Tuesday, June 6, 2017
More than two years ago, I posted Shareholder Activists Can Add Value and Still Be Wrong, where I explained my view on shareholder proposals:
I have no problem with shareholders seeking to impose their will on the board of the companies in which they hold stock. I don't see activist shareholder as an inherently bad thing. I do, however, think it's bad when boards succumb to the whims of activist shareholders just to make the problem go away. Boards are well served to review serious requests of all shareholders, but the board should be deciding how best to direct the company. It's why we call them directors.
Today, the Detroit Free Press reported that shareholders of automaker GM soundly defeated a proposal from billionaire investor David Einhorn that would have installed an alternate slate of board nominees and created two classes of stock. (All the proposals are available here.) Shareholders who voted were against the proposals by more than 91%. GM's board, in materials signed by Mary Barra, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer and Theodore Solso, Independent Lead Director, launched an aggressive campaign to maintain the existing board (PDF here) and the split shares proposal (PDF here). GM argued in the board maintenance piece:
Greenlight’s Dividend Shares proposal has the potential to disrupt our progress and undermine our performance. In our view, a vote for any of the Greenlight candidates would represent an endorsement of that high-risk proposal to the detriment of your GM investment.
Another shareholder proposal asking the board to separate the board chair and CEO positions was reported by the newspaper as follows: "A separate shareholder proposal that would have forced GM to separate the role of independent board chairman and CEO was defeated by shareholders." Not sure. Though the proposal was defeated, it's worth noting that the proposal would not have "forced" anything. The proposal was an "advisory shareholder proposal" requesting the separation of the functions. No mandate here, because such decisions must be made by the board, not the shareholders. The proposal stated:
Shareholders request our Board of Directors to adopt as policy, and amend our governing documents as necessary, to require the Chair of the Board of Directors, whenever possible, to be an independent member of the Board. The Board would have the discretion to phase in this policy for the next CEO transition, implemented so it did not violate any existing agreement. If the Board determines that a Chair who was independent when selected is no longer independent, the Board shall select a new Chair who satisfies the requirements of the policy within a reasonable amount of time. Compliance with this policy is waived if no independent director is available and willing to serve as Chair. This proposal requests that all the necessary steps be taken to accomplish the above.
GM argued against this proposal because the "policy advocated by this proposal would take away the Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure." Also not true. It the proposal were mandatory, then this would be true, but as a request, it cannot and could not take away anything. If the shareholders made such a request and the board declined to follow that request, there might be repercussions for doing so, but the proposal would have kept in place the "Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure."
These proposals appear to have been properly brought, properly considered, and properly rejected. As I suggested in 2015, shareholder activists can help improve long-term value, even when following the activists' proposals would not. That is just as true today and these proposals may well prime the pumpTM for future board or shareholder actions. That is, GM has conceded that its stock is undervalued and that change is needed. GM argues those changes are underway, and for now, most voting shareholder agree. But we'll see how this looks if the stock price has not noticeably improved next year. An alternative path forward on some key issues has been shared, and that puts pressure on this board to deliver. They can do it their own way, but they are on notice that there are alternatives. An shareholders now know that, too.
This knowledge underscores the value of shareholder proposals as a process. They can and should create accountability, and that is a good thing. I agree with GM that the board should keep control of how it structures the GM leadership team. But I agree with the shareholders that if this board doesn't perform, it may well be time for a change.