U.S. Board Practices

Rob Yates is Vice President at Institutional Shareholder Services, Inc. This post is based on an ISS publication by Mr. Yates, Rachel Hedrick, and Andrew Borek.

This year’s Board Practices Study focuses not only on longstanding issues traditionally covered, but on those which have driven increased shareholder interest in the boardroom over the past several years. Governance continues to evolve, but investor focus in recent years has been particularly pointed as new concerns have emerged, and the ways in which companies address those concerns adapts to meet market demands. Particular focus has been placed on the role of the board as a representative of shareholders at a company, and how the board’s structure and practices promulgate this responsibility. As always, this study provides a snapshot of these facets of public company boards in the S&P 1500 for investors and issuers to compare and contrast.

Investors are continuing to push for board accountability

The pyroclastic spread of proxy access over the past two years has arguably been the most prominent governance story in the United States. In two short years, the S&P went from having only a handful of companies with proxy access, to having over half its constituents offering shareholders the right. Proxy access is also starting to show up in shareholder proposals at smaller firms; as of March 14, ISS is tracking a dozen such proposals at S&P 400 companies.

Proxy access is the most recent chapter in the much longer story of shareholders seeking board accountability. The next chapters are underway, with investors focusing on board self-regulation practices and measures, such as director tenure and board refreshment, board diversity, board evaluations, mandatory retirement ages, and more. Some of these are showing promise—such as board refreshment and continuing progress on gender diversity—while others are lagging, such as non-gender measures of board diversity.

Central to these concerns is shareholders’ desire that boards develop the skills, expertise, awareness, and experience to accurately assess and effectively manage emerging risks, such as cyber and environmental risks, and ensure that boards are constantly searching for weaknesses (and, when and where appropriate, soliciting external help to identify blind spots).

Traditional concerns still exist, but companies are making progress

More traditional approaches to increasing accountability, such as majority vote standards and annual elections in the director election process—features that are near-ubiquitous in the largest companies—have been adopted in greater frequency by smaller companies. Many problematic governance practices, such as poison pills, are also increasingly rare.

Investors are more accepting of alternative independent board leadership structures

Demonstrating that governance is both a give and take endeavor, investors are more accepting of alternative forms of independent board leadership. Whereas investors have historically favored independent chairs, many are increasingly comfortable with an alternative structure whereby a strong and empowered lead independent director counterbalances a combined chair/CEO.

Director compensation increased sharply

A new feature in this year’s study is an evaluation of director pay covering the preceding five years. While compensation disclosure for non-employee directors is not new itself, the rules and guidelines governing director pay disclosure have only recently standardized. Beginning in December 2006, SEC rules required the disclosure of director pay in a standardized table format. This disclosure increased transparency and comparability between companies. Additionally, both the NYSE and NASDAQ require that boards consider director pay when determining director independence for purposes of meeting listing requirements.

Director compensation has received increased scrutiny in recent years, particularly given rising pay levels and high-profile shareholder lawsuits alleging excessive pay. Amid this atmosphere, many companies have taken a proactive approach to director compensation programs, mainly through altering equity plans or, in a few rare instances, introducing ballot items.

As companies weigh the potential benefits of changing director pay structures, median pay continues to rise. In fact, non-employee director compensation grew 17 percent between 2012 and 2016, while median CEO pay in the S&P 500 (reported in ISS’ 2016 US Compensation Postseason Report) rose by less than 10 percent. One positive development is the streamlining observed among director compensation programs. For example, the elimination of meeting and telephonic meeting fees in many compensation structures.

Increased scrutiny of certain board practices has necessitated a more detailed review

Previous versions of the board study included an in-depth snapshot of new-director demographics and trends, such as tenure, refreshment, and diversity. As these components of board composition have become a significant part of the governance conversation, ISS has produced in-depth studies on each of these issues. For a vast and comprehensive look at board refreshment trends in the U.S., please see the joint ISS/IRRC study, Board Refreshment Trends at S&P 1500 Firms. For a look at gender parity advancement on boards in the U.S. and around the world, please see the April 2016 joint study carried out by ISS and European Women on Boards, Gender Diversity on European Boards—Realizing Europe’s Potential: Progress and Challenges, and ISS’ December 2016 study, Gender Diversity on Boards—A Review of Global Trends.

The complete publication is available here.

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