Les conséquences inattendues de l’accès des actionnaires à la circulaire de procuration lors de l’assemblée annuelle

Cet article est publié par David A. Katz associé de la firme Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, spécialisée dans les questions de fusions et acquisitions ainsi que dans les transactions boursières complexes. Cet article a été publié sur le site du Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance.

L’auteur explique les conséquences inattendues du processus utilisé par les entreprises cotées eu égard à la modification de leurs règlements internes afin de permettre l’inscription des propositions de certains actionnaires dans les circulaires de procuration.

L’on sait que, dans le passé, il y avait beaucoup de réticence à permettre aux actionnaires de soumettre des propositions lors des assemblées annuelles et à proposer des candidatures aux postes d’administrateurs, une initiative réservée au comité de gouvernance.

Cependant, à la suite d’intenses pressions des activistes, plusieurs entreprises ont accepté de soumettre au vote de leurs actionnaires une proposition autorisant les actionnaires majeurs à proposer des administrateurs désignés. Il semble qu’il ne reste que le pourcentage de propriété qui soit en suspend à ce moment-ci : 3% ou 5%.

L’auteur discute des difficultés que ces changements pourraient engendrer, notamment le gaspillage de ressources organisationnelles, les manquements au devoir de fiduciaire, l’isolation des administrateurs désignés, les dysfonctions du CA, les tensions au sein du conseil, etc.

L’auteur fait un bon résumé des conséquences négatives éventuelles pour la gouvernance des sociétés. Je vous invite également à lire l’article paru sur le blogue du Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy  : Proxy Access Proposals: The Next Big Thing in Corporate Governance. Et vous, qu’en pensez-vous ?

Je vous encourage à lire l’extrait ci-dessous. Vos commentaires sont les bienvenus.

The Unintended Consequences of Proxy Access Elections

It’s official: Proxy access is the darling of the 2015 season. Shareholder-sponsored proxy access proposals are on the ballots of more than 100 U.S. public companies this spring. These precatory proposals seek a shareholder vote on a binding bylaw that would enable shareholders who meet certain ownership requirements to nominate board candidates and have them included in the company’s own proxy materials. P1000674

Powerful institutional investors have given the proxy access movement enormous momentum this spring, and blue chip firms such as GE, Bank of America, and Prudential have voluntarily adopted versions of proxy access in advance of their annual meetings. Companies such as Citigroup have agreed to support proxy access shareholder proposals in their definitive proxy materials. In the absence of regulatory guidance, proxy advisors such as ISS have stepped into the breach to define the terms and conditions of proxy access. As proxy access proposals proliferate—after years of controversy—the primary debate now seems to be whether a 3 percent or 5 percent ownership threshold is more appropriate.


Unintended Consequences

The detrimental consequences of proxy access fall into three general categories. First, there are those that occur before and during the proxy solicitation period. These include waste of corporate resources, negative publicity, the impairment of a company’s ability to attract qualified candidates to stand for election as a director, and the undermining of the company’s nominating committee and board leadership. Proxy access could cause tension among shareholders, particularly large shareholders, who disagree in public or private over whether to nominate candidates for inclusion in the proxy, and if so, which ones. It also could cause internal controversy for large shareholders; institutional investors or pension funds, for example, may find themselves pressured by certain constituencies (such as unions) to participate in proxy access for political reasons, while other constituencies support the current board’s direction on substantive grounds. The instability caused by proxy access—like that created by proxy fights—could create significant disruption in a business, as executives, managers, and employees struggle with fear and uncertainty about the future. Damaging effects on hiring, long-range planning, and employee retention can cause lasting harm to a corporation regardless of the election results.

Second, there are those consequences that relate to the composition of the board. Were proxy access to become widespread and effective, a board could become unable to ensure that it would have the necessary expertise (such as the audit committee financial expert mandated by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or industry specialists) or make progress toward a desired diversity of skills, genders, and backgrounds. Moreover, it could create the potential for distrust and a lack of collegiality that would reduce the board’s effectiveness and distract the company’s management, and it would increase the likelihood of politicization and balkanization of directors into factions with different goals.

Third, there are those consequences that relate to the board’s ability to fulfill its legal duties and obligations. Proxy access directors would owe a duty of loyalty to all shareholders under Delaware law—as all directors do—yet they might feel themselves to be—or be expected or viewed by others to be—beholden to the particular shareholder group that nominated them and pushed for their election. In conjunction with the paramount issue of loyalty, questions of confidentiality, transparency, board committee structure, and board dynamics could arise. Complications familiar from the constituency/blockholder director context likely would be exacerbated if sponsored directors were to reach the board through proxy access. Boards would be addressing these issues in a context of significant uncertainty, both as to the legal questions of fiduciary duty and as to the factual questions of a proxy access director’s allegiance.

If proxy access directors are elected in any meaningful number, boards will be contending with an array of complications that have the potential to impair board functioning in ways that the current debate has not addressed. As the popularity of proxy access reaches a high-water mark this season, shareholders should consider carefully whether they really want what proxy access proponents are asking for. If not, now is the time for them to say so.

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