectations around governance through direct engagement and letter writing campaigns. Still, some continue to rely on shareholder proposals to trigger dialogue and help ensure a topic is raised at the board level.

Investors that submit proposals generally view them as an invitation to a discussion, preferring to reach agreement with the targeted company without the proposal going to a vote. If agreement cannot be reached, they generally believe that votes on shareholder proposals provide management with valuable insights into investor views.

The EY Center for Board Matters recently had conversations with 50 institutional investors, investor associations and advisors on their corporate governance views and priorities for the 2015 proxy season.

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Financial Innovation and Governance Mechanisms

The following post comes to us from Henry T. C. Hu, Allan Shivers Chair in the Law of Banking and Finance at the University of Texas School of Law.

Financial innovation has fundamental implications for the key substantive and information-based mechanisms of corporate governance. My new article, Financial Innovation and Governance Mechanisms: The Evolution of Decoupling and Transparency (forthcoming in Business Lawyer, Spring 2015) focuses on two phenomena: “decoupling” (e.g., “empty voting,” “empty crediting,” and “hidden [morphable] ownership”) and the structural transparency challenges posed by financial innovation (and by the primary governmental response to such challenges). In decoupling, much has happened since the 2006-2008 series of sole- and co-authored articles (generally with Bernard Black and one with Jay Westbrook) developed and refined the pertinent analytical framework. In transparency, the analytical framework for “information,” developed and refined in 2012-2014, can contribute not only to the comprehensive new SEC “disclosure effectiveness” initiative but also to resolving complications arising from the creation of a new parallel public disclosure system—the first new system since the creation of the SEC.

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Shareholder Activism: Who, What, When, and How?

Mary Ann Cloyd is leader of the Center for Board Governance at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The following post is based on a PricewaterhouseCoopers publication, available here.

Who are today’s activists and what do they want?

Shareholder activism spectrum

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“Activism” represents a range of activities by one or more of a publicly traded corporation’s shareholders that are intended to result in some change in the corporation. The activities fall along a spectrum based on the significance of the desired change and the assertiveness of the investors’ activities. On the more aggressive end of the spectrum is hedge fund activism that seeks a significant change to the company’s strategy, financial structure, management, or board. On the other end of the spectrum are one-on-one engagements between shareholders and companies triggered by Dodd-Frank’s “say on pay” advisory vote.

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A Say on “Say-on-Pay”: Assessing Impact After Four Years

Joseph Bachelder is special counsel in the Tax, Employee Benefits & Private Clients practice group at McCarter & English, LLP. The following post is based on an article by Mr. Bachelder, with assistance from Andy Tsang, which first appeared in the New York Law Journal.

The 2015 proxy season is the fifth one in which shareholders of thousands of publicly traded corporations have cast non-binding votes on the executive pay programs of the companies in which they are invested. The holding of such a vote, commonly known as Say-on-Pay, is required under Section 951 of the Dodd-Frank law. [1] That requirement applies to most publicly traded companies. Following are some observations on Say-on-Pay.

Results of Votes

In each of the four years of Say-on-Pay—2011-2014 proxy seasons—at the Russell 3000 companies holding Say-on-Pay votes (i) the executive pay program received favorable votes from over 90 percent of the shareholders voting at 75 percent of those companies and (ii) 60 or fewer companies had a majority of votes cast disapproving the executive pay program. [2]

Evaluating the Impact

Following are two propositions on how well Say-on-Pay is working.

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Proxy Advisors Clarify Proxy Access and Bylaw Amendments Voting Policies

The following post comes to us from Ariel J. Deckelbaum, partner and deputy chair of the Corporate Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and is based on a Paul Weiss client memorandum.

On the heels of SEC Chair White’s direction to the Division of Corporation Finance to review its position on proxy proposal conflicts under Exchange Act Rule 14a-8(i)(9), both Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”) and Glass Lewis have issued clarifying policies on proxy access, entering the fray of what is becoming the hottest debate this proxy season. The publication of ISS’s updated policy in particular means that market forces may have outpaced the SEC’s review process. In order to avoid risking a withhold or no-vote recommendation from ISS against their directors, many companies will be faced with the choice of (i) including any shareholder-submitted proxy access proposal in their proxy materials (either alone or alongside a management proposal) (ii) excluding the shareholder submitted proposal on the basis of a court ruling or no-action relief from the Division of Corporation Finance on a basis other than Rule 14a-8(i)(9) (conflict with management proposal) or (iii) obtaining withdrawal of the proposal by the shareholder proponent.

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Proxy Access—a Decision Framework

Richard J. Sandler is a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and co-head of the firm’s global corporate governance group. Margaret E. Tahyar is a partner in the Financial Institutions Group at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. This post is based on a Davis Polk client memorandum.

Recent high-profile developments have thrust proxy access back onto the agenda for many U.S. public companies. Here is a framework for how to approach the topic.

Proxy access is back in the news and back on the agenda for many U.S. public companies. Four years after the DC Circuit invalidated the SEC’s proxy-access rule, we are seeing company-by-company private ordering with a vengeance, including a record number of Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposals in the current 2015 proxy season. Events have moved at high speed in the past few weeks, leading many companies to wonder whether they should be initiating their own approach to proxy access.

As we argued in 2009 in response to an earlier SEC proxy-access proposal, we believe that each company’s approach to proxy access should be grounded in a consideration of its particular circumstances. Despite recent high-profile adoptions of proxy-access procedures, we don’t believe that most U.S. public companies should, in knee-jerk fashion, be preparing to revise their bylaws proactively. We do, however, think that boards should be assessing on an ongoing basis the broader issues of board composition, tenure and refreshment, which are not only important in their own right but also relevant to potential vulnerability to proxy-access proposals. We also think that boards should communicate a willingness to exercise their discretion in considering all shareholder suggestions regarding board membership in order to assure shareholders of a means of expressing their views and to create a level playing field for shareholders.

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