Category Archives: Institutional Investors

The Spotlight on Boards

Martin Lipton is a founding partner of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and matters affecting corporate policy and strategy. This post is based on a Wachtell Lipton memorandum by Mr. Lipton and Sabastian V. Niles. Mr. Niles is counsel at Wachtell Lipton specializing in rapid response shareholder activism and preparedness, takeover defense, corporate governance, and M&A.

The ever evolving challenges facing corporate boards, and especially this year the statements by BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard of what they expect from boards, prompts an updated snapshot of what is expected from the board of directors of a major public company—not just the legal rules, but also the aspirational “best practices” that have come to have almost as much influence on board and company behavior.

Boards are expected to:


Active Ownership

Oğuzhan Karakaş is Assistant Professor of Finance at Boston College. This post is based on an article authored by Professor Karakaş; Elroy Dimson, Professor of Finance at London Business School; and Xi Li, Assistant Professor of Accounting at Temple University. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Socially Responsible Firms by Allen Ferrell, Hao Liang, and Luc Renneboog (discussed on the Forum here).

In our paper, Active Ownership, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we analyze highly intensive engagements on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues by a large institutional investor with a major commitment to responsible investment (hereafter “ESG activism” or “active ownership”). Given the relative lack of research on environmentally and socially themed engagements, we emphasize the environmental and social (ES) engagements throughout the paper and use the corporate governance (CG) engagements as a basis for comparison.


Will a New Paradigm for Corporate Governance Bring Peace?

Martin Lipton is a founding partner of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and matters affecting corporate policy and strategy. This post is based on a Wachtell Lipton memorandum. 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.

The decades-long conflict that is currently raging over short-termism and activist hedge funds strikes me as analogous to the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th Century, albeit fought with statistics (“empirical evidence”), op-eds and journal articles rather than cannon, pike and sword. I decided, after some thirty-six years in the front line of the army defending corporations and their boards, that pursuing the thought might result in an essay more interesting (and perhaps a bit more amusing) than my usual memos and articles.

In 1618, after two centuries of religious disputation and tenuous co-existence, the ascension of the staunchly partisan Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor sparked a revolt that disrupted the balance of power in Europe and began the Thirty Years’ War. The War quickly involved the major powers of Europe. The conflict resulted in the Peace of Westphalia and the redrawing of the religious and political map of Europe, a new paradigm for the governance of Europe.

In 1985, a century of disputation as to the roles of professional management, boards of directors and shareholders of public companies similarly resulted in the disruption of the balance of power and general prosperity. In the two decades immediately preceding 1985, corporate raiders had perfected the front-end-loaded, two-tier, junk-bond-financed, bust-up tender offer, using tactics such as the “Highly Confident Letter” to launch a takeover without firm financing, “greenmail” (accumulating a block of stock and threatening a takeover bid unless the target company repurchases the block at a premium to the market) and litigation attacking protective state laws. Public companies did not have sufficient time or means to defend against corporate raiders. The battles culminated in two key 1985 decisions of the Delaware Supreme Court that restored the balance of power between boards of directors and opportunistic shareholders. In the Unocal case, the court upheld the power of the board of directors to reject, and take action to defeat, a hostile takeover bid, and in the Household case, it sustained the legality of the poison pill, which I had introduced three years earlier in an effort to level the playing field between corporate raiders and the companies they targeted.


Can Institutional Investors Improve Corporate Governance?

Craig Doidge is Professor of Finance at the University of Toronto. This post is based on an article authored by Professor Doidge; Alexander Dyck, Professor of Finance at the University of Toronto; Hamed Mahmudi, Assistant Professor of Finance at the University of Oklahoma; and Aazam Virani, Assistant Professor of Finance at the University of Arizona.

In our paper, Can Institutional Investors Improve Corporate Governance Through Collective Action?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine whether a collective action organization of institutional investors can significantly influence firms’ governance choices. Growth in institutional investor ownership over the last few decades puts these investors in the position to have significant influence, particularly if they can work collectively and coordinate their efforts. But we have very limited evidence whether institutional investors are able to overcome the obstacles to collective action. We focus on the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (CCGG), an organization of institutional investors whose mandate is to promote good governance. We use proprietary data on its private communications and find that its private engagements between owners and independent directors influenced firms’ adoption of majority voting and say-on-pay advisory votes, improved compensation structure and disclosure, and influenced CEO incentive intensity.


Is Institutional Investor Stewardship Still Elusive?

Simon C.Y. Wong is an adjunct professor of law at the Northwestern University School of Law, and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This post is based on an article that recently appeared in the Butterworths Journal of International Banking and Financial Law.


The idea that institutional investors should behave as active, long-term oriented “stewards” has caught on globally. Five years after the launch of the landmark UK Stewardship Code, counterparts can be found on four continents (see Figure 1).

When the UK code was promulgated, I argued that institutional investor stewardship was an elusive quest due to, inter alia: ––

  • Inappropriate performance metrics and financial arrangements that promote trading and a short-term focus;
  • ––Excessive portfolio diversification that makes monitoring of investee companies challenging; ––
  • Lengthening chain of ownership that weakens an ownership mindset; ––
  • Passive/index funds that pay scant attention to corporate governance; and ––
  • Pervasive conflicts of interest among asset managers.

The fifth anniversary of the UK code provides an opportune moment to examine the notable achievements and continuing challenges in the drive to encourage institutional investors to be informed and engaged owners.


Corporate Governance Preferences of Institutional Investors

Joseph Mc Cahery is Professor in the Department of Business Law at Tilburg University. This post is based on an article authored by Prof. McCahery; Zacharias Sautner of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management; and Laura T. Starks of McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin.

We currently have little direct knowledge regarding how institutional investors engage with portfolio companies. The reason is that many interactions occur behind the scenes. That is, unless institutional investors publicly express their approval or disapproval of a firm’s activities or management, little is known about their preferences and private engagements with portfolio firms. In our paper, Behind the Scenes: The Corporate Governance Preferences of Institutional Investors, forthcoming in the Journal of Finance, we try to rectify this knowledge gap by conducting a survey among 143 institutional investors.

Institutional investors have two active choices when they become unhappy with a portfolio firm: (i) they can engage with management to try to institute change (“voice” or direct intervention); or (ii) they can leave the firm by selling shares (“exit” or “voting with their feet”). Theoretical models have documented the governance benefits of corrective actions through voice. These theories have recently been complemented by models showing that the threat of exit can also discipline management (e.g., Admati and Pfleiderer (2009), Edmans (2009), and Edmans and Manso (2011)). This raises the question of whether institutional investors, in response to dissatisfaction with portfolio firms, take actions that support the validity of these theories.


Proxy Access Bylaw Developments and Trends

Janet T. Geldzahler is of counsel at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. This post is based on a Sullivan & Cromwell publication by Ms. Geldzahler, H. Rodgin Cohen, Robert W. Reeder III, and Marc Trevino. The complete publication, including Annexes, is available here. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Lucian Bebchuk’s The Case for Shareholder Access to the Ballot and The Myth of the Shareholder Franchise (discussed on the Forum here), and Private Ordering and the Proxy Access Debate by Lucian Bebchuk and Scott Hirst (discussed on the Forum here).

The significant success of shareholder proxy access proposals this year is likely to result in even more shareholder proposals for proxy access in the 2016 proxy season. As of August 13, 2015, 82 shareholder proxy access proposals have come to a vote in 2015, and 48 have passed. In many cases, shareholder proposals were approved despite a pre-existing bylaw (most often adopted after the receipt of the shareholder proposal) or a conflicting proposal by the company with modestly more restrictive terms. The average vote in favor of all proposals was 54.4%, and ISS recommended for all shareholder proxy access proposals.

This post summarizes developments in the area of proxy access, including an analysis of the record of company responses to shareholder proxy access proposals received during 2015 (with further detail set forth in Annex A of the complete publication). Those companies that receive a proxy access shareholder proposal or that are evaluating preemptive adoption of a proxy access provision will want to consider the appropriate terms and requirements. In all cases, as a matter of preparedness, companies should be aware of options to respond to potential shareholder proxy access proposals. For more information regarding shareholder proposals generally, our 2015 Proxy Season Review (discussed on the Forum here), which we distributed on July 20, details the results of these proposals during the 2015 proxy seasons.


Why University Endowments are Large and Risky

Thomas Gilbert is an Assistant Professor of Finance & Business Economics at the University of Washington. This post is based on an article authored by Professor Gilbert and Christopher Hrdlicka, Assistant Professor of Finance & Business Economics at the University of Washington.

Universities as perpetual ivory towers, though often meant as a pejorative, describes well universities’ special place in society as centers of learning with a mission distinct from that of businesses. Universities create new knowledge via research while preserving and spreading that knowledge through teaching. The social good aspect of universities makes donations critical to funding their mission. But rather than investing these donations internally to build the metaphorical towers higher and shine the light of learning more widely, universities have built large endowments invested heavily in risky financial assets.

In our paper, Why Are University Endowments Large and Risky?, forthcoming at The Review of Financial Studies, we model how universities’ objectives, investment opportunities (internal and external) and public policy, specifically the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA), interact to create this behavior. Our findings suggest a reevaluation of UPMIFA’s ability to achieve its goal of maintaining donor intent in light of the costs it imposes on universities.


ISS 2016 Proxy Voting Policy

Holly J. Gregory is a partner and co-global coordinator of the Corporate Governance and Executive Compensation group at Sidley Austin LLP. The following post is based on a Sidley update by Ms. Gregory, John P. Kelsh, Thomas J. Kim, Rebecca Grapsas, and Claire H. Holland.

Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) is seeking feedback on policy questions as part of its process for updating its policies for the 2016 proxy season. Corporate issuers should consider communicating company views on proxy voting issues by participating in the survey, which can be accessed here. [1] Feedback is due by September 4, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. ET. Survey results are scheduled to be released in September and draft policy revisions are scheduled to be released for comment in late September or early October.

Survey topics provide an early indicator of potential areas for policy revision. This year’s questions signal that ISS may refine its position on:

  • Proxy access bylaw features
  • Director overboarding
  • Defensive governance provisions adopted pre-IPO or by a board without shareholder approval
  • Sunset provisions for net operating loss poison pills
  • Equity compensation of non-employee directors
  • Use of adjusted metrics in incentive programs
  • Say-on-pay in relation to disclosure by externally-managed issuers
  • Use of financial metrics and financial ratios to assess capital allocation decisions, share buybacks and board stewardship


2016 ISS Policy Survey

Linda Pappas and Maggie Choi are Consultants at Pay Governance LLC. This post is based on a Pay Governance memorandum.

In August 4, 2015, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) released its annual policy survey for the 2016 proxy voting season. The survey encompasses its global proxy voting policies across all potential topic areas. The responses elicited from the survey are used to assist ISS in developing changes to its proxy voting policy guidelines, and will be open for one month (until September 4, 2015). Upon closing of the survey, there will be an open comment period prior to the finalization of the updated ISS proxy voting policies which are targeted for release in November 2015.

The key survey areas specifically related to compensation for 2016 include use of adjusted or non-GAAP metrics in incentive compensation programs and equity compensation vehicles for non-executive directors. This post focuses on these two topic areas, and touches on other noteworthy U.S. and global policy areas.


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  • Programs Faculty & Senior Fellows

    Lucian Bebchuk
    Alon Brav
    Robert Charles Clark
    John Coates
    Alma Cohen
    Stephen M. Davis
    Allen Ferrell
    Jesse Fried
    Oliver Hart
    Ben W. Heineman, Jr.
    Scott Hirst
    Howell Jackson
    Robert J. Jackson, Jr.
    Wei Jiang
    Reinier Kraakman
    Robert Pozen
    Mark Ramseyer
    Mark Roe
    Robert Sitkoff
    Holger Spamann
    Guhan Subramanian

  • Program on Corporate Governance Advisory Board

    William Ackman
    Peter Atkins
    Joseph Bachelder
    John Bader
    Allison Bennington
    Daniel Burch
    Richard Climan
    Jesse Cohn
    Isaac Corré
    Scott Davis
    John Finley
    David Fox
    Stephen Fraidin
    Byron Georgiou
    Larry Hamdan
    Carl Icahn
    Jack B. Jacobs
    Paula Loop
    David Millstone
    Theodore Mirvis
    James Morphy
    Toby Myerson
    Morton Pierce
    Barry Rosenstein
    Paul Rowe
    Rodman Ward