The regulatory burden on U.S. public companies continues to increase and the government’s role has expanded from that of just regulator to, in some cases, shareholder. That might leave some directors wondering how far into the boardroom Uncle Sam can reach.
A panel of financial industry and government experts convened last fall to discuss the influence of the federal government when it acts as either a shareholder or a regulator. The Clearing House Association and the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance facilitated the discussion with a program called The Government as Regulator and/or Shareholder—The Impact on Director Duties, which included the following speakers and panel members:
Rolin P. Bissell, partner, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor LLP
Amy Borrus, interim executive director, Council of Institutional Investors
Laban P. Jackson, Jr., director, JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Peter A. Langerman, CEO, Franklin Mutual Advisers, LLC
Giovanni P. Prezioso, partner, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
Gregg L. Rozansky, managing director, The Clearing House Association
Mary Schapiro, former chair, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
Collins J. Seitz, Jr., justice, Supreme Court of Delaware
Charles M. Elson, director of the Weinberg Center and professor of finance, moderated the discussion.
The panel offered a wide range of perspectives, but a few common themes emerged that are applicable to directors across a variety of industries.
Most panelists agreed that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was a response proportional to the 2008 global financial crisis, butexpressed frustration with certain government bailouts and the political motivations influencing them. Several panelists indicated they felt uneasy about the broad scale of intervention that the federal government made into the private sector to bail out failing companies. The panelists cited the example of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s $85 billion bailout of American International Group (AIG) to illustrate how far agencies reached—even in the face of the internal corruption at the company. AIG’s credit default swaps lost the company $30 billion and are often blamed as a major reason the company collapsed in 2008. Controversy swirled when in March 2009, publicly disclosed information revealed that after the bailout, employees of AIG’s financial services division were going to be paid $218 million in bonuses. A June 2010 report by the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP)—a five-member group created by Congress in 2008 to oversee the U.S. Treasury’s actions—concluded that the Federal Reserve Board’s close relations to powerful people on Wall Street influenced its decision to help AIG.
While the panelists were critical of the bailouts, they agreed that Dodd-Frank was a reasonable response to help prevent future failure of companies. Directors’ bandwidth, however, to address their corporation’s most important strategic matters, including emerging risks, may be limited by the need to spend time ensuring compliance with Dodd-Frank. Most agreed that they do not expect a lessening of regulations in the near future.
Panelists also agreed that the Delaware court system—one of the most powerful legal arbiters of U.S. corporate governance—is not designed to address scenarios in which the federal government acts as an investor. When the federal government intervenes by investing in a company to salvage it, the government becomes a shareholder with greater legal privileges than a traditional, human shareholder who might challenge corporate decisions in the Delaware courts. In the event that the government challenges a company in the federal court system, the federal government would be tried in legal institutions where the ultimate power of appeal is granted by its own founding documents. Challenges to federal sovereign immunity and the federal government as shareholder would be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.
The line between the government as a stockholder and regulator could be blurred when the regulatory influence over the company is pervasive. This issue may be particularly acute for wholly owned subsidiaries of public companies when the government closely reviews company decision-making and expresses views on what is in the best interest of the subsidiary.
Relationships between regulators and directors—though once strained by mistrust after the financial crisis—are beginning to improve. A panelist observed that, in several global markets, relationships between regulators and directors have steadily normalized over the past year and a half, in contrast to more tense interactions of previous years. As global regulatory standards are established, markets recover and stabilize, and businesses and regulators deepen their understanding of each other.
Forming relationships with regulators should be a strategic priority for directors. Most panelists insisted that good relationships with representatives from regulatory agencies are essential. Boards should aim to keep a level of candor with regulatory contacts that could be helpful when pushing back against regulatory action and when directors have suggestions for upcoming regulations. Directors should also acknowledge that regulators have an important function to carry out in a high-pressure, multi-stakes market environment that is a challenge to navigate for regulators and companies alike. A “kicking and screaming” approach to relationships with regulators was frowned upon, as it is not productive and is insensitive to the fact that developing or implementing regulation is demanding and complex.
Directors seeking to strengthen their oversight of corporate compliance and ethics programs can access the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) publication Director Essentials: Strengthening Compliance and Ethics Oversight. The guide provides an overview of the board’s role in compliance oversight and offers practical insights about fulfilling regulatory expectations.
On the morning of Tuesday, October 14, 2014, a group of Board Leadership Conference attendees joined Alan M. Klein, Partner, Simpson Thacher; Jamie S. Moser, Partner, Joele Frank; and moderator Chris Ruggeri Principal, Deloitte for a power breakfast session entitled “Balancing Shareholders and Capital Markets”.
It is well known that there has been a rise in shareholder activism over the last few years. There are more than 400 activist funds today with more than $100 billion under management. If viewed as an asset class, activist funds are a top performer. Money flows to where it can generate the largest return, and activist-backed funds have flourished. In turn, panelists observed that this has emboldened shareholders of all stripes. In their quest to have a more prominent voice in how companies are run, these investors have changed the dynamics of company-shareholder interaction.
There are many different kinds of shareholders ranging from professional, established investors to newer, smaller entrants into the market. Moser believes that some larger organizations that tend to maintain long-term positions in companies can be considered activists as well. While they prefer not to run campaigns on their own, they feed ideas to others who will. Klein noted, “In a sense these ‘long only’ funds have outsourced their activism”.
Panelists noted that activist shareholders don’t pick targets lightly. They spend a significant amount of time drilling down into companies, and have a surprising depth of knowledge. As such, it would be a mistake to disregard them or view them as superficial. Nevertheless, there is often a mismatch between the way those who run companies view their businesses and the perspective of many activists.
Governance issues can be used as part of a shareholder’s demands. Although they are not typically the crux of an activist fight, these issues can become part of the story and set the tone. For example, panelists cited topics such as related party transactions or sluggish board turnover as “low hanging fruit” for shareholders. Even if these issues have been properly disclosed, a shareholder may use them to put the company on the defensive.
On the other hand, some investors – particularly the more well-established fund – ask for reasonable conversations with the board and management. Panelists observed that if directors can demonstrate to them the validity of the current plan and why their thesis is wrong, some investors may listen or even back off. That being the case, engagement is extremely important.
It is critical that directors understand the perspective of the company’s shareholders. The first question Moser asks a company is, “When’s the last time you spoke with your top 10 shareholders?”
Further, the board should engage with shareholders for the first time outside proxy season, when the discussion is often centered around voting. Then, if a proxy contest starts, the company can reply “our board has been speaking directly with shareholders; we’ve been active and engaged.” Meetings between the board and investors should demonstrate transparency and openness. Directors can simply ask investors, “what’s on your mind?” Of course, panelists noted that it is important to remain conscious of Regulation FD; avoid the discussion of material items in a one-on-one setting.
Boards can also go beyond annual “deep dives” to ensure the current strategy is still viable. For example, Klein suggested that boards invite a banker to give a presentation, valuing the strategic plan and showing how it stacks up to strategic alternatives. If the board has conducted this type of analysis, they are more able to speak to the current strategy’s strengths and how it will produce the most value for the company. It is also important that the strategic plan for the company is communicated in the most compelling way possible. “The first three-quarters of any ‘fight letter,’” Moser noted, should be about strategy – how your strategy provides more value than what the shareholder is proposing.”
Activist Investors on the Board
Finally, the panel discussed how boards can work with new activist directors once elected to the board. Klein noted that most activist situations today end in a negotiated outcome: Either a proxy fight doesn’t start, or the fight may end before it ever gets to a vote. Typically, as the result of a negotiation, the shareholder ends up with one or two seats. If these new directors can make their case in a logical manner, a fresh perspective may prove beneficial for a board.
Ultimately, panelists agreed that there has been a sea change regarding how companies and their shareholders interact. To the question of whether activism is good or bad, the answer is “yes”– it depends on facts and circumstances.
Shareholder activism is on the rise. Between January 2010 and September 2013, shareholder actions carried out all over the world surged by 88 percent. Going back to the past 10 years, the number of shareholders with specific activist strategies has doubled. These statistics drive home the need for boards to have healthy investor dialogues year-round—not just when in the throes of proxy season. Looking ahead to 2015, a slate of top influencers in the investor community offered their insights on what the top priorities for boards are going to be. Panelists included: Donna F. Anderson, vice president and corporate governance specialist, T. Rowe Price; Glenn Booraem, principal fund controller, Vanguard; and Stu Dalheim, vice president, shareholder advocacy, Calvert. Peter Gleason, director, Nura Health and managing director and CFO, NACD, moderated the panel.
Using NACD’s Investor Perspectives: Critical Issues Board Focus in 2014 as a framework, Gleason noted that first and foremost: “It’s important for the board to know their investors. It’s too easy to lump them all together—but each investor has their own objectives.“ Engagement strategies are similarly different from one institution to the next. For example, Dalheim explained that at Calvert, their approach is always to engage with constructive outcomes in mind. Furthermore, there are three principles that guide their approach:
Long-term value creation.
Accountability, where management is accountable to the board and the board is accountable to shareholders.
Sustainability, where companies that are sustainable from a financial, environmental, and societal perspectives will be more successful.
In addition, Dalheim explained that the approach to engagement strategy varies depending on the industry. Calvert has analysts that focus on specific sectors and know the governance practices in each sector. In that review process, they see which companies have room to improve. Furthermore, Calvert makes a point of fostering and developing relationships with portfolio companies over time, ensuring that there are open lines of communication. These open lines of communication are fortified by disclosures, which are critical to investor relations.
Anderson emphasized the responsibility of the shareholder on their side of the relationship. From her perspective, shareholders should respond to engagement requests in well-prepared ways, with the proper resources and with a team that is committed to creating a productive engagement experience. On the other side of the table, directors should engage if there has been a request to do so, or that there is a need for those exchanges to take place. With that in mind, she said that there are three key questions an institutional investor should ask before engaging with directors:
Do we have standing to talk to these directors?
Do we have something constructive to offer?
Will this be constructive? And by extension, does the institutional investor think that the board will constructively work with them?
The panel closed by looking ahead at the pressing issues that will present themselves in the coming year. Anderson singled out the issue of bylaws: principles that institutional investors generally believe they can count on, but may not actually be in place for whatever reason. (For example, a company may have revoked its bylaws.) Boards may avoid putting certain bylaws into effect out of fear of activism; however, there needs to be a dialogue about what bylaws boards can change unilaterally.
Booream said that engagement is likely to be triggered by observable components that cause a board to be an outlier—for example, boards whose directors have above-average tenure or boards that lack minority directors. On this score he advised directors to observe the ways in which their boards are outliers, and either own it and explain why their governance practices are in shareholders’ best interests or fix the problems. Shifts in boardroom mindsets will not happen overnight, so it’s important to initiate those conversations as soon as possible.
Dalheim pointed to the issue of director qualifications. He said that boards should have a list of areas of expertise that are needed to effectively oversee the company and then explain how the current board slate illustrates those attributes. In his opinion, this list helps boards identify what’s needed to create growth. Nevertheless, there is currently little disclosure with regard to board evaluations, in terms of either the process or the outcomes. Some companies have an annual statement about board performance–and resulting action steps–which may be a pay that draws increased scrutiny in the coming year.