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ISS Launches Annual Global Policy Survey

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ISS has launched its annual Global Policy Survey. The results inform ISS policy updates for the 2021 proxy season (likely to be effective for meetings on or after February 1, 2021).

While there are compensation-related questions, they appear in the context of COVID-19. Specifically, ISS is asking about expectations generally regarding compensation adjustments as well as adjustments to short-term/annual incentive programs. No questions about adjustments of long-term incentive programs/awards were included. We will need to see how shareholders respond and what ISS does with this for its 2021 policy updates.

The survey is open through August 21, 2020. ISS expects a public comment period on its proposed 2021 policy updates in October 2020.

Link to ISS Announcement, which contains a link to the survey:

SEC Issues Final Rules on Proxy Voting Advice

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On July 22, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission met and adopted final rules, Exemptions from the Proxy Rules for Proxy Voting Advice, SEC. Rel. 34-89732, in a 3-1 vote. These final rules will become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Of course, that presumes that a lawsuit isn’t filed against the SEC and these final rules by an interested party (such as ISS which filed such a lawsuit with the SEC’s earlier guidance affecting proxy voting advisory firms).

The final rules codify the SEC’s view that proxy voting advice generally constitutes a solicitation under the proxy rules. The SEC Press Release clarifies that the availability of two exemptions often used by proxy voting advice businesses to the proxy rules depends on compliance with tailored and comprehensive conflicts of interest disclosure requirements. The exemptions also require compliance with two principles-based requirements designed to ensure that:

(1) companies that are the subject of proxy voting advice have such advice made available to them in a timely manner, and

(2) clients of proxy voting advice businesses are provided with an efficient and timely means of becoming aware of any written responses by companies to such proxy voting advice.

ISS Issues Guidance Regarding the Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic

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On April 8, 2020, ISS released Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic, which offers guidance on how this crisis may impact and interact with ISS’ existing policies. ISS intends that this guidance be read in conjunction with ISS’ market and region-specific ISS Benchmark and Specialty Voting Guidelines and related FAQs.

Overall, the guidance offered falls into four categories:

  • Annual General Meeting Issues
  • Poison Pills, Shareholder Rights and Boards/Directors
  • Compensation Issues, and
  • Capital Structure and Payouts

Annual General Meetings Issues
The guidance addresses meeting postponements and virtual-only meetings.

Poison Pills, Shareholder Rights and Boards/Directors
The guidance addresses the use of poison pills and other defensive measures (ISS indicates that a stock price drop brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic generally would be sufficient justification to adopt a pill of less than one year in duration.

As for director attendance, ISS indicates that in countries where telephonic/electronic attendance is not counted, companies should provide adequate disclosure indicating if directors attended telephonically/electronically .

Compensation Issues
With respect to changing metrics or shifting goals or targets, noting that many companies may not be obligated to provide disclosure of such events until the 2021 proxy is filed, ISS encouraged boards to provide contemporaneous disclosure to shareholders of their rationales for making such changes. With respect to long-term compensation plans, ISS noted that its general policies generally are not supportive of changes to midstream or in-flight awards since they cover multi-year periods. ISS also indicated that if companies make structural changes to their long-term plans to take account of the new economic environment, it will assess such changes under its existing policies.

ISS also reminds companies of its policies with respect to option repricing, which it found still to be appropriate during the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Basically, ISS is looking for any option exchange to comply with the following four requirements:

  1. The design is shareholder value neutral, i.e., a value-for-value exchange
  2. Surrendered options are not added back to the share pool
  3. Replacement awards do not immediately vest
  4. Executive officers and directors are excluded.

Capital Structure and Payouts
ISS states that where its market-specific policies look for dividend payout ratios to be within a certain range, it will support Board discretion this year that seek to set payout ratios that may fall below historic levels or customary market practice. In considering such proposal, ISS will look at whether a company discloses plans to use any preserved cash from dividend reductions to support and protect its business and workforce.

With respect to share repurchases, ISS simply states that, in effect, it will review what companies do with respect to any share repurchase authority when the 20201 annual meetings come up in deciding whether directors managed risks in a responsible fashion with respect to such authority.

ISS generally evaluates capital raising proposals on a case-by-case basis.

Glass Lewis Will Include Company Feedback In Proxy Reports

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On April 2, 2020, Glass Lewis announced a significant change to the manner in which it conducts its business. It will now include company feedback in its proxy reports without any rebuttals or other statements made about such company statement. The full text of the Glass Lewis announcement is at https://www.glasslewis.com/report-feedback-statement-included-with-research/

Companies will now have 7 days after Glass Lewis publishes its report to provide feedback. Feedback can be provide using Glass Lewis’ Report Feedback Statement webpage (https://www.glasslewis.com/report-feedback-statement/). Glass Lewis will then republish its proxy report and include the statement from the company.

Given that Glass Lewis has changed its peer group methodology for the 2020 proxy season, we may see more companies provide feedback this year as the change in peer groups may be dramatic and could have implications for the letter grades Glass Lewis assigns companies under its pay-for-performance analysis as part of its Say-on-Pay vote recommendation process.

I applaud Glass Lewis for taking this step and hope their subscribers will take company feedback provided seriously. At the same time, companies should provide feedback only where warranted and where specific issues have been identified. If both do so, it should help ensure that company feedback becomes a meaningful part of the Glass Lewis proxy reports.