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Shining a Light on Proxy Advisors as Activist Allies

By November 12, 2019 December 20th, 2019 No Comments

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

Investors and corporates need to know about conflicts of interest when proxy advisory firms team up with activist investors against management. 

The former CFO of a company that successfully defended against an attack by an activist investor shared some key lessons learned from the experience at a NeuGroup meeting last week. Here’s a big one:

  • Management at even the most shareholder-friendly corporations must court passive investors to counter the inherent power of proxy advisors that support the activists. 

A powerful duopoly. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Monday highlighted the power of the proxy/corporate governance duopoly. It reveals:

  • In­sti­tu­tional Share­holder Ser­vices and Glass Lewis con­trol 97% of the proxy ad­vi­sory mar­ket.
  • ISS pro­vides rec­om­men­da­tions to 2,239 clients, in­clud­ing 189 pen­sion plans, and ex­e­cutes 10.2 mil­lion bal­lots an­nu­ally on their be­half.
  • Glass Lewis, which is owned by the On­tario Teach­ers’ Pen­sion Plan and Al­berta In­vest­ment Man­age­ment Corp., has more than 1,300 clients that man­age more than $35 tril­lion in as­sets.

More: “Stud­ies have found that the two firms can swing 20% of votes in proxy elec­tions. An Amer­i­can Coun­cil for Cap­i­tal For­ma­tion re­view last year found that 175 as­set man­agers with $5 tril­lion of as­sets voted with ISS rec­ommen­da­tions 95% of the time. Ac­tivist hedge-fund in­vestors of­ten en­list the proxy firms to shake up man­age­ment, for bet­ter or worse.”

SEC scrutiny. This power has invited scrutiny from regulators. On November 5, the SEC voted to propose amendments to its rules governing proxy solicitations “to enhance the quality of the disclosure about material conflicts of interest that proxy voting advice businesses provide their clients. The proposal would also provide an opportunity for a period of review and feedback through which companies and other soliciting parties would be able to identify errors in the proxy voting advice.”

Allegations made by companies include:

  • Disparity in governance ratings given to firms that pay ISS or Glass Lewis for consulting vs. those that do not.
  • Conflicts of interest when proxy advisors are paid by activist investors or other institutional investors with an agenda.
  • Lack of adequate means to dispute proxy advisor recommendations and even to correct factual errors.
  • Poor transparency on shareholder vote counts, including point-in-time ownership and associated voting rights.

Of course, corporate managements only have themselves to blame if they don’t hold themselves accountable to governance standards—and increasingly to environmental and social standards for corporate behavior (E, S and G).

  • Still, companies that do all they can to be good corporate citizens and look out for shareholders (and all stakeholders) should expect a fair hearing.

Don’t wait. The best advice is not to wait for a proxy battle to tell your positive story. “We had heard that good investor relations was to be proactive to passive shareholders,” the former CFO speaking to our members said. Not only IR, but the C-suite needs to meet regularly with investors to share the company’s business strategy along with its ESG story. This is the best way to counter the proxy duopoly.

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Christina Popik

Author Christina Popik

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