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a fair chance to raise concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that forms the basis of a recommendation?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.
The idea of regulating proxy advisory firms has been in the ether for quite some time, but it’s an idea that never quite comes to fruition. However, there seems to be a lot of chatter about this topic now, raising the question: is now the time? According to this paper, The Big Thumb on the Scale: An Overview of the Proxy Advisory Industry, from Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, while proxy advisory firms influence institutional voting decisions and corporate governance choices to a material extent, it “is not clear that the recommendations of these firms are correct and generally lead to better outcomes for companies and their shareholders.” In that light, the paper suggests that some type of regulation of proxy advisory firms might be warranted to increase their transparency and improve the reliability of their recommendations.
SEC Chair Jay Clayton announced earlier this week that the SEC will be holding a roundtable to discuss the proxy process, date TBD. Potential topics include the voting process, retail shareholder participation, shareholder proposals, proxy advisory firms and technology and innovation. In 2010, the SEC issued a concept release soliciting public comment on whether the SEC should propose revisions to its proxy rules to address the infrastructure supporting the proxy system, so-called “proxy plumbing.” Back then, the SEC had decided that it was time to do some maintenance on the creaky old plumbing system. However, as then Commissioner Elisse Walter, quoting Kurt Vonnegut, commented at the 2010 open meeting to vote on the concept release: “It’s a flaw in the human character that everyone wants to build, but nobody wants to do maintenance.” That statement was more prophetic than she probably anticipated when she made it: nothing came of the concept release. Whether more results from this current effort remains to be seen.