In this report, Expanding the On-Ramp: Recommendations to Help More Companies Go and Stay Public, eight organizations—the American Securities Association, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Equity Dealers of America, Nasdaq, National Venture Capital Association, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, TechNet and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—joined forces to make recommendations about how to revitalize the IPO market and make public company status more appealing. Many of these recommendations have in the past been the subject of legislation or proposed rulemaking or have otherwise been floated in the ether but, nevertheless, have not advanced. Will the weight of these groups propel any of these recommendations forward?
In past few years, after Corp Fin issued Staff Legal Bulletin 14H redefining the meaning of “direct conflict” under the Rule 14a-8(i)(9) exclusion for “conflicting proposals,” the staff has continued to fill in the outline of what works and what doesn’t work under the new interpretation of the exclusion. In American Airlines Group (avail. April 2, 2018), the staff concluded that the approach taken by the company was coloring outside the lines and denied no-action relief.
You might recall that, in November last year, Corp Fin issued new Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14I, Shareholder Proposals, which, among other things, addressed the “economic relevance” exclusion of Rule 14a-8(i)(5). That rule permits a company to exclude a proposal that “relates to operations which account for less than 5 percent of the company’s total assets at the end of its most recent fiscal year, and for less than 5 percent of its net earnings and gross sales for its most recent fiscal year, and is not otherwise significantly related to the company’s business.” The rule had been largely moribund for several decades, as the staff’s most recent restrictive interpretation generally deterred companies from invoking it. Now we have what appears to be the first successful use of the exclusion since the new SLB attempted to rejuvenate it. The letter is to Dunkin’ Brands Group.
This proxy season, after the Corp Fin staff permitted AES Corporation to exclude a shareholder proposal on the basis of Rule 14a-8(i)(9)—the exclusion for a proposal that directly conflicts with a management proposal—the Council of Institutional Investors sent a letter to William Hinman, director of Corp Fin, raising objections to the staff’s treatment of the proposal. (See this PubCo post.) The proposal, submitted by John Chevedden, had sought to reduce the threshold required for shareholders to call a special meeting from 25% to 10%. In its letter, CII charged that AES, by including in its proxy statement a conflicting management proposal to ratify the existing 25% threshold, was “gaming the system” and urged the SEC to revisit, once again, its approach to Rule 14a-8(i)(9). But what would be the impact of the CII letter? Would the CII letter induce the staff to revisit its prior position on the exclusion? Now, Corp Fin has issued a new no-action letter, in this instance to Capital One, once again allowing a company, following the same approach as in AES, to exclude a proposal that sought to reduce the special meeting threshold from 25% to 10% on the basis of Rule 14a-8(i)(9)—but with a twist. The question is: Is that the end of the story?
When we last left the saga of proxy access, we had just started a new chapter on so-called “fix-it” shareholder proposals—efforts to revise existing proxy access bylaws to make them more “shareholder-friendly.” You might recall that, in 2016 and 2017, John Chevedden et al. submitted a slew of fix-it proposals that requested amendments to proxy access bylaws to raise the cap on the number of shareholders that could aggregate their shares to reach the necessary 3% ownership level. Target companies, in turn, submitted no-action requests seeking to exclude those proposals on the basis that they had already been “substantially implemented” under Rule 14a-8(i)(10). In response to the requests for relief, the SEC staff took a uniform no-action position allowing exclusion of these fix-it proposals. But the proponents were persistent and, in 2017, submitted to H&R Block a different formulation of a fix-it proposal that requested only one change — elimination of the cap on shareholder aggregation to achieve the 3% eligibility threshold, as opposed to simply raising the cap to a higher number. This time, the staff rejected H&R Block’s no-action request. In essence, it appears that the staff believes that a lower cap on aggregation could “substantially implement” a higher cap, but the removal of a cap entirely is a different animal that could not be substantially implemented by the lower cap. (For more history on these fix-it proposals, see this PubCo post.) This proxy season, the proponents have latched onto—and even expanded—the new formulation and have continued to find success in preventing exclusion.