In light of evolving—and sometimes actively debated—perspectives on the role of public companies with respect to sustainability, corporate social responsibility and other ESG matters (e.g., Barron’s recent report on Sustainable Investing), we are providing a high-level overview of how boards of directors and senior management teams may wish to approach these issues:
- Be aware that sustainability has become a major, mainstream governance topic that encompasses a wide range of issues, including a company’s long-term durability as a successful enterprise, climate change and other environmental risks and impacts, systemic financial stability, management of human capital, labor standards, resource
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As the spotlight on boards, management teams, corporate performance and governance intensifies, as articles like the Bloomberg and Fortune profiles of Elliott Management (“The World’s Most Feared Investor—Why the World’s CEOs Fear Paul Singer” and “Whatever It Takes to Win—How Paul Singer’s Hedge Fund Always Wins”) and other activist investors become required reading in every boardroom and C-suite, and as activist campaigns against successful companies of all sizes increase worldwide, below are fifteen themes expected to impact boardroom, CEO and investor behavior and decision-making in the coming years.
1. The CEO, the Board and the Strategy
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With shareholder proposals regarding ESG and sustainability matters becoming the most common kind of proposal, proxy advisory firm ISS marketing a new “Environmental & Social QualityScore” product for rating public companies, asset managers developing ESG-related guidelines and voting policies, and significant activist and investor fundraising efforts underway with ESG-linked themes, the U.S. Department of Labor (the “DOL”) has issued new guidance that may influence the going-forward behavior of some market participants.
On April 23, 2018, the DOL issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-01, clarifying previous DOL guidance for ERISA-covered private-sector employee benefit plans regarding proxy voting, shareholder engagement, and … Read more
The past year has seen continued evolution in the political, legal and economic arenas as technological change accelerates. Innovation, new business models, dealmaking and rapidly evolving technologies are transforming competitive and industry landscapes and impacting companies’ strategic plans and prospects for sustainable, long-term value creation. Tax reform has created new opportunities and challenges for companies too. Meanwhile, the severe consequences that can flow from misconduct within an organization serve as a reminder that corporate operations are fraught with risk. Social and environmental issues, including heightened focus on income inequality and economic disparities, scrutiny of sexual misconduct issues and evolving views … Read more
As 2017 draws to a conclusion and we reflect on the evolution of corporate governance since the turn of the millennium, a recurring question percolating in boardrooms and among shareholders and other stakeholders, academics and politicians is: what’s next on the horizon for corporate governance? In many respects, we seem to have reached a point of relative stasis. The governance and takeover defense profiles of U.S. public companies have been transformed by the widespread adoption of virtually all of the “best practices” advocated to enhance the rights of shareholders and weaken takeover defenses.
While the future issues of corporate … Read more
The SEC Division of Corporate Finance recently provided useful guidance on excluding certain Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposals (Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14I). While helpful, we hope the SEC will undertake a much-needed comprehensive review of Rule 14a-8, including its outdated eligibility requirements.
“Ordinary Business” and “Economic Relevance” Exclusions. A shareholder proposal relating to a company’s ordinary business operations may generally be excluded from the company’s proxy statement unless significant policy issues transcending ordinary business are involved (Rule 14a-8(i)(7)). Noting that this exclusion often involves difficult judgment calls (and without addressing the distinction between the SEC’s interpretive approach … Read more
This past year witnessed a number of new corporate governance initiatives. Among the most significant:
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Yesterday [October 22, 2015], the Staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance issued Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14H. SLB14H formally narrows the long-standing approach to interpreting Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which permits a company to exclude a shareholder proposal that otherwise complies with Rule 14a-8 from its proxy statement “[i]f the proposal directly conflicts with one of the company’s own proposals to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting.”
Prior to the 2015 proxy season, the exclusion applied in many corporate governance, shareholder rights and executive compensation contexts to avoid the risk of inconsistent and confusing … Read more
Yesterday the Staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Divisions of Investment Management and Corporation Finance issued regulatory guidance (in the form of a user-friendly Q&A) concerning the proxy voting responsibilities of investment advisers (such as fund managers), the use of proxy advisory firms and the applicability of the proxy rules to such firms. The Staff also made clear their expectation that proxy advisory firms and investment advisers will change current processes and systems to conform to the new guidance “promptly, but in any event in advance of next year’s proxy season.”
This welcomed guidance is part of the … Read more
The Pershing Square-Valeant hostile bid for Allergan has captured the imagination. Other companies are wondering whether they too will wake up one morning to find a raider-activist tag-team wielding a stealth block of their stock. Serial acquirers are asking whether they should be looking to take advantage of this new maneuver. Speculation and rumor abound of other raider-activist pairings and other targets.
Questions of legality are also being raised. Pershing Square and Valeant are loudly proclaiming that they have very cleverly (and profitably) navigated their way through a series of loopholes to create a new template for hostile acquisitions, one … Read more
The SEC staff has released new guidance regarding the use of social media such as Twitter in securities offerings, business combinations and proxy contests (as a senior SEC official telegraphed at the Tulane Corporate Law Institute conference). Until now, SEC legending requirements have restricted an issuer’s ability to communicate electronically using Twitter or similar technologies with built-in character limitations before having an effective registration statement for offerees, or definitive proxy statement for stockholders (as the legends generally exceed the character limits). Companies using Twitter and similar media with character limits can now satisfy these legend requirements by using an active … Read more
In the latest instance of proxy advisors establishing a governance standard without offering evidence that it will improve corporate governance or corporate performance, ISS has adopted a new policy position that appears designed to chill board efforts to protect against “golden leash” incentive bonus schemes. These bonus schemes have been used by some activist hedge funds to recruit director candidates to stand for election in support of whatever business strategy the fund seeks to impose on a company.
In its new FAQ, ISS warns that if a board adopts “restrictive director qualification bylaws” designed to prohibit “golden leashes” without submitting … Read more
ISS Proxy Advisory Services recently recommended that shareholders of a small cap bank holding company, Provident Financial Holdings, Inc., withhold their votes from the three director candidates standing for reelection to the company’s staggered board (all of whom serve on its nominating and governance committee) because the board adopted a bylaw designed to discourage special dissident compensation schemes. These special compensation arrangements featured prominently in a number of recent high profile proxy contests and have been roundly criticized by leading commentators. Columbia Law Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. succinctly noted “third-party bonuses create the wrong incentives, fragment the board and … Read more
In a speech last week to the Society of Corporate Secretaries & Governance Professionals, SEC Commissioner Daniel M. Gallagher voiced “grave concerns,” which we have long shared, as to “whether investment advisers are indeed truly fulfilling their fiduciary duties when they rely on and follow recommendations from proxy advisory firms.” He also said:
“It is troubling to think that institutional investors, particularly investment advisers, are treating their responsibility akin to a compliance function carried out through rote reliance on proxy advisory firm advice rather than actively researching the proposals before them and ensuring that their votes further their clients’ … Read more
This year, the practice of activist hedge funds engaged in proxy contests offering special compensation schemes to their dissident director nominees has increased and become even more egregious. While the terms of these schemes vary, the general thrust is that, if elected, the dissident directors would receive large payments, in some cases in the millions of dollars, if the activist’s desired goals are met within the specified near-term deadlines.
These special compensation arrangements pose a number of threats, including:
- undermining Board prerogatives to set director pay and select the timeframe over which corporate goals are to be achieved;
- creating a
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