Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, let’s hear from Hester Peirce, the only woman SEC Commissioner. (Irony intended.)
In a speech delivered a few days ago to the Council of Institutional Investors, after expressing her gratitude for those contributions by CII to the public debate that Peirce views favorably (regarding proxy voting, stock buybacks and disclosure reform), she takes the opportunity to “air her grievances,” citing as a model Seinfeld’s 1997 Festivus episode. (“I got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it.”) What’s her complaint? It’s the focus of CII and other investors on what she views to be “non-investment matters at the expense of concentration on a sound allocation of resources to their highest and best use. Real dollars are being poured into adhering to an amorphous and shifting set of virtue markers.” And the pressure on the SEC “to get on the bandwagon and drag others with us is pretty intense. We are being asked more and more to shift securities disclosure to focus more on matters that do not go to an assessment of how effectively companies are putting investor money to work.”
The issue of mandatory arbitration bylaws is a hot potato—and a partisan one at that (with Rs tending to favor and Ds tending to oppose). And in this no-action letter issued yesterday to Johnson & Johnson—granting relief to the company if it relied on Rule 14a-8(i)(2) (violation of law) to exclude a shareholder proposal requesting adoption of mandatory arbitration bylaws—Corp Fin successfully passed the potato off to the State of New Jersey. Crisis averted. However, the issue was so fraught that SEC Chair Jay Clayton felt the need to issue a statement supporting the staff’s hands-off position: “The issue of mandatory arbitration provisions in the bylaws of U.S. publicly-listed companies has garnered a great deal of attention. As I have previously stated, the ability of domestic, publicly-listed companies to require shareholders to arbitrate claims against them arising under the federal securities laws is a complex matter that requires careful consideration,” consideration that would be more appropriate at the Commissioner level than at the staff level. However, as Clayton has previously indicated, mandatory arbitration is not an issue that he is anxious to have the SEC wade into at this time. To be sure, if the parties really want a binding answer on the merits, he suggested, they might be well advised to seek a judicial determination.
Depending on your point of view, you may have experienced either heart palpitations or increased serotonin levels when you heard, back in July 2017, that SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar had, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, advised that the SEC was open to the idea of allowing companies contemplating IPOs to include mandatory shareholder arbitration provisions in corporate charters. As reported, Piwowar “encouraged” companies undertaking IPOs to “come to us to ask for relief to put in mandatory arbitration into their charters.” (See this PubCo post.) As discussed in this PubCo post, at the same time, in Senate testimony, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, asked by Senator Sherrod Brown about Piwowar’s comments, responded that, while he recognized the importance of the ability of shareholders to go to court, he would not “prejudge” the issue. According to some commentators at the time, to the extent that these views appeared to indicate a significant shift in SEC policy on mandatory arbitration, they could portend “the beginning of the end of securities fraud class actions.” Then, in January of this year, the rumors about mandatory arbitration resurfaced in a Bloomberg article, which cited “three people familiar with the matter” for the proposition that the SEC is “laying the groundwork” for this “possible policy shift.” But in recent Senate testimony, Clayton reportedly put the kibosh on these signals.