Given the current COVID-19 crisis and the difficulty of having large, in-person meetings, many companies are considering or have decided to have their annual meeting be done this proxy season in a virtual format to help protect the health of everyone in attendance. Until Glass Lewis issued this update on March 19, 2020, its policy was to recommend Governance Committee members who approved a company’s virtual meeting.
However, recognizing the challenges presented by COVID-19, Glass Lewis issued an immediate update to its virtual meetings policy. Under Glass Lewis’ revised policy, Glass Lewis will review virtual meetings on a case-by-case basis. Glass Lewis will be noting whether a company indicates its intention to resume holding in-person or hybrid meetings under normal circumstances. This revised policy will be effective for shareholder meetings from March 1, 2020 through June 30, 2020.
Glass Lewis also offered an example of a company that handled switching to a virtual meeting format correctly, Starbucks Corporation. Starbucks issued an announcement about its change to a virtual meeting for its 2020 annual shareholders meeting on March 4, 2020, available at: https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/829224/000119312520060980/d104351ddefa14a.htm
Note: Starbucks did not specifically indicate that it intended to return to its normal in-person meetings once the crisis is over.
I know several companies have been re-tooling their proxy statements to allow them to make their annual meeting a virtual meeting if necessary. To those companies, if they still have time, they may want to include a statement about their intent to return to an in-person meeting format once the COVID-19 crisis passes if a virtual meeting is used.
Glass Lewis’ announcement about the immediate change in its policy can be found in its blog post, Immediate Glass Lewis Guidelines Update on Virtual-Only Meetings due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus), available at: https://www.glasslewis.com/immediate-glass-lewis-guidelines-update-on-virtual-only-meetings-due-to-covid-19-coronavirus/
Last November, the SEC issued a proposed interpretation and guidance on how it would apply the proxy rule exemptions to proxy advisors regarding their provision of proxy voting advice. The exemptions would still exist, but would require proxy advisors to meet certain new conditions. (see Exequity’s November 12, 2019 Client Alert, SEC Proposed Changes to Rues Impacting Proxy Advisors and Shareholder Proposals, for details).
ISS first sued the SEC to block the rule changes and the SEC agreed to what amounts to a stand-still arrangement on the lawsuit for 1 year. Now, the two largest proxy advisors, ISS and Glass Lewis, recently submitted comments letters to the SEC regarding the SEC’s proposals. Finally, the Council of Institutional Investors (CII) has also submitted a comment letter to the SEC on its proposal.
ISS’ comment letter is 89 pages and raises three main issues:
- Definitional—ISS argues that the SEC lacks the authority to regulate proxy voting advice as if it were a solicitation.
- Exemptive—ISS argues that the proposed amendment of exemptions would require a proxy advisor to give the subject of its voting advice the right to review and provide feedback, and if the subject company is not happy with the proxy advisors attempt to satisfy any deficiencies, could force the proxy advisor to include a hyperlink directing the recipient of the proxy advisor’s advice to the subject company’s views on such advice.
- Litigation risk—ISS argues that the proposed guidance would require proxy advisors to provide granular disclosure concerning their proxy voting advice, which ISS alleges has no legal basis and was not authorized by Congress.
Glass Lewis’ comments focused on its belief that the proposed interpretation and guidance would not further the SEC’s stated objectives. Glass Lewis also points out that it believes the rushed process to develop this SEC proposal failed to provide adequate time to consider the legal issues its novel approach would raise and to understand fully and analyze the consequences—economic and otherwise—of the untested, unprecedented regulatory regime it would introduce.
CII’s letter also indicates that it is not a fan of the proposal. CII’s letter focused on claims by certain corporate representatives that there are pervasive factual inaccuracies in proxy advisors’ reports, claims that it believes the SEC relied on in taking this action. CII believes that the claims of pervasive errors are unfounded and misleading and do not provide a basis for the SEC’s rulemaking.
The comment letters of CII, ISS and Glass Lewis are available at: