The deadline to submit nominations for the 2013 NACD Directorship 100 has been extended. Take a moment to nominate the most influential individuals in and around the boardroom for 2013 NACD Directorship 100, Director of the Year, and B. Kenneth West Lifetime Achievement honors before nominations close May 10. Submit Nomination.
Tag Archives | NACD
Last year I attended the NACD Directorship 100, proud to be listed again a worthy of being watched. This year, even though so honored, I won’t be able to make this important learning event. Learning event? Aren’t these functions mostly just networking opportunities? They are both. No one should question the value of such functions as networking opportunities. Who better to meet than the Directorship 100 (and even the ones to watch)? But I just noticed the October edition of NACD Directorship provides evidence of learning beyond even what those putting on the event might have expected. Amazingly I may have played a small part in it. Continue Reading →
Boards ranging from small-cap companies to the Fortune 10 are currently working with NACD Board Advisory Services to facilitate confidential and independent evaluations of their boards and directors. Continue Reading →
The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) sent a letter to ISS commenting on their recent policy proposal: Board Response to Majority-Supported Shareholder Proposals. Continue Reading →
M&A activity is on the rise, and recent decisions by the Delaware Chancery Court make the stakes for directors higher than ever. The businesspersons and lawyers on this panel offered plenty of insights about the life-cycle of a current M&A transaction from initial market check to consummation and then follow-up litigation, pointing out the all-too-frequent pitfalls for directors. Continue Reading →
Sacramento, CA (Oct. 8, 2012) — James McRitchie download <http://corpgov.net/files/2009/03/resume2012.pdf>, Publisher of Corporate Governance (aka, CorpGov.net) <http://corpgov.net>, has been named to the 2012 National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) Directorship 100’s “People to Watch” in recognition of his exemplary leadership in influencing corporate boards and for promoting the highest standards of corporate governance. Selected by the NACD Directorship Editorial Advisory Committee and the NACD Board of Directors, the
NACD Directorship 100 recognizes the most influential leaders in the boardroom and corporate governance community. Continue Reading →
National Association of Corporate Directors, Silicon Valley Chapter, Inc. Interview with: Ken Denman, Former President & CEO, Openwave Systems, Inc. Hosted by: Abe Friedman, Managing Partner, CamberView Partners Continue Reading →
BlackRock and the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) issued an invitation to undergraduate and graduate students, PhD researchers and university faculty to participate in a Continue Reading →
See details of upcoming meeting on the DNA of a successful board below. Richard Levy, chairman of Varian Medical Systems, talks with Jim Balassone, executive-in-residence at the Continue Reading →
The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) opened nominations for the sixth annual NACD Directorship 100, which includes the Director of the Year and B. Kenneth West Lifetime Achievement Awards. Continue Reading →
Hopefully, it can mostly be attributable to early stage growth but Fenwick & West’s Corporate Governance Practices and Trends: A Comparison of Large Public Companies and Silicon Valley Companies found significant differences between the Continue Reading →
On October 9, 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law bills that create two new corporate forms in California: Continue Reading →
This is the second of a two part report on the NACD Directorship 100 program in New York on November 8-9. See part one.
Human Capital, Risk and Reward Continue Reading →
China presents enormous opportunities for Silicon Valley companies, but it also offers a very different regulatory, cultural, financial and operational paradigm for boards and executives. What should you know when contemplating investments, operations or acquisitions in China? How should you balance the often conflicting requirements of U.S. and Chinese regulators? What do best practices look like? How can you comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in a culture where acceptable norms can be very different than in the U.S.? Watch this video from a recent SVNACD event.
NACD’s Directorship 100 Forum will start shortly at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. If you are unable to attend, you might want to follow the tweets of @adamquinton, @dougchia, @DrRLeblanc, @fayfeeney, @corpgovnet and @UrmiAshar, along with @NACD. Search #NACDD100.
(Elk Grove, CA, September 20, 2011) — CorpGov.net is pleased to announce that Publisher, James McRitchie has been named for the second year in a row to the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD’s) 2011 Directorship 100 list of “People to Watch,” in recognition of his work promoting the highest standards of corporate governance.
James McRitchie will be among those recognized at a gala dinner on November 8 at Continue Reading →
It is often said that “the most important function of a board is to hire and fire the CEO.” Yet the experience of many is that boards do a pretty good job on the hiring front and a not-so-good job on the “exit.”
The Silicon Valley Chapter of the National Association of Corporate Directors will hold a session on September 15, 2011 focusing on the pitfalls of CEO changes and how to avoid them. There will be a candid discussion between an experienced CEO and an experienced chairman of a board, facilitated and led by Rich Moran, a member of our board of directors.
7:30-8:00 a.m. Continental Breakfast; 8:00-9:30 a.m. Program
Yes, it is an ad… but a good one. Maybe this will help more directors become Continue Reading →
In response to the SEC request for comment on say-on-pay rules, the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) issued formal concerns, cautioning against dependency on regular, yes-or-no votes.
NACD’s opinions are grounded in its more than 30 years of proprietary research across a broad range of board leadership and corporate governance topics, insights expressed through confidential peer exchanges with its membership spanning F100 through mid-cap and small cap companies, and best practices detailed in its Blue Ribbon Commission reports. NACD’s comments were reinforced by a national survey that drew 280 responses from its members.
Representing the voice of its more than 10,000 corporate director members, NACD urges the SEC not to issue universal requirements, but to allow companies to determine the most appropriate means of communicating with and seeking feedback from shareholders as a more effective governance practice. Additionally, NACD provided the SEC with specific views on frequency of say-on-pay votes, say on golden parachutes and other matters pertaining to executive compensation on behalf of the director community.
NACD appreciates the symbolic value of say-on-pay. However, we believe it is a poor substitute for dialogue. It is much more valuable to have shareholder communication well in advance of plans or votes on plans. Say-on-pay is a yes-or-no, backward-looking vote that may have little utility except to express a very general shareholder view of a pay plan already in effect,
the Association wrote in a letter signed by Honorable Barbara H. Franklin, chairman of NACD and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and Ken Daly, NACD’s president and CEO.
In addition to the survey, NACD cited recent board research indicating that dialogue between companies and institutional investors is increasing. Additionally, say-on-pay votes for early adopters has been substantially positive, calling out the potential for say-on-pay voting to become a meaningless and burdensome ritual for companies and shareholders alike. According to the organization’s letter, “NACD would urge caution in the area of rulemaking. Compensation terms can be interpreted in an overly broad manner, regulating areas that are best left alone.”
Issues also under SEC consideration where NACD offered an opinion include:
- Small company exemption: NACD strongly supports an exemption on say-on-pay for small companies (those with less than $75 million in public float), as the compliance and paperwork requirements are particularly costly for small businesses that can less easily absorb the cost. Notably, 73 percent of respondents in the director survey indicated preference for small business exemption.
- Superclawbacks in financial institutions: NACD encourages the SEC to work alongside it in serving as a “voice of reason” when identifying standards and process for whether directors and officers of a company are in fact “substantially responsible” for insolvency. NACD has concerns of this rule being misused for “witch hunts.”
- SEC disclosure rules regarding compensation consultant conflicts: NACD urges caution that a consultant for an independent board committee should not be considered in conflict just because it performs a significant amount of work. The key point is that the same consultant does not also work for management, a position long-held by NACD and first raised in its 2003 Blue Ribbon Commission report.
- Recovery of executive compensation: NACD has serious concerns that this provision is ripe for abuse, and may unfairly target honest executives whose compensation and bonus was reasonably earned. NACD recommends an exemption for companies that obtain shareholder approval for retention of the originally rewarded compensation.
- Disclosure of pay for performance and pay ratios of CEO to median pay of all other employees: Pay for performance, as detailed in the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Performance Metrics: Understanding the Board’s Role, is a value that has long been championed by NACD and practiced by its members. Boards of directors should be able to express how they link pay to performance. However, NACD cautions that companies should be provided the flexibility to describe their philosophy in their own terms, and disclosures should be allowed to vary. NACD commends the SEC for its decision to postpone implementation of pay ratio rules until after the next proxy season. The median pay figure can be highly misleading for a number of reasons, particularly for a global company.
- Exemption for newly public companies from issuing a say-on-pay vote: With 72 percent of directors indicating preference for exemption, directors believe road shows for IPOs already offer investors ample opportunity to evaluate compensation packages. Furthermore, these requirements place a focus on process during a critical growth phase of a newly public company.
- “Golden parachute” plans during exceptional corporate transactions (e.g., mergers and acquisitions): NACD does not believe it is necessary to require disclosure during M&A periods above and beyond what is required of companies in general. However, NACD strongly supports disclosure requirements for any newly named executive officers of the company following a merger or acquisition, a view supported by 79 percent of directors surveyed. Any senior executive at a target company joining the leadership of an acquiring company is important, and stockholders have the right to know about leadership.
- Disclosure of previous say-on-pay: Aligned with 79 percent of surveyed directors, NACD recommends that only the most recent say-on-pay vote should be disclosed. In the current proposal, issuers are required to consider “previous” votes on compensation, but the proposal does not offer a specific definition of “previous.”
“NACD represents the collective voice of the director, and we urge the SEC to closely consider these clear messages coming from America’s boardrooms as it continues to implement new regulations,” said Daly.
I was never a big fan of say on pay to begin with but if we’re going to have it, personally I can’t see carving out so many exemptions as NACD recommends. In my experience, small companies are in greater need of corporate governance “guidance” than many large companies. If the paperwork is burdensome, that should be addressed by reducing paperwork requirements, not through exemptions. Sometimes I wonder if NACD represents the needs of the shareowners its members represent or the more parochial interests of its members… operating like a union for directors. Your thoughts?
It had been months since I’d attended an SVNACD breakfast meetings. Top talent was on hand, both among the panelists and in the audience. The facility at Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati was great. Sorry about photo quality… first time working with a new camera that I may not keep.
As usual, my notes are cryptic, without much of an attempt to thread coherent sentences. I’m tempted to say the following is for entertainment purposes only, but that would be too escapist. Corrections, comments and better photos are welcome.
My purpose is to provide readers with a sense of what was discussed and highlight a few areas. It may help you know what to investigate further and you’ll be that much more incentivised to attend in person to get answers to your concerns. Continue Reading →
I’m very honored to have made an NACD Directorship list. No, not the illustrious “Directorship 100,” billed as “the veritable who’s who of the American corporate governance community.” Instead, I’m on a “short list of movers and shakers who merit serious attention as potential boardroom influentials. This new feature of the Directorship 100 recognizes a few outstanding individuals who, by virtue of what they do and how they do it, bear watching.”
Thanks to whoever nominated me. Great to be on a list that includes Vineeta Anand (AFL-CIO) Kenneth Bertch (Morgan Stanley), Francis H. Byrd (The Altman Group), Paul Lapides (Kennesaw State University), Gary Lutin (Shareholder Forum), Frank Partnoy (University of San Diego), Francis G.X. Pileggi (Blogger on DE Courts) and several others, some of whom I have admired and followed many years.
Coming up with the short list or the Directorship 100 would appear to be a tough job. Someone highly influential will always be missing, even if they’ve been there in years past. For example, this year where is Nell Minow? She’s still the queen of quotes and as influential as ever, as far as I’m concerned. And if they are going to consider bloggers like me, where is Broc Romanek? Doesn’t everyone read theCorporateCounsel.net? What about Jay Brown’s theRacetotheBottom.org?
Anyway, thanks NACD… I’m watching you too and honored to be on your short list. NACD does good work. Proxy access offers them an opportunity to provide training on how to be or how to word with “dissident” board members.
While I’m on the topic of lists and watching each other, I also made J.W. Verret’s list of My Favorite Corporate Law Blogs. “Corpgov.net. Always good to keep an eye on what the other side is up to. Jim McRitchie blogs about the latest developments in shareholder activism.”
I feel the same way about Verret. For example, his Defending Against Shareholder Proxy Access: Delaware’s Future Reviewing Company Defenses in the Era of Dodd-Frank feels too much like providing advice on how to circumvent the law to me. I’m not nuts about paying taxes but I certainly see it as a moral duty and don’t look for every possible loophole, especially anything of borderline legality.
Boards that use many of his “defenses” will simply stir unwanted animosity among their shareowners. Better to try to work together. (For example, see Proxy Access: Be Sure Your Board Is Ready by Beverly Behan, BusinessWeek, 8/31/10 and/or 2011 Proxy Season: The First 100 Days—How to Get Ready for the Brave New World of Say on Pay and Proxy Access, BoardMember.com)
However, from “the other side,” it is good to know what loopholes may need plugged. Verret’s on my blogroll too, under Truth on the Market.
President Obama just signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Time/CNN coverage). The Act contains a number of governance-related provisions that will affect all U.S. public companies—and their boards, and is likely to increase the influence of shareowners in corporate governance matters almost immediately. The NACD and Weil, Gotshal & Manges are putting on a complimentary webinar to help you understand the bill’s likely impact. Although focused on boards, I’m sure it will be very informative to shareowners as well. Registration. Overview of the act. Friday, July 30, 2PM-3:15PM (Eastern time)
On June 29th the Northern California Chapter of the National Association for Corporate Directors held a low-cost high-quality lunch-time meeting at the headquarters of the California Chamber of Commerce. Now that we have wrapped up the 2010 Proxy Season with issues this year like executive compensation, risk management and high profile withhold campaigns for some Directors, how did it go? What lessons did we learn?
Moderator: Anne Sheehan is Director of Corporate Governance of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS). Prior to that, she served as Chief Deputy Director for Policy at the California Department of Finance, serving on more than 80 boards, commissions, and authorities on behalf of the Director of Finance. She also served as the Executive Director of the Governor’s Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits. Anne Sheehan was appointed to the CalPERS Board in December 2007 as the designated representative of the State Personnel Board. She was named one of the 100 most influential people on corporate governance by Directorship Magazine in 2008 and 2009.
Panelists: Lydia Beebe, Corporate Secretary and Chief Governance Officer, Chevron Corporation, a position she assumed in 1995. She serves on the board of directors of the Council of Institutional Investors and the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals where she was past chairman. In her remarks, Ms. Beebe initially focused on corporate disclosures required by the SEC. In that context, the proxy season was “predictable,” given new disclosures for compensation. Such disclosures take up an increasing amount of space.
Beebe pondered the idea that perhaps some thought should be given to getting rid of some parts that may be less informative than others. Perhaps by example, she noted that with regard to director qualifications, companies aren’t likely to use that disclosure requirement to tip their hat concerning which directors, if any should be voted out.
Given the BP spill and new disclosure requirements, risk analysis is getting increased attention at Chevron. Like many of us, she thought the industry was well beyond such accidents. The Gulf spill will have repercussions for many years to come. Boardroom discussions around risk have increased. What is the right balance regarding board involvement? How can we be sure our processes are being followed on the ground? Careful auditing is essential. Compared crisis of management vs crisis of lack of oversight. Boards have a thirst to know and to weigh risks from the geopolitical to the geological.
She also noted what might be an increased trend of plaintiffs or their allies using shareowner proposals to further their lawsuits. She also expressed some regret and frustration over increased security requirements around annual meetings. (Activists rally at Chevron’s Houston offices during shareholders’ meeting, Houston Business Journal, 5/26/10)
Abe Friedman, Director of Corporate Governance, BlackRock. BlackRock is one of the world’s preeminent asset management firms and a premier provider of global investment management, risk management and advisory services to institutional, intermediary and individual investors around the world. As of March 31, 2010, BlackRock’s assets under management total US $3.36 trillion. Friedman
is responsible for the firms proxy voting efforts worldwide. The biggest surprise of this year’s season was how boring it was with regard to substance and new issues. Companies appear more willing than ever to engage. As evidence of that, CalPERS had no focus list this year because they were able to negotiate changes with potential targets. He thinks the trend is engagement and there are more opportunities for shareowner voices to be heard. However, he did caution that willingness to engage with shareowners may reduce if the economy improves substantially.
Friedman reiterated his opinion, that I have heard and covered at many other venues, that “say on pay” is a bad idea for investors and will likely provide insulation to boards that can point back to shareowner approval. Shareholders aren’t equipped to set pay or determine compensation in advance. Voting out compensation committees is a better strategy. He speculated that a few high profile cases could do more for adjusting compensation to risk that say on pay.
Bob McCormick, Chief Policy Officer, Glass Lewis & Co. manages the analysis and drafting of 18,000 Proxy Paper research reports on shareholder meetings of public companies in 80 countries. Previously, McCormick was the Director of Investment Proxy Research at Fidelity Management & Research Co. He serves on the International Corporate Governance Network’s Cross-Border Voting Practices and
Securities Lending committees. McCormick was named one of the 100 most influential people on corporate governance by Directorship magazine in 2008 and 2009. McCormick sees global convergence across borders as one trend that continued this year. Trends to influence election of directors, obtain more information, increased use of voting rights.
There seems to be a private ordering around issues like majority voting requirements.He also sees more engagement with shareowners. Perhaps there was a learning phase or trust building required. BP and Massey drove the focus on risk. Asked about the need to a separate board risk committee, McCormick, like the others, said it depended on a number of factors. If the board has never really managed risk, then a separate risk committee or manager reporting to the board will guarantee at least a discussion. On the other hand, compensation committees need to be aware of risk and how it relates to incentives. The audit committee also needs to be aware, so companies shouldn’t shunt risk off to one committee.
A study cited in the Sutherland and The Altman Group webinar discussed below found that 8% of surveyed companies have primary responsibility for risk management resting with the board. 34% is with 1 or more committees and 52% said both board and various committees have responsibility for risk oversight.
Great questions from the audience… need to validate subcontractor skills and performance. Discussion around perhaps higher need for risk committees at insurance companies. Ideally best nominations come from nominating committees because they know the strengths and weaknesses of the existing board. However, when they fail, proxy access will be useful as long as it is used judicially. Interesting stories from insiders, as well as international examples of rights and problems that may be coming our way.
It was close to a full house, a great little buffet, wonderful discussion and when I got the last question I asked about how funds decided to withhold votes on directors. Leading factors seem to be:
- Compensation committee members where there were large gaps relative to performance.
- Audit committee members and others when there is a crisis.
- Poor performance, coupled with poor governance.
- When directors repeatedly ignore the will of shareowners by not enacting proposals that have passed twice.
For another perspective on the 2010 proxy season, see Ted Allen’s The ISS Preliminary U.S. Postseason Report, available to subscribers of theCorporateCounsel.net and probably available somewhere at RiskMetrics.com, although I can’t seem to find it. A few highlights:
- Despite warnings from some corporate advisers that the end of broker voting in uncontested board elections would unleash a surge of withhold votes this year, the number of directors who failed to receive majority support remained about the same.
- One of the most notable developments this season occurred at Motorola, when the electronics company became the first-ever U.S. issuer to fail to win majority support during a management-sponsored advisory vote on compensation.
- After reaching a record high in 2009, fewer governance proposals filed by shareholders obtained majority support this season. As of June 15, 117 (30.2 percent) of the 388 proposals that went to a vote garnered majority approval, down from 150 (or 35.2 percent) of the 426 proposals on the ballot during the same period in 2009.
- “Say on pay” resolutions were averaging 44.1 percent support at 47 companies.
- Resolutions seeking to rescind supermajority voting rules were averaging 69.6 percent approval at 32 firms.
- For declassification proposals, there was 60.2 percent average support at 55 companies.
- Right of a majority of investors to act by written consent averaged 54.7 percent approval at 16 firms this season.
- Special meeting resolutions were averaging 43 percent support at 43 firms, down from 51.8 percent in 2009, as companies increasingly adopt 25% or higher standards to avoid the 10% demanded by shareowners.
- Independent board chair resolutions were averaging 28.9 percent support at 36 annual meetings, down from 38.8 percent during the same period in 2009.
- Majority voting proposals averaged 57.6 percent approval at 29 companies, up from 51.3 percent in 2009.
From a review by Sutherland and The Altman Group. (I presume it will be posted to the Articles portion of the The Altman Group site. If not, contact Cynthia M. Krus at Sutherland or Francis H. Byrd at The Altman Group.)
There was no huge perfect storm that many expected with loss of broker vote. ISS clamped down on compensation committee members in 2009. No further ratcheting in 2010 but companies deserve credit for taking a more proactive stance in 2010.
Some discussion of Dodd-Frank bill. Non-binding Say on Pay at least twice every six years, with variability 1, 2, or 3 years. Many institutions that advocated annual SoP aren’t prepared to vote annually because too much work to look through thousands and thousands of proxies. Management SoP didn’t pass at Occidental, Motorola and KeyCorp. ISS didn’t support management’s recommendation at any of these companies for a variety of reasons.
Issuers can no longer exclude risk assessment or CEO succession planning proposals based on ordinary business exclusion. Presentation went into more detail as to why votes may have turned out as they did in 2010. See Staff Legal Bulletin 14E.
Their webinar focused much more on proxy disclosure rules and how to please both the SEC and RiskMetrics Group. I would think the slides would be useful to all involved in compiling such disclosures for companies. Additionally, a proxy plumbing draft will be released by the SEC soon. See Modernizing the Proxy Voting System: Setting Priorities and Practical Solutions To Improve The Proxy Voting System at The Altman Group.
See also RiskMetrics 2010 Policy Updates: Test of Pay for Performance and List of Problematic Pay Practices Fine-Tuned, Peal Meyer Client Alert from December 2009 and Pay Czar Feinberg’s Best Practice Principles, The Corporate Library, 7/1/10.
Also of interest to NACD members, “Who Watches the Watchers? Why an External Board Evaluation is Most Likely to Result in a Higher-Performing Board.” This article, available from Deloitte, discusses the involvement of a third-party in assisting with the board evaluation process and explores the benefits of having an independent party involved.
First, a precautionary note about this post. These are strictly my impressions. There is no intention here to present juicy findings with regard to any corporation, fund, individual etc. My purpose is simply to help facilitate dialogue and understanding. Keep this in mind as you read my notes, as well as the following. One of the panelists from a government agency began with the standard disclaimers about how what he said was his opinion alone and did not necessarily reflect the views of his agency. Ted Mirvis, a partner with Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz interrupted, as I recall, saying something to the effect that he not only disavows the applicability of any of his statements to his firm, he also disavows their applicability to himself. That got a laugh, but says it all. The conference was the perfect venue for throwing out ideas and seeing what sticks… what resonates with those attending. We can learn a lot from that. Of course, there were also plenty of hard facts.
Your comments and especially your corrections are welcome. To comment directly on the blog, you’ll need to register first. Just press the “No comments” button and it wil step you through registration, if you aren’t already registered. (This process cuts down on spam.) If you don’t want to bother registering, you can always e-mail your comments directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your feedback on my coverage, the topics and the conference itself are important to me.
Prior to the dinner, there was a networking reception held outside the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice… a wonderful facility in a beautiful setting overlooking the northern part of San Diego. My little point and shoot camera can’t do the place justice. I’m sure the Forum will have much better photos on their site, perhaps on the Conference Materials page where you will find a wealth of studies, books and other resources.
Keynote: The Honorable Leo E. Strine, Jr., vice chancellor, Delaware Court of Chancery.
At the dinner to kick off Directors Forum 2010, Strine’s main point seemed to be that we can’t expect corporations to act in the long-term interest of shareowners if most investors are rewarding short-term performance. He looks at corporations as republics, rather than direct democracies. Regarding proxy access, he appears to favor the opt-in option to encourage innovation without imposing a government mandate. Shareowners who propose changes should have long-term holdings, whereas most activists hold only a short time. They should have a substantial positive interest and disclosure should be required so we know they aren’t shorting.
Adolph Berle discussed separation of ownership from management and control but now we have separation of ownership from ownership. Too many fund managers are looking out for their own interests, rather than those of beneficial owners. Hedge funds are turning over their shares three times a year. Active mutual funds are holding only for a year on average. At the NYSE turnover was 130% in 2008 and 250% in 2009. Owning Intel 14 times in 10 years isn’t being a long-term owner by Strine’s measure. Institutional investors have been too little concerned with risk management and utilizing leverage. Too many are focused on getting rid of takeover defenses, stock buy-backs and replacing CEOs who don’t yield the highest short-term returns. We’ve been driven to the point that 280 out of the S&P 500 spent more on stock buy-backs than on investments.
Strine ended by quickly throwing out some reform ideas to consider. I didn’t get them all down but here are a few:
- Pricing and tax to discourage short-termism.
- Build fundamental risk analysis into corporate governance measures.
- Compensation of investment managers based on the horizons of beneficiaries and beneficial owners.
- 401(k) and college plans consistent with those time horizons.
- Indexes should act and vote consistent with long-term
- Limitations on leveraging and disclosure by hedge funds
- Fixing the definition of “sophisticated investors.” Many trustees are sophisticated investors and shouldn’t be able to take their funds into unregulated pools. If pools dry up, that may lead hedge funds to disclose, since they need that capital.
- We need to know more about hedge funds – your positions, your voting policies, etc.
- Investors should focus less on leverage and gimmicks, more on real cash flow and perfecting business strategies. Let’s get away from checklist proposals.
See also Overcoming Short-termism: A Call for a More Responsible Approach to Investment and Business Management, The Aspen Institute. Also of note is Governance at Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, The Corporate Library Blog, 2/5/10. Most of the companies which excel in the employee satisfaction are privately held. Among those that are public, company founders or families have a disproportionate ownership stake. These firms feel less pressure to meet quarterly expectations and can take more of a long-term perspective.
Welcome & Introductions from Linda Sweeney, executive director, Corporate Directors Forum; Larry Stambaugh, conference program chairman, Corporate Directors Forum. I must say, Linda, Larry, Cyndi Richson and Jim Hale have built this conference into a premier event.
Plenary Session: Shareholder Hot Topics
Moderator Cynthia L. Richson, president, Richson Consulting Group; former member, PCAOB Standing Advisory Group, former head of corporate governance, OPERS & SWIB. Panelists – Patrick S. McGurn, special counsel, RiskMetrics Group , ISS Governance Services; Jennifer Salopek, chairman, Charlotte Russe Holding, Inc. principal, ARC Business Advisors LLC; Andrew E. Shapiro, president, Lawndale Capital Management, LLC; John Wilson, director, Corporate Governance, TIAA-CREF.
Again, there was some focus by panel members of long-term vs. short. Are compliance driven measures and the use of compensation consultants driving oversized compensation? Some seem concerned that directors are more focused on compliance and in developing a plan that can be explained than they are in coming up with the best package. Also of concern, last year’s rally may lead to out-sized awards implemented last March or April.
As several others at the conference also pointed out, options are a vestige of the tax system… better to see restricted stock granted as performance targets are met. The feeling expressed by many is that the tax system shouldn’t be driving the form of C-Suite pay. There is also a tendency by a shareowner elite to focus on exit that leads many companies to underinvest in strategy, R&D, and management systems.
Shapiro sees a wave of management led buyouts on the horizon as well as activism by creditors to address over leveraged balance sheets and liquidity problems. He is buying up debt that can be converted to equity… reamortizing balance sheets. He expects this to continue for several years because of limited economic growth. Management is likely to see the light at the end of the tunnel first and will use that advanced knowledge to look for private buyout opportunities. He sees too many no-shop clauses, rights of first refusal and other deal protectors that give a control premium to management. In these situations, independent directors should seek real competition through an auction.
John Wilson was asked about how proxy access would be impacting TIAA-CREF. He responded that ideally they will have access rights and never use them. Just having that power should lead to more dialogue between shareowners and companies. They will look at each situation individually and may side with as access filer or management.
Pat McGurn said these types of contests will be management’s to lose, not to win. RiskMetrics will need to be convinced of the need for change. It will be something of a last resort, like just vote no campaigns. Many are likely to settle out before proxies are finalized, either through trade-offs or board enlargement. He also noted that out of 12,000 board candidates up for election last year, fewer than 100 didn’t get elected. Many such contests are coming at companies that don’t have majority vote requirements.
Shapiro and others pointed out the real impact of proxy access may be overblown, since not much will be saved by having a universal proxy card. Challengers will still need to campaign and that costs money. Additionally, many hedge funds won’t use it because of the change-in-control exclusion.
Asked about liquidity, Wilson said at TIAA-CREF it is driven more by economic conditions than any growing net-flow of baby boomers out of the workplace. Companies should see long-term shareowners as their allies, not those who acquire rights just before the proxy vote. Again, emphasized the need for constant communication.
Salopek said one of the advantages she has found in having a split chair is increased dialogue with shareowners. Shareowners find it more difficult to talk about concerns, such as about CEO pay, when the CEO is also the chair.
Shapiro emphasized the need for communication, citing its lack as the biggest reason for escalation by funds like his. He also sees that interaction as part of director responsibilities around “duty of care.”
Another panelist cited a university of Santa Cruz study that showed even one woman director on a corporate board led to greater board independence and better financial reports. (sorry, I did a quick search but didn’t find the study) That led to discussion around diversity and the need to apply thinking more broadly. I know that CalPERS and CalSTRS are working to build a pool of potential candidates for proxy access nominations. Diversity will play a large part in developing the list.
Shapiro gave some advice concerning annual meetings, pointing to Warrn Buffett’s practice of calling on individual committee chairs to report their respective parts of the annual report. Also some discussion around virtual meetings with Intel pulling back on their virtual-only meeting, but that web broadcast would allow many more to participate and would make them a real event that could generate a lot of publicity and positive dialogue. (see my posts on this from 1/20/10 and earlier same day)
Wilson’s final advice included papering in a day or two of engagement for directors with shareowners before the meeting. Shapiro similarly recommended calling your top 10 shareowners to hear their concerns… actually check in with several types. Keyword for the panel — communication. Further reading: Activist Shareholder Dialogue, Andrew Shapiro.
Plenary Session: Shareholder Rights AND Responsibilities
Moderator The Honorable Leo E. Strine, Jr., vice chancellor, Delaware Court of Chancery. Panelists – Theodore N. Mirvis, partner, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; Brandon J. Rees, deputy director, office of investment, AFL-CIO; Lynn A. Stout, professor, Corporate and Securities Law, University of California, Los Angeles School of Law; Lynn Turner, managing director, LECG; former chief accountant, SEC; trustee, AARP, Colorado PERA.
We were reminded that individuals still own about a third of all shares, mutual funds and ETFs are the next largest holders with pensions coming in third with about 20%. Turnover by all seems to be going through the roof. While it was about 150% in the early 2000s, it accelerated to 200% and last year 300%.
Among the most pressing issues this season for labor are “say on pay” and proxy access. Compensation plans aligned with long-term interests and holding. Restricted stock awards should be held for five years and preferably beyond retirement. When chasing return and trying to beat the market, active managers are likely to be little concerned with corporate governance or proxy issues. Yet, ideally these should factor into investment decisions. Labor would like to see reforms in the tax code and a very small transaction tax to discourage turnover.
Turner was largely in agreement with Rees up until that transaction tax. He sees the need for taxreforms, greater transparency and much more dialogue, as well as a heightened fiduciary duty that would include better disclosure of conflicts of interest. All funds should have to disclose votes and policies. He also sees too many funds voting for poorly performing corporate directors. As I heard this last point, I couldn’t help thinking, “Yes, but how do we know which are the poorly performing directors?” Maybe the new disclosures required by the SEC will begin to give clues.
Ted Mervis noted a 2003 Conference Board report that investment fundsshouldn’t compensate on a quarterly basis. Yet, that isn’t likely, because funds with the highest returns this year attract the most capital next year… even if there is no correlation in the performance for both years. Perhaps sharowner democracy amounts to “faith-based” corporate governance, since there is so little evidence that shareoweners are really in it for the long-term.
There was some mention that corporations are more likely to talk to activist funds than indexed funds, even though they are less permanent shareowners. I presume this is because activist funds are more likely to spend time and money analyzing the issues, whereas indexed funds, wanting to minimize expenses, may do less.
Stout said there is decades of evidence that trading eats up about 1.5% of return each year. The greater the sharowner power, the higher the issuers turnover.
Rees said he supported indexing, long-term investing, defined benefit plans, disclosure of proxy voting and a reassessment of securities lending practices and rules.
Mervis thinks too many directors may be knowing each other “by name tags” because of increased turnover and less collegiality.
Strine seemed to put forth the idea that shareowner rights aren’t inherently good. In fact, maybe we should embrace shareowner ignorance. Increasing leverage to chase returns can lead to ruin. He agreed with Stout, we need higher fiduciary standards for investors.
Stout seemed disposed to a small transaction tax and thought ERISA standards are needed to limit what funds can invest in. It is also time that companies looked at adopting bylaws limiting those who can file bylaw proposals to those without certain conflicts and derivative positions… maybe shareowners should have to hold for two years. That got a lot of attention from directors in the audience who virtually swarmed Stout at the panel’s conclusion.
For further reading see The Mythical Benefits of Shareholder Control (Stout, 2007) Fiduciary Duties for Activist Shareholders (Iman Anabtawi & Lynn Stout, 10 April 2009) Find more reading from several of the panelists on the Conference Materials page. Personally, Lynn Stout is one of my favorites. I don’t always agree with her conclusions, but she is certainly a creative and stimulating thinker.
Plenary Session: The Fast Changing Regulatory Landscape: Judicial, Congressional and Executive Developments
Moderator Theodore N. Mirvis, partner, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Panelists Rhonda L. Brauer, senior managing director, corporate governance, Georgeson; Byron S. Georgiou, of counsel, Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins LLP, Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission member; Robert Jackson, Jr., deputy special master for executive compensation, Department of the Treasury (aka deputy “pay czar”); Frank Partnoy, George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance; director, University of San Diego Center for Corporate and Securities Law.
Mervis went over the pending proxy access proposal and discussed legislative push for separating board chair and CEO, push against staggered boards, mandatory risk management committees and enhanced disclosures. Some boards are getting ahead of the ball by passing their own measures granting shareowners a say on pay but limiting it to every three years.
Brauer advised boards to be ready with their own proxy access proposals.What alternative does your board want if given and opt out option. Be ready for that possibility and check with your shareowners first.
Jackson advised to look at how your compensation policies might be incentivising risk. Have a discussion before the fact with your shareowners and disclose the process you use to think about risk. Too many financial intermediaries are making decisions that extend over years but are paying bonuses based on only yearly returns.
Partnoy thinks reviewing a “worst case” scenario might be a useful exercise for most companies in developing a risk profile. Partnoy expressed his desire to see financial institutions treated differently.
Georgiou noted the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission got an enormous volume of google searches during its first hearing. Regulators can’t keep up with innovation and need market mechanisms to enforce behavior.
One key reform might be a requirement to have underwriters hold a portion of the securities they create. They should be required to eat their own cooking, maybe also institute clawback provisions for their earnings. Capitalized gains and socialized losses doesn’t work. The issuer paid model is faulty. Even CEOs recently asserted no one should be too big to fail. Discussion around a resolution authority to take down such companies without risk to the larger economy. Problems at seven or eight firms shouldn’t be allowed to infect the whole system.
Lunch Panel: Bad Loans, Gatekeepers and Regulators – Is change on the Horizon or just a Mirage?
Moderator Lynn Turner, managing director, LECG, former chief accountant, SEC; trustee, AARP, Colorado PERA. Panelists – Charles Bowsher, former Comptroller General of the United States & Head of the GAO, director, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA); Kristen Jaconi, former senior policy advisor, for Domestic Finance, US Department of Treasury, former senior counsel to Michael Oxley, US House of Representatives; Barbara Roper, director, investor protection, Consumer Federation of America, member, PCAOB Standing Advisory Group.
Bowsher sees at least part of the problem stemming from traders getting essential control of several banks, like at Enron. Safe and sound banking is important to reestablish. Favors a risk regulator with real stature but is worried that legislation that is 1700 pages long fails to focus.
Roper sees the idea of an individual systemic risk regulator as a reform in name only, since they wouldn’t have the tools to do the job. They need to have the staff, tools and the authority, otherwise reform will be a mirage. See her testimony to Congress here. What we need, if anything is to be accomplished, is a fundamental shift in how we see regulation.
Jaconi says we aren’t thinking big enough. The center of arbitrage is London, not New York. We need to be thinking on the scale of the IMF. Another point she emphasized was the importance of inspections and examinations. Training inspection staff will be critical but there is little notion of that in current proposals.
The consensus of the group seemed to lean in the direction of mostly mirage with some substantive reform. The public has embraced say on pay but watered down derivative regulations appear likely to mostly miss the mark.
Plenary Session: Risk Management: Monitoring for Known and Unknown Risks Moderator James Hale, former EVP, general counsel & corporate secretary, Target Corp.; director, The Tennant Company. Panelists Heidi M. Hoard Wilson, VP, general counsel & corporate secretary, The Tennant Company; Stephen A. Karnas, director, Mars, Incorporated; Lynn Turner, managing director, LECG; former chief accountant, SEC; trustee, AARP, Colorado PERA.
Wilson discussed their extensive process at Tennant, from weekly meetings, board involvement, measuring probability and potential costs, disaster recovery plans, their ranking process, supply chains, etc. She discussed the need to pay special attention to sole source suppliers. You need to know who to turn to if they go bankrupt.
Karnas described his experience at Mars and their use of a chief risk officer primarily functioning as facilitator. Their process is top down as well as bottom up, a little different than that of their recent acquisition, Wrigley, which views risk primarily from a centralized perspective. He discussed how each work and how they are likely to be integrated. Interestingly, the Mars board gets very involved, apparently traveling on a bus, during quarterly Board weeks, to their factories so they can view the production process and operations and become very familiar with risk at the core business level.
Turner discussed his approach as one of finding out keeps them up at night. Ask your external auditor what are the top five risk areas at your company and at the competition. Ask the executives the same and note differences. What are the key trends in marketing, spending rates… key dashboard issues. How do you get to know risks that don’t get communicated? He stressed the need for a bottom up process, as well as top down.
The consensus of the group was that risk is an issue that should be addressed by the full board, not shuffled off to an individual committee… although it may be important for the board to get input from multiple committees.
Plenary Session: A Compensation Committee in Action (A Socratic Dialogue)
Moderator Larry Stambaugh, chairman & CEO, Cryoport, Inc., principal, Apercu Consulting. Panelists – James Hale, former EVP, general counsel & corporate secretary, Target Corp., director, The Tennant Company; Garry Ridge, president & CEO, WD-40 Company; Anne Sheehan, Director of Corporate Governance at CalSTRS; Matthew T. Stinner, senior managing director, Pearl Meyer & Partners.
This was an interesting play-like exercise that was so much fun, I failed to take notes. However, I do recall the pretend CEO using that famous line, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” in response to a question from the compensation committee. It was a good discussion of the factors of what goes into pay for performance and the importance of what gets left out that isn’t recognized until after the fact.
Key points: Most companies don’t factor in consideration of performance relative to peers or even the market… and they probably should. Plans should be simple and easily understood but driving compensation based on a single metric, like net income, probably results in too narrow of a focus. Payouts should be held for 3-5 years to emphasize longer term thinking. Further reading: Compensation Committee topics on BoardMember.com and Compensation Season 2010 (Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz)(PDF).
Dinner and Keynote Speaker; John J. Castellani, president, Business Roundtable
Castellani asserted there is a cultural divide between public thinking reflected by Congress and that of business leaders that is not unlike the divide between C.P. Snow’s scientists and nonscientists. The public wants many thing from business: high quality, employment, good stewardship, earnings, shared sacrifice. They see little difference between finance and other sectors… lumping all large businesses together. Board attention is generally more concentrated on good earnings and stock performance.
Congress suffers from ignorance regarding how businesses work. They think boards are constituent based. They think boards operate like Congress does. The prevailing view is that directors are rubber stamps of CEOs. Yet, the truth is that CEOs are practically an endangered species (my term, not his)… going from a tenure of 8 1/2 years in 2006 to 4.1. He sees most of the reforms like “say on pay” and separating CEO and chair positions as a “relief valve” for American frustration with bigness and fears there will be unintended consequences.
We need to help politicians understand how businesses work. He noted that the costs and performance of the U.S. health care system have put America’s companies and workers at a significant competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace. (see Business Roundtable Health Care Value Comparability Study) People hate insurance companies and banks. They are looking for shared sacrifice. For further reading: John J. Castellani’s blog entries on the Huffington Post.
Plenary Session: Insider’s View of Surviving a Proxy Contest
Moderator Karin Eastham, director, Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Illumina, Inc., Genoptix, Inc., Geron Corporation. Panelists – Daniel M. Bradbury, president & CEO, Amylin Pharmaceuticals; Daniel H. Burch, chairman, CEO & co-founder, Mackenzie Partners, Inc.; Suzanne M. Hopgood, director of board advisory services, National Association of Corporate Directors director, Acadia Trust Realty, Point Blank Solutions Inc.; James P. Melican, senior advisor, Ridgeway Partners, former chairman, PROXY Governance, Inc.; Alison S. Ressler, partner, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
One discussion during the session was the problem that during a proxy fight, particularly in a three card proxy fight, shareowners can split their vote between cards, picking the best directors from each advocate. However, that opinion was not universal. The opposing viewpoint was that slates are good because they are more likely to result in an integrated board and directors with complimentary vetted skills.
It was a very informative session focused mostly around Amylin Pharmaceuticals, in addition to several experiences of Ms. Hopgood. Aside from three proxy cards at Amylin, the company also had three previous CEOs on their board, one as chairman. Takeaway points for me were as follows:
- Things generally go worse when the company refuses to talk. Earlier is better.
- RiskMetrics doesn’t seek to review a strategic plan from dissident slates unless they are seeking a change of control.
- Most dissident groups are giving more thought to their director candidates these days… no longer mostly relatives.
- Hire a good proxy solicitor.
- Review corporate governance practices and consider eliminating those that are unpopular with media, like shareholder rights plans (poison pills). If you are going to make changes, do it before the contest.
- Identify possible conflicts of interest all around.
- Don’t retain CEOs on the board after they leave.
- Pay close attention to board skill sets and succession planning.
- Learn what shareowners are thinking.
- Dissidents shouldn’t assume they’ll get the votes if the stock price tumbles.
Plenary Session: What is the Director’s Job Today, and How Does He or She Prepare for It?
Moderator Kenneth Daly, president & CEO, National Association of Corporate Directors. Panelists – John T. Dillon, director, Caterpillar, Inc., Kellogg, Company, DuPont; Matthew M. Orsagh, director, Capital Markets Policy, CFA Institute Centre for Financial Market Integrity; Margaret M. Foran, VP, chief governance officer & secretary, Prudential; Richard H. Koppes, director, Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, former general counsel, CalPERS.
Ken Daly explained that NACD had worked with CII, ICGN, AFL-CIO, BRT and others to develop 10 principles, which they have posted on their website and on the Conference Materials page. He urged all directors to download the principles, review them and provide NACD with feedback. The idea is to empower boards to lead the way in restoring public and investor confidence. “If we don’t act, lawmakers will do so with prescriptive rules and regulation.”
One interesting finding from a recent survey was that board members are less happy with agendas than CEO/Chairmen. Strategy is top priority for boards in the coming year. Interestingly, the conference made use of their ability to rapidly survey those in attendance regarding various topics. We simply pressed numbers on a little remote control type gadget and in seconds they displayed the results. This worked smoothly until this panel where there was one glitch. Asked if information received from management engages the board’s expertise in planning and executing strategy, the graph makes board members seem a little more satisfied than they really are, since there isn’t much difference between 51% and 49%.
Aside from the fun with numbers, I noted the following takeaway points:
- Boards want to discuss strategy before it is fully baked; strategy is job #1.
- Directors shouldn’t play the role of gotcha. Trust and respect are essential to board functioning. Dissent should be accepted.
- IT expertise and succession planning deficient on many boards.
- Balancing long and short-term strategies is key… see Aspen Principles.
- Put something in your proxy regarding succession planning.
Further reading: The New and Emerging Fiduciary Duties of Corporate Directors by Elizabeth B. Burnett and Elizabeth Gomperz.
Keynote Speaker: William A. Ackman, founder and managing partner, Pershing Square Capital Management LP. Apparently, Ackman was on a recent edition of Charlie Rose, so Frank Partnoy couldn’t resist beginning the interview as if he were Charlie Rose.
With all the talk about the need for long-term holders, that was one of the first questions. Pershing Square typically holds for about 2.5 – 3 years. Ackman described his process, which mostly involves picking stocks that are undervalued (spread between price and value) and then he works on a strategy to get the market to recognize that value.
He described his efforts at Wendys, which owned Tim Hortons. The chains weren’t really a great fit because of differences in how they operate and management styles, so he worked to get Hortons spun off… yielding a hefty profit. Ackman believes competition for board seats will give us better candidates and will cause boards to do more self-examination. Choice will force board to adopt term limits to keep fresh.
He says boards should invite their largest holders and short-sellers to discuss any issues or concerns they may have. Try your best to understand your harshest critics. You’ll probably learn something. Asked how he’d do that, he suggested issuing a press release inviting the company’s biggest critics to call in and schedule a confidential meeting.
Another case he discussed extensively was Borders, which he believes had been consistently mismanaged and is now finally facing a possible turnaround, even though the CEO that helped them regrow the company had just resigned the night before for a better offer… with no warning.
One factor that appears to keep him invested for a longer term is reputation. If he bails out too quickly with a loss, his reputation suffers more than if he keeps a company for longer but ends up making something.
Where’s the next crisis? Akman thinks it is likely to be failed municipalities.
Pre-Conference Bonus Sessions – “Legal Issues in the Year Ahead: What Directors and General Counsel Need to Know”
Session 1: “What to Expect in Regulation,” presented by Frank Partnoy, director of USD’s Center for Corporate and Securities Law.
The sun was shining outside our beautiful auditorium at the University of San Diego but Professor Partnoy’s prognostications inside the hall were gloomy with his comparisons of the current financial crisis and the Great Depression. “This is 1931,” he said, noting that markets recovered from the 1929 crash but then turned down again. Because of the recovery (like the little bear market in 1930), he doesn’t see strong demand for reform. Like then, banks say they will reform themselves. Like their Pecora Commission, our Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is mostly political theater. Pecora didn’t even arrive at the commission remembered for him until 1933. Our efforts could be similar. If history is a guide, it will take a couple of years.
Partnoy doesn’t see real reform on the horizon until more revelations of wrongdoing. He predicts the Volker rule will be watered down and sees an absence of commonsense in the process.
Proxy access is coming but there are still some vestiges of a federal versus state law battle. Delaware incorporated companies may already adopt bylaws and many may do so to preempt the proposed federal default rules. (Elsewhere at the conference the advice was more to be ready, once we know what the rules will be.) Partnoy described the basic outline of the proposed default, with its thresholds ranging from 1, 3 and 5%, depending on size – the 25% limit on board members so nominated and the one year holding period.
Broker nonvotes won’t count this year and that has hedge fund activists excited. They don’t care much about proxy access because the new rule can’t be used for a change in control, and that’s what hedge funds seek. Derivative and credit rating reforms may be the most important reforms on the horizon for 2010. However, strong action appears unlikely. Yes, they’ll probably pass something but there won’t be a central clearing platform for the derivatives that really matter. Banks don’t like the idea of open source disclosure of all contracts, even on a lag basis.
Partnoy thinks the Fed will have to raise rates at some point and when they do, we may see derivative contracts implode. Institutional investors who actually depend on rating agencies to grade risk are being naïve or irresponsible. He cited several commonly know examples where the rating agents gave companies high marks… even as companies tumbled into bankruptcy. Perhaps on of the more important provisions will be to expose credit rating agencies to legal liability. See additional discussion at Proposed Credit Rating Reforms May Empower an Embattled Moody’s (HuffingtonPost, 1/4/2010) and Why Rating Requirements Don’t Make Sense (WSJ, 1/18/2010)
Session 2: What to Expect in Litigation, facilitated by Fran Partnoy. Panelists included Leo E. Strine, Jr., Vice Chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery; Darren J. Robbins, Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robins LLP; and Koji Fukumura, Cooley Godward Kronish LLP.
Initial discussion focused around the issue of individual director liability and the fact that many funds are pushing for that. They want individual directors to feel the pain, not just be covered by D&O insurance. So far, it appears that most of the money that has come out of director pockets has come from CEOs who also chair their boards. Cases were down in 2009 because the market is up. Companies have spent up to $80 million to defend two directors. Strine offered up a bit of speculative advice. Separate director’s insurance from officer’s insurance. Officers get most of the focus, often depleting the coverage available. Options backdating and earnings smoothing created a culture of corruption that led to the move by public funds to go after individual directors. See discussion at Insurance for A-Side D&O Exposures after Enron—A Riskier Proposition?, IRMI.com and Recent Developments in D&O Insurance, HLS CG&FR Bog.
There was also discussion around the fact that many disclosure only cases filed in state courts are abusive. They are filed as soon as any action happens, like an agreement to sell. Several cases discussed. Strine also cautioned to watch shortcuts regarding tax avoidance and don’t sign consents of action after the fact… like documents where management fills in the blanks later. Gimmicks are gimmicks and should be avoided. Also some discussion around a case where the company tried to sue its own internal auditors for malpractice but couldn’t.
The deadline was August 17th, so the comment letters on proxy access have all been filed and posted. Many are well worth reading. If you don’t see yours posted, you might want to resubmit it.
TIAA-CREF, one of the more conservative shareowner activists, calls on the Commission to raise the threshold to 5% for shareowners at all companies, regardless of size. Additionally, they want to require a two year holding period and recommend instead of the “first in” approach, nominations should go to the largest owner or and (here they get creative) to the shareowner or group that has held their shares the longest. They voiced opposition to reimbursement: “Reimbursement of expenses could be used to facilitate the election of special interest directors. Reimbursement also encourages fighting and proxy contests to achieve representation at the distraction of directors rather than dialogue and productive change.” Instead, they favored “incentives for a meeting between shareholders and the board in order to identify director candidates who are acceptable to both parties… Ultimately, the best possible outcome is to avoid a proxy contest altogether… We believe that the nominee should receive at least 20% of the vote in order to be re-nominated in subsequent years.”
Cornish Hitchcock, writing on behalf of the LongView Funds warns against a state-law carve-out, praising the merits of a uniform system. Like TIAA-CREF, the LongView Funds would like to see the required holding period extended to two years and nominations going to the largest nominator.
J. Robert Brown, of theRacetotheBottom.org, offers a spirited rebuttal to comments by the Delaware Bar Association regarding their argument in favor of private ordering. “The evidence in fact suggests that in the absence of a federal requirement, companies will opt for a categorical rule denying access.” “Evidence suggests that management’s control over the drafting process and its ability to rely on the corporate treasury eliminate any real prospect of private ordering. Instead, when matters are made discretionary, they result in a categorical rule that favors management.” “The only way to ensure meaningful access to the proxy statement is to adopt a federal rule that institutes the requirement.”
Lucian Bebchuk’s letter, signed by 80 professors, favors the rulemaking and notes, “no matter how moderate eligibility or procedural requirements may be, shareholder nominees must still meet the demanding test of getting elected before they can join the board. A shareholder nominee will join the board only if the nominee obtains more votes than the incumbents’ candidate in an election in which incumbents, but not the shareholder nominee or the nominator, may spend significant amounts of the company’s resources on campaign expenses.”
As expected, the Shareholder Communications Coalition, comprised of the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Corporate Directors, the National Investor Relations Institute, the Securities Transfer Association, and the Society of Corporate Secretaries & Governance Professionals sent a letter opposing the rulemaking “until the Commission: (1) completes its intended examination of the proxy system; and (2) promulgates new regulations to modernize and reform this cumbersome and expensive system.” “A shareholder nomination process that operates in a proxy voting system that cannot produce an accurate and verifiable vote count will do little to improve the overall
corporate governance system.” I just can’t help making a snarky comment. So we should just go with the current system that elects incumbents based on inaccurate and unverifiable voting results until we can ensure the system works properly
Broadridge submitted a letter discussing various technical issues. Great for those who want to get into the weeds.
Writing on behalf of Sodali, a global corporate governance consultancy, John Wilcox asks: “Is Rule 14a-11 is sufficiently deferential to the traditional role of the states in regulating corporate governance?; and (2) Does the proposal achieve the Commission’s goal of removing burdens that the federal proxy process currently places on the ability of shareholders to exercise their basic rights to nominate and elect directors?” His analysis answers with a resounding yes.
Eleanor Bloxham, of the Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance notes that “having an orderly, ongoing process for shareholder to nominate directors may produce improvements in shareholder returns. Certainty, competition in the process for board seats could, I believe, produce better candidates.” She addresses the issue of affiliation and loyalty, Bloxham recommends each candidate be required to prepare a statement as part of the proxy process that would stipulate that the candidate understands that as a director, if chosen, their obligations are to act in the best interests of all shareholders, including minority shareholders, and to act without preferential treatment related to who may have nominated them.”
As I have previously mentioned, I signed on to a letter from the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX), endorsed by members of the Investor Suffrage Movement, Robert Monks, John Harrington and John Chevedden. Glyn Holton did a great job of putting together sixty-nine pages of comments. I urge everyone to read our common sense approach outlining the democratic option, the need for deliberation and the reasons for our recommendations, which include:
- Mandating a federal standard that take precedence over state laws.
- Placing all bona fide candidates on a single management distributed proxy card.
- Not encouraging a system where corporations are willing to
reimburse expenses shareowners incur in conducting a proxy contest, since this will only escalate costs paid by shareowners.
- Don’t place an overt limit the number of candidates shareowners are able to nominate. If limits are need to keep the pool manageable:
- limit individuals to five for-profit corporate boards
- charge a modest fee
- require a system of endorsements
- require all candidates to file pre and post election estimates and accounting of all campaign expenditures
- Reduce the focus on control by establishing a system that will encourage diversity. “Corporate democracy will allow shareowners to take ‘control’ away from an entrenched board and not give it to any one faction.”
- Eliminate the arbitrary and elitist proposed thresholds, opting instead for the time-tested $2,000 of stock held for a year. “The challenge should reside in winning the election, not in making the nomination.”
- Increase candidate statements to 750 words and specified space for graphics that can address any issue related to the election, including short-comings of the current board.
- Measures to ensure board members nominated by shareowners are not marginalized.
- Implementation of a broad safe harbor for individual director
communications with shareowners.
- Amendments to Rule 14a-8 also clarify that shareowner resolutions can seek to collectively hire a proxy advisor, paid by for with company funds, that isn’t precluded from offering advice on board elections.
- Require that companies must allow shareowner resolutions to be presented during the business portion of the annual meeting.
- An override mechanism on Rule 14a-8(i)(5) (Relevance) and (i)(7) (Management Functions).
Dozens of studies in communications and organizational behavior find current corporate structures to be inefficient. Most decision-making structures, including those now governing corporations, are designed around status needs related to dominance and control over others. They are not designed to maximize the creation of wealth for shareowners or for society at large. In order to gain higher status, individuals seek to dominate more and more people. This dynamic moves the locus of control inappropriately upward. In order to generate more wealth, we need to take advantage of all the brains in our companies, as well those of concerned shareowners. We can do so by making corporations more democratic, top to bottom.
Now, we eagerly await the Commission’s action. If they are slow in finalizing the proposed rules, I hope it is because they carefully read our letters and are rewording them to require more, not less, democracy.