On a webcast today, “Shareholder Proposals: Corp Fin Speaks,” presented by TheCorporateCounsel.net, Matt McNair, Senior Special Counsel in Corp Fin’s Office of Chief Counsel, provided some “soft” guidance regarding the implications of the recent SLB 14I on shareholder proposals, particularly the exclusions for “ordinary business” and “economic relevance.” (See this PubCo post.)
Summarized below are some of the highlights of the 2017 PLI Securities Regulation Institute panel discussions with the SEC staff (Michele Anderson, Wesley Bricker, Karen Garnett, William Hinman, Mark Kronforst, Shelley Parratt, Ted Yu), as well as a number of former staffers and other commentators. Topics included the Congressional and SEC agendas, fresh insights into the shareholder proposal guidance, as well as expectations regarding cybersecurity, conflict minerals, pay ratio disclosure, waivers and many other topics.
In case you missed it, according to this article in Bloomberg BNA, the new tax proposal would eliminate tax benefits under IRC Section 162(m), which allows companies to deduct executive compensation over $1 million (in addition to regularly deductible compensation up to $1 million) so long as it is performance-based and meets certain other conditions, such as shareholder approval and approval by a committee of “outside directors.” According to the article, the proposal would retain the $1 million cap on deductible compensation but eliminate the exemption for performance-based pay that exceeded the cap.
Just in time for the beginning of proxy and shareholder proposal season, Corp Fin has posted Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14I, Shareholder Proposals. The SLB addresses four issues:
the scope and application of Rule 14a-8(i)(7) (the “ordinary business” exclusion);
the scope and application of Rule 14a-8(i)(5) (the “economic relevance” exclusion);
proposals submitted on behalf of shareholders (shareholder proposals by proxy); and
the use of graphics and images consistent with Rule 14a-8(d) (the 500-word limitation).
Not really, according to this study by academics from the University of Pennsylvania Law, Rutgers Business and Berkeley Law Schools to be published in the Harvard Business Law Review. Say on pay was initiated under a Dodd-Frank mandate adopted against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, largely in reaction to the public’s railing against the levels of compensation paid to some corporate executives despite poor performance by their companies, especially where those firms were viewed as contributors to the crisis itself. Say on pay was expected to help rein in excessive levels of compensation and, even though the vote was advisory only, ascribe some level of accountability to boards and compensation committees that set executive compensation levels. So far, however, say-on-pay votes have served largely as confirmations of board decisions regarding executive compensation and not, in most cases, as the kind of rock-throwing exercises that many companies had feared and some governance activists had hoped. The study reported that, since 2011, the average annual percentage of say-on-pay votes in favor has exceeded 90%, while “the percentage of issuers with a failed say on pay vote has never exceeded 3% and, in 2016, that number dropped to just 1.7%.” The study examined what the few failed (or low) votes really meant.
Recently, corporate cultures—or, more particularly, serious lapses in same—have emerged as flashpoints at many businesses and even entire industries, often with significant negative press coverage and severe economic consequences. As a result, this new report from the National Association of Corporate Directors, The Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Culture as a Corporate Asset, couldn’t be more timely. The report suggests that boards would be well-served by paying more attention to oversight of company culture—not just for scandal avoidance, but also “as a way to drive sustained success and long-term value creation.” A “healthy culture,” the report asserts, can serve as “a competitive differentiator.” The report includes a Toolkit with sample documents, questions and other useful materials.
PwC’s 2017 Annual Corporate Directors Survey shows directors “clearly out of step” with institutional investors on social issues
In its Annual Corporate Directors Survey for 2017, PwC surveyed 886 directors of public companies and concluded that there is a “real divide” between directors and institutional investors (which own 70% of U.S. public company stocks) on several issues. More recently, PwC observes, public companies have been placed in the unusual position of being called upon to tackle some of society’s ills: in light of the “new administration in Washington and growing social divisiveness, US public company directors are faced with great expectations from investors and the public. Perhaps now more than ever, public companies are being asked to take the lead in addressing some of society’s most difficult problems. From seeking action on climate change to advancing diversity, stakeholder expectations are increasing and many companies are responding.” But apparently, many boards are not taking up that challenge; PwC’s “research shows that directors are clearly out of step with investor priorities in some critical areas,” such as environmental issues, board gender diversity and social issues, such as income inequality and employee retirement security.