While the topic of last week’s fourth SEC-NYU Dialogue on Securities Markets was shareholder engagement—focusing on the roles of institutional and activist investors— the real hot topic was the recent letter to CEOs from BlackRock’s Laurence Fink, which was at least mentioned on every panel. (See this PubCo post.)
As has been widely reported, there are currently two nominees to fill the two empty slots at the SEC—from the Democratic side, Robert Jackson, a professor at Columbia Law School, and from the Republican side, Hester Peirce, a fellow at George Mason University. However, Senator Tammy Baldwin had put a “hold” on the nominees back in November, as reported in the WSJ, until they provided “their views on whether regulators should rein in activist investors, stock buybacks and executive pay.” Now that they have both responded to her questions, Baldwin has lifted her hold on the nominees, according to Law360, “clearing a hurdle for confirmation.” Their responses, although not exactly surprising, provide some insight into their views on these key issues.
Not really, according to this study by academics from the University of Pennsylvania Law, Rutgers Business and Berkeley Law Schools to be published in the Harvard Business Law Review. Say on pay was initiated under a Dodd-Frank mandate adopted against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, largely in reaction to the public’s railing against the levels of compensation paid to some corporate executives despite poor performance by their companies, especially where those firms were viewed as contributors to the crisis itself. Say on pay was expected to help rein in excessive levels of compensation and, even though the vote was advisory only, ascribe some level of accountability to boards and compensation committees that set executive compensation levels. So far, however, say-on-pay votes have served largely as confirmations of board decisions regarding executive compensation and not, in most cases, as the kind of rock-throwing exercises that many companies had feared and some governance activists had hoped. The study reported that, since 2011, the average annual percentage of say-on-pay votes in favor has exceeded 90%, while “the percentage of issuers with a failed say on pay vote has never exceeded 3% and, in 2016, that number dropped to just 1.7%.” The study examined what the few failed (or low) votes really meant.
Many have recently lamented the decline in the number of IPOs and public companies generally (from about 8,000 in 1996 to about 4,000 now, according to EY), and numerous reasons have been offered in explanation, from regulatory burden to hedge-fund activism. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) In response, some companies are exploring different approaches to going public, leading to a recent resurgence in SPACs (see, e.g., this WSJ article), while others are flirting with the possibility of “direct listings,” which avoid the underwritten IPO process altogether (see, e.g., this article discussing the pending NYSE rule change to facilitate direct listings). At the same time, companies are seeking ways to address some of the perceived afflictions associated with being public companies—including the pressures of short-termism, the risks of activist attacks and potential loss of control of companies’ fundamental mission—through dual-class structures and other approaches. Changing dynamics are not, however, limited to companies. And one of the most interesting proposals designed to address these issues is being introduced on completely different turf—a novel concept for a stock exchange, the Long-Term Stock Exchange. According to the LTSE blog, “[w]hile other proposed solutions target the IPO process, the LTSE’s mission is to transform the public company experience by relieving the short-term pressures that plague today’s businesses and laying the foundation for a healthier public market ecosystem.”