Tag Archives | Mark Latham

Announcing Proxy Votes Improves Corporate Governance

democracy

Shareowners Upholding Industry

Yesterday, I posted a recent letter to the editor of Pensions & Investments praising their editorial, Winning Over Proxy Voters, which argues that institutional investors have a fiduciary duty to announce their proxy votes in advance of annual meetings, if doing so is likely to influence voters. If institutional investors heed their call, it will speed the development of open client director voting (CDV) and more intelligent proxy votes.

As corporate power grows and the power of government falls, mechanisms to govern corporations become more important. As government power falls, their power to regulate corporations falls as well. Further, as the influence of corporations over governments increases (e.g. lobbying) the will of governments to regulate corporations also falls.  – CHR for Social Responsibility

Historically, most retail shareowners toss their proxies. During the first year under the “notice and access” method for Internet delivery of proxy materials, less than 6% made use of their proxy votes. Those that do vote own disproportionately more shares (about 25-30% of total retail shares). The voting rate hasn’t improved much, if at all. This contrasts with almost all institutional investors voting, since they have a fiduciary duty to do so. Unfortunately, it isn’t time/cost efficient to read through the entire proxy to vote a few retail shares intelligently. Continue Reading →

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Guest Post: Meet… James McRitchie, CorpGov.Net

MikeTyrrell at Work

Mike Tyrrell

James McRitchie

James McRitchie

Mike Tyrrell is Editor of SRI-Connect – an online research marketplace for professional institutional investors, analysts & companies interested in sustainable development.  He is keen to open up the site to corporate governance analysts & corporate governance research. Mike kindly gave permission to reproduce the interview on CorpGov.net.  Continue Reading →

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Cisco: How Our Proxy Competition Would Work – The Short Version

ciscoVoteAfter posting Cisco Systems: Prime Target For Proxy Advisor CompetitionCisco Systems: Proxy Proposal #5 – 11 Q&A, and Cisco Systems (CSCO): How I Voted – Proxy Score 56 I am still getting the most basic question from funds trying to determine how to vote. That’s understandable. People lack the time necessary to analyze proxy issues. That’s one of the reasons behind the proposal. More resources and more competition could make for better voting at Cisco for all shareowners.

I keep getting the same fundamental question. How would it work in practice? Here’s what I tell them.  Continue Reading →

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Cisco Systems (CSCO): How I Voted – Proxy Score 56

ciscoCisco Systems, Inc. $CSCO is one of the stocks in my portfolio. Their annual meeting is next week on Tuesday, 11/13/2013. ProxyDemocracy.org had collected the votes of 2 funds when I checked on 11/13/2013 (there have been more since). I voted with management 56% of the time.  View Proxy Statement.

Warning: Be sure to vote each item on the proxy. Any items left blank are voted in favor of management’s recommendations. (See Broken Windows & Proxy Vote Rigging – Both Invite More Serious Crime) Continue Reading →

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Cisco Systems: Proxy Proposal #5 – 11 Q&A

ciscoI received a series of questions about my 11/5/2013 post Cisco Systems: Prime Target For Proxy Advisor Contest. Since other $CSCO shareowners might have similar questions, I am posting the questions and our responses below regarding proxy proposal #5, APPROVAL TO HAVE CISCO HOLD A COMPETITION FOR GIVING PUBLIC ADVICE ON THE VOTING ITEMS IN THE PROXY FILING FOR CISCO’S 2014 ANNUAL SHAREOWNERS MEETING.

Question 1. I understand that your goal here is to increase retail investor participation – a goal we share. I certainly agree that individual investors are at a significant disadvantage without professional advice on their proxy voting.

Response: That’s not the main goal, but it would be an additional benefit. The main goal is to solve the shareowners’ “free-rider” problem, which hurts institutional investors too. For most investors it is not worth paying for good voting advice, unless you own more than 5% of the shares. (The Agency Costs of Agency Capitalism: Activist Investors and the Revaluation of Governance Rights, Ronald J. Gilson and Jeffrey N. Gordon, January 1, 2013) Continue Reading →

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Cisco Systems: Prime Target For Proxy Advisor Competition

ciscoCisco Systems (CSCO) faces challenges as never before. For example, see Here’s What Happened When Cisco Lost A $1 Billion Deal With Amazon. Meeting those challenges will take a concerted effort by management and the board of directors. Shareowners, who elect the board and vote on major proxy issues facing our company, also play an important role in Cisco staying competitive and profitable. Yet, most shareowners are passive. Most of us don’t even bother to vote our proxies and who can blame us? This year’s Proxy materials are over 80 pages long. Who has time to read, digest and make decisions on all that information? Finally, we could have the help we need with a proxy advisor contest paid by all shareowners (through Cisco) and chosen by a vote of shareowners.

Proxy Advisors and Research Providers Continue Reading →

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Stanford Academics Focus on Wrong Problems at ISS

StanfordRockIn a recent Stanford “Closer Look” publication (How ISS Dictates Equity Plan Design), Ian D. Gow (Harvard but graduated from Stanford), David F. Larcker, Allan l. Mccall, and Brian Tayan argue ISS dictates pay equity plans. ‘Nonsense,’ was my first reaction. ISS policies generally reflect the will of its customers. The authors have a point but they miss the main problem. Their arguments begin in familiar territory. Continue Reading →

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The False Promise of the Enhanced Broker Internet Platform

AmBusConfOn September 22, the HLS Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation posted an article (The Promise of the Enhanced Broker Internet Platform) from John Endean, President of the American Business Conference, a coalition of CEOs of mid-cap companies. I attempted to post a comment on the HLS Forum but it appears to have fallen through the cracks. Mr. Endean begins as follows:

A breakthrough for improved corporate democracy is languishing at the Securities and Exchange Commission. The breakthrough, called the Enhanced Broker Internet Platform (EBIP) is a technological innovation that would make it vastly easier for shareholders to participate in corporate elections for directors and shareholder resolutions. This is important because the rate of individual or “retail” shareholder voting is pitifully low. For example, in fiscal year 2012, the rate of retail positions voted was less than 14%.

Mr. Endean purports to speak for retail shareowners, but employs only a thin disguise. Continue Reading →

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Proxy Advisor Competition at Cisco OK'd by SEC

ciscocisco

Mark Latham came up with a brilliant idea in the late 1980s: Shareowners should use their corporation’s funds to pay for external evaluations of governance and performance of the board and management. Shareowners would vote to choose among competing organizations to provide this service.

It was a simple concept but SEC rules made subsequent proposals unnecessarily complex and excluded advice on director candidates, often among the most critical decisions on a proxy. Continue Reading →

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Review: A Real Look at Real World Corporate Governance

Larcker-Tayan-real-world-corpgovThis book follows the theme of Corporate Governance Matters: A Closer Look at Organizational Choices and Their Consequences also by David Larcker and Brian Tayan. Larcker is the James Irvin Miller Professor of Accounting, Stanford Graduate School of Business. Brian Tayan is a member of the Corporate Governance Research Program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. While Corporate Governance Matters (see my review)  focuses on debunking “best practices” in corporate governance, A Real Look at Real World Corporate Governance takes more of an abbreviated case study approach, delving into how several decisions were made by boards at specific companies. Continue Reading →

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Agency Capitalism: Corrective Measures (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a post which started out reviewing the important thesis outlined in The Agency Costs of Agency Capitalism: Activist Investors and the Revaluation of Governance Rights by Ronald J. Gilson and Jeffrey N. Gordon (January 1, 2013) in Agency Capitalism: Corrective Measures (Part 1). In this post and in Agency Capitalism: Corrective Measures (Part 2) I hope to extend the work of Gilson and Gordon by offering additional avenues to counterbalance the central problem of devalued governance rights. Continue Reading →

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Agency Capitalism: Corrective Measures (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a post which started out reviewing the important thesis outlined in The Agency Costs of Agency Capitalism: Activist Investors and the Revaluation of Governance Rights by Ronald J. Gilson and Jeffrey N. Gordon (January 1, 2013). See Agency Capitalism: Corrective Measures Part 1 and Part 3. Current law encourages mindless indexing of portfolios and voting like lemmings to fulfill fiduciary duties. While Gilson and Gordon stressed the need for activist hedge funds, below I explore some additional options. Continue Reading →

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Pershing Square's Battle Over CP Argues for Proxy Access & Alternative Proxy Advice

After his victory at Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), Ackman claimed “Directors are sitting up more straight and reading board materials more carefully and questioning the CEO more intently. That is a very, very good thing.” Who can argue with that? But will better posture, thorough reading of thousands of pages of board materials and asking more questions be enough? I argue it would pay boards to get more frequent advice from shareowners and better analysis by proxy advisors. Continue Reading →

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CalPERS May Boycott Dual-Class IPOs

CalPERS is considering a policy of not investing in the initial public offerings (IPOs) of dual-class companies where shareowning is structured so that a minority will control the majority of the votes. From what I have seen, CalPERS has already opposed those that exist but this step would allow the retirement system to avoid purchasing shares in such companies as they enter the market, even though they may be included in various indexes included in the fund’s portfolio. Continue Reading →

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In Celebration of MoxyVote.com

As co-founder Mark Schlegel announced Tuesday, MoxyVote.com will be closing down its proxy voting platform at the end of the month. See also Ross Kerber’s report for Reuters at Shareholder website closing, cites complex voting rules, 7/11/2012 and Mark Latham’s Sad News: @MoxyVote Is Closing #Corpgov. On the surface, it seems like a real tragedy. I’m sure Mark, Doug Gates, Brian Sloyer, Jeff Marshall, Alison Slezak and others on staff made many sacrifices to keep their dream alive, as did Larry Eiben and others at TFS Capital, which sponsored Moxy Vote. Continue Reading →

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Make Auditors Work for ShareOwners: Take Action

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) published a concept release that asks for public input on how to get auditors to become more independent, more objective, and more skeptical – and especially whether a mandatory rotation system for audit firms would achieve that objective. While mandatory rotation has been considered and dismissed in the past, PCAOB Chairman James Doty wants to take a fresh look at the idea to see if it might reduce the pressure on auditors to put concerns about the Continue Reading →

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An Open Proposal for Client Directed Voting

According to the SEC, “client directed voting” will be included in a forthcoming concept release on “proxy plumbing” issues and SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro now indicates review by the Commission is forthcoming (see this post on the Forum). It is critical that shareowners become familiar with this term. The SEC can shape their concept release to facilitate entrenchment, by essentially reestablishing a limited form of broker voting, or their framework can further the interests of shareowners and the larger society through an open and competitive system.

Background

Historically, most retail shareowners toss their proxies. During the first year under the “notice and access” method for Internet delivery of proxy materials, less than 6% voted. This contrasts with almost all institutional investors voting, since they have a fiduciary duty to do so. “Client directed voting” (CDV), a term coined by Stephen Norman, is seen by many as a solution for getting more retail shareowners to vote, ensuring companies get a quorum, and helping management recapture a good portion of the broker-votes cast in their favor that evaporated with recent reforms. An open form of CDV, could result in similar impacts but would also create much more thoughtful and robust corporate elections.

Retail investors are the principals in the principal-agent system of corporate governance. We are the beneficial owners of all equities – in the U.S., 25 to 30 percent via direct purchases, and 70 to 75 percent via our “ownership” of shares in mutual funds, pension funds and other intermediaries. The agents in our corporate governance system include CEOs, boards of directors, institutional investors, proxy advisory firms, compensation consultants, etc. An “Open Proposal” on CDV will improve the accountability of all these agents to the principals by empowering retail investors with better information and voting tools.

Since Stephen Norman coined the phrase in 2006, the concept of CDV is generally attributed to him and his work with NYSE’s Proxy Working Group. Looking back at the origins of the concept, on October 24, 2006, the NYSE filed a proposed rule change with the SEC to eliminate all broker voting in the election of directors. Two months later in December 2006, Steve Norman presented a proposal called Client Directed Voting to an investor communications conference.

The case for CDV was again made on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation by Frank G. Zarb, Jr. and John Endean (available here). Similar to Norman, the voting options presented were severely restricted to the following: (1) in proportion to other retail shareholders; (2) in a manner consistent with the board’s recommendation; or (3) in a manner that is contrary to the board’s recommendation.

John Wilcox’s post several weeks later, Fixing the Problems with Client Directed Voting, helped to expand and popularize the concept beyond Norman’s initial concept with a much more open proposal.

Shareowners and the SEC would be well served to review the work of Mark Latham, a member or the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, who proposed something similar to CDV at least as far back as the year 2000. See The Internet Will Drive Corporate Monitoring and other papers on the VoterMedia.org Publications page). In stark contrast to Norman, Latham’s proposed system is open and competitive, using a market-driven framework. This post builds on his work, especially Latham’s recent post, Client Directed Voting Q&A, also found on the VoterMedia.org site.

How Open CDV Would Work

Open CDV enables retail shareowners to implement a specialization strategy similar to that of institutional investors. Most fund managers do not read the proxy statement and understand the proposals in the context of a company’s particular circumstances. They have specialized staff for that review, some in-house, some out-sourced. Likewise a few retail shareowners will read proxies, but most will not. Those who do not read them can increasingly be informed by those who do and by voting announcements posted on the Internet.

With an Open Proposal, anyone can create a voting feed, just as anyone can now create a blog. One way to create a feed is to remix other feeds, just as blogs often post or link to material from other blogs. A remixed feed can select different source feeds for different stocks or different industries or different categories of voting matters (director elections vs. shareowner proposals etc.). In his article The Internet Will Drive Corporate Monitoring, Latham called remixed feeds “meta-advisors.”

Engagement requires either a fiduciary obligation, which we won’t have for retail shareowners, the perception of value in the process (which may take years to establish) or passion around relevant issues. Of the three, passion around relevant issues will be the easiest to ignite.

Many third-party platforms or voting feeds will be designed around “issues,” rather than harder to understand policies and procedures. That will naturally appeal to a broader base of retail shareowners. More people will choose voting advice around policy concerns, like global climate change, than around procedural concerns, like whether or not the roles of board chair and CEO should be split.

A small but important percentage of retail shareowners will get more involved in helping to determine voting feed reputations. They will compare feed quality and issue/value identification by such means as creating focus lists at ProxyDemocracy.org. See, for example, this page.

Most retail investors will only pay attention to the best-known voting feeds. A small minority of institutional and retail investors, along with writers in the financial media, are likely to become the most influential opinion leaders helping to determine public reputations, and thus which of potentially hundreds of voting feeds deserve to be followed.

Investors should be able to choose voting feeds and instruct our brokers to implement them for our shares. That is powerful because it takes little time, yet can implement intelligent voting based on reputation – just as the reputations of carmakers and computer makers are widely available and influence our purchases.

There is already a healthy base of “brands” developing with Domini, Calvert, Florida SBA, CalSTRS, CalPERS and others announcing a growing number of their votes in advance of annual meetings. In addition, there are plenty of other sources of voting advice besides institutional investors, many of which focus on a limited number of issues and many can already be seen at MoxyVote.com.

Moxy Vote has already built an open CDV platform on a relatively low budget. Proxy Democracy and Transparent Democracy can be readily enhanced to include voting capability if the SEC adopts additional data standardization and if cost reimbursement is forthcoming from issuers. See comments submitted by MoxyVote.com to the SEC here.

Essential Elements of Open CDV

The key issue in any open CDV system is to let shareowners control where their electronic ballots are delivered. Just as there is no question shareowners can control where hardcopy ballots are delivered, there should be no question they can direct where their electronic ballots are delivered. This simple requirement would insure third-party content providers an opportunity to compete and improve the quality of voting advice.

Additional elements for a more effective CDV system include:

  • A wide range of voting opinion sources that will eventually cover all issues;
  • Open access for any new opinion sources to publish their opinions;
  • Open access for shareowners to choose any opinion source for our standing instructions on voting;
  • Sufficient funding for professional voting opinion sources that compete for funding allocated by retail shareowner vote (or by beneficial owners of funds that may choose to “pass through” their votes).

Under an Open Proposal, feeds will offer the ability for retail shareowners to essentially build a “voting policy,” just as institutional voters are now able to do. That model will increase participation and voting quality. We shouldn’t ask shareowners to affirm every single pre-filled ballot. That could be a deal breaker for people with stock in many different companies who would rather spend their time on other activities.

Third-party CDV systems, like Moxy Vote, will allow investors to create hierarchies of voting instructions. (Vote like X. If X hasn’t voted the item, vote per Y. If Y hasn’t voted, vote per Z, etc. Eventually, these systems could become very complex. Vote like X on issue A; vote like Y on issue B, also specifying defaults if either X or Y don’t have votes recorded.)

If brokers are required to deliver proxies as directed by their clients, another whole model could emerge around “proxy assignments.” Proxies assigned to organizations or individuals, for example, could give annual meetings a new meaning. See Investor Suffrage Movement by Glyn A. Holton.

In the 1940s and 1950s thousands of shareowners frequently showed up for shareowner meetings because they frequently deliberated issues and some of those in attendance held substantial proxies from others. Lewis Gilbert, for example, was often given unsolicited proxies, which he used to negotiate motions at meetings.

Impact of Open CDV

We are a long way removed from those days and advance notice requirements would preclude much of the activities Gilbert made famous. Voting at meetings is important, but having a say in setting the agenda on what will be voted on is even more powerful. If a significant number of proxies are assigned to others or thousands of shareowners routinely follow specific voting advisors or institutions, leading voices can actually begin to influence how agendas for annual meetings are set.

An Open Proposal will increase both the quantity and the quality of voting by both retail and institutional investors. Ease of voting and the ability to align with valued brands will drive quantity. Increased quality will result from competition between voting opinion sources for reputation in the eyes of investors. Opinion sources will include institutional investors, retail investors, bloggers, activists and professional proxy voting advisors funded by new mechanisms discussed later in this article.

An Open Proposal will cause retail shareowners to engage in proxy voting because it offers several new and powerful ways for us to do so, while respecting our other interests and time constraints.

Additionally, institutional investors will begin to discuss their votes with each other more frequently, as well as with beneficial owners and funds. This is already happening. I have personally initiated such dialogues with several funds and have increasingly been met with a favorable response. As funds learn how and why other funds are voting, many are open to reexamining their own position.

Director elections in particular will be more closely watched, once shareowners gain a sense of empowerment. Prior to nascent CDV sites, we had little or no basis for voting against or withholding votes from individual directors. Soon we will be able to drill down through recommendations to discover which directors are over-boarded, miss meetings, have potential conflicts of interest, were on compensation committees that overpaid executives, etc. Funds will increasingly provide the reason for their votes, since that will drive more investors to vote with them. When a fund discloses not only their vote, but also the reason for their vote, investors get a better picture of their values and we begin to trust given “brands” as consistent with our own values.

Restrictions

Limiting CDV to only selected situations, like uncontested elections, would only lessen the benefits of CDV, so I don’t recommend imposing any such limits. It would be better not to establish any CDV through regulations that severely limits voting options, since once such systems are enacted they will be difficult to amend, given that those who benefit from such limitations will be in an even stronger position to fight opening up the process.

All matters should be eligible for inclusion in a CDV arrangement. All can be handled the same way, with the retail shareowner voting as per standing instructions to use specified voting feeds. Preferably, systems should allow users the ability to override standing instructions in any given situation. Competition among voting feeds will encourage those who create them to constantly improve their voting quality and reputation. One improvement is to adapt their analysis and voting decisions to the significant variation among proposals on any given matter. Another is to create industry specific analysis. Analysis could also vary by a company’s maturation and/or a great many other factors. Deeper levels of analysis are more likely with open CDV systems that enhance competition.

System Defaults

The default choice should either be whatever the shareowner selects or it should be a “not voted” vote, just like if a voter fails to mark an item on the proxy, that item should be left blank, although it is now often counted in favor of management. (See my petition to the SEC for a rulemaking on “blank votes” here)

Counting a blank vote as anything else would make mounting campaigns to deny companies a quorum much more difficult. Neither brokers nor anyone else should be permitted to vote on any ballot item in the absence of voter instructions (i.e., all items should be considered non-routine matters in NYSE rules).

Brokers/banks should not be forced to take on CDV design responsibilities. Other third-party specialist firms will probably do a better job. The key is to ensure that brokers or their agents deliver ballots to whomever the shareowner directs. Of course, it would also be a plus if brokers and banks would make their clients aware of the available options.

Competition for Funds Would Enhance CDV

I would recommend an ongoing competition open to providers of investor education, which would compete for funding allocated by retail investor vote. This could be limited to education about voting issues (informing CDV, providing voting opinions, organizing voting opinion data feeds, discussing reputations etc.), or voting could be included in a broader retail investor education competition. For more explanation, see Mark Latham’s Voter Funded Investor Education Proposal (November 30, 2009).

This would benefit all retail investors. Since the benefit is shared broadly, it should not be paid by individual retail investors, but rather through funds that we own collectively – corporate funds. There are several possible ways of arranging this. One example is Mark Latham’s Ultimate Proxy Advisor Proposal (June 1, 2010).

Under that proposal, companies pay voting advisors selected by their shareowners. Since there are no “free riders” and the advice is essentially paid for by all shareowners, we can pay much more for proxy research on our companies than current proxy advisors typically allocate. Additionally, the advice we get is less likely to be of a “box ticking” nature, more likely to be industry and company specific.

The SEC should encourage the development of shareowner selected proxy advisors by amending rule 14a-8(i)8 to allow shareowner proposals that would allocate corporate funds to those who undertake to offer proxy voting advice, including advice on director nominees, that is made freely available to all of a company’s shareowners.

In the near term, the entrenched agents in our corporate governance system may try to prevent investors from using our funds to empower ourselves this way, so enabling regulations from the SEC and public funds may be helpful to get started. Public funds earmarked for retail investor education and advocacy could be used for the first such initiatives.

Cost

Cost categories for CDV include: (a) creating voting opinion feeds; (b) system development for brokers; (c) vote processing by Broadridge and similar service providers.

If the SEC publicly encourages the development of CDV, many organizations are likely to build the necessary systems. As previously mentioned, voting opinion websites have already started appearing (ProxyDemocracy.org, TransparentDemocracy.org, MoxyVote.com). To enhance their quality, public funds earmarked for retail investor education and advocacy could be allocated by investor vote among such competing providers of tools for CDV.

CDV will increase the quality of voting and decrease the quantity and costs of paper mailings. These benefits will outweigh the costs of building CDV systems. Standardized data tagging will likewise streamline the system and reduce costs in the long run, although it will require some up-front investment.

NYSE rules currently require payment by issuers for the cost of voting electronically but issuers may not always be making such payments to CDV platforms like Moxy Vote. See NYSE Rules 450-460 pertaining to proxy distribution, available here. The Rules are actually written for “member organizations” (i.e., brokers) and specify what brokers or their agents (e.g., Broadridge) can charge for distribution and collection of proxy-related items. The rules are clear that Issuers are supposed to pay for all of the distribution (and collection) costs and that brokers can expect to collect from them. These rules should be amended to apply to Issuers when shareowners choose to take delivery of proxies or to vote through sites like Moxy Vote, RiskMetrics, Glass Lewis and ProxyGovernance.

The fees that Broadridge is charging to electronic voting platforms (RiskMetrics, Glass Lewis, ProxyGovernance, Moxy Vote, etc.) should be paid by the issuers as part of the overall collection costs (like postage). The electronic platforms, in this function, are merely an extension of the proxy distribution agent. However, I understand that Broadridge charges on the order of 10X for electronic vote collection from these platforms than it is permitted to charge the issuers.

If Broadridge is offering a “value-added” service to these electronic platforms, where is the “baseline” service that costs less? Perhaps the value-added services revolve around the ability to turn blank vote into votes for management without following the rules that apply to proxies. (See my blog post, Jim Crow “Protections” for Retail Shareowners)

My understanding is that fees are charged to electronic platforms on a “per ballot” basis (generally one fee per position per year) and that electronic platforms are generally passing along these costs to voters. That becomes much more difficult, perhaps impossible, when trying to service retail shareowners with small position sizes and many more per ballot transactions, relative to shares voted.

This is, in effect, becomes a system where the voter is paying to vote, like the old Jim Crow poll tax. It also inhibits progress (i.e., the development of electronic platforms for retail shareowners) because voting through the mail and through the phone is free. Why should retail shareowners have to pay when voting online, which is inherently the least expensive method of voting? Why should services like Moxy Vote have to front such expenses? Without a change, it is hard to see how they can ever turn a profit and it seems even less likely that nonprofits, such as Proxy Democracy, would ever be able to offer users the option of voting on a Proxy Democracy platform. Such costs need to be eliminated or minimized if a robust open CDV system is to mature.

The NYSE should consider forcing Broadridge to direct some of its “paper suppression fees” to firms like MoxyVote.com that should be sharing in this incentive, since shifting to electronic from paper voting saves money. That would be a simple way of beginning to address the cost issue. The most fundamental point regarding costs is that issuers should bear the actual cost of voting, not shareowners or CDV systems.

Conclusion

An open CDV system improves corporate governance because voting advisors will make it easier for shareowners to meaningfully participate in voting, without having to read through proxies. Open CDV systems do this by allowing shareowners to informally build individualized proxy voting policies, much like formal policies maintained by many institutional investors. Unlike many institutional investors, who may ponder over their voting policies for months, retail shareowners will mostly build default policies based on brand identification. Voting advisors, chosen by shareowners through competitive markets for shared information, will help make agents more accountable and democracy in corporate elections an emerging reality.

(Note: this post is reprinted from Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, Wednesday July 14, 2010 at 9:08 am)

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SEC's IAC Meeting Agenda for May 17

The Securities and Exchange Commission has posted the agenda and schedule for the Investor Advisory Committee meeting in Washington, DC for this coming Monday, May 17. Webcast should be linked from here or here. Hat tip to Committee member Mark Latham and his VoterMedia Finance Blog for the reminder.

Dan Ariely, an expert on behavioral economics and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, will discuss his work with regard to factors that influence investor decision-making. It should be worth tuning in just for this segment, even if you aren’t interested in the important work of the IAC.

The Committee will also hear from a panel of experts on the topic of mandatory arbitration provisions in customer agreements with brokers. Subcommittees will also report on the status of their activity, including analysis of potential disclosure regarding environmental, social and governance issues.

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SEC IAC Report

The following is a quick summary from Peter DeSimone, Director of Programs of the Social Investment Forum of what happened at the beginning portion of Securities and Exchange Commission’s Investor Advisory Committee (IAC) meeting today.   First, the IAC as a whole adopted a recusal policy (draft) that recognizes that each IAC member represents specific constituencies, further defines conflicts of interest and outlines responsibilities for IAC members in these areas.

Then, the Investor as Owner Subcommittee offered and the IAC approved two resolutions:

  • The first addresses Regulation FD and recommends that the SEC staff issue interpretive guidance to suggest ways in which issuers can address Regulation FD compliance concerns surrounding the selective disclosure of material corporate governance information in private meetings with investors.  A copy of the proposal appears here.
  • The second takes up the issue of proxy voting transparency, and it asked the SEC staff, as part of its review of the U.S. proxy voting system (or proxy plumbing as it is being called), to study the costs and benefits of mandating a standardized tag-data format for certain proxy voting and related filings, including the proxy statement (DEF 14A), mutual fund disclosures of proxy votes (MDX) and voting results (8-K).  The proposal recommends that the XBRL standard be used and notes that XBRL USA plans to have a taxonomy ready on U.S. proxy voting filings and related materials in November, but it says that the SEC staff should also review alternatives.  The upshot of the proposal is that, if implemented, all agenda items, director information and other important qualitative and quantitative data points in these filings will be tagged and therefore easily placed in datasets and analyzed by investors. Link here to the proposal.

The Investor as Owner Subcommittee then advised the rest of the IAC that it would be looking into the following issues in the coming months:

  • ESG disclosure:  the Millstein Center’s Stephen Davis and Domini’s Adam Kanzer outlined a work plan for the subcommittee on ESG disclosure that would include testimony from experts in the field and look into several particular issues.  In March will call in SEC staff to brief the subcommittee on their activities to date.  Next, in April, the subcommittee will hold a meeting on the benefits of ESG disclosure to investors from a risk management perspective.  Then, in May, they will look at accounting standards and triggers for disclosure of contingent liabilities in the United States and other markets.  In June, they will review reporting standards, including the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Global Reporting Initiative, and look at information collected by the European Commission during its six meetings on ESG disclosure over the past year.  The subcommittee plans to hold a public hearing on ESG disclosure in the summer to coincide with another meeting of the entire SEC, so that other members of the IAC could easily attend if they were interested.  As far as output from this process, the subcommittee says possible outcomes could be, but are not limited to, a recommendation for an ESG disclosure rule, recommendations for areas for further study, or a white paper on the topic.  They emphasized that the group as part of the work plan would look at a broad range of ESG issues, not just climate change.  While many IAC members admitted that this was an emerging issue they did not know much about, several commended the subcommittee for taking on the issue and looked forward to a briefing on it.
  • Financial reform:  The subcommittee noted legislation pending in the House and Senate and noted that they would take up this issue again in March once they had a better idea of what would be included in the final bill.  In particular, the subcommittee said that if majority voting and/or proxy access was not included that they would be looking into ways the SEC could act. For example, it was suggested that, as it does on the separate chairman and CEO issue, that the SEC could issue new disclosure requirements for companies without a majority voting standard to explain to investors why they do not.
  • Political contributions:  While this issue was not on the agenda officially, the subcommittee noted as part of its next steps that it would take on a work plan process similar to the one it proposes on ESG disclosure, albeit shorter, to look into possible remedies at the SEC for the recent Citizens United v. FEC case and getting better disclosure or otherwise limiting corporate political contributions.

The Investor Education Subcommittee discussed the results from a FINRA national financial capability survey.

The Investor as Purchaser subcommittee discussed fiduciary duty and mandatory arbitration.

DeSimone left before the last two subcommittees presented, so has no further details. Thanks so much to him and to SIF for his report. See also, Mark Latham’s Voter Media Finance Blog, where he frequently posts on his involvement on the IAC.

I listened on and off to the IAC but my internet connection kept getting dropped… at one point being interrupted by ABC News (strange). I did hear some discussion around “majority vote” requirements for directors and the idea of a required disclosure for that as a fallback (if legislation isn’t forthcoming). The approach would be similar to recently enacted SEC requirements to explain the CEO/Chair board structure. As I recall, the discussion boiled down to something like, let’s explore what the limits of SEC authority in this and perhaps other areas.

Kayla Gillan was asked at one point during the meeting when the SEC would come out with its proxy access rules. “Soon,” was her response. Overall, I’d have to say I am impressed with the quality of work being done by the IAC and its subcommittees. Great to be able to tune in on the meetings and to be able to submit comments each time on agenda and suggested agenda items.

On a somewhat related note, the SEC now has a page devoted to investor education on proxy voting. Spotlight on Proxy Matters is a good start. However, it leaves no answers or suggestions on the most critical questions:

  • Where can I find analysis of proxy voting issues?
  • How are others voting and why?

I still like Mark Latham’s idea in this area: USA Investor Education: How should the USA Investor Ed voter community divide funding among these websites/blogs?

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Voter Funded Investor Education Proposal

Mark Latham represents individual investors on the SEC Investor Advisory Committee (SECIAC). He reports in his VoterMedia Finance Blog on a creative Voter-Funded Investor Education Proposal. It was considered by the Investor Education subcommittee. Unfortunately, he was informed the SEC is not empowered to distribute funds to other organizations.

Hopefully, he will be able to attract the attention of FINRA, the Department of Treasury, Congress, or some other entity for funding.

Our concept for voter funded investor education is oriented toward worldwide web based education programs aimed at a broad (national or global) audience. All individual investors could vote on a web based ballot to determine the shares of funding for perhaps 15 or 20 competing education programs. The voting and funding can be conducted continuously through time, thus giving the competitors a continuous incentive to serve investors’ education needs.

The ballot web page would link to each participating education program’s website. This could be a component of a new portal at OIEA’s website investor.gov, where investors could find links to a wide range of education programs.

Read more about Latham’s Voter Funded Investor Education Proposal. See a beta-test ballot. Let us know what you think of the idea and consider voting for Corporate Governance during the beta-test.

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Latham at Stanford: Governance Reform for Corporations and Democracies

On November 16, 2009, the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University presented a lunch-time lecture with Mark Latham, Director of VoterMedia.org and MarkLathamProxyDemocracy.org. Latham is also a member of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, as a representative of individual investors. He has written extensively on how the internet can be used to allocate resources to facilitate voter education using a democratic marketplace model. Previously, Latham was a professor at UC Berkeley and a money manager with Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch. LathamLunch

Mark Latham has spent the last seven years developing new tools for voters (investors and citizens) to hold elected leaders accountable in corporations and democracies. The financial crisis, changes at the SEC and the decline of mainstream media are opening doors for implementing these ideas. Latham’s lunch-time talk at Stanford’s law school attracted mostly a young crowd of students to a presentation that was much more discussion than lecture.

Latham briefly discussed his role on the SEC Investor Advisory Committee and some of the recent developments that have laid fertile ground for his ideas, including:

  • the financial crisis and our poor systems of accountability,
  • 25% of the stock market is held directly by individuals but the other 75% held through institutions is also held for our benefits. We should have more input into how proxies are voted
  • broker voting no longer applies to director nominees
  • most large companies have instituted majority voting requirements for electing directors and that is now filtering down to medium and small companies, and
  • proxy access will bring more focus on proxy voting and the need to facilitate more intelligent voting with minimal effort.

He described something of the developing battle for the hearts and minds of investors as proxy "plumbing" or "mechanics" issues are explored by the SEC and interested parties. The Business Roundtable is lobbying hard for a system that allows management to communicate directly with shareowners. One component they have been pushing is client directed voting, CDV. Various proposals by Stephen Norman, the corporate secretary of American Express, have outlined that under CDV, investors would give their brokers general instructions on how they wanted their shares cast on all matters, routine and not routine. One frequently cited variant involves five options, including:

  1. always voting as management recommends;
  2. always voting against management recommendations;
  3. abstaining on all matters;
  4. voting according to the brokerage firm’s voting policies; or,
  5. voting shares in proportion to the way the brokerage’s other clients have voted their shares.

If investors did not declare a preference, the default choice would be proportional voting, and investors could always override these choices with their own. Latham noted the need to expand the concept of CDV to include options provided by ProxyDemocracy.org, TransparentDemocracy.org, MoxyVote.com and others as they develop.

A lively discussion ensued on issues such as: LathamAud

  • Why should we think recommendations by these groups, or indeed the current advisors to institutional investors are any good?
  • How important is making money and what part would other values play in CDV options?
  • Would these organizations not only lead to greater participation by retail shareowners but also greater financial literacy?
  • Are there various legal issues that need to be addressed around free speech, fiduciary duties, and/or proxy solicitation? (download, for example, a request to the SEC re guidance)
  • How will these sites drive the selection of mutual funds and the limited options available to most workers through 401(k) type plans?KimCranston

I spotted Kim Cranston, President of TransparentDemocracy.org, in the back of the room and had a few minutes to chat with him after the event. Their site covers both civil and corporate elections and is designed to will help you…

  • Learn more about the contests on your ballot,
  • See how organizations and individuals recommend that you vote,
  • Create a printed ballot based on your opinions that you can use to mark your real ballot,
  • Share your opinions with friends.

A video recording of the session with Mark Latham will be posted on the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center site by early December. The next stop for Latham was the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mark Latham"We can support public interest journalism with our tax funds, by letting voters allocate the funding to competing media organizations. This would prevent the government from controlling the publicly funded media and their messages. Such a system has been implemented for three years at the University of British Columbia’s student union, and tested in Vancouver’s 2008 civic election. Each voter community can fund its own media: each municipality, state, country, student union, labor union, corporation etc. The city of Berkeley may be a good fit for the next implementation."

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