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.
At the final meeting yesterday of the SEC Committee on Small and Emerging Companies (apparently soon to morph into the Small Business Capital Formation Advisory Committee), the Committee finalized the discussion draft of its Final Report to the SEC and heard presentations on SOX 404(b), the most recent bête noire of deregulation advocates. (The Committee also heard a presentation on Rule 701, which will be addressed in a subsequent post.)
Studies show hedge fund activists have adverse impact on board diversity and target more firms with women CEOs
While more and more institutional holders and asset managers are noisily promoting board diversity among their portfolio companies (see this PubCo post)—including, most recently, the NYC Comptroller and the NYC pension funds (see this PubCo post)—hedge fund activists (fka corporate raiders, now styling themselves as “activists”), seem to take quite a different tack. Two recent studies have looked at the impact of hedge fund activism on diversity from different perspectives: one study showed that hedge fund activists have an adverse effect on board diversity at companies they attack and another study showed that female CEOs are significantly more likely than male CEOs to come under threat from hedge fund activists.
In 2014, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, who oversees the NYC pension funds, submitted proxy access proposals to 75 companies—and ignited the push for proxy access at public companies across the U.S. The form of proxy access proposed in this first phase of the Boardroom Accountability Project was very similar to the form of proxy access mandated under the SEC’s rules that were overturned in 2011, requiring an eligibility threshold of 3% ownership for three years, with shareholders having the right to nominate up to 25% of the board. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) It has been reported that, of the 75 proposals submitted by the NYC comptroller in 2014, 63 went to a vote, with average support of 56% and 41 receiving majority support. In 2015, Stringer submitted more proxy access proposals. Notably, until Stringer’s initiative, private ordering for proxy access had not gathered much steam; only six companies had adopted proxy access. Stringer’s office reports that, today, more than 425 companies, including over 60% of the S&P 500, have enacted proxy access bylaws. Now, the NYC Comptroller’s Office, leveraging the success of its proxy access campaign and the “powerful tool” it represents to “demand change,” has announced the Boardroom Accountability Project 2.0, which will focus on corporate board diversity, independence and climate expertise. Will Project 2.0 have an impact comparable to that of the drive for proxy access?
Framework developed by the Investor Stewardship Group establishes common set of investor expectations for corporate governance
The Investor Stewardship Group—a group of the largest, most prominent institutional investors and global asset managers investing, in the aggregate, over $20 trillion in the U.S. equity markets—has developed the Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance, a “framework of basic standards of investment stewardship and corporate governance for U.S. institutional investor and boardroom conduct.” The stewardship framework identifies fundamental responsibilities for institutional investors, and the corporate governance framework identifies six fundamental principles that “are designed to establish a foundational set of investor expectations about corporate governance practices in U.S. public companies. Generally, the principles “reflect the common corporate governance beliefs embedded in each member’s proxy voting and engagement guidelines,” although each ISG member may differ somewhat on specifics. The ISG encourages company directors to apply these basic principles—while acknowledging that they are not designed to be “prescriptive or comprehensive” and can be applied in various ways—and indicates that it will “evaluate companies’ alignment with these principles, as well as any discussion of alternative approaches that directors maintain are in a company’s best interests.” The framework does not go “into effect” until January 1, 2018, so that companies will have “time to adjust to these standards in advance of the 2018 proxy season,” the implication being that failure to “comply or explain” by that point could ultimately lead to shareholder opposition during proxy season. Check out the countdown clock at the link above!
What’s happening with those SEC proposals for Dodd-Frank clawbacks and disclosure of pay for performance and hedging? Apparently, not much.
As noted in this article from Law360, the SEC’s latest Regulatory Flexibility Agenda, which identifies those regs that the SEC intends to propose or adopt in the coming year— and those deferred for a later time—has now been posted. The Agenda shifts to the category of long-term actions most of the Dodd-Frank compensation-related items that had previously been on the short-term agenda—not really a big surprise given the deregulatory bent of the new administration. Keep in mind, however, that the Agenda has no binding effect and, in this case, could be even less prophetic than usual; the Preamble to the SEC’s Agenda indicates that it reflects “only the priorities of the Acting Chairman [Michael Piwowar], and [does] not necessarily reflect the view and priorities of any individual Commissioner.” It also indicates that information in the Agenda was accurate as of March 29, 2017. As a result, it does not necessarily reflect the views of the new SEC Chair, Jay Clayton, who was not confirmed in that post until May.