Yesterday, Corp Fin posted two new CDIs, the first relating to SPAC (special purpose acquisition companies) eligibility to use Form S-3 and the second relating to whether COVID-19 benefits should be considered perks.
In this new study, Equilar and the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford examine how COVID-19 has affected CEO compensation. Are boards focused more on making sure that CEOs have the right incentives to continue their jobs under trying circumstances? After all, in the case of the pandemic, the trying circumstances are not of their own making. Or are boards more inclined to focus on showing the public and other stakeholders, especially employees, that CEOs are “sharing the pain”? CEO pay attracts a lot of attention in ordinary times, but in times of severe economic distress when corporate performance and stock prices plummet and companies engage in substantial layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts for employees—who likewise are not responsible for the economic crisis—CEO pay can attract intense scrutiny. In those circumstances, paying the same or greater levels of CEO comp can seem unfair to the employees and invite shareholder and public criticism. How have boards addressed this issue?
Will companies accede to calls for actions to improve racial and ethnic diversity in hiring and promotion? California considers a new mandate for racial/ethnic board diversity
In this excellent NYT article from early June, the author painfully explores the view of many African-American executives that, notwithstanding the public condemnations of racism by many public companies and the “multimillion-dollar pledges to anti-discrimination efforts and programs to support black businesses,” still, many of these companies “have contributed to systemic inequality, targeted the black community with unhealthy products and services, and failed to hire, promote and fairly compensate black men and women. ‘Corporate America has failed black America,” said [the African-American president of the Ford Foundation]. ‘Even after a generation of Ivy League educations and extraordinary talented African-Americans going into corporate America, we seem to have hit a wall.’” In the article, a number of Black executives offer recommendations for actions companies should take to begin to implement the needed systemic transformation. And now, third parties—from proxy advisors to institutional investors to legislators—are taking steps to induce companies to take some of these actions. Will they make a difference?
With so much going on in connection with COVID-19 and its impact, it would be easy to overlook the rest of the SEC’s agenda. And it’s a lengthy one. The new Spring Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda was published at the end of June, so it’s time to look at what’s on deck for the SEC in the coming year or so. (That reference to “on deck” may be the only sports anyone gets this year….) SEC Chair Jay Clayton has repeatedly made clear his intent to make the RegFlex Agenda more realistic, streamlining it to show what the SEC actually expects to take up in the subsequent period. (Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following 12 months. See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Spring 2020 short-term and long-term agendas reflect the Chair’s priorities as of March 31, when the agenda was compiled. What stands out here are the matters that have, somewhat surprisingly, moved up onto the final-rule-stage agenda—think universal proxy—from perpetual residence on the long-term (i.e., the maybe never) agenda.
Perhaps during the shutdown, when you’re watching more TV than you might like to admit, you’ve seen some new commercials a bit like this: a happy face-masked employee on the line or in a lab displaying all the sanitizing and other pandemic-related safety precautions that the company is taking to protect the employee’s work environment. Cut to the employee at home with giggling youngsters, illustrating the importance of safety measures at work to protect family at home. Or a company emphasizing the value of its employees in keeping the country moving forward or its employees in lab coats that persevere to find a cure no matter what. Or a shot of employees performing the essential service of implementing safety measures for customers. What’s the point? To drive home that a company that recognizes the value of its employees and manifests such concern for their safety and welfare is a company worth buying from. This new emphasis on employee welfare as a corporate selling point may have been sparked by COVID-19 but, at another level, it may well reflect broader concerns that have been marinating for a while—about the essential value of previously overlooked elements of the workforce, about physical risk allocation, about economic inequity and, to some extent, even about social justice.
How to address some of these concerns related to the workforce—particularly economic inequity—is the subject of a new paper co-authored by former Delaware Chief Justice Leo Strine, “Toward Fair Gainsharing and a Quality Workplace for Employees: How a Reconceived Compensation Committee Might Help Make Corporations More Responsible Employers and Restore Faith in American Capitalism.” The goal is to reimagine the compensation committee so that it becomes the board committee “most deeply engaged in all aspects of the company’s relationship with its workforce,” from retaining and motivating the workforce to achieve the company’s business objectives, to overseeing that the company fulfills its obligations as a responsible employer and, most of all, to positioning the company to “restore fair gainsharing.”
All the focus on COVID-19 disclosures notwithstanding, the SEC has not taken its collective eyes off the basics. This Order discusses settled charges against Argo Group International Holdings, Ltd. related to its failure to disclose in its proxy statements—for five years—millions in personal expenses and perks paid to its CEO, such as personal use of corporate aircraft and cars, “personal services provided by Argo employees and watercraft-related costs.” Not to mention that the CEO was able to approve his own expense reports. According to the press release, Enforcement continues “to focus on whether companies are fully disclosing compensation paid to their top executives and have appropriate internal controls in place to ensure that shareholders receive information to which they are entitled.”
Like ISS (see this PubCo post), proxy advisor Glass Lewis has also revisited the application of its policies to take into account the impact of COVID-19—having conducted, in its words, “scenario planning in order to consider how this will impact governance and broader ESG issues in the present and future.” Glass Lewis advises that it expects, currently and probably through 2021, “all governance issues and most proposal types to be impacted by the pandemic,” including balance-sheet and executive comp issues, on which Glass Lewis expresses some rather strong opinions. Relying on the flexibility inherent in its “contextual approach,” Glass Lewis plans to exercise its “existing discretion and pragmatism” in connection with voting on any affected proposals.
Today, ISS provided special policy guidance on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, observing that, in light of the current uncertainty, it is appropriate “to provide our stakeholders with some specific guidance on a number of voting policy issues that are likely to be directly implicated over the coming months by the pandemic and the global response to it.” While the guidance suggests that ISS will apply its policies more flexibly under the circumstances, some things never change: option repricings—still disfavored.
You might recall that, in November 2019, the SEC proposed amendments to the proxy rules to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis. Among the amendments included in that proposal was a new provision that would require proxy advisory firms to allow companies time to review and provide feedback on the advisory firm’s advice in advance of dissemination of the advice to the firm’s clients. (See this PubCo post.) Although there has been a substantial amount of pushback with regard to the SEC proposal and its earlier related guidance, including litigation filed by ISS (see this PubCo post), as noted on thecorporatecousel.net blog, proxy advisor Glass Lewis has announced that it will now include “unedited company feedback on its research…with all its proxy research papers” and will deliver that information “directly to the voting decision makers at every investor client.” Will ISS follow suit?