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.)