[This post revises and updates my earlier post primarily to reflect the contents of the adopting release.]
At an open meeting last week, the SEC voted (once again, three to two) to adopt highly controversial amendments to the requirements for submission of shareholder proposals in Rule 14a-8. According to the adopting release, the final amendments are intended to “modernize and enhance the efficiency and integrity of the shareholder-proposal process for the benefit of all shareholders.” The final amendments modify the eligibility criteria for submission of proposals, as well as the resubmission thresholds; provide that a person may submit only one proposal per meeting, whether as a shareholder or acting as a representative; prohibit aggregation of holdings for purposes of satisfying the ownership thresholds; facilitate engagement with the proponent; and update other procedural requirements. Notably, the submission threshold has not been amended since 1998, and the resubmission threshold since 1954. The rulemaking generated an energetic—some might say heated—discussion among the Commissioners in the course of the long meeting, as well as substantial pushback through the public comment process, discussed in more detail in this PubCo post and this PubCo post.
At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted (once again, three to two) to adopt two highly controversial proposals: amendments modifying the criteria for eligibility and resubmission of shareholder proposals in Rule 14a-8, and amendments to the SEC rules implementing the whistleblower program. The shareholder proposal press release indicates that the change to the submission threshold, which has not been amended since 1998, “appropriately takes into consideration the interests of not only the shareholder who submits a proposal, but also the other shareholders who bear the costs associated with reviewing, considering and voting on such proposals in the company’s proxy statement.” Similarly, the changes to the resubmission threshold, which has not been amended since 1954, “relieve companies and their shareholders of the obligation to consider, and spend resources on, matters that had previously been voted on and rejected by a substantial majority of shareholders without sufficient indication that a proposal could gain traction among the broader shareholder base in the near future.” The changes to the whistleblower program, according to the whistleblower press release, “are designed to provide greater clarity to whistleblowers and increase the program’s efficiency and transparency.” In both cases, the rulemakings generated an energetic—some might say heated—discussion among the Commissioners in the course of the long meeting, as well as substantial pushback through the public comment process.
The SEC may have postponed until next week the open meeting originally scheduled for yesterday to consider adoption of revisions to the shareholder proposal rules, but Reuters has the inside scoop on the outcome of at least one controversial provision: according to Reuters, say farewell to the “momentum” provision. The expected deletion of the provision, Reuters observed, “marks a critical reprieve for supporters of social and environmental motions, which can take years on the ballot to gain traction.” Reuters reports that investors have continued to press the SEC in letters and meetings with SEC staff, hoping to put the kibosh on the proposed amendments altogether. They appear to be having some impact. Will the SEC move ahead in the face of this strong opposition?
Last week, the SEC voted to issue a new rule proposal intended to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules, with Commissioners Robert Jackson and Allison Lee dissenting. Generally, the proposal would modify the criteria for eligibility and resubmission of shareholder proposals; provide that a person may submit only one proposal per meeting, whether as a shareholder or acting as a representative; and facilitate engagement with the proponent. As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these issues, 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 Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” The proposal is subject to a 60-day comment period.
SEC Chair Jay Clayton has repeatedly made a point of his intent to take the Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda “seriously,” streamlining it to show what the SEC actually expected to take up in the subsequent period. (Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following twelve months. See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Spring 2019 short-term and long-term agendas have now been posted, reflecting the Chair’s priorities as of March 18, when the agenda was compiled. What stands out is not so much the matters that show up on the short-term agenda—although there are plenty of significant proposals to keep us all busy—but rather the legislatively mandated items that have taken up protracted residency on the long-term (i.e., the maybe never) agenda.
New groups have recently been formed to take aim at the shareholder proposal process—its use by proponents and its implementation by Corp Fin—from both the right and the left ends of the political spectrum. In one case, the coalition formed is seeking to head off the recent surge of support by various institutional holders of shareholder proposals for environmental, social or governance disclosure or actions. For example, last year, proposals to enhance disclosures regarding climate change won majority votes at three major companies, in large part as a result of support from mammoth asset managers such as BlackRock and Vanguard, and two climate change proposals won majority support this year. It’s also been reported that nine ESG proposals were successful in winning majority votes this year. (See, e.g., this PubCo post.) On the other side is a group that is seeking to reform the shareholder proposal process to reverse a turn, as perceived by the group, by Corp Fin toward exclusion of more shareholder proposals related to ESG issues.
In remarks this week before the Chamber of Commerce, new SEC Chair Jay Clayton indicated that the SEC will be taking a hard look at the shareholder proposal rules. As reported in thedeal.com, Clayton advised that it is “very important to ask ourselves how much of a cost there is….how much costs should the quiet shareholder, the ordinary shareholder, bear for idiosyncratic interests of other [investors].” Clayton was certainly speaking to a receptive audience—the Chamber has also recently voiced criticism of the shareholder proposal process (see this PubCo post) and, on the same day as Clayton’s remarks, issued its own report proposing changes to staunch the flow of proposals (discussed below). As you may recall, in the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017, the House also proposed to raise the eligibility and resubmission thresholds for shareholder proposals to levels that would have effectively curtailed the process altogether for all but the very largest holders. Although that Act is currently foundering in the Senate, at the same Chamber presentation, Commissioner Michael Piwowar commented to reporters that the SEC could certainly act on its own without any impetus from Congress, observing that the “chairman sets the agenda, but I’m going to be meeting with folks at public companies to talk about their experiences with proxy season.” With both the House and the Chamber having weighed in, if the SEC now takes up the cause on its own, the question is: just how far will it push?
What’s next for the House after taking on Dodd-Frank in the Financial CHOICE Act? Apparently, it’s time to revisit SOX. The Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing earlier this week entitled “The Cost of Being a Public Company in Light of Sarbanes-Oxley and the Federalization of Corporate Governance.” During the hearing, all subcommittee members continued bemoaning the decline in IPOs and in public companies, with the majority of the subcommittee attributing the decline largely to regulatory overload. A number of the witnesses trained their sights on, among other things, the internal control auditor attestation requirement of SOX 404(b). Is auditor attestation, for all but the very largest companies, about to hit the dust?
by Cydney Posner According to this report in Bloomberg BNA, the plans for changing the shareholder proposal process in the Financial CHOICE Act 2.0 are quite dramatic and could effectively curtail the process, if that is, the current version of the provision ever makes it into law.
by Cydney Posner This recent paper from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, “Gadflies at the Gate: Why Do Individual Investors Sponsor Shareholder Resolutions?” attempts to answer a question I’ve been wondering about for quite a while: why do individual investors invest their time and energy pursuing […]