In July, Representative Carolyn Maloney contacted SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson to solicit his views on legislation that would require public companies to disclose their corporate political spending. Jackson has now responded. In his view, the absence of transparency about political spending has led to a lack of accountability, allowing executives to “spend shareholder money on politics in a way that serves the interests of insiders, not investors.” But because investors typically put their money into mutual funds and other similar investment vehicles, their voting rights are typically exercised, not by the investors themselves, but instead by these institutions on their behalf—and most often not in sync with the surveyed preferences of investors: “while ordinary investors overwhelmingly favor transparency in this area, the biggest institutions consistently vote their shares to keep political spending in the dark.” And, he charges, it’s not just corporations that are opaque about their own political spending—institutional investors are likewise opaque about their votes against shareholder proposals for spending disclosure.
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.
As issues of corporate social responsibility continue to gain ground, will the issue of gun safety become more prominent this proxy season?
A lot has been written about institutional investors’ turn toward issues of corporate social responsibility. One CSR topic that has received a lot of attention in the last few years has been firearms safety. In this post, published last week on The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, a coalition of investors, including CalPERS, CalSTRS, Rockefeller Asset management and State Street Global Advisors, has developed The Responsible Civilian Firearms Industry Principles, intended to encourage companies involved in the manufacture, distribution, sale and enforcement of regulation of the firearms industry to take action in support of the responsible use of firearms. According to the post, in asserting its “role as investors,” the group identifies “expectations for the firearms industry that will reduce risks and improve the safety of civil society at large. Further, we commit to monitoring progress by companies over time and engaging with them regularly on this issue, especially in support of enterprises that champion adoption of responsible practices….We call on companies within the civilian firearms industry to publicly demonstrate and publish their compliance with each of these principles, failing which, we will consider using all tools available to us as investors to mitigate these risks.”
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.
The idea of regulating proxy advisory firms has been in the ether for quite some time, but it’s an idea that never quite comes to fruition. However, there seems to be a lot of chatter about this topic now, raising the question: is now the time? According to this paper, The Big Thumb on the Scale: An Overview of the Proxy Advisory Industry, from Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, while proxy advisory firms influence institutional voting decisions and corporate governance choices to a material extent, it “is not clear that the recommendations of these firms are correct and generally lead to better outcomes for companies and their shareholders.” In that light, the paper suggests that some type of regulation of proxy advisory firms might be warranted to increase their transparency and improve the reliability of their recommendations.
For 2018, BlackRock has identified human capital management as one of its engagement priorities, echoing the exhortation from BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink in his 2018 annual letter to public companies: with governments seeming to fall short, it is up to the private sector to “respond to broader societal challenges”; companies must look to benefit their broader communities and all of their stakeholders, including employees, and that involves investment in efforts to create a diverse workforce, to develop retraining programs for employees in an increasingly automated world and to help prepare workers for retirement. (See this PubCo post.) With that mission in mind, in this post on The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, Michelle Edkins, Managing Director and Global Head of Investment Stewardship at BlackRock, discusses Blackrock’s approach to engagement with companies on the topic of HCM. While, as an investor concern, HCM may not have the high profile of board diversity, climate change or executive comp, it may well be on its way.
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.
While the topic of last week’s fourth SEC-NYU Dialogue on Securities Markets was shareholder engagement—focusing on the roles of institutional and activist investors— the real hot topic was the recent letter to CEOs from BlackRock’s Laurence Fink, which was at least mentioned on every panel. (See this PubCo post.)