Tag Archives | John Chevedden

Hyperbolic Message With Unconstrained Abandon: Apache v Chevedden

As regular readers know, I’ve joined with Glyn Holton of the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX) recently in defending a direct assault on shareowner rights that came in the guise of a lawsuit by Apache, a $33 billion company, against John Chevedden. (see Who Should Submit Shareowner Proposals?, HLS Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, 3/9/10) In “Apache’s Reply Brief on the Merits,” they characterize our defense of shareowner rights as follows:

It may be fun for USPX (and its co-signer CorpGov.net) to have yet another forum in which to broadcast their hyperbolic message with unconstrained abandon, but it’s nothing short of irresponsible for them to do so here.

They give no clue as to what is being considered “irresponsible.” We know Apache’s CEO G. Steven Farris has publicly declared in a comment letter to the SEC on proxy access that:

Non-binding proposals should not be permitted at all. They have no legal standing under the corporate laws of Delaware and other slates, are an inefficient and ineffective method of communication between shareholders and companies, and distract attention from the genuine business issues presented for shareholder votes at shareholder meetings. The Commission should eliminate the federally created right of share holders to make non-binding proposals.

Is he now trying to obtain through the court what he could not at the SEC? Am I being irresponsible because I oppose that viewpoint?

Since there are no disputes of fact, only of law, John Chevedden filed a Motion for Summary Judgment in Apache Corp. v. Chevedden, which is now on its way to the court. Apache’s response to the MSJ is also in route.

The heart of Apache’s argument is that to be able to submit a shareholder’s proposal, shareowners must have their shares directly registered with the company or, if held in “street name,” they must get a broker letter from the Depository Trust Company’s nominee, Cede & Co.

The reason we are so interested in this case (hyperbolic or not) is that if Apache wins, it could essentially cut shareowner proposals to a trickle. Only directly registered shareowners would be able to file.  Those of us holding shares in street name wouldn’t be able to get a broker letter from DTC, or would certainly face additional difficulties, since DTC has no direct knowledge of who the beneficial owners are for the stocks they hold.

As evidence that Chevedden could obtain such a letter, “as many shareholders do” Apache contends, Apache’s attorneys direct the court’s attention to a form on DTC’s website called a “Confirmation of Shares” letter and they attached letters, which they claim support their contention that beneficial owners can easily obtain evidence of ownership from DTC.

However, like the no-action letters in their Brief on the Merits, which they claim supported their case but did not, none of the attached letters involved a shareowner obtaining evidence from DTC that they beneficially owned stock. The purpose of all the letters cited is to nominate directors, give notice of a proposed bylaws amendment or take some other action that DTC can take because they are the legal owner of the shares and they have been requested to do so by direct participants in DTC. For example, here’s how share ownership is “confirmed” in one such letter:

DTC is informed by its Participant, Merrill-Lynch. Pierce Fenner & Smith Incorporated (“Participant”) that on the date hereof 85 of such shares (the “Shares”) credited to Participant’s DTC account are beneficially owned by The Circle K Corporation, a customer of the Participant (the “Customer”). (my emphasis)

If DTC were willing to issue “evidence of ownership” to a beneficial shareowner holding in street name for the purpose of filing a shareowner proposal, it would have to be qualified, such as:

We have received a letter from our participant firm Northern Trust saying they received a letter from non-participant firm RAM Trust saying that a client of theirs, John Chevedden, holds shares of Apache Corp …

It reminds us of the parlor game played by whispering something in a circle, asking your neighbor to pass it on, and finding out how distorted it becomes by the time it goes fully around.

A ruling in favor of Apache would come close to accomplishing a previously stated goal of Apache’s CEO G. Steven Farris to “eliminate the federally created right of share holders to make non-binding proposals.”

I don’t think the law requires that shareowners holding in street name have to get evidence of ownership from DTC, rather than from their bank or broker, as we all have been doing for many years. I have never seen such a letter and Apache, which has accepted letters evidencing ownership from banks and brokers for previous shareowner proposals, has been unable to come up with one tangible instance where that has occurred.

Will the judge push shareowner rights off a cliff? We may know by the end of the week.

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Apache v Chevedden: SEC Rules Don't Reflect Reality

I was delighted to see Broc Romanek coverage of the controversy surrounding Apache v Chevedden, although he did so in a members only area of theCorporateCounsel.net. I hope the case gets a lot of attention.

Yesterday, I was discussing a table I am working on that shows some of the rights denied to street name shareowners that are readily available to registered shareowners. Glyn Holton, Executive Director of the United State Proxy Exchange, pointed out something.  It is obvious those who wrote the regulations don’t know how the system works… or perhaps the rules haven’t been changed since the great immobilization, when almost all the shares were turned over to Cede & Co. and we started trading “security entitlements.”

Rule 14a-8 (b)(2)(i) says that “If you are the registered holder of your securities, which means that your name appears in the company’s records as a shareholder, the company can verify your eligibility on its own. Otherwise submit to the company a written statement from the ‘record’ holder of your securities (usually a broker or bank) verifying that, at the time you submitted your proposal, you continuously held the securities for at least one year.”

Of course, that is exactly what Chevedden did. He followed the rules and got a letter from his broker, Ram Trust. When Apache insisted that Ram Trust didn’t show on their records, he went another level up. However, Apache’s gotcha moment may have been in recognizing that the SEC rules are incorrect, since the rules assume that brokers and banks are “usually” record holders. They are not. Brokers and banks  also largely hold “security entitlements.” Cede & Co. holds the actual immobilized registered securities.

Please pull up the simple table I have begun constructing of  known instances where Street Name shareowners are being denied rights readily available to registered shareowners. (SECRuleStName2) Do you know of other similar situations? Please share your information by e-mailing James McRitchie at [email protected]

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Proxy Access: The Letters Are In

The deadline was August 17th, so the comment letters on proxy access have all been filed and posted. Many are well worth reading. If you don’t see yours posted, you might want to resubmit it.

TIAA-CREF, one of the more conservative shareowner activists, calls on the Commission to raise the threshold to 5% for shareowners at all companies, regardless of size. Additionally, they want to require a two year holding period and recommend instead of the “first in” approach, nominations should go to the largest owner or and (here they get creative) to the shareowner or group that has held their shares the longest. They voiced opposition to reimbursement: “Reimbursement of expenses could be used to facilitate the election of special interest directors. Reimbursement also encourages fighting and proxy contests to achieve representation at the distraction of directors rather than dialogue and productive change.” Instead, they favored “incentives for a meeting between shareholders and the board in order to identify director candidates who are acceptable to both parties… Ultimately, the best possible outcome is to avoid a proxy contest altogether… We believe that the nominee should receive at least 20% of the vote in order to be re-nominated in subsequent years.”

Cornish Hitchcock, writing on behalf of the LongView Funds warns against a state-law carve-out, praising the merits of a uniform system. Like TIAA-CREF, the LongView Funds would like to see the required holding period extended to two years and nominations going to the largest nominator.

J. Robert Brown, of theRacetotheBottom.org, offers a spirited rebuttal to comments by the Delaware Bar Association regarding their argument in favor of private ordering. “The evidence in fact suggests that in the absence of a federal requirement, companies will opt for a categorical rule denying access.” “Evidence suggests that management’s control over the drafting process and its ability to rely on the corporate treasury eliminate any real prospect of private ordering. Instead, when matters are made discretionary, they result in a categorical rule that favors management.” “The only way to ensure meaningful access to the proxy statement is to adopt a federal rule that institutes the requirement.”

Lucian Bebchuk’s letter, signed by 80 professors, favors the rulemaking and notes, “no matter how moderate eligibility or procedural requirements may be, shareholder nominees must still meet the demanding test of getting elected before they can join the board. A shareholder nominee will join the board only if the nominee obtains more votes than the incumbents’ candidate in an election in which incumbents, but not the shareholder nominee or the nominator, may spend significant amounts of the company’s resources on campaign expenses.”

As expected, the Shareholder Communications Coalition, comprised of the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Corporate Directors, the National Investor Relations Institute, the Securities Transfer Association, and the Society of Corporate Secretaries & Governance Professionals sent a letter opposing the rulemaking “until the Commission: (1) completes its intended examination of the proxy system; and (2) promulgates new regulations to modernize and reform this cumbersome and expensive system.” “A shareholder nomination process that operates in a proxy voting system that cannot produce an accurate and verifiable vote count will do little to improve the overall
corporate governance system.” I just can’t help making a snarky comment. So we should just go with the current system that elects incumbents based on inaccurate and unverifiable voting results until we can ensure the system works properly

Broadridge submitted a letter discussing various technical issues. Great for those who want to get into the weeds.

Writing on behalf of Sodali, a global corporate governance consultancy, John Wilcox asks: “Is Rule 14a-11 is sufficiently deferential to the traditional role of the states in regulating corporate governance?; and (2) Does the proposal achieve the Commission’s goal of removing burdens that the federal proxy process currently places on the ability of shareholders to exercise their basic rights to nominate and elect directors?” His analysis answers with a resounding yes.

Eleanor Bloxham, of the Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance notes that “having an orderly, ongoing process for shareholder to nominate directors may produce improvements in shareholder returns. Certainty, competition in the process for board seats could, I believe, produce better candidates.” She addresses the issue of affiliation and loyalty, Bloxham recommends each candidate be required to prepare a statement as part of the proxy process that would stipulate that the candidate understands that as a director, if chosen, their  obligations are to act in the best interests of all shareholders, including minority shareholders, and to act without preferential treatment related to who may have nominated them.”

As I have previously mentioned, I signed on to a letter from the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX), endorsed by members of the Investor Suffrage Movement, Robert Monks, John Harrington and John Chevedden. Glyn Holton did a great job of putting together sixty-nine pages of comments. I urge everyone to read our common sense approach outlining the democratic option, the need for deliberation and the reasons for our recommendations, which include:

  • Mandating a federal standard that take precedence over state laws.
  • Placing all bona fide candidates on a single management distributed proxy card.
  • Not encouraging a system where corporations are willing to
    reimburse expenses shareowners incur in conducting a proxy contest, since this will only escalate costs paid by shareowners.
  • Don’t place an overt limit the number of candidates shareowners are able to nominate. If limits are need to keep the pool manageable:
    • limit individuals to five for-profit corporate boards
    • charge a modest fee
    • require a system of endorsements
    • require all candidates to file pre and post election estimates and accounting of all campaign expenditures
  • Reduce the focus on control by establishing a system that will encourage diversity. “Corporate democracy will allow shareowners to take ‘control’ away from an entrenched board and not give it to any one faction.”
  • Eliminate the arbitrary and elitist proposed thresholds, opting instead for the time-tested $2,000 of stock held for a year. “The challenge should reside in winning the election, not in making the nomination.”
  • Increase candidate statements to 750 words and specified space for graphics that can address any issue related to the election, including short-comings of the current board.
  • Measures to ensure board members nominated by shareowners are not marginalized.
  • Implementation of a broad safe harbor for individual director
    communications with shareowners.

After we had already sent the USPX comment letter, I recalled a few additional issues and sent in my own letter as an addendum, recommending the following:

  • Amendments to Rule 14a-8 also clarify that shareowner resolutions can seek to collectively hire a proxy advisor, paid by for with company funds, that isn’t precluded from offering advice on board elections.
  • Require that companies must allow shareowner resolutions to be presented during the business portion of the annual meeting.
  • An override mechanism on Rule 14a-8(i)(5) (Relevance) and (i)(7) (Management Functions).

Dozens of studies in communications and organizational behavior find current corporate structures to be inefficient. Most decision-making structures, including those now governing corporations, are designed around status needs related to dominance and control over others. They are not designed to maximize the creation of wealth for shareowners or for society at large. In order to gain higher status, individuals seek to dominate more and more people. This dynamic moves the locus of control inappropriately upward. In order to generate more wealth, we need to take advantage of all the brains in our companies, as well those of concerned shareowners. We can do so by making corporations more democratic, top to bottom.

Now, we eagerly await the Commission’s action. If they are slow in finalizing the proposed rules, I hope it is because they carefully read our letters and are rewording them to require more, not less, democracy.

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