Monday, December 3, 2018
On November 15, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) convened a Roundtable on the Proxy Process. (See also here.) I have not been following this as closely as co-blogger Ann Lipton has (see recent posts here and here), but friend-of-the-BLPB, Bernie Sharfman (Chairman of the Main Street Investors Coalition Advisory Council) has been active as a comment source. Both contribute valuable ideas that I want to highlight here as the SEC continues to chew on the information it amassed in the roundtable process.
Ann, as you may recall, has been focusing attention on the uncertain status of proxy advisors when it comes to liability for securities fraud. In her most recent post, she observes that
There’s a real ambiguity about where, if it all, proxy advisors fit within the existing regulatory framework, and while I am not convinced there is a specific problem with how they operate or even necessarily a need for regulation, I think it can only be for the good if the SEC were to at least clarify the law, if for no other reason than that these entities play an important role in the securities ecosystem, and if we expect market pressure to discipline them, potential new entrants should have an idea of the regime to which they will be subject.
I remember having similar questions as to the possible fiduciary duties and securities fraud liability of funding portals under the Capital Raising Online While Deterring Fraud and Unethical Non-Disclosure Act of 2012 (a/k/a the CROWDFUND Act)--Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (a/k/a/, the JOBS Act). I wrote about these ambiguities (and other concerns) in this paper, published before the SEC adopted Regulation CF. I know Ann's right that we have clean-up to do when it comes to the status of securities intermediaries in various liability contexts (a topic co-blogger Ben Edwards also is passionate about--see, e.g., here and here).
Bernie has honed in on voting process issues relating to both proxy advisors (the standard for making voting recommendations and the use/rejection of the same) and mutual fund investment advisers (the disclosure of mutual fund adviser voting procedures and SEC's enforcement of the Proxy Voting Rule). Specifically, in an October 12 letter to the SEC, Bernie sets forth three proposals on proxy advisor voting recommendations. His bottom line?
Institutional investors have a fiduciary duty to vote. However, the use of uninformed and imprecise voting recommendations as provided by proxy advisors should not be their only option. They should always be in a position of making an informed vote, whether or not a proxy advisor can help in making them informed.
Earlier, in an October 8 letter to the SEC (Revised as of October 23, 2018), Bernie recommends mutual adviser disclosure of "the procedures they will use to deal with the temptation to use their voting power to retain or acquire more assets under management and to appease activists in their own shareholder base" and "the procedures they will use to identify the link between support for a shareholder proposal at a particular company and the enhancement of that company’s shareholder value." He also recommends that the SEC "should clarify that voting inconsistent with these new policies and procedures or omission of such policies and procedures will be considered a breach of the Proxy Voting Rule" and engage in "diligent" enforcement of the Proxy Voting Rule. I commend both letters to you.
Ann's and Bernie's proxy disclosure and voting commentary also reminds me of the importance of co-blogger Anne Tucker's work on the citizen shareholder (e.g., here). It will be interesting to see what the SEC does with the information obtained through the proxy process roundtable and the related comment letters. There certainly is much here to be explored and digested.
[Postscript, 12/4/2018: Bernie Sharfman notified me this morning of a third comment letter he has filed--on proxy advisor fiduciary duties. It seems he may have a fourth letter in the works, too. Look out for that. - JMH]