At the end of 2018, the SEC dredged up its 2015 rule proposal regarding hedging disclosure (required by Dodd-Frank) and voted to adopt final rule amendments. The amendments mandate disclosure about the ability of a company’s employees or directors to hedge or offset any decrease in the market value of equity securities granted as compensation to, or held directly or indirectly by, an employee or director. As described in the legislative history of the related Dodd-Frank provision, the purpose of the requirement was to “allow shareholders to know if executives are allowed to purchase financial instruments to effectively avoid compensation restrictions that they hold stock long-term, so that they will receive their compensation even in the case that their firm does not perform.” As required, companies have now begun to include the new hedging disclosure in their proxy statements. To see how companies were approaching their responses to the new rule, comp consultant F.W. Cook examined the first 40 proxies that contained the new disclosure (covering the period from August 23, 2019 to October 4, 2019) and provides us with a number of observations that may well be helpful as we head into the new proxy season.
What does good governance really mean? What does it mean to follow best practices? Are there really best practices that make sense for all companies? Do we tend to latch onto easily identified and measured structural features that may not really be effective for good governance and ignore qualities that may be more effective but are not as easily identified or measured? Do we even have a common understanding of the meaning of concepts central to governance? These are some of the questions addressed in an interesting paper, “Loosey-Goosey Governance Four Misunderstood Terms in Corporate Governance,” from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford.
Who else but Delaware Chief Justice Leo Strine would bid his farewell to the Delaware bench with nothing less ambitious than a “comprehensive proposal to reform the American corporate governance system” laid out in a paper with longest title of any in recorded history: “Toward Fair and Sustainable Capitalism: A Comprehensive Proposal to Help American Workers, Restore Fair Gainsharing Between Employees and Shareholders, and Increase American Competitiveness by Reorienting Our Corporate Governance System Toward Sustainable Long-Term Growth and Encouraging Investments in America’s Future”? Strine offers up his always interesting ideas: for example, he advocates setting up board committees focused on the welfare of the workforce, imposing a tax on most financial transactions to be dedicated to funding infrastructure and research, curbing corporate political spending in the absence of shareholder approval and enhancing the fiduciary duties of institutional investors to consider their ultimate beneficiaries’ economic and human interests. And here’s another idea: Strine believes that the number of proxy votes each year is an “impediment to thoughtful voting” and leads to outsourcing of voting decisions by institutional investors to proxy advisory firms. Say on pay every four years? He has a plan for that too.
In 2019 Proxy Season Recap and 2020 Trends to Watch from consultant ICR, posted on The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, the author concludes that, although, initially, the changes in voter behavior during the 2019 proxy season appear marginal, on a closer look, the changes portend an “already-shifting pattern of voter behavior, and contain important clues as to what companies must do to prepare for the 2020 proxy season.” These clues are reinforced by recent developments, such as the new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation issued by the Business Roundtable (see this PubCo post). In the article, the author analyzes trends in say on pay, director elections, shareholder proposals and ESG and IPO governance issues, and prognosticates about what it all means for 2020.
Yesterday, the SEC announced settled fraud charges under Rule 10b-5 against Nissan, its former CEO Carlos Ghosn, and Gregory Kelly, a former director, related to the failure to disclose over $140 million to be paid to Ghosn in retirement. (Here is the SEC’s Order and the complaint against Ghosn and Kelly filed in the SDNY.) Of course, you may be aware that Ghosn and the former director have been arrested by Japanese authorities and are awaiting trial, so these SEC charges were probably not the biggest glitch in their career paths. Nevertheless, the SEC’s action does stand as a warning that the SEC remains on the lookout for efforts to hide or disguise compensation from required public disclosure, especially where CEO discretion regarding compensation is largely unconstrained.
Yes, it can be, according to the Executive Director of the Council of Institutional Investors, in announcing CII’s new policy on executive comp. Among other ideas, the new policy calls for plans with less complexity (who can’t get behind that?), longer performance periods for incentive pay, hold-beyond-departure requirements for shares held by executives, more discretion to invoke clawbacks, rank-and-file pay as a valid reference marker for executive pay, heightened scrutiny of pay-for-performance plans and perhaps greater reliance on—of all things—fixed pay. It’s back to the future for compensation!
In this article, the authors, from advisor PJT CamberView, talk about their takeaways from the 2019 proxy season, which they expect to see as part of the conversation in the fall.
Corp Fin has recently focused on the issue of corporate reporting and short-termism. At the end of last year, the SEC posted a “request for comment soliciting input on the nature, content, and timing of earnings releases and quarterly reports made by reporting companies.” (See this PubCo post.) Following up, Corp Fin then organized a roundtable, held last week, to discuss the issues surrounding short-termism. The roundtable consisted of two panels: the first explored “the causes and impact of a short-term focus on our capital markets,” with the goal of identifying potential market practices and regulatory changes that could promote long-term thinking and investment. In part, this panel developed into a debate about whether short-termism was actually creating a problem for the economy at all. In that regard, several of these panelists were quick to cite the oft-cited academic study revealing that “three quarters of senior American corporate officials would not make an investment that would benefit a company over the long run if it would derail even one quarterly earnings report.” (See this PubCo post and this article in The Atlantic.) Could the reason be a misalignment of incentives? The second panel was centered on the periodic reporting system and potential regulatory changes that might encourage a longer-term focus in that system. Does the current periodic reporting system, along with the practice of issuing quarterly earnings releases and, in some cases, quarterly earnings guidance contribute to or encourage an overly short-term focus by managers and other market participants? On this panel, the headline topic notwithstanding, the discussion barely touched on short-termism; rather, the focus was almost entirely on regulatory burden. At the end of the day, is the SEC seriously considering making changes to periodic reporting?
In May 2019, comp consultant Mercer conducted a spot survey of 135 companies, looking at the prevalence and types of ESG (environmental, social and governance) metrics used in incentive compensation plans, including metrics related to the environment, employee engagement and culture, and diversity and inclusion. The survey found that 30% of respondents used ESG metrics in their incentive plans and 21% were considering using them. Mercer observes that with the “growing expectations for organizations to operate in an environmentally and socially conscious way, [ESG] incentive plan metrics are increasingly being considered as effective tools to reinforce positive actions.”
You might recall that, in April of this year, SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson co-authored an op-ed (with Robert Pozen, MIT senior lecturer and former president of Fidelity) that lambasted the use of non-GAAP financial metrics in determining executive pay, absent more transparent disclosure. The pair argued that, although historically, performance targets were based on GAAP, in recent years, there has been a shift to using non-GAAP pay targets, sometimes involving significant adjustments that can “be used to justify outsize compensation for disappointing results.” On the heels of that op-ed came a rulemaking petition submitted by the Council of Institutional Investors requesting, in light of this increased prevalence, that the SEC amend the rules and guidance to provide that all non-GAAP financial measures (NGFMs) used in the CD&A of proxy statements be subject to the reconciliation and other requirements of Reg G and Item 10(e) of Reg S-K. But how pervasive is the use of NGFMs in executive comp? This article from Audit Analytics puts some additional data behind the brewing controversy about the use of non-GAAP financial measures in executive comp—and the level of increase is substantial.