Tag: Shareholder proposals


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.

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 Few Observations on Shareholders in 2015

Mary Jo White is Chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. This post is based on Chair White’s recent address at Tulane’s 27th Annual Corporate Law Institute; the full text, including footnotes, is available here. The views expressed in this post are those of Chair White and do not necessarily reflect those of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the other Commissioners, or the Staff.

Mary Jo White is Chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. This post is based on Chair White’s recent address at Tulane’s 27th Annual Corporate Law Institute; the full text, including footnotes, is available here. The views expressed in this post are those of Chair White and do not necessarily reflect those of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the other Commissioners, or the Staff.

Today [March 19, 2015], I will share a few observations on three specific areas: the current state of shareholder activism; the shareholder proposal process; and fee-shifting bylaws. I know your next two panels take up aspects of these important topics, but I think the space is lively and big enough for all of us to comment.

The Current Activism Landscape

There are different views on what is meant by “shareholder activism,” but just the word “activism” triggers an adverse reaction from many companies. Reflexively painting all activism negatively is, in my view, using too broad a brush and indeed is counterproductive. To me, the term activism captures the range of efforts by investors to influence a company’s management or decision-making. Some of it is constructive. In certain situations, activism seeks to bring about important changes at companies that can increase shareholder value. Now, some of you may find the juxtaposition of the word “activism” with “shareholder value” does not comport with your sense of reality. Some of you also believe that activists are not interested in increasing long-term value for shareholders and other stakeholders. Still others will assert that activists are simply short-term traders looking to make a quick dollar. I did say this was a lively topic with many different views.

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Incentive Alignment through Performance-Focused Shareholder Proposals on Management Compensation

The following post comes to us from Steve Fortin of the Accounting Area at McGill University; Chandra Subramaniam of the Department of Accounting at the University of Texas at Arlington; Xu (Frank) Wang of the Department of Accounting at Saint Louis University; and Sanjian Bill Zhang of the Department of Accountancy at California State University, Long Beach. Work from the Program on Corporate Governance about CEO pay includes: The CEO Pay Slice by Lucian Bebchuk, Martijn Cremers, and Urs Peyer (discussed on the Forum here); Paying for Long-Term Performance by Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried (discussed on the Forum here); and Lucky CEOs and Lucky Directors by Lucian Bebchuk, Yaniv Grinstein and Urs Peyer (discussed on the Forum here).

The following post comes to us from Steve Fortin of the Accounting Area at McGill University; Chandra Subramaniam of the Department of Accounting at the University of Texas at Arlington; Xu (Frank) Wang of the Department of Accounting at Saint Louis University; and Sanjian Bill Zhang of the Department of Accountancy at California State University, Long Beach. Work from the Program on Corporate Governance about CEO pay includes: The CEO Pay Slice by Lucian Bebchuk, Martijn Cremers, and Urs Peyer (discussed on the Forum here); Paying for Long-Term Performance by Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried (discussed on the Forum here); and Lucky CEOs and Lucky Directors by Lucian Bebchuk, Yaniv Grinstein and Urs Peyer (discussed on the Forum here).

Corporate boards are conscious of the role that executive pay practices play in improving corporate governance and increasing shareholder wealth (Gammeltoft, 2010). Economic theory suggests that the key to aligning managerial compensation with shareholder interest is to increase the sensitivity of executive compensation to firm performance (Core et al., 2005; Jensen and Meckling, 1976). Firms finance their operations, however, with funds from both shareholders and creditors, e.g., bondholders. Thus, agency theory also concerns shareholder-bondholder agency conflict and the difficulty of concurrently aligning the interests of shareholders, bondholders, and managers (Ahmed et al., 2002; Jensen and Meckling, 1976; Ortiz-Molina, 2007). In the past decade, the business press has focused on excessive CEO pay, observed during the 2001 Enron/Worldcom scandals as well as the recent 2007–2008 credit crisis, e.g., AIG. Critics contend that contracting between CEOs and boards has been shadowed by pervasive managerial influence (Bebchuk and Fried, 2005; Crystal, 1992). Consistent with these concerns, shareholders have begun to use the “shareholder proposal rule” (Rule 14a-8) established by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to defend their interest and have submitted hundreds of proposals to many of the largest U.S. corporations.

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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.

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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2015 Benchmark US Proxy Voting Policies FAQ

Carol Bowie is Head of Americas Research at Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS). The following post relates to ISS’ 2015 Benchmark Proxy Voting Policies.

Carol Bowie is Head of Americas Research at Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS). The following post relates to ISS’ 2015 Benchmark Proxy Voting Policies.

ISS is providing answers to frequently asked questions with regard to select policies and topics of interest for 2015:

Proxy Access Proposals

1. How will ISS recommend on proxy access proposals?

Drawing on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decades-long effort to draft a market-wide rule allowing investors to place director nominees on corporate ballots, and reflecting feedback from a broad range of institutional investors and their portfolio companies, ISS is updating its policy on proxy access to generally align with the SEC’s formulation.

Old Recommendation: ISS supports proxy access as an important shareholder right, one that is complementary to other best-practice corporate governance features. However, in the absence of a uniform standard, proposals to enact proxy access may vary widely; as such, ISS is not setting forth specific parameters at this time and will take a case-by-case approach when evaluating these proposals.

Vote case-by-case on proposals to enact proxy access, taking into account, among other factors:

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SEC to Review Excluding Conflicting Proxy Proposals under Rule 14a-8

The following post comes to us from Robert B. Schumer, chair of the Corporate Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and is based on a Paul Weiss client memorandum.

The following post comes to us from Robert B. Schumer, chair of the Corporate Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and is based on a Paul Weiss client memorandum.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White has directed the Division of Corporation Finance (“Corporation Finance”) to review its position on Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which allows a company to exclude a shareholder proposal from the company’s proxy materials if it “conflicts” with the company’s own proposal to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting. As a result of this direction, Corporation Finance will express “no views” on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) this proxy season.

The catalyst for this development was a shareholder proposal submitted by proponent James McRitchie to Whole Foods Market, Inc., requesting that the company adopt “proxy access” procedures generally to allow one or more shareholders owning at least 3% of the company’s voting securities for three or more years to nominate up to 20% of the board of directors via the company’s proxy materials. Whole Foods countered with its own proposal that included significantly different share ownership and holding period thresholds and director nominee caps, but nevertheless was granted no-action relief by Corporation Finance, allowing it to exclude the McRitchie proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) on the basis that it conflicted with Whole Foods’ proposal and the proposals would “present alternative and conflicting decisions for the Company’s shareholders that would likely result in inconsistent and ambiguous results”. Thereafter, Mr. McRitchie, the Council of Institutional Investors and others have called for the SEC to review its position on these “conflicts”, which SEC Chair White has now done. Corporation Finance has since effectively rescinded its no-action relief to Whole Foods and stated that it has no view of Rule 14a-8(i)(9).

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Advance Notice Bylaws: Trends and Challenges

Eduardo Gallardo is a partner focusing on mergers and acquisitions at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. This post is based on a Gibson Dunn client alert by Mr. Gallardo, James Hallowell, Elizabeth Ising, Gillian McPhee, and Stephenie Gosnell Handler.

Eduardo Gallardo is a partner focusing on mergers and acquisitions at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. This post is based on a Gibson Dunn client alert by Mr. Gallardo, James Hallowell, Elizabeth Ising, Gillian McPhee, and Stephenie Gosnell Handler.

Shareholder activism continues to dominate the corporate landscape and attract daily headlines in the financial press. And, as the pace of activism accelerates in 2015, a number of legal battles over the last two years between companies and activists has put in the spotlight the permissible scope and function of advance notice bylaws—a term that we broadly define for these purposes to cover bylaw provisions establishing timing, procedural and informational requirements for shareholders seeking to present director nominations and other business proposals to a shareholder vote. [1]

A typical advance notice bylaw requires that shareholders submit to the corporate secretary notice of all director nominations and business to be put to a vote at an annual meeting within a thirty-day window that opens and closes on specified deadlines preceding the anniversary date of the prior year’s annual meeting date (or, less common, related proxy statement). Such a notice often must be accompanied by information about the nominee or business, and the proposing shareholder. This information is generally intended to enhance the board’s ability to advise shareholders regarding the nominee or proposal, as well as potential sources of conflict between the proponent and other shareholders.

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The State of Corporate Governance for 2015

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.

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.

The balance of power between shareholders and boards of directors is central to the U.S. public corporation’s success as an engine of economic growth, job creation and innovation. Yet that balance is under significant and increasing strain. In 2015, we expect to see continued growth in shareholder activism and engagement, as well as in the influence of shareholder initiatives, including advisory proposals and votes. Time will tell whether, over the long term, tipping the balance to greater shareholder influence will prove beneficial for corporations, their shareholders and our economy at large. In the near term, there is reason to question whether increased shareholder influence on matters that the law has traditionally apportioned to the board is at the expense of other values that are key to the sustainability of healthy corporations. These concerns underlie the issues that will define the state of governance in 2015 and likely beyond:

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Responding to Corporate Political Disclosure Initiatives

The following post comes to us from Robert K. Kelner, partner in the Election and Political Law Practice Group at Covington & Burling LLP, and is based on a Covington Alert by Mr. Kelner, Keir D. Gumbs, and Zachary Parks. Recent work from the Program on Corporate Governance about political spending includes: Shining Light on Corporate Political Spending by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson, Jr. (discussed on the Forum here). Posts related to the SEC rulemaking petition on disclosure of political spending are available here.

The following post comes to us from Robert K. Kelner, partner in the Election and Political Law Practice Group at Covington & Burling LLP, and is based on a Covington Alert by Mr. Kelner, Keir D. Gumbs, and Zachary Parks. Recent work from the Program on Corporate Governance about political spending includes: Shining Light on Corporate Political Spending by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson, Jr. (discussed on the Forum here). Posts related to the SEC rulemaking petition on disclosure of political spending are available here.

Despite recent setbacks, efforts by activist groups to pressure companies to disclose details of their political activities are not going away. As these groups become increasingly sophisticated, 2015 looks to be their most active year to date. In fact, for the first time ever, the Center for Political Accountability plans to issue a report this year ranking the political spending disclosure practices of all 500 companies in the S&P 500 Index. This post highlights recent developments regarding corporate political spending disclosure efforts, looks ahead to what public companies can expect in the near future, and provides strategies and tips for those grappling with disclosure issues.

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ISS 2015 Independent Chair Policy FAQs

Carol Bowie is Head of Americas Research at Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS). This post relates to ISS independent chair voting policy guidelines for 2015.

Carol Bowie is Head of Americas Research at Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS). This post relates to ISS independent chair voting policy guidelines for 2015.

1. How does the new approach differ from the previous approach?

Under the previous approach, ISS generally recommended for independent chair shareholder proposals unless the company satisfied all the criteria listed in the policy. Under the new approach, any single factor that may have previously resulted in a “For” or “Against” recommendation may be mitigated by other positive or negative aspects, respectively. Thus, a holistic review of all of the factors related to company’s board leadership structure, governance practices, and performance will be conducted under the new approach.

For example, under ISS’ previous approach, if the lead director of the company did not meet each one of the duties listed under the policy, ISS would have recommended For, regardless of the company’s board independence, performance, or otherwise good governance practices.

Under the new approach, in the example listed above, the company’s performance and other governance factors could mitigate concerns about the less-than-robust lead director role. Conversely, a robust lead director role may not mitigate concerns raised by other factors.

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