In remarks in March to the Center for American Progress, Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee said that she had asked the staff to consider whether the SEC should “re-open the comment file on the 2016 universal proxy rule proposal to take into account market developments since then and move towards finalization.” Under that proposal, in a contested election, universal proxy cards identifying all the candidates for director on both slates would be required, more closely replicating in-person voting. In Lee’s view, the proposal would be “a common-sense step forward in modernizing our proxy rules and protecting shareholder rights. The proposal has been outstanding for far too long and should be finalized.” (See this PubCo post.) On Friday, the SEC announced that it had voted to reopen the comment period for the universal proxy proposal for 30 days following publication of the reopening release in the Federal Register. According to Corp Fin Acting Director John Coates, “[r]eopening the comment period will allow the public to share additional views on the use of universal proxy cards in director elections, particularly in light of the corporate governance developments that have occurred since the Commission issued its proposal.”
With so much going on in connection with COVID-19 and its impact, it would be easy to overlook the rest of the SEC’s agenda. And it’s a lengthy one. The new Spring Regulatory Flexibility Act Agenda was published at the end of June, so it’s time to look at what’s on deck for the SEC in the coming year or so. (That reference to “on deck” may be the only sports anyone gets this year….) SEC Chair Jay Clayton has repeatedly made clear his intent to make the RegFlex Agenda more realistic, streamlining it to show what the SEC actually expects to take up in the subsequent period. (Clayton has previously said that the short-term agenda signifies rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following 12 months. See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The SEC’s Spring 2020 short-term and long-term agendas reflect the Chair’s priorities as of March 31, when the agenda was compiled. What stands out here are the matters that have, somewhat surprisingly, moved up onto the final-rule-stage agenda—think universal proxy—from perpetual residence on the long-term (i.e., the maybe never) agenda.
Yesterday morning, at a telephonic meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee voted to adopt revised recommendations addressing “proxy plumbing”—the panoply of problems associated with the infrastructure supporting the proxy voting system. (See this PubCo post.) The recommendations were originally presented at a meeting of the Committee in late July, but the Committee elected to study the proposal further and offer revisions before voting. The changes are fairly nuanced, now also including some minority views. For the most part, the recommendations would not “reinvent” the proxy voting system, instead targeting improvements that are considered essentially “low-hanging fruit.” However, there appeared to be a consensus that eventually more would need to be done. The recommendations were adopted by a majority of the Committee with two dissents. Will the SEC pay attention?
At a meeting on Thursday of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, a subcommittee reported on its recommendations addressing the “proxy plumbing” conundrum—not the Roto Rooter variety, but rather the panoply of problems associated with the infrastructure supporting the proxy voting system. Shareholder voting is viewed as fundamental to keeping boards and managements accountable, and according to the recommendations, every year, over 600 billion shares are voted at more than 13,000 shareholder meetings. However, there is broad agreement that the current system of proxy plumbing is inefficient, opaque and, all too often, inaccurate. As the recommendations observe, under the current system, shareholders “cannot determine if their votes were cast as they intended; issuers cannot rapidly determine the outcome of close votes; and the legitimacy of corporate elections, which depend on accurate, reliable, and transparent vote counts, is routinely called into doubt.” In 2010, the SEC issued a concept release soliciting public comment on whether the SEC should propose revisions to its proxy rules to address these issues, but to no avail. (See this Cooley News Brief.) However, in the last year or so, proxy plumbing has reemerged as a serious problem to be addressed. The Committee took up this issue almost a year ago and, at the SEC’s proxy process roundtable last year, proxy voting mechanics was actually a hot topic—described by one panelist as “the most boring, least partisan and, honestly, the most important” of the roundtable topics.
The specter of the possible imposition of mandatory universal proxy has long been with us. The SEC apparently considered requiring universal proxies back in 1992 and, in 2014, the Council of Institutional Investors filed a rulemaking petition asking the SEC to reform the proxy rules to facilitate the use of universal proxies in proxy contests. Then, in 2016, the SEC proposed amendments to the proxy rules that would have mandated the use of universal proxy cards in contested elections. And there it sat. With the change of administrations in the White House, followed by the change of administrations at the SEC, the proposal for universal proxy fell off the SEC’s near-term agenda and was relegated to the long-term agenda. Moreover, disfavored by House Republicans, universal proxy would have been prohibited by various bills, including the Financial Choice Act of 2017 (which passed the House but not the Senate). (See this PubCo post.) Then, in July of this year, “several people familiar with the matter” advised Reuters that SEC Chair Jay Clayton “has in fact shelved the proposal.” (See this PubCo post.) The specter of mandatory universal proxy had been transfigured into more of a spectral presence.
At a meeting last week of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the primary focus of the discussion was the panoply of problems associated with the infrastructure supporting the proxy voting system, so-called “proxy plumbing.” Shareholder voting is viewed as fundamental to keeping boards and managements accountable, and the current system of proxy plumbing has been criticized as inefficient, opaque and, all too often, inaccurate. In 2010, the SEC issued a concept release soliciting public comment on whether the SEC should propose revisions to its proxy rules to address these issues, but to no avail. Perhaps the task was too daunting. However, at the end of his brief appearance at the committee meeting, SEC Chair Jay Clayton observed that it was clear that there was room for improvement in the voting system—enough room for improvement that the SEC should do something. SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson was decidedly more emphatic. In a statement posted on the SEC website on Friday, he characterized as “urgent” the need “to fix the basic mechanics of modern corporate democracy.” He indicated that “there is broad agreement that the Byzantine system that makes it impossible to know whether investors’ votes are being counted must be fixed. Over the last decade, while voting technology has made enormous leaps forward, retail investor participation in corporate elections has declined: today, fewer than one in three investors have their vote counted in those contests. The Commission has known this for years—we issued an impressively thorough concept release on the subject in 2010—and it is time to act. Investors should not have to wait any longer for their votes to be counted in corporate elections.” But the question remains: will the SEC undertake the comprehensive analysis and overhaul that appears to be required or settle for grabbing only the low-hanging fruit?
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.
In this Reuters article, the author delivers the scoop that the SEC has shelved its 2016 proposal to mandate the use of universal proxy cards in contested elections of directors. In case you were thinking that anything from 2016 was probably old and cold anyway, keep in mind that the just-adopted rules changing the definition of “smaller reporting company” were proposed back in 2016. (See this PubCo post.) In fact, the proposed rule mandating the use of universal proxies was still on the SEC’s Spring 2018 agenda for long-term actions, and Reuters reports that “SEC officials have said publicly in recent months that the proposed rule-change remains a priority.” However, “several people familiar with the matter” have now advised Reuters that SEC Chair Jay Clayton “has in fact shelved the proposal.”
Summarized below are some of the highlights of the 2017 PLI Securities Regulation Institute panel discussions with the SEC staff (Michele Anderson, Wesley Bricker, Karen Garnett, William Hinman, Mark Kronforst, Shelley Parratt, Ted Yu), as well as a number of former staffers and other commentators. Topics included the Congressional and SEC agendas, fresh insights into the shareholder proposal guidance, as well as expectations regarding cybersecurity, conflict minerals, pay ratio disclosure, waivers and many other topics.
What’s happening with those SEC proposals for Dodd-Frank clawbacks and disclosure of pay for performance and hedging? Apparently, not much.
As noted in this article from Law360, the SEC’s latest Regulatory Flexibility Agenda, which identifies those regs that the SEC intends to propose or adopt in the coming year— and those deferred for a later time—has now been posted. The Agenda shifts to the category of long-term actions most of the Dodd-Frank compensation-related items that had previously been on the short-term agenda—not really a big surprise given the deregulatory bent of the new administration. Keep in mind, however, that the Agenda has no binding effect and, in this case, could be even less prophetic than usual; the Preamble to the SEC’s Agenda indicates that it reflects “only the priorities of the Acting Chairman [Michael Piwowar], and [does] not necessarily reflect the view and priorities of any individual Commissioner.” It also indicates that information in the Agenda was accurate as of March 29, 2017. As a result, it does not necessarily reflect the views of the new SEC Chair, Jay Clayton, who was not confirmed in that post until May.