Tag Archives | Chevedden

Omnicom (OMC) Group Loses to Chevedden: Shareowner Rights Preserved

OmnicomIn a memorandum and order issued yesterday, Judge Louis L. Stanton, of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, ruled John Chevedden’s motion to dismiss is granted. Omnicom’s motion for summary judgment is denied. “The clerk is requested to enter judgment dismissing the complaint, with costs and disbursements in favor of Mr. Chevedden according to law.” Continue Reading →

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Quick Bites on CorpGov

UnknownDon’t miss the following great reads:

 Activist shareholders’ top priorities for 2014. A must read for directors and shareowners alike. Here’s the first paragraph.

Many of us free ride on actions taken by active, long-term shareholders. These unsung heroes goad managers and boards to reach better decisions, make available desirable employment opportunities and, overall, push them to act like good corporate citizens. These active investors accomplish these things by talking to companies, preparing proxy proposals for all shareholders to consider, and offering recommendations on director elections and company-sponsored proxy measures.

Ralph Ward digs past the standard bullshit in his 2014 Boardroom Insider. Always plenty to chew on in a few short pages. Here’s a tidbit, which I hope will leave you wanting more, which includes more tips than you’ll find in pages and pages of other publications aimed at directors. Continue Reading →

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John Chevedden: “Economy Class” Investor Activist

JohnChevedden

John Chevedden

It was great to see Ross Kerber’s “Special Report” yesterday in the Baltimore Sun and other Reuters outlets entitled Economy-class activist investor crashes the corporate party. While Carl Icahn and Dan Loeb have the money that brings ready attention, it is good to see the spotlight shine on this “small” retail shareowner who has both filed and won more proposals than any individual or institution in history.

Chevedden’s wealth may be small in comparison to well-publicized activists but the scope of his tactics is huge. While the rich grab headlines when they buy 10% of a large company and demand stock buybacks, John Chevedden has been working almost below the surface with $2,000 – $3,000 investments. He’s been winning what I view as more significant long-lasting reforms like getting rid of poison pills, eliminating supermajority requirements, having all directors stand for a vote each year, limiting pay abuses, separating CEO and chair positions, etc. I ran a quick report using SharkRepellent.net and came up with a list of 430 proposals, not counting others, such as my own, which he has generously assisted with and I didn’t go back very far. See the list at the bottom of this post. Continue Reading →

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Biased Ballots: Oshkosh Vote Questioned – Take Action

I found another case of corporate elections where ballot measures failed to be identified ”clearly and impartially.” This time at Oshkosh ($OSK). Should we be surprised? Isn’t it time you took a minute out of your day to send a message to the SEC asking for an end to such abuses?

Broadridge claims:

When it comes to proxy ballots, regulations are complex and mailing deadlines are tight. Broadridge helps fulfill regulatory responsibilities efficiently and economically. Broadridge handles the entire process on-line and in real time, from coordination with third-party entities to ordering, inventory maintenance, mailing, tracking and vote tabulation. Continue Reading →

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Netflix: A Candidate for Proxy Access

Netflix Inc. (NFLX),  which has lost half its value in the last two years, adopted an antitakeover plan (poison pill) intended to block activist investor Carl Icahn from expanding his nearly 10% stake. They did so without seeking shareowner approval and the pill may make it harder to find a buyer. Writing for the WSJ, Miriam Gottfried notes, Netflix Pill Should Give Shareholders Pause. Let’s hope shareowners do more than just pause; let’s take action! Continue Reading →

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Gilead Sciences (GILD): How I Voted – Proxy Score 44

Gilead Sciences (GILD) is one of the stocks in my portfolio. Their annual meeting is coming up on 5/10/2012. Voting ends 5/9 on Moxy Vote’s proxy voting platform, which listed 8 “good causes,” but three were consolidations, when I checked and voted on 5/8. ProxyDemocracy.org had 4 funds voting.Gilead scores 44 out of 100, since I voted with management on only 44% of the proxy. Continue Reading →

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Union Pacific (UNP): How I Voted – Proxy Score 13

Union Pacific (UNP) is one of the stocks in my portfolio. Their annual meeting is coming up on 5/10/2012. Voting ends 5/9 on Moxy Vote’s proxy voting platform, which listed nine “good causes,” but three were consolidations, when I checked and voted on 5/7. ProxyDemocracy.org had 1 fund voting.UNP scores 13 out of 100, since I voted with management on only 13% of the proxy. Continue Reading →

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Proxy Access Proposals Challenged: Starting to Post Responses

ISS reported that Textron filed a Dec. 23 no-action petition with the SEC to omit a shareowner proposal from Ken Steiner that seeks proxy access using the model proposal developed by USPX.

This appears to be the first no-action request filed on a proxy access proposal this season. The company asserts that Steiner’s resolution improperly constitutes multiple proposals, is “impermissibly Continue Reading →

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15th Proxy Access Proposal of Season Filed at Nabors

Bermuda-based energy-drilling contractor Nabors Industries Ltd., already being sued by shareowners over executive pay issues now faces a proxy access proposal filed by CalSTRS and nine public pension funds from Connecticut, Illinois, New York and North Carolina. The company’s stock has lost about a quarter of its value this year. According to New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, who submitted the proposal on behalf of the City’s five pension funds,

Expropriating the corporate treasury to fund egregious CEO pay packages at the shareholder’s expense is both a symptom and a consequence of Nabors’ entrenched board. The only way to fix a recalcitrant board is to enable shareholders to elect directors other than those nominated by that same board.

According to a press release from CalSTRS, the funds are part of a larger group of 11 public funds that called upon the Nabors’ board in a September 29 letter (PDF; 61KB) to Continue Reading →

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WSJ Reports Inaccurately on SLAPP Suits

Jessica Holzer, writing for The Wall Street Journal informs readers this morning, Firms Try New Tack Against Gadflies: Corporations Look to Block Shareholder Activists’ Proposals by Challenging the Size of Their Stakes – WSJ.com.

Companies have long viewed shareholder activist John Chevedden as a pain. The retired aerospace worker and his network of like-minded activists are behind more than 100 proposed changes in corporate governance filed each year for other shareholders.

Two companies have found a new way to block his proposals: They successfully sued Mr. Chevedden, arguing he had no right to offer shareholder proposals because he hadn’t proved ownership of enough of their stock.

While Ms. Holzer did some degree of minimal background work in preparing her article, her reporting is neither fair nor balanced. She certainly did not dig beneath the surface. If companies really think RAM Trust Services is falsely reporting Mr. Chevedden’s ownership, why don’t they sue Continue Reading →

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Kinetic Concepts: Victory for Shareowners!

I was about to sit down this morning and write another scathing post on Kinetic Concepts when I learned of their press release announcing they will gradually declassify their board. They gave no reason as to why they took this action just ahead of their annual meeting. Perhaps they looked again at their guiding principles,

We act with integrity and honesty above all, in all that we do.

I e-mailed them to ask why but they have not answered. A more probable cause was the likelihood that shareowners would oust board members currently up for election. The whole episode shows that persistant shareowners can hold board members accountable.

As readers of CorpGov.net may recall, shareowner John Chevedden submitted a proposal to Kinetic Concepts to declassify their board and have all members up for annual election. Kinetic Concepts filed for a no-action letter from the SEC on the grounds that Chevedden had provided insufficient evidence that he owned Kinetic stock. The SEC’s March 21 denial was in line with previous denials at Hain Celestial, Union Pacific, Devon Energy, Prudential, and News Corp where companies had  not met the burden of 14a-8(g). They had not demonstrated they are entitled to exclude these proposals.

Despite denial of their no-action request, Kinetic Concepts sent an April 5 letter to the SEC putting them on notice they would mail their proxy without Mr. Chevedden’s proposal, despite the SEC’s refusal to grant their no-action request.

As justification, Kinetic pointed to a flawed court decision from a suit brought against Mr. Chevedden by KBR. Even a quick glance at page 6 (2011-04-04 KBR Chevedden Docket 24 – Memorandum and Order http://corpgov.net/files/2011/04/2011-04-04-KBR-Chevedden-Docket-24-Memorandum-and-Order.pdf) reveals the judge didn’t base her decision on what is required in order to show evidence of ownership for a 14a-8 proposal. Instead, she based her decision on evidence of ownership requirements adopted in 14a-11, the provisions for placing shareowner director nominees on the proxy. Aside from being on a completely different subject, these rules are not even in effect, but have been stayed because of the lawsuit on the SEC’s proxy access rules.

They made no attempt to exhaust legal remedies. Kinetic simply pointed to the flawed court decision and essentially said, our case is like that case, so we’re not including the proposal from Chevedden.

I wrote several articles warning of dire consequences if Kinetic Concepts was allowed to get away with simply ignoring the law. (SEC: Time to Remove the Gag; Texas Secession Led by Apache, KRB and Kinetic Concepts; Take Action: Sixty Years of ShareOwner Rights at Risk; and Go Directly to Court, Do Not Pass SEC, Prepare to Spend Thousands). Some of these posts also appeared at Shareowners.org and Accountability Central. I also contacted several large funds, unions, proxy advisors and, of course, the SEC.

My experience with the SEC was frustrating. Although I got a sympathetic ear at Corporation Finance, they claimed the case was out of their jurisdiction. I needed to contact Enforcement. Enforcement has no public phone number and the internet forms are not set up to handle complaints on shareowner rights.

It was like writing into a black hole. In my direct experience, nothing seems to come out of Enforcement. As a brief aside, note Broc Romanek’s recent posts at theCorporateCounsel.net: The SEC’s Whistleblower Office Does Not Want To Talk To You and The Bigger Picture: Why Doesn’t the SEC’s Enforcement Division Provide a Phone Number? It turns out that due to a lack of funding the whistleblower office doesn’t exist and the Enforcement Division doesn’t want to talke to anyone.

I don’t know if the SEC took any action at all. However, I do know funds that investigated the issues and spoke to people at Kinetics. The big break for shareowners probably came when ISS and Glass Lewis both recommended voting against board members. The following are extensive quotes from ISS’ advisory:

In this case, while the company cites precedent cases as a reason for excluding the proposal, the company has not received correspondence from the SEC or a ruling from the US District Court stating that the company may exclude Mr. Chevedden’s proposal. Furthermore, the company has not filed a case to the court with regarding this proposal and as such has not fully exhausted its legal remedies in seeking a no action ruling from the SEC. In this instance the company has taken upon itself the role that is reserved for the SEC and the courts and in doing so, has denied shareholders an opportunity to vote on an important issue without the force of law…

ISS also notes that the company is ignoring a proposal to declassify the board, which is a well-accepted governance reform that regularly receives high levels of shareholder support. For instance, in 2010, such shareholder proposals filed at U.S. public companies received an average of 61.1-percent support from votes cast for and against. Furthermore, studies have shown a negative correlation between the existence of a classified board and a company’s value. ISS believes that all directors should be accountable on an annual basis and that a staggered board can entrench management and effectively preclude takeover bids or proxy contests…

By omitting this item despite the SEC’s correspondence stating that it should be included, the company has disenfranchised its shareholders from one of their key entitlements. As owners of the company, shareholders should have the right to judge a shareholder proposal which could affect the governance structure of the company. In this case, by directly disregarding the SEC’s statement confirming that the shareholder proposal should appear on the ballot, the company has intentionally disenfranchised its shareholders and as such, ISS recommends that shareholders WITHHOLD votes from the entire class of directors standing for election at this annual meeting.

Soon after Kinetic Concepts issued their press release indicating they would move to declassify their board, both ISS and Glass Lewis revised their voting recommendations to include voting in favor of all incumbents.

Lesson: Vigilance pays. Had we done nothing, shareowner rights would have been trampled. Thanks to our many readers who took action.

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How To Steal a Corporate Election

http://glynholton.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/vif.jpgThere are plenty of ways to steal an election. Some require guns. Others depend on bribes. Perhaps the simplest involve misleading ballots. For its corporate election this year, American Tower Corporation (AMT) has produced a humdinger. Item 04 of their ballot (technically a VIF; I will explain this legal nicety some other time) gives shareowners the option of voting “for,” “against” or “abstain” for the following:

TO CONDUCT AN ADVISORY VOTE ON COMPENSATION

In years past, shareowners have placed similar “say-on-pay” items on other corporations’ ballots. These tended to garner strong support as shareowners, concerned about lavish executive compensation, sought an opportunity to weigh in. But last year’s Dodd-Frank financial reform act mandated say-on-pay votes at all public corporations. So why Continue Reading →

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Go Directly to Court, Do Not Pass SEC, Prepare to Spend Thousands

Here’s a brief note I just sent to the SEC:

Dear Chairman Mary Schapiro and Mr. Greg Belliston:

On April 12 I alerted you to the fact that Kinetic Concepts has said they will exclude a shareowner proposal from Mr. John Chevedden even though the SEC refused to issue them a no-action letter. I warned that if the SEC does not enforce the law and require companies to meet the burden of proof required by 14a-8(g), we should expect a flood of copycats. Today’s bulletin from Duane Morris LLP & Affiliates can be expected to accelerate erosion of the SEC’s authority.

To those of us who believe that shareowners should have the right to submit proxy proposals, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of e-mailing your concerns to the SEC so that we maintain that right.

The title of the above referenced alert from the Duane Morris law firm is “To Seek Exclusion of Shareholder Proposals, Companies May Bypass ‘No-action Letter Request’ and Go Directly to Federal Court.” SEC rules regarding shareowner proposals have been in place since 1942. Is this a right we are willing to lose without a fight? Unless shareowners demand that the SEC take action, we can expect to have to fight our way through the courts each time we submit a proposal.

See Take Action: Sixty Years of ShareOwner Rights at Risk, Texas Secession Led by Apache, KRB and Kinetic Concepts, Apache: Too Big For SEC Rules?, and Will the SEC Enforce Rule 14a-8?.

Send quick e-mails to the Office of Chief Counsel at shareholderproposals@sec.gov and the Chairman at chairmanoffice@sec.gov. I also recommend you fill out the complaint form at https://tts.sec.gov/oiea/QuestionsAndComments.html, since this will go to the Division of Enforcement, the office that could take action. Your note could be as simple as the following:

I understand Kinetic Concepts informed the SEC they would exclude a shareowner proposal from John Chevedden even though the SEC rejected a “no-action” request from them on March 21. This company and others taking similar action have not met the burden of 14a-8(g), which required companies to demonstrate they are entitled to exclude proposals.

I believe taking action against Kinetic Concepts should be a high priority for the SEC. Otherwise, a growing number of companies will simply believe they can ignore shareowner resolutions, which form an important cornerstone of corporate governance.

 

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Take Action: Sixty Years of ShareOwner Rights at Risk

Your right to file a proxy without being hauled into court or having your proposal ignored is at risk.  I urge readers to raise the profile of the SEC’s failure to act by sending e-mails to the Office of Chief Counsel at shareholderproposals@sec.gov and the Chairman at chairmanoffice@sec.gov. I also recommend you fill out the complaint form at https://tts.sec.gov/oiea/QuestionsAndComments.html, since this will go to the Division of Enforcement, the office that could take action.

As I said in a recent post (Texas Secession Led by Apache, KRB and Kinetic Concepts), Lewis Gilbert was instrumental in winning a formal SEC rule in 1943 that shareowner proposals be included in the proxy. After many challenges, the SEC’s powers were finally sustained in the 1947 case, SEC vTransamerica, when judge John J. Biggs Jr. ruled, “a corporation is run for the benefit of its stockholders and not for that of its managers.”

It took until 1988 for a shareowner proposal by Richard Foley to finally get a majority vote. Rights, which have taken many decades to win could be gone very quickly if we simply do nothing to defend them. The SEC’s rules are not self-enforcing but depend on shareowner vigilance. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” While we aren’t sure who said it first, Edmund Burke or Leo Tolstoy, we all know it to be true. Here’s the e-mail I sent:

Dear Chairman Mary Schapiro and Mr. Greg Belliston:

I understand Apache and Kinetic Concepts informed the SEC they would exclude shareowner proposals from Mr. John Chevedden and further that they are going doing so without the SEC issuing letters indicating it would take no-action on such an omission. In fact, Kinetic’s request for a no-action letter was actually denied. These companies have not met the burden of 14a-8(g). They have not demonstrated they are entitled to exclude these proposals. In fact the SEC said as much in letters issued to Hain Celestial, Union Pacific, Devon Energy, Prudential, News Corp and Kinetic Concepts.

I believe taking action against Apache and Kinetic Concepts should be a high priority for the SEC. Otherwise, a growing number of companies will simply believe they can ignore shareowner resolutions, which form an important cornerstone of corporate governance.

Attached is the April 5 letter from Kinetic Concepts putting the SEC on notice that it will mail its proxy without Mr. Chevedden’s proposal on April 15th, despite the previous refusal of the SEC to grant their no-action request.  Apache has already done so. I understand the SEC has a lot of high priority action items but if the SEC doesn’t go after these companies we could see a flood of copycats, with shareowner rights that have been in place since 1947 placed at risk.

I’m surprised the SEC hasn’t at least posted Kinetic’s letter at http://www.sec.gov/divisions/corpfin/cf-noaction/14a-8-incoming.shtml but I guess the letter isn’t a no-action request. Instead, it is a notification of Kinetic’s intent to test the SEC’s willingness to follow-up on staff’s decision not to grant a no-action letter. Does such a decision by SEC staff mean anything or is the SEC too busy to really take shareowner proposals seriously?

Both companies are relying on an flawed court decision from a suit brought against Mr. Chevedden by KBR. Even a quick glance at page 6 (2011-04-04 KBR Chevedden Docket 24 – Memorandum and Order http://corpgov.net/files/2011/04/2011-04-04-KBR-Chevedden-Docket-24-Memorandum-and-Order.pdf) reveals the judge didn’t base her decision on what is required in order to show evidence of ownership for a 14a-8 proposal. Instead, she bases her decision on evidence of ownership requirements adopted in 14a-11, the provisions for placing shareowner director nominees on the proxy. Aside from being on a completely different subject, these rules are not even in effect, but as you know have been stayed.

I urge the SEC to take action immediately or we will all be facing a very messy situation.

Thank you for your consideration.

Your own e-mail and paste to the Division of Enforcement complaint form could be very simple:

I understand Apache and Kinetic Concepts informed the SEC they would exclude shareowner proposals from John Chevedden and further they will do so without the SEC issuing letters indicating it would take no action on such an omission. In fact, the SEC rejected such a request from Kinetic Concepts on March 21. These companies have not met the burden of 14a-8(g). They have not demonstrated they are entitled to exclude these proposals. In fact, the SEC said as much in letters issued to Hain Celestial, Union Pacific, Devon Energy, Prudential, News Corp. and Kinetic Concepts.

I believe taking action against Apache and Kinetic Concepts should be a high priority for the SEC. Otherwise, a growing number of companies will simply believe they can ignore shareowner resolutions, which form an important cornerstone of corporate governance.

For you historians, more information on CorpGov.net by searching cloud tag Apache. Also, there was this great post yesterday from Ted Allen of RiskMetrics, Will the SEC Stop the ‘Texas Secession’? Allen notes, “Corporation Finance staff planned to issue a legal bulletin on proof of ownership before the 2011 proxy season, but reportedly was unable to obtain a consensus among the five commissioners.”

Ted Allen concludes his post with a precautionary note: new guidance from the SEC may not prevent some companies from bypassing the no-action process. “Even if the staff puts out something black and white in a bulletin, companies may continue to delete the proposals and basically dare the commission to take action,” said J. Robert Brown, a securities law professor at the University of Denver.

Brown is right. Only vigilance by shareowners, like the brief e-mails I’m requesting from you today, will help shape SEC priorities so that shareowner proposals don’t become a thing of the past.

Alyce Lomax with the Motley Fool (A Shareholder Battles Rage On, 4/13/2011) writes on these legal challenges and other issues, concluding:

Whatever good might come of this situation, investors should still think twice about buying into any company willing to sue its own investors to keep them from presenting their concerns for a shareholder vote. Management-centric businesses that relegate all other stakeholders to second-class status won’t do your portfolio any favors in the long run, and likely don’t deserve your investing dollars at all. Heck, if they work so hard to shut down shareholder dissent, perhaps they shouldn’t have gone public in the first place.

Shareholders incensed by corporate crackdowns on their rights have many ways to issue a resounding “no.” Vote against outsized executive compensation, sell your stake, or screen out such offenders when searching for stock ideas. Whatever action you take, your rights are always worth fighting for — especially when corporations actively try to make that fight less fair.

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Texas Secession Led by Apache, KBR and Kinetic Concepts

The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861 or 150 years ago today. Texas companies now appear to believe they are again outside the United States with respect to federal laws regarding proxies, based on the flawed decisions of Judge Lee H. Rosenthal. As reported at theCorporateCounsel.net on April 5th:

KBR filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas seeking a declaratory judgment that would allow the company to exclude a shareholder proposal submitted by John Chevedden due to his alleged lack of eligibility. Yesterday, the court ruled in KBR’s favor, upholding the Apache decision from last year (which had been filed in the exact same court). We have posted the court’s memorandum and order in our “Shareholder Proposals” Practice Area.

Like Apache, KBR filed a lawsuit rather than attempt to exclude the proposal through the normal SEC channels (and thus challenging the Hain Celestial position of the Staff regarding the use of introductory letters from brokers as evidence of ownership under Rule 14a-8(b)).

Ted Allen, reporting for RiskMetrics (ISS), went into more detail, which I abbreviate here (Federal Judge Allows KBR to Omit a Shareholder Proposal, 4/5/2011):

Following the litigation strategy used by oil company Apache in 2010, KBR bypassed the SEC’s no-action process that is used by hundreds of companies each proxy season and filed a lawsuit in federal court in Houston, where the engineering company is based.

While the court’s ruling is not legally binding outside Texas, this case may inspire other companies to bypass the no-action process and file their own lawsuits. Chevedden has been a magnet for omission requests in recent years, in part because he and his network of retail investors typically file more than a hundred proposals each season on popular governance topics like declassification and the repeal of supermajority voting rules. This year, more than a dozen companies have raised a variety of eligibility challenges against Chevedden network proposals, but few have obained no-action relief from the SEC.

In its lawsuit, KBR argued that Chevedden’s ownership letter from Ram Trust Services (RTS), a Maine-chartered non-depositary trust company, failed to satisfy the requirements of SEC Rule 14a-8(b)(2), which requires investors to provide a statement  from a “record” holder, which can be an “introducing broker” or a bank, according to the SEC staff. KBR argued that RTS is not a record holder, because it is an investment adviser and is not a participant in the Depository Trust Co. (DTC), a nationwide clearing agency that holds most of the shares that are owned by U.S. retail investors.

The KBR lawsuit was heard by U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, the same judge who ruled for Apache in a relatively narrow decision in March 2010. In the Apache case, Rosenthal said a similar RTS letter was not sufficient to comply with Rule 14a-8(b)(2), but the judge did not address a second ownership letter from Northern Trust because it was submitted too late.

Since the Apache decision, the staff of SEC’s Corporation Finance Division has rejected similar arguments raised by Devon Energy, Prudential Financial, and Union Pacific to omit proposals filed by Chevedden and affiliated investors.

Notwithstanding those staff decisions, Judge Rosenthal concluded that the Apache decision was still good law, in part because of the eligibility requirements the SEC adopted in August for its proxy access rule, Rule 14a-11. In that rule, the SEC said an investor whose broker is not a DTC participant must “obtain and submit a separate written statement from the clearing agency participant through which the securities of the nominating shareholder . . . are held, that (i) identifies the broker or bank for whom the clearing agency participant holds the securities, and (ii) states that the account of such broker or bank has held, as of the date of the written statement . . .”

I contacted Jay Robert Brown, Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law, who blogs at theRacetotheBottom. Here’s his quick response. (I hope he takes up the subject further.):

The reigning principles of administrative law is that courts are obligated to defer to agency interprestations of their own rules.  In this case, the staff of the SEC has made its position clear and the court should have followed it.  Had it been litigated with someone having the necessary resources, the outcome likely would have been different.  Some of the analysis also is wrong.  The analysis that the SEC simply defers to courts in this area is not supported by the citations in the case.  All of this means that its an unfortunate result for John Chevedden but not likely to be followed by other courts.

It may not be followed by other courts but there are a lot of companies in Rosenthal’s jurisdiction. Apache, for example, issued its definitive proxy on April 7 without including a proposal from Chevedden. Although they had warned the SEC earlier this year of their intention, the SEC did not issue a no-action letter and Apache did not go to court. They simply waited for the KBR decision as a go-ahead.

Now I learn that Kinetic Concepts, also based in Texas, informed the SEC on April 5 that despite the SEC’s March 21 denial of their no-action request, Kinetic will also move forward without a proposal from Chevedden, based on the KBR decision.

However, even a quick glance at page 6 of her decision (2011-04-04 KBR Chevedden Docket 24 – Memorandum and Order) reveals the judge didn’t base it on what is required in order to show evidence of ownership for a 14a-8 proposal. Instead, she bases her decision on evidence of ownership requirements adopted in 14a-11, which are provisions for placing shareowner director nominees on the proxy. Aside from being on a completely different subject, these rules are not even in effect, since the SEC put a stay on the rules pending a court decision!

Now Apache and Kinetic Concepts no longer feel compelled to even go to court. They are simply citing the flawed decision, which goes against several SEC failed no-action requests, assuming that no one will bother to enforce the law.

Chevedden files a lot of resolutions on core corporate governance issues and they are frequently supported by a majority of shareowners. It is no wonder that those who oppose more democratic corporate governance are so ready to attack. However, this latest court decision stretches the bounds of credulity. With last week’s budget agreement behind us, maybe the SEC will finally wake up to this usurpation of power and will enforce the law.

When the SEC issues a no-action letter, it is merely stating that it will not bring an enforcement action against the company.  Since the SEC has not issued no-action letters to either Apache or Kenetic the SEC is free to bring an enforcement action against them but such action would, of course, be a matter of administrative discretion.

I recommend readers help raise the profile of this failure to act by sending e-mails to the Office of Chief Counsel at shareholderproposals@sec.gov and the Chairman at chairmanoffice@sec.gov. Also, fill out the form at https://tts.sec.gov/oiea/QuestionsAndComments.html since this will go to the Division of Enforcement, which would be the office actually taking action, if anyone does at the SEC.

It could be something as simple as the following:

I understand Apache and Kinetic Concepts informed the SEC they would exclude shareowner proposals from John Chevedden and further they will do so without the SEC issuing letters indicating it would take no action on such an omission. In fact, the SEC rejected such a request from Kinetic Concepts on March 21. These companies have not met the burden of 14a-8(g). They have not demonstrated they are entitled to exclude these proposals. In fact, the SEC said as much in letters issued to Hain Celestial, Union Pacific, Devon Energy, Prudential, News Corp. and Kinetic Concepts.

I believe taking action against Apache and Kinetic Concepts should be a high priority for the SEC. Otherwise, a growing number of companies will simply believe they can ignore shareowner resolutions, which form an important cornerstone of corporate governance.

Lewis Gilbert was instrumental in winning a formal SEC rule in 1943 that shareowner proposals be included in the proxy. After many challenges, the SEC’s powers were finally sustained in the 1947 case, SEC vTransamerica, when judge John J. Biggs Jr. ruled, “a corporation is run for the benefit of its stockholders and not for that of its managers.”

It took until 1988 for a shareowner proposal by Richard Foley to finally get a majority vote. Rights, which have taken many decades to win could be gone very quickly if we simply do nothing to defend them. The SEC’s rules are not self-enforcing but depend on shareowner vigilance. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” While we aren’t sure who said it first, Edmund Burke or Leo Tolstoy, we all know it to be true.

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CEOs Should Get Out Vote Among Employees Says Daly

In remarks before the National Press Club, the CEO of Broadridge, the nation’s largest shareholder communications company, called on all CEOs to encourage individual shareholders, including employee shareholders, to vote their proxies.

In 2010, just one in 20 individual retail investors voiced their opinions about the  companies they invested in by exercising their fundamental shareholder right. That compares to recent historical levels four to five times as high. Public companies need to understand the seriousness of this issue and act to reverse this troubling decline to get each of their individual investors — and all individual investors generally — engaged with their companies.

Richard J. Daly went on to explain that as an initial step in an overall strategy to increase individual shareholder voting, he is calling on CEOs of American businesses to

join with us in launching a nationwide effort to encourage their employees  — numbering in the tens of millions  — to exercise a fundamental shareholder right  — and need  — to vote their proxy ballots, whether  it be proxies relating to their employer or proxies relating to other companies in which they invest

As part of the effort, he is contacting the chief executives of America’s top 1,000 public companies to encourage them to motivate their employee shareholders to vote their shares.  Broadridge will inform shareholders —- within the constraints of regulatory boundaries —- that they have the ability to take action online, eliminate the paper, have all information stored in any format they want, have access to it anywhere they want and vote at any time they want, even on such new devices as Android™ phones and the iPad®.

A relatively small increase in voting participation by employees could meaningfully increase individual investor voting participation from 5% per year to 20% or more per year. Companies that can distinguish their investors’ opinions from others’ will more easily have the strength and confidence to stay on course and create value. There is no greater show of support than the ballot, or in this case, the proxy.

While I certainly agree with Daly that steps need to be taken to ensure more retail shareowners vote, I didn’t like the thrust of his remarks, which appeared to assume that more retail votes would mean more votes for management… or am I reading too much in when he says:

Better to hear from actual owners — whose interests are likely aligned with the company — than from outsiders whose agendas may be in conflict with shareholders’ long-term interests.

Additionally, it would have been nice if he would have emphasized the usefulness of sites that help inform shareowners on the issues.

If it is a public relations move that Daly is after, he might recommend that companies take a page from Prudential Financial. They’re rewarding their voting shareowners with totebags or by planting a tree. Last year, the company got an additional 68,000 shareowners to vote, mailed 120,000 bags and planted more than 112,000 trees.

This year, Prudential added information in its proxy materials on sustainability, corporate citizenship and shareowner engagement. Shareowners who cast their proxies online can view the directors’ bios and the supporting statements for shareowner proposals. More importantly, Prudential’s board supported a shareowner proposal from John Chevedden to eliminate the company’s supermajority voting provision.

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Apache: Too Big For SEC Rules?

We all know the drill. Shareowners submit their proposals to corporations for various governance and social concerns. Companies hire lawyers to file no-action requests with the SEC. If the SEC grants their request, they won’t take any action against the company if it does not include the shareowner’s proposal in their proxy. But what if a company just ignores the law? Will the SEC Enforce Rule 14a-8?

SEC Rule 14a-8(g) asks, ”Who has the burden of persuading the Commission or its staff Continue Reading →

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Retail Proponents Survive Eligibility Challenges

In separate rulings, SEC staff rejected requests by Prudential Financial, Union Pacific, and Devon Energy to omit governance proposals filed by John Chevedden. They argued Chevedden’s proof-of-ownership letters did not comply with SEC Rule 14a-8(b). However, each of his broker’s letters stated that Chevedden holds shares through them and they also identified a member of the DTC which in turn holds those shares on their behalf.

Apache and KBR have not filed no-action requests this year, but have informed the SEC they plan to exclude Chevedden proposals that also are supported by RTS letters. The SEC staff has yet to publicly weigh in the proposals at Apache and KBR. Apache sued Chevedden last year and won a federal court ruling that a similar RTS letter was not sufficient under Rule 14a-8(b), but Chevedden has argued that this ruling was based on erroneous information provided by Apache. KBR has filed a similar lawsuit this year in the same federal court in Texas where Apache won its decision…

Meanwhile, the SEC also continues to turn aside eligibility challenges to proposals submitted by other members of Chevedden’s investor network. The commission staff recently rejected challenges by Allstate, McGraw Hill, and JPMorgan Chase to written consent proposals filed by Kenneth Steiner, as well as Amgen’s attempt to exclude a written consent resolution from William Steiner.

Companies have had success raising eligibility challenges this season against  other proponents. So far, the SEC staff has allowed companies to omit 14 governance proposals based on proof-of-ownership objections, according to ISS data. In most cases, the proponents failed to provide any further evidence or correspondence after receiving a deficiency notice from a company.

via Retail Proponents Survive Eligibility Challenges – Governance, RiskMetrics Group, 3/2/2011.

KBR notified the SEC of their intent to bypass the no action request process. I think it is safe to say this effort by several corporations to intimidate shareowners is failing. Chevedden used USPX developed standards to ensure proof of ownership. Although these standards are a bit over the top, going beyond what is required by the SEC, I recommend shareowners use them to avoid attempts by companies to exclude their proposals.

I fully expect the Apache and KBR lawsuits will fall next. Hopefully, we will soon see the court dismiss the suits for lack of standing. There should be serious financial penalties for dragging shareowners into court for simply exercising their rights. Every shareowner should express their dismay at such unethical behavior.

 

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ProxyMonitor.org: Database of Shareowner Proposals

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research’s Center for Legal Policy, a conservative, market-orientated think tank, launched a new proxy monitoring resource: ProxyMonitor.org. This searchable database of shareowner proposals at the 100 largest U.S. companies over the past three years could be a valuable resource for management and shareowner activists alike. Sort through the data by company, industry, proponent and proposal type.

The Center intends to expand the database over time. For example, in three mouse clicks you can see that there were 32 shareholder proposals on executive compensation submitted to companies in the health care industry between 2008 and 2010. Want to know what proposals John Chevedden, Ray Chevedden and the Chevedden Family Trust have placed in front of shareowners? ProxyMonitor.org allows you to quickly identify 32 and to pull them up with a few clicks. Interested in reviewing the resolutions on executive compensation? You can quickly identify 217 and read each.

I found ProxyMonitor.org such a valuable tool, I’ve added it to our links page under both Proxy Voting/Monitoring and Shareowner Action.

Hat-tip to ProxyMonitor: A New Shareholder Proposal Proxy Access Monitoring Tool, 100 F Street, 1/20/2011.

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Devon's AGM (Updated)

John Chevedden recently had one of his more common shareowner proposals at Devon Energy (update at bottom):

Resolved, Shareholders request that our board take the steps necessary so that each shareholder voting requirement in our charter and bylaws, that calls for a greater than simple majority vote, be changed to a majority of the votes cast for and against the proposal to the fullest extent permitted by law. This includes each 67% supermajority provision in our charter and/or bylaws.

Chevedden has assisted me on such proposals. They have typically been winning strong support, often in the 70% and 80% range. His proposal included a supporting statement that noted several other issues with the company. For example, The Corporate Library rated the company “D” with “High Governance Risk,” “Very High Concern” for our takeover defenses and “Very High Concern” for executive pay. See proxy item 3.

Julie Skye presented Chevedden’s proposal at Devon’s Jun 9th AGM. Imagine her shock when the meeting Chair asked if there was a second (there was none) and the Inspector of Elections failed to report out voting results? Fortunately, with assistance from the United States Proxy Exchange, Chevedden was able to cite the fact that in response to Motorola (1987), SEC staff affirmed there is no need for a second on shareowner proposals.

Timothy Smith, of Walden Asset Management, also wrote protesting Devon’s “parliamentary maneuvers to prevent hearing the views of stockholders on a legitimate corporate governance matter” and urging them to “put the vote on the record and properly identify the tally in the 8K form required by the SEC.”

According to Chevedden, the Devon Chair called him and said the proposal passed overwhelmingly and it will thus be reported in the 8-K. Devon had earlier requested a no-action letter from the SEC, relying on Apache and was denied. Interesting coincidence that Apache recently completed its acquisition of Devon Energy’s oil and gas assets in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico Shelf for $1.05 billion.

It is hard for me to believe Devon’s counsel didn’t know that no second is required to present a shareowner resolution at an AGM. Why would a company bother with such fruitless maneuvers? Is anyone grading companies on their performance at AGMs like Lewis Gilbert used to do? If so, they should certainly get a failing grade. Unfortunately, obstruction of shareowner rights, especially at the procedural level, doesn’t get much press. I doubt you’ll be reading of this incident in the mainstream press.

The SEC just posted Devon’s 8-K as this post was scheduled to go live. Here is Devon’s explanation:

A shareholder proposal for a Simple Majority Vote was presented. The Company, in accordance with normal Annual Meeting procedures, asked for a second to the motion for the proposal. There being no second, the vote on the proposal was not called. Subsequent to the meeting, the Company determined upon further investigation that the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission had actually provided informal guidance on this issue in the form of correspondence issued twenty-three years ago, in which the staff indicated that the voting of proxies received with respect to a shareholder proposal included in a company’s proxy material pursuant to Rule 14a-8 should not be conditioned upon the proposal being seconded at the meeting, absent a second being required by state law or by a company’s governing instruments. Based on this earlier guidance, a second to the motion in support of the shareholder proposal was not required and, accordingly, the vote on the proposal has been certified. A total of 72% of all voted shares were cast in favor of the shareholder proposal. The results of the vote are as follows:

FOR:
250,978,437
AGAINST:
97,625,786
ABSTAIN:
449,800
BROKER NON-VOTES:
43,314,097

Ted Allen, writing for the RiskMetrics Group, Devon Energy Drops Objection to Shareholder Proposal, infers that presenting a proposal at a meeting or getting a second, if required by state law or corporate bylaws, seems like a needless formality, given that the vast majority of votes are cast before a shareholder meeting. Perhaps the SEC should address this relic in its proxy plumbing concept release.

The Devon case is another example of the various SEC, state, and corporate procedural rules that can thwart shareholders in their efforts to bring resolutions to a vote. While most investors vote in advance through electronic means and seldom attend meetings in person anymore, some of the SEC’s requirements for proponents still reflect the ways that shareholder meetings used to be conducted. For instance, under SEC Rule 14a-8(h)(3), a company may exclude a proponent’s resolution for two years if the proponent (or a qualified representative) fails to appear in person to present the proposal and cannot demonstrate “good cause” for failing to attend.

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Verizon Communications: Deliberate Cheating or Just Error?

John Chevedden sent along this example of a shareowner proposal by Kenneth Steiner to allow shareowner’s holding 10% of the company’s shares to call a special meeting. The proxy language was butchered, removing the title.

Verizon claims stripping away the title of the proposal had no impact on votes. Chevedden points out Verizon didn’t strip away the titles of management’s proposals. Even with this handicap, Steiner’s proposal received 43% support. It is disappointing to find yet another example where management has their thumb on the scale and is unapologetic. (see also, How Votes are Counted: More Important Than Who Votes at Plum Creek)

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No-Action Letters in Question

Robert A.G. Monks submitted a couple of shareowner proposals asking for chair and CEO positions to be split. The companies appealed to the SEC and were granted no-action letters… the SEC would take no action if the companies left the proposals off their proxies. Now Monks says the SEC should get out of the business of reviewing proposal since “its bureaucracy has often been an obstacle, rather than a help, to those seeking better corporate practices.”

The SEC should use its scarce resources for other purposes. According to Monks,

Corporations have lawyers who are quite capable of evaluating whether proposals are required to be included in their proxy materials under SEC rules. If the corporation’s lawyers find a proposal not legitimate, the corporation need not include it. And if the corporation’s lawyers are not certain, then there is little harm in having the proposal included. (On shareholder proposals, SEC should exit the no-action letter biz, P&I, 5/11/10)

That may be true, but many managers of corporations want to deny shareowners a voice at any turn. Apache has been among the most vocal in this category. Recently, we reported that they ended their annual meeting abruptly, without taking any questions from shareholders. (Apache to Shareowners: Give Us Your Money and Shut Up) Apache’s CEO G. Steven Farris has publicly declared in a comment letter to the SEC on proxy access that:

Non-binding proposals should not be permitted at all. They have no legal standing under the corporate laws of Delaware and other slates, are an inefficient and ineffective method of communication between shareholders and companies, and distract attention from the genuine business issues presented for shareholder votes at shareholder meetings. The Commission should eliminate the federally created right of share holders to make non-binding proposals.

I very rarely disagree with Bob Monks but I must in this one instance. While I totally understand why he sees the no-action letter process as problematic, given the startling result his resolutions obtained, doing away with the process would hurt shareowners in the long run. Many companies, such as Apache, would routinely refuse to include resolutions in the company proxy. They view the proxy as management’s proxy, not as the company’s or shareowner’s proxy. Shareowners would have to go to court to protect their rights. While shareowners must front court expenses from their own pockets, corporate management simply taps the corporate treasury. Essentially, shareowners end up paying twice.

In fact, Apache took John Chevedden to court, claiming he had no right to submit a resolution, since his name didn’t appear on the company’s list of registered owners. (Most retail shareowners hold their shares through street name registration. Their shares are held in trust by the Depository Trust Company’s nominee, Cede & Co.) In Apache v Chevedden, Apache won the right to keep Chevedden’s very simple resolution off the proxy because the judge didn’t fully understand the stock ownership structure and how it meshes with SEC rules. The SEC has since received at least two, maybe three, no action requests based on similar arguments used in that case and has flatly rejected them. (Apache v. Chevedden: a Non-Starter)

Sure, SEC staff sometimes get it wrong, as they obviously did in the case of the resolutions cited by Monks. However, doing away with the process would send many cases through an expensive process in the courts, which know little of arcane SEC rules and are already clogged with more than they can handle. Monks should appeal his cases directly to the Commission.

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Apache v. Chevedden: a Non-Starter

It would appear that Apache v. Chevedden is now fading into oblivion. Two companies have sought no-action letters based Apache-inspired arguments. Both have failed. To briefly review:

Susman Godfrey L.L.P. Wins First-of-Its-Kind Judgment for Apache Against Shareholder Activist, MSN Money, 3/12/10; Susman Godfrey L.L.P. Wins First-of-Its-Kind Judgment for Apache Against Shareholder Activist, Forbes, 3/12/10; Susman Godfrey L.L.P. Wins First-of-Its-Kind Judgment for Apache Against Shareholder Activist, BizJournals, 3/12/10. OK, a law firm got a lot of publicity for “winning” a lawsuit on behalf of a giant firm against an individual who represents himself in court.

Some speculated the case might lead to a change of course in future no-action letters from the SEC. For example, Post “Apache v. Chevedden”: What Will Companies (and the SEC) Do Now (TheCorporateCounsel.net Blog, 3/11/10).

It’s unclear what application the case has beyond its specific decision, since the Judge noted her opinion is narrow – and yet it could be argued that some of her reasoning throws into question the SEC’s Hains position and other forms of proof of ownership. So the waters are a little murky here too.

I disagreed, since the judge clearly stated:

Hain Celestial was not a “rogue” position. The Hain Celestial no-action letter was neither the first or last letter in which the S.E.C. staff declined to agree that a letter from the registered owner was required under Rule 14a-8(b)(2).

Another frequent commentator, viewed the ramifications differently (Half a Loaf? Narrow Court Opinion Allows Exclusion of Activist’s Proxy Proposal, Jim Hamilton’s World of Securities Regulation, 3/11/10):

Following such a narrowly-drawn opinion in the Texas case, and the lack of any fee award, it is not likely that large numbers of issuers will follow Apache’s lead. Litigation is costly and time-consuming, and many issuers may be hesitant to square off against their own investors on questions that are procedural and not related to the substance of the proposal.

I’m relatively certain that if the judge had all the facts in the Apache case, she never would have ruled the way she did. Here is what the judge said:

RTS is not a participant in the OTG. It is not registered as a broker with the SEC. or the self-regulating industry, organizations FINRA and SIPC. Apache argues that RTS is not a broker but an investment adviser, citing its registration as such under Maine law, representations on RAM’s website, and federal regulations barring an investment adviser from serving as a broker or custodian except in limited circumstances … The record suggests that Atlantic Financial Services of Maine. Inc., a subsidiary of RTS that is also not a DIG participant, may be the relevant broker rather than RTS. Atlantic Financial Services did not submit a letter confirming Ghevedden’s stock ownership. RTS did not even mention Atlantic Financial Services in any of its letters to Apache.

After the judge’s ruling, Chevedden was able to follow-up with RTS. RTS confirmed they are a Maine chartered non-depository trst company and that they do, in fact, directly hold his shares in an account (under the name Ram Trust Services) with Northern Trust. Their letter made no mention of AFS because AFS plays no role in the custody of his shares. For purposes of Rule 14a-8, RTS is the record holder of his securties. The judge ruled “narrowly” against Chevedden because she thought AFS might be the real record holder.

Shareowners can rest easier knowing the SEC, which is more familiar with not only its own rules but with the structure of the financial industry, isn’t making the same error.  First the SEC rejected arguments by Gibson Dunn on behalf of Union Pacific on March 26, 2010. More recently, in a letter dated April 20, 2010, the SEC rejected a similar no-action request by Mayer Brown on behalf of Devon Energy. Mayer Brown offered the following:

Specifically, in Apache Corp, the court found that a letter from RTS, intended to establish the Proponent’s satisfaction of Rule 14a-8 ownership requirements with respect to another public company, was insufficient for that purpose because RTS purported to be the Proponent’s “introducing broker” but is not, in fact, a registered broker. RTS was also not a registered holder of the securities at issue, and was not a DTC participant. For these reasons, the court found that a letter fromRTS was unreliable and could not satisfy the eligibility requirement of the Proponent under Rule 14a-8. See Apache Corp. v. Chevedden, a copy ofwhich is attached as Exhibit C.

The SEC responded:

We are unable to concur in your view that Devon Energy may exclude the proposal under rules 14a-8(b) and 14a-8(f). Accordingly, we do not believe that Devon Energy may omit the proposal from its proxy materials in reliance on rules 14a-8(b) and 14a-8( f).

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Eli Lilly

A proposal to remove an 80% approval threshold for takeover bids against the wishes of Lilly’s board received approval from shareholders owning 74% of Lilly’s shares. But to pass, the proposal needed the approval of investors holding 80 percent of all of Lilly’s outstanding shares.

Another Lilly proposal aimed at improving governance also failed to get the necessary supermajority: to hold annual elections of directors, rather than staggered elections under current bylaws. Some 75% of shares outstanding were voted in favor of that proposal.

Both items were pushed by activists such as John Chevedden and CalPERS. However, this year, even with Lilly’s board behind the measures, they still didn’t get the 80% approval needed. Chevedden speculates the problem may be the Lilly Endowment, Inc., which controls 11% of the vote. Maybe the Endowment is acting like the US Treasury. (Shareholders fail to remove Lilly’s anti-takeover provision, Indianapolis Business Journal, 4/19/10 and Lilly’s Bid To End Supermajority Rule Misses Supermajority, WSJ, 4/19/10) Reform seems to be a very long time coming.

This just in:

This year, it appears that the Lilly Endowment, the company’s largest shareholder with an 11.8 percent stake, opposed the proposals. The endowment has voted against declassification measures in the past. It appears that the endowment is concerned that removing takeover defenses might expose the company to a hostile acquisition and cause Lilly to leave its hometown of Indianapolis. The private foundation, which is independent of the company, was founded in 1937 by Lilly family members and has a separate board. (Lilly’s Supermajority Rules Stymie Reform Again, RiskMetrics Group, 4/20/10)

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Jim Crow "Protections" for Retail Shareowners

A strange revolution, or perhaps a counter-revolution against management excesses, is under way, a quiet and orderly one of small capitalists, determined to win democracy and fair treatment from the tycoons they pay to manage American business. — Lewis D. Gilbert, Dividends and Democracy, 1956

John Chevedden sent me an e-mail over the weekend, attaching two examples of the prejudice shown by on-line voting using a voter information form (VIF) from Prudential. The fact that the example is from Prudential is immaterial… it could be from just about any company in the US. The current system of VIFs that go out to retail investors not only makes me wonder if the revolution that Gilbert spoke of ever occurred, it also hearkens back to days when women could only influence their vote through men, blacks had to take a literacy test or pay a poll tax and earlier, when voting was restricted to men of property. From Chevedden’s e-mail:

  • By pushing one button a shareowner can vote as recommended by management. A fair ballot would also allow a shareowner to push one button to vote against management’s recommendations.
  • The ballot adds language to the shareowner’s proposal that only “if properly presented at the meeting” will the vote count. However, the same provision applies to management proposals and the VIF provides no such warning. By including the language only on shareowner proposals, the VIF tells the voter that he or she is potentially wasting their vote because there is the likelihood that all votes on the shareowner proposal will be thrown out if the shareowner fails to have the proposal presented.  It is another way saying that the proponent is irresponsible because of the likelihood they will fail to present their proposal.

Of course, I’ve already enumerated several other defaults in the VIF system.

  • Actual proxies must include a bold-face warning if blank votes will be turned into votes for management. VIFs typically include a practically microscopic footnote. Then after you cast your preliminary vote, it is easier to see how your blanks will be voted; see this example at Mattel. Of course, if you do notice how your blanks have changed and you try to go back to fill in the blanks, you are punished because the system then requires you to vote all over again. The votes you want to remain valid have all disappeared.
  • Actual proxy ballot titles have to clear and impartial. VIFs, are apparently drafted by management and might be edited by Broadridge without any requirement that they be either clear or impartial.
  • Actual proxy ballot titles have to actually state the nature of the item being voted. VIFs can simply refer retail investors back to the actual text, buried in a different document, the proxy.
  • While each failure of VIFs to meet the legal requirements of proxies acts as an impediment to fair voting, the combination of factors has a multiplicative, rather than additive effect. For example, if the VIF includes no summary but merely refers the retail shareowner to the proxy, shareowners are less likely to bother voting that item. If they see the warning that their vote may not count, because the item many not be presented at the meeting, they are again less likely to vote that item. If they don’t vote the item, their blank vote will be changed to a vote in favor of management’s recommendation.

Why are most votes cast using proxies that have to meet various legal requirements to ensure fair elections but when it comes to retail shareowners, the SEC appears to be unconcerned with issues such as clarity and fairness?

Most retail shareowners are not sophisticated investors. Laws require that the majority of investors in a hedge fund be accredited. That is, they must earn a minimum amount of money annually and have a net worth of more than $1 million, along with a significant amount of investment knowledge.

I don’t always agree that small investors should be discriminated against, denied the ability to invest in  hedge funds. However, at least I understand the logic of protecting the “little guy” against potentially unrecoverable risk. Someone thinks it is for their own good.

Yet, as much as I try, I can’t understand how it can possibly be in the best interest of retail shareowners that VIFs don’t have to meet the legal requirements of actual proxies. Voting with a VIF feels a little too much like landowners “consulting” with their peasants, slaves or wives and then casting ballots “on their behalf.” Is it “for our own good?”

I previously discussed specific cases when I filed a petition with the SEC last year to stop blank votes from turning into votes for management and when I posted Investors Against Genocide Fighting American Funds, Broadridge and Vague SEC Requirements: More Problems Solved Using Direct Registration. See also “Corrected” Ballot at Altrea Tips Votes to Management.

Where is the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Huffington Post or even the Motley Fool on this issue? There must be more people concerned with Jim Crow laws for retail shareowners.  VIFs and legal proxies are not equal. I urge readers to bring this discrimination to the attention of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee through use of their online comment form and to Chairman Mary Schapiro via e-mail.

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