An Investor Consensus on U.S. Corporate Governance & Stewardship Practices

Michael McCauley is Senior Officer, Investment Programs & Governance, of the Florida State Board of Administration (SBA). This post is based on a publication from the Florida SBA by Mr. McCauley; Lindsey Apple, Senior Proxy Analyst at MFS Investment Management; Jacob Williams, Florida SBA Corporate Governance Manager; and Tracy Stewart, Florida SBA Senior Corporate Governance Analyst.

The ISG, as a private initiative wholly independent of any regulatory body, was formed to bring together all types of investors to establish a framework of fundamental standards of investment stewardship and corporate governance for U.S. institutional investor and boardroom conduct. The Investor Stewardship Group (ISG) is a collective of some of the largest institutional investors and global asset managers with the goal of establishing the first ever, broad-based U.S. Stewardship and Governance Code for companies and investors. Founding members include U.S. and international institutional investors with large investments in the U.S. equity market. Since its inception in late January 2017, membership in the ISG has grown significantly, with assets under management increasing to over $22 trillion.

The ISG published its ‘Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance’ which comprises both a set of six stewardship principles for institutional investors as well as 6 corporate governance principles for U.S. listed companies. (see graphic below) The principles capture fundamental corporate governance and stewardship elements that its members believe are essential to preserving and increasing long-term shareholder value. The corporate governance principles are not intended to be overly prescriptive or all-encompassing in their scope—allowing flexibility in their application. The Framework borrows from other governance codes outside the U.S., which are typically structured on a “comply-or-explain” basis, thereby avoiding concerns over strict compliance and “one-size-fits-all” criticism. The Framework also serves to improve alignment of U.S. corporate governance practices with those in other global markets. Although members of the ISG are supportive of the corporate governance principles, individual ISG members may (and often do) differ on specific standards regarding corporate governance practices that are expected of companies, as outlined in their own proxy voting policies and guidelines. The ISG members will evaluate companies’ alignment with these principles, as well as any disclosure of alternative approaches that boards view as being in the company’s best interests.

In September 2017, the ISG announced that it had partnered with the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware to serve as the home of the ISG and the ISG Framework. The Weinberg Center works with ISG on ISG’s ongoing governance, administration, communications, and other related matters.

ISG Corporate Governance Principles espouse the adoption of annual director elections, boards comprised of a majority of independent directors, majority voting standards used for uncontested board elections, equal voting capitalization with a one-share, one-vote structure, and clear explanations why the board has chosen to adopt or maintain a variety of anti-takeover devices. The ISG Framework also takes the view that directors need to make the substantial time commitment required to fulfill their responsibilities and duties to the company and its shareowners. When considering the nomination of both new and incumbent directors, nominating committees should assess a candidate’s ability to dedicate sufficient time to the company in the context of their relevant outside commitments.

In addition to the governance principles, the Stewardship Framework seeks to articulate a set of fundamental stewardship responsibilities for institutional investors. The framework serves to affirm investment managers’ responsibility for engagement and proxy voting policies and decisions, regardless of how they may use services offered by third parties. As guidance, the rationales and expectations that underpin each principle have been articulated. For example, Stewardship Principle B-1 states, “Good corporate governance is essential to long-term value creation and risk mitigation by companies. Therefore, institutional investors should adopt and disclose guidelines and practices that help them oversee the corporate governance practices of their investment portfolio companies. These should include a description of their philosophy on including corporate governance factors in the investment process, as well as their proxy voting and engagement guidelines.”

The ISG encourages institutional investors to be transparent in their proxy voting and engagement guidelines and to align them with the stewardship principles. These principles should not restrict investors from choosing to adopt more explicit and/or stronger stewardship practices. Notably, the Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance is not intended to replace or supersede any existing federal or state law and regulation, or any listing rules that apply to a company or an institutional investor. The Framework is also not intended to be static. The Framework is designed to be enduring, yet evolving. While the ISG does not anticipate frequent amendments to the Framework, it believes it should be evaluated periodically and amended to reflect commonly accepted governance and stewardship standards over time.

Goals of the ISG

The ISG Framework is likely to have a major impact on how U.S. companies govern themselves, and also improve how asset managers and owners conduct their fiduciary activities on behalf of clients. The Framework advocates constructive dialogue and engagement, practices which have been a work in progress for both investors and issuers. The members believe that the ISG Framework is likely to foster a collaborative reconciliation between a company’s strategy and its governance protocol. While announced in 2017, the Framework went into effect January 1, 2018, which was timed to allow U.S. firms to review and adjust to ISG standards in advance of the 2018 proxy season. The ISG encourages companies to evaluate their alignment with the corporate governance principles and where and why they differ in approach. ISG members believe companies can best decide on how and where to disclose their alignment with the Principles, for example, investor relations, boards of directors or corporate governance websites, or in other investor outreach/engagement materials.

While the ISG is the first investor-led governance and stewardship framework developed for the U.S. market, it also aligns with other global stewardship guidelines, such as those espoused by the International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN).

In late March, the ISG announced the establishment of Steering, Governance, and Marketing and Communications committees to provide ongoing guidance and governance of the ISG. The ISG, under the leadership of the Steering and Governance Committees, has adopted an Amendment Process for the Framework that permits all members a means to participate.

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One Comment

  1. Michael Schewel
    Posted Thursday, May 10, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    How does the ISG framework square with the legal standards applicable to Board members? For example, in Virginia, that standard is to discharge their duties “in accordance with [the Board member’s] good faith business judgment of the best interests of the corporation.” That’s different than just saying that the Board is accountable to shareholders.