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L’amélioration de la participation de l’actionnariat au processus de votation par procuration

20 février 2015

Vous trouverez, ci-dessous, les commentaires de Luis A. Aguilar, commissaire à la U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, sur les moyens à prendre pour inciter les actionnaires des sociétés cotées à se prévaloir de leurs droits de vote par procuration.

Le commissaire présente clairement les difficultés liées au processus de votation existant, en adoptant le point de vue de l’actionnariat individuel (retail) et en mettant en exergue les incongruités de la règlementation.

Les panels constitués pour discuter de ces questions ont essentiellement deux sujets à explorer :

L’importance d’adopter un bulletin de vote « universel » qui permettrait aux actionnaires de voter séparément dans les cas d’administrateurs contestés

L’importance d’améliorer la participation de l’actionnariat au processus de votation par procuration. Aux États-Unis, les « petits actionnaires » possèdent 30 % des actions des 1 000 plus grandes entreprises mais leur taux de participation au processus de votation n’est que de 13 %. Les investisseurs institutionnels, en comparaison, utilisent leurs droits de vote dans 90 % des cas.

Je vous invite donc à lire les arguments exposés par le commissaire et à livrer votre point de vue sur ces deux questions. Cette problématique s’adresse tout autant à la situation canadienne.

Que faire pour assurer une meilleure participation de l’actionnariat diffus au processus de votation, surtout en cas d’élection contestée ?

Bonne lecture ?

Ensuring the Proxy Process Works for Shareholders

Today’s [February 19, 2015] Roundtable on Proxy Voting is certainly timely since over the course of the next several months, thousands of America’s public companies will hold annual shareholders meetings to elect directors and to vote on many important corporate governance issues. The start of the annual “proxy season” is an appropriate time to consider the annual process by which companies communicate with their shareholders and get their input on a variety of issues. Whether it’s voting on directors, executive compensation matters, or other significant matters, the annual meeting is the principal opportunity for shareholders—the true owners of public companies—to have their voices heard by the corporate managers of their investments. At these annual meetings, shareholders can express their support, or disappointment, with the direction of their companies through the exercise of their right to vote.

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As today’s panelists know well, the days of shareholders coming together, sitting in a room and talking one-on-one with the directors and officers running their companies are long gone. The ownership of today’s public companies is both too widely dispersed geographically and would involve too many shareholders to reasonably attend shareholders meetings (such meetings would require football stadiums rather than typical conference rooms). Accordingly, rather than attending the annual shareholders meetings in person to cast their votes, shareholders of public companies typically submit their votes by proxy. To that end, the Commission recognizes that the proxy statement process is a vital means by which shareholders and companies’ leadership communicate with one another. Consistent with this reality, the Commission’s proxy rules operate on the principle that the proxy process should function, as close as possible, to replicate the rights of a shareholder who attends the annual meeting in person.

These rules are not static, however. The advent of the internet and other recent technological advances that have resulted in the rapid evolution in communications have raised tremendous possibilities, and a host of issues, related to how shareholders can engage in the proxy process. This is why it is so important for the Commission, the investor’s advocate, to continue to actively monitor and improve the proxy process so that it best protects the interests of shareholders.

To that end, today’s Roundtable will focus on two fundamental issues: first, a discussion of how best to empower shareholders so that they can effectively vote for the director they want; and second, a discussion of whether the existing proxy voting process is fostering or hindering the ability of shareholders to exercise their voting rights.

Importance of the Universal Proxy Ballot

To discuss the issues of empowering shareholders to vote for the directors of their choice, today’s first panel will focus on the state of contested director elections and discuss the use of universal proxy ballots. The fundamental issue to be addressed by this panel is straightforward: shareholders who could attend the annual meetings in person, particularly in contested elections, would have the ability to “split their tickets” and vote among all of the eligible candidates—whether recommended by management or by other shareholders. The same cannot be said for shareholders who participate in contested director elections by proxy. Rather, under today’s proxy regime, shareholders who vote by proxy effectively are unable to pick-and-choose among all eligible director candidates. This is because current proxy rules effectively do not provide shareholders with a single proxy ballot that would allow them to vote on candidates nominated by both shareholder proponents and management. This is one anomaly in the Commission’s proxy process rules that, when taken into account with prevailing state proxy laws, do not replicate an actual in-person meeting of shareholders. As a result, these proxy rules effectively result in diminishing shareholders’ rights by limiting voting choice during contested elections—an unwelcomed result at an important time for shareholders to have their voices heard.

To address these concerns, shareholders, commenters, and others have at various times promoted the idea of a universal proxy ballot—or a proxy card that permits shareholders to choose among all eligible director candidates. More recently, in 2013, the Commission’s Investor Advisory Committee (“IAC”) considered this issue and recommended that the Commission explore amending the proxy rules to provide any person soliciting proxies with the option of distributing a “universal ballot” in a “short slate” direction nomination—or a proxy contest in which the outside candidates would not control the board if elected. Even more recently, other commenters have suggested that the Commission facilitate the use of universal ballot proxy cards for all director elections, regardless of any resulting change in control.

The goal of these recommendations is to remove artificial barriers to shareholder nominations and thereby improve shareholder choice. The expectation is that a universal ballot proxy card would make management and boards of directors more responsive to the interests of shareholders.

I look forward to a robust discussion of the universal proxy ballot concept and a discussion of what can be done to improve the ways that shareholders can elect the directors that they want to run their companies.

Improving Informed Retail Participation in the Proxy Process

Today’s second panel will discuss possible approaches to addressing the drop in retail shareholder participation in the proxy process. This discussion is particularly important, given how Americans are increasingly relying on the capital markets for their savings and retirement. In fact, the data shows that about half of all U.S. households participate, either directly or indirectly, in the stock market.

While retail shareholders are no longer the predominant owners of America’s public companies like they were in the years before 1945, they remain significant direct owners of public companies. For example, one report found that as of the end of 2009, retail shareholders owned nearly 30% of the shares of America’s largest 1,000 public companies. This is a significant percentage of direct ownership interests and makes it clear why the Commission must promote policies that encourage retail investors to protect their interests by exercising their voting rights.

It’s no secret that retail shareholder participation in the proxy process has been falling. In fact, one of the first issues that I raised after becoming a Commissioner concerned the negative impact on retail investor voting following the Commission’s 2005 adoption of an “access equals delivery” rule. I noted in February 2009 that retail investor voting, already at low numbers, had plummeted at those companies using the notice and access model permitted by this rule. Indeed, the reports that compiled statistics on the level of participation by investors before and after the notice and access model was put in place at their companies found decreases of over 30% for large investors, and over 60% for smaller investors. Other reports find that retail response rates have declined each year since the introduction of the notice and access model, falling to less than a 13% response rate for the period from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014.

Although the Commission has not revisited the “access equals delivery” rule to determine its continuing impact, which is something I think should be done, the SEC has taken some steps to create greater interest in the voting process. For example, in 2010, the Commission identified a need for education outreach to better inform retail investors as to the importance of exercising their voting rights—and how to exercise those rights. In connection with that effort, the Commission took a series of steps designed to educate investors—including issuing an “investor alert” on new shareholder rules in advance of the 2010 proxy season, and launching a new “Spotlight on Proxy Matters” Web page at sec.gov that provides investors with information on the mechanics of proxy voting, the e-proxy rules, corporate elections, and proxy matters generally.

Notwithstanding the Commission’s efforts—which admittedly were limited—retail shareholder participation in the proxy process remains disappointingly low. For example, one report looking at a sample of annual meetings in 2013 found that 70% of shares held by retail shareholders were not voted. Another more recent report found that by July 2014, institutional shareholders had voted 90% of their shares, but retail shareholders had voted just 29% of their shares.

These dismal retail investor participation numbers have continued, despite technological advances that should have made it easier and more efficient for widely dispersed groups of shareholders to engage with other investors and their companies. For example, so-called “virtual shareholder meetings,” which allow shareholders to use the internet—not just to listen and watch, but also to vote their shares—have grown in prevalence over the past five years. Yet, retail shareholder participation remains low.

Perhaps it’s not just the use of new technology but, rather, how that technology is used that will result in greater shareholder participation.

For instance, it has been suggested that the better use of 21st century technology in the proxy process may facilitate how shareholders can more effectively receive and understand how their companies are performing, and to better put that performance into perspective. Indeed, it’s only logical to expect that better informed investors would likely participate in greater numbers.

In its 2010 Concept Release on the U.S. Proxy System, the Commission stated that if issuers provided reportable items in interactive data format, “shareholders may be able to more easily obtain specific information about issuers, compare information across different issuers, and observe how issuer-specific information changes over time as the same issuer continues to file in an interactive data format.” In addition, in 2013, the IAC recommended that the Commission immediately prioritize tagging important information with respect to various corporate governance issues, including portions of the proxy statement that relate to executive compensation and matters voted upon by shareholders. The IAC added that tagging the voting data and results contained in certain forms could result in more informed voting and investment decisions, and would facilitate comparisons among public companies. For these reasons, the IAC suggested that data tagging could “facilitate participation in the governance process.”

The end goal, of course, is not simply to increase retail shareholder participation in the proxy process, but rather to increase informed participation in this process. This is one of the fundamental concerns that have been previously raised about so-called “advance voting instructions” (sometimes referred to as “client-directed voting”). In particular, most iterations of advance voting instructions inevitably would set voting instructions for shareholders before any disclosures about the matters in question are known or even available. Any serious discussion of the merits of advanced voting instructions needs to consider how these processes will comport with the basic disclosure principles of investor protection and shareholder rights that underpin the current proxy rules.

As today’s panelists discuss various ways to promote retail shareholder participation in the proxy process, the discussion should focus, not only on how to get a shareholder to technically cast their vote, but also on how best to protect the fundamental interests of shareholders in making informed voting decisions.

Conclusion

I expect that today’s Roundtable will go a long way in assisting the Commission in exploring how best to get shareholders to participate in shareholders meetings and, in particular, how best to give them a more effective way to vote for the directors of their choice.

I would like to thank all of our panelists for taking the time to be here today, and I want to thank the staff for organizing this Roundtable. I look forward to an active discussion about the universal proxy ballots and the ways to increase the participation of informed shareholders in the proxy process.

In conclusion, I want to remind everyone that there will be a public comment file associated with today’s Roundtable. I look forward to receiving additional comments and input on these issues.

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