Plan / Plan Amendment Approval Process

Is it Better to Propose a New Omnibus Plan or to Amend an Existing Omnibus Plan?

I am often asked whether it is better to ask shareholders to approve an amendment of an existing omnibus plan or a completely new omnibus plan. Generally, there is not too much difference since you can make the amendments ensure that the existing omnibus plan complies with current corporate governance best practices.  But, in point of fact, there is a slight difference when I look at the voting for proposals to amend an existing plan versus to approve a new plan.

Mind you, the difference is not all that much.  But for companies that are looking to do everything possible to ensure a favorable vote outcome, then serious thought should be given to adopting a new omnibus plan since such proposals receive higher levels of voting support.  That said, the median level of vote support for proposals to amend an existing omnibus plan are slightly higher than the median support for proposals to approve a new omnibus plan.  But this is offset by the fact that proposals to approve new omnibus plans have more votes coming in at or above the 90% level.

The charts below look at the vote support at median and average and by support level for both of these proposals using data from the ISS Voting Analytics database for S&P 500 companies with such proposals in 2015, 2016 and in 2017 so far.

Source: ISS Voting Analytics database

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Share Withholding at Maximum Tax Rate

Accounting Standards Update (ASU) No. 2016-09, Compensation—Stock Compensation (Topic 718): Improvements to Employee Share-Based Payment Accounting (available at: http://www.fasb.org/cs/ContentServer?c=Document_C&pagename=FASB%2FDocument_C%2 FDocumentPage&cid=1176168028584. 2) permits companies to withhold shares up to the maximum statutory tax rates (once a company is applying all the provisions of ASU 2016-09). Many existing equity compensation plans specifically limit share withholding to the minimum statutory tax rates in order to avoid potentially negative accounting consequences, i.e., liability accounting instead of fixed, grant-date accounting for equity awards. So the question has been raised whether amending an existing equity plan that limits share withholding to the minimum statutory tax rate would pose an issue under the exchanges rules.  NYSE and NASDAQ have now both issued guidance on this issue which should help companies as they consider adopting ASU 2016-09 and implementing maximum share withholding.

NYSE

The NYSE indicates that a rule to add back shares that have never been issued is not a “formula.” Consequently, amending a plan to provide for withholding of shares based on a grantee’s maximum tax rate rather than the statutory minimum tax rate is not a material revision if the withheld shares are never issued, even if the withheld shares are added back to the plan.

But the NYSE also indicates that a rule to add back shares that have actually been issued generally would be considered a formula. Furthermore, the NYSE states that a rule to add back shares that are withheld from restricted stock upon vesting to cover taxes is a formula unless the forfeited shares are immediately cancelled upon vesting. Therefore, if the plan involves a formula, it must be limited to a term of 10 years from the date of the last shareholder approval. Consequently, if a plan sets the share withholding rate at the minimum statutory rate for restricted stock (and other awards where the shares are issued), then a change to increase the share withholding to the maximum statutory rate would be considered a material amendment that would require shareholder approval.

NYSE’s FAQs, including FAQ C-1, can be found at: https://www.nyse.com/publicdocs/nyse/regulation/nyse/equitycompfaqs.pdf

NASDAQ

NASDAQ also released guidance on this issue, but failed to specifically address the issue of issued versus unissued equity awards. According to the NASDAQ guidance, an amendment to increase the withholding rate to satisfy tax obligations would not be considered a material amendment to an equity compensation plan. But the guidance then goes on to state that allowing the holder of an award to surrender unissued shares to pay tax withholdings is similar to settling the award in cash at market price, and neither creates a material increase in benefits to participants nor increase the number of shares to be issued under the plan.

The NASDAQ guidance does not specifically address what happens if such a plan amendment is made to permit the surrendering of additional issued shares to pay tax withholding (e.g., restricted stock).  I think with the use of the term “unissued” in the NASDAQ guidance that NASDAQ is more than likely taking a similar stance as the NYSE, but some additional clarification from NASDAQ regarding issued share awards would be helpful.

NASDAQ’s FAQS can be found at: https://listingcenter.nasdaq.com/Material_Search.aspx?cid=71&mcd=LQ&sub_cid=114,97,109,101,103

Final Thoughts

If you are considering amending an existing equity plan to increase the share withholding rate to permit up to the maximum statutory rate (and you will be adopting the other ASU 2016-09 requirements), it is important to analyze the plan’s equity awards to determine if there are any would have issued shares, such as restricted stock. If so, then the plan amendment might be able to be crafted so that it maintains the plan’s existing tax withholding rate for issued share awards and only permits the increased tax withholding for unissued awards and therefore would not necessarily require shareholder approval.  Needless to say, companies should check with their legal and accounting advisers before undertaking such a plan amendment to ensure that it can be done without shareholder approval. Alternatively, companies could put the amendment to shareholders for approval, but should recognize that ISS likely will apply its Equity Plan Scorecard policy to the amended plan in making its vote recommendation.

For more information about ASU 2016-09, see this Exequity Client Alert: http://www.exqty.com/uploads/6/9/9/0/69908991/fasb_update_asc_718.pdf

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ISS Issues 2014-2015 Policy Survey Results

On September 29, 2014, ISS released the results of its 2014-2015 Policy Survey. ISS highlighted several survey results related to compensation matters, including:

  • Responses regarding pay for performance; and
  • Equity plans.

Pay for Performance (P4P)

ISS highlighted the responses to several survey questions that dealt with P4P. ISS indicates that investors liked the idea of having CEO pay limits relative to company performance (27% of investors supported, while only  12% of issuers agreed). The magnitude of CEO pay was considered when evaluating pay practices by 24% of investors and 50% of issuers. Based on these responses, and the additional follow-up questions, ISS may propose a refinement to its P4P policy that does more to evaluate the CEO pay versus both absolute and relative measures.  Currently, the ISS P4P policy compares a CEO’s pay to that of the median CEO pay of the ISS peer group for the company.  So, we’ll have to see if this means ISS will add two components to the CEO pay evaluation–both a relative and absolute analysis–and how these will factor into the overall quantitative concern level.

Equity Plans

ISS indicates in the survey results that it will be revising its equity plan policy for the 2015 proxy season (i.e., for shareholder meeting held on or after February 1, 2015). According to the narrative, ISS will implement a “balanced scorecard” approach for evaluating equity compensation plans that will evaluate the proposal under three categories:

  • Cost;
  • Plan Features; and
  • Company Grant Practices.

ISS indicates that issuers supported a weighting of these categories as follows:

  • 70% of investors supported weighting of 30% to 50% for Cost, with 40% being cited most often;
  • 62% of investors supported weighting of 25% to 35% for Plan Features; and
  • 64% of investors supported weighting of 20% to 35% for Grant Practices.

ISS has given no indication of what the final weighting will be, but they could be 40/30/30.  Additionally, ISS did not necessarily explain what was included in each fo these broad categories.  While I assume “Cost” refers to the ISS Cost calculated for an equity plan proposal using ISS’s ISSue Compass model, it is not absolutely certain that ISS won’t introduce some additional factors into the Cost category. The same holds true for the other categories, Plan Features and Grant Practices, which, conceivably, ISS already addresses in its proxy reports on equity plan proposals.  However, there is no indication if there will be additional features (such as liberal share counting) that might cause a proposal to lose all the points under the Plan Features category. Likewise, while Grant Practices probably includes the ISS Burn Rate evaluation, it is by no means absolutely certain that is all it will include.  It also isn’t clear to me what will happen if a company exceeds the ISS Burn Rate Cap but makes a public commitment, will that still be viewed as an override and cause a company to not lose points under the Grant Practices category?

The possibilities are numerous and, unfortunately, not touched upon in these survey results.  However, they do indicate a significant reorganization to the ISS equity plan proposal policy and all companies should keep an eye out to see what the actual draft policy looks like and try to understand what differences exist from the current policy and how that might impact share requests.

 

A copy of the ISS Press Release announcing the survey results can be found here:

http://www.issgovernance.com/iss-releases-results-annual-global-voting-policy-survey/

 

The actual 2014-2015 Policy Survey results can be found here:

http://www.issgovernance.com/file/publications/ISS2014-2015PolicySurveyResultsReport.pdf

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Speaking at WorldatWork Total Rewards Conference

Ed will be speaking at WorldatWork’s Total Rewards 2012 Conference this Wednesday, May 23,2012 from 9:15 to 10:30 am with Bonnie Kelly from Capital One Financial Corporation and Reid Pearson of Alliance Advisors. Their presentation is “Get to Know the Long-Lost Relatives You Never You Had: How to Get to Know Your Shareholders,” which will look at what you can do to get to know your shareholders, what they want, how they are likely to react to certain compensation-related proposals and how your team can help ensure your proposals succeed.

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