Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, let’s hear from Hester Peirce, the only woman SEC Commissioner. (Irony intended.)
In a speech delivered a few days ago to the Council of Institutional Investors, after expressing her gratitude for those contributions by CII to the public debate that Peirce views favorably (regarding proxy voting, stock buybacks and disclosure reform), she takes the opportunity to “air her grievances,” citing as a model Seinfeld’s 1997 Festivus episode. (“I got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it.”) What’s her complaint? It’s the focus of CII and other investors on what she views to be “non-investment matters at the expense of concentration on a sound allocation of resources to their highest and best use. Real dollars are being poured into adhering to an amorphous and shifting set of virtue markers.” And the pressure on the SEC “to get on the bandwagon and drag others with us is pretty intense. We are being asked more and more to shift securities disclosure to focus more on matters that do not go to an assessment of how effectively companies are putting investor money to work.”
A new bill that has been introduced in the House, H.R. 1053, would direct the SEC to issue regs to require public companies to disclose political expenditures in their annual reports and on their websites. While the bill’s chances for passage in the House are reasonably good, that is not the case in the Senate. In the absence of legislation, some proponents of political spending disclosure have turned instead to private ordering, often through shareholder proposals. So far, those proposals have rarely won the day, perhaps in large part because of the absence of support from large institutional investors. But that notable absence has recently come in for criticism from an influential jurist, Delaware Chief Justice Leo Strine. Will it make a difference?
As issues of corporate social responsibility continue to gain ground, will the issue of gun safety become more prominent this proxy season?
A lot has been written about institutional investors’ turn toward issues of corporate social responsibility. One CSR topic that has received a lot of attention in the last few years has been firearms safety. In this post, published last week on The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, a coalition of investors, including CalPERS, CalSTRS, Rockefeller Asset management and State Street Global Advisors, has developed The Responsible Civilian Firearms Industry Principles, intended to encourage companies involved in the manufacture, distribution, sale and enforcement of regulation of the firearms industry to take action in support of the responsible use of firearms. According to the post, in asserting its “role as investors,” the group identifies “expectations for the firearms industry that will reduce risks and improve the safety of civil society at large. Further, we commit to monitoring progress by companies over time and engaging with them regularly on this issue, especially in support of enterprises that champion adoption of responsible practices….We call on companies within the civilian firearms industry to publicly demonstrate and publish their compliance with each of these principles, failing which, we will consider using all tools available to us as investors to mitigate these risks.”
In a speech given yesterday at Columbia University, SEC Chair Jay Clayton reviewed the SEC’s regulatory achievements over the past year, metaphorically slapping the SEC and the staff on the back for a job well done in accomplishing 88% of the items identified on the SEC’s near-term agenda for fiscal 2018. Of particular interest, however, was his discussion of the some of the priority items on the 2019 agenda. In closing, Clayton hammered again at three risk areas that the SEC is currently monitoring—yes, those three. Clearly, the signal is that companies should consider these risks.
At last week’s proxy process roundtable, three panels, each moderated by SEC staff, addressed three topics:
proxy voting mechanics and technology—how can the accuracy, transparency and efficiency of the proxy voting and solicitation system be improved?
shareholder proposals—exploring effective shareholder engagement, experience with the shareholder proposal process, and related rules and SEC guidance
proxy advisory firms—can the role of proxy advisors and their relationship to companies and institutional investors be improved?
The first panel, on proxy plumbing, was characterized by the panelist who began the discussion as “the most boring, least partisan and, honestly, the most important” of the three topics. (But it was surprisingly not boring.) The last panel, on proxy advisory firms, was characterized by Commissioner Roisman as the “most anticipated,” but the expected fireworks were notably absent—except, perhaps, for the novel take on the subject offered by former Senator Phil Gramm. Here are the Commissioners’ opening statements: Chair Clayton, Stein and Roisman
Proxy advisor Glass Lewis has posted its 2019 Proxy Guidelines and 2019 Guidelines Regarding Shareholder Initiatives. One of the more striking points is that GL indicates that it may, albeit in limited circumstances, recommend against the members of the nominating/governance committee simply for successfully requesting no-action relief from the SEC to exclude (and presumably excluding) a shareholder proposal, where GL views the exclusion to have been detrimental to shareholders. GL’s new guidance includes the following updates:
New SLB 14J on shareholder proposals revisits the economic relevance and ordinary business exclusions
Corp Fin has just released a new staff legal bulletin on shareholder proposals—we’re up to 14J—that once again examines the exclusions under Rules 14a-8(i)(5), the “economic relevance” exception, and 14a-8(i)(7), the “ordinary business” exception. Notably, these rules were also the subject of SLB 14I. More specifically, the new SLB provides guidance with regard to the following:
the nature of the board analysis the staff would find most “helpful” in evaluating a no-action request to exclude a shareholder proposal,
“micromanagement” as a basis for exclusion under Rule 14a-8(i)(7) and
the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(7) to exclude proposals related to senior executive and/or director compensation matters.
SEC Chair Jay Clayton announced earlier this week that the SEC will be holding a roundtable to discuss the proxy process, date TBD. Potential topics include the voting process, retail shareholder participation, shareholder proposals, proxy advisory firms and technology and innovation. In 2010, the SEC issued a concept release soliciting public comment on whether the SEC should propose revisions to its proxy rules to address the infrastructure supporting the proxy system, so-called “proxy plumbing.” Back then, the SEC had decided that it was time to do some maintenance on the creaky old plumbing system. However, as then Commissioner Elisse Walter, quoting Kurt Vonnegut, commented at the 2010 open meeting to vote on the concept release: “It’s a flaw in the human character that everyone wants to build, but nobody wants to do maintenance.” That statement was more prophetic than she probably anticipated when she made it: nothing came of the concept release. Whether more results from this current effort remains to be seen.
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.