Board of Directors’ Responsiveness to Shareholders

This post is from Fabrizio Ferri of Columbia University.

In a recent working paper entitled Board of Directors’ Responsiveness to Shareholders: Evidence from Shareholder Proposals, Yonca Ertimur, Stephen Stubben and I investigate the frequency, determinants and consequences of boards’ responses to advisory shareholder proposals. Our sample consists of 620 non-binding, MV shareholder proposals between 1997 and 2004.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in shareholder activism through shareholder proposals submitted for a vote at the annual meeting. Proposals pushing for the adoption or removal of certain governance features (e.g. classified boards, poison pills) are filed by activists in record numbers every year and, in spite of boards’ opposition, sometimes they win a majority vote. Boards face a tough decision. While shareholder votes on these proposals are advisory, ignoring them may have negative consequences, particularly if the proposal wins a majority vote. Directors failing to implement majority-vote (MV) proposals are often the target of “vote-no” campaigns and receive a “withhold vote” recommendation by ISS. Firms ignoring MV proposals end up on CalPERS’ “focus list”, receive lower ratings from governance services and attract negative press coverage. On the other hand, if boards truly believe the proposal is not in the interest of the company, they should not adopt it, in spite of the majority support by shareholders.

We find that, while proposals failing to achieve a majority vote are almost always ignored by the boards, about 30% of the MV proposals are implemented within a year from the vote. Strikingly, the frequency of implementation of MV proposals has almost doubled after 2002, from approximately 20% (1997-2002) to more than 40% (2003-2004), consistent with an increase in the cost of ignoring MV resolutions in the post-Enron environment. The likelihood of implementation seems to depend on the degree of shareholder pressure – in particular, the voting outcome and the influence of the proponent. For example, a MV proposal supported by 70% of the votes cast has a 10% higher chance of implementation than one supported by 55% of the votes cast. The behavior of peer firms and the type of proposals also have an effect, while traditional governance indicators do not seem to matter.

We then focus on the labor market for outside directors to evaluate the consequences of the implementation decision. We find that the implementation of a MV shareholder proposal is associated with approximately a one-fifth reduction in the probability of director turnover at the targeted firm. In addition, implementing a MV proposal is associated with approximately a one-fifth reduction in the probability of losing directorships held in other firms. These “rewards” for responding to MV proposals are higher when the proposal was supported by a higher percentage of votes. If the labor market for directors correctly reflects the quality of their performance, then the presence of reputation rewards (penalties) for responsive (unresponsive) directors may suggest that, on average at least, MV shareholder proposals are viewed as beneficial.

The full paper is available for download here.

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