The January 6 attack on the Capitol and the subsequent efforts to rewrite voting and vote-counting laws led many companies and CEOs to speak out, sign public statements and pause or discontinue some or all of their political donations. However, as companies and executives increasingly take positions and express views on important social issues such as voting and democracy, climate change and racial injustice, there are many who want to hold them to it. As an MIT Sloan lecturer suggested in this article in the NYT, a signed statement from a CEO expressing commitment to an issue “gives people who want to hold corporations accountable an I.O.U.” One way the public has tried to call companies to account is to examine any dissonance or contradiction between those public statements and the company’s political contributions—to the extent those contributions are publicly available. A piece published recently in the NYT’s DealBook, On Voting Rights, It Can Cost Companies to Take Both Sides, explores how that concept has played out dramatically this year, particularly as investors have sought accountability by submitting more shareholder proposals than ever seeking political spending and lobbying disclosure—and actually winning. As the executive director of the Black Economic Alliance contended in the article, “[b]eyond C.E.O. statements[,] businesses demonstrate their values by how they allocate their resources.” And investors are increasingly compelling companies to disclose their allocation of resources on political spending.
The outside pressure has been on. As reported by Bloomberg, “[e]nvironmental advocates in cities including New York, Miami, San Francisco, London and Zurich targeted BlackRock for a wave of protests in mid-April, holding up images of giant eyeballs to signal that ‘all eyes’ were on BlackRock’s voting decisions.” Of course, protests outside of the company’s offices by climate activists are nothing new. But why this pressure on BlackRock? BlackRock and its CEO, Laurence Fink, have played an outsized role in promoting corporate sustainability and social responsibility, announcing, in 2020, a number of initiatives designed to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach.” (See this PubCo post.) Yet, BlackRock has historically conducted extensive engagement with companies and, in the end, voted with management much more often than activists preferred; for example, in the first quarter of 2020, the company supported less than 10% of environmental and social shareholder proposals and opposed three environmental proposals. As a result, as reflected in press reports like this one in the NYT, activists have reacted to the appearance of stark inconsistencies between the company’s advocacy positions and its proxy voting record. Even a group of Democratic Senators highlighted that inconsistency in this October 2020 letter, characterizing the company’s voting record on climate issues as “troubling and inconsistent.” But that impression may be about to change. In an interview with Reuters, BlackRock’s global head of investment stewardship since 2020 revealed that the company is “‘accelerating the pace of our stewardship activities; resulting in more engagement and more voting, reflecting heightened expectations, which … are just a function of the urgency of some of the issues.’” Indeed, in the first quarter of 2021, BlackRock supported 12 of 16 environmental and social shareholder proposals.
Today, the Senate, by a vote of 53 to 45, confirmed Gary Gensler as SEC Chair—for a little while anyway. Presumably, he will be sworn in in the next several days. The current SEC Commissioners offered their congratulations here. The pivot from the approach taken by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton on issues such as adoption of standardized mandatory climate disclosure and other ESG disclosure issues could be head-spinning, so stay tuned.
Alliance Advisors, a proxy solicitation and corporate advisory firm, has just posted its 2021 Proxy Season Preview, a useful introduction into the major themes of this season—well worth a read. First, and most obviously, there is COVID-19 and its direct and indirect impact. The pandemic is having a significant direct impact this year—not just in necessitating recourse to virtual-only annual meetings again this season—but also in focusing the attention of investors and proxy advisors on “how well corporate leaders navigated the crisis and protected business operations, liquidity and the health and welfare of employees.” But the pandemic has also had a somewhat surprising broader indirect impact. While it was widely anticipated that the challenges of COVID-19 would overwhelm any other concerns, the impact appears to be otherwise, as the pandemic has highlighted our increasingly precarious condition, including the effects of climate change, and intensified our social and economic inequality—all issues that are front and center this season. The Preview predicts that environmental and social proposals “are likely to see stronger levels of support in view of last year’s record 21 majority votes… and more assertive investor policies on diversity, climate change and political spending.”
When Gary Gensler was rumored to be the nominee for SEC Chair, Reuters reported that, in light of his “reputation as a hard-nosed operator willing to stand up to powerful Wall Street interests”—notwithstanding his former life as an investment banker—the appointment was “likely to prompt concern” among some that he would promote “tougher regulation.” (See this PubCo post.) This week, Gensler faced his interrogators on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, but the questioning didn’t really generate much heat—unless you count Senator Pat Toomey’s observation that Gensler had a “history of pushing legal bounds.” There was, however, a mild skirmish over—of all things—the meaning of “materiality,” essentially a surrogate for the fundamental divide on the Committee about whether the securities laws should be used to elicit disclosure regarding social and environmental issues.
Reuters has reported that former CFTC Chair Gary Gensler will be President-elect Biden’s choice for SEC Chair. According to the article, in light of his “reputation as a hard-nosed operator willing to stand up to powerful Wall Street interests”—notwithstanding his former life as an investment banker—the appointment is “likely to prompt concern” among some that he will promote “tougher regulation.” The NY Post attributed his nomination to the most recent Democratic wins in the Senate, which allowed selection of “the more progressive candidate. Only two weeks ago, people close to the Biden transition team had penciled in centrist Robert Jackson Jr….as the SEC frontrunner because he was seen as more likely to win confirmation by a GOP-controlled Senate.” Jackson is a former Democratic SEC Commissioner appointed in 2017. Gensler is an MIT professor and has been leading the Biden transition planning for financial industry oversight.
Has all of the current political unrest and social upheaval had any impact on the drive for political spending disclosure? Apparently so, according to the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability, which reports in its June newsletter that support for shareholder proposals in favor of political spending disclosure hit record highs this past proxy season. But one risk potentially arising out of political spending is reputational, which could fracture a company’s relationship with its employees, customers and shareholders. As companies and CEOs increasingly offer welcome statements on important social issues such as climate change, healthcare crises and racial injustice, the current heated political climate has heightened sensitivity to any dissonance or conflict between those public statements and the company’s political contributions. When a conflict between action in the form of political spending and publicly announced core values is brought to light, will companies be perceived to be merely virtue-signaling or even hypocritical? To borrow a phrase from asset manager BlackRock, if the public perceives that these companies are not actually doing “the right thing”—even as they may be saying the right thing—will they lose their “social license” to operate? (See this PubCo post.) CPA’s brand new report on Conflicted Consequences explores just such risks.
In mid-June, a large group of nonprofits, socially responsible investors, labor unions and others submitted a letter to SEC Chair Jay Clayton, stating that, while the guidance related to COVID-19 disclosure that he and Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman provided in April exhorting companies “to provide as much information as practicable” was a “step in the right direction” (see this PubCo post), it really did not go far enough in mandating the necessary transparency. They urged the SEC to impose new requirements for disclosure about how “companies are acting to protect workers, prevent the spread of the virus, and responsibly use any federal aid they receive.” With the SEC’s current propensity for principles-based disclosure, will it be persuaded to adopt these mandates?
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.
In this article from the Center for Political Accountability, the authors tout the recent “banner proxy season” for disclosure of political spending, both in terms of the uptick in shareholder support for disclosure proposals submitted by CPA (and its “shareholder partners”) and the number of shareholder proposals withdrawn as a result of agreements reached with companies for disclosure of political spending and board oversight. According to the authors, these results reinforce “earlier findings about ‘private ordering’ making political disclosure and accountability the new norm for companies.” Is there a new “eagerness by companies to adopt or strengthen political disclosure and accountability policies”? Is it now viewed as a key element of good governance? What is the impact of today’s highly politicized environment?