Aujourd’hui, je vous réfère à un formidable compte rendu de l’évolution de la gouvernance aux États-Unis en 2015.
C’est certainement le document le plus exhaustif que je connaisse eu égard au futur de la gouvernance corporative. Cet article rédigé par Holly J. Gregory* associée et responsable de la gouvernance corporative et de la rémunération des dirigeants de la firme Sidley Austin LLP, a été publié sur le forum de la Harvard Law School (HLS).
L’article est assez long mais les spécialistes de toutes les questions de gouvernance y trouveront leur compte car c’est un document phare. On y traite des sujets suivants:
1. L’impact des règlementations sur le rôle de la gouvernance;
2. Les tensions entre l’atteinte de résultats à court terme et les investissements à long terme;
3. L’impact de l’activisme sur le comportement des CA et sur la création de valeur;
4. Les réactions de protection et de défense des CA, notamment en modifiant les règlements de l’entreprise;
5. L’influence et le pouvoir des firmes spécialisées en votation;
6. La démarcation entre la supervision (oversight) de la direction et le management;
7. Les activités de règlementation, d’implantation et de suivi;
8. Le rétablissement de la confiance du public envers les entreprises.
Je vous invite donc à lire cet article dont voici un extrait de la première partie.
Bonne lecture ! Vos commentaires sont les bienvenus.
The balance of power between shareholders and boards of directors is central to the U.S. public corporation’s success as an engine of economic growth, job creation and innovation. Yet that balance is under significant and increasing strain. In 2015, we expect to see continued growth in shareholder activism and engagement, as well as in the influence of shareholder initiatives, including advisory proposals and votes. Time will tell whether, over the long term, tipping the balance to greater shareholder influence will prove beneficial for corporations, their shareholders and our economy at large. In the near term, there is reason to question whether increased shareholder influence on matters that the law has traditionally apportioned to the board is at the expense of other values that are key to the sustainability of healthy corporations.
Governance Roles and Responsibilities
Over the past 15 years, two distinct theories have been advanced to explain corporate governance failures: too little active and objective board involvement and too little accountability to shareholders. The former finds expression in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s emphasis on improving board attention to financial reporting and compliance, and related Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and listing rules on independent audit committees and director and committee independence and function generally. The latter is expressed by the Dodd-Frank Act’s focus on providing greater influence to shareholders through advisory say on pay votes and access to the company’s proxy machinery for nomination by shareholders of director candidates.
The emerging question is whether federal law and regulation (and related influences) are altering the balance that state law provides between the role of shareholders and the role of the board, and if so, whether that alteration is beneficial or harmful. State law places the management and direction of the corporation firmly in the hands of the board of directors. This legal empowerment of the board—and implicit rejection of governance by shareholder referendum—goes hand in hand with the limited liability that shareholders enjoy. Under state law, directors may not delegate or defer to shareholders as to matters reserved by law for the board, even where a majority of shareholders express a clear preference for a specific outcome. Concern about appropriate balance in shareholder and board roles is implicated by the increasingly coercive nature—given the influence and policies of proxy advisory firms—of federally-mandated advisory say on pay proposals and advisory shareholder proposals submitted under Securities Exchange Act Rule 14a-8 on other matters that do not fall within shareholder decision rights. The extent of proxy advisory firm influence is linked, at least in part, to the manner in which the SEC regulates registered investment advisors.
Short-Term Returns vs. Long-Term Investment
Management has long reported significant pressures to focus on short-term results at the expense of the long-term investment needed to position the corporation for the long term. Observers point to short-term financial market pressures which have increased with the rise of institutional investors whose investment managers have incentives to focus on quarterly performance in relation to benchmark and competing funds.
Short-term pressures may also be accentuated by the increasing reliance on stock-based executive compensation. It is estimated that the percentage of stock-based compensation has tripled since the early nineties: in 1993, approximately 20 percent of executive compensation was stock-based. Today, it is about 60 percent.
Boards that should be positioned to help management take the long-term view and balance competing interests are also under pressure from financial and governance focused shareholder activism. Both forms of activism are supported by proxy advisors that favor some degree of change in board composition and tend to have fairly defined—some would say rigid—views of governance practices.
Shareholder Activism and Its Value
As fiduciaries acting in the best interests of the company and its shareholders, directors must make independent and objective judgments. While it is prudent for boards to understand and consider the range of shareholder concerns and views represented in the shareholder constituency, shareholder engagement has its limits: The board must make its own independent judgment and may not simply defer to the wishes of shareholders. While activist shareholders often bring a valuable perspective, they may press for changes to suit particular special interests or short-term goals that may not be in the company’s long-term interests.
Shareholder pressure for greater rights and influence through advisory shareholder proposals are expected to continue in the 2015 proxy season. A study of trends from the 2014 proxy season in Fortune 250 companies by James R. Copland and Margaret M. O’Keefe, Proxy Monitor 2014: A Report on Corporate Governance and Shareholder Activism (available at www.proxymonitor.org), suggests that the focus of most shareholder proposal activity does not relate to concerns that are broadly held by the majority of shareholders:
- Shareholder support for shareholder proposals is down, with only four percent garnering majority support, down from seven percent in 2013.
- A small group of shareholders dominates the shareholder-proposal process. One-third of all shareholder proposals are sponsored by three persons and members of their families and another 28 percent of proposals are sponsored by investors with an avowed social, religious or public-policy focus.
- Forty-eight percent of 2014 proposals at Fortune 250 companies related to social or political concerns. However, only one out of these 136 proposals received majority support, and that solitary passing proposal was one that the board had supported.
- Institutional Shareholders Services Inc. (“ISS”) is far more likely to recommend in favor of shareholder proposals than the average investor is to support them.
Nonetheless, the universe of shareholder proposals included in corporate proxy statements pursuant to Rule 14a-8 has grown significantly over the years. In addition, the coercive power of advisory shareholder proposals has expanded as a result of the policy of proxy advisors to recommend that their clients vote against the re-election of directors who fail to implement advisory shareholder proposals that receive a majority of votes cast. Directors should carefully assess the reasons underlying shareholder efforts to use advisory proposals to influence the company’s strategic direction or otherwise change the board’s approach to matters such as CEO compensation and succession, risk management, governance structures and environmental and social issues. Shareholder viewpoints provide an important data set, but must be understood in the context of the corporation’s best interest rather than the single lens of one particular constituency.
*Holly J. Gregory is a partner and co-global coordinator of the Corporate Governance and Executive Compensation group at Sidley Austin LLP.