Proxy Season

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ISS Releases Preliminary FAQs on U.S. Compensation Policies and the COVID-19 Pandemic

On October 15, 2020, ISS released a series of preliminary FAQs on its approach to analyzing pay decisions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. These FAQs provide general guidance on how ISS Research may approach COVID-related pay decisions in the context of ISS’ pay-for-performance qualitative evaluation. ISS makes clear that the responses to the FAQs should not be construed as a guarantee as to how ISS will consider any particular situation.

This post describes each topic covered by ISS’ preliminary FAQs and summarizes ISS’ related guidance. ISS typically releases its final FAQs in December of each year after it releases its updated benchmark voting policies, typically in November of each year.
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Glass Lewis Shares Recommendation Rates for 2020 Proposals

On October 8, 2020, Glass Lewis (GL) released reports providing its overview of the 2020 proxy season. These reports cover selected shareholder vote results and trends, market and regulatory developments, and whether GL was supportive of proposals on various topics submitted to shareholder votes during the 2020 proxy season. On a selected basis, the reports also provide GL’s rationale for its 2020 voting recommendations on company-specific proposals. Companies may find these new reports, particularly the information specific to GL’s practices and recommendations made, worth considering as they prepare for the upcoming 2021 proxy season.

Two reports cover shareholder meetings at U.S.
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NYSE Rule Temporarily Extends Deadline for Brokers to Send Physical Proxy Materials

On April 23, 2020, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) proposed a temporary rule change of NYSE Rule 451(b)(1) with immediate effectiveness that extends the deadline by which NYSE member organizations (typically broker/dealers) under selected circumstances must send physical copies of proxy materials to beneficial owners. In light of delays related to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the NYSE designed the modification with the intention of helping issuers meet their quorum requirements at shareholder meetings and possibly alleviating the need for adjournments or postponements. The temporary rule change applies only to shareholder meetings scheduled to be held up to and including May 31, 2020.
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ISS Releases Policy Application Guidance For COVID-19’s Impact

On Wednesday, April 8, 2020, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) issued guidance on voting policies of various corporate governance-related issues that are likely to be implicated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic during the 2020 proxy season. The guidance does not introduce any new formal policies. Rather, the guidance provides ISS’s perspective on selected market developments and application of several of its existing policies relevant to the U.S. markets. Importantly, the guidance sheds some light on which company-specific and market-specific facts and circumstances are more likely to influence the proxy advisor’s determinations during and following the pandemic.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The guidance makes three points relevant to the U.S.
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SEC Staff Updates Its Guidance on Shareholder Meetings & COVID-19

The SEC Staff updated today its prior March 13, 2020 guidance relating to shareholder meetings, including virtual meetings. You may recall that the Staff’s March guidance provided welcome clarity to issuers that previously mailed and filed their proxy materials, but who wish to change the date, time or location of their meetings, allowing them to essentially issue a press release and file that on EDGAR without needing to remail all materials.

The SEC updated this guidance today to make two key changes:

  • The above relief now applies to special meetings; and
  • Issuers encountering delays because of difficulties in printing or mailing full-set proxy materials may avail themselves of the “notice-only” delivery option even if such issuer is unable to send the notice of electronic availability of proxy materials 40 calendar days before its meeting as required by Rule 14a-16, if such “delays are unavoidable due to COVID-19”.

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BlackRock Releases Its Quarterly Engagement and Voting Numbers

BlackRock has released its Investment Stewardship Report for the Americas region (United States, Canada and Latin America) for the second quarter of 2019.  The majority of the investor’s stewardship activities during this quarter entail voting and direct engagements to inform its voting decisions given that a majority of its portfolio companies’ shareholder meetings are scheduled in this time period. In sum, in comparison to the second quarter of 2018, BlackRock has engaged with approximately 9% fewer companies in the Americas, and for North America (United States and Canada) the percentage of proposals BlackRock has voted against managements’ recommendations, while still low, has increased from 4% to 7%.
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A Say-on-Pay Update — Plus Strategies for Responding to a Negative Recommendation by a Proxy Advisory Firm

The proxy season is just around the corner for calendar year public companies. Ahead of the season, two major proxy advisory firms, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis, recently released their 2019 policy updates to provide guidance on how they will make recommendations on companies’ “say-on-pay” vote. Although a non-binding vote, performing poorly on a say-on-pay vote is not only disheartening, but can impact shareholder votes on election of directors (particularly compensation committee members), result in greater scrutiny of CEO performance, and require management and compensation committee members to expend significant time and resources to address concerns reflected by the vote.
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How Do Retail Shareholders Vote?

Retail shareholders own about 30% of public companies, a fairly consistent level over the past five years, but only about 28% of those shares are voted, according to the latest issue of ProxyPulse from Broadridge and PwC.  In comparison, 91% of institutional shares vote.

During the 2018 proxy season, support for the 21,855 directors up for election was 96% from institutional investors and 95% from retail investors, on average.  About 1,408 directors (6.4%) failed to receive at least 70% favorable votes, and another 416 directors (1.9%)  did not obtain support from at least a majority of shareholders. These poor results increased from prior year 2017, as 11% more directors failed to receive majority support and 14% more directors failed to surpass 70% support.
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Report Finds Shareholder Activism Evolving from Niche Strategy to Acceptance Across Investors

With 371 public campaigns against U.S. companies, according to a recent J.P. Morgan report on the new normal in shareholder activism, the 2017 proxy season proved to be fairly active. Although only 19 of the 54 actual contests that were completed by June went to vote, while the same number settled and the remainder were withdrawn, activists were able to obtain at least one board seat 46% of the time, compared to 41% last year.

Settlements continue to be on the rise, even though several major institutional investors have urged companies not to agree with activists so quickly and at least make public the reasons for the settlement. 
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Criticism of Governance Provisions in Proxy Contest Leads to Reincorporation

Among the settlement terms in the proxy contest between Arconic Inc. and Elliot Management is an agreement to reincorporate to Delaware due to the corporate governance provisions in the company’s charter.

As the surviving company of Alcoa Inc., which spun off parts of its business into a new entity called Alcoa Corp., the renamed Arconic was governed under a charter that staggered board elections and required 80% of outstanding shares to amend the terms for fair price protection, change the classified board or remove its directors. About eight years ago, shareholder proposals favored by a majority of the votes cast asked the board to amend those provisions.
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Two Quick Reminders for the Proxy Season

As many of you prepare to file your proxy statements this month, two quick reminders on new developments to keep in mind:

  • There is no longer a requirement to send the SEC hard copies of the company’s annual report that accompanies the proxy statement if you post the report on the company’s website, and keep the report on the website for at least a year.  See our prior post on the CDI issued in November of last year.
  • Companies including a say-on-frequency vote in their proxy statements should remember to announce publicly the board’s decision on the frequency selected after the meeting. 

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2017 Proxy Statement Reminders

While several major SEC disclosure requirements remain in the proposal stage and the pay ratio disclosure does not come into play until the proxy statement for 2018 meetings, companies should be aware of a few new items for the 2017 proxy statement:

  • Audit Committee Communications with Auditors.  Item 407 of Regulation S-K requires the audit committee report to state whether the committee has discussed with the independent auditors the matters required to be discussed by the statement on Auditing Standards No. 61, as amended (AICPA, Professional Standards, Vol. 1. AU section 380), as adopted by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board in Rule 3200T.

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A Look at Retail Shareholders and Other Results from the 2016 Proxy Season

73% of the shareholders at large-cap companies and 77% of those at mid-cap companies are institutional investors, according to the latest edition of ProxyPulse, a joint publication by Broadridge and PwC that examined 4,200 annual meetings held between January 1 and June 30, 2016. But retail investors play an important role in contested issues, and they tend to side with the company. During the 2016 proxy season, only 15% of retail shareholders supported proxy access shareholder proposals compared to 60% of the institutions that voted.

An analysis of retail shareholders found some interesting differences relative to the U.S. population. Only 20% are less than 40 years of age compared to 31% of the overall population, and 22% have graduate degrees, 11% more than U.S.
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