Last week, the SEC voted to issue a new rule proposal intended to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules, with Commissioners Robert Jackson and Allison Lee dissenting. Generally, the proposal would modify the criteria for eligibility and resubmission of shareholder proposals; provide that a person may submit only one proposal per meeting, whether as a shareholder or acting as a representative; and facilitate engagement with the proponent. As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these issues, with Chair Jay Clayton observing that a “system in which five individuals accounted for 78% of all the proposals submitted by individual shareholders” needs some work, and Commissioner Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” The proposal is subject to a 60-day comment period.
Last week, the SEC voted (by a vote of three to two) to propose amendments to the proxy rules to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis. The proposal is part of the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address perceived problems in the proxy voting system, the first phase being the proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post) and the second phase being the SEC’s recently issued interpretation and guidance (see this PubCo post). Of course, not everyone perceives the same problems in the system or perceives them the same way—a disparity that was plainly evident at the open meeting as the proposal’s advocates and critics were hardly reticent in expressing their views. (For a discussion of the goings-on at the open meeting, see this PubCo post.) The proposal is subject to a 60-day comment period and, if adopted, the rules would be subject to a one-year transition period.
You may recall that, last month, Corp Fin announced that it had revisited its approach to responding to no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals. In essence, under the new policy, the staff may respond to some requests orally, instead of in writing, and, in some cases, may decline to state a view altogether, leaving the company to make its own determination. (See this PubCo post.) In its most recent proxy guidelines, Glass Lewis explains its expectations from companies in light of the new approach.
SEC proposes new obligations for proxy advisory firms and changes to rules for shareholder proposals
Are issuers precluded from raising concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that form the basis of a recommendation? Are firm conflicts of interest insufficiently transparent? Are proxy advisory firms an effective “market-based solution” helping large numbers of institutional investors with time and resource constraints make better voting decisions? Are proxy advisory firms “faux regulators,” wielding too much influence—with too little accountability—in corporate elections and other corporate matters? Maybe all of the above? At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted, with two dissents, to propose amendments to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms and to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by increasing the eligibility and resubmission thresholds. These actions represent the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address the proxy voting system, the first phase being the proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post) and the second phase being the SEC’s recently issued interpretation and guidance (see this PubCo post). As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these topics, with Chair Jay Clayton observing that a “system in which five individuals accounted for 78% of all the proposals submitted by individual shareholders” needs some work, and Commissioner Robert Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” Both proposals are subject to 60-day comment periods. Next up, according to Clayton, proxy plumbing and universal proxy.
Does appointment of a former partner of the client’s audit firm to the client’s audit committee impair audit quality?
Studies of former partners of audit firms that have assumed management positions at audit clients have raised concerns, at least pre-SOX, about potentially lower audit quality, perhaps reflecting hesitation by the audit firm to “challenge aggressive accounting decisions” made by former partners of their firms. But what happens when a former partner joins the audit client’s audit committee? Does the former partner feel pressured not to question the audit firm’s decisions or lose objectivity about the quality of the work of the audit firm? Does the audit firm feel pressured to accept the company’s more aggressive accounting decisions when a former partner sits on the audit committee? In this study, published in Auditing: a Journal of Practice & Theory, a group of academics looked at that question. Their conclusion was that affiliated former partners on audit committees actually led to improved audit processes and outcomes. Why? Applying psychology’s “social identity theory,” the authors posit that the former partners continued to identify with their former firms, but instead of losing their objectivity, the former audit partners “use their knowledge of, and identification with, the audit firm to improve the audit process and the communication between the two parties,” leading to improvement in audit quality.
Today, ISS filed suit against the SEC and its Chair, Jay Clayton (or Walter Clayton III, as he is called in the complaint) in connection with the interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms issued by the SEC in August. (See this PubCo post.) That interpretation and guidance (referred to as the “Proxy Adviser Release” in the complaint) confirmed that proxy advisory firms’ vote recommendations are, in the view of the SEC, “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Rule 14a-9. In its complaint, ISS contends that the Proxy Adviser Release is unlawful and its application should be enjoined for a number of reasons, including that the SEC’s determination that providing proxy advice is a “solicitation” is contrary to law, that the SEC failed to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act and that the views expressed in the Release were arbitrary and capricious.
Interestingly, the litigation comes right before the SEC is scheduled to consider and vote (on November 5) on a proposal to amend certain exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules to provide for disclosure, primarily by proxy advisory firms such as ISS and Glass Lewis, of material conflicts of interest and to set forth procedures to facilitate issuer and shareholder engagement and otherwise improve information provided. There are various rumors circulating about the details of the proposal, including this Reuters article stating that the proposal would require proxy advisory firms to “give companies two chances to review proxy materials before they are sent to shareholders.” (Note that also on the agenda is a proposal to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by changing the submission and resubmission requirements.) Whether the firms’ advice is a “solicitation” takes on particular significance given that the SEC’s anticipated proposal appears to be predicated on the firms’ reliance on the exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules.