Tag Archives | Bebchuk

Real-Time Proxy Voting Disclosure Will Drive Competition

Real-time proxy voting disclosure by big funds could drive competition for investments from individual investors and smaller institutional investors with few resources for proxy analysis. Such disclosures would also go a long way in solving problems raised by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. StrineLucian Bebchuk, and the Main Street Investors Coalition regarding potential conflicts of interest and/or under/over investment in ESG analysis and advocacy. The cost of real-time proxy voting disclosure would be minimal and may actually save funds money currently spent converting voting files to pdfs.

Real-time disclosure would help customers compare voting records and could drive competition among big funds to vote the predominant values of their customers. For ease of use, Compare CalSTRS’ sortable real-time disclosures with those of State Street Institutional Investment Trust. [Graphic above from Pensions & Investments article, No excuse for fiduciary ignorance, 2/19/2018] Continue Reading →

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Jill Fisch: Index Funds Investors Can Switch

Jill Fisch, et al. addresses a central myth around index funds and investors in Passive Investors (June 29, 2018). Her research has implications applicable to recent analysis and recommendations by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr., Professor Lucian Bebchuk and others.  The following is the central highlight:

Our key insight is that although index funds are locked into their investments, their investors are not. Like all mutual fund shareholders, investors in index funds can exit at any time by selling their shares and receiving the net asset value of their ownership interest. This exit option causes mutual funds – active and passive – to compete for investors both on price and performance. While the conventional view focuses on the competition between passive funds tracking the same index, our analysis suggests that passive funds also compete against active funds. Passive fund sponsors therefore have an incentive to take measures to neutralize the comparative advantage enjoyed by active funds, that is, their ability to use their investment discretion to generate alpha. Because they cannot compete by exiting underperforming companies, passive investors must compete by using “voice” to prevent asset outflow.

In the case of Strine’s concerns with political contributions, use of “voice” would be voting in favor of measures requiring shareholder approval or at least transparency of political contributions. While Strine’s paper was based on actual behavior, Fisch points to potential, if funds operate logically. The potential for “voice” to ensure competitiveness with active investors also addresses, at least in part, some of Bebchuk’s concerns.

Fisch also points out in another paper (Shareholder Collaboration) that passive investors are increasingly engaged in information production of their own, not “just as ‘reticent’ supporters of initiatives undertaken by activist hedge funds.” Because of their size, huge passive index funds often cast deciding votes. Because of their market-wide focus, they often have information the firm insiders do not have. In many cases the potential rewards for index funds can be disproportionately high, compared to their investment in time, since they typically hold a significant portion of the outstanding stock at most large firms.

Fiduciary obligations are complicated.  “Mutual funds’ fiduciary duties require them to vote in a manner that benefits their investors, not each company that they hold in their portfolio.” (Passive Investors) For example, holding both target and bidder might lead to a different vote than holding only one.

Most troubling was the following:

Delaware law provides shareholders with the right to vote their shares as they see fit and does not impose any obligation on shareholders to vote unselfishly or to further the economic interests of the corporation. [See, e.g., Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. v. Ringling, 53 A.2d 441, 447 (Del. 1947) (“Generally speaking, a shareholder may exercise wide liberality of judgment in the matter of voting, and it is not objectionable that his motives may be for personal profit, or determined by whims or caprice, so long as he violates no duty owed his fellow shareholders.”).]

Given that funds operate within such a weak standard, it is important that individuals, the real Main Street investors in index funds, have ready access to voting records in an easily compared format. Keith L. Johnson, et al., point out the importance of fiduciaries conducting “congruity analyses of proxy votes” with public statements statements by delegated fund managers.

As an example of how such potential inconsistencies might present, BlackRock states in its Investment Stewardship 2018 Annual Report, “During our direct engagements with companies, we address the issues covered by any shareholder proposals that we believe to be material to the long-term value of that company. Where management demonstrates a willingness to address the material issues raised, and we believe progress is being made, we will generally support the company and vote against the shareholder proposal.” (Emphasis added.)

On the surface, this stated practice of voting against shareholder resolutions that have been determined to be in the best interests of the company suggests there is a preference for supporting management over the interests of clients in improving company performance as soon as practical. The resulting disconnect between value creation and proxy voting sends mixed signals to clients, the company and the marketplace. It could have the practical effect of giving companies more room to ignore or delay value enhancing actions.

Fisch argues that index fund investors can switch and some can. However, many employer sponsored 401(k) and other plans provide few choices. Main Street investors are often, as Strine notes, “forced capitalists.” If their 401(k) plan administrators take little or no initiative to investigate potential conflicts or breaches of fiduciary duty, how would they know? Like index funds themselves, the only tool “forced capitalists” might have is “voice.” However, like index funds, they need information before they can voice concerns.

Under the current system, proxy votes only need to be disclosed once a year and can be in a format that makes sorting and analysis difficult. More frequent, transparent and user friendly proxy voting records would make it easier for employees to argue for investment options better aligned with value creation. Such information would also make it more difficult for employers to ignore their fiduciary duties.

Real-time, or close to real-time, proxy voting disclosures using an internet window into each fund’s existing proxy voting platform would facilitate the ability of Main Street investors, the beneficial owners, to hold companies accountable through the complex chain of ownership. Several public pension and “socially responsibe” mutual funds have made such disclosures for many years. (See an incomplete list in our Shareowner Action Handbook.)

I will address more of the rationale and benefits of “real-time” disclosure in an upcoming post. Check back or subscribe to email notifications.

   

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Shareholder Activism Redux: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Shareholder ActivismIt’s impossible to read a newspaper, magazine or blog, or watch the news without hearing about shareholder activism.  It’s an industry unto itself with activist funds, attorneys who represent activists, activist defense lawyers, activist-focused investment bankers, activist conferences, activist newsletters, activist databases, and, of course, there are Messrs. Bebchuk and Lipton.

As a former institutional investor turned corporate governance author/advisor, I regularly get calls from media, and am cornered after speaking engagements to talk about activists.  It’s arguable that no topic in recent memory has been discussed by so many in the presence of so few facts.  It’s eerily reminiscent of when cloud computing first overtook the technology vernacular.  You know, when 8 out of 10 people who were earnestly discussing moving to the cloud, cloud infrastructure and so forth, had no idea what the “cloud” actually was. Continue Reading →

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Quick Reads in Corporate Governance

Time to Move Down the Food Chain With Proxy Proposals

How does director voting look so far this year? Eighty percent of directors up for election received over 90% shareholder support. And nine of ten received at least 80% support. Directors of large-cap companies had the highest rate of support, averaging 95% approval. Small cap and Micro-cap directors had the lowest affirmative rates, with 76% voting “for.” Only a very small number of individual directors (less than 2%) failed to receive majority shareholder support.  (From ProxyPulse, a Broadridge PwC Initiative. Much more at the site.) Continue Reading →

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SEC to Propose Rules on Corporate Political Spending by April 2013

The SEC recently updated its entry in the Office of Management and Budget’s Unified Agenda to indicate that, by April, it plans to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to require public companies to disclose their spending on politics. This is huge! Perhaps petitions, accompanied by thousands of e-mails from supporters, actually can have an impact. Congratulations to Bebchuk and Jackson, co-chairs of the Committee on Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending. See their post at HLS corpgov site. Continue Reading →

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Support Rulemaking Petition on Corporate Political Spending

A group of ten very prominent corporate and securities law experts submitted a formal rulemaking petition to the SEC last week urging the Commission to develop rules requiring public companies to disclose the use of corporate resources for political activities to shareowners. Please take a few minutes to join with me writing an e-mail to the SEC in support of their petition and the important issue seeks to address.

The petition was submitted by the Committee on Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending, co-chaired by Lucian A. Bebchuk, Professor of Law, Economics, and Finance at Harvard Law School and Robert J. Jackson, Jr., Associate Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Bebchuk and Jackson are co-authors of Corporate Political Spending: Who Decides?, and prior posts about the subject of Continue Reading →

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Bebchuk on Airgas

In a major decision issued last week, William Chandler of Delaware’s Court of Chancery ruled that corporate boards may use a “poison pill”—a device designed to block shareholders from considering a takeover bid—for as long a period of time as the board deems warranted. Because Delaware law governs most U.S. publicly traded firms, the decision is important—and it represents a setback for investors and capital markets. (Lucian Bebchuk: An Antidote for the Corporate Poison Pill – WSJ.com, 2/24/2011)

Lucian Bebchuk’s op-ed discusses the recent ruling by the Delaware courts that corporate boards may use a “poison pill” to block a takeover bid from being considered by shareholders for as long as the board deems warranted. The decision is a triumph for the poison pill and antitakeover defenses but represents a setback for investors and the capital markets.

The piece explains the substantial costs imposed on investors and the market for corporate control by the expansive freedom boards enjoy to block takeover bids. Bebchuk argues that institutional investors should seek to ensure that public firms self-commit not to block an offer favored by shareowners for too long by removing any classified boards in place. Doing so would produce considerable benefits for investors and capital markets.

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Markets Learn

In new empirical research, Alma Cohen, Charles C.Y. Wang, and I show how stock markets have learned to price anti-takeover provisions. This learning by markets has important implications for both managements of publicly traded companies and their investors…

while investors can no longer profit by basing their trading decisions on standard anti-takeover provisions, our findings leave open the possibility that an investment strategy based on other features of corporate governance might be worthwhile. Thus, managements should not dismiss governance reforms that are potentially valuable, but that investors are not yet focused on, and that markets do not yet price.

via Pricing Corporate Governance by Lucian Bebchuk – Project Syndicate.

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Learning and the Disappearing Association Between Governance and Returns

Study by Lucian A. Bebchuk, Alma Cohen, and  Charles C.Y. Wang finds the governance provisions (G-Index) used by Gompers, Ishii, and Metrick (2003) that showed abnormal returns during the 1991-1999 period was no longer associated with abnormal returns during the period of 2000-2008.

Consistent with the learning hypothesis, they document that (i) attention to corporate governance from the media, institutional investors, and researchers has exploded in the beginning of the 2000s and remained on a high level since then, and (ii) until the beginning of the 2000s, but not subsequently, market participants were more positively surprised by the earning announcements of good-governance firms than by those of poor-governance firms.

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The False Promise of Pay for Performance

The False Promise of Pay for PerformanceMany, including this reviewer, called Bebchuk and Fried’s Pay without Performance: The Unfulfilled Promise of Executive Compensation the best corporate governance book of 2004. James McConvill’s The False Promise of Pay for Performance: Embracing a Postive Model of the Company Executive, largely a critique of Pay Without Performance, deserves similar attention.

Bebchuk and Fried clearly demonstrated that many features of executive pay are better explained as a result of shear managerial power, rather than arm’s-length bargaining by boards of directors. Their recommendations on improving executive compensation are aimed at eliminating or reducing some of the most egregious problems and are written to shareholders, since such reforms are not likely to be raised by “independent” directors, as independence is currently defined. One of their major points is that board members should not only be independent of CEOs, they should also be dependent on shareholders. Continue Reading →

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