SEC cuts key provisions of proxy advisor regulations and proposes amendments to Rule 14a-8: will they create regulatory whiplash?
At an open meeting yesterday morning, the SEC welcomed new Commissioner Mark Uyeda and bid farewell to Commissioner Allison Herren Lee. The SEC also voted to adopt new amendments to the rules regarding proxy advisory firms, such as ISS and Glass Lewis—which the SEC refers to as proxy voting advice businesses, or “PVABs”—and to propose new amendments to three of the exclusions in Rule 14a-8, the shareholder proposal rule. The amendments to the PVAB rules reverse some of the key provisions governing proxy voting advice that were adopted in July 2020. In his statement, SEC Chair Gary Gensler observed that many investors expressed concerns that “certain conditions in the 2020 rule might restrain independent proxy voting advice. Given those concerns, we have revisited certain conditions and determined that the risks they impose to the independence and timeliness of proxy voting advice are not justified by their informational benefits.” With regard to the shareholder proposal rule, according to the press release, the proposed amendments were designed to “promote more consistency and predictability in application.” In his statement, Gensler indicated that the proposed amendments would “improve the shareholder proposal process” by providing “greater certainty as to the circumstances in which companies are able to exclude shareholder proposals from their proxy statements.” Both of the SEC’s actions received three-to-two votes—about the only consensus reached in the meeting was that the term “proxy voting advice businesses” and its acronym “PVABs” were clumsy choices. Interestingly, in the case of both of these actions taken by the SEC, amendments to these same rules were adopted in 2020. From the Democratic commissioners’ perspective, these new amendments were intended to clarify and strike a better balance in response to public comments and staff experience, while from the perspective of the Republican commissioners, the amendments ensured only “regulatory whiplash” from the “regulatory seesaw.”
What happened with shareholder proposals for political spending and lobbying in the 2022 proxy season? In these two articles, ISS Corporate Solutions provides us with an update on shareholder proposals for political contributions and lobbying disclosures submitted for the 2022 proxy season. According to ISS, many shareholder proposals addressing political spending and lobbying reflected investor concerns that support of certain candidates and causes or certain lobbying activities may be inconsistent with the stated values or public positions of the company. Drilling down, we also look at more specific data from the Center for Political Accountability regarding shareholder proposals for election spending submitted by its proposal partners for the 2022 proxy season, as well as a preview of what’s on the agenda from CPA for next proxy season.
In remarks earlier this month to the Council of Institutional Investors, Corp Fin director Renee Jones discussed Corp Fin’s reevaluation of the no-action process for shareholder proposals under Rule 14a-8. In particular, she provided some insight into the staff’s issuance, in November 2021, of new Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14L, which outlined Corp Fin’s most recent interpretations of Rule 14a-8(i)(7), the ordinary business exception, and Rule 14a-8(i)(5), the economic relevance exception, and rescinded three earlier SLBs—SLBs 14I, 14J and 14K—following a “review of staff experience applying the guidance in them.” Generally, new SLB 14L presented its approach as a return to the perspective that historically prevailed prior to the issuance of the three rescinded SLBs. (See this PubCo post.) The effect of SLB 14L was to make exclusion of shareholder proposals—particularly proposals related to environmental and social issues—more of a challenge for companies, smoothing the glide path for inclusion of proposals submitted by climate and other activists. Jones explains why Corp Fin believed that SLB 14L was advisable. She also shares some statistics about the current proxy season.
Corp Fin staff updates annual meeting guidance for presentation of shareholder proposals in light of continuation of COVID-19
Back in March 2020, before we could even imagine that we would still be struggling with COVID-19 in 2022, the SEC announced Corp Fin staff guidance regarding annual meetings. Because of limitations on the ability to hold in-person annual meetings as a result of health and travel concerns, the staff guidance provided “regulatory flexibility to companies seeking to change the date and location of the meetings and use new technologies, such as ‘virtual’ shareholder meetings that avoid the need for in-person shareholder attendance, while at the same time ensuring that shareholders and other market participants are informed of any changes.” (See this PubCo post.) That guidance was then updated in April 2020 and April 2021. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) Now, the Corp Fin staff has once again updated that guidance for this year, tweaking the advice related to presentation of shareholder proposals to extend its application to the 2022 proxy season.
In new SLB 14L, Corp Fin takes new (old) approach to “ordinary business” and “economic relevance” exceptions
Yesterday, Corp Fin issued Staff Legal Bulletin 14L, which outlines Corp Fin’s most recent interpretations of Rule 14a-8(i)(7), the ordinary business exception, and Rule 14a-8(i)(5), the economic relevance exception. The new SLB also rescinds SLBs 14I, 14J and 14K, following a “review of staff experience applying the guidance in them.” Generally, new SLB 14L presents its approach as a return to the perspective that historically prevailed prior to the issuance of the three rescinded SLBs. SEC Chair Gary Gensler said that “[t]oday’s bulletin will provide greater clarity to companies and shareholders on these matters, so they can better understand when exclusions may or may not apply. The updated staff legal bulletin, which replaces three previously issued bulletins, is consistent with the Commission’s original intention.” The effect of the new SLB is to relax some of the interpretations of “significant social policy,” “micromanagement” and “economic relevance” imposed under the rescinded SLBs, making exclusion of shareholder proposals—particularly proposals related to environmental and social issues—more of a challenge for companies. Needless to say, climate activists are pleased that their proposals will now likely find a more receptive audience at the SEC.
In 2018, a Harvard law professor submitted (on behalf of a related trust/shareholder) a shareholder proposal to Johnson & Johnson requesting that the board adopt a mandatory arbitration bylaw. After receiving a no-action letter from Corp Fin, J&J excluded the proposal, and the professor then sued J&J. A decision has just been rendered dismissing the complaint. But that’s not necessarily the end of the shareholder’s proposal to J&J for mandatory arbitration.
The January 6 attack on the Capitol and the subsequent efforts to rewrite voting and vote-counting laws led many companies and CEOs to speak out, sign public statements and pause or discontinue some or all of their political donations. However, as companies and executives increasingly take positions and express views on important social issues such as voting and democracy, climate change and racial injustice, there are many who want to hold them to it. As an MIT Sloan lecturer suggested in this article in the NYT, a signed statement from a CEO expressing commitment to an issue “gives people who want to hold corporations accountable an I.O.U.” One way the public has tried to call companies to account is to examine any dissonance or contradiction between those public statements and the company’s political contributions—to the extent those contributions are publicly available. A piece published recently in the NYT’s DealBook, On Voting Rights, It Can Cost Companies to Take Both Sides, explores how that concept has played out dramatically this year, particularly as investors have sought accountability by submitting more shareholder proposals than ever seeking political spending and lobbying disclosure—and actually winning. As the executive director of the Black Economic Alliance contended in the article, “[b]eyond C.E.O. statements[,] businesses demonstrate their values by how they allocate their resources.” And investors are increasingly compelling companies to disclose their allocation of resources on political spending.
Corp Fin staff updates guidance regarding presentation of shareholder proposals in light of COVID-19
On Friday, the Corp Fin staff announced that it has updated its Guidance for Conducting Shareholder Meetings in Light of COVID-19 Concerns originally published on March 13, 2020 and updated on April 7, 2020 (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). The updated guidance posted on Friday tweaks the advice related to presentation of shareholder proposals, extending its application to the 2021 proxy season.
On Monday, the SEC announced that John Coates has been appointed Acting Director of Corp Fin. He has been the John F. Cogan Professor of Law and Economics at Harvard University, where he also served as Vice Dean for Finance and Strategic Initiatives. If that name sounds familiar—even if you haven’t been one of his students—it may be because he sometimes pops up in Matt Levine’s column in Bloomberg as the author of “The Problem of Twelve,” which he describes as the “likelihood that in the near future roughly twelve individuals will have practical power over the majority of U.S. public companies.” Beyond that, he has been a very active member of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, and Committee recommendations he has authored may give us some insight on his perspective on issues.
You might remember that the first piece of legislation signed into law by the then-new (now outgoing) administration in 2017 was, according to the Washington Post, a bill that relied on the Congressional Review Act to dispense with the resource extraction payment disclosure rules. (See this PubCo post.) Under the CRA, any rules that were recently finalized by the executive branch and sent to Congress could be jettisoned by a simple majority vote in Congress and a Presidential signature. According to the Congressional Research Service, before the current outgoing administration took up the cudgel in 2017, “[o]f the approximately 72,000 final rules that [had] been submitted to Congress since the [CRA] was enacted in 1996, the CRA [had] been used to disapprove one rule: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s November 2000 final rule on ergonomics, which was overturned using the CRA in March 2001.” That’s because the stars are rarely in proper alignment: generally, the CRS indicated, for successful use, there will have been a turnover in party control of the White House and both houses of Congress will be majority–controlled by the same party as the President. That was the case in 2017, and, as of January 9, 2020, the CRA had been used to overturn a total of 17 rules, according to the CRS. Well, the stars are in proper alignment now. To observe that the new Congress and new administration have a lot on their plates is quite an understatement. Will they use the CRA to scrap any of the SEC’s “midnight regulations”?