The SEC rule requiring a universal proxy card in director election proxy fights becomes effective today [September 1]. The resurgence of activism is already in progress, and the universal proxy card may significantly facilitate some proxy contests in which an activist is seeking to elect one or more directors to a company’s board to replace incumbent(s). It will also affect proxy contest strategies, tactical considerations and the behavior of proxy advisory firms assessing competing director slates. As stated by ISS in its report on the universal proxy card:
The indisputable fact about the universal proxy card (UPC) is that it … Read more
For over 45 years, Delaware law has permitted directors of Delaware corporations to be exculpated from personal monetary liability to the extent such protections are set forth in the certificate of incorporation, subject to certain exceptions. However, such protective statutory provisions did not reach officers. As contemplated in our April 2022 memorandum, Delaware has now adopted important amendments to Delaware’s General Corporation Law that would expand the right of a corporation to adopt an “exculpation” provision in its certificate of incorporation to cover not only directors (as has been allowed and widely adopted since 1986, following Smith v. Van … Read more
Last year’s proxy season saw investor support for an unprecedented number of ESG proposals, on issues ranging from climate change to human capital management to diversity, equity and inclusion. Proxy advisory firms increasingly recommended that shareholders vote for such proposals. We also saw the emergence of ESG-driven withhold campaigns targeting individual directors. This upcoming 2022 proxy season will likely remain hotly contested as investors, proxy advisors and other stakeholders further scrutinize companies’ ESG credentials. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent guidance limiting exclusion of Rule 14a-8 proposals and proposed new rules on climate-related disclosures, and the new ISS and Glass … Read more
Last year, major investors took unprecedented steps through engagement efforts and proxy voting to demonstrate their commitment to addressing the climate transition and board and workforce diversity and inclusion, with focus given to disclosure and reporting of key ESG metrics and how the board, including board committees, oversees these issues. This year, major investors have indicated that they plan to revisit the same issues, but with focus on strategy, innovation and harnessing stakeholder capitalism to guide long-term value creation.
While still keen on companies to decarbonize, investors have highlighted the need to address supply-side risks (as evidenced by current energy … Read more
The SEC Staff has issued revised guidance rescinding prior Staff Legal Bulletins addressing the exclusion of Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposals based on the social significance to a company, “micromanagement” or “economic relevance.” The changes will likely facilitate a larger number of shareholder proposals, including ESG proposals, coming to a shareholder vote.
Ordinary Business Exception: The new guidance revises the SEC’s application of the “ordinary business” exclusion, which considered whether a proposal was of social policy significance or sought to micromanage a company. While the Staff has previously focused on the significance of a social policy issue to a particular issuer, … Read more
Despite a short dip at the outset of the pandemic, activism has rebounded and now continues at an ever-growing intensity. As we have previously noted, regardless of industry, size or performance, no company should consider itself immune from activism. No company is too large, too popular, too new or too successful. Even companies that are respected industry leaders and have outperformed the market and their peers have been and are being attacked. And companies that have faced one activist may be approached, in the same year or in successive years, by other activists or re-visited by the prior activist.
Although … Read more
In yet another important signal of the SEC’s increasing focus on how public companies respond to, and issue disclosures concerning, significant cyber breaches, the Commission announced yesterday that it had entered into a settled administrative order with Pearson plc, finding violations of the negligence-based antifraud provisions of the Securities Act and imposing a $1 million civil penalty. Pearson neither admitted nor denied the Commission’s findings.
The Order recites that a substantial volume of personal data concerning students and school administrators was stolen by a “sophisticated threat actor” from Pearson’s academic performance assessment services that were provided to 13,000 school districts … Read more
As noted in our previous memos, the SEC is considering and has sought input from investors on potential new disclosure requirements related to climate change and other sustainability issues. Yesterday, SEC Chairman Gary Gensler made remarks that add some clarity as to what can be expected: a combination of qualitative and quantitative climate-risk disclosures that are consistent, comparable and decision-useful to investors. Examples of potential qualitative disclosures include how the company’s leadership manages climate-related risks and opportunities, how such matters impact corporate strategy and, potentially, the use of scenario analyses. Quantitative disclosures may include disclosure of Scope 1, 2 … Read more
The current pandemic, blind spots in information flows through supply lines, the shutdowns in meat processing plants around the world, the ongoing shortages in personal protective equipment and, most recently, the scandal involving British retailer Boohoo, have all underscored the importance of resilient, sustainable, legally compliant and ethical supply chains. In addition to geographic and industry-specific challenges, issues relating to health and safety, labor practices and climate risk have become top priorities for investors, regulators and consumers. Failure to ensure proper oversight and management of supply chains can result in significant reputational and economic losses, as well as regulatory scrutiny. … Read more
Events of recent weeks and months have starkly illuminated the effects of systemic racism and injustice on Black Americans, including threats to physical safety, psychological trauma and economic disparity. CEOs worldwide and across industries have spoken out, expressing their horror and outrage, as well as their resolve to do more. Companies have announced significant financial commitments; others have referred to actions to be taken, and early movers have begun to announce or amplify business-related initiatives. Institutional investors, asset owners, asset managers, private equity fund limited partners and investor groups have also begun speaking out and considering action with respect to … Read more
Recent months have seen institutional investors, multinational organizations and the private sector emphasize the lack of (and importance of) comparable and decision-useful ESG disclosures. Some of the key issues in considering ESG disclosures are:
Choice of Framework and Content. Despite the growing recognition of the need for standardized reporting metrics, companies continue to face a myriad of choices as to how and where to present ESG disclosures. To date, the largest US public companies that disclose this information often report against some portion or combination of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), and the … Read more
In an article posted yesterday [March 2] on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance blog, Professor Lucian Bebchuk rejects stakeholder governance and, in so doing, attacks the committed positions of influential institutions as varied as the Business Roundtable, the World Economic Forum, BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard, the UK Financial Reporting Council, and the European Union High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance.
Professor Bebchuk summarizes his article as follows:
“Following the publication of the [Business Roundtable] statement, in December 2019 the World Economic Forum took the unusual step of publishing a manifesto that urged companies to move from the … Read more
In a letter to directors of public companies, State Street Global Advisors’ President and CEO, Cyrus Taraporevala, reiterated SSgA’s focus on “financially material” ESG issues as “a matter of value, not values.” He also confirmed that SSgA will go beyond engagement and deploy its voting power in director elections to accelerate corporate action on ESG. In SSgA’s view, “fewer than 25% of the companies we’ve evaluated have meaningfully identified, incorporated and disclosed material ESG issues into their strategies.”
As shareholder proposals touching on ESG and sustainability matters proliferate, SSgA has also sounded a cautionary note, flagging that “some shareholder … Read more
The intensifying spotlight turned on boards of directors and management teams by investors prompts a fresh look at how public companies approach board development, director succession planning and refreshment in advance of an activist attack, shareholder unrest or a crisis that results in heightened scrutiny. As the New Paradigm of corporate governance takes hold, the major index fund asset managers, many actively managed funds and the two largest proxy advisory firms have each formally incorporated questions relating to board quality and practices into their direct engagements with companies, voting policies and how they evaluate a proxy contest to remove or … Read more
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
… Read more
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
… Read more
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