On a webcast today, “Shareholder Proposals: Corp Fin Speaks,” presented by TheCorporateCounsel.net, Matt McNair, Senior Special Counsel in Corp Fin’s Office of Chief Counsel, provided some “soft” guidance regarding the implications of the recent SLB 14I on shareholder proposals, particularly the exclusions for “ordinary business” and “economic relevance.” (See this PubCo post.)
Summarized below are some of the highlights of the 2017 PLI Securities Regulation Institute panel discussions with the SEC staff (Michele Anderson, Wesley Bricker, Karen Garnett, William Hinman, Mark Kronforst, Shelley Parratt, Ted Yu), as well as a number of former staffers and other commentators. Topics included the Congressional and SEC agendas, fresh insights into the shareholder proposal guidance, as well as expectations regarding cybersecurity, conflict minerals, pay ratio disclosure, waivers and many other topics.
Just in time for the beginning of proxy and shareholder proposal season, Corp Fin has posted Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14I, Shareholder Proposals. The SLB addresses four issues:
the scope and application of Rule 14a-8(i)(7) (the “ordinary business” exclusion);
the scope and application of Rule 14a-8(i)(5) (the “economic relevance” exclusion);
proposals submitted on behalf of shareholders (shareholder proposals by proxy); and
the use of graphics and images consistent with Rule 14a-8(d) (the 500-word limitation).
PwC’s 2017 Annual Corporate Directors Survey shows directors “clearly out of step” with institutional investors on social issues
In its Annual Corporate Directors Survey for 2017, PwC surveyed 886 directors of public companies and concluded that there is a “real divide” between directors and institutional investors (which own 70% of U.S. public company stocks) on several issues. More recently, PwC observes, public companies have been placed in the unusual position of being called upon to tackle some of society’s ills: in light of the “new administration in Washington and growing social divisiveness, US public company directors are faced with great expectations from investors and the public. Perhaps now more than ever, public companies are being asked to take the lead in addressing some of society’s most difficult problems. From seeking action on climate change to advancing diversity, stakeholder expectations are increasing and many companies are responding.” But apparently, many boards are not taking up that challenge; PwC’s “research shows that directors are clearly out of step with investor priorities in some critical areas,” such as environmental issues, board gender diversity and social issues, such as income inequality and employee retirement security.
The Treasury Department recently issued a new report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities—Capital Markets, that, in its recommendations, not surprisingly, echoed in many respects the House’s Financial CHOICE Act of 2017. Having passed the House, the CHOICE Act has since foundered in the Senate (see this PubCo post). The recommendations in the Treasury report addressed approaches to improving the attractiveness of primarily the public markets, focusing in particular on ways to increase the number of public companies by limiting the regulatory burden. According to this Bloomberg article, SEC Chair Jay Clayton “called the report ‘a valuable framework for discussion’ among market participants ‘that will most certainly benefit the American people….We appreciate Treasury’s willingness to seek the SEC’s input during the drafting process, and we look forward to working alongside other financial regulators and Congress as we pursue our three part mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.’”
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?
Framework developed by the Investor Stewardship Group establishes common set of investor expectations for corporate governance
The Investor Stewardship Group—a group of the largest, most prominent institutional investors and global asset managers investing, in the aggregate, over $20 trillion in the U.S. equity markets—has developed the Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance, a “framework of basic standards of investment stewardship and corporate governance for U.S. institutional investor and boardroom conduct.” The stewardship framework identifies fundamental responsibilities for institutional investors, and the corporate governance framework identifies six fundamental principles that “are designed to establish a foundational set of investor expectations about corporate governance practices in U.S. public companies. Generally, the principles “reflect the common corporate governance beliefs embedded in each member’s proxy voting and engagement guidelines,” although each ISG member may differ somewhat on specifics. The ISG encourages company directors to apply these basic principles—while acknowledging that they are not designed to be “prescriptive or comprehensive” and can be applied in various ways—and indicates that it will “evaluate companies’ alignment with these principles, as well as any discussion of alternative approaches that directors maintain are in a company’s best interests.” The framework does not go “into effect” until January 1, 2018, so that companies will have “time to adjust to these standards in advance of the 2018 proxy season,” the implication being that failure to “comply or explain” by that point could ultimately lead to shareholder opposition during proxy season. Check out the countdown clock at the link above!