After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the national protests that it triggered, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice and racial and ethnic diversity, equity and inclusion. Some institutional investors also beefed up their proxy voting policies, demanding both greater transparency and more racial and ethnic diversity. One place that companies looked to implement their commitments to DEI was at the board level. Now, about two years after that horrific event, how much progress have companies made? Using the end of proxy season in 2020 as a starting point, ISS has some recent data. ISS concludes that, while substantial progress has been made in board racial and ethnic diversity, “many boards still do not reflect the diversity of their customer base or the demographics of the broader society in which they operate.”
Yesterday, ISS released its new benchmark policies, effective for shareholder meetings on or after February 1, 2021. In addition to anticipated policy changes (see this PubCo post) regarding board racial and ethnic diversity, shareholder litigation rights (such as exclusive federal forum provisions) and director accountability for governance failures related to environmental or social issues, ISS also made a number of other policy changes and clarifications, not previewed during the comment period, that generally relate to changing market practices, certain shareholder proposals and policies that were announced previously but subject to a transition period.
ISS has provided some early guidance regarding how it will view pandemic-related changes to executive compensation as part of its pay-for-performance qualitative evaluation. According to ISS, the guidance was informed by direct discussions with investors as well as the results of its annual policy survey. The guidance is summarized below.
Don’t forget to vote!
Last week, ISS released for public comment a number of proposed voting policy changes to be applied for shareholder meetings taking place on or after February 1, 2021. The proposed changes for U.S. companies relate to board racial/ethnic diversity, director accountability for governance failures related to environmental or social issues and shareholder litigation rights, i.e., exclusive forum provisions. Comments may be submitted on the proposals through October 26, 2020.
ISS now has established a COVID-19 resource center, which offers, among other things, a searchable list of companies that are holding virtual meetings this proxy season. As of April 15, the tally for virtual meetings in the U.S. held or to be held this proxy season is 1,015; according to ISS, that number was 286 for all of calendar 2019. In addition, 83 meetings have so far been cancelled or postponed.
Today, ISS provided special policy guidance on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, observing that, in light of the current uncertainty, it is appropriate “to provide our stakeholders with some specific guidance on a number of voting policy issues that are likely to be directly implicated over the coming months by the pandemic and the global response to it.” While the guidance suggests that ISS will apply its policies more flexibly under the circumstances, some things never change: option repricings—still disfavored.
ISS recently released the results of its 2019 Global Policy Survey. In this year’s integrated survey, the topics included board gender diversity, overboarding, sunsetting of multi-class capital structures, combined chair and CEO roles and climate change risk. The respondents included 128 investors (including 88 asset managers, 24 asset owners, four advisors and 12 other investors), and 268 non-investors (including 227 corporate issuers, 19 advisors, six corporate directors and 16 other non-investors). Highlights of the survey are summarized below.
With 70% of the annual meetings for the Russell 3000 having now taken place (1,812 companies), in this article, ISS takes an early look at the 2019 proxy season. In brief, ISS found increases in opposition to director elections and to say-on-pay proposals, as well as increases in the number of, and withdrawal rates for, environmental and social (E&S) proposals relative to governance (the “G” in ESG) proposals. In addition, the disparity in the levels of support for E&S proposals relative to the historically more popular governance proposals has narrowed dramatically.
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: