SEC Issues Guidance on Shareholder Proposals

SEC Issues Guidance on Shareholder Proposals

On October 23, 2018, the SEC issued Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14J (CF) [SLB 14J] regarding Rule 14a-8. Specifically, SLB 14J takes a look at the economic relevance and ordinary business exclusions for shareholder proposals. The SEC Staff last addressed these concepts in SLB 14I.

SLB 14J offers additional guidance on proposals that address senior executive and/or director compensation and ordinary business matters. The SLB states that in evaluating proposals that raise both ordinary business and senior executive and/or director compensation matters, the SEC staff examines whether the focus of the proposal is an ordinary business matter or aspects of senior executive and/or director compensation. Where the focus appears to the SEC staff to be on an ordinary business matter, the proposal might be excludable under Rule 14a-8(i)(7).

Furthermore, the SEC Staff indicated that it believes a proposal that addresses senior executive and/or director compensation may be excludable under Rule 14a-8(i)(7) if a primary aspect of the targeted compensation is broadly available or applicable to a company’s general workforce and the company demonstrates that the executives’ or directors’ eligibility to receive the compensation does not implicate significant compensation matters.

The SEC also announced a bit of a change in how it will approach the exclusion of proposals addressing senior executive and/or director compensation on the basis of micromanagement. Historically, the SEC has not agreed with such exclusions. However, the SEC rethought its position and may support such exclusions in cases where the proposal seeks intricate details or seeks to impose specific timeframes or methods for implementing complex policies.

SLB 14J also details the form of analysis that would be most helpful to the SEC Staff as it considers the no-action request to exclude a shareholder proposal. The SLB lays out the factors that the SEC Staff believes the board may need to address depending on the facts and circumstances in determining whether the shareholder proposal involves a policy issue that is otherwise significantly related to the company’s business or is sufficiently significant in relation to the company’s business. The SLB indicates that a well-developed discussion will describe in sufficient detail the specific substantive factors the board considered in arriving at its conclusion that an issue is not otherwise significantly related to its business or is not sufficiently significant in relation to the company.

SEC Staff Legal Bulletin

Available at: https://www.sec.gov/corpfin/staff-legal-bulletin-14j-shareholder-proposals#

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ISS Opens Peer Group Submission Period

On November 5, 2018, ISS announced that it will soon open its peer group submission period for companies having shareholder meetings between February 1, 2019, and September 15, 2019.

The ISS peer group submission period will run from Monday, November 19, 2018, at 9 am Eastern, through Friday, December 7, 2018, at 8 pm Eastern. Companies can submit peer groups using ISS Corporation Solutions’ (ICS) Governance Analytics platform.

If your company’s peer group changed from the one disclosed in your last proxy, you should give due consideration to providing the updated peer group to ISS during this period.  Providing your company’s updated peer group will help ensure that ISS uses the correct peer group in its analysis of your next proxy.

For more information, including links to ISS’ FAQs on its peer group methodology and the ICS Governance Analytics platform, please go to:

Company Peer Group Feedback

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A Rose By Any Other Name?

My ears always perk up when I hear about a “new” compensation design, especially when it revolves around long-term incentives (LTI) and trying to structure them to bring better alignment with shareholders.  So I paid attention several weeks ago when I was at the Southeastern Chapter of the Society for Corporate Governance’s annual meeting and heard a director say that he had worked with a management team to revamp their LTI program to make it better aligned with shareholders for next year  The director was Daniel G. Beltzman, director of Regis Corporation, who is also General Partner, Birch Run Capital Advisors, LP, an investor in Regis Corporation.

Critical Points of Regis Corporation’s FY19 LTI Design

  • One LTI Grant equal to 3.5x FY2018 LTI grant in FY19
  • Covers 5 years of LTI grants for an initial grant in FY19 covering approximately 3.5x the 2018 annual LTI grant (about 70% of what a participant would have received as annual grants over the 5-year period)
  • No additional LTI grants until after the 5 year period
  • Participants can get additional shares if they elect to defer up to 50% of their net, earned annual cash incentive into shares of company stock, for which the company will make a grant of RSUs equal to 200%. These RSUs have 5-year cliff vesting.

Initial Thoughts

This design is rather unique and more closely aligned with how LTI is structured in a company that is owned/controlled by private equity. It requires executives to invest money in the business to maximize their potential rewards.  Theoretically, this should help ensure that the executives will remain focused on what will drive the company’s stock price higher.

This plan will work so long as executive believe there is an upside to the company’s stock price in the mid-term, 5-year period.  If they decide there isn’t, they may go looking for new challenges, especially if the company enters into a scenario where the annual cash incentive plan doesn’t pay out and there is no additional investment possible in company shares which will be matched.  As long as the future looks bright for the company (at least from an executive perspective), this plan should help drive focus on the company’s goals that will lead to an increased stock price.  But, if the company’s prospects dim, then this design could cause some serious issue with morale and retention and could lead the company to award some form of supplemental incentives. This might increase the cost of this design to be higher than a traditional annual LTI grant-focused design.

The good news is that one of the company’s shareholders has already backed this design (and even helped create it).  So the company should not face the issue of trying to effectively communicate this design to all of its shareholders to convince them it is a good thing. Having a significant shareholder represented on the board and taking an active part in developing this design should ease concerns of other shareholders and make their buy-in to the design less of an issue for the company.

The real test of this design will be what happens.  No one has a crystal ball. Sometimes you have to design the best plan you can at the time given everything you can see and predict. If the future is bright for the company and no significant headwinds come to press against it and throw a spanner wrench into the works, then this design could be quite useful.  We will have to wait and see how things look in FY 2025 to be able to gauge if this design is a winner.  Furthermore, we will have to wait to see this design tested against falling company and market fortunes to see how well it holds up.  But for companies that have significant owners that want a “better” alignment between executives and shareholders, this design might offer at least another alternative to consider.  Time will tell whether LTI designed in such a way will smell as sweet as the typical, annual LTI grant approach.

For more information, please see Regis Corporation’s proxy statement filed for 2019, the CD&A begins on page 19, and the new FY19 LTI program is detailed starting on page 21:

https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/716643/000114036118037937/bp11671x1_def14a.htm#regis-def14a_102318a11

 

Related EC Minute Episode

Episode 28 of the EC Minute also covers Regis Corporation’s new LTI design for fiscal 2019.

http://www.ecminute.com/2018/10/31/episode-28-a-new-lti-design/

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Glass Lewis Issues 2019 Policy Updates

Glass Lewis recently released its updated policies for 2019 for the U.S., Canada, Israel, and Shareholder Initiatives (See link below to access). On the compensation front, the changes impacting U.S. companies are:

  • Say-on-Pay (SOP) Vote Analysis– GL expanded its discussion of several executive compensation topics and how these factor into its SOP voting recommendations, including excise tax gross-ups, severance and sign-on arrangements, grants of front-loaded awards, clawback provisions, and CD&A disclosure for smaller reporting companies.
    • Excise Tax Gross-Up Provisions: GL will now look to see whether the company adopted a new excise tax gross-up in the past year which may factor into a negative SOP vote recommendation. GL may also recommend against board committee members that approved the excise tax gross-up, especially where the company had previously committed to not adopt such provisions.
    • Severance and Sign-On Arrangements: GL indicates that in determining whether these to be egregious or excessive (and thus cause for a negative SOP vote recommendation), it will consider general U.S. market practice, as well as the size and design of these entitlements.
    • Front-Loaded Awards: GL will take the quantum, design and company’s rationale for granting such awards into consideration.
    • Clawback Provisions: GL indicates that it is increasingly focusing on the specific terms of recoupment policies beyond whether a company maintains one that satisfies minimum legal requirements. GL believes clawbacks should be triggered, at a minimum, in the event of a restatement of financial results or similar revision of performance indicators upon which bonuses were paid. GL indicates that where a company maintains only a bare-minimum clawback, the absence of more expansive recoupment tools may inform GL’s view of the compensation program (and lead to a negative SOP vote recommendation).
    • CD&A Disclosure for Smaller Reporting Companies: GL will consider the impact of materially decreased CD&A disclosure (as permitted for certain smaller companies when in June 2018 the SEC changed the definition of “smaller reporting company” to pull in companies that previously did not comply), when analyzing the performance of a board’s compensation committee and may recommend against committee members in cases where a reduction in the disclosure substantially impacts shareholders’ ability to make an informed assessment of the company’s executive pay practices.
  • Peer Groups-GL added clarifying language regarding its approach to peer groups. GL is looking to see if the peer group is appropriate and of the correct size and that benchmarking is not set above peers.
  • Pay-for-Performance-GL added clarifying language regarding its approach to pay-for-performance, including a list of practices that may cause it to find that pay and performance are not aligned and cause it to recommend against a company’s SOP vote.
  • Use of Discretion-GL added clarifying language regarding its approach to the use of discretion. GL is looking to see if discretionary bonuses are paid when short- or long-term incentive plan targets are not achieved, which could lead it to recommend against a company’s SOP vote.
  • Director Compensation-GL added clarifying language regarding its approach to director compensation. GL believes non-employee director fees should be competitive, but excessive fees represent a financial cost to the company to the company and potentially compromise the objectivity and independence of non-employee directors. GL believes that director equity grants should not be performance-based.
  • Bonus Plans-GL added clarifying language regarding its approach to bonus plans. GL believes short-term bonus or incentives should be demonstrably tied to performance. GL believes a mix of corporate and individual performance measures is appropriate.

On the shareholder proposal front, GL has made several updates to its policies on shareholder proposals covering:

  • Special Meetings: GL has codified its policy regarding conflicting special meeting shareholder resolutions. Where both shareholders and the company put forward proposals for shareholders to call a special meeting, GL will generally recommend for the proposal with the lower threshold. Where there are conflicting proposals from shareholders and the company, and the company does not currently maintain a special meeting right, GL may recommend for the shareholder proposal. In cases where a company excluded a special meeting shareholder proposal in favor of a management proposal ratifying an existing special meeting right, GL will typically recommend against the ratification proposal as well as members of the nominating and governance committee.
  • Diversity Reporting: GL revised its policy regarding shareholder proposal seeking diversity reporting. GL will consider: (1) the industry in which the company operates and the nature of its operations, (2) the company’s current level of disclosure on issues related to workforce diversity, (3) the level of such disclosure at the company’s peers, and (4) any lawsuits or accusations of discrimination within the company.
  • Environmental and Social Issues: GL codified its approach to reviewing how boards are overseeing environmental and social issues. For large caps and where GL identifies material oversight issues, GL will review a company’s overall governance practices and identify which directors or board-level committees have been charged with oversight of environmental and/or social issues. GL will also identify where such oversight has not been clearly defined.
  • Materiality: GL formalized its consideration of materiality when reviewing and making voting recommendations on shareholder proposals. GL will place significant emphasis on the financial implications of a company adopting, or not adopting, any proposed shareholder resolution. To aid in determining financial materiality, GL will consider the standards developed by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.
  • Recoupment Policies: GL revised its policy concerning shareholder proposals requesting companies adopt enhanced recoupment provisions. In cases where a company has not adopted policies that provide sufficient protections for reputational and financial harm, GL may consider supporting well-crafted resolutions seeking to expand the recoupment policy.
  • Written Consent Proposals: WHere a company has adopted a special meeting right of 15% or below and has adopted reasonable proxy access provisions, GL will generally recommend against shareholder proposals asking the company to adopt bylaws to provide shareholders with the right to act by written consent.

Link to Glass Lewis Blog Post, 2019 Policy Guideline Updates: United States, Canada, Shareholder Initiatives, Israel

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