Yesterday, ISS announced updates to its policies for next year. Like Glass Lewis a month ago, ISS is also—shall we say “unfriendly”— to boards of companies that submit to shareholders a charter or bylaw ratification proposal while excluding, as permitted under SEC rules and staff no-action positions, a conflicting shareholder proposal. Below are some of the highlights of the ISS updates:
Is board stability always a good thing? A new study from consultant Spencer Stuart showed that, in 2018, 428 new directors were elected to boards of companies in the S&P 500, the most new directors since 2004, representing an increase of 8% from 2017. What’s more, 57% of boards added at least one new director, and 22% appointed more than one new director. However, overall turnover remained “modest.” While these new directors added “fresh skills, qualifications and perspectives”—and many were women, minorities and/or first-time directors—nevertheless, the study concludes, “progress is mixed.”
Proxy advisor Glass Lewis has posted its 2019 Proxy Guidelines and 2019 Guidelines Regarding Shareholder Initiatives. One of the more striking points is that GL indicates that it may, albeit in limited circumstances, recommend against the members of the nominating/governance committee simply for successfully requesting no-action relief from the SEC to exclude (and presumably excluding) a shareholder proposal, where GL views the exclusion to have been detrimental to shareholders. GL’s new guidance includes the following updates:
As discussed in this PubCo post from February, a California bill, SB 826, addressing the issue of board gender diversity, has been making its way through the California legislature. On Sunday, Governor Jerry Brown signed that bill into law. Interestingly, one factor apparently influential in his decision to sign the bill was the recent hearing in Washington. As you may have heard, the legislation requires, as Brown phrases it, a “representative number” of women on boards of public companies, including foreign corporations with principal executive offices located in California. Will other states now follow suit? Will corporations incorporated in other states observe its provisions or challenge the application of this California law?
ISS has posted the results of its most recent Governance Principles Survey, which can sometimes guide future ISS policies. The key areas of focus were auditors and audit committees, director accountability and track records, board gender diversity and the principle of one-share one-vote.
According to consultant Equilar’s Gender Diversity Index, for the second calendar quarter of 2018, the percentage of women on the boards of companies in the Russell 3000 increased from 16.9% to 17.7%, representing the third consecutive quarter of increase. Also in Q2, 39 boards reached gender parity—an increase of eight from the previous quarter. And, for 71 boards, the percentage of women directors was between 40% and 50%, representing an increase of nine from the prior quarter. But what’s most interesting about the data, however, is that, of appointments to new board seats during the period, 34.9% went to women—almost twice the percentage recorded in 2014. Equilar views that fact as “a promising sign that companies are making a concerted effort to promote diversity in corporate boardrooms.” The increase moves Equilar’s GDI to 0.35, where 1.0 represents board gender parity.
As discussed in this article from the WSJ, the UK government is conducting a review of the reasons underlying the low proportion of women in top executive positions at companies in the FTSE 350 index. According to the article, the goal is to have women occupy at least one-third of board seats by 2020. However, in 2017, 24.5% of the boards seats at FTSE 350 companies were occupied by women compared with 23% in 2016 and 9.5% in 2011. But the most astonishing aspect are the atavistic quotes from a range of FTSE 350 Chairs and CEOs explaining the dearth of women in top positions.
Happy International Women’s Day!
According to the latest Equilar Gender Diversity Index (GDI), based on the current rate of growth, board gender parity for companies in the Russell 3000 is now expected to be achieved by 2048, an advance from the estimate published in the inaugural 2017 GDI, which did not project parity until 2055. At that point, women held only 15.1% of board seats for the Russell 3000, compared to 16.5% as of the end of 2017. Should we cheer?
The lede from the WSJ is that “for the first time,” BlackRock (reportedly the largest asset management firm with $6.3 trillion under management) is “stating publicly that companies in which it invests should have at least two female directors.” According to the WSJ, the new disclosure, just one component of BlackRock’s recently posted Proxy Voting Guidelines for U.S. Securities (more on the guidelines to come in a later post), “represents a small but significant shift for one of the largest shareholders of American companies.” Board diversity has been a consistent issue for several large institutional investors in recent years but without much specificity, and reportedly, BlackRock has, in the past, quietly encouraged companies to have a minimum of two women on their boards. Now, BlackRock is trumpeting that standard publicly.