Ramblings on Votes, the Power of CorpGov.net, TCL and Jim Crow for Retail Shareowners

I see from Alcoa’s 8-K filing, that William Steiner’s proposal to end supermajority requirements won 68%. Last year, a similar proposal won 73% but this year management put their own proposals on the proxy, so some just voted for their proposals to end supermajority requirements in three areas. Management’s highest proposal won 736,143,769 votes, with 20,319,646 opposed and 4, 344, 531 abstentions. I understand that’s 74% of stock outstanding, so the measures still failed to meet the 80% supermajority threshold required for change.

With 74% favoring, and 2% opposing, it is yet another frustrating exercise in futility by shareowners. Since management placed proposals on the proxy, they look like they’re being cooperative. However, how much was real and how much was just for show? Did they make any real effort to solicit proxies to overturn supermajority requirements? My guess is that it was minimal, if any.

I see from the 8-K filing by Kellogg that my proposal to end supermajority requirements won about 46% of the vote, despite opposition from the Kellogg Foundation, which owns about 23% of shares. At least with the new filing requirements, we’re getting results a lot quicker.

At Bank of America, shareholders passed a resolution by John Chevedden that would give shareholders the right to call a special meeting as long as owners of at least 10% of shares vote in favor of it, down from the current 20-25% requirement (unclear in Fortune article). (Bank shareholders fight back — and win, Fortune, 4/29/10)

I reviewed Dawn Following Darkness: An Outcome-Oriented Model for Corporate Governance by Martin B. Robins on April 22 in Require Affirmative Proof in Specified Circumstances of “Too Big to Fail Companies” in Order to Meet the Business Judgment Rule. I may be going out on a limb but I think that publicity was all that was needed to push the paper onto the list of SSRN top downloads. Now, if we can only influence proxy voters as much as we influence SSRN readers, we’ll have a huge impact on corporate governance.

Ric Marshall and Cheri Gaudet, of The Corporate Library, put on a great webinar yesterday, “Director Elections 2010: A Shareowner’s Guide.” Ric was able to demonstrate their tools using some well know examples of outrageous disclosures. If you missed it, you may be able to catch the recorded version on-demand, assuming it is available to those who didn’t register.  It was especially interesting to see how TCL flags directors for various issues such as overboarding, lack of full independence, involvement in corporate failures, compensation and for several other reasons. Want to know which directors have lucrative compensation contracts with management? TCL has the tools to get you their in seconds. Check out Director Flags – Highlighting Shareholder Concerns. You can also request a free trial to Board Analyst to try out the Director Highlights feature.

John Chevedden brought to my attention what appears to be draconian bylaw provisions that call for a whole bunch of hoops to be jumped through for raising issues at shareowner meetings.  Some companies appear to be trying to discourage shareowner proposals by telling proponents that in order to file a rule 14a-8 proposal they have to jump through the same hoops as hedge funds. See item 4 in this example from H&R Block but note the language near the end  that says rights of Rule 14(a)-8 aren’t impacted. Comments on what this is all about?

And speaking of John Chevedden, he e-mailed me with yet another way retail shareowners get the shaft when voting through a voter information form (VIF) from Broadridge. I’ve written extensively on the “blank vote” issue and even filed a rulemaking petition with the SEC. Actual proxies must include a bold-face warning if blank votes will be turned into votes for management. However, VIFs typically include a practically microscopic footnote. Chevedden point out that after you cast your preliminary vote, it is easier to see how your blanks will be voted; and he provided this example from Mattel. Of course, if you do notice how your blanks have changed and you try to go back to fill in the blanks, you are punished because the system then requires you to vote all over again. The votes you want to remain valid have all disappeared. Gotcha! I revised my post, Jim Crow “Protections” for Retail Shareowners, to include this additional information.

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