While U.S. companies challenged more governance proposals this season at the Securities and Exchange Commission, investors so far have fared better than in 2008, according to a RiskMetrics Group analysis.
As of March 25, companies had filed no-action requests under the federal proxy rules to exclude almost 37 percent (212 of 574) of governance proposals tracked by RiskMetrics, up from 33 percent in 2008 and 20 percent in 2007.
At the same time, issuers are not having the same success in omitting proposals as they did in 2008. So far, companies prevailed in 47.8 percent (75 of 157) of the no-action cases decided by the SEC, down from 69 percent during the same period last year, according to RiskMetrics data. This year's corporate winning rate in Rule 14a-8 disputes is consistent with the 48 percent rate in 2007. Another 22 shareholder resolutions were withdrawn before the SEC acted on exclusion requests.
Companies have been more proficient in their efforts to exclude proposals concerning social and environmental issues. So far, issuers have objected to 95 of the 371 (25.6 percent) resolutions filed this season and prevailed in 67 percent (37) of the 55 cases decided by the SEC staff, according to RiskMetrics data.
One factor that contributed to the better showing by governance proponents this year is the large number of unsuccessful requests by companies to exclude proposals filed by retail investors affiliated with activist John Chevedden that seek to give shareholders the right to call special meetings. Most of these resolutions seek to extend that right to investor groups with at least a 10 percent stake. As of March 25, 29 such proposals had weathered no-action challenges, while nine resolutions were excluded. Last year, companies were able to omit 23 special meeting proposals; some lacked a specific minimum share threshold or had other defects that investors since have cured. This season, companies have raised a variety of arguments that have failed to persuade the SEC staff. For example, 3M and AMN Healthcare asserted that they had substantially implemented the proposal by adopting a 25 percent threshold, while Burlington Northern Santa Fe argued that the proposal is "impermissibly vague and indefinite."
Companies also tried again this year to exclude many of the cumulative voting proposals filed by Chevedden and other individual shareholders. In 2008, 13 of 30 resolutions were omitted; most were barred on the grounds that they conflicted with state law. So far this year, 11 cumulative voting resolutions have survived no-action challenges, while four were omitted. Intel and Motorola unsuccessfully argued that the proposal was "vague" and "misleading" because it didn't explain how cumulative voting would work with their majority voting provisions.