Tag: proxy advisory firms

Will the new Congress use the Congressional Review Act to nullify recent rulemakings?

You might remember that the first piece of legislation signed into law by the then-new (now outgoing) administration in 2017 was, according to the Washington Post, a bill that relied on the Congressional Review Act to dispense with the resource extraction payment disclosure rules. (See this PubCo post.) Under the CRA, any rules that were recently finalized by the executive branch and sent to Congress could be jettisoned by a simple majority vote in Congress and a Presidential signature. According to the Congressional Research Service, before the current outgoing administration took up the cudgel in 2017, “[o]f the approximately 72,000 final rules that [had] been submitted to Congress since the [CRA] was enacted in 1996, the CRA [had] been used to disapprove one rule: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s November 2000 final rule on ergonomics, which was overturned using the CRA in March 2001.” That’s because the stars are rarely in proper alignment: generally, the CRS indicated, for successful use, there will have been a turnover in party control of the White House and both houses of Congress will be majority–controlled by the same party as the President. That was the case in 2017, and, as of January 9, 2020, the CRA had been used to overturn a total of 17 rules, according to the CRS. Well, the stars are in proper alignment now. To observe that the new Congress and new administration have a lot on their plates is quite an understatement. Will they use the CRA to scrap any of the SEC’s “midnight regulations”?

SEC’s investor advocate bemoans 2020 rulemaking agenda and has some ideas for 2021

Let’s just say that the SEC’s Investor Advocate, Rick Fleming, was none too pleased with the work of the SEC this year. Although, in his Annual Report on Activities, he complimented the SEC for its prompt and flexible response to COVID-19, that’s about where the accolades stopped. For the most part, Fleming found the SEC’s rulemaking agenda “disappointing.” While cloaked in language about modernization and streamlining, he lamented, the rulemakings that were adopted were too deregulatory in nature, with the effect of diminishing investor protections. But issues that definitely called for modernization—such as the antiquated proxy plumbing system—despite all good intentions, were not addressed, nor did the SEC establish a “coherent framework” for ESG disclosure. And the SEC “also selectively abandoned its deregulatory posture by erecting higher barriers for shareholders’ exercise of independent oversight over the management of public companies” through the use of shareholder proposals and by imposing regulation on proxy advisory firms. That regulation could allow management to interfere in the advice investors pay to receive from proxy advisory firms and was widely opposed by investors. What’s your bet that he’ll be a lot happier next year?

SEC adopts amendments regarding proxy advisory firms (updated)

This post is a revision of my earlier post, updated to reflect the adopting release for the final rule and the supplemental guidance. 

Earlier this week, at a virtual open meeting, the SEC, by a vote of three to one, adopted new amendments to the proxy rules, modified from the original proposal issued in November last year, regarding proxy advisory firms (see this PubCo post). The amendments make proxy voting advice subject to the proxy solicitation rules and condition exemptions from those rules for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis, on disclosure of conflicts of interest and adoption of principles-based policies to make proxy voting advice available to the subject companies and to notify clients of company responses. The amendments also provide two non-exclusive safe harbors designed to satisfy the conditions to the exemptions. The SEC also voted by the same margin to publish new supplementary guidance for investment advisers addressing how advisers should consider company responses in light of the new amendments to the proxy rules. SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed that the final rules and guidance are the product of a 10-year effort—commencing with the SEC’s  2010 Concept Release on the U.S. Proxy System—which has led to “robust discussion” from all market participants.  The original proposal issued in November generated substantial comment and criticism, and the SEC took much of it into account in developing the final rule, which now only “encourages” what had been imperative in the proposal—namely that proxy advisors conduct a review and feedback process with issuers.

SEC adopts amendments regarding proxy advisory firms

This morning, at an actual uncancelled open (virtual) meeting, the SEC, by a vote of three to one (I wrote that part before the meeting), adopted new amendments to the proxy rules, modified from the original proposal issued in November last year, regarding proxy advisory firms (see this PubCo post). The amendments make proxy voting advice subject to the proxy solicitation rules and condition exemptions from those rules for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis, on disclosure of conflicts of interest and adoption of principles-based policies to make proxy voting advice available to the subject companies and to notify clients of company responses. The amendments also provide two non-exclusive safe harbors that satisfy the conditions to the exemptions. The SEC also voted by the same margin to publish new supplementary guidance to investment advisers addressing how advisers should consider company responses in light of the new amendments to the proxy rules. SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed that the final rules and guidance are the product of a 10-year effort—commencing with the SEC’s  2010 Concept Release on the U.S. Proxy System—which has led to “robust discussion” from all market participants.  The original proposal issued in November generated substantial comment and criticism, and the SEC took much of it into account in developing the final rule, which now encourages what had been imperative in the proposal—namely that proxy advisors conduct a review and feedback process with issuers.

A “speed bump” for proxy advisory firms instead of company pre-review?

The FT is reporting that the SEC is abandoning a key component of its proposal to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis. (See this PubCo post.) According to the report, the SEC has “scrapped the portion of the proposal that would have forced proxy advisers—led by Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis—to submit their voting recommendations to companies for checking before distributing them to investors in advance of shareholder meetings.”  The proposal had received substantial pushback, including from the Council of Institutional Investors and even the SEC’s own Investor Advisory Committee. However, the FT appears to point the finger, or attribute the victory, depending on your point of view, primarily to hedge fund activists  “who court proxy advisers’ support when fighting for board seats.”

Glass Lewis to publish unedited company feedback with its research reports

You might recall that, in November 2019, the SEC proposed amendments to the proxy rules to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis. Among the amendments included in that proposal was a new provision that would require proxy advisory firms to allow companies time to review and provide feedback on the advisory firm’s advice in advance of dissemination of the advice to the firm’s clients. (See this PubCo post.)  Although there has been a substantial amount of pushback with regard to the SEC proposal and its earlier related guidance, including litigation filed by ISS (see this PubCo post), as noted on thecorporatecousel.net blog, proxy advisor Glass Lewis has announced that it will now include “unedited company feedback on its research…with all its proxy research papers” and will deliver that information “directly to the voting decision makers at every investor client.”   Will ISS follow suit?

Commissioner Roisman defends proxy proposals

The SEC’s recent proxy proposals—both the proposal related to proxy advisory firms (see this PubCo post) and the proposal related to Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposals (see this PubCo post)—have been hit hard by the critics. Even the SEC’s own Investor Advisory Committee piled on, ultimately recommending that the SEC consider a do-over. (See this PubCo post.)  To the defense comes SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman, who has been honchoing these proposals at the SEC.

SEC calls “time out” on proxy advisor guidance and ISS litigation

You might recall that, at the end of October, proxy advisory firm ISS filed suit against the SEC and its Chair, Jay Clayton (or Walter Clayton III, as he is called in the complaint) in connection with the interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms issued by the SEC in August.  (See this PubCo post.) That interpretation and guidance addressed the application of the proxy rules to proxy advisory firms, confirming that proxy advisory firms’ vote recommendations are, in the view of the SEC, “solicitations” under the proxy rules, subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Rule 14a-9, and providing some suggestions for disclosures that would help avoid liability.  (See this PubCo post.) Then, in November, the SEC proposed amendments to the proxy rules to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, codifying and elaborating on some of the earlier interpretation and guidance. (See this PubCo post.)  As reported in Bloomberg, the SEC has now filed an Unopposed Motion to Hold Case in Abeyance, which would stay the litigation until the earlier of January 1, 2021 or the promulgation of final rules in the SEC’s proxy advisor rulemaking. In the Motion, the SEC confirmed that, during the stay, it would not enforce the interpretation and guidance.  ISS did not oppose the stay, and the Court has granted that motion. As a result, this proxy season, companies should not expect proxy advisory firms to feel compelled to comply with the SEC interpretation and guidance, including advice to proxy advisors to provide certain disclosures to avoid Rule 14a-9 concerns.

SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee critical of SEC proposals on proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals

At a meeting on Friday of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee members voted (ten in favor, five opposed, with two abstentions) to submit to the SEC a recommendation regarding SEC guidance and rule proposals on proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals. The recommendation is highly critical of the guidance and of both proposals as unlikely to reliably achieve the SEC’s own stated goals, ultimately advising the SEC to rethink and republish the proposals and reconsider its guidance. (Apparently, the initial draft of the recommendations was even more of a scold, as the author, John Coates, indicated to the Committee that the current version reflected substantial revisions, including removing the word “failure” throughout.) The recommendation contends that the proposals and guidance are almost futile without addressing in parallel more basic proxy plumbing issues (as the Committee had previously recommended) (see this PubCo post), that none of the SEC’s actions at issue adequately identifies the underlying problems that are intended to be remedied, provides a sufficient cost/benefit analysis or discusses reasonable alternatives that might have been proposed.  SEC advisory committees typically have a fair amount of sway, so time will tell whether the recommendation will lead the SEC to do any revamping of its actions.

SEC proposes new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms

Last week, the SEC voted (by a vote of three to two) to propose amendments to the proxy rules to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis.  The proposal is part of the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address perceived problems in the proxy voting system, the first phase being the proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post) and the second phase being the SEC’s recently issued interpretation and guidance (see this PubCo post). Of course, not everyone perceives the same problems in the system or perceives them the same way—a disparity that was plainly evident at the open meeting as the proposal’s advocates and critics were hardly reticent in expressing their views. (For a discussion of the goings-on at the open meeting, see this PubCo post.) The proposal is subject to a 60-day comment period and, if adopted, the rules would be subject to a one-year transition period.