When we last left the saga of proxy access, we had just started a new chapter on so-called “fix-it” shareholder proposals—efforts to revise existing proxy access bylaws to make them more “shareholder-friendly.” You might recall that, in 2016 and 2017, John Chevedden et al. submitted a slew of fix-it proposals that requested amendments to proxy access bylaws to raise the cap on the number of shareholders that could aggregate their shares to reach the necessary 3% ownership level. Target companies, in turn, submitted no-action requests seeking to exclude those proposals on the basis that they had already been “substantially implemented” under Rule 14a-8(i)(10). In response to the requests for relief, the SEC staff took a uniform no-action position allowing exclusion of these fix-it proposals. But the proponents were persistent and, in 2017, submitted to H&R Block a different formulation of a fix-it proposal that requested only one change — elimination of the cap on shareholder aggregation to achieve the 3% eligibility threshold, as opposed to simply raising the cap to a higher number. This time, the staff rejected H&R Block’s no-action request. In essence, it appears that the staff believes that a lower cap on aggregation could “substantially implement” a higher cap, but the removal of a cap entirely is a different animal that could not be substantially implemented by the lower cap. (For more history on these fix-it proposals, see this PubCo post.) This proxy season, the proponents have latched onto—and even expanded—the new formulation and have continued to find success in preventing exclusion.
Nasdaq proposes to modify the requirement for shareholder approval of issuances involving 20% or more of the shares or voting power outstanding
Nasdaq is proposing to modify the listing requirements in Rule 5635(d) to (i) change the definition of market value for purposes of the shareholder approval rule and (ii) eliminate the requirement for shareholder approval of issuances at a price less than book value but greater than market value.
Depending on your point of view, you may have experienced either heart palpitations or increased serotonin levels when you heard, back in July 2017, that SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar had, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, advised that the SEC was open to the idea of allowing companies contemplating IPOs to include mandatory shareholder arbitration provisions in corporate charters. As reported, Piwowar “encouraged” companies undertaking IPOs to “come to us to ask for relief to put in mandatory arbitration into their charters.” (See this PubCo post.) As discussed in this PubCo post, at the same time, in Senate testimony, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, asked by Senator Sherrod Brown about Piwowar’s comments, responded that, while he recognized the importance of the ability of shareholders to go to court, he would not “prejudge” the issue. According to some commentators at the time, to the extent that these views appeared to indicate a significant shift in SEC policy on mandatory arbitration, they could portend “the beginning of the end of securities fraud class actions.” Then, in January of this year, the rumors about mandatory arbitration resurfaced in a Bloomberg article, which cited “three people familiar with the matter” for the proposition that the SEC is “laying the groundwork” for this “possible policy shift.” But in recent Senate testimony, Clayton reportedly put the kibosh on these signals.
In light of the recent fraud charges against audit firm partners and the PCAOB, what questions should audit committees ask their outside auditors?
Recent civil and criminal fraud charges against partners at KPMG and staffers at the PCAOB, arising out of “their participation in a scheme to misappropriate and use confidential information relating to the PCAOB’s planned inspections of KPMG,” have led some managements and audit committee members to consider whether there is more they should be doing to ensure that their outside audit firms are not plagued by similar concerns. This article from Compliance Week sifts through a speech by Helen Munter, PCAOB director of inspections and registration, to assemble a series of questions that, in light of these recent charges, may be appropriate for audit committee members to pose to their outside audit firms.
The lede from the WSJ is that “for the first time,” BlackRock (reportedly the largest asset management firm with $6.3 trillion under management) is “stating publicly that companies in which it invests should have at least two female directors.” According to the WSJ, the new disclosure, just one component of BlackRock’s recently posted Proxy Voting Guidelines for U.S. Securities (more on the guidelines to come in a later post), “represents a small but significant shift for one of the largest shareholders of American companies.” Board diversity has been a consistent issue for several large institutional investors in recent years but without much specificity, and reportedly, BlackRock has, in the past, quietly encouraged companies to have a minimum of two women on their boards. Now, BlackRock is trumpeting that standard publicly.
The Council of Institutional Investors has sent a letter to William Hinman, director of Corp Fin, raising objections to the staff’s treatment of a recent shareholder proposal. The staff permitted the company, the AES Corporation, to exclude a shareholder proposal submitted by John Chevedden that sought to reduce the threshold required for shareholders to call a special meeting from 25% to 10%. The basis for exclusion was Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which allows a shareholder proposal to be excluded if it directly conflicts with a management proposal to be submitted for a vote at the same shareholders meeting. In its letter, CII charged the company with “gaming the system to exclude a vote on a legitimate proposal that receives substantial shareholder support when it is voted on at other companies – to reduce the threshold for calling a special meeting,” and urged the SEC to revisit, once again, its approach to Rule 14a-8(i)(9).