SEC proposes new obligations for proxy advisory firms and changes to rules for shareholder proposals
Are issuers precluded from raising concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that form the basis of a recommendation? Are firm conflicts of interest insufficiently transparent? Are proxy advisory firms an effective “market-based solution” helping large numbers of institutional investors with time and resource constraints make better voting decisions? Are proxy advisory firms “faux regulators,” wielding too much influence—with too little accountability—in corporate elections and other corporate matters? Maybe all of the above? At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted, with two dissents, to propose amendments to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms and to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by increasing the eligibility and resubmission thresholds. These actions represent the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address 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). As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these topics, with Chair Jay Clayton observing that a “system in which five individuals accounted for 78% of all the proposals submitted by individual shareholders” needs some work, and Commissioner Robert Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” Both proposals are subject to 60-day comment periods. Next up, according to Clayton, proxy plumbing and universal proxy.
Today, 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 (referred to as the “Proxy Adviser Release” in the complaint) confirmed that proxy advisory firms’ vote recommendations are, in the view of the SEC, “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Rule 14a-9. In its complaint, ISS contends that the Proxy Adviser Release is unlawful and its application should be enjoined for a number of reasons, including that the SEC’s determination that providing proxy advice is a “solicitation” is contrary to law, that the SEC failed to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act and that the views expressed in the Release were arbitrary and capricious.
Interestingly, the litigation comes right before the SEC is scheduled to consider and vote (on November 5) on a proposal to amend certain exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules to provide for disclosure, primarily by proxy advisory firms such as ISS and Glass Lewis, of material conflicts of interest and to set forth procedures to facilitate issuer and shareholder engagement and otherwise improve information provided. There are various rumors circulating about the details of the proposal, including this Reuters article stating that the proposal would require proxy advisory firms to “give companies two chances to review proxy materials before they are sent to shareholders.” (Note that also on the agenda is a proposal to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by changing the submission and resubmission requirements.) Whether the firms’ advice is a “solicitation” takes on particular significance given that the SEC’s anticipated proposal appears to be predicated on the firms’ reliance on the exemptions from the proxy solicitation rules.
At an open meeting yesterday, the SEC voted (three to two) to publish guidance aimed at addressing some of the long-simmering controversy surrounding the reliance by investment advisers on proxy advisory firms. Do investment advisers rely excessively on proxy advisory firms for voting recommendations? How can they rely on proxy advisory firms and still fulfill their own fiduciary obligations? Are issuers allowed a fair chance to raise concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that forms the basis of a recommendation? Are conflicts of interest sufficiently transparent or addressed? What about the argument expressed by some that proxy advisory firms are essentially faux regulators with too much power and little accountability? (Ok, sorry, that last one didn’t come up.)
Guidance directed at investment advisors, while redolent of earlier non-binding staff guidance, now has the benefit of legal force in light of its adoption by the SEC. The new guidance revisits the extent to which an investment adviser can “outsource” to proxy advisory firms and still fulfill its fiduciary duty to its clients by, as Chair Jay Clayton summed it up, conducting “reasonable due diligence, reasonably identifying and addressing conflicts, and full and fair disclosure.” And the interpretation and guidance directed at proxy advisory firms confirms that their vote recommendations are “solicitations” under the proxy rules and subject to the anti-fraud provisions, and provides some “suggestions” about disclosures that would help avoid liability. The guidance and interpretation will be effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
As noted in thecorporatecounsel.net blog, last week, the Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held an event discussing corporate governance and possible reforms. Both SEC Chair Jay Clayton and Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman were interviewed on stage and previewed a number of potentially important developments regarding, among other topics, proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals.
In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce continued her rebuke of the practice of “public shaming” of companies that do not adequately satisfy environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards—hence the title of her speech, “Scarlet Letters.” According to Peirce, in today’s “modern, but no less flawed world,” there is “labeling based on incomplete information, public shaming, and shunning wrapped in moral rhetoric preached with cold-hearted, self-righteous oblivion to the consequences, which ultimately fall on real people. In our purportedly enlightened era, we pin scarlet letters on allegedly offending corporations without bothering much about facts and circumstances and seemingly without caring about the unwarranted harm such labeling can engender. After all, naming and shaming corporate villains is fun, trendy, and profitable.” Message delivered.
In a speech given yesterday at Columbia University, SEC Chair Jay Clayton reviewed the SEC’s regulatory achievements over the past year, metaphorically slapping the SEC and the staff on the back for a job well done in accomplishing 88% of the items identified on the SEC’s near-term agenda for fiscal 2018. Of particular interest, however, was his discussion of the some of the priority items on the 2019 agenda. In closing, Clayton hammered again at three risk areas that the SEC is currently monitoring—yes, those three. Clearly, the signal is that companies should consider these risks.
At last week’s proxy process roundtable, three panels, each moderated by SEC staff, addressed three topics:
proxy voting mechanics and technology—how can the accuracy, transparency and efficiency of the proxy voting and solicitation system be improved?
shareholder proposals—exploring effective shareholder engagement, experience with the shareholder proposal process, and related rules and SEC guidance
proxy advisory firms—can the role of proxy advisors and their relationship to companies and institutional investors be improved?
The first panel, on proxy plumbing, was characterized by the panelist who began the discussion as “the most boring, least partisan and, honestly, the most important” of the three topics. (But it was surprisingly not boring.) The last panel, on proxy advisory firms, was characterized by Commissioner Roisman as the “most anticipated,” but the expected fireworks were notably absent—except, perhaps, for the novel take on the subject offered by former Senator Phil Gramm. Here are the Commissioners’ opening statements: Chair Clayton, Stein and Roisman
As discussed in this PubCo post and this PubCo post, the role of proxy advisory firms has once again risen to the forefront as a sizzling corporate governance topic, just in time for the SEC Proxy Roundtable on November 15. In advance of the event, interested parties are marshalling their arguments and beginning to present their cases.
At a meeting last week of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the primary focus of the discussion was the panoply of problems associated with the infrastructure supporting the proxy voting system, so-called “proxy plumbing.” Shareholder voting is viewed as fundamental to keeping boards and managements accountable, and the current system of proxy plumbing has been criticized as inefficient, opaque and, all too often, inaccurate. In 2010, the SEC issued a concept release soliciting public comment on whether the SEC should propose revisions to its proxy rules to address these issues, but to no avail. Perhaps the task was too daunting. However, at the end of his brief appearance at the committee meeting, SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed that it was clear that there was room for improvement in the voting system—enough room for improvement that the SEC should do something. SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson was decidedly more emphatic. In a statement posted on the SEC website on Friday, he characterized as “urgent” the need “to fix the basic mechanics of modern corporate democracy.” He indicated that “there is broad agreement that the Byzantine system that makes it impossible to know whether investors’ votes are being counted must be fixed. Over the last decade, while voting technology has made enormous leaps forward, retail investor participation in corporate elections has declined: today, fewer than one in three investors have their vote counted in those contests. The Commission has known this for years—we issued an impressively thorough concept release on the subject in 2010—and it is time to act. Investors should not have to wait any longer for their votes to be counted in corporate elections.” But the question remains: will the SEC undertake the comprehensive analysis and overhaul that appears to be required or settle for grabbing only the low-hanging fruit?
You may recall that, in July, SEC Chair Jay Clayton announced that the SEC will be holding a Roundtable to discuss the proxy process, currently expected to be held in November. (See this PubCo post.) Among the potential topics identified was the role of proxy advisory firms and the question of whether investment advisers and others rely excessively on proxy advisory firms for information aggregation and voting recommendations. In anticipation of that roundtable, the staff of the Division of Investment Management has today issued a statement announcing that, in light of subsequent developments, the staff has withdrawn two frequently disparaged no-action letters, Egan-Jones Proxy Services (May 27, 2004) and Institutional Shareholder Services, Inc. (Sept. 15, 2004), which provided staff guidance about investment advisers’ responsibilities in voting client proxies and retaining proxy advisory firms.