[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.
You might think Congress would be too busy these days—what with a pandemic raging across the U.S., looming economic catastrophe and spiraling unemployment—to worry about the resubmission thresholds for shareholder proposals, but nope, they’re all over it. In the latest version of the appropriations bill passed in the House, known as the ‘‘Defense, Commerce, Justice, Science, Energy and Water Development, Financial Services and General Government, Homeland Security, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Act, 2021’’ for short, the bill authorizes funding for the SEC, while at the same time, putting the kibosh on various items on the SEC’s Spring RegFlex agenda (see this PubCo post)—and even on regulations that have already been adopted. But whether these provisions survive or are jettisoned in the Senate is another question.
Has all of the current political unrest and social upheaval had any impact on the drive for political spending disclosure? Apparently so, according to the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability, which reports in its June newsletter that support for shareholder proposals in favor of political spending disclosure hit record highs this past proxy season. But one risk potentially arising out of political spending is reputational, which could fracture a company’s relationship with its employees, customers and shareholders. As companies and CEOs increasingly offer welcome statements on important social issues such as climate change, healthcare crises and racial injustice, the current heated political climate has heightened sensitivity to any dissonance or conflict between those public statements and the company’s political contributions. When a conflict between action in the form of political spending and publicly announced core values is brought to light, will companies be perceived to be merely virtue-signaling or even hypocritical? To borrow a phrase from asset manager BlackRock, if the public perceives that these companies are not actually doing “the right thing”—even as they may be saying the right thing—will they lose their “social license” to operate? (See this PubCo post.) CPA’s brand new report on Conflicted Consequences explores just such risks.
SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee critical of SEC proposals on proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals
At a meeting on Friday of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee members voted (ten in favor, five opposed, with two abstentions) to submit to the SEC a recommendation regarding SEC guidance and rule proposals on proxy advisory firms and shareholder proposals. The recommendation is highly critical of the guidance and of both proposals as unlikely to reliably achieve the SEC’s own stated goals, ultimately advising the SEC to rethink and republish the proposals and reconsider its guidance. (Apparently, the initial draft of the recommendations was even more of a scold, as the author, John Coates, indicated to the Committee that the current version reflected substantial revisions, including removing the word “failure” throughout.) The recommendation contends that the proposals and guidance are almost futile without addressing in parallel more basic proxy plumbing issues (as the Committee had previously recommended) (see this PubCo post), that none of the SEC’s actions at issue adequately identifies the underlying problems that are intended to be remedied, provides a sufficient cost/benefit analysis or discusses reasonable alternatives that might have been proposed. SEC advisory committees typically have a fair amount of sway, so time will tell whether the recommendation will lead the SEC to do any revamping of its actions.
You may recall that, last month, Corp Fin announced that it had revisited its approach to responding to no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals. In essence, under the new policy, the staff may respond to some requests orally, instead of in writing, and, in some cases, may decline to state a view altogether, leaving the company to make its own determination. (See this PubCo post.) In describing the new approach in remarks to the PLI Securities Regulation Institute, Corp Fin Deputy Director Shelley Parratt said that the plan was to post a chart on the SEC website with the bottom line responses to these no-action requests and to inform both the company and the proponent by email that the response would shortly be posted on the chart. (See this PubCo post.) As reported on thecorporatecounsel.net blog, the 2019-2020 Shareholder Proposal No-Action Responses chart is now available. Parratt had suggested that the chart might actually be easier for readers to follow—and she may well be right.
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.
You may recall that, last month, Corp Fin announced that it had revisited its approach to responding to no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals. In essence, under the new policy, the staff may respond to some requests orally, instead of in writing, and, in some cases, may decline to state a view altogether, leaving the company to make its own determination. (See this PubCo post.) In its most recent proxy guidelines, Glass Lewis explains its expectations from companies in light of the new approach.
SEC proposes new obligations for proxy advisory firms and changes to rules for shareholder proposals
Are issuers precluded from raising concerns about proxy advisory firm recommendations, particularly errors and incomplete or outdated information that form the basis of a recommendation? Are firm conflicts of interest insufficiently transparent? Are proxy advisory firms an effective “market-based solution” helping large numbers of institutional investors with time and resource constraints make better voting decisions? Are proxy advisory firms “faux regulators,” wielding too much influence—with too little accountability—in corporate elections and other corporate matters? Maybe all of the above? At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted, with two dissents, to propose amendments to add new disclosure and engagement requirements for proxy advisory firms and to “modernize” the shareholder proposal rules by increasing the eligibility and resubmission thresholds. These actions represent the third phase of the SEC’s efforts to address the proxy voting system, the first phase being the proxy process roundtable (see this PubCo post) and the second phase being the SEC’s recently issued interpretation and guidance (see this PubCo post). As anticipated, at the meeting, the commissioners expressed strong views on these topics, 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 Robert Jackson characterizing the proposal as swatting “a gadfly with a sledgehammer.” Both proposals are subject to 60-day comment periods. Next up, according to Clayton, proxy plumbing and universal proxy.
Just in time for proxy season, the Corp Fin staff has issued a new Staff Legal Bulletin 14K on—what else—shareholder proposals and the “ordinary business” exclusion. The SLB attempts, once again, to provide some insight—following SLB 14I (see this PubCo post) and SLB 14J (see this PubCo post) which also address the “ordinary business” exclusion— regarding the staff’s interpretation of Rule 14a-8(i)(7), including:
company-specific significance of policy issues;
board analyses submitted in no-action requests to demonstrate that a policy issue raised by the proposal is not significant to the company; and
the application of “micromanagement” as a basis to exclude a proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(7). Notably here, the staff attempts to explain the thinking behind its treatment of various climate change proposals submitted last proxy season.
In addition the SLB addresses “proof-of-ownership” letters.