ISS 2019 Benchmarking Policy Survey—Key Findings

Betty Moy Huber is counsel and Paula H. Simpkins is an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. This post is based on their Davis Polk memorandum.

[On Sept. 11, 2019], Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) announced the results of its 2019 Global Policy Survey (a.k.a. ISS 2019 Benchmark Policy Survey) based on respondents including investors, public company executives and company advisors. ISS will use these results to inform its policies for shareholder meetings occurring on or after February 1, 2020. ISS expects to solicit comments in the latter half of October 2019 on its draft policy updates and release its final policies in mid-November 2019.

While the survey included questions targeting both global and designated geographic markets, the key questions affecting the U.S. markets fell into the following categories: (1) board composition/accountability, including gender diversity, mitigating factors for zero women on boards and overboarding; (2) board/capital structure, including sunsets on multi-class shares and the combined CEO/chair role; (3) compensation; and (4) climate change risk oversight and disclosure. We previously provided an overview of the survey questions.

The ISS report distinguishes responses from investors versus non-investors. Investors primarily include asset managers, asset owners, and institutional investor advisors. In contrast, non-investors mainly comprise public company executives, public company board members, and public company advisors.

Key Takeaways

Only 128 investors and 268 non-investors (85% were corporate executives) participated in the survey. While the results overall are not surprising for the survey questions relating to board diversity, overboarding, inclusion of GAAP metrics for comparison in compensation-related reports and climate change matters, the level of support for multi-class structures with sunsets was surprisingly high.

Summary

1. Board Composition/Accountability

a. Board Gender Diversity Including Mitigating Factors for Zero Women on Boards: Both investors (61%) and non-investors (55%) indicated that board gender diversity is an essential attribute of effective board governance regardless of the company or its market. Among respondents who do not believe diversity is essential, investors tended to favor a market-by-market approach and non-investors tended to favor an analysis conducted at the company level.

Another question elicited views on ISS’s diversity policy that will be effective in 2020. Under the new policy, ISS will recommend voting against the nominating committee chair (or other members as appropriate) at Russell 3000 and/or S&P 1500 companies that do not have at least one female director. Before ISS issues a negative recommendation on this basis, ISS intends to consider mitigating factors.

The survey questioned what other mitigating factors a respondent would consider besides a company’s providing a firm commitment to appointing a woman in the near-term and having recently had a female on the board. The survey provided the following three choices and invited respondents to check all that apply: (1) the Rooney Rule, which involves a commitment to including females in the pool of new director candidates; (2) a commitment to actively searching for a female director; and (3) other.

Results show that investors were more likely than non-investors to answer that no other mitigating factors should be considered (46% of the investors compared to 28% of the non-investors) besides a recent former female director or a firm commitment to appoint a woman. With regard to willingness to consider mitigating factors, 57 investors and 141 non-investors checked at least one answer. More non-investors found a company’s observance of the Rooney Rule to be a mitigating factor worth considering (selected by 113 non-investors) than the company’s commitment to conduct an active search (selected by 85 non-investors). These two factors were each selected by 34 investors.

b. Director Overboarding: The survey responses show investors and non-investors appear to hold diverging positions on director overboarding. On a plurality basis, investors (42%) preferred a maximum of four total board seats for non-executive directors while they (45%) preferred a maximum of two board seats (including the “home” board) for CEOs. In comparison, on a plurality basis, about one third of non-investors preferred to leave the determination to the board’s discretion for both non-executive directors and CEOs.

2. Board/Capital Structure

a. Multi-Class Structures and Sunset Provisions: Results reveal that 55% of investors and 47% of non-investors found a seven-year maximum sunset provision appropriate for a multi-class structure. Among respondents who indicated that a maximum seven-year sunset provision was inappropriate, 36% of non-investors replied that a longer sunset (10 years or more) was appropriate and 35% of investors objected to any form of multi-class structure.

b. Independent Chair: Currently, ISS generally supports shareholder proposals that request an independent board chair after taking into consideration a wide variety of factors such as the company’s financial practices, governance structure and governance practices. ISS asked participants to indicate which factors the respondent considers and listed factors for respondents to choose from, such as a weak or poorly defined lead director role, governance practices that weaken or reduce board accountability to shareholders, lack of board refreshment or board diversity, and poor responsiveness to shareholder concerns. Respondents were instructed to check all that applied.

The results unsurprisingly suggest that investors prefer an independent board chair more than non-investors. Investors chose poor responsiveness to shareholder concerns most often whereas non-investors selected the factor relating to a weak or poorly defined lead director role.

Investors’ second highest selection was governance practices that weaken or reduce board accountability to shareholders (such as a classified board, plurality vote standard, lack of ability to call special meetings and lack of a proxy access right). For non-investors, poor responsiveness to shareholder concerns was the second highest selection.

3. Compensation

a. Economic Value Added (EVA) and GAAP Metrics: Beginning in 2019, ISS research reports for the U.S. and Canadian markets started to include additional information on company performance using an EVA-based framework. Survey results showed that a strong majority of respondents still want GAAP metrics to be provided in the research reports as a means of comparison.

4. Climate Change Risk Oversight & Disclosure

a. Disclosures and Actions Relating to Climate Change Risk: The ISS survey asked respondents whether climate change should be given a high priority in companies’ risk assessments. ISS questioned whether all companies should be assessing and disclosing their climate-related risks and taking actions to mitigate them where possible.

Results show that 60% of investors answered that all companies should be assessing and disclosing climate-related risks and taking mitigating actions where possible. Roughly one third of investors indicated that “each company’s appropriate level of disclosure and action will depend on a variety of factors including its own business model, its industry sector, where and how it operates, and other company-specific factors and board members.” In addition, 5% of investors thought the possible risks related to climate change are often too uncertain to incorporate into a company-specific risk assessment model.

b. Shareholder Action in Response to a Company’s Failure to Report or Mitigate Climate Change Risk: Investors and non-investors indicated that the most appropriate actions to consider when a company fails to effectively report or address its climate change risk are (a) engaging with the company, and (b) voting for a shareholder proposal seeking increased climate-related disclosure.

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