Investor advocates defended non-binding shareholder proposals as a useful tool of engagement with companies and urged the Securities and Exchange Commission not to scale back the ability of investors to file those resolutions.
"Non-binding proposals have an important purpose in our market," said Ted White, a former California pension fund official, who now is a strategic advisor with Knight Vinke Asset Management. "Some of the topics raised in non-binding proposals a decade ago now are accepted as best practices."
Investors also urged the SEC to ensure that investors can bring proxy access resolutions at companies. "No issue is more important to our members than the power to nominate directors," said Ann Yerger, executive director of the Council of Institutional Investors (CII).
White and Yerger made their comments at a May 7 roundtable, where a Delaware judge, corporate lawyers, and several law professors questioned the value of non-binding shareholder proposals and urged the SEC to limit annual meetings to bylaw amendments and director elections. While investor advocates hope the SEC will allow shareholders to file proxy access proposals, most of the discussion focused on non-binding resolutions and alternative ways to raise concerns with companies, including a proposal to establish secure online forums for investors.
During the all-day roundtable in Washington, the five SEC commissioners heard testimony from 20 panelists on a wide range of issues, including the shifting balance of power from boards to investors, technological advancements to facilitate shareholder communication, and the problems of "empty" voting and "over-voting."
The agency plans to release a draft rule this summer, but the commissioners and senior Corporation Finance Division staff members did not shed much light on the potential details. The SEC appears to be considering new limits on non-binding (also known as "precatory") proposals under Rule 14a-8 as the agency explores whether to give investors a limited right to nominate board nominees or file proxy access proposals at individual firms. Until a court ruling last year, the SEC allowed companies to exclude access proposals.
Additional SEC roundtables are scheduled for May 24 and 25. The next forum is to focus on voting and procedural issues, while the final roundtable will likely feature comments from investors and corporate advocates.
During the May 7 forum, several panelists noted that non-binding proposals have no legal standing under the corporate laws of Delaware and other states. As the panelists explained, these proposals arose under the federal laws that govern proxy disclosures.
Delaware Chancery Judge Leo Strine Jr. compared non-binding proposals to "prisoner litigation for stockholders" and described them as "imaginary" votes. "In Delaware, shareholders vote on 'rea'' things, such as the election of directors and major transactions," the judge noted.
Likewise, the SEC, in a briefing paper for the forum, said "it is questionable whether the proxy system is the most efficient means of shareholder communication with management on purely advisory matters."
Stanley Keller, a securities lawyer with Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge in Boston, stressed the need for an alternative mechanism to handle non-binding proposals. "I think it would be moving backward to simply eliminate them, but there should be a way to take them out of the annual meeting process and focus the meeting on just binding proposals," he said.
At the same time, several panelists noted that companies can face real consequences if they ignore precatory proposals that receive majority support. Amy L. Goodman, a partner at the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which represents directors and companies, warned that directors at firms with new majority vote requirements may face difficulty getting elected if they fail to respond to those proposals.
Likewise, Cary Klafter, a vice president and corporate secretary at Intel, noted: "We're entering an era where every vote is a potential proxy contest."
(Under its benchmark policy, ISS advises investors to withhold support from directors who fail to act on a shareholder proposal that won support from a majority of the shares outstanding the previous year, or that won a majority of votes cast the two previous two years.)
Binding or Non-Binding?
Investor advocates and some panelists defended non-binding proposals as a useful way to open a dialogue with companies. Ninety-seven percent of the proposals filed by shareholders each year are precatory, Yerger of CII noted.
"Without the ability to ask other shareholders to give their views on these matters, companies would be less willing to talk," said Paul Neuhauser, a law professor of the University of Iowa.
Yerger said most investors prefer to file non-binding proposals, because binding resolutions are perceived as "a stick" and too "prescriptive." She also noted that it is challenging to draft a well-crafted bylaw and supporting statement without exceeding the 500-word limit under SEC rules. Finally, many companies still have supermajority (e.g., 75 percent) requirements, which make it very difficult to pass a bylaw that's opposed by management. "Our members would be concerned if we were to move to a binding-proposal-only regime," she said.
John Wilcox, senior vice president at TIAA-CREF, recounted how the teachers' pension fund filed non-binding proposals seeking majority voting in board elections at 10 firms this season. All 10 proposals were withdrawn after the companies agreed to adopt bylaw changes.
"We prefer non-binding proposals because it's important to us not to micromanage the decision-making of the company," Wilcox told the SEC.
Commissioner Paul Atkins questioned Wilcox on the transparency of these negotiations with companies and likened the process to "arm twisting." Atkins said majority vote proponents are using negotiations to achieve an election change that has been rejected by shareholders at some firms. "To me, it's a tyranny of the minority," the commissioner said.