With 70% of the Russell 3000 annual meetings completed, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has taken an early look at the 2019 proxy season. ISS found increases in opposition to director elections and say-on-pay proposals, as well as increases in the number of and withdrawal rates for environmental and social (E&S) proposals relative to governance proposals. In addition, the disparity between the levels of support for E&S proposals and the historically more popular governance proposals has narrowed dramatically.
Do companies that ignore long-term environmental or social costs in the pursuit of near-term profits pay another price in foregoing potentially long-term sustainable profit opportunities? A recent business case for environmental social governance from Stanford University's Rock Centre for Corporate Governance suggests that, properly analysed, sustainability can not only affect externalities, but also benefit businesses.
The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board recently published new guidance on auditors' communication of critical audit matters (CAMs) in auditors' reports. The guidance includes new frequently asked questions relating to how auditors should describe their principal considerations in determining CAMs, the relationship between CAMs and company disclosures and the treatment of recurring CAMs.
California's new board gender diversity mandate is expected to fuel a greater effort towards board gender diversity. Under the new law, public companies will be required to have at least one woman on their board of directors by the close of 2019. That minimum increases to two women by 31 December 2021 if the company has five directors and to three women if it has six or more directors. While the first of its kind in the United States, this mandate may not be the last.
To fulfil their oversight responsibilities, audit committees typically evaluate external auditors at least annually to determine, in part, whether they should be engaged for the subsequent fiscal year. The Centre for Audit Quality (CAQ) recently published an updated External Auditor Assessment Tool. Like many other helpful CAQ tools, this one provides a number of sample questions to help audit committees satisfy their oversight obligations with regard to external auditors.
The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board recently issued a staff inspection brief discussing its new strategic plan, which includes conducting an ongoing dialogue with audit committee chairs whose companies' audits are subject to inspection. The board reports that its 2019 inspections will focus on, among other things, firms' technological developments, procedures on new accounting standards and systems of quality control.
There has recently been a lot of pressure on CEOs to voice their views on political, environmental and social issues. According to the global chair of reputation at Edelman, the expectation that CEOs will be leaders of change is high. As such, to the extent that CEOs are considering taking stands on contentious social, political or environmental issues, are there effective ways for CEOs to decide when and how to do it?
In October 2018 the Division of Corporation Finance (Corp Fin) issued a staff legal bulletin on shareholder proposals that examined the ordinary business exception under Rule 14a-8(i)(7), addressing (among other topics) the application of the rule to proposals relating to executive or director compensation. Since the government shutdown, Corp Fin has posted several no-action letters that consider the exception in that context – but do they provide any colour or insight?
Section 1542 of the California Civil Code precludes the waiver of unknown claims unless the protections of the section are expressly relinquished. In order to effectively waive these protections, the language of the statute must be included in any agreement and the parties to the agreement must acknowledge that they are waiving the rights and benefits of the statute. These requirements are not new, but the California legislature recently amended the statutory language required to be included in any waiver.
The Council of Institutional Investors (CII) Research and Education Fund recently released a report regarding disclosures of board evaluation processes in proxy statements. While companies have been discussing their board evaluation processes in their proxies with increasing frequency, the CII suggests that these discussions could be more robust and has identified seven indicators of strong board evaluation processes, including a three-tiered review.
To deter short-termism, which can affect stock repurchases, R&D investments and capital expenditures, among other things, some have recommended that companies should stop giving quarterly guidance, while others have advocated an end to quarterly Securities and Exchange Commission reporting. However, a new theory suggests that getting rid of earnings per share may be the solution.
On the heels of the release of Staff Legal Bulletin (SLB) 14J, Corp Fin recently posted two no-action letters that shed further light on the ordinary business exclusion under Rule 14a-8(i)(7). In SLB 14J, the staff had addressed the nature of the board analysis which they would find most helpful in evaluating a no-action request to exclude a shareholder proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(7), as well as micromanagement as a basis for exclusion under that same rule. The latest response letters provide further clarity in this regard.
The Centre for Audit Quality (CAQ), working with Audit Analytics, recently released a new edition of its annual Audit Committee Transparency Barometer, which, over the past five years, has measured the robustness of audit committee disclosures in proxy statements among companies in the S&P Composite 1500. According to the CAQ, the bottom line is that the level of voluntary transparency has continued to increase steadily in most areas.
The Division of Corporation Finance (Corp Fin) recently updated its compliance and disclosure interpretations (CDIs) relating to smaller reporting companies. In connection with these updates, Corp Fin has also withdrawn a number of CDIs. Under the new amendments, companies can now be both accelerated filers and smaller reporting companies. Further, in determining whether a company is a smaller reporting company, its annual revenues should be calculated on a consolidated basis.
A recent study showed that in 2018, 428 new directors were elected to boards of companies in the S&P 500 – the most new directors since 2004 – representing an increase of 8% from 2017. Further, 57% of boards added at least one new director and 22% appointed more than one new director. However, overall turnover remained modest. While these new directors added fresh skills, qualifications and perspectives, the study concluded that progress regarding boardroom diversity has been mixed.
While the number of virtual-only annual meetings has increased, critics continue to contend that virtual-only meetings limit an important shareholder right, precluding shareholders from direct eye-to-eye engagement with management and the board. With this in mind, a group of interested representatives of retail and institutional investors, public companies, proxy advisers and legal counsel have developed a set of best practices designed to ensure that the needs of all constituents are satisfied.
The EY Centre for Board Matters has identified investors' top priorities for companies in 2018, based on its annual investor outreach involving interviews with institutional investors. According to EY, the top investor priorities include board composition, with a particular focus on enhanced diversity; board-level expertise that is more aligned with business goals; and enhanced attention to talent and human capital management.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued its annual inflation-adjusted thresholds for determining whether an acquisition of voting securities requires prior notification under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. If any person or entity will hold voting shares that exceed the set amount as a result of an acquisition, all parties must submit a filing and observe a mandatory waiting period before acquiring the shares. The FTC also revised the potential maximum penalty for violations of the act.
The new tax act is expected to trigger a spike in the levels of stock buybacks. Since one of the most prolific proponents of shareholder proposals recently submitted a proposal to eliminate the impact of stock buybacks in determining executive compensation, it seems likely that this type of proposal may resurface more frequently, especially if, in light of the recent tax law change, the level of stock repurchases resumes a sustained upward climb.
The National Association of Corporate Directors has released the results of its 2017-2018 Public Company Governance Survey of over 1,000 directors and executives. The survey looked at directors' outlooks for 2018 on key business trends and critical board priorities, the board's role in overseeing an organisation's culture, the state of board risk oversight – especially cybersecurity risk – and the growing challenge of hedge fund activist investors.